[For context, read this post.]
Johan Huizinga (pronounced “Housing-ha”) published his Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (Autumn (or, Waning; literally Autumn-tide) of the Middle Ages) in 1919, and it was thought behind the times: too impressionistic, insufficiently scientific, for serious historical scholarship. Popular among literary types, it was an inspiration for the emergence of the field of “cultural studies”; historians paid attention to it when they felt they had no choice, then forgot about it when it became in fact behind the times–that is, when historians stopped paying attention to anything written more than thirty years ago. I found a used copy in a bookstore last year and read it immediately; I soon decided it would fit into the history section of my list as well as just about anything else.
Now, the “modern history” section of the Fundamentals exam always gives people trouble. There the usual Enlightenment suspects–Gibbon, Carlyle, Michelet, etc.–but their books are very long, and very much products of their time. In any case, by the time you get to the late 19th century, such grand unifying endeavors have for the most part been replaced by historical scholarship. We might define “scholarly” as the opposite of “fundmental”: a scholarly work is one which later scholarship can render irrelevant. I don’t know that such scholarly amnesia is necessarily a bad thing, but it does make locating a fundamental work of modern history difficult.
I thinks Huizinga’s Autumn makes the cut for three basic reasons: one historiographical, one psychological, and one historical.
First: While primarily a work of history focused on the culture of Burgundy (roughly north-eastern France) in the late Middle Ages, Autumn can also be read as an historiographical manifesto. At the time Huizinga wrote, historical research was dominated by study of legal charters and merchant records, in an attempt to uncover the hidden truth of how the society of the era “really” “worked”. Huizinga insisted on the importance of the chronicles and arts and literature of the time: that is, of its self-understanding and self-expression. Autumn thus argues against “objective” history and in favor of an entering into an era’s Weltanschauung–not naively taking its inhabitants at their word, but rather seeking to understand what lead them to value, believe, desire what and how they did. This is a timeless question about historiographic methodology, and Huizinga argues his position well. Such attempts to psychoanalyze the past have their dangers, but it seems right to me to think that, if we cannot describe what it was like for a 14th-century Burgundian to go on a pilgrimage, hear an itinerant preacher, attend a tournament, read the Roman de la Rose, then we really know very little about him.
Second: The approach Huizinga takes to such historical psychoanalysis (a phrase which need not invoke Freud) remains even today both compelling and problematic. The book opens with these words, from which the title of this post has been taken:
When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. (p. 1)
And so it sounds, at first, as if this will be yet another narrative of mankind’s journey from childhood, Medieval superstition, through adolescence, Renaissance skepticism, to adulthood, Enlightenment secular humanism. But in fact, Huizinga says, the late Middle Ages are not young, but old, very old, and nearly dead; as the first chapter concludes:
It is an evil world. The fires of hatred and violence burn fiercely. Evil is powerful, the devil covers a darkened earth with his black wings. And soon the end of the world is expected. But mankind does not repent, the church struggles, and the preachers and poets warn and lament in vain. (p. 29)
The Middle Ages were what they were, not because they had yet to arrive at civilization, but because the forms of their civilization were old, worn-out, empty husks, letters without spirit. The possibilities of the forms of life had been exhausted, nothing new could be said, and all that was left was to repeat ad nauseam what others had said before, to mindlessly recite the prescribed formulae for times of sadness, times of joy, good fortune, or bad. The hallmarks of the era were repetition, exaggeration, multiplication of symbols, mechanical irony. There could be no nuance; it was impossible to mean what one said. The problem could only be solved by piecing together a new form of life–no less artificial, but at least younger, more flexible–out of the fragments of the old. (Huizinga’s account of the end of the Middle Ages is sarcastic and difficult to parse, but he seems suspicious of the idea that Renaissance humanism really changed much of anything; one wonders what he’d think of a narrative focused not on letter-writing circles, but on the printing press.)
The broadly-speaking-psychoanalytic innovation here is the concept of “form of life.” To be sure, it picks out something real; the conventions of social life are in many ways akin to the conventions of poetry or painting. And Autumn‘s account of the aging of the medieval mind is subtle and sympathetic. And yet, there’s a danger here, a trap Huizinga may not fall into, but which he leads us towards. Do we really want to say that medieval mind simply could not speak with nuance? Some languages may be more difficult to learn than others, some more difficult to use well, but are there really linguistic contexts in which fully honest thoughts cannot be spoken? Or even contexts in which any thought whatsoever can fail to find expression?
Literary and “cultural” scholars, of course, love the idea that there are things we can think that they could not, and vice versa, though somehow we’re always able to say what it is that we can’t. I find this tendency troubling. To be sure, there are things they didn’t say, and thoughts they would have found prima facie implausible, and ways of feeling they found natural that we find bizarre. But none of this makes them artificial and us natural (it’s all second nature), nor does it make them unable to understand us as we understand them. Intelligibility might be difficult, but it’s either mutual, or absent entirely. And the thought that the past is unintelligible I find even less plausible than the thought that it could not have understood us.
