Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mixed Messages

A mixed message

I must begin with an important message. Last week’s post was rushed because of unexpected intrusions into my midweek schedule. This week’s is rushed because I am spending most of my Wednesday driving in the direction of Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth (MA), where at 5 pm I intend to deliver a lecture entitled “Luís de Camões: the Poet as Scriptural Exegete”. The lecture is open to the public, and I shall hope to see in the audience several of my numerous fans based in the Greater Falls River Co-Prosperity Sphere.

That’s my message, but hardly the end of my musings about messages in general. Messages are becoming practically epidemic. According to most of the political commentators I read, the world’s movers and shakers do little else than send “messages”. The actions of legislatures, the venues chosen for political speeches, the names given to presidential pets—all these things are actually “sending a message”. The more opaque the law, the speech, or the onomastic activity, the more certain it is to be a judged “a very clear message”, or perhaps a “message heard loud and clear”. If the commentator doesn’t like what he heard, or thinks he has heard, it is a “terrible” message. But the very worst sort is the “mixed message”.

Actually, mixed messages are by far the most interesting ones. Anyone who doesn’t like a mixed message better not read a Shakespeare sonnet. My long departed mother was the queen of the mixed message. “Have fun,” she would say, “and be careful”—before releasing me for any activity of the sort designed to encourage a carefree spirit. What might be called the mixed messages of history are among the most interesting of all. I’d call them message of historical irony if the word “irony” hadn’t been so thoroughly debased by popular journalism.

One interestingly mixed message of history seems to be that nothing fails like success. Everyone knows Wordsworth’s marvelous “Tintern Abbey”. If by chance you do not, seek it out. There are few more beautiful expressions of the powers exercised by the beauty of Nature on our moral and psychological constitutions. But how many have wondered how such a huge ecclesiastical ruin ever came to be stuck so far out in the boondocks?

"Tintern Abbey", by J.M.W. Turner (1792)

In the twelfth century a group of zealous French monks, dissatisfied with the comfortable slackness that had overcome so much of the Benedictine establishment of their age, launched a rigorously ascetic reform of religious life. They did not think of themselves as a new order, but they came to be thought of as one by others. They were (and are) called Cistercians after their prominent “mother house” at Cîteaux in Burgundy. In their search for renewed simplicity of life they sought to imitate the ancient monks of Egypt and Palestine, who had made their remote dwellings in the deepest reaches of the desert. The “deserts” of medieval Western Europe were for the most part woodlands and scruffy, uncultivated moorland, lands whose agricultural value was limited to free-range grazing.

It was an age that admired sanctity, and considered it socially useful. Land-rich nobles, eager to score a few pious works for their often-alarming moral balance sheets, gave the Cistercians large tracts of their worthless land, which for the monks might be a kind of spiritual Lebensraum in which they might pursue their austere life of votive poverty undisturbed. Then in the thirteenth century something unexpected happened, something having to do with textiles. A lot of people wanted clothes. Clothes were made of wool. Wool came from sheep. Sheep ate grass. People who owned a lot of grass were suddenly rich. They needed stuff like barns, storehouses, stables, indentured agricultural workers, and the complex structure necessary for industrial enterprise. I have in the past had occasion to cite the Michael Corleone Theorem: "Just when I think I am out, they pull you back in." This happened to the Cistercians in spades, and one result was what might be called the architectural mixed message. It is a phenomenon without which the world would be a less interesting place.

Above : Monastic Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Oxon. (Photo: John Waine, 2004)

Below: Assisi's multi-million dollar monument to Franciscan Poverty

Sometimes the mixed message demands a certain amount of literary education for its full impact. I have a young friend in Paris, Bill Thompson, who is something of a genius at discovering brilliant mixed messages. Bill is a polyglot Texan expatriate, a one-time Marshall Scholar and British academic. He is a trained Soviet expert, but now works in Paris for the OECD. The OECD (ostensibly the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) may be one of those shadowy, NGOish, Matrix-type entities that are secretly running the world, but if so, they haven’t let me in on the secret. I met him through the adult education program, of which he was the director, at the American Cathedral in Paris. Most recently Bill sent me the following mixed message, in the form of a photograph taken by his friend Bob in Barcelona: