Where the streets have no name

An idealist’s worst enemy is reality.

The lyrics of U2’s song ‘Where the streets have no name’ may have been inspired by the segregated streets of 80s Belfast, where each street had a religious-economic identity. But 40 years later, we’re far from releasing our streets from the grip of power struggles. There are calls for more and more streets to be renamed so as to conform to the l’air du temps. Why the big deal?

History is a living and breathing thing. The past is all around us, embodied in every particle that gets handed down. Streets are no different. Or should I say, hodonyms, or street names, are no different.

The Romans liked to name their streets. Every Roman town grew around the intersection of two streets, the cardo (north-south axis) and the decumanus (east-west). But most streets had names, like Vicus Sobrius (Sobrius Street), Vicus Piscinae Publicae (Public Pool Street) or Vicus Minervi (Minerva Street). Street names were used for localisation, but also for setting culture in (paved) stone.

Streets reflect the local culture and its people. They create culture by memorialising the achievements and ideals of a community.

I grew up in post-Communist Romania, where streets had been renamed during the 50s and 80s to fit the ideals of the new regime. Street names such as ‘Triumph Avenue’, ‘Labour Boulevard’, ‘Solidarity Street’, ‘Freedom Plain’, ‘Cooperative Way’ or ‘Production Street’ helped communism get off the ground by cementing it into the ground. The memory of a people erased to make room for new memories. The palimpsest of urban spaces.

Bono’s wish was not for nameless streets. Instead, I think it was a desire for demilitarised hodonymy.

Early adopters and early leavers

We like to talk about early adopters, but what about early leavers? Getting onboard is great, but getting offboard before the ship starts to sink is even better; or jumping ship causing the ship to go down.

Adoption of an exciting new technology is always desirable. Some technologies, ideas, products take off, others don’t, and it’s usually down to who adopts them, when and how. Having the right group makes all the difference. The printing press proved such a culturally shattering success not because it was written in the books that the printed book would replace the manuscript, but because the right group of people saw the value of print and started using it. Other technologies failed to convince the right audience at the right time, and didn’t make it off the runway.

Early leavers however are quantité négligeable. The no-sayers are not often seen as the heroes of the piece. As more and more people are leaving Whatsapp over Facebook’s revision of its terms of use, few are looking at what it takes for a product to lose the grip it used to have on the population. Who has to leave Whatsapp for the platform to fade into irrelevance? Who would the critical mass is early leavers be in a case like this?

Unremembering

Every culture decides how to remember. Whether to remember at all. Who to remember and for how long. Each society develops its own devices for praising and blaming, extolling and denouncing individuals, behaviours and ideas.

Unremembering is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting leaves a void in the record, unremembering marks the memory for removal, leaving a trail behind. This trail is one of the many ways cultures invest in their future. Oblivion forces us to start from scratch. Unremembering has something to say about the past and seeks to impart a lesson or some wisdom.

Not every act of unremembering is wise, though. Authoritative societies, old and new, usually wish to turn unremembering into oblivion, which is just cultural death. From ancient Roman to the Soviet Union, unremembering has been one of the weapons societies used to control the past, each time differently and with different results.

The past is what we make of it, depending on what we choose to remember, to unremember and to condemn to oblivion.

Cultures remember more than individuals ever could. One could even say that a culture is nothing but a texture of memories, a fabric of rememberings. And each of us is weaving it every day for everyone else.

Holding up a mirror

The 1st-century AD Roman poet Martial knew the power of words and the weakness of men. He knew that the best a writer can do is to hold up a mirror for her readers, or have the readers hold it up for themselves. He knew that what we don’t want to see in ourselves is the first thing we notice when others start looking at us. And Martial liked to look.

In his famous book of Epigrams, he is careful to set the rules of the game. I’ll make you laugh, but you should probably cry, for what you laugh at is nothing but yourself. Nothing escapes Martial’s vigilence, neither the cruelty of masters towards their slaves nor the squalor of the living conditions of cosmopolitan Rome.

The Epigrams pronounce a Martial law on self-righteousness, without descending into moralism. A power of observation and a commitment to veracity that go to the heart of the brutal reality of any world, not just ancient Rome.

Survival show

The farther one goes back in history, the more intense the question of record survival becomes. The farther away we look, the dimmer things get, not because there’s anything wrong with our power of sight, but because the crumbs have scattered beyond recovery.

