A Theory on Mandeville

Preparations for my course on travel (still time to sign up!), led me to reread one of my favorite medieval works recently, Mandeville’s Travels.  The merits of the book are many. It’s wondrously imaginative, with all the sciapods, fountains of youth, and mighty Christian kings of the East that you could ask for, made all the more charming because it’s likely that Mandeville1 hadn’t traveled any further than his local monastery’s library.

Reading this time, I was struck by the question of why then did he write the book?  Why invent these travels?  Luckily, medieval authors are prone to explaining (even over-explaining) themselves, and Mandeville is no exception:2

And for as much as it is a long time past since there was any general passage over the sea into the Holy Land, and since men covet to hear that land spoken of, and divers countries thereabout, and have of that great pleasure and enjoyment…of these lands and isles I shall speak more plainly, and shall describe a part of those things that are there, when the time comes, according as they come to my mind, and specially for those who desire and intend to visit the holy city of Jerusalem and the holy places that are thereabout; and shall tell of the way that they shall go thither, for I have many times traveled and ridden over it in goodly company of lords.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, 44-5

What do we take from this?  I think it’s unlikely that Mandeville intended for his book to be a serious guide to the routes toward the Holy Land.  Any number of these already existed in his time period and, while he does give fairly concrete directions in the first part of the book (that part dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean world), that leaves the entire second part, his fantastical travels through Asia, unaccounted for.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that his purposes speak to the purposes of medieval travel writing more generally (and perhaps modern travel writing as well).  Medieval travel literature, particularly the literature of pilgrimage, can often dull us with its pedantic concern with how many paces wide a church is, how tall the altar of this shrine is to that shrine, and endless catalogs of relics.  But these passages serve a very specific purpose.  They’re their so that the reader can construct an imaginative landscape in their memory, so that they can continue to contemplate the place visited well after they have returned home, and even if they hadn’t traveled at all.  In a passage that I was pointed to by Shayne Legassie’s book on medieval travel, Elizabeth Bennet neatly describes the end goal of this sort of writing:

Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”

Pride and Prejudice, Chap. 27

The point (or a point, at least) of travel writing, therefore, is to engender a recollection of the distant landscape as an object of contemplation.

Connecting back to Mandeville, what if we take his comments about the difficulty of travelling to the Holy Land (notably, they are preceded by a call for Crusade to re-open these routes) as not simply a statement of fact but also a lament.  Mandeville’s own ambitions to travel there thwarted, he turns to books, reading widely and constructing imaginative journeys therefrom.  As he notes, learning about the wonders of the world affords great pleasure (and he repeatedly invokes delight when describing these later in the book), and so he writes his book in order to impart the joy of these imaginative journeys to others.  He turns out to not be such a liar after all, for he had traveled to the east many times in the company of great lords, the great lords who wrote the accounts that delighted him so.  He traveled the landscape of memory, where he now sets out to take his readers on a journey of their own.

Very cool.

 

1. Who, incidentally, probably didn’t exist.
2. Of course, we can’t always trust these, for a myriad of reasons, but that doesn’t mean we ought to discount them, as too many scholars are willing to do, out of hand.

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Against Flatness in Baseball

Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the greatest book on baseball ever written.  It’s an oral history of the game at the turn of the century, and it’s utterly charming.  The love of the game, the sheer fun of playing shines through on almost every page.

The game was more colorful then, chaotic and raw, and it feels right.  The modern world has a tendency to flatten everything, to make us into cardboard cutouts and in this book you can see what was lost, the fun and adventure of it all.

The players themselves noticed the change, and even properly diagnosed (at least in part) the cause.  Here’s Davy Jones, who played in the outfield alongside Ty Cobb and Wahoo Crawford:

I was playing in the Big Leagues in 1901, when Mr. William McKinley was President, and baseball attracted all sorts of people in those days.  We had stupid guys, smart guys, tough guys, mild guys, crazy guys, college men, slickers form the city, and hicks from the country.  And back then a country kid was likely to really be a country kid.  We’d call them hayseeds or rubes.  Nowadays I don’t think there’s much difference between city kids and country kids.  Anyway, nothing like there used to be.

Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn’t have the mass communication and mass transportation that exists nowadays.  We didn’t have as much schooling, either.  As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other.  Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity–that sort of stuff.  In everything, not just baseball.

The Glory of Their Times, 35

Losing our distinctiveness, becoming flat, is a great tragedy.  We need to turn away from the mass-produced, the all-encompassing, and back to the local, the slow, the weird.  Leisure, true leisure, and play are key to that turning.  We should start right now.

Priorities

It is a very serious perversion to view professional work as the serious part of life, and family life as relaxation.  No, the time we spend with our loved ones is not the time to relax and take it easy, but rather the moment to put on our festival garment, the moment to accomplish a real sursum corda (the elevation of the heart to God).
Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, 55

Of Angels and Motes

Every once in awhile you read something that makes everything click into place, a puzzle long scattered in your mind comes together all at once.1 A passage from Tolkien recently set this clicking together in motion, on the subject of the angels:

I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.

Letter 89, To Christopher Tolkien

The love of God is a person.  It’s a stunning insight, one flowing naturally from the reality of God as three-in-one.2  Love, the highest name of God, must have an object, and the love of God, as the most perfect instance of love (indeed, to call it an instance is essentially a confusion, for all love simply is participation in the Love that is the inner life of the Trinity) must have an object appropriate to the lover.  Thus the lover, the Father, is a divine person.  The beloved, the Son, a divine person infinite and equal to the Father as befits the perfect object of the Father’s love, and the love of the Father and the Son is itself a person, the Spirit.3

But what about the love of God for lesser, finite things?  This too, Tolkien notes, is a person:

As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.

Letter 89

In other words, angels are the love of God for the distinct aspects of creation.  Staggering in itself, there are a few implications that are worth noting:

    1. Your guardian angel is God’s love for you, so perfect as to be a divine, albeit finite, person.
    2. Every single bit of creation from the smallest mote to the biggest stars has an attendant angel.  There are as many angels as there are things, and all are fundamentally creatures of God’s love.
    3. With this understanding, we can begin to grasp the import of the concluding line of Dante’s Comedy, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  The celestial bodies are truly moved through the heavens by angels, by the personal attention and love of God, and so too are all other things.4
    4. Moreover, when the Psalmist writes that “the heavens declare the glory of God,”  our minds ought to turn towards the singing of the angelic choir.  The angels, the personal manifestations of God’s love, do not merely move the cosmos, they sing it in praise of its Creator.  This is the celestial music, the music of the spheres, which we bring our inner being into alignment with through our participation in the love of God.  The whole of creation is, therefore, a vast and beautiful love song.

 

Truly wonderful.

1. This phenomenon is, I believe, inspiration in the truest sense of the word. Some fragment of the world acts as a key in the mind, directing it toward the contemplation of higher things from whence it can be illuminated. In the light from above, what was previously obscure becomes apparent in a sort of interior vision.
2. It was, perhaps, no accident that I encountered this passage shortly before Trinity Sunday.
3. And this is why, in loving, we are conformed to God. The more we participate in the intercommunicative love of the Trinity, the more we come to resemble the divine persons, as the love of God transforms us to become more receptive/worthy of being beloved by the divine. More, it entails that in loving we attain to greater degrees of personhood. Love of neighbor and love of God makes us more of a person, more real.
Also, since God loves every fragment of creation (the individual motes, as Tolkien observes), we see that it is this love that acts as the motive force behind the movement of the cosmos back to its ultimate culmination in union with the Creator.
4. The objection that this truth is superstitious, simplistic, or somehow superseded by scientific accounts of planetary motion reveals only the intellectual carelessness and, frankly, the stupidity of the objector.

Why I Haven’t Written Much Lately

There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit itself.  All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world.

Muir, The Spiritual Writings, 48, TMW, 151-64

There’s just too much to say.  Where do you start when it’s all so densely woven? where do you end?  I stand at the foot of the mountain and cannot find the path to begin my ascent.

Preview of my Kalamazoo paper

 

Next Thursday, I’ll be presenting at the International Medieval Congress on “Creation and Conversion in Northern Europe.”  The general idea is that creation featured heavily in both medieval missionary preaching and in the conception of what those missionaries were accomplishing.  The subject was first suggested to me by a reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.  Creation, God as Creator, nature miracles, they cropped up all over the place, particularly in connection with missionary work, and I began to wonder why.

