Are we complicit?

Human law has always understood the concept of complicity. Every legal tradition has struggled with the problem of how to deal with those who encourage, help and abet others to commit a crime. Under Roman law, accomplices were treated as if they themselves were the perpetrators. In common law, complicity is a recognised type of criminal liability, and the distinction originally made between a principle perpetrator and an ‘accessory’ perpetrator, i.e. accomplice, no longer holds. Juridical complicity is a recognition that guilt can be shared even indirectly, and that responsibility spills beyond the confines of the simple question: ‘who did it?’.

While criminal justice doesn’t find complicity hard to grasp and to apply, our wider culture still tries to come to grips with the idea that a certain outcome, a certain trajectory a society has taken is the result of the complicity of wider groups. In the realm of cultural responsibility, I think we are reluctant to establish indirect scopes of liability. Who is responsible for racism in the US? Who was responsible for the temporary success of the German Nazi state? What about the endurance of corruption and venality in post-communist Romania?

In particular, our assessments tend to form webs of direct liability. A particular political figure, a government, a party or a social group may be responsible for whatever we want to commend or condemn. As for wider groups, a community or even nation as a whole, cultural complicity, insofar as it really exists, dissolves into implicity – which falls beyond the scope of liability. In other words, we don’t tend to blame large groups when smaller ones are available, and especially when we who pass the judgment are part of those wider groups. How many people in present-day Romania believe that the issues plaguing the country are the result of silent complicity of the larger population before and after 1989? How many Americans, I wonder, think that pretty much everyone is responsible today for the racial evils of the past and present because of quiet complicity over the years and decades? As more voices raise in defence of the idea that it’s not enough not to be racist, but one has to be anti-racist, the issue of cultural complicity becomes ever more relevant.

One of the earliest to understand the indirect links of responsibility was the ancient Greek (in fact Assyrian) satirist Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD). Lucian understood quite well that there are subtle and unacknowledged links of complicity running through our culture. Writing about the origin of wealth and inequality, he is not at all implicit about complicities:

My view, however, is that the flatterers are more of a disgrace than those who are flattered; in fact the flatterers are almost responsible for the arrogance of the flattered. For when they express admiration for these men’s wealth, and praise their gold, and crowd into their gateways early in the morning, and come up to them and address them as if they were masters, what else should we expect them to think? But if by common agreement they were to abstain, even for a little while, from this voluntary slavery, do you not think on the contrary that the rich men would come to the doors of beggars, imploring them not to leave their wealth unviewed and unwitnessed, not to allow the beauty of their tables and the size of their houses to remain pointless and unappreciated. For what they are in love with is not being rich, but being admired for being rich. the truth is, a very beautiful house is of no use to the inhabitant, nor is gold and ivory, unless there is someone to admire them (Nigrinus 23).

Ancient echo chambers

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Echo and Narcissus, British Library, Harley MS 4431, f, 134r (c. 1410 AD)

The good thing about social media, they say, is that it promotes dialogue and exchange. And there’s no better way to test views and ideas than through disputation and scrutiny. Except that social media, as you’re surely aware, doesn’t really do that. Instead, it sets up bastions of like-mindedness. Like-mindedness had been there long before Zuckerberg invented the ‘like’ neo-speak. Cultural echo chambers had been acknowledged millennia before social platforms started collecting friends and turning away incompatibles.

Niketes of Smyrna (mid 5th century AD), the first of the sophists from the ancient Roman period, understood the risk of echo-chambers. It was said of him that

he seldom came forward to speak in the Assembly, and when the people accused him of being afraid he said, “I fear the people when they are exalting me more than when they abuse me.” (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 1.19, 511)

An abusive, though not unreasonable, translation would say that Niketes feared the people when they gave him likes more than when they banned and blocked his account.

Echo chambers amplify and multiply existing views, but they don’t often diversify the range of opinions. They are ‘feel-good’ spaces which reinforce convictions and banish doubt. Soundproof enclosures, they are the enemies of dialogue, for an exchange between perfectly aligned voices is nothing more than plainchant.

Echo the ancient nymph once fell in love with Narcissus, but because of her curse, she could not tell him how she felt. All she could do was echo his words, and she soon repelled him. She retreated in a forest, where she can still be heard – her own echo chamber, though closer to us than we might think.

Historical blindness

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Augustine writing at his desk in a 15th century from Urbino, Vatican, BAV,

This late-medieval Italian illustration of St Augustine writing at his desk highlights two of our many misconceptions about pre-modern cultures:

  1. that these cultures were wholly different from ours (this is the first step towards a second, which says that anything of value, we’ve come up with it);
  2. that artefacts from these cultures obey the rules our own artefacts obey. The result is short-sightedness, which is really a form of historical blindness.

