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.

Screwtape in lockdown

A new letter has surfaced from the boiling depths of Sheol. Screwtape’s muddled signature has been found on the dismal document. We’re publishing it here for the first time.

My dear Wormwood,

It’s been a while since my last letter to you, and I fear you may be thinking I’ve forgotten about you, our mission and our common purpose. And with the world being upside down, you might even think our job is done.

You may think this year has been like none our devilish syndicate can remember of recent date. But thank Nimrod for our archives. If you check our Dark Annals, you’ll find that 2020 is nothing compared to what our *Hadestic* ancestors witnessed centuries ago. Perhaps we’re becoming like these damned mortals, stuck in an eternal present, judging our current plight by our recent success and discounting our long-term achievements. Rest assured, things are going well for us. However, I do wish to make a few suggestions for you and your team on how to conduct operations in the months to come. The decisions are yours, of course. I wouldn’t dare impinge on your unholy jurisdiction. Still, for the sake of the sweet odium you bear me and that I bear you, I submit these words to your membraneous yet judicious ears.

You’ve always valued my opinion of humanity’s almost relentless quest for self-destruction. You must act fast. The old Enemy has granted us a fantastic opportunity during this international crisis. Make no mistake, the ‘crisis’ you hear about is nothing except what we make of it and what humans make of it. Our Alternative Futures Department you’ve heard rumours about has come up with some distressing models. They’ve warned of a slight, actually minuscule, probability for the world to come out stronger from its current predicament. But I don’t want to dwell on this, only to point out that your job and mine is to prevent those models from becoming a reality. To do that, we need to make sure humanity takes as much poison out of these circumstances as possible.

And to put your mind at ease, it’s been confirmed at the highest corporate level that Covid was not our doing or that of our Enemy. It happened for reasons not even our Chief Sibylline Incubus could have predicted.

As I said, things are going well for us. We’ve managed to create a sense of fear in our patients, making them forget about the big picture that our Enemy had for decades helped them develop. And it is remarkable that without lifting a finger, we’ve had so much booty delivered right to our doorstep. I’m not referring to the poor souls who died on hospital beds or away from them in conditions our overground patrons find ignominious. I’m talking about all of those who, though still above, are shoring up our future outcomes market share.

Don’t get put off by the numerous gestures of compassion and kindness that seem to cool down the temperature of our hellish abode. Focus on those who are *reaping* the rewards of their fellows’ misfortune – and our bonanza! For one, I never thought that so much inequality could be achieved without any help from us. Sometimes I think that perhaps instead of treating humans as future guests, we should sub-contract them for the job entrusted to us. But I digress, dear Wormwood, and we have no time to waste.

They think they’ve found a cure for their calamity: a jab, new leadership, new faces, more technology, all there to restore the world to its previous state. But, my cacodaemonic brother-in-arms, they’re in for a big surprise. Our CSI (Chief Sibylline Incubus) has assured us that the world they’ll inherit is nothing like the one they thought they previously had. There’s no going back, and to know this is to understand what unique opportunities lie in store for us. My advice to you:

* Play on the humans’ inability to extract themselves from the shackles of the past and to recognise a new challenge when they see one.

* Let them focus on the wrong things – wrong for them, of course, but right for us.

* Remember that battles are one thing, and the war is another. You can win the latter by losing the former.

After all, this is what our department’s mission statement has always been. But most of all, my dearest Wormwood, let them find fewer and fewer things on which they can agree. You don’t need to come up with new resources; what you need is already there, in their lives, on their smartphones.

Their lockdown is our blessing. If we can’t push mortals to act violently on each other, let us prevent all human contact altogether. I have to tell you, we were a bit surprised how easily they embraced this sudden isolation; how quickly they put their trust in technology to take them through the ordeal; how few of them were alarmed at the inhumanity of it all. How wonderful. We were hard at work figuring out how to best engineer conformity at scale when we noticed that things were moving in our direction without any input from us.

I won’t pop the champagne just yet, though. They can always come to their senses and acknowledge the importance of what they call embodiment – something I can’t understand, nor do I want to. A rotten spirit is enough for me, imagine dealing with a rotten body as well.

So far, most of our efforts have focused on helping our future clients make the wrong decisions for the right reasons. There’s no greater joy in Hell than when injustice is committed in the name of equity. when harm has been done in the name of love. We’ve always been against naked violence and hatred, simply because that kind is never long-lasting. What we want is pervasive yet vapid evil under cover of virtue. But surely you know this already.

