Although BABEL had what might be called its "official" founding moment at the Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2004, and its earlier more "unofficial" beginning at a bar in Asheville, North Carolina in the fall of 2003, it was being propelled even before that in my conversations with Michael, who inhabited the office next to mine in the basement of Peck Hall at Southern Illinois from fall 2003 to spring 2005, and who was always urging upon me the importance of a medieval studies that would be more contemplative and ethical with regard to what might be called the "dignity" and "freedom" and "happiness" of individual persons, and that would also focus more intently on friendship and amity as a disciplinary concern. Indeed, in the essay he contributed to our Palgrave volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [which looks at the Bush White House legal memos on the torture of "enemy combatants" in light of medieval laws of outlawry] he wrote,
The poet Goethe once declared that national hatred has a peculiar quality: "You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture." Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. Nationalism has formed the crucial backdrop to the legal atavism and return to more primitive forms of law described here. The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. While pondering the theme of this essay, I went on retreat to the monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the peace of the monastery to study torture and terrorism inside the walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame. We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, "to which the whole of political life seems directed." In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then "new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality."It would be impossible to overestimate the influence which Michael's thinking has had on my own these past few years. There has definitely been no love lost between Michael and "high" postmodern theory, and he can be unswervingly sentimental [he has been known to cry when reciting Milosz's poetry by heart to his students]. For these reasons, I initially worried that we would never be able to agree on our approach to medieval scholarship [except for the sentimental part, to which I say for myself as well, "guilty as charged"], but happily, I was so wrong. I would have to credit Michael for demonstrating to me, that in this "work" we do, whether of a more traditional historicist or postmodern theoretical bent, we should not be reticent about making claims for the value of the study of the dead as a mode of affective contact across time, and also as an aesthetic art that aims at a type of beauty in the present that could be said to be recuperative of persons both living and dead, however silly that may appear to some. I wonder, too, in my most recent reading in the most recent books in medieval studies but also more modern studies--including work published by Steven Kruger, Carolyn Dinshaw, JJC, Jodi Enders, L.O. Fradenburg, D. Vance Smith, Leo Bersani, Jorge Estaban Munoz, Elizabeth Grosz, John Caputo, Judith Butler, Michael O'Rourke, Michael Uebel, among others--if that idea of that kind of scholarship hasn't already begun to take root in a more widespread fashion. In any case . . . .
I leave you here with an excerpt from Michael's essay, and if you are smart enough to know you want to read the whole thing, go here.
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Humanism and the Flowers of Evil [second section of Michael E. Moore, "An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism"]
In 2000, the critic George Steiner was invited to look back over the twentieth century, in an interview with the French weekly L’Express. He pointed to the barbarism of a century marked by death camps, torture, deportation and famine, extending from 1914 to the terror-regime of Pol Pot and the Rwandan genocide. The twentieth century proved to be the defeat of civilized culture, according to Steiner: “Education: philosophical, literary and musical culture, did not impede the horror. Buchenwald was situated a few kilometers from the garden of Goethe” (qtd. in Simonnet). Jorge Semprun, who was himself interned in Buchenwald, later remarked in his memoir Literature or Life on the geographic and moral irony of this conjuncture. Semprun observed the terrible coincidence that brought Léon Blum, socialist, Dreyfusard, and author of the Nouvelle conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann, as a prisoner to the Ettersberg forest: “the quirk of fate that led Blum as a prisoner of the Gestapo to the very place where the conversations between Goethe and Eckermann occurred” (96; see also Blum).
The original Conversations with Eckermann are a monument of the maximal period of humanistic education and of a classicizing, humanistic love affair with the ancient world. The Antike was an ideal artistic realm that could be permanently reawakened and emulated. As Goethe remarked, commenting on the nature of Greek tragedy, its subject matter was “humanity in its whole extent” and so we should always study great writers, but “above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks” (149–50). For Goethe, as for Schiller, the world of classical Greece was a beautiful world. As viewed from Weimar, all things in ancient Greece sparkled and were more worthy (see Bruford 86). For Semprun, in contrast, the experience of radical evil cast doubt, not only on such enthusiastic ideals, but on the continued possibility of literature, and his memoirs record his endeavor to fight his way back out of these ruins.
George Steiner strongly implies that the proximity of Buchenwald to the Oak of Goethe was far more than a coincidence: this happenstance illustrated the fact that the ideal of humanity developed during the Enlightenment, and expressed in the political ideals of the Eighteenth century, had completely failed to humanize the world. The inhabitants of Weimar who became Nazis and built the camps were in some way the heirs of Goethe and Schiller. Moreover, according to Steiner, the so-called humanizing effect of the liberal arts also seemed doubtful in the extreme. The humanities have become an isolating preserve in which the real world is kept at bay. While reading King Lear or the Fleurs du Mal, Steiner remarks, “I do not hear the cry in the street” [“je n’entends pas le cri dans la rue”] (qtd. in Simonnet). His best student, Steiner declared, was the one who completely rejected his teaching and went off to become a doctor, serving the poor in China. The anecdote reflects the skepticism of an old professor whose life had been wagered almost entirely on literature, and who arrived at the end of a terrible century marked by a sense of futility about the isolated contemplation of the scholar in his or her study. But Steiner’s criticism of literature, in the course of his own profoundly literary life, also brings to mind a saying of the anti-modernist and aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila, that “there is no humanism that does not carry with it a critique of humanism” (197). No mature and fully developed humanism can fail to incorporate the edge of critique, or fail to examine its own false paths. We can reflect that Steiner’s criticism is humanistic in its deepest orientation, as well as in its sense of rebellion and disquiet.
