The Clare Spark Blog

May 30, 2013

Nostalgia for the “Middle Ages”

old tapestry(Update: there is a big fight among academics as to whether or not the late Middle Ages were not the true originators of science and great art. New Left and Catholic scholars seem to be in the vanguard of this move. The arguments are very heated, and suggest many persons reject modernity/mass politics/technology/machines, unless they can be reconciled with religion, particularly Catholicism or its hybrids. The Greens, who merge with Nature (as opposed to modern domination of Nature) might be considered as romantic medievalists.)

New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier was quoted in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, May 29, 2013 as “Notable and Quotable.” These excerpts were taken from the commencement speech delivered by Wieseltier at Brandeis University on May 19, which warned students not to yield to the blandishments of science and technology.: “There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the two imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted , now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.  …You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality….Perhaps culture is now the counterculture. “

Wieseltier believes that this “saving remnant” will protect us against “the twittering acceleration of American consciousness….” [What on earth does he mean by that?]

This imprecation to drastically sever the link between the study of man with the study of nature, coupled with his nod to “religion” rhymes very well with the occasional turn to medievalism at such bastions of ex-leftist or populist thinking as Pajamas Media (see http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/05/28/video-in-defense-of-the-middle-ages/, seen also on the Dennis Prager “university” http://www.prageruniversity.com/History/Were-the-Middle-Ages-Dark.html. These videos are based on the work of Anthony Esolen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_M._Esolen)   It has been my position as both a student of intellectual history (with a strong interest in art and literary history), that the freethinking individual was unknown and often burned at the stake for daring to deviate from the rules laid down by medieval and even Renaissance priests and monarchs.

weapons-of-middle-ages

The Promethean impulse was sorely punished before the Enlightenment, and even Voltaire had to publish anonymously. And that pioneer Spinoza was hounded as a heretic for his materialist philosophy that joined Man with Nature and for his support of the short-lived but pathbreaking Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

But what is most disturbing, almost laughable, is Wieseltier’s posture as a revolutionary naysayer to the most advanced democracy in the history of our species, when he comes out as a diehard reactionary. Perhaps he likes girls with long tresses. The Middle Ages lingered into the 19th century with the vogue for William Morris craftsmanship, or before his ascendancy, the prestige of the Pre-Raphaelites, now in revival as a protest against the “desecration of nature.”

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

A contemporary version of Archangel Raphael

The real Middle Ages were a period of anarchy and arbitrary authority, localism,  interminable warfare, short life expectancy, institutionalized Jew-hatred, material deprivation, and slavery to powerful overlords, whose control over the lower orders was reinforced by “religion” that Wieseltier lauds as the proper study of his new counterculture (note that he does not distinguish between religions at odds with each other and with secularism. Such vagueness is typical of the moderate men who do not want anyone to be angry with them).  The centuries of struggle and sacrifice that brought us to pluralist, secularized modernity should not be so casually overturned by Brandeis University and its supportive media institutions. As for the study of cultural artifacts that Wieseltier recommends, it is not so easily accomplished as he imagines. Art works do not speak for themselves: they are always positioned against competing ideas and rules: look to their patrons and you will find the key to their artworks. Indeed, one of the great neglected themes in Melville scholarship (and the same might be said for his contemporary Victor Hugo) is ambivalence, as artists struggle with themselves either to accept or reject their freedom to write as they feel, for social cohesion is at stake, including their own interior conflicts that they imagine can hurl them into the abyss of poverty and artistic failure. (Melville’s father-in-law was Lemuel Shaw, a conservative Whig and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, also his patron.)

There is much to be criticized in this modern world, but its defects are not traceable to the “imperialism” of science and technology, but to the reactionary forces that thought that the transition from feudalism to capitalism could be managed without quality mass education and the preservation of the individual conscience and its rights as institutionalized in the First Amendment to the American Constitution. I remember Dr. Henry A. Murray, mind-manager extraordinaire, complaining about religious pluralism because the very fact that some had different belief systems suggested that one’s own religion  might be fallible. Such self-doubt (often described as ambiguity) fostered social division, not the desired social cohesion. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/26/henry-a-murray-and-the-tat/, or https://clarespark.com/2014/12/29/the-leader-principle/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.) Is it any wonder that so many artists and writers must write under a mask, simply to express their inner selves?Mask-SuttonHoo7thC

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