I have spent much of my adult life trying to imagine with some particularity the actual texture of human life in the Old World, before modernity. My particular focus has been the European Middle Ages; but I use the term Old World for a much more vast expanse of time that in no small part of the world continues to this very day. I have tried to convince my students that much of what makes our own world so very different from that of Homer or Dante or Milton is of quite recent origin. The “alterity” of the past—a fancy historical term meaning, roughly, differentness—is everywhere connected with often forgotten changes in material culture less than a century old. Our ancestors no more than three generations back could intuitively and naturally understand things in Chaucer that today need tedious footnotes to explain.
One example I have used is that of animal husbandry. The Old World was overwhelmingly agricultural. Most people lived in intimate association with the land, with its crops, and especially with the animals on which they depended for food, clothing, and labor. Cows, sheep, pigs, poultry—these were the necessary and ubiquitous extensions of human community. There is a big difference between a milk cow or a porker shoat and a family pet, the only domestic animals known to most Americans, and only to some of them at that. People in the Old World typically demonstrated an attitude toward animals, as well as a detailed knowledge of their characteristics, very different from our own. Some years back I read that an ordinary farmyard chicken had been placed in the Bronx zoo. I suppose, in fact, that the vast majority of living Americans, despite a huge national consumption of what Frank Purdue is shameless enough to call “chicken”--have never actually seen a barnyard full of squawking poultry. But Chaucer had seen many such barnyards. His story of the rooster Chaunticleer and the hen Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale absolutely assumed that you have too. Otherwise all the chicken singing, all the chicken sex, and above all the chicken oneiromancy loses half its humor. (Even at fifty percent power, it’s still a scream.)
A yet more dramatic example, perhaps, and one more relevant to my recent weekend, was the experience of the dark. When the sun set in the Old World, people were in the dark. They perforce “went to bed with the chickens”, in a phrase still used in rural communities. Most could afford no candle or oil lamp; for a few there might be at best a faint glow from the expertly banked embers of a hearth fire. Practically nobody in our modern world is in the dark they way that everybody then was in the dark. I mean really in the dark—no circuit breaker, no flashlight, no matches, no blue cell-phone glow, no vaguely lucid penumbra of distant city’s lights. The electrification of rural America was still in progress in my youngest days, spent on an Ozark farm where the only nocturnal illumination came from kerosene lamps. And that was in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt! There was electricity in the little town six miles away, and among my earliest memories was the awe of first seeing a Christmas tree decorated with lights. The social revolution that came with electricity is enshrined in one of the obiter dicta of the last century’s most famous revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”
Two rather scary, stormy nights illuminated only by a couple of candles and flickering hearth flames reminded me how utterly and unthinkingly dependent we are on we so blithely call “energy”. The experience reminded me, too, of what must necessarily be for us the diminished power of the recurrent images of light and dark that everywhere thicken and enrich our early literature.
Think, for instance, of the opening scene of the Divine Comedy. It presents us immediately with a an uncertain and fearful wanderer:
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
I came to myself in a dark wood
for the straight way way was lost.
(Hollander and Hollander)
Another great poet of the Old World, two centuries later, seems at times nearly obsessed with the dread power of darkness. I refer, of course, to Shakespeare. There are literally hundreds of moral images of light and dark in his plays, but no scene is more pregnant nor more horrible than the murder of Desdemona (Othello, V, ii). Othello is a Moor, his young wife Desdemona the daughter of a Venetian senator. A racial theme is not entirely absent from the play, but it is incidental and decorative. A modern historical predicament of which Shakespeare could have had no inkling usually distorts contemporary productions of the play at the expense of its actual and universal moral themes.Othello is a great military officer but also a jealous fool pitifully manipulable by Iago, who persuades him of his innocent wife's infidelity. What he himself only too late comes to see as madness drives him to murder her. In one of the most terrifying moments in our literature Othello, carrying a candle, enters his sleeping wife's darkened bedchamber. Understanding his remarkable soliloquy requires a little philology. The principal meaning of "light" in early English was not abstract but concrete. It meant candle or lamp.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can by light relume.
For Goya, "the sleep of reason produces monsters". In perhaps the most famous of his terrifying Caprichos a whole dark world is invoked by sinister night birds and a cat--an animal believed in the Old World to be able to see in the dark. For a couple of nights, lying in a cold bed at nightfall, suddenly deprived of every distraction and comfort brought by electricity, listening to the wind howl through trees that I reasonably feared might at any moment be felled upon my roof, I briefly had a few Old World moments.