It’s worth pointing out that we’ve always been the best at blurring the lines, so it should be easy for you to diminish their clarity on the issues that matter to our Enemy. You might want to try using the *Bracket*. It’s always worked. If you remember, the Bracket is our proprietary app that enables our patients to bracket off the complexity of reality favouring simple views in line with our Directorate. For instance, use the app to help them understand that their crisis is not a symptom of the world they live in, compounded by the very things they built for themselves, such as the false sense of security, complaisance, self-righteousness, over-reliance on technology at the expense of human relationships and the like. Use the *Bracket* to give them that revered sightlessness which makes our work so much easier.

I feel I need to insist that drastic measures ought to be avoided. We don’t want to make our rotting clients know that the crisis is more significant than it looks; that its implications go farther than what their pundits have been suggesting. That everything plays out in the short term. Keep them away from long-haul thinking, make them overlook the profound consequences of the confinement. Most importantly, distract them from addressing the evil at the core. That’s the evil we care about, the cloven rock on which our temple is built. Let their words be immense and their ideas minuscule.

By no means should you try to stifle their debates. Our leadership is happy with the way their interactions have evolved over the years. They should be allowed to maintain their current glide path. The cacophony we hear above the Hot Crust, the buzzwords and the hashtags are music to our ears, as you can imagine. So let’s hear more of that. After all, the noisier their communication is, our patients are less likely to listen to themselves and shirk back in shame. And that’s something we certainly don’t want. It would make our Enemy so happy, and we’d lose yet another battle. But remember what I said about battles.

I’m confident we shall win the war, but we have to be strategic and not make the same mistakes our future guests have made. Once upon a time, we were led to believe that the way to extend our hospitality rules to our patients was to whisper in their ears and put up an occasional appearance. We’ve since understood that the way forward towards increased market capitalisation is to keep a low profile. We’ve pursued this strategy for centuries, and it’s now paying dividends. Our patients have no knowledge of us, despite our machinations. And I’m sure you know, my Stygian comrade, how keen we are to boost their ignorance. So the directive remains in place: you are not to give any indication of our presence. Besides, they’ve fashioned so many earthly fiends to fight against that even if descended, like a Diabolus ex Machina, in the midst of their affairs, they wouldn’t notice us. So it’s better to let them fight each other rather than focus their attention on us.

It’s that time of the year again, my putrid Wormwood, when our future guests try to emphasise love and compassion in their lives and those of their neighbours. You may not like my advice, but I urge you to let them be. We see this every year, but it’s nothing more than the seasonal flu for us. Despite their efforts or the appearance of action, these humans don’t seem to capitalise on these feelings. They go around making presents, singing and eating together. Still, the black magic of 1 January means that they’re back in the stinky soup, hating and blaming each other, whence we fish them out when the time is ripe.

I conclude this letter, my favoured imp nephew, with an expression of my Hell-deepest gratitude for your affection and loyalty over the years. I know we are family, but the bonds of rancour and bile have brought us closer in ways only our Infernal Father can understand. And since I mentioned him, you will be happy to know that your efforts have been acknowledged in the Chthonic Citadel. Our Father and Leader was particularly impressed with how you managed to spoil the friendship of so many weaklings up there during the lockdown season. You have expertly driven wedges across and between communities, all in the name of justice and peace. We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome and a more practical application of our age-old tactics.

I look forward to your Plutonic reply.

Yours,

Screwtape

In defence of misspelling

Although writing was invented over 5,000 years ago, orthographical standards and the strict rules governing how words are written are quite a recent development. Ancient scribes didn’t much care about spelling. The manuscript cultures of the past were rather liberal about the way words ought to be written. Many words in ancient Greek and Latin, for instance, existed in multiple spellings without anyone worrying about errors and mistakes.

Ancient poetry cared more about meter than about spelling. An incorrect verse was one where the words didn’t ‘scan’, meaning that they didn’t fit the poetic pattern that the author had intended. But as long as spelling didn’t interfere with meter, variant forms of a word were allowed to co-exist, sometimes even in the same text. When the scholars of ancient Alexandria standardised Homer’s epic poems, they legislated on the right sequence of words, not on their spelling. It was only after the Renaissance and with the birth of textual criticism that spelling and textual purity became a standard weight in the West. The manuscripts in which Dante’s Divine Comedy circulated from the 14th to the 16th century contain so many spelling variants that it is impossible to establish the ‘correct text’. The same goes for most ancient and medieval literary works.

Two things contributed to the modern pursuit of orthographical correctness: Latin and the printing press.

When Latin ceased to be the maternal language of any people in Europe – as it had been under the Roman republic and empire –, Latin became an artificial language with precise rules whose life as well as transmission was assured by the written medium alone.

The fluidity of the manuscript page, where every scribe could introduce errors into the text they were copying, came to a halt with the printed book. The monolithical nature of the printed page, where copies are identical to each other, meant that in the long run the mind became accustomed to writing standards and norms of correctness.

