Molecular clouds

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A variation of the Ptolemy-Aristotle model of the universe containing the elemental, planetary and metaphysical spheres from a 14th-century French manuscript (Chantilly, Musée Condé, 478)

At its most free, European culture has been very free. At its most unfree, it was still free. 

Stars are born out of molecular clouds, regions of space made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. Stars are formed in space because they have space. Cultural ideas are formed in culture because they also have space.

European culture has always been a kind of molecular cloud, however hermetic it may have seemed at times – or it may still seem today. Most of the star ideas we look up to today started their nucleosynthesis in the medieval period, in art, governance, philosophy, literature or economics.

The cultural medieval clouds in which European ideas were formed were spaces of exploration and freedom. Things never got stuck there because things were from the beginning free to move around. Below I venture a few insights into how European ideas were allowed to proliferate, never to settle into one morphology or another. This was possible because of the vital space provided by the following (in random order):

  • Nominalism and realism: these two fundamentally European philosophical stances were inherited from late antiquity, but they matured in the Middle Ages. Neither was right, neither was wrong, but the clash between them created modern science and dominated the history of Western philosophy. Their opposition prevented European ideas from reaching a deadlock.
  • The four-fold method of interpretation: medieval theologians and thinkers subjected the Bible not to one, but to four types of meaning: literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical. There was something for everyone, for a literalist as well as for an allegorist. This schema moved from theology to secular texts and defined the way we understand art and media. There was freedom of choice.
  • The instability of metaphor: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is meaning. As there was no single understanding of anything, eventually everything went. Metaphor is a construction, and no-one can or should tell you what it is.
  • The double heritage: like stars, medieval European culture ignited through fusion, when the atom of classical antiquity encountered the atom of Christianity. This fusion was never perfect, and instead created a molecular cloud giving rise to the medieval age of faith as well as to the post-Renaissance age of reason.

Unsung merchants

I’ve always found it strange that although Europeans have been undertaking long-distance travelling for thousands of years, the habit of keeping a journal or a travelogue is a relatively recent literary invention. As far as I know, the earliest known travel report is that of the Greek Pausanias, a geographer from the 2nd century AD. Pausanias described ancient Greece from his own observations as he travelled from Attica to the Peloponnese, then central Greece and back.

Since Pausanias, only a handful of authors took up the challenge of recording their travels.

Before the first geographers turned to the description of the world during their travels, merchants had long zigzagged and criss-crossed entire regions and continents. Many of them covered long distances (think of the Silk Roads). Almost none of them thought about recording their wanderings and meanderings.

Imagine all the adventures these forgotten merchants went through that have been left unrecorded. Imagine the extinct corpus of stories we shall never know.

Perhaps fiction and adventure novels were invented to fill the void left by these unsung merchants, whose livelihood was a relentless gamble and whose existence was an epic poem.

Archeologists assure us that objects travelled from the East to the West, for North to South, from Asia to Europe and back. We find pottery in England that was made in Constantinople. We find gold from the confines of Scandinavia in the marketplaces of Southern Europe. But people forget to light a candle to the multitudes of merchants and traders who ventured of the rough seas and perilous highways, defying the localist culture of their time, pushing the borders and spinning the orb on their fingers.

 

When all roads lead to Rome no more

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17th century surgical face mask: the costume of a Roman physician in 1656 included ‘occhiali di christallo’ (crystal glasses) and ‘il naso pieno di profumi’ (nose stuffed with perfumes’) to avoid contagion (from a print in the British Library) 

While Coronavirus news are plaguing our media, more people seek refuge in art, culture, and history – existential stances which are ipso facto open to the future tense. Or it is precisely our right to the future tense as a society which is being questioned these days. With things becoming more uncertain each day, and more restrictions being introduced in countries around the world, we are finding it increasingly harder to conjugate our lives in the simple future. So here I am, offering a glimpse of the past as a momentary distraction from the iron bracket we find ourselves in, individually and as a society.

Our stop: Rome, 1656. We’ve recently seen images of Venice and Rome returned to a state of quiet and desertion without precedent in living memory. We’ve seen empty streets, vacant canals, cityscapes resembling out-of-scale urban planning models and cinema sets. In 1656, Rome wasn’t much different.

The great plague of the 14th century returned to Europe in the 15th century (1464, Paris; 1471/79-80, London), then in the 16th and the 17th centuries (1576, Venice; 1596, Castille, 1603, London, catching Shakespeare by surprise; 1628, France; 1629, Italy; 1647, Seville). Each time, it proved less deadly, but it was strong enough to almost kill the entire population of Naples in 1656.

In that same year, the plague arrived in Rome. Responsible for dealing with it and maintaining order was the city’s Congregazione della Sanità per liberare la città di Roma dal contagio (Congregation of Health for the liberation of the city of Rome from contagion). Working with the cardinals, Pope Alexander VII took radical measures to contain the spread of the disease. He banned all social gatherings, which, by the standards of the time, was as radical a measure as it was unprecedented. He set up a system of health passes for the movement of people and goods. Rome’s streets emptied, but there were no photographers to share the desolation.

