Tag Archives: religion

The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

The unfolding of the Logos introduced directionality into history

Such as do build their faith upon
The Holy Text of pike and gun
Decide all controversy by
Infallible Artillery
And prove their doctrine orthodox
By Apostolic blows and knocks
call Fire and Sword and Desolation
A godly-thorough-Reformation.

Samuel Butler.

This monster-post, inspired by the book The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch,  has been in the works for a long time. I have been reading it for an even longer time (it is not quite a book one finishes). The history he tells bursts with anecdotes, people and ideas; they combine headily during a heady time. Writing about it was intended to illustrate the principle of Fortitude, eleventh in the Tarot; that one must practice what one preaches.  Often in the reading I felt like a lone sailor lost upon a vast vessel, nipping between coasts and trading information: had the priests became pastors and wives replaced concubines? Were they likely to? Who was invading whom? Had the Habsburgs blitzed through yet?

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Storm At Sea, Bruegel

I am caught within the wave of the large book. There are primarily two reasons people read non-fiction, discounting the obvious motive of pleasure: one is to figure out a ‘position’ to a specific question/ related set of questions (what can you do about a problem like Sarah?), the hunt-for-data; the other is to get an inkling of perspective, context, the hunt-for-the-idea (How is American Conservatism different today from 100 years ago?). I defy you to find anyone willing to undertake a book longer than 300 pages for the former cause. If polemic cannot be condensed down to that size, it has no right for exist: any heft will simply be more excuses for the opinion, all the more suspect for being disguised. Passionate manifestos, incendiary reporting, pithy histories, reasoned commentary — these are all excellent reasons to read a book, but they are limited by the demand for relevancy, this devotion to defining the conventional wisdom of the times.

The pleasures of weighty tomes are that they allow detail and deliberation to build rather than argue.  A long history, a sustained piece of philosophy, these are written with the desire to enable the fashioning of an autonomous hypothesis from the broad welter of fact.  An essayist marshals facts that suit her story, a historian marshals stories that surround her every “fact”.

McCulloch’s history, in keeping with his tradition, doesn’t short-circuit by telling you who to side with in the multifaceted debates of his chosen time: it just lays them all out, in sometimes interminable detail, within a complex web of shared relationships and assumptions. He describes events and their ripples, ideas and their diaspora, people and their migrations; all set within a narrative best described as Transylvania talking to Scotland.   He demonstrates how the same scriptures led to many forms of worship in one city even as they’re being hacked down to meet the partisan requirements of its neighbour. It is this meandering quality that makes large books, especially those that aren’t anthologies, so damnably hard to write about. They pool in the shadows and form backdrops, but are rarely showpieces. It is impossible to pinpoint what such a book made you think about, which hunches it confirmed and which it dismissed, for the journey is made between amorphous hunches and nebulous conclusions.  I don’t know what I thought about the Reformation before I read this book: I began the book because I didn’t know what to think.

I can tell you, instead, why I am reading about the Reformation. First, as devoted readers (hullo parents) know, I am interested in the ways divinity interacts with humanity.  Not very much survives the tumult of human passage, save two truths: there are ideas, and there is matter; only a very few entities may transcend both. I am fascinated by the divine as a bridge between human eras: constantly evolving, yet always retaining the core kernel of faith every religion needs to survive.

Does one trick people into believing in the power of the metaphysical; persuade, coerce, or reason? Does one contemplate or act or purify one’s way into a happy immortality? Is there an insurance policy for the family we can invest in while alive?   Religion, it is easy to forget in our era of theocrats and evangelists, is the purest free market that exists. It is a barometer of human madness, as variable and contrarian as the spirit it seeks to channel. It is the fallacy of fundamentalism and rationalism alike to imagine that religion can shape the zeitgeist, rather than be shaped by it. Slavery was legalised by Papal Rome while Dominicans in Spain were reviving jus gentium and inventing the concept of human rights.

