Monday, June 14, 2004

Edification with Real Edifices

Part of the charm of early medieval literature is the contrast between its sophistication, sometimes amounting to preciosity, and the barbarity of its environment. While assorted Magyars, Vikings, and Moors prowled around the walls of the monastery, the monks wrote charming love letters in Latin verse to their (Platonic) girl friends in the adjoining nunnery or elaborated complicated allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs. In a time of universal violence, poverty, and disorder, when the thugs had just begun their ambiguous transformation into knights, you might think that a coarse and masculine style would rule. In the vernacular and outside the cloister, it did. In Latin and inside, however, the classic models emulated by the intellectuals were the self-consciously literary works of Virgil and Ovid. I find it piquant that an Alexandrian poetics flourished in the midst of chaos and ruin, rather as if the Institute of Advanced Studies were located in downtown Trenton instead of Princeton, Andrew Sullivan may be an evolved Catholic, but stylistically he's no Liudprand of Cremona.

I was brought back to that world by reading the Craft of Thought, the most recent work of the medievalist Mary Carruthers. We’re supposedly living in an era in which scholarship has been debased by fashion, but authors like Carruthers refute that libel, which, truth told, is mostly supported by the very dubious practice of quoting assistant professors at random. Now it is perfectly true that very few people are in a position to enjoy the artistry as well as the erudition of somebody like Carruthers—nobody believes me that philological books can be absurdly exciting. Unfortunately, her theme, the practice of meditative thought in the Christian West before 1200 or so, sounds hopelessly recherch√© unless you understand how it fits in with the art of memory in the premodern world. If you aren’t into the topic, you’d be advised to read the works of Frances Yates instead of Carruthers, though I think Carruthers understand many issues better than Yates.

Both the moderns and the medievals understand thought as an activity, but whereas we credit the imagination as the active agent responsible for the invention of ideas, people formerly thought of invention as belonging to memory, a dynamic organization and reorganization of the contents of the mind or, more generally, received culture. The Medievals had recourse to traditional rhetorical techniques to order their thoughts, an art of memory that was far more than a set of parlor tricks to memorize speeches. The Art of Memory involved the association of particular ideas with places in a familiar context, most often an architectural setting such as a public building like a courthouse or church but sometimes an imagined theater or even the Zodiac. By mentally traversing the various places in one these sites, one could recall the topics of a speech or order the elements of a literary composition, or, in a religious context, meditate on the elements of faith—think of the Stations of the Cross. The vital point, which Carruthers does seem to have understood better than Yates, is the benefit in this internal ritual arises from the process than its results. It is getting organized, not being organized that energizes and illuminates the mind, which is also why, if you don’t mind an aside by an old textbook editor, modern pedagogy with its boxes, chapter summaries, and forty-two levels of emphasis is so self defeating.

In her Craft of Thought, as in her earlier Book of Memory, Carruthers deals with the very general anthropological question of how individuals and cultures can make sense out of the world, granted that the structuration provided by the categories of natural languages doesn’t provide a sufficient grid to underlie either sociability or the acquisition of empirical and theoretical knowledge. In this respect, her work is similar to the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, which focuses on the cognitive role of myth and other cultural artifacts—my use of the word “grid” in the previous sentence is actually a microplagiarism from the Frenchman’s seminal book the Savage Mind. The monks wove their web of thought and practice out of the Psalms, church architecture, classical rhetoric, and a few other elements they found good to think just as Levi-Strauss’ Amazonian natives articulated their world by relating everything to the natural kinds of animals and plants and European modernism made overall sense of things by reference to a history rectified through “falsified outlines” (another microplagiarism).

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