Historians of the ancient and medieval period often lament the lack of sources, blanks in the record. If more books and texts had survived from ancient Greek and ancient Rome, we’d be in a better position to know what happened, what people thought back then and we’d be able to paint a better picture, or simply to fill previously-blank sections of the canvas with much-needed colour and detail. Only a small fraction of the manuscript books made in the Middle Ages in the West have survived, for instance.

But there is a more jovial underside to these jeremiads. Despite the losses we’ve inherited, what has survived is far more than what historians have so far been able to process. There is a lot more out there – in libraries and on the ground (below libraries) – that is simply waiting to be entered into critical dialogue with. For example, most of the poems of the 9th century Carolingian Europe haven’t been studied, many of them haven’t even been edited. Libraries are filled with manuscripts that no-one has ever examined. Medieval court records are only just being shaken out of centuries-old torpor, producing fascinating insights, like the work that has been done on the English pipe rolls and the royal charters.

Loss is deplorable, but there is so much work out there to be done that the ululation can wait.

Dantephobia

Surely there must be a circle in Hell reserved for literary critics who maliciously misread Dante. 

John Carey’s discussion of Dante Alighieri in his latest book, A Little History of Poetry (Yale, 2020) has little on fairness, while being quite big on latter-day moralism. To wildly paraphrase Ben Johnson, A Little History has, at least in its depiction of the Florentine poet, small balance and lesse grace.

This is by no means a review of A Little History but simply a response to Carey’s cursory treatment, or should I say, mistreatment of Dante in the book (pp. 25-8). Chapter 5, ‘Continental Masters of the Middle Ages, Dante, [Arnaut] Daniel, Petrarch, Villon’, to which the discussion of Dante is confined, begins ex abrupto:

“Of all world-famous poets, none is less likely to appeal to the modern reader than Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). This is not just because his poetry is soaked in mediaeval theology. It is also because his beliefs are, for us, often repellent. He does not seem to have been attractive as a man, either. He comes across as vengeful and unforgiving. (p. 25).

The Comedy has had its critics since day one, including many ecclesiastics, who weren’t at all impressed that the author was ‘soaked in medieval theology’. But to say that Dante is least likely to appeal to modern readers is a gross misapprehension of Dante’s reception over the last 50 years. Let me be clear, one thing is to dislike Dante and his works, quite another to mistify his reception. The Comedy has been translated and retranslated many times over the last 100 years, and not just in English; biographies and studies of Dante have multiplied; references to the Comedy in the arts abound, even if Inferno, following Victor Hugo’s prophecy, has the lion’s share. Statistically, Dante has never been more popular. The Comedy has enjoyed a far wider readership around the world than Milton’s Paradise Lost, to which it is sometimes compared.

At least Carey is being honest about his disapproval of Dante, the man of ‘repellent beliefs’, and he doesn’t make a secret of it. I’ll (try to) pass over the book’s anglo-centrism, which is evident from its first 25 pages. Ancient Greek poetry is reduced to Homer and Sappho, while Anglo-Saxon verse is given more ample treatment. From Gilgamesh (chapter 1) to François Villon (chapter 5), most, if not all, verse quotes are from Shakespeare and Pope. The book is, in fact, a ‘little history’ of English poetry. That this is not acknowledged in the title, or elsewhere (the book doesn’t have an introduction, and the only hint is Bernard O’Donoghue’s brief quote on the lower dust jacket, describing the book as an ‘introduction to English poetry’), only makes Carey’s bias more patent. On the other hand, if the book is a history of English poetry, then why are Dante, Petrarch and countless other non-English authors given separate chapters throughout?

Carey must have written chapter 5 à contre coeur, as there is nothing in the book to suggest that Dante was a ‘master’, except a master of cruelty, desexualisation of the female body and humourlessness. On this last point, Carey makes clear in chapter 6 (devoted to Chaucer) that Dante is ‘never’ funny. To expect from Dante the kind of humour one finds in the Canterbury Tales is to mistake Aquinas for Asterix. Besides, scholars have been discussing Dante’s wit and humour since the early 20th century, so Carey’s absolute statements are more likely to display the critic’s contempt than to inform the reader.

