Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Escaping The Waning of the Middle Ages

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe. However, only rarely do they invoke one of my favorite books to do so. Today, David Brooks (writing, intriguingly, from about an hour away from my hometown in North Carolina -- Elon!) writes about the Middle Ages as The Great Escape. He invokes the spirit of Johan Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was a great influence on my own entrance into medieval studies, although from the beginning, my medieval history professor encouraged me to question his work.

Brooks, however, has wholesale bought into it as the antidote to a modern political campaign, saying that
Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which I haven't read, is by Michael Ward. It's called "CS Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem." It appeared in Books and Culture, subtitled "A Christian Review."

What is vaguely disconcerting about Brooks' account is that, as he speaks of Huizinga (and other historians) he sounds like him. Observe Brooks:
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
Compare with the first page of Huizinga's first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, "The Violent Tenor of Life" (you can read it here):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.
I don't blame Brooks (though I'll admit I often want to) for his enchantment by the Middle Ages. What I do take issue with is that, although he seems to know better, he blindly accepts this filtered view of a complicated time. This nostalgic impulse is one that Brooks (and Ward) are both aware of in CS Lewis. This is, again, from Brooks:
The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

But that is a modern interpretation of the Middle Ages. A longing for the Middle Ages is NOT for the Middle Ages that existed. Another quote from Brooks shows that he knows this:
Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in “Don Quixote.”

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.
Brooks misses the point of his own writing -- and, I daresay, of Ruskin's. The ideal is wonderful -- it serves as something to strive for, perhaps. But what Brooks forgets is that the ideal was only available partially, and only then to the elite. Yes, it's easy to look at a campaign and get nostalgic for a simpler time of knights and tournaments and fair ladies in distress. A time when good and evil was obvious.

But that kind of enchantment -- the kind that only aspires to the "dream" without committing to actions in the world -- isn't an antidote to industrialization or anything else, because it doesn't live in the world, but somewhere above it, outside it, beyond it. "Meaning" is a process, not an end -- and a longing for a world that is only meaning (only allegory) ends up harming more than it helps. Moreover, it seems to me it's a surefire way to assure that nothing about the present -- the people starving, suffering, bleeding, and dying far from those who can indulge in dreaming of an "ideal," or interpreting the world -- ever changes. In the search for a stable place to stand, this "ideal" leaves out anyone who dwells (as JJC has so often shown so elegantly in more traditional print sources) at the borders, or in difficult middles. That's why I find Brooks' drive-by citation of Ruskin so problematic: If you remember "The Nature of the Gothic" (problematic work itself), you'll remember this passage:
[T]he second most essential element of the Gothic spirit [is] that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty... The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.
I can't help but wonder, young medievalist that I am, if that interpretation of the medieval instinct (about architecture, perhaps, but no less medieval for that) might ultimately be the one we should long for: the unresting search for change, rather than Brooks' wish for enchantment, meaning and symbols. How do other readers of Brooks take this article? Am I being too much of a medievalist?

Thanks to EAB for the link.

cross posted at OENYC.


Anonymous said...

When I think of Huizinga, I think of Homo Ludens, and when I think of Homo Ludens, I think of a passage from the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy:

Cagliostro was always carrying around a book called Homo Ludens in those days.
"Is that about faggots?" Sandoz asked him once.
Cagliostro laughed. "No," he said. "It's Latin. It means . . . uh, you know it's hard to translate . . . Man the Game Player, I suppose."
Sandoz grinned. "You can learn all about that just by watching the marks," he said. "I been a carny damn near twenty years now and I swear from the things I seen, you could sit down with a blackjack table and a sign saying THIS GAME IS CROOKED,' and half the marks would still sit down opposite you and try to beat you. A mark wants to lose," he concluded profoundly, almost with anger.
"No," Cagliostro said. "The mark wants to be hypnotized. He wants to enter the world of magic, with mirrors and blue smoke and shifting shapes, and he's willing to be swindled, just to have a glimpse of that world."
"Is that what that book says?" Sandoz asked.
"More or less," Cagliostro said. "In sociological jargon."

Steve Muhlberger said...

When I think of Brooks, I think of a man who should be grateful that today's Cervantes has not appeared to skewer the huge gap between ideal and reality in Brooks' time and country. Such a new Cervantes might make the old one look like the mildest lamb, and might indeed choose the Brookses of America as his chief target.

It does not surprise me in the least that Brooks would rather visit the idealism of the MA than face the insane criminality of the present and his own part in it.

