Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Transitional Man

big transition: Camões has gone to his long house

Life is pretty much like essay writing. Once you’re into them, the paragraphs take care of themselves. It’s the transitions that are difficult. As a proposition that may be of dubious validity, but it’s style I am after, not substance. My model was Forrest Gump. I am attempting to develop an aphoristic style for a projected self-help book, and I am just practicing. Actually it is an instance of desperation being the mother of invention. I was just now having a tasty bowl of cereal and an interesting conversation with my delightful granddaughter Sophia when she innocently uttered a terrifying word: “Wednesday,” that is, today. Wednesday meant one thing for her—namely a somewhat relaxed start to the school day—and something quite different to me. What it meant to me was that until that moment it had escaped my attention that it was blog day.

Yet it all comes together nicely, for my even more-than-usual forgetfulness is an emblem of my transitional state. Transitions come in various sizes and colors. I am just about to leave Paris. That this is definitely a gray transition is authenticated by the weather, which has suddenly turned rather grim: cold, dark, wet. They have put the Christmas lights up in some of the public places, but not yet turned them on. There is always a certain amount of dreary schlepping about attendant upon arriving for or leaving after a lengthy stay, and I have a number of drab duties to perform before flying back to Newark next Monday.

Another transition is of a pleasant yellowish pastel hue. On Friday I completed the manuscript of the little book I have been writing, tentatively entitled Luis de Camões: the Poet as Scriptural Exegete. On Monday I sent it off for review by a prospective publisher. On Tuesday I returned to the Gulbenkian Library for a final time to say goodbye to its director, and especially to the two charming librarians whose cheerful expertise has on a daily basis eased my path. Such are the formalities of French professional life that it was only in parting that I learned their names. They both have the Christian name Isabel, like several other important women in my life, the fourteenth-century Plantagenet ancestors and kin of Henry the Navigator.

Until halfway through my bowl of granola this morning I was planning yet another transitional step, and I may get to it yet. I actually contemplated trying to write a page or two on my next project. I always feel better when I am starting something new to get a few words down on paper even if they are not destined to survive until the final product. I am under contract to write a book rather grandly entitled in my proposal The Dark Side of the Enlightenment. Talk about transitions!

Early in my career as a medievalist I became aware of and annoyed by a certain historical “narrative,” of nearly ubiquitous credit among the semi-educated, that might be called Gibbon’s Canard. It goes roughly like this. There was once a great Western Civilization in which people walked around in their bathrobes writing epic poems, building Parthenons and Coliseums and civilizing known worlds by imperial domination. That beautiful world came to an end when a cultural disaster (Christianity) and something called the Völkerwanderung (barbarian hordes running hither and thither) joined forces to create the Middle Ages, aka the Dark Ages, a bleak millennium of brutality, disease, ignorance, and superstition. Things began to get a little better eventually when one day Petrarch walked into a cave, found a pile of long-neglected manuscripts, and decided to start a Renaissance. But they only got good again when toward the end of the seventeenth century Newton published the Principia and only really good in the eighteenth century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau arrived on the scene and taught his friends and relations (most of whom in Rousseau’s case were his abandoned bastard children) how to have a New Sensibility.

This new age was called The Enlightenment.

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said “Let Newton be!”—and all was light.

So wrote the eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope.

This narrative is, shall we say, a little over-simplified. At first I found myself particularly aggrieved by popular uses of the word medieval as a term of disparagement, opprobrium, or contempt. I started making a collection of such usages as found in the popular press, especially the New York Times. My favorite (and I cannot now remember the specific sources) had to do with a man taken hostage by terrorists or kidnappers and kept blindfolded for a protracted period in an underfurnished urban apartment. The only food his captors gave him—ample, but apparently monotonous—was Chinese take-out. This treatment was described as “medieval”. Well, Marco Polo…Some readers may also remember a memorable scene in the film Pulp Fiction in which a really big, mean, black guy prepares to do violence on a really skinny, sicko white guy. The violence is unspecified, but as it required pliers and a blowtorch, it is also probably unpleasant, especially as introduced with the following threat: “I’ma get medieval on your ass.”

But I also started collecting an anthology of Enlightenment weirdness. I soon discovered that just as the witchcraft craze is more typical of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment periods than of its Middle Ages, so also were numerous other “medieval” superstitions, such as alchemy and astrology. If you are really interested in quackery, pseudo-science, and superstition, one of the best places to look is in the nooks and crannies of Enlightenment Paris. I am hoping that The Dark Side, if I can pull it off as a work of light-hearted erudition, might transform Gibbon’s Canard into Peking Duck. I may subtitle it “The Medievalist’s Revenge.” If I can pull it off, you will get to meet some of the following characters:

"Count" Alessandro Cagliostro (here presiding over a Masonic meeting, as imagined by the satirist Gillray) was a weirdo so outrageous that he could exist only in the Enlightenment...

Valentine Greatrakes the Stroker, whose miraculous cures discomfited the Enlightened...

Julie de Krüdener (as painted by Angelica Kauffmann), author of a best-selling sentimental novel, and a do-it-yourself mystic who may have helped a demented Swiss woman to crucify herself...