The question raised here is whether it is possible to discover a path for humanistic scholarship adequate to contemporary existence, yet still capable of offering the ressourcement provided long ago by medieval and classical humanism. As Robert Torrance has noted, we live in an era that has been defined as “not only post-structuralist and post-modernist, but post-humanist and indeed even post-human” (168). The possible collapse of literature, experienced with a sense of horror by Semprun, has become for many scholars an occasion for playful adventures in the ruins of old systems.
Humanism has been criticized along the lines of Steiner’s views at least since the end of the Second World War, in a Europe which had seen, in Steiner’s words, “the triumph of the inhuman at the heart of the century” (xi–xii). Traditional ideals could be maintained only with tremendous effort, or abandoned as no longer pertinent to the human condition. As early as 1951, for example, the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss argued that Europeans of the Enlightenment, who often spoke of humanity, did little more than project their own values and aspirations as a universal ideal of civilization: “the concept of an all inclusive humanity, which makes no distinction between races or cultures, appeared very late in the history of mankind and did not spread very widely across the globe” (Finkielkraut 2000, 5-6; see also Finkielkraut 1995, 55). The ideal of humanity therefore, despite its universal claims, was destined to remain a narrow European concept with limited impact on world consciousness. This has been one of the most devastating arguments raised against humanist traditions. So now, in the cultural conditions of “postmodern pluralism” as Gianni Vattimo argues, the very concept of humanity and study of the humanities seems suspect, unphilosophical, or undemocratic (3–5). In the 1960s, the ideal of humanism (along with the concept of the Rights of Man) was dismissed as a feature of petti-fogging bourgeois ideology (Judt 565). Thus we arrive at Foucault’s derisive comment that “Man is an invention of recent date” (387). If the constraints and disguises inherited from classical thought could finally be discarded, the early Foucault believed, then the unwelcome notion of humanity would at last be “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (387; see also Nehemas 170–73).
The most negative and vitriolic statement of this anti-ideal is that of Lacoue-Labarthe: “Nazism is a humanism in so far as it rests upon a determination of humanitas which is, in its view, more powerful” (95). Torrance is right to remark that nothing could be more anti-humanistic than this phrase. Lacoue-Labarthe’s strange saying was not intended to decry Nazi ideology so much as to sweep away the last crumbs of humanism from the respectable tables of the intellectual world, thereby to create more room for Heidegger and Heideggerian anti-humanism. Lacoue-Labarthe thus evidently shared Foucault’s revulsion at “the moralizing swamp of humanistic sermons” to be heard in post-war Europe, and Foucault’s anti-humanistic reaction to those sermons (Finkielkraut 2000, 28). It is equally interesting to note, in this connection, the contemporary turn from humanism in the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, in favor of what Barth termed the “humanism of God,” meaning “God’s friendliness to man as the source and norm of all human rights and human dignity” (125). In contrast, however, Foucault’s perspective neither provided for a heightened awareness of justice, nor awakened energy for a greater engagement with the world, nor offered a defense of human dignity. There was an element of dandyism in Foucault’s reaction against what appeared to be a thoroughly exhausted humanism. Postwar efforts to pick up the threads of humanism often seem feeble in retrospect.
In his desire to find a path back from the horrors of the twentieth century, the Prussian historian Friedrich Meinecke famously suggested that “Goethe Communities” should be created in postwar Germany, so as to encourage the reestablishment of the spiritual life of Germans by “turning again to the altars of our fathers” in respect to religion. Meinecke hoped to bring about for his fellow Germans “an intensified development of our inner existence,” by looking back to the period long before Hitler’s Germany, when the generation of Goethe “strove for and to a large degree realized the ideal of a personal and wholly individual culture. This culture was thought of as having at the same time a universal human meaning and content” (113, 115). Meinecke’s humanist project is so well known in part because it appears so woefully inadequate to the situation of post-war Germany, and because it suggests a feeble and unrealistic reply to the monstrousness of the war and the radical evil unleashed by the Nazis. Moreover, German high culture and Bildung were not above reproach, since these values were held up as a fetish even by the Nazis, whose officer corps continued to wipe tears from their eyes at productions of Beethoven in the wartime concerts of the conducter Wilhelm Furtwängler.
So the question remains: is it still possible to explore “the opalescent notion humanitas” in the phrase of Ernst Kantorowicz, by means of deep study in the human tradition (1957, 451)? As the Carolingian scholar Alcuin explained, when we turn our attention to mankind, we discover a complete amalgam of dignity and abjection. If we wish to understand why humanity was created, the repulsive side of man should be put to one side, and “we should consider the nobility of the interior man” (col. 1101). Alcuin, the illustrious scholar of Charlemagne’s court therefore imagined a transcendental, universal human identity, based on the concept of the invisible soul and its likeness to God. The medieval and Christian roots of the figure of humanity are evident throughout the periods of scholarly and theological transit from late antique to later Renaissance and Enlightenment images of humanity. However, in the modern era, even long before WWII, such ideas began to lose their lustre. Under the impact of anthropology, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the wide examination of human types and human cultures had begun to dethrone those venerable medieval assumptions. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, for example, after comparative research on the mentality of archaic societies (which he ordinarily termed “primitive”), concluded that there was no “identity of human nature” (75–79). According to Lévy-Bruhl, “since we have rejected the philosophies of history which provide a unifying principle in the form of theological or at least teleological ideas, the conception of humanity as a whole escapes us” (qtd. in Cazeneuve 24). Thus we really must ask whether it is still possible, or meaningful, to propose a humanism in the absence of a clearly defined essence of humanity.