A blogging adventure

Exactly a year ago I made the decision to revive this blog by posting a short article every day. My blogging adventure began with a promise: not to let a day pass without sharing a thought, an idea, a musing, however banal, about history, culture and the challenges of our late modernity.

The road has been long but gratifying. The challenge to find a topic each day, to build a readership, to captivate a few fellow travellers, has been more rewarding than I initially thought. There have been days spent staring at the blank screen, brief moments of creative panic as topics failed to present themselves or the fear of irrelevancy or triviality loomed large. But it paid off.

The process has also been a journey of self-discovery and growth. I learned about my readers as well as about myself. I understood what constitutes a gripping story and what doesn’t. I learned a lot about discipline and resilience, as I struggled to keep the dailies coming in every single day of the year, come rain or come shine. What began as a rather crude self-ativistic project ended in a desire to keep my readers interested, and I’d like to thank all of you who over the last 365 days have encouraged me to keep going.

So this anniversary post is dedicated to all of you who have subscribed, or who remember to visit this lonely corner every now and then. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I still can’t do it without your help, excitement and loyalty.

The adventure continues.

Living with the past

There are several ways of living with the past. One is to fetishize it and lock it in a museum, looking at it from the distance of an exhibit, a display which only serves to underline the gulf between ourselves and those who lived and died before us. The present is disconnected from the past, the past becomes untouchable history, to be studied, understood but kept away from. This is the past as patrimoine, an approach the French seem to be most skilled at.

Another way is to let it engulf us in ways in which it becomes unclear where the line between generations should be drawn, if it must be drawn at all. The ruins of the past are the garden in which we choose to build our house. There is no way of telling where our world begins and where theirs ends. This is the past as a decadent universe, which I find Italy to be one of the best representatives of.

Yet another way is to commodify it, which is to extract benefits from it, to turn it into a sightseeing tour, a mass of landmarks, a gallery of death masks for the sole purpose of entertainment. It is the past as theme park. It seems to be the British way.

One must also bear in mind the spirit of a society and the way in which the history of a place is understood by its inhabitants. Merchant societies tend to commodify the past, while those who may want to distance themselves from their past are more likely to museify their history, to look at it from the vantage point of a disinterested observer, the Romantic onlooker scrutinising the stormy sea from the safety of a rock.

Lifelines

The 12th-century church of St Peter of Portovenere appears before the unaware sailot

How many of us have witnessed the thrill but also the relief of spotting land in a sea of landlessness, of seeing the lights of the coast through the pitch-black night?

Lifelines are invisible but they are tangible.

They find us as much as we find them. And when we do find them, we hold on to them like sailors eyeing the landline. There’s nothing more urgent and more compelling than the assurance in the proximity of safety. This only makes sense when danger is real, when the end is in sight. Most of us don’t ever feel that, and none should. But at the same time, everyone must.

You look out for a stretch of land, the flickering of hope pushing your sails on, when suddenly you glimpse a broken line rising from the sea. The waves’ dominion has its limits, after all. A few moments later, you catch the din of bells of a distant church, and you wonder where you are, still on the sea or on your way beyond space and time. But the space is overwhelming, and you cling to that broken line like a rope thrown in the middle of the ocean. And you pull and pull and pull until you reach the shore. And then you look back and smile.

Tainted landscapes

The maquis overlooking the Golfo Dei Poeti outside La Spezia, Italy

For me, the quintessence of the Mediterranean landscape is the evergreen shrubland covering most of the lands around the sea, as well as those of its islands. This biome is known in French as ‘maquis’ and in Italian as ‘macchia’, hence the term maquis shrubland in English. In French, the word also designates metonymically the French resistance, whose rural guerilla fighters had initially taken refuge in the woods and the maquis during the Nazi occupation.

The maquis is everywhere, revealing and concealing the profusion of the Mediterranean’s natural energy. Its dark green tones are a welcome sign that the sea rules those lands. The wine-dark sea needs suitable chromatic companionship.

A cypress or a parasol pine tree breaks away from the maquis cluster on a hill or mountain top to remind us that one can make it on its own in those parts, that the Mare Nostrum has welcomes everybody.

The maquis is a brushstroke on the face of the earth, a stain made around the sea for the sake of beauty and contrast. The root of the word maquis is the Latin macula which means stain. The opposite of macula leads to immaculat, unstained, untouched, but it doesn’t really apply to the maquis, whose beauty is as unspoiled as it is enduring.