It wasn’t the easiest subject to study, far harder than I assumed when I first proposed the paper.  Turns out, medieval authors weren’t particularly interested in laying out an explicit theology of conversion, nor were they forthcoming about what missionaries actually said to their audiences.  Nevertheless, I believe I’ve found some interesting stuff, with a lot of potential for further investigation, though I’m not sure how interested I am in pursuing that potential going forward.  The general idea of the various permutations of conceptions of creation in the Middle Ages (and earlier? later?), absolutely, but perhaps not in the realm of the missionary project.

My contention is that there is a coherent theological outlook that lay behind Carolingian/Anglo-Saxon (perhaps also the Irish) missionary work, one deeply linked to an understanding of creation and described well by Romano Guardini here:

These churches in their turn carried forward the blessed work, sanctifying space itself by spreading cemeteries, chapels and wayside crosses over the land.  The very land became hallowed by the presence of the Church at large.  Each church building itself through the supernatural rite of consecration symbolized and enfolded the whole of Creation.  Every part of a church building from the direction of its main axis to its most minute appointments was invested with a divine meaning which fused the cosmic picture of the world with the course of sacred history into a symbolic whole.

Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 20

I argue that what Guardini describes in the landscape was consciously occurring everywhere, from within the minds of monks in their cells to amidst the pagans of the Saxon wilderness.

That’s the basic idea, come get some specifics next Thursday at 10am in Kalamazoo.

Whoops

The intellectual consciousness of modern Europe as commonly delineated and accepted even in our day proclaimed those three ideas: a Nature subsisting in itself; an autonomous personality of the human subject; a culture self-created out of norms intrinsic to its own essence.  The European mind believed further that the constant creation and perfection of this “culture” constituted the final goal of history.  This was all a mistake.

Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 50

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a classic of environmental literature and is quite good, with beautiful sketches of Leopold’s life and work on a sand farm in Wisconsin and his travels through Mexico, Canada, and the American west.  These sketches alone would make the book well-worth reading, but his underlying philosophy is also very solid, particularly in his recognition that conservation cannot be grounded in economic motives or even motivated by taking pleasure in the wilderness.  Rather, conservation must be founded on an ethics of the land, one in which contributing to the integrity and (importantly) beauty1 of what he calls the “biotic community” (essentially all the organisms living in a given habitat) is morally good and harming this community morally wrong.  So far, excellent and true.  Yet, the actual grounding of this ethic was lacking, resting largely on a gesture towards the beauty described in the opening sections of the book and a vague mention of Darwin.  This weakness stems, I think, from my one real quibble with the book.

The quibble is that Leopold tends to cast the mindset of his present (i.e. the late 1940s) as a perennial one, when in fact it is quite modern.  As a consequence, he’s not able to fully diagnose the severity of the problem nor is he able to draw on the wisdom of the past, a fault that ultimately undermines his arguments and cripples his ability to construct a truly robust land ethic.

For example, he writes about mourning the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous that its flocks blotted out the sun for miles, now vanished:

To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons

Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 112

Certainly poetic, but to cast loving what was as a newly emergent phenomenon is rather silly.

how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

He who thought wisely
on this foundation,
and pondered deeply
on this dark life,
wise in spirit,
remembered often from afar
many conflicts,
and spoke these words:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

The Wanderer

Of course, you might object, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon wanderer is not mourning for nature, but for a place, a time, and a people.2 But we’ve mourned for nature too:

I never had noticed it until
‘Twas gone, – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

It was not more than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow’s breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut fag got ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary’s tributary, rises there.

First Known When Lost, Edward Thomas

Of course, Thomas wrote only a few decades before Leopold, but nevertheless mourning for nature’s loss has a long history (I just don’t have any beautiful poems demonstrating the point that come readily to mind).  Medieval authors were well aware that it is not simply man who was cursed in the fall, but through him the world as well, and they grieved mightily for this loss, strove with all their might to restore it (this restoration is, after all, what salvation consists of).   They knew that we have always loved what we once had.  This is the love that leaves us restless, until we rest in Him.

