Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On Reading Myself

 A Masonic initiation in eighteenth-century France

This blog might threaten to become consequential if it could only find a theme, a “message”, or even a minimal consistency of tone.  Yet were it to do that, it would cease to be what it is, and what I have intended that it be--an emblem of whatever is on my mind in a particular week.  Since I lead a pretty quiet life, what is on my mind is more likely to be related to what I am reading than to my exciting experiences in the hardware section at Lowe’s.  This week’s reading has been particularly gratifying, because I have been reading myself.

            Last week, somewhat delayed by Hurricane Sandy, I received in the post the copy-edited manuscript of my latest book.  Its title is The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason.  It is on W. W. Norton’s “spring list” for 2013, though since publishers cultivate a capacious sense of the calendar, that could mean any time after February and before September.  It’s sure to be nearer the latter than the former.

            The upside of an incipiently failing memory is that it is possible to read one’s work with a surprising sense of discovery.  For the most part the discovery was a happy one.  On the whole, I really liked the book.  On the other hand the experience brought its dose of humiliation.  A superb copy editor has given it a real going-over, incidentally drawing attention to a few dozen fatuities, misspellings, rhetorical solecisms, and simple errors of historical fact perpetrated by the Fairchild Professor of Literature.
Sir Isaac Newton: a mind for ever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone

            I determined, when I retired, that I would try to write a few “general interest” books in fields of what I would call my amateur interests.  Certainly the culture of the Eighteenth Century is one of those, and I easily could have spent my life toiling in its fertile acres.  But in choosing this particular topic I was responding to the stick as well as to the carrot.

            Throughout my long career as a medievalist I have been forced to endure a great deal of popular calumny heaped upon the European Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages were dark, benighted, ignorant, cruel, superstitious, irrational.  The very term Middle Ages told its tale—an unfortunate hiatus of a millennium of barbarism between a glorious classical antiquity and its rebirth in a glorious Renaissance. 

            In 1984, at the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, in Atlanta, Professor Fred Robinson of Yale, who was in that year the President of the Academy, delivered the annual presidential address, on the topic “Medieval, the Middle Ages,” italicizing the words in such a fashion as to make clear that his business was to be with “the terms medieval and Middle Ages, not with the period itself.”  Fred Robinson is a learned philologist, but also a very witty fellow, and his talk had a sparkle not always to be associated with the phrase “presidential address.”

            He surveyed a wide sampling of occurrences of the adjective medieval in our contemporary discourse.  Using the Computational Analysis of Present-Day English of Kucera and Francis, one of the early gifts of computer technology to humanistic study, Robinson was able to confirm that the adjective medieval as used in contemporary English refers to the actual Middle Ages only infrequently.  Medieval “is most often used in Modern English simply as a vague pejorative term meaning ‘outmoded’, ‘hopelessly antiquated’, or even simply ‘bad’.”

            A typical anecdote had to do with the meaning of the word as imagined by NBC Nightly News.  In 1983 the Dutch beer baron, Freddy Heineken, along with his driver, was kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of desperadoes.  During the time the kidnappers were successfully negotiating a huge tribute, the victims were held prisoner, unharmed, in a cement-block room.  They were fed, amply but monotonously, with Chinese take-out packaged in Styrofoam.  This treatment, according to Tom Brokaw, was “medieval”.  But a surfeit of General Tso’s chicken hardly reaches the level of medievalism made famous by the film Pulp Fiction.
The Houdon bust of Count Cagliostro

            Do not misunderstand me.  I am not trying to turn “Enlightenment” into a dirty word.  On the contrary I am arguing for its even greater appreciation by looking at some interests of the enlightened often passed over.
            Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night [wrote Alexander Pope]:
            God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.
He left unmentioned the fact that the great physicist was just as interested in solving the mysteries of the Book of Daniel by the application of kabbalist exegesis as he was in solving the mystery of gravity by sitting under apple trees.

            I have had to conclude that if you are into wizards, miracle healers, spirit-mediums, and alchemists, you’ll find many more of them in the Paris of 1750 than that of 1350.  One of the principal figures I deal with is Count Cagliostro, magician to the rich and famous.  Another—and chances are good you have not yet heard of her—is Julie de Krüdener, who was a sort of cross between Danielle Steel and Mother Teresa.

Julie de Krüdener and her son Paul, painted by Angelica Kauffmann