Third: Despite my concerns regarding Huizinga’s psychology, I find the interpretation Autumn offers of Burgundian art and literature quite compelling. The book originated, Huizinga said, in an effort to understand what kind of a culture could have produced a painter like Jan Van Eyck. This explains both the book’s limited scope–it examines only the 14th & 15th centuries, only Burgundy, and only, for the most part, the aristocracy–and how it might be responsibly extended. Where both the social phenomena and the artistic production appear to be of a similar cast to those of medieval Burgundy, there analogous interpretive arguments to those made about van Eyck will likely obtain. And where literature and art do not resemble those of medieval Burgundy–as, in my estimation, (and here I reveal an ulterior motive for interest in Autumn–what does it say about Chaucer and Langland and the Pearl-poet?), those of medieval England do not–there a correspondingly different analysis of society will be required.
Huizinga’s analysis of Burgundian art is difficult to summarize; to give a taste of it, I’ll close with a few quotations from the ante- and penultimate chapters of Autumn, in which he offers close readings of several poems and paintings, including Van Eyck’s Annunciation, the painting featured above. I find particularly fascinating the account the angel’s clothing.
The painting of the fifteenth century is located in the sphere where the extremes of the mystical and the crudely earthy easily touch one another. The faith that speaks here is so overt that no earthly depiction is too sensuous or too extreme for it. Van Eyck is capable of draping his angels and divine figures in the heavy ponderousness of stiff robes dripping with gold and precious stones; to point upwards he does not yet need the fluttering tips of garments and fidgety legs of the Baroque. (p. 317-8)
Literature and art of the fifteenth century possess both parts of that general characteristic that we have already spoken of as been essential for the medieval mind: the full elaboration of all details, the tendency not to leave any thought unexpressed, no matter what idea urges itself on the mind, so that eventually everything could be turned into images as distinctly visible and conceptualized as possible. (p. 333)
It seems as if Van Eyck [in the Annunciation] intended to demonstrate the complete virtuosity, shrinking away from nothing, of a master who can do anything, and dares everything. None of his works are simultaneously more primitive, more hieratic, and more contrived. The angel does not enter with his message into the intimacy of a dwelling chamber (the scene that the entire genre of domestic painting took as its point of departure), but, as was prescribed by the code of forms of the older art, into a church. Both figures lack in pose and facial expression the gentle sensitivity displayed in the depiction of the Annunciation on the outer side of the altar in Ghent. The angel greets Mary with a formal nod, not, as in Ghent, with a lily; he does not wear a small diadem, but is depicted with scepter and splendid crown; and he has a rigid Aegean-smile on his face. In the glowing splendor of the colors of his garments, the luster of his pearls, the gold and precious stones, he excels all the other angelic figures painted by Van Eyck. The dress is green and gold, the brocade coat dark red and gold, and his wings are decked with peacock feathers. Mary’s book, the pillow on the chair, everything is again detailed with the greatest of care. In the church buildings the details are fitted with anecdotal elaborations. The tiles show the signs of the zodiac, of which five are visible, and in addition three scenes from the story of Samson and one from the life of David. [...]
And again the miracle that in such an amassing of elaborate details [...] the unity of key and mood is not lost! [... T]he most mysterious darkness of the high vaulted church veils the entire scene in such a mist of sobriety and mysterium that it is difficult for the eye to detect all the anecdotal details. (p. 335-6)
Last November I took in interest in the difference between philosophical truth and probabilistic certainty. Reading John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent has recalled me to this theme, and to the problem of how the common-sense man (and the Christian) can find a middle way between the probabilist and the philosopher.
Socrates, in the Phaedo, says that to practice philosophy is to prepare for death. This means, most obviously, that the philosopher seeks freedom from worldly attachments and entrance into eternity. But it means, also, that he seeks a truth that he would die for. Athens gives Socrates the option to live, and even to remain in Athens, if he will just stop stirring up trouble. He refuses because he would rather die than cease proclaiming “Thou must know thyself.”
The philosopher seeks a truth that must be spoken–a truth about which it would be better to die than to remain silent. Such a truth is needed because only such a truth can be held with complete sincerity. After all, I cannot lessen the strength of my assertion by speaking less loudly. If I am unwilling to shout it from the rooftop, how can I whisper it in my innermost being? As Newman insists, assent is assent: it does not come in degrees.
So take the most obvious truth imaginable: “This is a table,” said of the table before me. Would I insist on it with a gun to my head? Probably not: I know my senses are fallible, and if someone puts a gun to my head it may well be because I need to be snapped out of a delusion. Before the belief was tested, I had no doubts, but now I know that I do. How can I justify saying something I would not stake my life on?
