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.

Species of intolerance

Like the laws of nature, intolerance pursues its own constant in history. Every age has had its own intolerance. The rolling down of history, to avoid the reified concept of progress, has never done away with prejudice. While it may have reduced it in some parts and in some ways, it also managed or allowed it to spawn new forms each time. Forms which are not really new. The species of intolerance have always been the same. In this brief note, I wish to outline some of the species of intolerance which our modern, post-industrial age has practised, just as any previous premodern pre-industrial culture.

    Category error. This includes what may be called genre error. Our commitment to divisions in the field of human expression (written vs oral, satire vs ‘serious’ discourse, ‘fiction’ vs ‘fact’, etc) has always allowed criticism devoid of empathy to issue denunciations by mistaking one category for another. Satirists and all their latter-day iterations (comedians, hybrids of discourse) have always been accused of false consciousness, ill-intent and violence by virtue of confusing their modus operandi. This has been made possible because of …
    Suspicion. Philosophers have often defined modernity as the age of suspicion. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are usually hailed (or denounced) as the archpriests of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Yet, it may be shown that all ages had their practicians of suspicion. The medieval theologian accused of heterodoxy, the ancient philosopher accused (and sentenced to death) of upsetting the ‘natural’ order were the victims of such mistrustful watchdogs. And most often, it was intolerance, rather than understanding, patience and affection, which fueled the condemnation.
    Suppression. Intolerance doesn’t have time for appeals. Its justice is as summary as it is exemplary. Suspicion is impatient, afraid that clarity may expose it for what it is, rash and partial. Intolerance is hygienistic: once committed to a course of action, it cannot allow rejoinders for fear of spreading further the suspected disease. The cancelling culture we witness today and which cuts across the ideological spectrum, is a subspecies of this kind of intolerance which is intolerant to dialogue, exchange and co-existence. It is a form of imperialism. Whether it’s about de-platforming a speaker or writing off someone for something they said or wrote without the willingness to enter into dialogue with them, intolerence does what it does best: suppressing voices and hanging effigies in the dead of night.

Take my breath away

Covered in beauty: The jeweled cover of the Lindau Gospels, around 875 (Morgan Library).

Part of the appeal of books through the ages has been their materiality. While there is evidence of readers and book owners extolling a book’s content in terms of textual quality, reliability and accuracy, there is far more evidence of readers and book owners just marvelling at the beauty of the artefact. Even today, most researchers of manuscripts are fascinated with the artefact than with the text (pace all the philologists out there). And beside scholars and researchers, all of us marvel at an ancient papyrus fragment or a medieval manuscript, even without knowing what the text is.

There is something powerful in the packaging. In that, we are not that different from the medievals.

Medieval books tended towards beauty. Resources and budget allowing, a book tended to be more than a book – more than the sum total of its pages. An object of beauty, an embodiment of the ideals of an age: light, colour, density, gravity-defying substance.

We’ve always understood that books are there to take our breath away. To point beyond themselves while not retreating off-stage.

Beautiful books, an unchallenged pleonasm.

Happy New Year

Old wineskins. New wines. Old scripts, new words.

May 2021 bring new parchment, new ink, new rubrics, new initials, and everything else a scribe needs to start anew – or move on to the next chapter.

Although sometimes the old is better than the new, and going back feels like moving forward. 20-21 holds up the promise of a forward march, but many of us would like a return to something we had, and was lost in the bedlam of 2020.

Thank you all for your support and for making it possible for Biblonia to enter the New Year. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Start counting back

Roman and medieval countdowns: Highlighted: V, IIII, III, PRID[IE] (the day before) KL (Kalends) refer to the last days in December (5th, 4th, 3th and the day before the kalends of January, 1st of January) from a 9th century manuscript (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 459)

In a few hours, many of us will be counting backwards to welcome the new year.

The New Year Countdown. They may cancel the fireworks but not the countdown.

2020 has been the year of counting. Counting Covid infections, casualties, the public debt, the cost to national economies.

Let us count our blessings instead. And keep counting back.

The Romans used to count back the days all the time. The Roman calendar was a perpetual countdown. Instead of 10, 11 and 12 December, for example, they would mark these days as the fourth, third and second day before the Ides of December, respectively. The Ides of each month (13th or 15th day of the month) were one of the three fixed points in the Roman calendar, alongside the Kalends (1st of the month) and the Nones (the 5th or the 8th day of the month). Every other day was counted backwards relative to one of these reference points. 31 December was the day before the kalends of January, the 1st of January.

There is no final countdown. The clock keeps ticking.