We live in an era the most determined humans call postmodern; which is unlucky for those of us who only achieved modernity meagre decades ago. Then again, perhaps we ought to be glad to have made the goalpost when so many others are consigned to the pre-modern. In any case, I felt it was time to get to the root of the uprising, back to when modernity was first fashioned. And thus we come to the Reformation, one bridge across time in one small part of the world. Pick any modern ill you find strewn across our conversations- nationalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, fascism, colonialism, liberalism- and you will find analogues or antecedents in the Latin Reformation, that brutal, cold time in history.  So, really, my question is: why aren’t you reading 800 pages about that?

Which is my way of saying I can’t think of any earthly reason you would want to know this stuff, so I shall just plug along and hope that I am entertaining enough to reward the effort this enterprise involves. If I must have fortitude, after all, so must you. What follows is my mini-history of the Reformation, for the curious, the insane, and the bored. It’s the broad outline of an infectious revolt, beaten back here and then there but never everywhere.

My aim is to sketch how this time folds into ours: how movements born with radical visions were trapped in fresh prisons woven out of ‘purity’, patriarchy, and racial pride. The Reformation is a study in how rights can grow broader even as the communities they accrue to grow ever narrower. My perspective diverges slightly from MacCulloch’s. He observes, with a tinge of triumph, the birth of tolerance amidst all the sectarian violence. You will forgive me for being less impressed by the miracle of pluralism. As with ‘plural’ Hinduism, tactical freedom was accessible only to the elite, not the general mass of humanity, upon whom most behaviours are imposed. MacCulloch, to give him due credit, ably argues that most lives were increasingly constrained by the renewed interest everyone had in their private life and souls.  The “Reformation of Manners” had a dramatic impact on longstanding social and sexual practices, and steadily degraded the rights of women. Many Free Cities, for instance, revoked the right to female citizenship during this era, as women began to be considered legal chattel.

Patriarchy was ceasing to be a microcosm of the God’s purpose and an expression of what was considered the the natural make-up of a mechanical universe… Society, once integrated by the cosmology of humours and by Galen’s theories, with gender a continuum, was from around 1700 conceived in terms of rigidly divided opposites- especially gender. By 1800, men were told that they must exercise rigid self-control and never shed tears; women that, after all, they were not uncontrollable and lustful like Eve, just passive and gentle crybabies, to be shielded from life’s brutalities.

Church weddings and the legitimacy of children rose in importance, as every Church rushed to exert their influence among the faithful, and marriage was now seen as a necessary sacrament, a ‘holy contract’. Cohabitation and premarital sex, once encouraged by the practice of long engagements, came under much fire in this era, as the clergy discovered the pleasures of marriages and insisted everyone ought join their state of bliss. Brothels found their licenses revoked across cities (rampant and fatal syphilis probably helped that along).  In the protestant world, clerical wives replaced nuns as the apogee of a pious woman’s ambition; the brides of god had become wives of men.  The growth of nuclear families proceeded apace in these lands, and the new justification that marriage was the ‘natural state of man’ made the social stigma surrounding homosexuality worse.  The patriarchal order within the family was emphasised even by so-called humanists, who would, one might think, feel compelled to ‘humanise’ women simply to be consistent.  Not a bit of it:

A good example [of humanist scholarship] is Mary I of England’s tutor Juan Luis Vives. He wrote the popular treatise The Education of a Christian Woman, which did indeed recommend education for all women, but that thought was overwhelmed by a good deal of talk about women’s need to control their passions, battle against their weak nature and obey their husbands. Vives also made explicit a double standard in chastity: ‘human laws do not require the same chastity of the man as the woman’, he said reassuringly, ‘men have to look after many things; women only for their chastity’

Yet, for all such instances of subtly reorganised dogma, it remains a revelation to learn how inexhaustibly diverse people are, even within close confines. What could more claustrophobic than the  revealed scripture of the Only God? Yet the ruckus, once raised, took two centuries to resolve.   Some bits of this story, it must be said, are right out of the plot of Lost: consider Martin Luther stamping out of the Diet at Worms in fury, declaring the Pope to be the Devil masquerading as the Saviour (the original ‘AntiChrist’) and suggesting that the faithful ought to follow his own example, stampede the false Church, and recreate the true Church. Substitute Jack Shepherd  for Luther, John Locke for Pope, and the Island for the Church, and tell me that isn’t the final season in a nutshell. Here I stand, and I can do no other, like the man (apocryphally) said.