Leopold recognizes the destructive stupidity of a lack or denial of this love, but misses that it is not the love that is “new under the sun,” but the pervasiveness of its absence. Certainly there were always those who did not cherish what was, but we used to not let them blather on about it so loudly in public.  We did not actively work to deaden the awareness that something has been, is being, lost.  In missing the novelty of what he diagnoses, he misses out on the full extent of its destructiveness.  Man could hardly have thrived without a love of what was, could hardly have called himself man at all, and indeed we’re struggling to do these things now.

Leopold  wants to transform man from a conqueror and ruler of nature, an absolute monarch despotically ruling the world, to a member of a community.  That sounds well and good, but here again we see that his mistaking of a current attitude for a perennial one has led him into error.  The mistake here is a prototypically modern understanding of authority, one which casts all exercise of authority as essentially tyrannical domination.3 But rule does not entail absolute, untrammeled power. Dominion over nature does not necessitate domination. Indeed, there is no such thing as earthly authority without obligation. The ruler is constrained, often more so, than the ruled. He rules insofar as he serves.

This truth is demonstrated by considering how Leopold’s solution undermines itself.  For what ethical obligation would man have to creation as a mere member of the biotic community?  As he notes, pigeons have no love of what was, bison do not worry about the environmental impact their grazing has on the field mice.  No, it is only because we are not mere community members that we must care for our fellow creatures.  It is because we are meant to rule that we are obligated to rule well.  Thus, the grounding of a land ethic, an ethic that is of vital importance, cannot be in our refusing the crown but only in our acceptance of it, and a realization that treating the crown as if it entitles us to rule like Louis XVI only leads to the guillotine.4

1. Remind me to delve into this deeper when I write about John Muir. Alternatively, remind me to write a book about environmental theology predicated on the idea that the aesthetic recognition of nature’s beauty is a salvific instance.
2. How distinguishable these were/are from nature is a question we’ll set to the side for the time being
3. In the background lurks the flawed anthropology of the modern era, that understands humans as, at their core, fully autonomous individuals defined above all by their wills. Any restriction on that will, therefore, is a suppression of the essential nature of a given individual and must, of necessity, be tyrannical. Thus, the end state of politics, ethics, etc. is a perfect freedom of the will. The consequences of this anthropology are far too far-reaching to delve into deeply here.  Leopold’s error is simply one manifestation.
4. There is a lesson in both Louis’s pretensions to absolutism and his mushy concessions to the people, each a misconceived half-measure.

Psalm 19, 18 in the Vulgate

The calm dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon…The sunrise we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadow of the fjord cliffs; but in the midst of our studies, while the Indians were getting ready to sail, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains.  Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire.   In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich…Beneath the frosty shadows of the fjord we stood hushed and awe stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens opened and God mad manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained.
When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine  however glorious  but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself.  Then the supernal fire slowly descended…until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed and thoughtful  as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.  The white, rayless light of morning, seen when I was alone amid the peaks of the California Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  But here the mountains themselves were made divine and declared his glory in terms still more impressive.  How long we gazed I never knew.  The glorious vision passed away in a gradual, fading change….We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing icebergs, while “Gloria in excelsis” still seemed to be sounding over all the white landscape, and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.
John Muir, The Spiritual Writings, 102-3, TA 152-4

Avoiding Acedia in Intellectual Work

I have a small library of notes on things I want to write about, yet feel daunted every time I try.  Sometimes I’m tempted to simply say “read ____,”  and leave it at that.  Resisting that urge today, I’m going to try to write a little about one of the most important of my companion books, the book that more than any other defines my vocation, Antonin Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life.  

I will not offer a summary of the whole book.  For one thing, you should read it for yourself.  For another, the summary already exists.  Sertillanges is developing the principles found in a short letter of (pseudo-) St. Thomas, De modo studendi.  Thus, for a (wholly inadequate) summary, turn to that.

Instead, a single key insight, namely Sertillanges’s recognition of the fundamental vice that afflicts those engaged in intellectual pursuits: the great enemy of contemplation, the noonday demon, and the characteristic sin of our age, acedia:

The great enemy of knowledge is our indolence; that native sloth which shrinks from effort, which does indeed consent now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but now and then capriciously, to make a big effort but soon relapses into careless automatism, regarding a vigorous and sustained impetus as a regular martyrdom.

The Intellectual Life, 124

Truth is eternal, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular truth recognized by others in the same arena.  Indeed, the fact that an insight is shared and recurs over and over again throughout history among those who have given an issue serious thought is good evidence that it’s true.  So we see that the manifestation of acedia in the intellectual is the same pattern diagnosed by Robert Boice in the best book I’ve ever read on overcoming writer’s block (without which, I would have never finished my dissertation). Long periods of desolation, bursts of frenzied activity, torpor, depression, and despair.  Rinse, repeat.

The root of this vice is cowardice.  That may sound strange or self-aggrandizing, casting the work of an academic as courageous, but it is nevertheless true.  To succumb to acedia is to quail in the face of our vocation, to hear the call and shirk at the price:

To get something without paying for it is the universal desire; but it is the desire of cowardly hearts and weak brains.  The universe does not respond to the first murmured request, and the light of God does not shine under your study lamp unless your soul asks for it with persistent effort.

The Intellectual Life, 6

It’s not merely a fear of work, however, not mere laziness.  Rather it’s a fear of the obligations that a vocation entails.  These obligations extend beyond ourselves (and beyond our students, our professors, and the academy as a whole for that matter), and that’s what’s truly terrifying about accepting a call, the knowledge that to get the benefits we must not just do the work, but do it well.

[Acedia] is a lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian.  It is a kind of anxious vertigo that befalls the human individual when he becomes aware of the heights to which God has raised him.  One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is.  He would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness.  Acedia is a perverted humility; it will not accept supernatural goods because they are, by their very nature, linked to a claim on him who receives them.  Something similar exists in the sphere of mental health and illness.  The psychiatrist frequently observes that, while a neurotic individual may have a superficial will to be restored to health, in actuality he fears more than anything else the demands that are mandated, as a matter of course, on one who is well.”
Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 119
The final two sentences strike home.  How often does a failure to work accompany an indulgent descent into mental unwellness?  Are you not heeding the call because you are miserable or are you miserable because you are not heeding the call?
Acedia, therefore, is the great enemy and a formidable one.  Luckily, the solution is very simple.  Unfortunately, the fact that it is simple is not the same thing as easy.  The way to expurgate a vice is to practice the opposite virtue, and to practice the virtue opposed to sloth, we must work (hence, why Dante has the slothful sprinting through Purgatory).

Do something, or do nothing at all.  Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with your might; and let the whole of your activity be a series of vigorous fresh starts.  Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work.

The Intellectual Life, 96

I see in my students and in myself so much indecision, so much fuddling around, when what must be done is to simply decide and begin.  Once begun, we should proceed until the work is done (failing on this last bit was one of the great struggles of my dissertation writing).

An important bit of practical advice is in place here. When you have decided on a work, when you have clearly conceived and carefully prepared it, and are actually beginning: settle immediately by a vigorous effort the quality that it is to have. Do not count on going back over it. When laziness whispers: “Go ahead anyhow now, you will come back to this later,” say to yourself that this idea of going back on what one has done is nearly always an illusion. When you have once gone down the slope, you will hardly climb up again.

The Intellectual Life, 230-1

We shouldn’t look at this need to work as a burden, or at least not as a heavy burden.1  Rather we must know it as beautiful, our participation in the unfolding of creation.

We must always seek, always endeavor.  Nature makes the wilderness flower anew, the star to shine, the water to flow down slopes, round obstacles, into empty places, dreaming of the sea that waits it yonder, and which it may at last reach.  Creation in every one of its stages is continuous aspiration.  The mind which is potentially all things can of itself no more limit its ideal forms than the natural forms of which they are a reflection.  Death will set the limit, and so will our own inadequacy: let us at least have the courage to flee the frontiers marked out by laziness.  Infinity, lying before use, demands infinity in our desire, to correct as far as may be the gradual failure of our powers.

The Intellectual Life, 126-7

Infinity lies before us, in all its intoxicating wonder and stomach-churning danger.  To approach it demands courage, but we would not be called were we not capable.  What remains, therefore, is to trust, to allow the love that nourishes our work to overpower our fear, to step out and explore.

1. The yoke is easy, the burden light, etc.