Remarkably, the papal government proceeded to generalised isolation of the city’s population: it opened safehouses and pesthouses to quarantine and treat the sick, respectively. It kept health specialists (surgeons, physicians and barbers) in Rome, forbidding them to leave the city.

Almost immediately, Rome closed itself unto the world. Overnight, all roads ceased to lead to Rome. But Rome was spared. Around 20,000 died in Rome from the plague, compared to a staggering 150,000 in Naples at the same time.

A Boccaccian response to Covid-19

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in a facsimile of manuscript 5070 from the  Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris (15th century)).

We’re experiencing unprecedented times. Except that they are not. Plagues, wars, epidemics, the continent has seen them all. And it has sung them all. Will we know how to sing before it’s all behind us?

 

Boccaccio knew how to sing. He sang in the midst of wars, pestilences and epidemics which periodically struck Western Europe before the first modernity. He strolled the walkways of European agony and kept his head high. Without vaccine, government protection packages or coordinated health services, he knew where to look among the garbage and the flowers.

We remember Boccaccio for his stories. But we forget the context in which they were written, the heavy clouds pushing down on his parchment, the pestilential air engulfing his desk, the death knocking at his door and windows, the infected blood pouring in the streets.

We’ve made great progress since the 14th century, but we still have a lot to learn from the great master of tale:

  • Look after your neighbours: there’s more at stake than your own life. Boccaccio lamented that the people of Florence forgot their humanity and forsook compassion and charity by neglecting the more vulnerable.
  • There’s no excuse for despondency. No amount of distress should prevent one from poking fun and advancing the cause of self-derision. It may never be a better time to tell a good story than when everything is crumbling around you.
  • Keep isolated but keep working. The ten storytellers of the Decameron fled the plague into the countryside, but they spent the days in routine work, not mindless idling. The stories they told were meant to bookend each productive day, not to fill the void.

Social media isolation

Two Facebook users walk into a bar. Or into a chat without them being friends. Each realises their security settings, so finely tuned, don’t allow them to invite each other into wholesome friendship. They give up and take their place at each end of the bar, typing, but not joined in holy Zuckermony. Without knowing, they’ve achieved social media isolation. The government is crazy not to subsidise antiseptic companies like Facebook and Twitter.

Far more difficult is to attempt the other kind of social media isolation. That’s the kind of self-imposed quarantine and online curfew that won’t let the viral posts in. It keeps the bandwidth uninfected, the air between the router and your device clean and the behavioural surplus un-extracted by social media curators. This type of isolation is dangerous for your health as it can trigger withdrawal symptoms, at which point you may not be responsible for your online behaviour. If not handled properly, social media isolation may have unexpected side effects: trolling, scrolling and rolling on the floor upon exposure to the latest viral video. Log in at your own peril.

Unsurprisingly, increased social isolating has led to a reduction in social media isolation. As car traffic dwindles, internet traffic builds up. As handshakes wane, thumb-up likes wax. We’ve already been standing atomized in the bus-stop crowd, now we’ve descended to a sub-atomic level of segregation, comfortable in the illusion that online fellowship may feel the void.

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind

I think it’s fair to say that no government has yet found the ideal response to the ever-changing crisis situation. How could they, anyway? The goalposts are shifting as the rules of the game keep moving. And they are moving far too quickly for anyone to start playing.

We’re resorting to old antidotes in response to new poisons: self-isolation and lockdown, in other words, quarantines and curfews. These are old tricks which our societies have experimented with time and time again in the past. We’re trying them again.

The measures our leaders are taking have consequences far larger and wider than we can imagine. But before we commend or denounce a leader or a government on the mad or blind decisions they’ve made, let us remember that we are all mad and blind to some extent: mad to have built a world on such flimsy foundations, and blind to see how easily it may crumble. And, as one internet meme has it, let us remember that we have already started fighting over toilet paper.

We should worry equally about our moral immune system. No quarantine or curfew is necessary to shelter it, quite the contrary.

Quarantine writing

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Petrarch rebuking Boccacio for his idleness (when there are so many books to be written), from a late 15th-century manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, 3878)

The two most common sources of deferring or discontinuing a writing project are writer’s block and distractions. In other words, two forms of siege, one inner, the other external.

Writing under pressure is not the same as writing under siege. In military terms, an enemy may put pressure on a fortification, but a state of siege is meant to choke the life out of a bastion. That’s why most sieges in history aren’t those that end in stealthy infiltration, but those where the besieged are exhausted, starved and forced to surrender.

Writer’s block exhausts the resources from within – it is the hidden enemy inside the gates, without a face, unbeknownst to the stifled inner voice. Distractions, on the other hand, are well known but irresistible. The act of writing is besieged by endless procrastination stemming from well-known diversions. You can’t stop what you don’t know, but you won’t always stop what you do know.

The current crisis – to come, inexorably, to it – has consequences on our outer sieges as well. The silver lining is that, like all crises, it puts things into perspective. You go shopping, but you only buy what’s really necessary. Companies arrange for staff to work from home, but all fluff is gone, like unnecessary meetings and nugatory projects. Everyone’s asked to focus on what’s really important. The overall effect is one of clarity and dilation.