This being a long essay, I divided it into pages. Look below the little facebook and twitter icons below to go further.

Divine Malarkey

1 Sep

The Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency for change, the sense that things that happen come to fruition at a particular moment- now- pervades the great history called the Mahabharata

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternate History

SouthAsia emerges from prehistory in the grip of two equally frustrating protagonists. On the one hand is the ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ , rich in symbolism but spare on meaning till the script is deciphered. With the fading of the Indus cities ride in the pastoral tribes popularly called ‘Aryan’, who left little to account for their existence save a literary tradition. This juxtaposition of those who speak against those who act is a prototype for subsequent Indian history, with the literati firmly secluded and policed behind caste lines.

The Hindus takes on that complacent literati with its own arsenal, and she spends much of the book pointing out instances in Indian mythology and philosophy where the brahmins denounce interesting folk in their society. Her choice of texts (apart from a digression into Tantra, albeit a domesticated Tantra) is the orthodox combination of the Shruti and Smriti, a Pujari couldn’t ask for better. Considerable energy has been devoted in Indian historiography towards freedom from their hegemony, and the paradox of Doniger’s work is that it bolsters the  very orthodoxy she challenges. It is a challenge from inside the tradition of authorized texts, which raises the hackles of its conservators while the rest of us doze, or revel in the anarchy.

All art in this post is by the gorgeous Antoine Helbert, and thank you bluefloppyhat for bringing him to my attention by downloading his stuff onto my laptop.

Doniger is unflaggingly affectionate, but rarely indulgent, towards the people she calls “Hindus”. The book extends into modern times, and includes a chapter on Hindu-Americans, the identity at the nub of the latest diaspora, but the real meat of the book is pre-colonial India. Many reviewers have derided this incompleteness, I think it’s apt. Doniger’s project is to let the texts speak for themselves, and the rough outlines of a canon were in place around the period her narrative begins winding down.  The heated theological ‘scene’ Doniger describes evolves into the classical texts the British and then the nationalists were so keen on.

Somewhere between colonialism and modernity, Indian historiography lost the pulse of “itihas”- history by and of the precolonial subcontinent. I’m proof of this bias: with its lack of interest in linearity and frequent fatalism, ‘itihas’ had me flummoxed. How can respectable history loop around endlessly and accommodate centaurs, bird-women, ambiguous reptiles, immortal sages? Doniger helped me understand that ellipses are easier patterns to trace than straight lines. Texts in her telling shadow one another, defying modern epistemology. So much was forgotten and relearned, yet people managed to debate across millennia, and things that were forgotten in Magadha were remembered in Madras (imperial organization, for instance).

There is no category for the sacerdotal in most Hinduisms; ritual literature (Atharva Veda, the Brahmanas) was irrelevant to popular praxis before Christ was born. The rest of the canon is poetry (the Rig Veda), philosophy (Upanishads), technical treatises (Shastras, Sutras) and mythological history (Puranas). The epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata- are poems, histories, morality tales, philosophical debates and political charters. But in Hinduism these distinct “subjects” blend: the Brahmanas have their share of mythology, the Puranas and the Tantras their distinct philosophies, the Upanishads their share of political controversy: each supplementing the others, spawning countless commentaries in a dialogue across history. The basic element of the ‘Hindu’ heuristic arsenal is the story, with everything embedded into narrative: sermonising, dissent, change, disapproval, quandaries, riddles. Stories were bastardised, purged, overhauled; evolving into an intertwined tapestry of ideas that survives better than any ruin from prehistory.

