Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Medievalism, Authenticity, Idées folles

by J J Cohen

Ana Grinberg sent me this link: a 13th century castle is rising in Burgundy, the self-professed "insane idea" of Michel Guyot: "Whenever time allows, he makes every effort to try and hold back the ravages of time."

In his quixotic desire for the full restoration of an authentic past -- the one that ruinous time keeps stealing away -- Guyot seems a nostalgist of the first degree. The Middle Ages portrayed on the castle's website is rather fairy-tale like, a pre-Industrial idyll:

Guédelon is a journey back in time. Step over the threshold into the heart of a by-gone age. No harsh mechanical sounds, no engines running; just a natural environment that elevates the senses. Explore the site to the sound of metal on stone, the sawing of wood, horses' hooves on bare earth and the hammer striking the anvil; become totally immersed in the 13th Century.
But it is perhaps too easy to dismiss the whole project as hopeless romanticism, too easy to point out that this castle is being erected by volunteers, scholars, and laborers who enjoy protections, safeguards and comforts not available to those who worked 13th C stone. This mortar won't have so much violence, so much blood mixed within. Yet to dismiss Guédelon so breezily would also be to dismiss the medievalist impulse within contemporary culture. So, yes, the project is an impossible one (the 13th C Guédelon represents didn't exist, isn't coming back, reveals perhaps more about 2009 than 1409). And yet I am not sure so sure the idea is so crazy as I initially wanted to make it.

PS Compare, from the early days of the blog, this discussion.


Eileen Joy said...

As we might say in the biz:

cf. Jennifer Egan, "The Keep"

Maybe one of the best novels I have read in years, and a perfect companion to this story.

Anonymous said...

Those were the (blog) days!
N50 +++

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Those were, in fact, old days.

And I think you make a really important point, Jeffrey. In some senses, we're always remaking the past, rebuilding it, saying more about our time than we do about theirs. The impulse -- medievalism, to be sure -- is also very much an impulse towards comprehension and connection. I wonder, sometimes,if that's not a good thing in the end.