paleo Ideofact

Saturday, January 18, 2003
Counter reading
As an undergraduate, I read Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. If I recall correctly, the interpretation didn't stray too far from the one on the back of the cheap Signet edition I linked:
Faustus' story serves as a warning to those who would sacrifice righteous living for earthly gain. But Marlowe's play is also a deeply symbolic analysis of the shift from the late medieval world to the early modern world -- a time when the medieval view that the highest wisdom lay in the theologian's contemplation of God was yielding to the Renaissance view that the highest wisdom lay in the scientist's and statesman's rational analysis of the world around them. Caught between these ideals, Faustus is both a tragic fool destroyed by his own ambition and a hero at the forefront of a changing society. In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe thoughtfully examines faith and enlightenment, nature and science--and the terrible cost of the objects of our desire.
That's more or less how I read the play (and I'm well aware that there are probably mountains of papers with titles like "Nomial subalterns troped toward transgendered discourse: A synthesistic [de]-reading of Marlowe's Faust" -- I'm not smart enough to understand them or even translate such things into English). Consider this exchange with Mephistopheles:
Faustus: First I will question thee about Hell. Tell me, were is the place that men call Hell?

Mephistophilis:Under the heavens.

Faustus: Ay, so are all things, but whereabouts?

Mephistophilis: Within the bowels of all these elements where we are tortured and remain forever. Hell hath no limits nor is circumscribed in one self place, but where we are is hell, and to be short, when all the world dissolves and every creature shall be purified all places shall be hell that is not heaven!

Faustus: I think hell's a fable.

Mephistophilis: Ay, think so still -- till experience change thy mind!

Faustus: Why, dost thou think that Faustus shall be damned?

Mephistophilis: Ay, of necessity, for here's the scroll in which thou hast given thy soul to Lucifer.

Faustus: Ay, and body too; but what of that? Think'st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine that after this life there is any pain? No, these are trifles and mere old wives' tales.

Mephistophilis: But I am an instance to prove the contrary, for I tell thee I am damned and now in hell!

Faustus: Nay, and this be hell, I'll willingly be damned -- What, sleeping, eating, walking, and disputing?
In that passage, from the second act, first scene, Faustus seems so reasonable, so much like us. He seems even to be familiar with Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, in which Shaw presents a Hell that is merely an extension of life on earth, stripped of its material necessities -- truly a paradise, where one can choose what age one wants to be, and indulge in everything -- eating, sleeping, walking and disputing. As modern readers of the play, we know of course that the fictional universe plays by Mephistopheles' rules, though we end by concluding that Faustus' real sin -- his failure to repent -- was just so much vanity or pride. Perhaps we believe that we could strike the same bargain with the devil, but not lose our humanity in the way Faustus does.

The Faust story has always been one of those stories that intrigued me. I tried to imagine a modern, 20th Century version when I was in college, and the best I could come up with goes something like this: Faust is a top physics scientist at a university, a thoroughly modern man with a humanist worldview. Mephistopheles is his grad student. In the last act, Faust finally figures out who Mephistopheles is, and, almost annoyed, asks for the contract so that he can understand all physical laws. Mephistopheles is genuinely touched by Faust's eagerness to enter a deal, but replies that he won't give away something for nothing. "You see, good doctor, I already have your soul," he says....

In the preceding acts, as the physicist wrestled with the ultimate nature of the universe, Mephistopheles would drop hints that, like in Marlowe's play, the old rules still applied. I'm not so vain as to think of writing a Faust myself, and I wondered at the intention of an author who would write such a version: perhaps as an attack on modernism.