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Robbing Women and Robing Brides

31 Jul

I was miserably sick this past week, for those of you who noticed the blog silence. Antibiotics are being consumed, the appetite is yet to revive, but migraines and blistered eyes no longer conspire to keep the laptop and I at odds. I even read a book last night and it wasn’t shady bed reading. Ok, so that lasted only for an hour before I abandoned it for the pleasures of Diana Wynne Jones, but one of the few joys of sickness is the amount of slush one is permitted to consume.

This is a tentative step back into the daily grind of political comment (however tangential) because I could no longer bear the whine of my stats chart as it plummeted to numbers it hadn’t seen since the early days of june . A friend forwarded me this excellent article, and it reminded me of another essay I was once called upon to present in class. Yet another nostalgia post, this one.

The Robing of the Bride, Max Ernst.

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The Step Between.

27 Jun

‘When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?’

In and Out of Cipher.

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote.
Derek Walcott,  from The Sea is History

Umberto Eco tells us there is a fate that links the historical novel to medieval topics, that our conflicts can be traced to the tumultuous, ongoing, break between the dark ages and ‘today’– the chugging engine of modernity.  We live, he claims, within a wave of the neo-medieval. The trick is to identify what brand of Middle-Ages is being traded, and Eco identifies ten variations upon the theme. Of the lot, he comes out in favour of the philological Middle-Ages, which “lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look ‘human’”. He would rejoice in Wolf Hall’s painstaking historiography.

If the medieval does haunt the modern, Eco himself fed our steady fascination. No one stalked the antecedents of modernity better than Eco in Name of the Rose or Baudolino.  And no one, Eco inclusive, has injected the modern as precisely into the feudal as Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall. Mantel is aided by her choice of protagonist. A more modern man than Thomas Cromwell you would be hard-pressed to find in our postmodern, neo-medieval times. One might long for Fr. William’s lucidity while parsing the difference between Reginald Pole and Martin Luther, but he remains too enmeshed within the organisation of an earlier time to look through it as astutely as Mantel’s Cromwell does.

Plenty of critics have emphasised the confusion created by Mantel’s consistent use of the third person nominative to refer to Cromwell: there is only one ‘he’ in her novel. I found the device ingenious: substituting the omnipresent divine ‘Him’ with a personal ‘him’ as the driving feature of narrative is a splendid caption for the altering gestalt she captures.

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Lost Ended (praise the lord).

18 Jun


Short Version: Jack Shephard had daddy issues. The boy in black had mommy issues. Go figure.


Longer Version

The great thing about Lost was its ensemble. Even conceding the mythology was complex for a television show- if you’ve spent your life steeped in spec-fic, well, *shrug*. The science was wonky, the fantasy clunky.  The only reason I followed the show (in fits and starts- I watched all of season five and six in three nights) was that you had your pick of hero: Doctor Jack, Hunter Locke, Brooding Sayid, Cowboy Sawyer, Happy Hurley, Complex Linus, Genius Faraday, Romantic Desmond. However you like your eggs, you could be sure Lost had the recipe. When it came to the the women, sadly, the pickings were ever slim and the stereotype thickly laid on. Primal Kate, Civilised Juliette, Happy-Married Sun, Willowy Shannon, Crazy Claire. The cryptic ones- Eloise Hawking, Ilana, Ana Lucia- disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. Lost was not, for all the gun-toting damsels, a woman’s show.

Lost consistently thrust its protagonists into the heat of battle. Its heroes are the ones who’ve stuck out all the fights, either by wit or by gun or by compromise. Its god, by contrast, hides and shirks human contact, and its devil is scary smoke-monster, the big bad who can be any dead person it wants. On the whole, one feels compelled to come out for smoke-man, who is defeated by the first clause of evil: embodiment is death. Any Buffy fan knows the best way to overcome something is to define it, and the minute smoke-man appropriated a corporeal body his game was up. Insofar as his point is that Jacob cruelly uses his candidates to no discernible end, smokey is right- Richard  being the best example. After declaring to the man that all he wants is for humanity to tell good from evil for itself, Jacob then turns around and appoints Richard as his ageless intermediary. Yeah, that’s not controlling at all.

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