Karl Steel said...

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe.
You must not cringe as easily as I do. Any paper that employs Kit Seelye or Adam Nagourney (or that had employed Judith Miller) is enough to rot my teeth. As for the editorial page: Brooks, like Kristol, like Dowd, makes me wish I'd never been born, and I applaud you for your fortitude in getting through one their columns. And especially for your nice response. Would that you had space on the Times' editorial page: if you did, I might subscribe to more print journalism than The Nation.
We might question Brooks' disavowal of his key role in maintaining the 'campaign mentality' that he (pretends to) decry. After all, we just suffered an ignominious debate on ABC debate chaired by Charles Gibson (known to us as the fellow who thinks two assistant profs make $200,000 a year and therefore must be as concerned as he is with his personal bugbear, capital gains tax) and George Stephanopoulos, whose silly question about Ayers came directly from right-wing hornblower Sean Hannity. No policy questions for about an hour. And Brooks? He praised it.

As for the column itself: yeesh! "stark contrasts between...good and evil"? Has he read Chaucer (recently?)? Or Beowulf? Or the final fight in Yvain? Or how about "think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn": would those be the tapestries in NYC--Brooks' city and mine--that are full of death, violence, and captivity, that evidence a longing for possession that also knows that possession is a form of destruction? One more rhetorical question: is Brooks' a really bad reader or has he never actually been to the Cloisters (or both)?

I won't deal directly with Brooks' simplistic characterization of modernity as a time dominated by materialist reductions, except to wonder, gape-mouthed, at a right-winger disdaining capitalism, as he does at his column's end, and to note that he comes dangerously to wanting capitalism without its excess: on the danger here, see Zizek. My main point is that Brooks' nostalgia is of a piece with his 'nostalgia' for another world he's never known, the small-town 'heartland' community that he, like so many other right-wing coastal urban elites, professes to admire. I think, then, that Brooks' longing for the Middle Ages is just a way for him to (try to) revitalize what's become his peculiar variant of the pastoral. He's repeating nostalgia for good, honest, anti-intellectual, non-elite peasants, except, interestingly, his 'peasants' here are really the elites. And here we hit an interesting paradox, symptomatic of what Brooks 'really' wants: fill in the blank here folks, as any answer is probably right.

Note that he picks up 'Bittergate' again, and, once more, like Kristol (inter alia) himself (not Obama) discovers the old Marxist base/superstructure reading. More (deliberate) bad reading of what Obama actually said, which is:

"But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

I wish I could say his misreading and elite anti-intellectualism is a particularly American habit...or that his misreading of this particular statement is a particularly Republican obtuseness...

Kofi said...

"Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity."

This has to be my favourite phrase. People like Brooks love it because it's so versatile. On the one hand, the image of childhood is a great one for evoking innocence and the nostalgia for that simpler time which, as Karl points out, never existed and which Brooks wouldn't really want anyway.

On the other hand, that childhood innocence is also a great way of ridiculing and marginalizing those aspects of the "utopia" you might immediately want to distance yourself from - "sure, they might _think_ corporate fraud is unforgivable, but that's only because they're too naive to understand the fluidity of today's financial instruments"

And once again, he's just continuing a tradition in which figures like Mandeville and Raleigh and Keymis have participated in far more interesting ways.

Kofi said...

A great example of that childhood trope, by the way, can be found in Hegel's essay "The African Character." It can be found easily in the Norton Critical Edition of Conrad's _Heart of Darkness_.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for this post, Mary Kate, although, like Karl, I normally wouldn't go out of my way to read David Brooks. The other classic passage that Brooks's comments bring to mind is from Jakob Burkhardt's 1860 "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy," where Burkhardt wrote that, in the Middle Ages,

"everyone was dreaming or half-awake, beneath a collective veil," and that veil "was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues."

That passage has been sitting on my desk for a while now, ever since I saw it quoted, perversely, by Ulrich Beck [author of the famous "Risk Society"] and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim in their 2002 book "Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences," just after their claim that, "in ancient Greece or during the early Middle Ages in Europe . . . individuality was mainly interpreted as deviant or sinful behavior to be avoided." And then they bring in Burkhardt as their scholarly support for such a statement! It is to laugh [or maybe, weep]. It was a strange thing to do, though, since in his earlier book "Risk Society" [1992] Beck had conceded that the processes of individualization in the late modern world has its counterparts and corresponding "life situations" in the "courtly culture" of the Middle Ages [but, that would be "late," wouldn't it?].