With many distractions now gone, you can focus on writing, if that’s what you need to do. As we are increasingly approaching a state of siege in our various nations, there’s no reason you should feel besieged as you face the blank page. There may never have been a better time to write that piece you’ve always wanted to write, to develop that idea that’s been waiting on the sideline the entire game.

The consolation of storytelling

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We’re living through an international emergency, whose real hideous face we have yet to see. But in every emergency, there is something to find consolation in.

Boethius had his own personal emergency as he was waiting on death row for the vagaries of a capricious king. He made wisdom his consolation and welcomed its arrival in the guise of Lady Philosophy. His stoicism assured his fame over the centuries, and although many drew water from his well, we find it hard today to identify with his predicament.

Dante found brief consolation in revilement. It soon became clear to him that one must rise above spite and embrace the beauty of the universe, which stands above the stench of the sublunar world. The Inferno was a misguided starting point, but an existentially unavoidable induction. We cannot endorse his ill-advised solace these days, however bitter the exile and however great the loss. He learned, and we know, that love governs all and disarms all evil.

But perhaps there is someone we can consider our fellow in distress. I submit to you Giovanni Boccaccio. Perhaps our generation may find no better instructor in the art of consolation through the power of jest and storytelling than him: the master of memorable memes, the architect of razor-sharp raillery, the one who truly knew how to keep his social distance from pretension and disdain. He can instruct us on how to flee the plague of our own sanctimony, how to minimise contagion with self-importance and how to tell a bloody good story in times of trouble, when there are cracks and tears in everything, from the social fabric to our immune system. The Decameron is the decalogue for a world out of joint, of exposed inequalities and pain, where to flee is not so much about running away from danger, but finding shelter on a common pilgrimage, with others under the arcades, for sharing a piece of bread, a glass of wine and the best story you’ve ever had to tell.

A medieval guide against epidemics

As the viral crisis deepens, it feels inappropriate to broach any other topic then the epidemic, seriously or in jest. We’ve learned a lot from the past, and the present holds lessons that we might hope to learn in the years to come. The 14th century may not have a lot to teach us in the way of preventing a national pandemic, but it has the benefit of fumigation: bringing a nice aroma into the room without killing the pathogens. Here’s my rant and my aroma:

  1. It’s the air, stupid! Whatever the pestilence might be and wherever it may strike, the biggest problem is contagion. And that is because the disease is in the air. At the moment, nearly everything is in the air – except perhaps the airplanes. For the medieval naturalist, the mortiferous disease causes the air to become corrupt and thus enables its transmission from one person to another. Contagion was recognised pretty quickly by those who tried to understand the plagues striking European lands in the Middle Ages.
  2. Hygiene is everything. When self-isolation doesn’t work, fleeing the hotbeds of infection may be the best option. In any case, one has to take decisive action. Fumigation is purifying. One 14th-century advice reads: “Therefore let your house be clean and make clear fire of wood flaming. Let your house be made with fumigation of herbs, that is to say with leaves of bay tree, juniper, wormwood, rue, mugwort and of the wood of aloes which is best but it is dear. Such a fume taken by the mouth and ears opens the inward parts of the body.”
  3. Monocausality fails. Although many tried to explain epidemics through a single cause, the thinkers in the medieval West came up with a large number of possible causes. Many such causes were religious, some scientific, while others were man-made: engineered diseases, the imperfect equivalent of our designer bugs and synthetic virology. In the latter category fall, to our old continent’s endless shame, those who blamed the Jews for poisoning the water or food supply.
  4. Lifestyle changes are inevitable. You can’t go living like nothing has happened, wherever you may find yourself on the social and economic ladder. The impact of an epidemic is universal, whether we’re dealing with an agricultural or post-industrial, globalised society. Everyone depends on everyone, and to run away is just to be oblivious to the common good, which belongs to everyone. However, if you must run away, do it in style, like Boccaccio’s unhappy crew.
  5. Hellfire for swindlers and exploiters.

Reader hygiene

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There is no reason the current crisis should disrupt your reading habits. Here are six rules to keep every reader healthy and calm:

1. Avoid licking your index finger when turning the pages of your book when you’re outside. Actually, avoid licking your fingers altogether.

2. Keep your secrets secret, your cards close to your chest and the book even closer to your face to avoid contamination. If you don’t have a surgical mask and you’re next to an infected person, the book may be your only hope.

3. Hoard books, not toilet paper. If it comes to universal self-isolation, you’ll get bored more often than the times you’ll need to go to the toilet. Invest wisely, plan accordingly.

4. Carry a book with you at all times while outside. This way, you’ll avoid touching infected surfaces.

5. Following from rule no 4, persuade other book-carrying individuals to offer the spinal salute: similar to the elbow salute which has taken over the world, the spinal salute involves touching books at their spine. The thicker the book, the more vigorous the salutation.

6. Seek breathtaking books as you are less likely to inhale contaminated droplets in the air. Through suspense and breathtaking beauty, a book may reduce the chances of infection. The less you breathe, the better.

And above all, stay safe, keep calm and read on.