Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Death + Didascalicon


Last post began with a promised juxtaposition that stayed delayed. Too much grading intervened, too many importuning appeals. Here's the connection. In Rik Van Nieuwenhove's An Introduction to Medieval Theology (2012), the Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor (ca. 1096-1141; pictured above) gets its moment. Don't be scared off by the title, as it's a guide to what, as you can see in my self-description on this very blog, is the medieval progression of study. The trivium's triple way from grammar to rhetoric to logic, whose remnant may be Freshman Comp (now "First-Year" to avoid gender), and then the more abstract realms of the four paths as the quadrivium into arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. In turn, wisdom under the guise of theologia rules as Queen over the sciences. Literally, the fields of knowledge, from the Latin scire, to know, not our modern convention.
These seven liberal arts show the student freed from manual labor the direction to follow.

"The start of learning, thus, lies in reading, but its consummation lies in meditation; which, if any man will learn to love it very intimately and will desire to be engaged very frequently upon it, renders his life pleasant indeed, and provides the greatest consolation to him in his trials. This especially it is which takes the soul away from the noise of earthly business and makes it have even in this life a kind of foretaste of the sweetness of the eternal quiet."

That last phrase lingers like poetry. With less noise lately, more of us get squirrely, but some of us stay content. Turning off the machine and tuning in to nature, and the mind, and soul.

I'm trying to write shorter pieces for the blog, as looking back I can see I wrote ones that the ruder folk online dismiss as tl;dr (too long, didn't read). Philistines leaving graffiti, IMHO.

All the same, I am not attempting always to weave together various threads. More like the commonplace book I originally thought this blog'd be, I'll be inserting some reviews from the past couple of years stored up, as well as some even before that, Italian focused often as they were preparation for my visit there in what seems, given our already altered, or at least interrupted, collective memory, a while ago, rather than the few years on the calendar count.

What I'm musing about for much of my life: how we construct our notions of death and what either does or does not await us afterwards. Teaching a Contemporary Fine Arts, I offer a dozen very flexible theme choices so students can select an approach to slot in their own works to analyze. At first, when I added to the boring original six the course designer plunked down, another much more engaging, naturally six, and revising the six previous ones, I hesitated a second before creating one centered around death and mortality. It's been the most chosen by far each term. Sometimes half of those enrolled opt for it eagerly.

And in an already annoying to me media blitz where infection rates rise next to CNN sharing only one topic for two-plus months and counting, and where "uncertain times" came two weeks into this shutdown in two separate brands of cars advertised on air, and then a month in, the "we're with you poor brutes who have to go out and be nurses and DoorDash drivers" self-congratulatory missives, and now products pitched at the housebound or unsheltered in place, eager as the latest off-road jeep spiel starts, "from Park to Drive"--well, it's more apt than averring as I might let's have neighborhood book reads of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (can't get it from the library e-books as it's way booked) and the Decameron. I leave aside Camus' The Plague as it's allegory, but I do add to the shelf my own pick at the end.

Of course, I've been musing on this mortal coil and its contortions. I have my own loss that I keep private. Not sure if not being able to attend what would have been three (so far) funerals indirectly hastened to be sure by the virus and the ripple effect on hospitals, nursing homes, and the speed at which a kid drives a McLaren sports car and kills a certain pedestrian on an empty downtown L.A. street is a blessing or curse. But I am leaving off prognostications. Only noting my bemusement when a "Plan-demic" video was posted on a discussion forum, and seeing at the bottom of its conspiratorial manifesto a tag line to go to Alex J's Info-W's to purchase a 95-whatever mask. Profiting off panic, survivalist suckers.

For now, I'm reflecting, not predicting. And trying to parse if "through July" as issued by the California governor just now means shut-in until the end of June or of July itself. So, my reading will, deo volente, live on. As in this via Harper's weekly archive of arch finds from its 160 or so years of publication. As a subscriber, I unlock the magic door behind a paywall.

This pdf reveals the late John Berger's Sept. 2008 list "On the Economy of the Dead." I've been mulling it over as the past week I'd watched too the Amazon series Upload, all about the attempts of corporations in 2033 to create theme-park-resorts for those whose consciousness has been beamed onto a hard drive. Then the simalacra of the un-dead, as avatars, roam above in their digitally run paradise. With the supervision of their customer service reps in human form at keyboards who oversee their accounts--and as long as their earthbound relatives or loved ones foot the bill for their continued upkeep and fancy AI digs.

Which in turn reminds me strongly, in this lockdown phase of our own time, this 2006 novel. See my (admittedly mixed, may be spoilers) review of The Brief History of the Dead.
Have fun matching up which number you choose to align with long-gone Hugh of St. Victor.
  1. The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead. In this core are the dimensions of time and space. What surrounds the core is timelessness.
  2. Between the core and its surroundings there are exchanges, which are not usually clear. All religions have been concerned with making them clearer. The credibility of religion depends upon the clarity of certain unusual exchanges. The mystifications of religion are the result of trying to produce such exchanges systematically.
  3. The rarity of clear exchange is due to the rarity of what can cross intact the frontier between timelessness and time.
  4. To see the dead as the individuals they once were tends to obscure their nature. Try to consider the living as we might assume the dead to do: collectively. The collective would accrue not only across space but also throughout time. It would include all those who had ever lived. And so we would also be thinking of the dead. The living reduce the dead to those who have lived, yet the dead already include the living in their own great collective.
  5. The dead inhabit a timeless moment of construction continually rebegun. The construction is the state of the universe at any instant.
  6. According to their memory of life, the dead know the moment of construction as, also, a moment of collapse. Having lived, the dead can never be inert.
  7. If the dead live in a timeless moment, how can they have a memory? They remember no more than being thrown into time, as does everything which existed or exists.
  8. The difference between the dead and the unborn is that the dead have this memory. As the number of dead increases, the memory enlarges.
  9. The memory of the dead existing in timelessness may be thought of as a form of imagination concerning the possible. This imagination is close to (resides in) God, but I do not know how.
  10. In the world of the living there is an equivalent but contrary phenomenon. The living sometimes experience timelessness, as revealed in sleep, ecstasy, instants of extreme danger, orgasm, and perhaps in the experience of dying itself. During these instants the living imagination covers the entire field of experience and overruns the contours of the individual life or death. It touches the waiting imagination of the dead.
  11. What is the relation of the dead to what has not yet happened, to the future? All the future is the construction in which their “imagination” is engaged.
  12. How do the living lie with the dead? Until the dehumanization of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.

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