I don't think, then, Mary Kate, that you are being "to much of a medievalist," although maybe Brooks isn't worth bothering over, *except* that having a perch at the New York Times gives you a wide audience for your drivel, and that's unfortunate [in the same way it's unfortunate that Stanley Fish has the same perch]. But it isn't just a popular press/public intellectual problem, as far as how the Middle Ages are perceived, which is why I mention Beck's use of the Middle Ages in what is clearly regarded as some of the most groundbreaking work in contemporary sociology. It becomes a more serious problem, I think, when prominent scholars in more contemporary fields--such a sociology, but also critical theory and the like--use the Middle Ages as a stand-in for either a simplistically bucolic/pastoral/innocent/monologic or a chaotic/dirty/regressive/uncivilized past. Of course, this point has already been well demonstrated by medievalists such as Paul Strohm [in his chapter, "Postmodernism and History," in his book "Theory and the Premodern Text" [among others I could mention]. It's just that sometimes only other medievalists are ever reading these books, and so, while we have become very sophisticated regarding both the actual subject of our studies--medieval history and culture--as well as all the ways in which the deployment of those studies has been mishandled over time, the mishandling continues to go on, and always will. But this must be true of any subject of study. I can't help but think that, post 9/11, the scholar of Islamic studies is a very sad figure, indeed.

Dr. Virago said...

But this must be true of any subject of study.

Yes, just ask the Victorianists.

And Karl, maybe Brooks was thinking of this kind of unicorn. After all, it's of a piece with his silly vision of the MA.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

SEVERE time constraints prohibit me from reading the blog or even answering my email today (inbox now at 86 messages) -- BUT this neat little quote comes to mind, MKH. It is taken as the epigraph in L. O. Aranye Fradenburg's "Simply Marvelous" (SAC 26 2004):

The perennially childlike quality of romance is marked by its extraordinary persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space. There has never ... been any period of Gothic English literature, but the list of Gothic revivalists stretches completely across its entire history, from the Bewoulf poet to writers of our own day.

That's from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl> You must not cringe as easily as I do. Aha! You were taken in by my Anglo-Saxonesque understatement. As for fortitude -- call it annoyance with a reading of the Middle Ages that makes it an antidote to anything, rather than a different time, inhabited by real, living people. They're dead now. But they're certainly not an allegory.

Your analysis of Brooks' deliberate misreading is telling, Karl. And really, really, really depressing.

Kofi> And it's precisely that "childlike" quality that Brooks and his ilk then want to import to the country at large: "Oh, you don't need to think and worry about all that. Just let us tell you what you need to know..."

JJC> There has never ... been any period of Gothic English literature, but the list of Gothic revivalists stretches completely across its entire history, from the Bewoulf poet to writers of our own day.

Wow. And that pretty much sums it up, now doesn't it.

And I should say -- I don't normally read Brooks either. But the parallel to Huizinga -- creepy.

Karl Steel said...

use the Middle Ages as a stand-in for either a simplistically bucolic/pastoral/innocent/monologic or a chaotic/dirty/regressive/uncivilized past.

Early modernists do that too, yes? I remember reading an essay by Rick Emmerson about that: "Eliding the 'Medieval': New Historicism and Sixteenth-Century Drama." The Performance of Middle English Culture. Ed. Lawrence Clopper, James Paxson, Sylvia Tomasch. Boydell and Brewer, 1998. Pp. 25-41.

DV: I'm going to keep going back to that image. Good lord. Hilarious.

You were taken in by my Anglo-Saxonesque understatement.

My litotemeter must have been broken! Sorry!

MKH, what I like best about your post is your having written the column (some imaginary decent, sophisticate) Brooks should have written. However, thinking back to my post on Ingham's piece on pastoral, I wonder if we can recover Brooks with the tools he provided us? At this point, I don't know quite how to do that, but I suggest that only to keep us on (and to return me to) the track that MKH set out for us: namely, not jeering at Brooks for his ignorance of 'our' period, but rather moving his primary desires or away from any conclusus altogether. Rather than demanding that Brooks abandon fantasy altogether, rather than giving him our 'fantasy' of the "restlessness of the dreaming mind," can we put the motion of fantasy back into Brooks' own fantasy, even in its appalling silliness? What can we do with this?: nostalgia for a world outside his own job, outside capitalism, but still with the benefits that would keep him an elite (thus the knight-as-child-as-rural), but without the particular religion of that culture--how Brooks, who's Jewish, would have fared in a chivalric culture that LOVED the Siege of Jerusalem is all too easy to imagine.

