Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A purposeless world, thank goodness!

"The death on the slaughter bench of history, the death which society exacts from individuals is not mere nature -- it is also Reason (with a capital R)." Herbert Marcuse, "The Ideology of Death," in The Meaning of Death, Herman Fiefel, ed., New York, 1959, 64-76, at 75.

Book one of Augustine's City of God counters arguments by pagans that Christianity was to blame for a recent sack of Rome. In the course of his counterarguments, Augustine also explains why Christians suffered during Rome's fall: apparently Christian worship and pagan worship provided equal protection from suffering, which is to say, none at all. Some rich Christians suffered torture, Augustine explains, to teach them to leave behind their love of worldly wealth. Even if tortured Christians had no wealth to reveal to their tormentors, "these too...had perhaps some craving for wealth, and were not willingly poor with a holy resignation; and to such it had to be made plain, that not the actual possession alone, but also the desire of wealth, deserved such excruciating pains" (I.10). Similarly, Christian women suffered rape perhaps to humble their pride in their virtue: "they lost their chastity, but...gained humility" (I.28). Even if victims can discover no hidden sin in themselves that would explain their suffering as pedagogical punishment, they still might take comfort that eventually all will be explained: "For some most flagrant and wicked desires are allowed free play at present by the secret judgment of God, and are reserved to the public and final judgment" (I.28).

I decided a few days ago to read through City of God--seems an essential task for a medievalist, yes?--but I'm already frozen in my progress by disgust, at Augustine's effort to discover the hidden meaning of human suffering, by his certainly that he can at least promise the eventual revelation of meaning for any suffering that currently refuses to give up an explanation. I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist church with the idea, among others, that our faith gave us hope against a world otherwise devoid of purpose: to which I say, thank goodness, that's the world I live in, a world, full of outrage and disappointment, and happiness and pleasure too, freed from the burden of justification.


I realized I'm not very grouchy after all. Also, I can't think of any particularly good reason for me to be pseudonymous--which is not to say other people don't have good reasons--so I decided to go under my own name. Hello again.


  1. I think we need to have a discussion here about medievalists, faith, and (un)faithful readings of medieval materials -- maybe of the sort that Jill mann instigated long ago with her (controversial) NCS presidential address about an atheist reading Chaucer.

    Thanks, Karl, for the post ... and for embracing your true name. Let the grouchiness be no more. We shall call you Karl the Kind.

  2. I agree with JJC that, once we get past [no pun intended] our current discussions on medieval studies, futurity, and the burden[s] of the past, etc., that we could have a very interersting discussion, indeed, on religion, faith, and medieval studies [many medievalists, I have discovered over the years, purposefully chose the field because it is/was a supposedly safe haven for humanities work of a particular, and I would say unexamined, Christian bent].

    Congrats, Karl S., on coming out of your anonymity. While I understand all the reasons some bloggers choose to be anonymous [and Michael Berube recently gave it his seal of approval], I really don't think anonymous blogging jibes very well with some of the most important tenets of what we might call a "free" humanist discourse, freedom of speech rights, and that so-called "academic freedom" we supposedly possess, even as graduate students.

    As to Augustine, think of him, too, as a writer/philosopher of great contradictions. You're only at the beginning, but check out the last book, where he writes about resurrected bodies--clearly, he was quite invested [against other early writers such as Origen] in the idea that we get our bodies back, with all their imperfections, down to the last hair on our heads. So, on the question of Gid's "secret" justice, Augustine obviously believed that part of that justice included getting our bodies back in the heavenly city, even if we had been eaten by wolves or cannibals [i.e., even if we were subject to those flagrant and wicked desires of Others who literally consumed us].

  3. JJC: I'll have to track down the Jill Mann piece. Kind? Perhaps, but certainly not if Kind = Natural.

    EJ: See my comments above for my feelings on pseudonymous blogging. Per Xianity (or are we talking about other faiths, too?) and Medieval Studies, would love to discuss this in more detail. I actually haven't noticed this at all, although I don't suppose any other academic conference has, like Kzoo, sessions run by Opus Dei. My only encounter with hardcore religious types at an academic conference was the second conference I ever attended, the Bunyan Society (as in John, not Paul, Bunyan) in Scotland.

    Per Augustine: oh, I've read a lot of him, and a fair amount of City of God. I know his Resurrection doctrine from City of God and from Enchiridion and from Bynum's work (also see my chain consumption post a month or so back), but I've never read City of God all the way through. In other words, I've hit him for material on cannibals, on cynocephali, on suicide and the rights of animals, and whatever else I feel like turning up when my argument needs a foundationalist bon mot: but I've never got a sense of the whole thing. There's a blog post in this somewhere, where, I suppose, I'd talk about my experience reading Cursor Mundi and Prick of Conscience all the way through, too (and wanting to do this for the Ormulum and some version of the South English Legendary): but not sure how to frame it just yet. Perhaps I'd need to separate out works that simply weren't meant to be consumed in toto in one large gulp, like Sidrak and Bokkus, or the Elucidarium, or the SEL or Golden Legend.


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