paleo Ideofact

Friday, June 06, 2003
The modesty of poets
Here is how poet Zbigniew Herbert ends his essay on Torrentius, the painter mentioned in the two posts below:
We will probably never learn who he really was. A victim of political conspiracy? The flagrant disproportion of crime and punishment, the resonance of the trial and diplomatic intervention, all indicate this. Could the vindictiveness of the husbands and fathers of seduced women go as far as judicial murder? What was his connection with the Rosicrucians? One cannot altogether rule out that his scandalous excesses were a misleading maneuver, a mask concealing the conspiratorial activity of a member of the Fraternity. Perhaps he was a peculiar ascetic a rebours -- they appear not only in Russian novels -- who by his fall and sin aims in a roundabout way at the highest good.

So many questions. I did not manage to break the code. The enigmatic painter, the incomprehensible man, begins to pass from the plane of investigation based on flimsy sources to an indistinct sphere of fantasy, the domain of tellers of tales. Thus it is time to part with Torrentius.

Farewell still life.

Good night, severed head.
Herbert's restraint, his willingness to conjecture while recognizing that his conjectures are only that, strikes me as better history than the uncertainties presented as fact by Dash. I'm still reading the latter's book, even enjoying parts of it (his evocation of life on a 17th century Dutch ship is particularly gripping -- although I found myself dipping into the endnotes and weighing every sentence), and might continue to comment on it if I find other matters worth going into.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
More troubling history
Normally I don't comment on books I've only partially read (I'm only into chapter three of Batavia's Graveyard; I made an exception to the rule because I found the writing technique so deceptive). One reason for my reticence is that, occasionally, one's first impressions may be wrong, or an author may have a very good reason for setting up what appears to be a fallacious or weakly reasoned argument. Perhaps in the next chapter, for example, Dash would begin,
The truth of the matter is that we know little of the details of Jeronimus Cornelisz's life; it is mere speculation that he was Frisian, that he was an Anabaptist or a Mennonite, that his wife's relatives were, like his own, apothecaries; that he met or knew or knew of the views of Torrentius; that he was even a heretic, and not simply a madman. While he lived in Holland, and can't be understood without reference to historic Holland, there is no way of isolating the influences upon him that were most decisive: Was it the country's mercantile character? Did he merely rebel blindly against its sober bourgeois values? Was he a libertine rebel against Calvinism, or did he believe that, as an elect soul like those who slaughtered in Muenster to inaugurate the apocalypse, his Calvinist countrymen were infidels fit only for the gallows?
He might follow by lamenting the incomplete data, missing records, and so on, then propose his own interpretation and support it. I might have to eat my words, but it appears that Dash does none of this, at least as far as Torrentius is concerned. In his epilogue, he explains the connection between his heretic and the Dutch painter:
Pelsaert [a member of the Dutch East India Company who was Cornelisz' immediate superior on the Batavia] seems to have been tormented by his inability to understand what drove Cornelisz to such a course of action, and in his journals he several times refers to the under-merchant [i.e.--Cornelisz] as a "Torrentian" or an "Epicurean," as though this explained his actions. ... Because the journals contain no transcripts of the interrogations, it is impossible to know whether Cornelisz himself ever claimed to be a disciple of Torrentius, and the words Torrentian and Epicurean may simply have been vague labels applied by Pelsaert -- a sort of shorthand that conveyed more in 1629 than it does now.
This passage, referred to in one of the end notes to the first chapter, appears in the epilogue; it is followed, in the next paragraph, by this line:
If Jeronimus did indeed attempt to live by Torrentius' philosophy, all that can be said with any certainty is that he badly misrepresented his friend's opinions.
So after noting that the evidence of a connection between Cornelisz and Torrentius comes from Pelsaert, who knew Cornelisz not in Haarlem (where Torrentius lived) but in Amsterdam and on board the Batavia, Dash returns to the notion that there was an intimate relationship between the two (what else does the word "friend" mean?).

This is merely a popular history, and my intention was to read it solely for pleasure, perusing the notes only when I thought they might illuminate some obscure nautical term or procedure. I will read the whole book, but I think I would enjoy it more if the author's desire for definitive statements wasn't so pronounced. Dash, about whom I know little, has shown himself, like the mutineers about whom he writes, to be another character who can't be trusted.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003
A troubling history
I am very fond of both coffee and claret, but I wouldn't mix the two in a single glass and expect a potable potion. I wish I were so sensible in my choice of reading material.

For quite different reasons, I've read histories and treatments and primary texts of religious heresies from Judaism, Christianity and Islam; I've also enjoyed ripping yarns of the sea. For me, the attraction of the former are largely intellectual; the latter I read because as I read them, I want to know what happens next, to the crew of the Pequod, to Owen Chase, to Captain Bligh. So when I came across Mike Dash's Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny, I thought perhaps I had found a book that would engage me on two levels. Perhaps if I didn't pay attention to end notes, I would have been right.