Your next caffe macchiato or morning maquillage will get you thinking about how stained (with shrubland, milk or makeup) the world really is.

Inconceivable

Imagine living in a world where human life is little esteemed, where no-one talks about ethical behaviour, where the human and animal are the only types of energy, where travel is slow and dangerous, where everyone looks exactly like you and the limits of available knowledge are very limited indeed. It’s hard to imagine living in such a world. If it wasn’t for history and education, we wouldn’t even know such worlds existed, that the past was home to such societies.

Every age has its own set of inconceivables. These are caused by the fact that each culture swims in its own waters, and it’s not enough for someone to just look around to understand where they really are, what they’re swimming in, and what lies beyond the sea, if anything.

That everyone and everything has a past is axiomatically true, but it’s not the same as saying that everyone knows their past. Most past remains unknown, whether personal or not. Saving takes energy, and more often than not we like to save energy than to dispense it on knowing the past.

The cultures of the past, too, couldn’t conceive of the things we take for granted in our time. They are not to blame for that. However, we are too blame for our lack of sensitivity towards the past, our indifference to it and avowed lack of understanding. The future can’t be conceived of, but the past can.

A matrix of conflict

It’s often very hard to break away from inherited ways of thinking. Like ways of thinking about the past. When it comes to conflict and power struggle, we tend to credit the modern period as an age of ideological competition and dismiss the ancient and medieval past, in Europe and elsewhere, as ages of antagonism between individuals and their followers. According to this reading, the distant past is about people less than about ideas,while the modern age is seen as having discovered the benefit of fighting for an idea and dying for a cause. And the truth is that the conflict of ideas has permeated European culture since the classical period. Conflict is so built into the European fabric that many historians have seen in the ideological fragmentation the key to Europe’s historical success.

Another received idea, perhaps as widespread as the previous one, is that the distant past was an age of stasis while reform, change and progress are notions which the moderns have invented. Most people associate the medieval period with an age of faith, which amount for many to the darkest moments of humanity’s long journey: persecutions, torture, censorship, monoculturalism, ignorance, intolerance, antiscientific, etc. Though no age is ever sheltered from any or all of the above, however enlightened, superior and liberal it might think it is, the medieval period was far more troubled than most of us imagine. Post-classical Europe was born of a multitude of parents, each with their own genetic material, expectations and potential. It took Europe more than a thousand years – and arguably that journey hasn’t ended – to understand its parentage and recognise its matrix. And that matrix turns out to be a tapestry of interweaved conflicts, ideas, philosophies, visions, approaches, agendas, out of which the West came out as strong, as vulnerable, as guilty, as repentant as that knowledge admitted. And it still comes out of it.

 

 

Mysteries and miracles

In a military age of conquest, the tacticians and the generals drive the culture. In an age of faith, the priests and the theologians are the cultural movers and shakers. In a commercial age, the managers set the rules of the game. We’ve been through all these ages, we’ve inherited everyone’s game, everyone’s rule-book, we’ve amassed a huge capital of leadership model – and we make the same mistakes, or put ourselves in new situations so that we can make the same mistakes all over again.

That is not so much because we are hopeless than the fact that the challenges remain always the same: how to reconcile freedom with order, pleasure with safety, the invisible with the visible, the individual with the group, etc. Something else which hasn’t changed is the belief that the old conundrum has been resolved, the ancient knot untied. Every age has the presumption to consider itself the last stop on the journey, the lâcheté to gaze at itself as the peak of decadence. Every age feels the prologue and the denouement beating in its chest, and the truth is that it has neither – it is a drop in a lake, moving from one river to another, flowing neither downstream nor upstream, but simply moving along. And that is a miracle and a mystery in itself.

The fine detail

A bird’s-eye-view is useful to get an idea about a large territory, to survey an extensive swathe of the canvas, but it should be abandoned as soon as precision is required.. And knowledge is about precision, about the large focal lens. After all, the devil, who knows it all, is in the detail.

Most of us, however, don’t have time for the small picture. The big picture is easier, airy, the bird’s eye looks down from an elevation which has the power to convince. We associate distance with objectivity, and objectivity with science. The big picture looks scientific. But most of the time, it isn’t. As we approach the fine detail, we realise it’s not only very fine, but quite elusive. It keeps moving, shifting, it’s hard to grasp and invisible to the naked eye. Tools are needed to distinguish it from its surroundings, to get to know it for what it is.

