Wednesday, February 1, 2012

For Better or for Worse

GOOD  In pious times, e're priest-craft did begin / before polygamy was made a sin...

I am in the final push in the preparation of a book about the Enlightenment period, and as usual thinking about issues in distant history intrudes upon current perception. If the early medieval centuries were the “Dark Ages,” the thirteenth the “Age of Faith,” and the Eighteenth the “Age of Reason”, what is the defining characteristic of the age that has given us our formation?  Your answer will probably be determined by which of the two large historical schools you fall into: the optimistic, or the pessimistic.

When doctors disagree, its best to attempt a comprehensive review of the evidence.  When Pantagruel went off to study in Paris, his father Garagantua wrote him a letter full of enthusiasm for recent advances in learning, most of which could be attributed to the invention of printing.  “I see robbers, hangmen, freebooters, tapsters, ostlers, and such-like, of the very rubbish of the people, more learned now than doctors and preachers were in my time.”  He does allow that the destruction wrought by another recent invention, gunpowder, might cancel some of the gains won by movable type.

In the eighteenth century Voltaire wrote his immortal novella Candide (subtitled “Optimism”).  Candide is a young fellow schooled in the optimism of the philosopher Leibniz.  He wanders through the mayhem of war, rapine, the Inquisition, and the Lisbon earthquake piously reciting his well-learned mantra: “This is the best of all possible worlds.”  It is not long before the reader perceives that this observation, though acute, is pessimistic rather than optimistic. 

A famous pop-psychologist of the turn of the twentieth century, Emile Coué (1857-1926), gained thousands of followers by getting them to intone daily: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better” (“Tous les jours, a tous points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux.”)   This mode of therapy was called couéisme, which is apparently French for balderdash.  A recent bestseller by Steven Pinker entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature would persuade us that in the Great Scheme, there is a definite uptick.
Another way of asking the question is this: do you detect in history a pattern of progress, as many people since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have done?  As a medievalist I am more inclined to the classical-medieval view of incremental decay.  Several writers of our English Renaissance gave some version of the following derivation of the word world: “World, from wear-old, that thing that groweth worse as it groweth older.”  These writers and their Continental contemporaries had been deeply schooled in the classics, and thus subscribed to the theory of the “Ages of the World.”

            The two greatest poets of classical Latinity—Virgil in the first of the Georgics, Ovid in the first book of the Metamorphoses—had given beautiful expression to the myth of the Golden Age, an age of pre-industrial, indeed pre-agricultural, primal justice and bliss, in which the human race lived in harmonious simplicity, feeding itself from the earth’s uncultivated bounty, and slaking its thirst at the rivulets of its crystalline waters.  This story seemed to such early Christian writers as Lactantius an obvious analogue to the pre-lapsarian state of our first parents in the Garden of Eden.  So it was treated by Boethius in one of his most famous meters (poems), which for a thousand years most people who could read at all were likely to know nearly by heart.  A translation of it was one of Chaucer’s early productions.

 Oxford: Bodleian, MS Douce 195: Comment iupiter oste les genitoires a son pere
(Translation: "This was the most unkindest cut of all.")

            But the myth of a Golden Age, like the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, is one of a paradise lost.  Saturn reigned over the Golden Age, the age of justice.  But the Golden Age came to a brutal end when Saturn’s son Jupiter rebelled against his father.  There is no polite way of telling you what happened.  Jupiter cut off his father’s sexual organs and tossed them into the Mediterranean Sea.  The results, after a certain amount of aqueous bubbling, are well known to you all from a famous painting of Botticelli: Venus on the half-shell!  Yes, lubricious sex entered the world only with primal sin.  “Then the eyes of [Adam and Eve] were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”  (Except that I prefer the reading of the Geneva Bible of 1560, in which they made themselves “breeches”.  The historical human problem has been hot pants, not hot aprons.)

            The fall from gold to silver was, alas, the mere beginning of a continuing downward slope of degradation that saw a steady metallic descent through Ages of Bronze and Iron.  Fortunately the classical period ended before things could get much worse, which they have continued to do ever since.  Though no poet has shouldered the task—How could one?  We have no epic poets any more—the materials are there awaiting.  The world has had its Ages of Ceramic, of Wood, and of Papier-Mâché.  I think we are now in a transitional period between the Age of Cardboard and the Age of Bubblewrap.  Under these circumstances, despite Pinker’s captious statistics, it is hard for me to agree that our own age, the century of Auschwitz and Vorkuta, is a marked improvement over the century of the Seven Years’ War.

NOT SO GOOD : from Goya's "Diasters of War"