Reading Carey on Dante, one gets the impression that both Dantes (Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, as scholars are wont to distinguish) are the faces of the same monster/bigot/vendettist with ‘an ingenious interest in cruelty’ (p. 25). What the poet designs, the pilgrim executes, inflicting suffering on Hell’s damned (p. 26). What about the pilgrim’s emotional collapse upon hearing Francesca’s story in Inferno 5? Or the poet going against the medieval grain in ‘saving’ Trajan, Statius and Capaneus? Or even his compassion for the afflicted, tested again and again? Dante the pilgrim (not to mention the poet) is a far more complex figure than Carey’s harsh dismissal allows. Scholars have long since highlighted Dante’s commitment to freedom, to the separation of church and state, to personhood and responsibility and has rightly been hailed as a proto-humanist. I’m not suggesting that Carey hasn’t read all of the Inferno (or even all of the Comedy), so I must conclude that he’s just practising a low form of dantephobia, whose source I cannot claim to know. An equally low form of reductionism is also practised in these pages devoted to Dante. The Comedy is reduced to one of its parts, the Inferno, which is not even mentioned by name. A questionable metonym, to say the least. Dante’s humanism in Purgatorio and his commitment to describe the indescribable in Paradiso, to say the least, are passed over in sepulchral silence by Carey. That the Comedy itself is the densest poem ever written, capable of holding in its clever terzine the fragrance of an entire age – a poetic encyclopedia of the Middle Ages –, is something the reader of the Little History will never find out.

The question of Dante’s treatment of women will undoubtedly have the Dantist scholarly community up in arms – if they even bother to consider Carey’s ‘little’ Dante. The Italian monster keeps getting bigger and more ferocious, now he’s ‘depriving [women] of full womanhood’ (p. 27). The injustice of this statement is only matched by Carey’s other pronouncement, namely that the Vita Nova is ‘a series of adulatory poems with prose commentaries’ (p. 27). Carey is right, however, to bring Vita Nova into dialogue with the Comedy if we ever hope to understand Dante’s complex, fascinating and subversive way of writing about women. Carey, on the other hand, apparently doesn’t want to, otherwise, he would have bracketed his blustery bitterness against Dante the disabler of female sexuality (p. 27). He could have then consulted some of the now numerous scholarly works (remember what I said earlier about reception?) focusing on women in Dante’s poems. But he’s deprived himself of that bonus, and his coverage of this topic, like the others just mentioned, remains, indeed, little.

Admittedly, not much can be said about Dante’s extraordinary achievements in a mere three pages. But this still feels like a missed opportunity for a book which, elsewhere, seeks to put poetry back into popular taste. And whether you like the Florentine poet or not – and there are good reasons not to like him, which Carey doesn’t mention –, it’s probably not very judicious to offer a dismissal in lieu of an exposition: what Dante is rather than what he isn’t, what he achieved rather than what, from our modern vantage point, he failed to do. That over a thousand years of history and culture can dance, like the proverbial scholastic angels, on the head of the Dante’s Comedy pin would have been an argument more likely to serve Carey’s overall book project than his underhand repudiation of the ‘continental master’.

It’s in the books

There are times when I think that we need more superstition in our lives. That we need more bibliomancy.

Divination is an old art. The future is an old unknown.

The practice of gaining insight into the future or a question of public or private significance by means of reading a book passage at random is at least as old as Socrates. Lying in prison and waiting to be executed, the Greek philosopher is said to have dreamt a hexameter line from book 9 of Homer’s Iliad (the story is reported in Plato’s Crito) which assured him that his execution would take place in three days’ time. Several Roman emperors hoped to divine future events by interpreting passages from Virgil’s Aeneid chosen at random. Bibliomancy (also known as stychomancy) continued in the Middle Ages both in the Christian and the Arab worlds.

What’s the point of a canonical author if their works can’t help predict the future? If the writing is good, it should be good for soothsaying.

So many books have been written that almost any future course of action has been explored in at least one work of fiction. You will find a script for any unscripted course of action to be taken. The question is finding the right oracle to match the future to the relevant script.

So when bookshops and libraries reopen, grab the lituus (the staff of the Roman augur) and start guessing.

An objection to objectivity

An iconographically subjective Julius Caesar depicted in a 15th-century manuscript, Paris, BnF, Français 54

Despite their important differences, Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and fundamentally kindred. They are autobiographical accounts, a series of snapshots from the lives of their writers, a philosopher, theologian and church leader on the one hand, a politician and military leader on the other. Both works focus on a significant period from the life of their respective author. The scope of the Confessions (13 books) ranges from Augustine’s infancy to his baptism (350s-386 AD); the Commentaries (8 books) cover Caesar’s eight-year military campaign against the tribes in Gaul between 58 and 50 BC.