Nearly the whole field of knowledge is subject to this caveat, but perhaps history most of all. The historical picture looks neat from a distance, and that is why widescreen-type history books are so popular today. Explaining away big change, sweeping hundreds of years of change to fit into neat boxes is what fuels readerships today. But, as any historian working on their tiny little parcel of scholarship knows, things are messy when examined up close and the puzzle pieces seldom fit together. Question marks take more space than full stops.

 

Before the self-help book

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The opening page of the Enseignement de vraie noblesse ((The Instruction of True Nobility) in a manuscript from 1464. The Enseignement was a mirror for princes for the Burgundian court, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 166

I’ll be honest and say it straight: I don’t like self-help books, I think they are the opioid crisis of the book world. Everywhere I look, someone is reading or buying or thinking of buying, or talking about some book that promises to solve a problem in 10 steps, to provide 10 valuable lessons, to offer the truth on a plate or to give the lie to something which would take a library full of books to expound. But most fundamentally, self-help books sin through their anti-gravity claims. You can sort yourself out by picking yourself up by your bootstraps – when in fact you’re just lying down, craving to find someone to help you out.

That said, the truth is that this genre is not new. Critics of this type of books usually point to a crisis of the individual in Western societies who, having lost the traditional support networks, turns to herself in a desperate need for self-healing or self-improvement. That is partly true, but self-help literature goes deeper and farther than that. It was Plato who introduced the notion that knowledge is recollection, that discovery is the re-discovery of truth we’ve always known before we received our bodies and joined the visible world at birth. Knowledge doesn’t come from outside, it isn’t transcendental, it is within us, it is immanent. Philosophy is an activity turned towards the self.

Not everything in Western culture may be a gloss on Plato. An earlier type of self-help literature were the medieval instruction manuals to princes known as ‘mirrors for princes’ (specula principum). Textbooks are essentially self-help-ful, but the mirrors are particularly interesting as they offer wisdom for rulers: how a ruler should behave,  what they should do, what they shouldn’t. The mirror genre was extremely popular during the Middle Ages and included a huge number of works in which political leaders could find models of behaviour and answers to various problems and concerns laid out in a compendious and, often, sententious way. These leaders didn’t deprive themselves of masters and teachers, but consulted the mirrors in much the same way as 21st-century readers may approach a books like ‘How to be a better husband’ or manager.

Sacred writing

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The opening words of St Matthew’s Gospel in this 9th-century Gospel book from St Gallen contain one of the most common medieval ‘nomina sacra’ (sacred names), ‘IHV XPI’, an abbreviation for ‘Iesu Christi’, the Latin genitive case of Jesus Christ. The lines on top of ‘IHV’ and ‘XPI’ mark the abbreviation. Switzerland, St Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Vadianische Sammlung, adSlg Ms. 294 (f. 18r)

Sacred writing has always been a special category of script, obeying its own rules and subject to different constraints than most other types of (secular) writing. In the world of sacred words, humans may write, but the divinity inspires, leads, guides and impels the hand holding the quill. Sometimes, the divine takes full responsibility for the writing, like the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast recounted in the Book of Daniel of the Old Testament: mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Belshazzar’s kingdom is doomed.

God writes not only on walls, but in the sky as well. Dante Alighieri may have been the first to have divine words float in the heavens like the smoke of a skywriting plane. In Canto 18 of Paradiso, he witnesses the Latin words ‘DILIGITE IUSTITIAM QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM’ (Love justice you who rule the world) suspended in space in the heavenly sphere of Jupiter. The words are embodied in the sense that they are made up of the heavenly bodies of the souls inhabiting the sphere, who cluster together to create the script.

When God doesn’t write or cause any writing to be inscribed on surfaces or ether, scribes take up the challenge of creating sacred spaces for divine writing. This can take many forms. In the Jewish tradition, scribes often use gold leaf when writing the unpronounceable/unwritable name of G-d in the Torah. In the medieval Christian tradition, scribes used special abbreviations known as nomina sacra (sacred names) for words associated with the triune God. The abbreviation was signalled by a line written over the letters : ΘΣ for God (Θεός), IC XC for Jesus Christ (Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) or SPS SCS for the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus).

Most types of sacred writing practices have disappeared in the modern period. The only one to have survived that I can think of is that of capitalising the first letter in the name of God. This may arguably be more a case of personalising the name of God than preserving a form of nomen sacrum, but the distinction between upper-case and lower-case may also point to one of the last scriptural sacred spaces available.