A note on Mike Dash: I bought the book before I realized he was although the author of Tulipomania : The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. That's not altogether an insignificant fact; I skipped that book, because I believe the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, in an essay of around 20 or 30 pages, covered the subject with sufficient detail to satisfy my general curiosity as to why the sober Dutch would mortgage their homes and businesses to buy a single tulip bulb. (That essay can be found in the highly recommended collection, Still Life with a Bridle.) It's not that I'm not interested in knowing more, although the madness that fuels speculative financial bubbles strikes me as far less destructive -- far less threatening -- than the madness of millennial cults. The speculation that led to the 1929 crash was bad, but compared to, say, the zealous faith of the commissars plotting the Ukraine famine, it was hardly a monumental tragedy.

But back to Dash, who obviously shares my fondness for Herbert. In the first chapter, The Heretic, he introduces the character of Jeronimus Cornelisz, the protagonist of his history. Cornelisz was a Frisian transplanted to Haarlem, a druggist (hence a member of the middle, but not upper, class), and most likely an anabaptist. Dash then suggests that Corneliszoon was a member of Gerildo Thibault's fencing club, where wealthy young men met to philosophize. On page 43, he writes,
The man who linked Cornelisz to Giraldo Thibault's circle was Torrentius the painter. Jeronimus seems to have met him in Haarlem, and though it is impossible to say with any certainty where or when they met, they did live in close proximity to each other, the apothecary [of Cornelisz] in the Grote Houtstraat and the painter only 200 yards away in a house on the Zijlstraat.
For me, this was an arresting passage. Torrentius, whose real name was Johannes van der Beeck, painted the Still Life with a Bridle, which can be seen here. Like the tulipomania, my main source on Torrentius is Herbert, although I regret that more information on the painter is not readily available. Herbert speculated in his essay on Torrentius that the Still Life with a Bridle, the sole work of his to survive to the modern age, is a Rosicrucian allegory. Torrentius himself seems to have been something of a libertine, a free thinker, perhaps an Epicurean, but certainly a heterodox thinker. He was condemned to prison by the Dutch authorities for his heretical ideas, freed and exiled to England, and later returned to Holland, where he died more or less an unknown man. If, as Dash says on page 44, "By the late 1620s the two men knew each other well enough for Jeronimus to be described as a disciple of the painter," and on page 46, "Jeronimus Cornelisz came to share several of Torrentius's thoughts and may well have picked up a number of his views in discussion with the freethinking painter," then perhaps the denunciations of Jeronimus made by those who survived his mutiny and reign of terror might preserve, however imperfectly, some kernel of Torrentius' ideas, just as the beliefs of the various Gnostic heresiarchs can sometimes be deduced from the polemics of the Church fathers who denounced them.

But that first passage -- the one I quoted above -- bothered me. The logical conclusion to a sentence that begins,
Jeronimus seems to have met him in Haarlem, and though it is impossible to say with any certainty where or when they met,
would be something on the order of,
...several contemporary accounts name Cornelisz as a member of Torrentius' circle.

and not,

they did live in close proximity to each other...
It is only in the endnotes to the first chapter that the reader discovers,
It should be admitted here that there remains no direct evidence that the two men were acquainted, and Jeronimus's name does not appear in the process file concerning Torrentius's eventual arrest and trial. Nevertheless, in a town with an elite the size of Haarlem's -- perhaps 1,000 men -- it would actually be remarkable if two men of such distinct views were not known to one another.
I think this is the sort of thing that actually ought to be admitted in the text. It's awfully hard to be a disciple of a man one has never met.

Monday, June 02, 2003
Katrina at never explained the voice from your mouth (which I shortened to Isfogailsi in the favorites list) writes about a Japanese corollary to the Renaissance endeavor to harmonize a lot of disparate thought -- Hellenistic mystery cults, the Gospels, Plato's philosophy and experimental science -- into a unified whole:
Ideofact mentions the hypothesized "gnostic Egyptian religion" that was involved in Renaissance humanism (and is carried on to this day in several of the "occult" traditions; but that's another story). It's in essence something rather widespread, syncretism, associating deities of one religion as either manifestations (under different names) of deities of another or else lumping the former as aides and servents of the latter. I think it's particularly associated with esotericism, but maybe that's just where I've run into it.

At any rate, in Japan there's honji suijaku, which was a fairly important development I should think, which allowed Buddhism, which was state-sponsored, to co-exist with the more native religion (although there have always been extremists on either side of the issue). (I'm not calling it Shinto because I'm not certain on when that name was established: I believe, actually, not until the 19th century but I'm very possibly mistaken.) That philosophy holds that each of the native gods is actually a manifestation of a Buddha: Amaterasu becomes therefore Dainichi nyorai.
Interesting, and it makes me wish I knew more about the history of Japan.