Oddly enough, I'd never considered Marlowe's intention in writing his Faust. Or rather, I assumed that he was "thoughtfully examin[ing] faith and enlightenment, nature and science..." I was a bit surprised, then, when reading Frances Yates' excellent work The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, that perhaps Marlowe had something else in mind. Yates, I gather, was just speculating, yet after tracing the development of figures like Ficino, Pico, Reuchlin and Dee -- Renaissance mages whose Hermetic and Cabalist ideas were precursors (oddly enough) of our scientific age -- she places Marlowe among their opponents, and suggests that Doctor Faustus was primarily a polemical attack on them:
To arrive at Marlowe's Doctor Faustus within the sequence of the argument of this book is to gain rather a different impression of the play from the one usually current. It begins to look less like the thought of an heroic individual soul, struggling with problems of science and magic versus religion, and more like a piece of propaganda constructed in view of a current situation. This play was not written to be read by literary critics looking for mighty lines in the quiet of their studies. It was written to be produced in the popular theatre, with horrific diabolical effects, to audiences working up into hysteria. In fact, as already remarked, it belongs to the atmosphere of the contemporary witch crazes in which the building up of Cornelius Agrippa into a black magician played a significant part.

We are in fact witnessing in this play the reaction against the Renaissance.
I don't think I've ever read a description of Marlowe's Faustus along those lines. I don't know if Yates' assertion is right, but it's interesting enough to make me want to re-read it...

Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Crescent, Cross and Thor's Hammer, I
Sometimes it's refreshing to go back to, as it were, one's intellectual roots, and re-examine phenomena from a perspective that once intrigued with its novelty but later chafed through its discipline. As an undergraduate, I studied archaeology, which was a fascinating pursuit with which I nevertheless grew disenchanted. It's hard to say precisely why, especially when going back to a work like Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse.

The religious symbols in the title of this post are used somewhat ironically; archaeologists generally (out of necessity often) regarded religion as an epiphenomenal feature of culture: floating above with little effect. I've noted before that this seems to have changed somewhat, or at least that archaeologists now seem to be willing to make definitive statements about the ideologies of peoples who left no written records -- not even a name by which we can call them -- although an ideology isn't necessarily the same thing as a religion (indeed, people who share the same religion can operate from diametrically opposed ideologies). (On the other hand, in their work Religion and Empire : The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism, Geoffrey Conrad and Arthur Demarest use the terms "religion" and "ideology" almost interchangeably, for example
The historical and anthropological questions we have asked cannot be answered without a consideration of Mexica and Inca religion.

No doubt these claims will seem surprising to many readers. In general, contemporary archaeology takes a limited approach to prehistoric ideologies. Most archaeologists simply disregard the topic. This neglect stems from a widespread view of religion as an essentially conservative force serving to maintain the status quo.
And so on. In the following two sentences, religion and ideology appear again as synomyms. Incidentally, I'm not sure, but I believe that Conrad and Demarest, who published their book in 1984, may be responsible for the subsequent willingness of archaeologists to throw around terms like ideology when talking about preliterate cultures. But I digress.

This blog is called Ideofact, so perhaps it's appropriate to transition with an ideofact found in a horde (that is, a buried cache of silver, jewelry, or other valuables) associated with a preliterate culture. The object found was a silver Buddha. The provenience (that is, location) was a dark aged cache near Helgo, in central Sweden. It was buried for safe keeping by a Viking, who probably would have shared the materialist bias of archaeologists in regarding the Buddha as little more than a valuable hunk of precious metal.

Or was he a Viking at all? I noted below some posts on the discovery of a "hostage stone," which supposedly blows a hole through revisionist ideas about the Scandinavian tribes being peaceful traders and settlers. David at Cronaca headlined his post, "Vikings came in peace. Not." Certainly, Vikings didn't come in peace -- the word itself translates roughly to pirate -- but were the Scandanavians of the period simply Vikings, or was there something more complicated going on? The answer (as Andrew of Mind-Numbing noted) is a little more complicated, as the complicated answer to how a statue of the Buddha ended up in central Sweden demonstrates. But that will be the subject of my next post in this too wordy series...

Tuesday, January 14, 2003
Okay, I'm getting old...
David of Cronaca comments on a New York Times article about the poor state of school cafeterias. After noting that most kids choose the french fries over the "tasteless frozen green beans," the article says
The problem is that with so much choice, only half the children choose the nutritious meal and then many do not eat all of it, leaving the vegetables.