If misspellings had been seen as the features of an open written culture where words were allowed to grow organically, so to speak, beginning with the modern period, they have been increasingly regarded as symptoms of ignorance and faulty literacy, which education and scholarship were designed to weed out.

From Anaximander to Alexa

Hey, Alexa, what’s the origin of scientific thinking?

In the 6th century BC, Miletus may have been a small Greek city on the Ionian coast, but some people there were thinking big ideas. Thales has widely been regarded as the father of philosophy, even though most of us today remember him for his theorem. More important than his personal contribution to thinking and the history of philosophy, however, was the establishment of a school of thought indebted to him: the Milesian school, home to the first Presocratic thinkers. The philosopher Anaximander, also from Miletus, was one of Thales’ closest disciples – and a name Alexa should be well-acquainted with.

The history of science in the West starts with the Milesian school and with Anaximander. The latter is said to have produced the first map of the known world, the archetype of all subsequent mappaemundi, Europe at the top, Asia to the right, Africa at the bottom, the Mediterranean Sea linking all three continents. But Anaximander’s greatest contribution is making the indefinite (in Greek apeiron) as the source of all things. A small step for philosophy, a giant leap for science. The appeal to the apeiron paved the way to abstract thinking about all things natural, and created the space in which scientific inquiry could operate.

The developers at Amazon Lab126 who came up with the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa reportedly said the name was inspired by the Library of Alexandria. The long hike from Anaximander’s apeiron to Amazon’s Alexa summs up the history of science: from general principles to specific applications. Alexa can give specific answers to specific questions because 2,500 years ago the Greeks asked themselves important questions. Where do things come from? Are there other worlds out there or is this the only one? What is change?

These are questions Alexa and her progeny are unlikely to have an answer to.

Architecture and networks

Each age has its own cognitive and epistemological models. The ways people remember, think and think about thinking. The myth of progress has it that societies improve over time, but in cultural terms models merely succeed each other. Ages of faith led to ages of reason (grossissimo modo) because the ways of establishing and assessing true and reliable knowledge changed. Which means that the way we think about knowing and knowledge changed.

Similarly, the ways we think about the memory also changed over time. In the West, the major change was from an architectural model of memory to one inspired by machines and electronic circuits. In the ancient and medieval period, the memory was seen as a treasure room where information and knowledge was carefully stored but even more carefully arranged in view of accessing it. Like a room where every item is placed with the relation to the point of view and approach. Medieval scholars repeatedly made a point that information which is not easily accessible is useless, however well it is stored. According to this architectural understanding of memory – whose use in semi-literate societies was paramount –, the most important thing was how information was remembered and retrieved. Some ancient and medieval thinkers explained that in order for knowledge to be remembered properly – and properly meant effectively accessible –, it had to be stored in much the same way as an edifice. Structure was everything.

But this model didn’t hold once a new set of assumptions about the world and the human being were introduced in the early modern period. Over time, the architectural model of the memory was superseded by an understanding of memory as a machine: a set of moving parts more concerned with transmission of information than storage. The modern mechanical model has more recently been replaced by one which emphasises connectivity: memory banks, nodes and links.

The journey from the cathedral to the memory stick is complete.

Swimming mainstream

Some technologies and products take longer than others to become culturally mainstream. The printed book was adopted extremely quickly by European litterati because it made sense and it was extremely useful. Some scribes tried to defend the manuscript book against the new technology, but everyone eventually understood that print would benefit all in the end. And they were right.

While printed books became mainstream in a previously manuscript culture, sidestreams developed. Calligraphy achieved the status of art. Painting left the manuscript page and set itself up on canvases and walls.

E-books, on the other hand, aren’t becoming mainstream. Their value is marginally higher than physical books, and the reasons why one should buy a Kindle instead of a paperback fail to convince most of us who still swear by paper rather than pixel.

Almost everyone knows about e-books and most of us have experienced reading an electronic book. And yet, adoption is slow. That may be because books and e-books are not just about the cognitive act of reading. We like to shop for books, collect books, display books, give books and remember books. E-books aren’t good for any of these things. Kindle or Apple’s Books may display your purchased books more neatly than your IKEA shelves ever could, but there’s no-one, except yourself, to see them. And you’re not really going back to any of those books in the same way you’d pick up an old book from your shelf one evening just like that. Sharing an e-book file with someone rather than offering a signed hardback is not likely to endear us either.

Every year, the e-book industry is digging canals into the main stream. But it may be a while before it opens a passageway into the dominant culture. In the meantime, continue to pick up a book in the literal sense.