Sunday, June 01, 2003
Via the Insecure Egoist, whom I've belatedly added to the favorites list, I came across Colby Cosh's update to the post that led to Cronaca's post on misreading the Renaissance. (Insecure Egoist's post is on May 29 -- Note to Chris, if you haven't already, try republishing your archives -- it might help with the permablogger permalink permaproblem.)

Colby Cosh wrote,
...with respect to the classical world, the men of the Renaissance had damned good reasons to feel that the milieu had changed suddenly.
Yes, things had changed -- so much so that Medieval Men, steeped in engineering and science, the kind of men who kept notebooks about their observations of architecture, anatomy, mechanics, and so on -- men like Leonardo da Vinci, to name one -- were believed to be second rate intelligences:
Leonardo's greatest problems were caused by the contempt in which he was held by the humanists. Having lacked the opportunity of attending a university to study the liberal arts, he had learned no Greek and very little Latin. This was to prove a major stumbling block in his life. The Renaissance humanists, who were his contemporaries, glorified the great culture of classical antiquity, but to him that culture was largely a closed book. He was probably never truly accepted in a humanist milieu, where discussions wold often be carried out in Latin. Certainly his name is never associated with the famous Neoplatonist circle of his home town, Florence -- with Lorenzo Il Magnifico and the philosophers Ficino, Landino, Poliziano, and Pico della Mirandola. Thus, time and time again in his writings Leonardo returns to the scorn of the humanists: "Because I am not a literary man some presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably blame me because I am an unlettered man. Foolish men! ... They will say that because I have no letters I cannot express wel what I want to treat of." He questions the right of these literati to judge him: "They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with the fruits not of their own labours but those of others, And they will not allow me my own. And if they despise me, an inventor, how much more could they--who are not inventors but trumpeters and declaimers of the works of others -- be blamed."

(The above passage is from Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages.
Lynn White Jr. and Gimpel argued -- rather persuasively, to my mind -- that the Middle Ages invented the notion of the progress, the belief that contemporary man is more technologically advanced than his predecessors, and likely to continue becoming more advanced. The Renaissance, by contrast, began with the translation of ancient texts (some of which were Hellenistic productions that the good Renaissance humanists believed dated back to the time of Moses).

I think one of the reasons Medievalists get bothered by "all hail the Renaissance" cheerleading is that so many Renaissance figures fell for a kind of nutball new age antiquity that a rational man of today would find incomprehensible.

This isn't to say that I don't find this stuff fascinating, or that a wrong track can't lead to worthwhile results. Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (only a short section of which appears here; you can buy the whole thing here) was an important text; his public delivery of the address is taken by some to be the kickoff of the Renaissance. Towards the end of his oration, Pico tries to synthesize Cabalistic texts, the phony Corpus Hermeticum, Christian tradition and classical philosophy in a loopy hodgepodge. None of it makes much sense until you realize that for some of the Renaissance humanists, revelation began with the gentile prophet Hermes Trismegistus; the great project for some of the humanists was to validate by the authority of the early Hermetic texts subsequent revelation or knowledge. Thus the beginning of the Oration:
I once read that Abdala the Muslim, when asked what was most worthy of awe and wonder in this theater of the world, answered, "There is nothing to see more wonderful than man!" Hermes Trismegistus concurs with this opinion: "A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!"
We think (or think we think) like Galileo: Either the Ptolemaic, geocentric universe is right, or the Copernican system is right, and with mathematics and the scientific method, we can figure out which was right. Galileo got in trouble with the Aristotelians of his day, who asked, "Who is right, Aristotle or this unknown Galileo," and of course, Galileo was wrong, because what was he compared to Aristotle. Copernicus' other great defender, Giordano Bruno, operated according to the same methods as the Aristotelians, but he asked, who is right, Aristotle or Hermes Trismegistus? -- and came up with an entirely different answer. What was important wasn't scientific observation (although Bruno was capable of that) but rather authority; science was used to validate authority. I think Kepler and later Newton started people thinking the other way around, although both of them were not immune to thinking the other way.

But to get back to Pico, I was rather astonished to open up a collection of writings by Muhammad Sa'id al-Ashmawy, Against Islamic Extremism, and find that he, like his Renaissance predecessors, postulated an ancient Egyptian, monotheistic precursor to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like some of the Renaissance interpreters of the Hermetica, he reduces the troublesome polytheism of the Egyptians to quasi-Gnostic archons and angels of the divine creator. And he analyzes the historical failings of the three Abrahamic faiths in the context of a more perfectly conceived Egyptian precursor. Against Islamic Extremism is another sort of oration on the dignity of man (and woman, I should add) -- although produced in a very different historical context and form. Perhaps Hermes Trismegistus can spark another round of humanism in a region that sorely needs it.