Sunday, February 19, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 3: The Scandal of the Medieval Mind

(This is Part 3. Those new to the series should start here, and here is Part 2.)

Mark Noll wrote a very influential book in my circles titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and according to Noll, the scandal is that there IS none. Likewise, the medieval mind has been a mystery to me, and it seemed for a long time like there WAS none: why did they spend so much time thinking and writing about things that just don't seem to matter? Transubstantiation, angels on the head of a pin, scholasticism, etc. etc. etc., the medieval mind seemed like a waste of time and energy. (Of course, castles were cool, and stained glass, but beyond that I felt like history was just waiting to begin.) In Spaceship Earth (remember, I grew up near Orlando) there are only two scenes to cover the 1000 years between the fall of Rome and the Gutenberg press. Apparently my general perceptions have been shaped by EPCOT center. Which explains why I supported the ill-fated Seattle Monorail expansion project.

My first genuine academic hint that I was missing something enriching in my offhand dismissal of the medieval mind came from Planet Narnia, a book that proposed that C.S. Lewis deliberately structured the 7 books of the Chronicles of Narnia around the 7 planets of medieval astrology (review here). Then comes Barfield, and I can see the same respect for the medieval mind. Barfield thinks it's worth it to try to re-think medieval thoughts by reading the surviving words (which is not quite the same as simple translation). He points out that the very setting of the point of view, the very concept of consciousness, was different.

p.78 “Even those [today] who achieve the intellectual contortionism of denying that there is such a thing as consciousness, feel that this denial comes from inside their own skins. Whatever it is that we call our ‘selves’, our bones carry it about like porters. This was not in the background picture before the scientific revolution. The background picture then was of man as a microcosm within the macrocosm. It is clear that he did not feel himself isolated by his skin from the world outside him to quite the same extent as we do. He was integrated or mortised into it, each different part of him being united to a different part of it by an invisible thread. In relation to his environment, the man of the middle ages was rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo, than we are.”

With the word "participation" Barfield sums up the reason for the medieval connection between the moon and mining silver, and "lunacy" for that matter: a general connectedness and embeddedness that permeated the entire mind. And medieval medicine -- on the one hand, I don't want it! But on the other hand, there's a method to the medieval madness that is part of all this. Galen proposed that we had two kinds of blood (liver-made blood that carried nutrients and heart-sucked arterial blood that carried life), and in terms of the mechanics of circulation, he was flat wrong. We don't go back to that mechanism. But we still use Galen-ish terminology in talking about how a person acts, and we retain a hint of the old participation. What is good in that, what can we magnify and reassemble while keeping what we know now?

p.83 “For us … there are really two kinds of blood: the shed and the unshed; rather as for Galen there were two kinds of blood, the venous and the arterial. Both of Galen’s were participated; whereas only one of ours is. We refer to what remains of that participation when we speak, with a psychological intention, of ‘bad blood’ or ‘hot blood’. We no longer distinguish where he did. We do distinguish where he did not, polarizing the old meaning of blood into two, a metaphorical and a literal one. And our medicine interests itself almost exclusively in the literal one, that is, in the idol.”

The mystery of the medieval mind to us is that they drew the lines differently. We pull ourselves out of the system and draw lines between "me" and "the thing I see" and between "literal" and "figurative" meanings that were simply not there for the medievals. Barfield says these lines cut us off from a very real understanding of reality.

p.74 “The point I am making is that, precisely to those simple understandings, the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ themselves were not what ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we to-day only find in symbols. Accordingly, the issue, in a given case, between a literal and a symbolical interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories.”

This thick and overlapping connectedness carried by the world itself shows up in medieval art. I've always been puzzled by why medieval art has no sense of perspective, with overlapping figures and times, and settings that were clearly local while the events were clearly first-century Palestine. My own puzzledness shows a kind of modern bigotry that should have been a hint. They saw space differently. How can someone see space differently? It's weird ... but they did. And now that physics shows us space and time are really different dimensions of the same thing, and that time passes according to the observer's speed, we're brought once again into a world in which space isn't simply a Cartesian void (I'm reminded here of when Ransom travels through space in Lewis's Space Trilogy and finds it is not a void, but a living, thriving domain.)

p.152 “The concept of space as an unlimited or three-dimensional void – a kind of extrapolated ‘perspective’ – which came in with the disappearance of participation, is still of course the ordinary man’s concept. It held good for science, too, until the end of the nineteenth century. The indications that it is now proving inadequate are so numerous that I do not need to stress them. When, for instance, we are told that space must be conceived as spherical, or asked to think in terms of a ‘space-time continuum’, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the old, or rather the still young, ‘idol’ of infinity as ‘going on for ever’, whether in space or time, is showing unmistakable signs of strain.”

