Friday, September 28, 2007

God, omniscience, The Knight's Tale, Nebraska, my brother

In my undergraduate Chaucer class we've just finished our read of The Knight's Tale. We wondered if its genre (romance) actually offers a structure adequate to answering the philosophical questions Chaucer introduces into the story from Boethius. We wondered about Palamon's complaint against the cruelty of the gods, Arcite's deathbed ruminations on "What is this world?" and Emily's desire to drop out of the story completely. We wondered, in short, about fate, chance, providence, fortune, predestination, omniscience and divinity.

My brother has been wondering the same thing. Only he is a lawyer/journalist/MBA and much more clever than I am. And he is addicted to puns.

update: frater meus gets medieval: on magna carta and h. ross perot

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: the newspaper story that your brother shares on his blog is both hilarious and absurd and does provide a nice connection with "The Knight's Tale." I have always been haunted by Arcite's ruminations, as you put it, on "what is this world?" I've always found Theseus's answers, via Boethius, highly unsatisfying: that somehow, even though we mortals are too puny of mind to comprehend it, God knows better and has a divine plan. It's a plan that includes much suffering, apparently, but everything has a purpose, so we should "plug" our suffering into that narrative framework, and somehow, even while dying well ahead of "our time" [whatever that mean], we should take heart.

Now this brought me back to some of dan remein's beautiful ruminations on another post here, "The Uses of the Past: The Hedgehog Review and Beyond," prompted by my asking him to clarify this statement,

"There are a group of students, me included, in a seminar I am in on "History and Representation," who are suggesting more and more, that despite what we might first think of alternative/queer temporalities (the idea that non-linear temporalities require some sort of religious or spiritualist readings of history), that it is really the assumption of the natural meaningfulness of linear time as the basic narrative structure of history that is truly not a secular phenomenon."

In his response, he shared some further, provocative thoughts:

"So here I am, thinking a lot for whatever reason about Said’s appreciation for the historian who will expose the lack of natural meaningfulness in history, lack of natural connection between the thunderclap and the attribution of the power of Jove to said thunderclap—interpreting this as a reaction of fear to a material thing, and not the result of a god. For Said, this atavistic work clears the way for the work of the historian to invent. He actually claims that what matters for the historian is not what evidence is there, but what evidence can be made up. Now, having written some now here about accounts of what happened balanced against a concern for effectivity, I want to say that what I really like about Said’s formulation is the work it does to rend the divide of the 'critical' and the 'creative' elements of our discipline—but more so, provides a working def., a heuristic we might freely destroy (but a preunderstanding we can at least start with!), to think about secularization of the process of writing history beyond simply eliminating obviously 'spiritual' or 'western judeo-christian' assumptions."

And also, dan wrote,

". . . is it possible to suggest that a conception of time which is not linear (what is there—a continuous eternal-present, popular among popular theology like that of Lewis’ clearly marked ‘religious’ work? Benjamin’s ‘empty, messianic time...’??) can be understood without some kind of conception of 'life after death or vague spiritualism?"

I asked dan for these ruminations and then failed to respond to them over at the earlier post, partly because life intervened, as always, but then you shared your thoughts here, and it struck me that this is all of a piece--these ruminations here and there--and also all apropos to thinking further about the vision of history offered in "The Knight's Tale" [a vision of history, I might add, I don't think Chaucer expects us to accept wholesale].

I can only offer a few random thoughts, as always, here, in answer to dan's ruminations, but here's what they are, *such as they are*, this fine Saturday morning:

First, I am not altogether certain that we can fully parse out "linear" from "nonlinear" histories in such a manner that would allow either of them to fall neatly on either the religious/post-secular or secular/post-religious side of a divide. You can certainly find instances of linear history in which both its beginning and end points, as well as all of the "points" aligned on its arrow are supposedly pregnant with some sort of divine revelation, but there are other types of linear history in science discourses [whether coming from Darwin, Prigione, or Hawking] that, albeit they take "branching" into account, nevertheless assign a direction to history's flow that is thoroughly inhuman and secular [two great books on this subject are Elizabeth Grosz's "The Nick of Time" and "Time Travels"].

Likewise, you can look at a lot of different nonlinear histories, whether Gilles Deleuze's "What is an Event?" or Deleuze and Guattari's "deterritotialization" or the deleuzoguattarian-influenced "1,000 years of nonlinear history" of Manuel De Landa or Menon and Golberg's "homohistory" or the "queer history" of Dinshaw, Lochrie, Kruger, and Burger [which Menon and Goldberg pass over so they can instantiate their homo-history as "new"] or Edelman's "no history" or the science of "emergence" being developed at the Sante Fe Institute, and you can detect moments both metaphysical and throughly anti-metaphysical. So, if we want, again, to parse out how history can be secular, especially in relation to issues of "the dead," it won't necessarily be along the lines of choosing the nonlinear over the linear, or vice versa.

Also, I don't know if there can ever be a practice of thinking & writing history that could turn away from the question of *before* and *after* death [perhaps there could be, but it would entail embracing a kind of oblivion of memory and consciousness I'm not sure I want]. Although I do like some of Michel De Certeau's ruminations on the importance of death in the Western historiographical tradition, in his book "The Writing of History," where he writes that, as opposed to the process of coexistence with and reabsorption of the dead that structures much of Eastern history, Western history

"takes for granted the fact that it becomes impossible to believe in this presence of the dead that has organized (or organizes) the experience of entire civilizations; and the fact too that it is nonetheless impossible 'to get over it,' to accept the loss of a living solidarity with what is gone, or to define the irreducible limit." (p. 5)

Further, Certeau reminds us that history is ultimately a heterology--a discourse on the Other--that is “built upon a division between the body of knowledge that utters a discourse and the mute body that nourishes it” (p. 3). But, as Certeau also reminds us, by aiming at “understanding” the Other through “meaning,” the historical project really aims at “hiding the alterity of this foreigner; or, in what amounts to the same thing, it aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs” (p. 2).

For various reasons, I have lately been reading a lot of Cary Wolfe, much to my benefit, I think, especially as regards the ways in which much of Western philosophy [and therefore, also, Western historiography] is predicated upon what might be called a type of human "auto-biography." Then, in a strange way, Chaucer's Theseus, following Boethius, might be right: we think about ourselves too much. But that doesn't mean there's a divine plan, either [well, Theseus thinks so, but we don't have to]. But when Arcite wonders what kind of world he is in, he may be grasping at the very beginning of a path toward really understanding history [not human history, or divine history, but world history], in the same way Witt [played by Jim Cavaziel] begins to understand it in Terence Malik's film "The Thin Red Line" [written about by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit in "Forms of Being"] and the main character Lurie begins to understand it in J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace": to paraphrase Wordsworth, "the world is too much with us."