The Confessions are written in the first person, the Commentaries, famously, in the third. The former are the more introspective, meditative and confessional; the latter have the trappings of an objective account, a historical report, even a piece of journalism; in any case, they appear to us, as they did to their Roman and post-Roman readers, as a dispassionate account of an agent of history clashing against the forces of circumstance, and landing on his feet.

Caesar’s trick is a fashionable one – the trick of nowhere-ness or the myth of objectivity – one that we still pursue today.

The only natural perspective is that of the subject. The only given perspective is subjective. We only see outside of ourselves through ourselves, each of us through each of us. Even when we profess to look at things objectively, we still look at things, no matter how much we’d like to mute the ‘we’ or the ‘I’ in some sentences.

Distance creates the illusion of objectivity, but distance is merely the interposition of space between the viewer and the view. That distance is often essential for getting the job done, whether in science, law or history. But it is also important to recognise that distance is but distance, the eye forever watching, and the view from nowhere is, in fact, nowhere to be found.

What time is it?

Something remarkable happened last night as I was doing my shopping (and before the distressing events in Washington unfolded). A lady came up to me in the street and asked for the time. It must have been years since someone asked me if I knew what time it was. I looked at my watch and said, about 6.30. It felt great.

Walking away, I thought how far we’ve come on the conquest of time. We all have instant access to time. The lady in the street didn’t, and it felt quaint. And charming.

While everyone experiences time, not everyone can keep it. Time used to be the province of chronographers, half mathematicians, half astronomers, specialists who could tell time, keep it and let others know about it. The medieval science of timekeeping feels as arcane and impenetrable now as ever. The year of history, the time of the year, the time of the day, the exact moment, these are achievements which humanity only slowly brought to its credit.

Most of us never keep time. It is always kept for us. The church bell, the mechanical clock, the wrist watch, the LED display on our smartphones/watches – timekeeping has always been an outsourced commodity.

It’s easy to build a water clock, or an hourglass. It marks the passage of time. But it doesn’t mean much without the divisions which we imposed on this precious category of human consciousness.

Time might be a construct, but it was always constructed in relation to nature, the Moon, the Sun, the rotation of the seasons. All past may look the same once it passed. To create history, the record of the past, time needs to be tamed. The chronographer needs to step in.

The thing which invariably puts kids off history is dates, the notches on the surface of time which help us orient ourselves in the virtual space which is the past. Remembering dates of past events, whether regnal years or revolutions, feels oppressive. Time is oppressive enough, why make it worse? But event dates are timestamps designed to help us make sense not only of the past, but also of the present.

#I am Shylock

The debate around Michael Morpurgo’s alleged censoring of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice because of the play’s antisemitic and offensive views (an allegation he has recently denied) may be, to quote Bassanio, ‘an infinite deal of nothing’.

Will Lloyd wrote on Unherd that the Merchant deserves to be cancelled because its antisemitism is real. Even Harold Bloom concurred, Lloyd noted. Defenders of the play emphasise Shakespeare’s humanism in Shylock’s famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech. Antisemitism and humanism, credits and debits, draw the line, file the accounts. Quantifying value in literature and art is a dodgy business, especially when the goal is to keep investing in a product (i.e. keep the book on the shelves, continue staging the play) or to chuck it out.

If the Merchant is irredeemably antisemitic, so is most of medieval and early modern literature, when European antisemitic views were as widespread as to go unnoticed in every area of cultural production. Is Shakespeare expressing personal and original (not to mention strong) antisemitic views? I don’t think so. To me, Shylock is a figure of tragedy, not the protagonist of a classic all-ends-well, justice-be-done comedy, despite being classed as such. His misfortunes are the result of the human condition (exacting damages for damages done) and adverse cultural forces (finding oneself a member of a hated minority). In the end, Shylock may be too real for us to accept. Life is not always a comedy that ends well (for everyone, at least), but a mess where some go from bad to worse and then to worse still.

I get no feeling that Shakespeare hates Shylock when he allows him to suffer at the hands of his abusers, Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, Venice, Christendom. And I get no feeling that Shakespeare is trying to redeem him of anything when he puts the famous speech in his mouth. Since we’re used to accounting positive and negative values and views, let us also apportion blame. Is Shylock guilty of cruel legalism? Is Portia guilty of fighting legalism with legalism and winning? Is Venice, its ghettos and its population responsible for producing Shylock’s resentment? The Merchant’s twisted world is also our own. One where the down-trodden gets trodden down still, where the spiral of hate and violence is endless and the ‘quality of mercy’ is but a distant ideal.