In one case, we assume we’re too different. In the other, that the way we ‘read’ texts and media today has always been the same for everyone at any point in the past. We bounce between over-relativism and imperialism, without leaving either behind. Let me explain.

With respect to 1) – Augustine was a first-rate scholar who developed his own ideas in response or reaction to schools and traditions of thought. No other author from the classical period is known to have written more than Augustine, and he surely used, read, consulted even more books than he wrote in developing and writing his own. In depicting Augustine surrounded by other books, the artist reveals the fact that things were not that different in the 15th century, when this illumination was completed, and Augustine scholars reassure us that we should indeed imagine Augustine consulting countless other books and in dialogue with other authors and textual traditions. Augustine is very far, but also very close to our own time, and insofar as he was a scholar, he was one that modern scholars may feel as one of their own.

With respect to 2) – In this illustration, as in most, if not all, medieval depictions of writers and scribes, there is an uncomfortable scarcity of books wherever writers happen to work (I refer you to a tentative classification of scribal portraits I came up with some while back). We can see the book the writer is in the process of writing, another he/she may be reading/copying/working from, perhaps yet another on some shelf, but that’s it. Personal libraries seem undersupplied. Raised as we are on the knees of photographical art, on the one hand/knee, and realist cultural hermeneutics, on the other, we expect all depictions to respond to the double requirement of realism and true-to-lifeness which describes our modern sensitivity. We approach pre-modern art with the same cultural-relativism-vitamin deficiency, however much we tell ourselves that each culture should be approached on its own terms, as generations of anthropologists and ethnologists have taught us. In the case of poor Augustine above, we know, as I pointed out earlier, that he used a very large part of the existing body of written works at the time, and also that he wrote enough books to fill a room – not shelves – with. Ancient and medieval artists were more sensitive to the power of the metaphor than we are, and metonymy (the substitution of one part for the whole, or one attribute for the thing itself) played a far larger part for the medieval consciousness in the way reality was represented. The medieval reflex was metonymical, ours is photographical. The medievals conveyed a multiplicity of books on Augustine’s shelf through a handful, we expect a room full of books to be, well, a room full of books.

The longue durée

Ever since Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), the concept of the longue durée (long-term structures) has become one of the dominating concepts in the history of history, historiography, the study of how the past becomes history.

According to the longue durée, the historical event fades in the face of the extended period in which the process, the development, the cycle, the evolution deploys its significance to the discerning eye.

According to the longue durée, the periodization in history is irrelevant. The ancient world doesn’t end with the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages doesn’t come to an end in 1492, modernity doesn’t start in the Renaissance.

It also means that inventions are not merely inventions, but parts of larger wholes, constituents of broader developments: Gutenberg wouldn’t have invented the printing press: printing began with coinage, with gold-smithery, engraving and the scribal culture. In fact, no-one invented anything, nothing was born overnight, demarcations are useless. Instead of lines, areas of interference. Instead of points, lines and circles. Everyone is part of a large context, and every context is part of a structure.

The longue durée has been one of the most successful and enduring concepts in historiography. Once Braudel introduced this approach, it was hard for historians to go back to how they used to think about history. Once you’ve seen 100 rivers flowing into one, it’s hard to think it’s all just one big river.

Poetry, wine and death

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The imposing mosaic from the Château de Boudry showing a Roman banquet or symposium set in an asarotos oikos (unswept room) where the debris from a meal lies on the floor.,58,105

The link between poetry, love and death was well established in ancient times. Eros-thanatos is a recurrent theme of ancient lyric poetry. Wine, however, doesn’t usually come into the equation. The so-called sympotic poetry of the archaic age of Greek literature brings poetry in the midst of wine drinking parties or symposia (literally drinking-together), but death doesn’t get to join the banqueters on the reclining couches.

Except for one occasion, when death makes an unusual entry, dissolving the link between poetry and wine. This is the story of Dionysius I, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse, who died in 367 BC.

Sic semper tyrannis wouldn’t really apply to him. Having established himself as the ruler of Sicily and parts of southern Italy, Dionysius didn’t really live up to his godly namesake (Dionysus the god of wine, among other things) when he got a little bit too excited.

There are good-vintage ancient tyrants, who can hold their drink, but there are also corked rulers who just overdo it and suffer the consequences.

According to a story which many historians consider spurious, Dionysius was keen to have his poems recited at the Olympic Games, but they weren’t so well received. So he tried Athens instead, sending one of the tragedies he’d written to be performed at the Lenaea festival, the annual dramatic competition. It was such a success that the tyrant, on hearing the news, drunk himself to death. Some tyrants perish by their own sword, others by their own liquor. The potency of the cocktail of poetry and wine should never be underestimated. Especially Sicilian wine.