To this the probabilist says: fine, we’re not certain, so we can’t say “This is a table.” But we still have our uncertain opinion: “It is probably the case that this is a table.” No longer have I said anything about the table that I would refuse to die for.
But–will I die for this attribution of probability? Surely not. If I think of probability as something “out in the world,” then I can be no more sure of this probability than of the table itself; and if I think of probability as something “in my mind,” then I cannot be at all sure of it–after all, I expect it to change as I learn more about the world. Probabilities offer no relief. Still we must speak, and our opinions are the last thing we should speak about: we know we cannot trust them.
Of course the probabilist never claimed to be doing philosophy in the Socratic sense. He sees words as tools: we do not hold to our words, but use them. We assign our beliefs probabilities because beliefs are a sophisticated way of playing the odds, of trying to get ahead in the game of life. If I want to use my belief that “This is a table” is 99% likely to be “true,” and the bookie thinks it 99.9% likely, then I should play the odds and bet on “false.” So, who is the bookie here? On what event am I wagering, and for what prize, and with whom? And what is my stake?
Say I’m betting on whether there’s gold in them there hills, for possession of the gold, against everyone else who might at some point come to possess it, if it exists, and who might get rich at my expense, if it does not and yet I finance a search for it. If the potential gain justifies the expenditure, then I stake the cost of the expedition; if not, then I stake the lost opportunity to do so. This is the game of life; Nature is my bookie.
Similarly, in my “What is a table” scenario, I’m betting on whether this is a table, for my life, against a madman with a gun. I must weigh the worth of my word against that of my life: either he shoots me, or I say “I’m not sure whether this is a table.” But who is the bookie here?
For the probabilist, the answer is the same as before: Nature. Nature always sets the house rules. This neither philosopher nor common-sense man can accept. Whether or not I believe something ought to have nothing to do with whether or not a gun is to my head. I can’t just use certain words as a tool to preserve my life. In Stanley Cavell’s phrase, I ought to mean what I say.
Yet all three–probabilist, philosopher, man of common-sense–would do as the madman commanded. And none would be lying.
The probabilist, because for him there is no such thing as honesty; words are tools, which he uses, in this case, to preserve his life. There are no words the probabilist will die for.
The philosopher, because–as this thought experiment has taught him!–”I’m not sure,” and “Know thyself,” and the like, are the only things he can say honestly. The philosopher will die for these words, and no others.
The common-sense man, because if someone really held a gun to his head, he would become uncertain. He would stake his life on “This is a table,” but only if no one took him up on the bet. He would do so, for example, if he needed a table and nothing but a table would do, and would do so without the slightest doubt that this was indeed a table. But if someone threatened to kill him over saying “I’m not sure,” wouldn’t this, in itself, be reason to doubt? Who would make such a threat without a reason? Until you know he’s mad, his demand gives reason to not be sure; once you know he’s mad, it doesn’t matter–no sounds you make will count as talking to him.
It’s hard to be a martyr for the external world. So what will the common-sense man die for? So far we know too little about him; only, really, that he is ordinary. An ordinary Roman will die for “Rome is great.” An ordinary Christian will die for “Christ is Lord.” Newman thinks any decent man will die for “My mother is not a liar.” What these have in common, I suppose, is that they’re ethics, not physics. They’re matters of fact, but not only matters of fact. They’re not probabilistic stakes, but they’re also quite different from the philosopher’s wager.
[For context, read this post.]
Not everyone, apparently, puts Shakespeare on their Fundamentals list; some even call him over-rated. The possibility of leaving him out never crossed my mind. Not because he’s the most important poet to ever live (though they say he’s this too, unless it’s Homer or Dante): fundamentality is more than just popularity. But I can’t imagine caring about literature without caring about Shakespeare. It’s not that I loved Shakespeare from an early age; quite the opposite, it took me until college to come around. Rather, I cared about literature from an early age, but until I read Shakespeare didn’t understand why.
My pre-Shakespearean thoughts on the subject were drawn from the theorists of “speculative fiction,” and centered around how literature can present counterfactuals. Reading Shakespeare made that way of thinking impossible. He can do the fantastic and the alien, to be sure, but it’s always obvious that supposing what is not is not the point. When we read, say, Macbeth, we are not trying to answer what would it be like if witches really could prophesy the future? Rather the witches, and the ghosts, and the many murders, and above all the language in which they are all realized, make tangible the personality of Macbeth: the play shows a way of being human. This makes the gap between realism and speculation beside the point. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, differ in degree, not kind, from Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, King Lear.
