THIS morning we were pondering a piece about whether Expelled is one of the Signs of the Apocalypse when we clicked innocently enough on Brooks' Tuesday column ("The Great Escape"? How Obama ducked the really tough questions in last weeks debate, we figured), which turned out, instead, to be a wistful rumination on the lost natural world of the European Middle Ages, and how much better modern society would be if the peasants were more easily frightened by comets n' shit.
The essay, which appeared in Books & Culture, is called “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.” [link added]
Over the past fifteen months that essay has given Brooks welcome moments of respite from the seamy world of political campaigning. Because, y'know, no one is more importuned by the cheap carnival of American politics than the people who choose to cover it for a living, and no one is more bedeviled by "attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day" than the people who greedibly digest that stuff so the rest of us can compost our little gardens with their excreta.
The thing that always strikes me about these "wonder on the edge of science, as told by religious nostrum peddlers" bits is how often they flat get it wrong. Really, is it too much to ask of these people that they watch The Science Channel once in a while? Watch for a month if you like, and try to find an astronomer or astro-physicist who acts as if he or she stares "into a trackless vacuity, pitch-black and dead-cold" for a living. These people are animated. In fact, they're a little too eager to get ahold of my tax money to settle an office bet, if you ask me, but that's beside the point.
Good Lord, you should pardon the expression, even to the indolent Midwestern bump whose three hours of astronomy credits boil down, thirty years later, to being able to vow the uninitiated by identifying Betelgeuse and Rigel on a clear winter night, the glories of solar astronomy beat hell out of tales of a handsome and touchy and, well, flaming youth driving a gold chariot across the sky, whatever their relative merits as literary imagery. And I don't know about you, but the knowledge that the elemental structure of the Earth, and the life on it, required the collapse or cosmic explosion of untold, unseen other stars, of time as vast as that trackless vacuity, or that we can--by dint of our curiosity about how things are, not how God's self-appointed spokesmen insisted they must be, sometimes with the rhetorical assistance of skillfully applied hot pokers--listen in on what's left of the Big Bang, beats the hell out of anything dreamed up by a group of people who hadn't realized you don't throw buckets of shit out on the sidewalk every morning.
There’s something about obsessing about a campaign — or probably a legal case or a business deal — that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties.
We know, Dave. We read your column.
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.
Y'know, somehow, it's always the people who object to paying the fare who want to ride farthest.
Not to mention the fact that this is less a bus from Point A to Point B than an imaginary unicorn-guided monorail circling some mental Disneyland. Brooks, like Lewis, doesn't see himself as a pox-ridden peasant sitting down to his plate of leftover umbles warmed on the manure fire, fearful about today's solar eclipse (and tomorrow's sixteen hours in the fields); they're the fat monks secure in the knowledge that Ptolemy explained it all. Except they have air conditioning.
Don't get me wrong: I'll listen to pre-modal music alongside Stravinsky, read Chaucer with as much pleasure as reading Pynchon, and I'll faint in front of a Byzantine mosaic right there next to Stendhal. It's not that we have nothing to learn from Meister Eckhart. In fact it's precisely the opposite: it's these ludicrous mental travelogues which assume a personal superiority in order to insist that we are in fact superior in every way except our peasants don't owe everything to their betters. It's one thing to argue this constitutes your ideal of Beauty, or political economy; it's quite another to insist that it repudiates everyone else's.