Down the Memory Hole

James Franklin is a man with a truly impressive forehead. If you were going only by the photo on his homepage you might suspect he was the next Bond supervillain. But in fact, he’s a Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at University of New South Wales, so you know he’s pretty smart, just not evil. I’ve never met the guy, but in my travels around cyberspace, I happened to run across his fun page on “Myths About the Middle Ages” which explodes various mythoids such as:

Indeed, the very term "Middle Ages" is agitprop designed by the Generation Narcissus types of the Endarkenment to encourage people to think, “There was the time of noble paganism, then there’s that “middle time” when nothing important happened. And it all led up to Us, the Summit of History! Yay Us!”:

The notion that history has been leading up to us has been making people dumb for a couple of centuries now. And combined with a vaguely evolutionary notion of Progress it has set us up for the peculiar paradox of a highly advanced civilization run by what C.S. Lewis memorably referred to as “trousered apes”.

Consider for instance the odd fact that the earliest records we possess of human attempts at written expression tend to be, not prose, but poetry or (more probably) music which has lost the tune but not the words—such as the Psalms.

Our overwhelmingly evolution-dominated cultural narratives tend to tell us to expect that the further back you go in history, the closer to the animal you are supposed to get. The general notion is that we are 800 years smarter than Medievals and 4000 years smarter than all those primitives who wrote the Bible. It’s been onward and upward since these savage beginnings and now we’ve arrived at Us: the truly civilized and refined.

But instead of this gratifying scenario, we do not find an antiquity full of people who are closer to the beast. Antiquity does not reveal homo sapiens unable to conceive nothing higher than eating, drinking and copulating. That required the invention of MTV. Instead, in its childhood, the human race seems to have been born in a white hot explosion of music and dance, cooling into poetry that only after some time hardened into prose. Ancient man is a creature who can scarcely be restrained from music and exultation, not merely for entertainment, but for the gods. Only modern man could invent deconstruction, allowing hundreds of educated people to hold conferences in which they read thousands of pages of closely reasoned words arguing that language has no meaning, then break for lunch and haggle with the waitress about the bill.

Something of the richness of the ancient approach to life is glimpsed in the word “tragedy” for example, which takes us back to the exultant childhood of our race. This supremely human mode of drama—which honors human choice with the high compliment of saying it matters profoundly--comes from a term roughly meaning “goat song” and probably hails back to religious rites of story and song. In short, Greek drama is (as all art was until about a century or so ago) intensely religious. Going further back, the glowing intensity of poetry only gets stronger. You find, not dull records full of bookkeeping written by soulless bores, but the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of Job in which the mysteries of life and death, joy and suffering, earth and heaven are probed with profundity. The earliest impulse of the human heart seems to have been to praise, to groan, to ask the Big Questions, and to do it in song, not to cringe like a whipped cur. There was no embarrassment about this. It was the most natural—one might even say the most human—thing in the world for ancients to do this.

It has taken the labor of centuries to banish poetry from ordinary human discourse and make it no longer normal and human, but elitist, artificial and strange. Why poetry is now seen this way is something I don’t understand. But I think it has something to do with the Fall. And the further we move toward the Parousia, the more, well, boring we seem to become. We progressively wall off from conversation the most interesting aspects of life and leave the public square open to endless triviality about the latest titillation from the latest bimbo.

And the more we do this, the more we incapacitate ourselves from being able to remedy our situation. Case in point: the Beeb's recent Robin Hood series. It's a fun post-modern retelling, mostly because the guy who plays Robin is likeable and the guy who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham is having such a won-der-ful time being evil.

But there is still something mournfully shallow about it. Most of the verve come from the sort of jerky, washed-out, fragrmented photography that is now de rigeur for action flicks. It’s well-choreographed violence, punctuated by a bit of saucy banter. But the writers have zero capacity to create characters who are remotely believable as actual medievals. Everybody involved could just as easily be members of the Manchester underworld fighting a corrupt cop while having flashbacks to their service in Gulf War I. Like Kevin Costner's ridiculous costume drama, what you get are thoroughly contemporary actors in semi-medieval garb who fight, kiss, and stand around and spouting PC pieties about multiculturalism. Friar Tuck? Who he? But naturally one of Robin's Merry Men is a Saracen girl whom he rescued from slavery and who has a vast knowledge of chemistry and all manner of other civilized science and philosophy. We get the expected sermons on pacifism (Robin is a disillusioned Crusader) and, of course, wealth redistribution. Marian is this buff chick who knows martial arts. Everybody is impossibly clean, fit, and Euro-sexy. The Church basically does not exist except as the land-grabbing entity that is sending good young men like Robin off to fight in Crusades against Indigenous Peoples. (A nun does turn up once, but she turns out to be a fraud). When religion is mentioned it is basically to catechize the audience in the standard religious vision of contemporary UK Chattering Classes: namely, that all religions are equally superior to Christianity.

Mostly, Robin is a good room temperature UK Labor socialist who is clever and always defeats the cunning but ultimately chopfallen Sheriff by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor without any reference whatsoever to the sorts of ideas or pieties that would have animated an actual medieval.

One can, of course, reply that “It’s just a stupid TV show.” True. But that’s the point: most people spend most of their time watching stupid TV shows, going to stupid movies and reading stupid books. It’s what people know. And that means they don’t know anything approaching history. Nothing else accounts for the fact that a staggering percentage of people think The Da Vinci Code gives us profound insights into the origins of Christianity. No wonder they’re filming a sequel. Those who don’t know bogus history are doomed to repeat it—and brag about how much smarter they are than suckers who believe the “official story”.

Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea