Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Wherein J. C. Explains Almost Nothing: Intellectual Folktales of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries Revisited, April 2016

(On which Jerry Cullum is keeping some kind of assertion of intellectual property rights, although he would like to have the actual information circulated)

It would be wonderful to be able to write the kind of magisterial essays that George Steiner turned out at age thirty-five or so, because there is a need for them. However, Steiner himself hasn’t turned out many of them at age eighty-five plus, so perhaps I will be excused for turning out blog posts instead in my own advancing age.


It has occurred to me in the past couple of days (as it has on several previous occasions) that nearly all the contemporary explanations for things turn out to be less interesting than what we thought were the explanations fifty or sixty years ago. This in turn makes me vaguely suspicious of the present-day explanations, for it seems all too convenient that our explanations, based on new interpretations of evidence, should fit so well with our current inclinations towards cynicism leavened with witty irony.

But let that pass, as Shakespeare says. Some people are still defending interesting explanations; after I had rushed through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Botticelli Reimagined” exhibition in which subsequent centuries’ shallow imitations of Botticelli are multiplied ad infinitum, I found that the museum shop had Eugene Lane-Spollen’s 2014 book Under the Guise of Spring: The message hidden in Botticelli’s Primavera, wherein Lane-Spollen presents the idea that Botticelli’s painting contains a systematic symbolism based on the Renaissance Hermetism of which Warburg Institute scholars such as Edgar Wind and Frances Yates made so much, and which more recent scholars have so systematically tried to debunk as not really being much of an influence on Renaissance art and literature at all.

The history of esotericism is being rewritten, sometimes more interestingly as well as defensibly—although how occult groups in the Enlightenment became proto-socialist in some cases and proto-authoritarian in other cases may be so obscurely entwined in eighteenth-century culture and politics as to make the eyes glaze over.

But by and large, the fascinating assumptions once made about a host of mysteries now seem to be almost entirely wrong. The Hieronymus Bosch quincentenary exhibition in his hometown seems devoted to proving how immersed Bosch was in the order of late-medieval society; while in the 1960s everyone supposed Bosch was encoding the secrets of a fifteenth-century heretical order, now it is thought that Bosch was a respected artist fulfilling commissions from religious orders and creating allegories about the road to hell that may have owed much to hallucinations born of psychedelic moldy bread, but nothing to heretical doctrine.

That interpretations seems to raise more questions than it answers, but today’s scholars seem content to let the questions sit there. The cognitive status of the Garden of Earthly Delights still seems puzzling to me; why the multiracial nudity in a blissful condition set between a lost Paradise on the one side and a thoroughly humorous and theatrical Hell on the other? The Haywain’s variation on the Ship of Fools seems more acceptably orthodox, as well as comic—many are the readily recognizable roads to damnation through lust, greed, and sheer lack of paying attention.

And what’s with the disturbingly imperfect Garden of Eden, in which Eve and Adam are in communion with the Trinity, but the animals are doing their Darwinian thing, killing one another with blissful abandon? Bosch’s prelapsarian paradise is as opposed as can be imagined to the postmillennial vision of Isaiah that Edward Hicks turned into the Peaceable Kingdom—and maybe this fits into the pessimism that Huizinga limned so long ago in The Waning of the Middle Ages, so at odds with the apocalyptic optimism of the radical wing of the Reformation. But I am not sure I have time any longer to figure out the exact relationship, which will be overturned by later decades of scholarly opinion, anyway.

Bosch (1450-1516) and Botticelli (1445-1510) were contemporaries (which is an interesting thought; Primavera, 1477-1482; The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-1515). Both of them seem to have had workshops engaged in learning how to copy their greatest hits; viewers annoyed at having to go to Madrid to see the original Garden of Earthly Delights will find in the North Brabant show an acceptable version from the hands of Bosch’s own studio assistants. Botticelli set his apprentices to making versions of Venus minus the backgrounds, and two of these paintings are set side by side in the Victoria and Albert, one of them instructively awkward.

John Dee was another story, a full century later (1527-1608 or 1609). Although he made some memorable marginal drawings in some of the few thousand books in his library, he was not an artist, although this seems to be one of the few things that he wasn’t. Developing new tricks of navigation that suited well his advocacy of British settlement in North America, he researched widely in history, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, the Greco-Roman inheritance that was still being rediscovered, and occultism. There was, however, nothing all that hidden about the occultism; since it was taken for granted that angels existed and had communicated with human beings in ancient times, Dee supposed that if they could be made to disclose their own superior knowledge, it would speed his own researches immeasurably.

Hence the presence of magic mirrors and crystal balls in the exhibition of John Dee’s Lost Library, the Royal College of Physicians’ contribution to this early-2016 concatenation of reinterpretations of history. Dee’s penchant for conjuration did cause discomfort among more conservatively orthodox types, and some of his traits may have found their way into the Elizabethan version of the myth of Dr. Faustus.

This exhibition, at least, accepts that Dee’s multidisciplinary quest for global explanations has to be taken seriously as making sense within the intellectual purview of his time, rather than reduced, as in one scholar’s recent remark, to the sniffily dismissive “today we think of him as the progenitor of the idea of the British Empire, rather than as a magician.” [Paraphrased from memory, as I don’t know where to look for the original comment.]

Huh? He cast the queen’s horoscope, and he tried to put together an expedition to what are now the maritime provinces of Canada. Anybody got a problem with that, apart from the postcolonial question? He did lots of things, all of which seemed like good ideas at the time.

While I am on the topic of more disappointing explanations of once-romanticized phenomena, I should mention Ronald Hutton’s summary in Pagan Britain of present-day debunkings of the Green Men and sheela na gigs of whom Margaret Murray and Lady Raglan made so much circa 1934—interpretations that had considerable cultural consequences thirty or forty years later. Seems now that the leaf-and-branch-sprouting men may be souls lost in the forest of the world, or turning into it; and the females spectacularly spreading their legs in church carvings may just be typical misogynistic warnings against the temptations of lust, after all.

