Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A world about to be lost

The following is from the opening chapter of Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God: A Response to the Bible:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
What does get lost? Might it be worth trying to regain some of what was lost in our inexorable march forward?

Chapter four of Josipovici’s On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion is titled "Shakespeare: trust and suspicion at play". The chapter opens with a passage from Act I, Scene iii, of Richard II—two men are preparing to duel, each intending to prove with their lives that the other is "A traitor to his God, his king, and him". Richard intercedes and prevents the duel from occurring. Josipovici’s argument here is that Richard's action "opens the way for the flowering of Shakespeare’s mature art". As part of this argument, Josipovici doubles back to Scene i, in which another duel is in the offing. In these opening scenes, Shakespeare is, Josipovici suggests, "presenting us with a world which is just about to be lost, a world in which we can trust because inner and outer are intimately related, and God still speaks directly to us, as he did to Abraham and Moses, and as Achilles' mother did to him."

Josipovici employs the work of Peter Brown to illustrate this "world which is just about to be lost". The duel ("trial by combat") is, in effect, a variation on the trial by ordeal, in the sense that guilt or innocence is determined through the body. The ordeal strikes us as barbaric. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the ordeal is often used to represent the barbarity and the irrationality of the Middle Ages, indeed to often stand in for the totality. Josipovici quotes Brown on a shift "from consensus to authority" that was occurring in the 12th century. This shift
was bound up in the shift in the relations between inner and outer, subjectivity and objectivity; for the supernatural, 'which had tended to be treated as the main source of the objectified values of the group, came to be regarded as the preserve . . . of intensely personal feeling'. It led too to the growth of rationality, 'for appeal to reason in clerical controversy invariably implied . . . that men could be expected to obey rapid and trenchant decisions--the outcome of syllogisms, the production of an authoritative written text'.
In the play, Richard puts a halt to the duel. We don't have any definitive reason why he does this, but "the simple fact is . . . that by his intervention he reveals his own fatal lack of trust in the process that tradition has ordained." We might look on this and see this as incontestably good: the duel is a ridiculous way to solve problems, and Richard was right to put a stop to it. But, Josipovici notes, as the play continues, Richard exercises his authority in an increasingly arbitrary manner. As he does so, he reveals himself to be "at odds with the workings of nature". Where once his name meant something when invoked, now, since he's essentially scuttled the tradition on which such an invocation relied, his power becomes ever more arbitrary, his name meaningless, just another word: "in a world shorn of consensus and the acceptance of tradition, a name is a word like any other".

As mentioned, Josipovici draws from Peter Brown, on the shift away from consensus (as represented by the ordeal, or duel) toward authority. Again, to us, the matter seems straightforward. The ordeal is symbolic of the kind of irrational "justice" resorted to in the dark days before laws and constitutions and basic civil rights for individuals. And the idea that the supernatural was seen as "the main source of objectified values of the group" is exactly the kind of thing that we are happy to be rid of today. For, let's face it, it's not like there actually was any supernatural from which such "objectified values" could be derived. It was superstition and nothing more. (It's not as if God actually spoke "directly to us, as he did to Abraham and Moses, and as Achilles' mother did to him." That's just literature and religion.) We can talk all we want about how Richard's abandonment of tradition (perhaps because he'd lost faith in it himself) led to his increasingly arbitrary rule, but isn't the ordeal--the duel--just as arbitrary?

Josipovici doesn't spend a lot of time on this (just enough to illuminate his point about Shakespeare and Richard II), but, already interested in elements of tradition that have been lost, I was intrigued enough to seek out Brown myself. The work in question is an essay called "Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change", which is collected in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. In Brown's discussion, the ordeal emerges as far more complicated than our modern imagination generally allows for. We imagine a form of mob justice in which, almost tautologically, physical evidence of the body proves the case (e.g., a man weighted down will sink, thus proving guilt); we associate it with witch-hunts. But there appears to have been much more to it than that. Brown describes various different kinds of trial by ordeal and the detailed preparation undertaken beforehand (which often took weeks). He talks about several recorded instances in which the participant of an ordeal had the option to back out. The point here is that the ordeal was a process through which the community set a matter to rest. And it appears to have been a process that was understood and in which the community placed its collective trust. We think of it in terms of a superstitious belief that God would intervene and protect the innocent, that it is God who judges in this sense. But this isn't quite right either. According to Brown (as referenced by Josipovici--I had to return Brown's book to the library and so must rely on the second-hand quotation here):
. . . it is important to understand that 'it is not a judgement by God; it is a remitting of a case ad iudicium Dei, "to the judgement of God"'. Thus, 'by being brought to the judgement of God, the case already stepped outside the pressures of human interest, and so its resolution can be devoid of much of the odium of human responsibility'.
This might sound like so much splitting of hairs to us. And how exactly is it a good thing that "human responsibility" is removed from the equation? I think that good or bad in our present-day senses are not really relevant when trying to understand something like this. In fact, I'd say that they get in the way of understanding. What seems to matter here is that this was a process that the community trusted in. The removal of human responsibility, in this sense, ends the conflict. The idea is that bad blood is avoided.

What was happening in the Middle Ages that might have caused this shift away from consensus? Brown talks about increased centralization and about clerical reformers concerned with law; as part of this tendency, there was the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (which, among other things, proscribed clergy from any involvement in trials by ordeal, and also more clearly defined the sacraments). These are among the many signposts--including Spinoza and Luther, mentioned above--on the way towards modern conceptions of the individual. Am I trying to argue that we would be better off returning to the use of trials by ordeal? Hardly. And yet it seems to me that something of value was lost along the way. In this case, the sense of trust that communities had in the process might be one thing. The shift from communal justice, to which, in theory at least, everyone agreed, to a more centralized, dispensed justice must have been incredibly confusing. Elsewhere in his essay, Brown writes that "[t]he shift from consensus to authority is one of the most subtle shifts of all in the twelfth century. Is, perhaps, the greatest single precondition for the growth of rationality." And: "In a sense, the exercise of reason, as fostered by the intellectuals and the reformers of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, was the most blatant exercise of authority of all."

It is arguably ironic that the imposition of authority--hierarchy--leads to the growth of rationality. In the United States, we have a written constitution, we have laws, we have contracts (and we have a system of rights). We have highly organized, extremely hierarchical institutions. We have massive corporations unaccountable to any public. Does any of this not seem arbitrary? (A topic for future posts.)

What does all this have to do with Shakespeare? One of the things that appeals to me in Josipovici's criticism is the fact that the problems he identifies and explores so brilliantly in literature, are related to problems in life. In his Introduction to On Trust, he describes what he means by a "craft tradition". Let me quote from it at length:
A craft implies a tradition into which you are inducted by a master; in which you serve your apprenticeship; and in which you in turn become a master. It implies that what you are doing when you practise your craft is, if not necessary to society, at least sanctioned by society. Weaving carpets if you are a female member of a nomadic tribe in Eastern Turkey is a craft tradition; your teacher is your mother, who, as well as passing on her skills to you, inducts you into a whole range of motifs, from which you will never depart, even though no two carpets you make will be precisely the same as hers or even exactly like each other. Being a violinist in a symphony orchestra in the West is to belong to a craft tradition, albeit a more conscious and highly organized one; the day is fast approaching when our society will feel it no longer has any need for symphony orchestras, but we are not quite there yet.

Being a writer is utterly different. Society may pay you for what you produce, but the laws of the marketplace are not the laws of the music academy: there is no sense that all are agreed on what is good and that such agreement rests on a common view of tradition.

Once, of course, writers were called makers, and making poetry, like painting pictures and composing music, was a craft tradition.
Elsewhere in the book, Josipovici discusses thinkers like Schiller and Wittgenstein, who had difficulty with Shakespeare. Where the passing from consensus to authority (again, as exemplified in the dying away of the trial by ordeal) represents a loss of trust in traditional community values (or maybe occurred because that loss was already under way), by the time of Schiller and, later, Wittgenstein that loss is being keenly felt. Josipovici discusses this idea at length with respect to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and Kafka and Beckett, and others (indeed, it is the central concern of the book), but for here the focus is on Shakespeare. Schiller struggles with Shakespeare and sees him as a "naïve artist". Wittgenstein has difficulty understanding Shakespeare as a "great artist" because for him great artists are Romantic, tortured geniuses like Beethoven. Josipovici quotes from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value:
'"Beethoven’s great heart"--nobody could speak of "Shakespeare’s great heart"', he writes. 'I do not think Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on "the lot of the poet". Nor could he regard himself as a prophet or as a teacher of mankind. People stare at him in wonderment, almost as at as spectacular natural phenomenon.'
We have some difficulty with Shakespeare ourselves. Why else the all-too-common need to assign his plays to someone else, someone more suitable? As Josipovici notes, the image of Shakespeare as the "untutored child of nature" goes back beyond Schiller to at least Ben Jonson, with the publication of the First Folio. We don't like this image, but instead we try to explain him away. We have limited imaginations and too many of us are depressingly literal about art, so we try to find some other historical figure with the kinds of experience we think would be necessary to produce these plays. Class-based prejudices still tempt many of us into believing that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat. I suspect that we also want to force Shakespeare into our still Romantic notions of what great artists are. But Josipovici suggests that we can understand Shakespeare more if we replace the word "nature" with the word "craft":
Shakespeare . . . was firmly embedded in a craft tradition of the kind I described in my Introduction: an artist whose mind was stocked with examples both linguistic and existential from the tradition, and who thought of himself as a maker, not a thinker, a craftsman whose primary allegiance was to the production of a play on time and for a particular occasion.
Shakespeare was embedded in a craft tradition, but it's a tradition that is already on the wane. He is able to recognize this, in his art. This is why Josipovici sees these early scenes in Richard II as the turning point in Shakespeare's career. In these scenes, he quickly and effortlessly invokes a tradition, then has Richard ignore it, after which Richard's rule not only grows more arbitrary, but increasingly he is only acting the part of king, since his rule--his word--no longer has any value. It is as if, in this way, Shakespeare discovers his subject, making his plays "out of the ambiguous nature of play" (how often, in Shakespeare, do we see plays within plays?) and exploring "the breakdown of trust and the corrosive effects of suspicion". Josipovici sees Shakespeare as remarkable for being able to do this, while still trusting completely in the tradition in which he was working.

Later writers, from the Romantics on, aren't so fortunate, and the rest of On Trust deals with a lineage of writers who are aware of these concerns. All of which I find endlessly fascinating, but I want to stress how much I appreciate his work just as much for the light he shines on other aspects of our lives. How do we, artists or not, act when we can no longer completely trust in the traditions we have inherited? How can art be seen as more than mere escapism or entertainment, but a necessary component of our lives?

This has been a long post, but as you can see, I'm really just getting started.

Related: Smoothness of Surface; review of Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations.


Rebecca H. said...

A very thought-provoking post; thank you for leaving me a link to it. I am eager to read Josipovici; his Goldberg: Variations arrived in the mail today. He is an incredibly versatile writer, isn't he?

Richard said...

Hi Dorothy, thanks for the comment.

Yes, he is quite versatile. I hope you enjoy Goldberg: Variations; I'll be interested to read what you think about it...