The neo-scroll turn

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We are so surrounded by books that we forget how revolutionary the emergence of the codex – the bound book made up of stitched sheets stacked together and enclosed between a case – was to the cultures around the Mediterranean and beyond. The book as we know it.

Writing predates the advent of the book by several millennia, but the success of the latter was no less momentous than the invention of script. In the history of human culture, there was a scriptural turn in around 3200 BC, but also a codex turn around the 2nd century AD. That’s when the parchment codex began to replace the papyrus scroll, an Egyptian invention, in areas around the Mediterranean. The world of writing, reading and study wouldn’t be the same again.

The codex proved a superior technology in two key areas: resistance and handling/searchability. The leaves of animal skin which the codex quickly incorporated (literally) fared better in humid climates, away from the sands of Egypt and neighbouring regions. Vellum is still the most resilient soft writing material with its low tear-and-wear factor and slow burning property. For example, it’s a lot easier to destroy a piece of papyrus or delete a magnetic or digital file than it is to burn a scrap of parchment. The codex is also easier to handle and the text written on pages (a feature of bound books) is easier to locate than a scroll/roll is to unravel or a particular piece of text inscribed on a membrane (the ‘page’ of a scroll) is to find. On the other hand, scrolls are more space-efficient and easier to carry or conceal.

The fortune of the codex was such that the scroll meekly left the European stage, except for a stopover in medieval England and few other places, where scrolls were still used for government records. But even there, the poor searchability capacity of the scroll was quickly (re)recognised. It should also be said, however, that in Judaism, the scroll was never to lose its pre-eminent place as a sacred support.

More recently, however, we’ve witnessed a strange comeback of the scroll which may be called the neo-scroll. This is not a scroll in the traditional sense, but a new writing support which borrows heavily from the ancient exemplar: the webpage. I submit to you the fact that the webpage is a curious misnomer: the webpage should really be called a web-scroll, for that’s what it really is: an e-membrane unfurled endlessly on a digital roll. Our vocabulary acknowledges this simple fact: we don’t turn a webpage backwards and forwards, but we scroll it up and down. Yet, the fact that we call it a webpage testifies to the enduring success of the codex through the centuries. The internet, however, is not organised like a library of codices, but more like what I’d call a rollotek: countless (sc)rolls of text stitched together through hyperlinks.

The digital age beckoned the neo-scroll turn. Imagine navigating the web like flicking through the pages of a Kindle, it doesn’t really make sense. Instead, huge rolls are being deployed and unrolled with one or two of our fingers. The original searchability limitation has been circumvented by the power of instant search. Problem solved.

The codex turn might be turning a corner in many areas of modern literacy, but it does well to remind ourselves that writing didn’t start with the scroll or the codex, and it most likely won’t end with either. We need to keep the ball rolling, sorry, the page scrolling.

Knocking at each other’s door

The ancient Greek and Roman poets would be thrilled to learn that one of the key motifs of their poetry has become routine these days.

The world of lockdown is also one of paraclausithyron, the doleful cry of a lover standing at the beloved’s door, begging for entry and bewailing the exclusion. The ‘lament at the door’ is one of the enduring concepts of ancient erotic poetry. Think Romeo and Juliet, think Pyramus and Thisbe (R&J’s archetypes, in fact), or Dirty Dancing. Love often encounters a palisade, whether it be a metaphorical door, a mythical wall, or a genuine social-distancing measure.

For the Roman poets Horace and Tibullus, the door’s the enemy. For the other masters of the paraclausithyron, the enemy is that which causes the door, the wall, the separator, to isolate the two lovers. In our own inarticulate rendition of the motif, we blame the deus-ex-pestilentia of Covid-19 for prompting a daily paraclausithyron for our loved ones – we are all exclusi amatores, excluded lovers.

The lesson we learn from the ancient lovers’ conflict with the claustral door is that temporary separation should not lead to despair, but to hope and to a renewed desire for each other.

An offence against language

It is one of history’s gravest ironies that in a medieval world sanctioned by the modern observer with illiteracy, ignorance and obscurantism, the 10th-century grammar teacher Gunzo of Novara should be censured by his contemporaries for a Latin mistake he inadvertently made. To be sure, criticising a 19th-century scholar for bad philology or a 21st-century scientist for a faulty application of the scientific method is one thing, but maligning an 10th-century intellectual for getting his Latin wrong is like giving Clio,  the muse of history, an overdose of Prozac.

And yet, poor Gunzo had to enter history – and be stuck there – as the medieval grammarian who didn’t live up to his contemporaries’ high expectations. But what happened?

The little we know about Gunzo comes from the letter he wrote to defend himself against the libellous attack he sustained from the monks of the Abbey of St Gall in the Swiss Alps. Arriving at the abbey in the winter of 964, he let his grammar guard down and started chatting casually with the monks in the refectory. I imagine him over a nice cup of ale, not too pale to make him forget his Latin syntax, but stout enough to cause him to substitute an accusative for an ablative Latin word, which is actually what happened – the equivalent in Latin literate society of using ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’. He immediately realised that he was surrounded by purists for whom, he says in his letter, ‘to misplace a clause was a capital sin’. The jury decided and the judge ruled that Gunzo was guilty of lèse-majesté against language. The apologetic letter which followed was not so much apologetic as searing against St Gall, while affording, at the same time, an opportunity for Gunzo to let the monks of Reichenau, to whom the letter was addressed, know what a prodigious intellectual he was. In pitch-perfect oratorical style, Gunzo proudly explained that his error was not due to ignorance or carelessness, but to an excessive colloquial familiarity with Italian, which at that point was breaking away from Latin to become a language in its own right.

Palinodes or the courage to say ‘I was wrong’

Intellectual honesty is a virtue universally accepted, and any perceived departures from it are usually condemned. The ability to act on the available evidence and to speak one’s mind – truth and freedom –, are features of a healthy intellectual environment and the characteristics of an honest thinker. But often the evidence changes, the views shift, and the statements no longer apply. What you once considered truthful, reasonable and appropriate may not be the case anymore, and you might want to change your mind about it. If it’s something you’ve written, you might want to un-write it. If you can’t or won’t un-write it, then you might consider writing a palinode.

A palinode was originally a song, poem or ‘ode’ in which the writer withdrew a view expressed in an earlier work. Like most ancient words, the palinode (meaning ‘back-song’ in Greek) became a general concept for any work in which the author retracted an earlier view.

There are ancient examples of palinodes, but the historical record suggests that the practice of retracting one’s views in writing was quite popular in the Middle Ages. In a sense, the Western medieval period is bookended by two of the most remarkable palinodic gestures ever made: St Augustine’s Retractationes and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

St Augustine’s ‘Revisions’ (Retractationes in Latin, which ended up giving us the verb to retract or withdraw) were an opportunity for the great Christian thinker to revisit his earlier works in chronological order and occasionally review his views and position on many issues. Augustine died before he could finish the project, but, just like his Confessions, it foregrounded the issues of the self, of intellectual honesty and self-growth for subsequent centuries.

Dante, on the other hand, went even further and in his characteristically radical manner, cast Beatrice, the embodied (not allegorical, as in previous writers such as Boethius) female teacher in Paradiso, as his palinodic voice. Beatrice more than once modifies Dante’s view on different topics (from optics to theology), rendering the palinode in astounding versified dialogue whereby Dante the pilgrim/student is proved wrong by Beatrice-the-teacher and compelled through rational demonstration to recant his earlier, erroneous views.

Augustine and Dante’s palinodic writings offer us a glimpse into how these pre-eminent writers understood the evolution of their own thought. They hold up the promise that to be wrong on an issue is not a flaw, as long as you acknowledge it with openness and the commitment to rise above it.


The Romans always win until they don’t

One of the most fascinating inscriptions from ancient Rome is the so-called ‘Hisma inscription’. Written in Greek by someone named ‘Lauricius’ in probably the late 2nd century AD, it proclaims that: ‘The Romans always win’. The sandstone slab was found in South Jordan, in Roman Arabia, on the edge of the Empire.

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The Hisma Greek inscription (G. Tanner
‘Greek Epigraphy in South Jordan’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 83 (1990), p. 194)

The Romans kept winning until they stopped winning, and then the empire collapses into successor states. In the East, it became the Byzantine state centred around Constantinople. In less than 400 years, Lauricius’ statement became a museum piece. Roman Arabia was lost to the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the 610s.

Lauricius’ optimism is a historical constant. Every tribe, city, state, kingdom and empire at every point in history asserted its permanence and its ability to conquer the future tense. Always is a big word, but its never too big for those who believe tomorrow will be a reiteration of today. In retrospect, we smile, but we rush to make the same mistake. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success. This is true of school grades, economic estimates as well as political statements.

No amount of historical precedent will mitigate our enthusiasm for our world’s imperium sine fine, empire without end, as another epic optimist put it, the perdurability of the world as we know it. It is unlikely the world of the 2010s will survive the current crisis unscathed, yet most of us profess a belief in a ‘return to normality’, understood as a reversion to the status quo ante, the world as ‘before’. ‘We always win’ are words which seem to resound on the tongue of millions of modern-day Lauriciuses. But history doesn’t really care about our sandstone slabs, hopeful op-eds or dinner table optimism. Nothing is ever written in stone even if may be carved in stone. The museums are there to prove it.