What can we do? I don't know.

Then again, we don't have much to work with.

Karl Steel said...

moving his primary desires

Dangit! Moving his primary desires to a new conclusion or...

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, you have no idea how sad it makes me that there is no such thing as a litotemeter. :)

I'm not sure that recovering Brooks is quite what I'd want to do, although your analysis of the desires he exhibits is impressive. I guess what I was hoping by writing this (besides the cathartic aspect -- because boy was I ever annoyed when I saw he'd picked up Huizinga's diction (!!) without being reflexive about it, or thinking what it might mean to buy into it) was to take Brooks' naive view ("jeez, you know nothing about my field, and yet you want to take its good without its bad") and see what's useful about it. In fact, Jeff Sypeck did this far better than I: you can read his post here. Jeff's beautiful final paragraph really points out what I wish I could have said:

In his column, Brooks demonstrates that he’s willing to ponder a new notion, turn it over a few times, and marvel at the alien beauty of a mindset other than the modern. But he’s reluctant to make that more audacious leap, the one that requires him to return to the present with what he’s learned in the hope of seeing the modern world anew. The Michael Ward essay clearly dazzled him, but the resulting aesthetic and intellectual experience remains a novelty he can’t or won’t internalize. Medieval history, he implies, will not enhance his analysis of polling data, inform his ruminations on current trends, or alter his understanding of social dynamics; it’s simply a distraction. Like students who are so happy to be entertained that they can’t be bothered to think a little harder, Brooks is denying himself, after 15 months on the campaign trail, what more political writers surely need: a fresh, overwhelming perspective.

It's precisely this point that I think I would have wanted to raise in my own rumination, particularly where I bring up the Ruskin piece (which I'll admit, enchanted me in a way that was difficult to break out of the first time I read it...): The idea that the past can change what we see in our present, or at least how we see it. It's a returning theme here at ITM (and, by not so random coincidence, my work where it takes it direction from Latour), but it's worth saying again: there is the sense that we need to be, should be, should want to be touched, be moved by the past. Else why bother with any of it. As Jeff points out earlier in his gorgeous post (really, you have to read it!), it's not that often we have someone high-profile in the political world stop to think about, wonder about, dream about the Middle Ages. I just want, with Jeff, to ask Brooks to let a medieval worldview actually touch him -- and in so doing, if one can ever do these things simultaneously, to realize that the Middle Ages are as immensely complicated as our time -- and that's all the more reason we should let the Middle Ages move us, too.

I guess I want to believe that even a naive or annoying or reductive view can be made useful, if only to make us look again, and in looking again move to try to complicate it.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

From today's NYT letters:

To the Editor:

One could hardly guess, from David Brooks’s escapist rhapsody, that medieval Europe has serious lessons to teach us here and now.

Two of them might be useful to conservatives trying to wriggle free of the disaster their party has inflicted.

First, crusading could not have worked any better in our world than it did in the past. The failure of medieval crusades was well known in 2001, for few historical subjects have been so well studied.

Second, just when Europe was full of unfettered violent bullies, some resourceful people invented government to serve the public interest, together with the taxes required to support it. They rightly thought government to be a “good thing.”

At a time when medieval history — a huge and hugely relevant subject — is being squeezed out of college curriculums, it would help our public interest to put its useful lessons foremost.

Thomas N. Bisson
Cambridge, Mass., April 22, 2008

The writer is emeritus professor of medieval history at Harvard.


To the Editor:

David Brooks writes nostalgically about the medieval, enchanted world, one that emphasized meaning and imagination in contrast to our modern, scientific outlook “that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties.”

In fact, the modern Western world is no less enchanted than the medieval one — it may be more so. Fantasy and science fiction are among the most pervasive forms of contemporary culture. Many people live virtual lives on the Internet.

Rather than fostering a deficit of the imagination, modernity permits people to inhabit multiple worlds of the imagination and to create provisional narratives that impart meaning to daily existence.

This free, rational and ironic use of the imagination — a disenchanted form of enchantment — provides the possibility for greater diversity, tolerance and change than ever existed in the medieval period.

Michael Saler
Davis, Calif., April 22, 2008

The writer is an associate professor of history at the University of California.