Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Evening Note for Wednesday, January 15

Thought for the Evening: Dreaming of Another Age

In Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco has an essay, "Dreaming of the Middle Ages", in which, reflecting on increasing interest in the Middle Ages, he notes that this is expressed by various kinds of reconstruction, and reconstructions vary. In particular, he suggests there are at least ten portrayals of the Middle Ages that come up:

(1) The Middle Ages as pretext. This is just a stylistic backdrop, such as you get in opera, or in Tasso, or in the kind of movie about the Middle Ages where 'the Middle Ages' pretty much just consists of props for visual interest.

(2) "The Middle Ages as the site of an ironical revisitation" (p. 69). In this we are exploring a kind of infancy of the age; Ariosto and Cervantes are doing more than just using the Middle Ages as a prop, they are looking back, but in a very specific and stylized way. Eco compares this to the way Americans might see the nineteenth century through the 'spaghetti Western'.

(3) The Middle Ages as a period of barbarism.

(4) The Middle Ages as a Romantic period, most notably in Gothic trope, but one sometimes finds this as well in medievalisms found in science fiction.

(5) The Middle Ages of the philosophia perennis, most obviously seen through the Thomistic Revival, but also something that you can find simply by tracing back the roots of much of modern philosophy.

(6) The nationalistic Middle Ages, the sort of thing you get in the nineteenth century by rediscovery of medieval literature as a source of national epics.

(7) The Middle Ages of Decadentism, in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and other similar adaptations in art.

(8) The philologically reconstructed Middle Ages, the distilled historical version.

(9) The Middle Ages of occult philosophy, with the Templars and alchemists and the esoteric secrets of the Grail.

(10) The expectation of the millenium, the breakaway religious groups and Spirituals preparing for the end of days and the coming of the Antichrist.

All of these are indeed pictures that one finds; it's perhaps notable that Eco at least toys with all of them in The Name of the Rose.

We do this with other ages too. If we were to pick out the portrayals we get of the early modern period, for instance, we might find something like the following pictures, which are of the whole period but which look at the whole period in light of a particular aspect of one of its subperiods:

(1) The early modernity of the Renaissance, a time of artistic and mercantile expansion.
(2) The early modernity of the Reformation, a time of religious tumult, Catholic vs. Protestant.
(3) The early modernity of the rationalistic Enlightenment, contrasting with the barbarism of what went before, of reason triumphing over faith. In practice this is often conflated in complicated ways with earlier scientific discovery and also with Romantic counter-reaction, focusing on great freedom, on genius, on solving problems through education, of will and passion triumphing over reason.
(4) The early modernity of the American Revolution, a time of political tumult, and of republicanism vs. monarchism.
(5) The early modernity of the Regency, stylistic and mannered. All of these pictures tend to be chronologically jumbled in their popular forms, but this particularly tends to be jumbled; Austen adaptations, for instance, tend to toss in bits and pieces from fifty years on both sides of the Regency.

The tumultuous pictures, (2)-(4), have tended to be presented in a one-sided way, and a moral drawn by means of an implicit philosophy of history: Protestants beat Catholics, reason beats faith, republicans beat monarchists, with the obvious counterexamples studiously skipped. (1) and (5), the more purely artistic renditions (which we still, as it were, have with us as Florence and costume drama), have a kind of timelessness that gives a very different view from the progressive inevitabilities of the others. And this, I suspect is the big divide in portrayals of the early modern period: the timeless and the progressive, in state and in motion. As Eco notes, even when the portrayal is as accurate as possible, the portrayal itself is in some sense an expression of who we are in dreamng of the age.


Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, William Weaver, tr., Harcourt Brace & Co. (New York: 1986).

Various Links of Interest

* John Schwenkler, What Makes Manners Matter?

* Edith Hall, Why Read Aristotle Today?

* Hans Boersma, Fishy Architecture, at First Things
Francis Young, The Myth of Medieval Paganism, at First Things

* Darwin, Marmee and Marriage in Little Women

* Roberto Lambertini, Giles of Rome, at the SEP
Alexander Miller, Realism, at the SEP

* Candice Delmas, Uncivil Disobedience in Hong Kong

* Corinne Gressang, Useful Nuns and Revolutionary Possibility

* Elizabeth Klein, Rehabilitating St. Simeon the Stylite, at Church Life Journal
Emmanuel Falque, The Phenomenology of Christ in Flesh and Bone, at Church Life Journal

* Crispin Sartwell, Politics and Rationality: On the Uses and Limits of Science

* Nikos Salingaros reviews James Stevens Curl's Making Dystopia

* Last Year, the military historian Bret Devereaux had a series of posts analyzing The Siege of Gondor as depicted in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King. (His conclusions in a very brief nutshell: it's actually, all things considered, a remarkably accurate presentation of pre-modern warfare, partly because of what it borrows from the even more accurate book, and partly because of a good sense of how to present it visually; some of Tolkien's very careful structuring gets garbled in cinematic adaptation, and badly in one or two places, but a surprising amount carries over fairly well.)

* Also from Bret Devereaux: A Trip Through Cicero on Natural Law.

* An interesting Norwegian experiment in medication-free medical treatment.

* Richard Marshall interviews Thomas Pink.

* Benjamin Studebaker, A Platonist Critique of Rawls

Currently Reading

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Return of the Shadow
Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian of Norwich
Jason T. Eberl, Thomistic Principles and Bioethics
Antonio Rosmini, About the Author's Studies
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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