Wednesday, April 23, 2008

High Middle Ages Full of Meaning That Trumps "Facts"

Dante got much of his inspiration for Divina Commedia when he was in Rome for the very first Holy Year in 1300. He was already an official from the esteemed city of Florence who had been summoned by the Pope in a dispute between the Guelphs & Ghibellines which raged between the advocates of Papal Supremacy & Holy Roman Emperor secular rule. Dante was involved in the "Haute Politique" between the two giant forces of the age, but marvelled at the swelling hordes of the one true Church who came from Iceland & every European land as well as enclaves in the Crimea & the Lebanon. Remember that this was the only Holy Year before the Black Death came in 1347 to decimate Europe and revert much of society to a subsistence level, while enabling city dwellers to escape from virtual bondage and develop a commercial culture that would lead to the Renaissance. Dante was there for the Highest Point in the entire panoply of the Christian world before it was beset by Ottoman expansionism and a definitive break with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which has lasted to this day. His Divine Comedy gave this world a life which persists long after its branches have died off. The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI demonstrates there is still a place for religion in this crazy world of competing technologies. Religion that doesn't want an earthly dominion or persecutes gender or non-believers.

I have just finished re-reading Henry Adams monograph on Mont St. Michel & Chartres, which tries to explain the miracle of Gothic cathedrals which suddenly sprang upwards to God in the Loire Valley in the early Eleventh Century. I am already part-way into Thomas Cahill's brilliant evocation of the entire era of the Middle Ages, which he starts around 400 AD & does somewhat as a riff on Christopher Dawson, whose books on the Middle Ages inspired me back when Dawson hung out with T.S. Eliot & Martin D'Arcy, SJ.

CS Lewis is one of the great writers of the 20th c. & his close relationship with Tolkien, who was the sole survivor of his graduating class & of his officer cohort at the Somme, another book I'm perusing right now. That Lost Generation truly groped for meaning in a modern world, as David Brooks notes:
“C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge. It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God. The medieval universe, Lewis wrote, “was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.”

Lewis tried to recapture that medieval mind-set, Ward writes. He did it not because he wanted to renounce the Copernican revolution and modern science, but because he found something valuable in that different way of seeing our surroundings.

The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

CS Lewis and Tolkien & Eliot & even Robert Graves wanted to rescue the modern world by injecting the Classics, History, and above all the faculty of Imagination into the sterile Marxist/Fascist/Socialist bromides which as Morris West once said in "The Shoes of the Fisherman" were in the process of "doing surgery with a dirty scalpel."

Brooks and Adam Gopnik are both from Philly, and that sad city of Brotherly Murder inspires more than mere despair at the human condition in this new milleniium.

1 comment :

GW said...

Great post, Dave. Linked.