So contemplating medieval art might be able to help us understand medieval manuscripts, and how different they were from us. The degree of participation is the main difference, according to Barfield. They swam in the world, while we try to hold ourselves aloof from it.

p.94 “Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved. In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of – what shall we say? – of ‘meaning,’ if you choose.”

This participation led to the medieval mania for allegory, and also for the way they depicted gods and spirits of things. Notice what Barfield talks about in the next quote. So many scientists assume that medieval or ancient people were trying to be scientists in looking at and explaining why things worked, and that they would give them spirits as a way of explaining why. Barfield would disagree with this -- not to deny the presence of gods and spirits, but rather their function, that is, to deny them roles as simply "explanatory" Rudyand-Kipling-just-so-stories. The gods and spirits were manifestations of the observer's participation in the environment and story itself, reflections of the observing consciousness, and only after that did they serve any explanatory function. Explanation was just not that high on the priority list.

p.86 “To learn about the true nature of words was at the same time to learn about the true nature of things. And it was the only way. We may reflect how the meaning of the word grammar itself has been polarized, since the scientific revolution, into the study of ‘mere’ words, on the one hand, and, on the other, into the half-magical gramarye, which altered its form to glamour and was useful for a season to the poets, before it was debased. One may reflect also on the frequent appearances made by Grammar and the other liberal arts, as persons, in medieval allegory, and how easily and naturally they mingle there with the strange figure of the Goddess Natura – at once so like and unlike the Persephone of Greek mythology. This might easily lead us into a consideration of allegory itself – a literary form which is so little to our taste, and yet was so popular and all-pervasive in the Middle Ages. It is not clear that we find allegory dessicated precisely because, for us, mere words themselves are dessicated – or rather, because for us, words are ‘mere’?”

So much allegory, so little time! But this opens up a way to read allegory and other medieval hang-ups as more alive, because the words themselves were more alive. This seems true, if only because it helps to see why they would have spent so much time on things that matter so little to us now. I also see a similarity between this and the Oswald Chambers/evangelical mode of praying continually and seeing God at work in every event, no matter how small. The world is not merely a vast machine but a creation and a gift. God is mysterious and unknowable but he has brought himself near to us. Maybe the medieval mind has something to say to us after all.

p.101 “If this kind of psychology was really as tenuous, fine-drawn, and obscure – or to use Bacon’s word, as ‘frigid’ – as it seems to most people to-day, it is difficult to explain why, for so many centuries, so many people found it exciting. The true explanation is, once more, that we have lost half the meanings of the key-words in which it is expressed."

Recovering what is lost. Is there any better theme underlying both Lewis's and Tolkien's work? It underlies Barfield's too. Barfield moves on to the Old Testament, and then to the New, and that's where we'll go next.

PS: I find it useful to include more information about what these words are that Barfield goes on about, so here's a specific example of what words may change their meanings: p.101 "Above all, with the disappearance of participation, words to do with thinking and perceiving and words to do with movement and space have parted company. Aristotle’s poiein and paschein were for him, not the insubstantial, semi-mystical abstractions which we make of them, when we translate them ‘active principle’ and ‘passive principle’. … the kinesis, to which Aristotle refers in so many different contexts, was simply not what we mean by ‘movement’ at all, who think of it as the bare change of the position of an idol in Newtonian space.”

PPS: What does this thinking mean, at the end? The Grail stories are a hint, according to Barfield: p.173 “And already, before Aquinas’ time, the startlingly sudden rise and spread throughout Europe of a rich crop of legends of the Holy Grail suggests an attempted uprush of the Eucharistic mystery from a substantially unconscious to a substantially conscious – and extra-sacerdotal – status.”

[Forward to Part 3.5]

1 comment:

Michael Bogar said...

Thanks for you nice summary of Barfield's work. I am reading Susan Bordo's, The Flight to Objectivity, looking at Descarte's descent into despair as the medieval worldview was collapsing. Michael Bogar: