What I Read On My Vacation, Part 2

I like taking holidays to isolated, internet-free areas and reading a book a day. Unfortunately, this year's holiday was interrupted by hail, food poisoning, needle grass, and traffic, so I didn't get through nearly as many books as last year. The books I picked were also very dense and immensely interesting, so progress was slower.
Christianity is a harp in the head and the assumed canon is another harp in the head so when the imagined Christian, educated and protestant reader absorbs any particular idea in the Faerie Queene they sense and respond to its specific implied multiple meanings simultaneously, in parallel, not sequentially, one after the other, separated by time, and this concentration, layering and intensifying of meaning may be something that, in the right circumstances, makes allegory a good thing.
BUT ALLEGORY IS STILL TERRIBLE! It does not possess, it has no independent life. The great cause of Art is to unify and set afire the mind and heart with an experience that ordinary nature can only rarely, and unpredictably provide. And ALLEGORY DOES NOT DO THIS. It is merely an idea. It is a Wikipedia article about itself. It is a hyperlink, a meme, a dreamworks eyebrow. Allegory is trash, it is trash trash trash. There is nothing done in that form that would not be superior of it were merely a story and allowed to live. Allegory is a Damien Hurst pickle.
 -Patrick Stuart
Jan van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait

Book 1: The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga
467 pages
Published by: University of Chicago Press

I somehow missed the new English translation that came out in 1996. In my medieval history posts I tend to rely on Tuchman's Distant Mirror. Tuchman is more quotable than Huizinga... or, possibly, was. The new translation is excellent, fiery, and beautiful. I've been informed that I really should learn Dutch to appreciate Huizinga - and for that reason alone. It might sound odd but it's tempting.

Tuchman reads to you. She's a professor giving a lecture. Wry, sarcastic, dry, and efficient. She has a blackboard and slides. Her sentences are elegantly crafted and deployed with devastating precision. She has a knack for narrative, for diving in and out of the action, for showing off an event from every angle without interference or confusion.

Huizinga speaks to you. He's personable. You get a vivid sense of sitting in a comfortable room with him and having a conversation. It's a one-sided conversation, as he waves his arms about and pulls books off the shelf to show you pictures, but it's still a private sharing of secrets. Tuchman wants to educate. Huizinga wants to explain. He chops up sentences, repeats himself, adds exclamations of dismay or delight, and displays the full emotional range of someone deeply invested in their work.

I'll put up an entire post of quotations in a few days, and probably a second post on medieval symbolism and how to use it in RPGs.

The Autumn of the Middle Ages is a book about a specific period and a specific region: Burgundy in the 15th century. The end of the Middle Ages, the start of the Renaissance. He describes a world at the end of a cycle. All possible variations on all possible themes are explored. All pursuits are hollow, all dreams stale and unvarying. The world is complete, and in completion, is paralyzed. This translation seems to bring in more nuance and subtlety than the older English version I remember. The first few chapters are brilliant. Later, when he gets into art history and the value of art, they start to lose focus. He sees peaceful scenes and happy faces where I see rigid, unnatural figures. I don't know, he's the expert, but we have very different emotional reactions to some pieces.

He also assumes you know the people, the dates, and the geography, or that you'll look it up as needed.

Aberdeen Bestiary

Book 2: The Bestiary of Christ

Louis Charbonneau-Lassay
467 pages (coincidence?!)

Published by Parabola Books

Huizinga and Charbonneau-Lassay were born a year apart and studied similar fields, but they could not have arrived at more diverse views on symbols, allegory, and the use of detail.

Symbolism was very nearly the life's breath of medieval thought. The habit of seeing all things in their meaningful interrelationships and their relationships to the eternal both  muted the boundaries between things and kept the world of thought alive with radiant, glowing color. Once, however, the symbolizing function had disappeared or become mechanical, the grand edifice of God-willed dependencies becomes a necropolis. A systematic idealism that everywhere presupposes a relationship between things as a result of their assumed essential general characteristics leads to a rigid and barren cataloguing in which the division and subdivision of terms, carried out purely deductively, is all too convenient. Ideas can be made to fit into the vault of the world edifice so readily. All terms, precise and imprecise, stand like stars in the firmament and in order to come to know the nature of a thing one does not inquire into its internal construction or into the long shadow of its historical development, but looks towards the heavens where it shines as an idea. 
-Autumn of the Middle Ages, Huizinga, Chapter 10
Do you see what I'm talking about?! Go buy the damn book!