Labyrinths are a little more complicated. Have a look at Hutton.


[This is where we shift topics just a bit. Since readers of similar blog posts in past years seem to be puzzled, or convinced I have gone off chasing rabbits, I am reverting to the good old stratagem of using Roman numerals to alert my prose-dazed readership to a slight change in focus.]

I spent most of 2015 writing a prolix essay about shifts in cultural fashions in the fifty years since Mircea Eliade wrote a rather off-the-cuff lecture on the topic. (The precipitous decline of Eliade’s reputation, not always for defensibly analytical reasons, is one of the cultural fashions in question.) I needn’t try to summarize what was already a grotesquely condensed summary, but I should mention that that essay (which the truly committed can download for free from Cluj University Press as part of Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions) took for granted the old sociology-of-knowledge assertion that what we wrongly think of as “reality” is socially constructed, although the physical world itself is not.

So I started puzzling yesterday over the question of just how much could be rescued of the vast intellectual synthesis propounded by several almost completely forgotten books. I have puzzled over this previously, and realized that the answer itself is likely to be unproductive, because just because a hypothesis is correct, it does not mean it is plausible. (See: “plausibility structures,” in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.) This is not quite the same as the famous argument in physics over whether a hypothesis is crazy enough, because it is taken for granted in the physical sciences that certain types of hypothesis are intrinsically counterintuitive. In less mathematically based sciences, the deceptions of ordinary language ensure that prejudice masquerading as intuition will typically make certain that the conclusions reached will be expressed in the rhetoric of a contemporary cultural fashion. This does not mean that the conclusion is completely without validity. It means that even when we devise experiments in les sciences humaines, we are necessarily dealing with soft evidence (but why do we assume that mathematically based evidence is “hard evidence,” itself an emotionally comforting metaphor? The cognitive status of speculative mathematical extrapolation is itself in contention among physicists.).

So maybe I shouldn’t try to compare the various editions of Herbert Read’s Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness, a book that, like Andre Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, pretty much tried to correlate everything we knew about art with everything we knew about the development of the successive stages of consciousness. (That there were such stages was an idea set forth by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness, to cite only one such book from the middle of the twentieth century.)

The history of consciousness is a notion that has been, as they used to say, problematized. For the most part, the day is long gone when the neurobiologists and the art historians and the psychologists got together to compare notes as they did in the heyday of the now much diminished Eranos conferences (see Hans Thomas Hakl, Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century). For this and other reasons, a major problem of recent books about what used to be called the human condition is that the evolutionary biologists writing about art and literature don’t know much about art and literature, and the dogmatically social-constructionist theorists of art and literature don’t know very much about the biology they are at such pains to refute. As I said above, what we call reality is socially constructed, but the world in which we live, and about which we have inevitable illusions, is not.

But because I simply cannot learn enough to evaluate the various cross-disciplinary analyses being put forth (I cannot even learn enough to manipulate the rapidly changed permutations of the digital technology by which we learn about such developments and by which we have machines on which to write about it), I don’t know what to do with such fascinating just-published books as I find in the Spring 2016 MIT Press catalogue (the rediscovery of which finally coalesced all the disconnected reflections I had been striving to put into some kind of sequential order).

Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallatt give us The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience, the hypothesis of which is that “simple reflexive behaviors evolved into a unified world of subjective experience” in the “’Cambrian explosion’ of animal diversity.” To continue to quote the catalogue description, “From this they deduce that all vertebrates are and have always been conscious—not just humans and other mammals, but also every fish, reptile, amphibian, and bird. Considering invertebrates, they find that arthropods (including insects and probably crustaceans) and cephalopods (including the octopus) meet many of the criteria for consciousness. The obvious and conventional-wisdom-shattering implication is that consciousness evolved simultaneously but independently in the first vertebrates and possibly arthropods more than half a billion years ago.”

To distinguish human consciousness from all these other forms of consciousness (and this seems to be the year in which suddenly a plethora of books attempt to analyze the inner lives of other species), we would have to go to another book in the MIT catalogue, Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, with the understanding that agreeing with it depends on accepting the tenets of the Minimalist Program for defining what constitutes language, and that the biolinguistic evidence for the evolution of human language may demand the study of “evidence from nonhuman animals, in particular vocal learning in songbirds.”

And that, whether coincidentally or not, brings us to the book listed on the page facing the announcement for Feinberg and Mallatt’s book: Tim Hodgkinson’s Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Towards a New Aesthetic Paradigm. Here we have a contribution from someone working in the field instead of in the laboratory; Hodgkinson was the 1968 co-founder with Fred Frith of “the politically and musically radical group Henry Cow.” (So here we have, also, someone else from the ‘60s trying to bring the dialogue up to date by “discard[ing] the conventional idea of the human being as an integrated whole in favor of a rich and complex field in which incompatible kinds of information—biological and cultural—collide. It is only when we acknowledge the clash of body and language within human identity that we can understand how art brings forth the special form of subjectivity potentially present in aesthetic experience.”

So this appears to be something like a contemporary attempt to bring Herbert Read’s intellectual program up to date. But Hodgkinson is belaboring a point that many thinkers take for granted these days, that “wholeness” is a myth and our lives are a succession of contending influences rather than the peregrinations of a single unified entity called the self.

As I have said many times before now, nobody knows enough. And I am not sure that my own knowledge would be significantly expanded if I attempted to go beyond the capsule summaries in the MIT catalogue, for I lack the interpretive apparatus to judge the adequacy of the evidence these books present.

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