In other words: King Lear is just as fantastical as The Tempest. Both tell us, not about the world, but about our own conflicting desires; they reveal in their contesting characters facets of ourselves, and how those facets articulate with one another–without, like the medieval morality play, insisting that these facets of desire can be cleanly differentiated and delimited. So at all times Shakespeare deals in fantasies, in infinite desires. Moreover, I would say, at his best he shows how these desires, because infinite, must realize themselves in the fantastical strictu sensu. Whether or not the handkerchief in Othello or the storm in King Lear are “possible” or “probable” just does not matter. They are like witches or ghosts; the point is the handkerchief’s power to hypnotize, and the storm’s power to instantiate divine malevolence.
Such is my basic understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement. It also explains, I think, why Hamlet is not my favorite of his plays, and why I never contemplated putting Hamlet on my list. T.S. Eliot said that the outer plot of Hamlet fails to “objectively correlate” to Hamlet’s inner turmoil:
The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.
Unlike Eliot, I’m not convinced that this makes the play into a “failure,” or a “problem,” but it does sound correct, and it means, I think, that unless we “already” know what it is to feel what Hamlet feels, we cannot fully understand the play. To be sure, like Hamlet, I often desire without knowing what I desire, but Hamlet’s desire-without-an-object is of a very particular kind, closely bound to madness and revenge; this feeling is foreign to me. Hamlet speak to me best when, like James Joyce, I imagine that it is the Ghost, not the Prince, in whom Shakespeare sees himself. But this is too clearly a willful misreading.
So if not Hamlet, what? I could give reasons for picking any of the other plays mentioned above, but I always knew it would be King Lear. If Hamlet shows us a single mind, King Lear shows us the entire world. There seems to me little higher than the struggle to comprehend it.
Indeed, it may be that Hamlet bothers me, in part, due to its solipsism; the drama is all within. The solution to Hamlet’s problems is, after all, fairly simple, and we are apparently meant to be absorbed in the mere fact that he cannot bring himself to do it. King Lear is the opposite: Given Lear and Gloucester’s initial mistakes–and these mistakes, though egoistic, are not solipsistic; though self-absorbed, they are not self-obsessed–there may be no solution. History has been let loose upon the world, and cannot be put back into its box. Hamlet’s storm at sea is his solution, his theodicy; Lear’s theomachical storm on the heath is of his own creation, and yet it exceeds him. The latter seems to me more real.
Put differently, in a way somewhat borrowed from Stanley Cavell, both King Lear and Hamlet are about human evil, but in the latter evil seems external, in the past, over and done with; the question, disappointingly, is how to free ourselves from its taint, even if the answer is that we cannot. Only the former shows how evil is within, present, continual; only it asks how to live with this burden. When Hamlet dies at the end, we may perhaps feel a sense of satisfaction, of a journey well-ended; his corpse receives full military honors. Cordelia’s death makes this contentment impossible. She must die for no other reason that than Edmund orders her killed. We can blame Lear, or Edgar, but then the punishment seems wildly disproportionate to the crime. We can say that her death represents escape from the fallen world, or that she must die because France cannot conquer England, but then the abstract reason seems unrelated to the concrete human suffering. We cannot blame Lear, or Edgar, or God, or France, but only Edmund–but Edmund is us; we have laughed at his jokes, felt indignant as his mistreatment, made ourselves complicit in his crimes, recognized him to be a part of ourselves. And his repentance and death cannot purify us, for they do not save Cordelia’s life.
It may be that, with his dying breath, Lear finds redemption, or at least consolation; and it may be that, with Edgar taking charge, the kingdom has been left in a better place. I would, in fact, argue for both of these propositions. But the more important point of the play, I think, is that history never ends. Lear may find consolation, but it changes nothing; and Edgar may reign well, for a while, but he cannot marry Cordelia and inaugurate a golden age, as the 17th-century revision of the play would have it: Cordelia is dead, and Edgar may well become another Lear. The play offers no solution, no catharsis, but only “Never, never, never, never, never.”
Yet–and this will be my final point here–it does, I think, portray a change. King Lear takes place in a pre-Christian age that has already grown ancient and decrepit, grown into a theater of pomp obscuring an underlying brutality. At the end, Edgar announces a new reign of sincerity. But this is deeply ironic, given that the ever-loyal Fool and Kent, though entirely defined by their social roles, are nevertheless the most forthright characters in the play, and that both, while not quite dead, have nevertheless vanished: the Fool has been off-stage since act three, and Kent implies that, given Lear’s death, he now intends to commit suicide. An artificial age has passed–but the new age, one feels, will at best appear to be more sincere. Such is the 800 BC world of King Lear; but such also, I think, is Shakespeare’s newly-fragmented 17th century, and so too all of modernity. King Lear seems to me to be somehow about the end of Catholic Christendom, and about the inevitable failure of whatever comes next to be any more truly Christian.