See you on the other side.

Medieval inc.

The Middle Ages were full of bodies and heads. Bodies politic, corporations, incorporations, heads of ecclesiastical institutions, secular and regular bodies. The metaphor of the body was key to understanding everyone’s place in society, and the societies’ place in the universe.

The medieval world was breathing through the bodies of countless societies and organisations. Most of these organisations are still there, but the bodies are gone. The language of the abstract body or corpus has survived though. Companies still get incorporated, and businesses often have too many heads to count. Some people embody some ideas and values, corporate or not.

The body is a given, not an extra, and not a choice. Before 17th-century rationalism severed the mind from the body, cutting the caput from the corpus, the two relied on each other. The West had never managed to adjudicate between monism and dualism – the bodies got in the way. Plato and St Paul may have had their ideas about which ruled which, but embodiment, especially in the medieval Christian tradition, forestalled any attempts at reducing the body to the spirit/mind, or vice versa.

The age of disembodiment is upon us. Obviously, from a cultural-imaginative point of view only. Humans can’t thrive without bodies however much we seem to buy into the cyber-metaphors of late. You may see yourself like a stream of data running from node to node in an intricate network, or a pixel on the huge LED canvas of the world, but at the end of the day (and of many days, unfortunately), your body gets in the way, and then you realise that we’re all incorporated.

Endangered letters

Imagine what it must have been like to own one of the largest libraries in the West at a time when books were rarer and thinner than the air on mount Everest; and to do it in the knowledge that you are safeguarding one of humanity’s most valuable capital: knowledge and culture, truth and beauty.

Despite the numerous cultural, social and political disruptions of the past several thousand years, our failing imagination cannot conjure up any other icons of cultural disarray than end-of-the-world storylines, environmentalist on/off-switch dystopias.

For the 9th-century Frankish abbot Lupus of Ferrières, the state of European letters was apocalyptic. The classical past was truly passed, and it was up to a handful of men, Lupus included, to salvage the literary achievements of Antiquity. In the manner of a figure of the Renaissance, Lupus blurred the boundaries between scholarship, politics and philosophy. He recovered, copied and corrected old texts and manuscripts, exchanged letters with other scholars and leaders of the time and shaped the political culture of the post-Carolingian age. Inspired by a genuine love of the classics, Lupus was one of the earliest to recognise the double helix of Europe’s cultural DNA: the classical past and the Christian present.

Lupus contributed to what is commonly known as the Carolingian Renaissance, an age of cultural recalibration and self-rediscovery through a renewed connection with the classical past. Central to any renaissance is the recognition of endangered letters, the awareness of systemic decadence and the hope for renewal. Lupus understood all of these things and sought to relight the beacons of the past. He may not have managed to relight them all, but he paved the way for future scholars to continue his work. Whether spiritual or secular, or secular because of spiritual, Europe’s continuous renewal would become the driving force of its history. Perhaps the old continent is in need of a new Lupus of Ferrières.

Ancient street food

The counter of the newly-discovered thermopolion in Pompeii (Photo by Luigi Spina/Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP)

The Internet is buzzing with news about the discovery of a thermopolion in the ruins of Pompeii. The media are rushing to bridge the gap between the Roman street food culture and our own.

‘What did the Romans ever do for us? They gave us street food’, I’ve seen it printed half a dozen times recently. From the thermopolia cook-shops (thermo for hot and poleo for ‘to sell’) to tavola calda and metropolitan fast-food joints, the arrow flies straight.

The remains of thermopolia wouldn’t impress modern observers much if it weren’t for the counters with their sunken jars called dolia, where food and drinks were stored. ‘Burying’ the jars into the stone counter provided some refrigeration, preserving the food for (slightly) longer. The Romans did think of everything.

But the thermopolia hide – or disclose, depending how you look – a distressing truth. Most people didn’t have a suitable kitchen. And that has always been the curse of big cities, whether ancient or modern. For those city-dwellers who had a kitchen and perhaps a slave to cook for them, the thermopolia were an unnecessary institution – and a dangerous one to boot, as it promoted drunkenness and lewd behaviour. On the other hand, for those living in the squalid apartments known as insulae, the thermopolia provided an essential service, the only way they could get a hot meal during the day.

The history of restaurants, fast-food, street food and other types of non-domestic food are closely linked to a population’s access to kitchens. Big cities can’t provide a kitchen to every resident, but they can offer a sandwich, some Roman lentils or a cup of mulled wine to everyone for a penny. So the thermopolion will always be there as long as cities stay busy.