"I've been in school kitchens where they haven't the simplest tools like knives or equipment to store fresh fruits and vegetables, much less processors for shredding and chopping or containers and utensils for salad bars," said Thomas Forster, of the nonprofit Community Food Security Coalition, a group concerned about nutritious food.
I last ate in a high school cafeteria in 1982. My memory may be faulty, but as I recall, we didn't get to choose between tasteless green beans and french fries -- there was usually one vegetable, and it was tasteless (or worse), and had we suggested a salad bar, the adminstration probably would have suspended us for being a pack of dangerous radicals. Which isn't to say that I don't think schools could do a better job with lunch programs, only that it seems like they're doing a better job than when I was a kid.

Sunday, January 12, 2003
For a while I've been meaning to get around to an intriguing post on Vikings at Mind-Numbing, but for the time being it will have to wait, as I have little time tonight. David posted about the same find over at Cronaca.

Andrew at Mind-Numbing quotes a Sunday Times article about the recent discovery of stone depicting a Viking warrior leading away a captive:
REVISIONIST accounts of history depict the Vikings as a peaceable people who came to Scotland to farm and trade with the local population. However, a new archeological find supports the traditional view that they were a bloodthirsty race who wreaked havoc, attacking defenceless villages, raping their women and plundering their possessions.
Andrew comments on the question of whether the revisionist view is accurate,
Things are always more complicated, aren't they? It depends on which Vikings and in what areas and when. (It probably also depends on the whims of academic politics and publishing tastes, but I'm not quite that jaded.)

I'm pretty comfortable saying that who we call the Vikings weren't particularly more or less violent than the Anglo-Saxons, Frisians or Carolingians. They just did it with more style.
If I recall correctly, the Vikings were a crucial part of a trading network that linking three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), and probably helped play a role in the development of the Carolingian empire. The raids grew more intense as the trading network fell apart. I'll write more in the coming days of the Cross, the Crescent, and Thor's Hammer...

It's rare enough that anyone recommends a book to me based on things I've written on this blog, even rarer then that two people whose intelligence I respect recommend works by the same author. In response to some of the Hermetic posts that have been regular Ideofact fair of late (those concerning Bruno, Frances Yates, memory theaters, and the like), both Peter Larsen, a longtime reader and valued critic (and I mean critic in the best sense of the word -- one who provides valuable criticism when he thinks it appropriate), and Judith Weiss, a contributor to the always informative and thought-provoking Kesher Talk, wrote to me about John Crowley (note: the Amazon page I linked showed, at least when I looked at it, several of his other titles under the "Customers who bought this book also bought" section). Peter wrote,
John Crowley is a very fine and rather Hermetic author. He has a 4 volume novel of which the 1st 3 are available -- AEgypt, Love & Sleep, and Daemonium (I think I spelled the last one correctly). Anyway, Bruno and Dee figure in the story, which deals with paradigm shifts, the nature of knowledge and memory, etc. Crowley has some lovely images in the novel, one of which takes place when Bruno is sitting on a hill at night thinking about all the correspondences of the Planets and Fixed Spheres and how the adept/whatever must laboriously climb through them to escape the World and look on the Naked Face of God. Then he thinks about the Heliocentric solar system and realizes, if it is true, the motions of the planets carry you through all those Spheres and stuff all the time, and the Face of God is right there for you to look at.

Anyway, it was a cool image of science and religious speculation not at each other's throats, which is nice...
Indeed. Judith noted,
Little/Big is a classic of the "fantasy realist" genre, and Crowley is an incredible prose stylist. His first novel The Deep is pre-his interest in medieval philisophy, but is also excellent and unique.
I don't read novels as much as I used to (there was a long period when I read nothing but fiction -- I seem always in my reading to swing from one extreme to the other), but I'll have to check Crowley out.