Anyway, Huizinga saw symbolism as both edifying and stifling. Charbonneau-Lassay loved symbols of all kinds. He wrote and illustrated a fabulous bestiary on a medieval model. Ever wondered why the Pelican is a symbol of Christ? Charbonneau-Lassay explains. The dual nature of the bull? Charbonneau-Lassay explains. Why tombs contain sea urchins? Charbonneau-Lassay explains.

It's certainly a useful book. Bizzare signs - the Trinacria, the Tetramorph - are put in context. Charbonneau-Lassay draws on all the myths he knows, from India, from Greece, and from speculations on the druids, and sets them down with illustrations. It's the dead-end symbology of Huizinga compressed into one book. Every beast has all possible variations. 

The translator (D.M. Dooling) notes that Charbonneau-Lassay used an astonishingly wide range of sources but suffered from a "remarkable inconsistency in checking such details as publishing information and even authorship (for example, I have found no one who has ever heard of a book by Xenophon called Geoponicus). His footnotes, where they are included at all, are more like clues to a scavenger hunt.

It's interesting, but it's also pedantic, wildly speculative, and bone dry.

Book 3: Love Locked Out: A survey of love license and restriciton in the Middle Ages

James Cleugh
320 pages
Published by: Anthony Blond Ltd.

It's a bad sign when your book jacket includes praise for a book by a different author on the back.

This book deserves its own post. It's hilarious in its own peculiar way. James Cleugh belongs to my favorite group of historians for reading pleasure: born before just before the First World War, English (or east coast American), sarcastic, and entirely convinced of their own positions and superiority. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Cleugh starts off the introduction - not the book itself, the introduction - with an account of the autocastration of Origen. A few pages later he's reached full speed.

Origen seems to have borrowed the notion of sexual desire as the root of all evil, not from the sayings of the founder of his religion, who never proclaimed such a thing, but from a very different person. For some thirty years after the execution of Jesus a bald, bandy-legged and beetle-browed renegade Jew, of Greek lineage, supassing eloquence and powerful personality, had been dashing around Asia Minor declaring that the dead Nazarene, now resurrected in heaven, had been sent down to earth as a Messiah, to redeem humanity from its appalling vices of concupiscence and cruelty.

-James Cleugh, Love Locked Out, Introduction
Needless to say, the book isn't particularly accurate, fair, or well regarded. It's a miscellany of horror and eroticism. It's a textual Hammer Horror film or a nudist "documentary" of the same year (1963). Every tall tale, scandal, slander, and supposition is related as the absolute truth, in lurid and vivid language. It has no redeeming qualities and is therefore excellent.

The cover features a very washed out black and white version of the (in?)famous painting by Anna Lea Merritt. I wonder if this was done deliberately to obscure the gender of the subject and titillate the average potential buyer while still escaping censorship.

Book 4: Ezekiel

Joseph Blenkinsopp
242 pages
John Knox Press

This is a proper academic bible commentary for students, preachers, and theologians. It's not light reading, but it does try to explain - with the best scholarship available - the very odd things that happen in the Book of Ezekiel. I foolishly didn't bring any reference bibles on this trip so I couldn't get farther than the introduction.

Side Note: Wikipedia is usually deliberately boring, but sometimes you get sentences like, "and in any case Ezekiel was under suspicion of encouraging dangerous mystical speculation, as well as being sometimes obscure, incoherent, and pornographic."

And that's as far as I got, unfortunately. Better luck next year.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who really struggles to read a long post, I really admire your ability to read and cite so many historical texts and accounts in your posts. You're only a month or two into your Iron Gates content, and I already want to see what you can come up with when you take a crack something like The Americas or Africa with your approach to research. Or honestly, anything other than Europe or Japan whose culture/influence/setting/whatever dominate the hobby.