In which we confirm that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways
Had it appeared 30 years earlier, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind, published in 1958, might have become a hugely important book, not just in the field of Art History but in the (slightly) wider world of general aesthetics.
Sadly, though, it arrived just as the English Cultural Revolution was hitting full swing (the paperback, for instance, was published in 1967). This was an era (and actually we’re still stuck in it) when anything that smacked of subtle complexity was routinely dismissed out of hand as just so much oppressively indulgent jiggery pokery.
And of course Pagan Mysteries seeks not just to elucidate but to re-evaluate subtle complexity.
There’s no immediate prospect of people rediscovering this book. But don’t despair. Its time will surely come (again). And in fact, in that respect, it’s somewhat self-reflexive. In passages like this one, it seems almost to evoke the mechanism by which this sort of resurrection might come to pass.
Not that this is really a hidden by-path:
The belief that because a thing is not stressed it must be important is not entirely without merit, but it can lead to exegetic madness. Gibbon ridiculed a faith which taught its adherents that a “contradictory doctrine must be divine since no man alive could have thought of inventing it.” By the same token it is a prejudice to assume that a thing must be central because it looks marginal. Yet, the supposition that some things which look marginal may be central is one of those judicious reflections that rarely fail to open up new fields of knowledge because they introduce a change of focus.
Not only is it true that great discoveries have generally “centred” on the “fringes” of knowledge but the very progress of knowledge may be regarded as a persistent shift of centre. In Cusanus and Pico, a sharp instinctive awareness of the rule, that any given knowledge may be transcended, was condensed into a mystical superstition: a belief that all important truths are cryptic. But from this bleak, retardative axiom of faith, perhaps the most perilous vestige of Neoplatonism, they drew a prophetic rule of learning: that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways. Enlightenment and obscurantism are tightly linked in the method of docta ignorantia.
Of course I do. We lay on our backs on a Cornish beach that August night, staring into the sky, you and I, each newly single, or soon to become so; and because the Perseids performed for us we assumed, quite naturally, that we would fall in love.
But we did not.
The truth is we were worlds apart. I hardly saw you at all after that night; and never again the two of us alone.
But yes, in one of the luminous fragments in the sentimental novella of my life in a parallel universe, it all played out rather differently: though to what end, I’m still not entirely sure.
Even so, in August, when I look up long enough to catch a falling star, I think of you. Of course I do.
Sounds a bit like the conundrum that triggered Bertrand Russell’s nervous breakdown in 1901 as he set about finessing set theory. Can a set be a member of itself? Turns out it depends who’s asking. Or put it another way: Is this a question?
But enough prevarication. I come bearing gifts. Because philologists, I have been informed, reliably, have recently been noting the improbable revival of that most hallowed of receptacles, the Dustbin of History.
This was, you will hardly need reminding, an object much-beloved once-upon-a-time by Marxist historians, though credit for its consecration can’t go to Charlie Marx himself. No: that plaudit goes instead to Charlie’s pithy grandson (philosophically speaking) Lenin.
But yes, clearly, the notion is properly Marxist. In a universe where the passage of time is synonymous with progress, it’s axiomatic that some ideas and methods will become obsolete. And where do you put things when they’ve become obsolete?
That’s right! Lenin initially evoked the bin as a final resting place for the moderate Menshevik wing of his party. The Mensheviks were bad eggs, the sorts of wretches we’d now call Blairites and spit at in the street.
So of course they deserved their fate. But over the years, though it had originally been fashioned from the finest galvanised steel, the bin began losing its lustre. The last thing consigned to it (or so we thought) was that sublime breezeblock monument to Marx’s life and work, The Berlin Wall.
In the last few months, though, we’ve seen it (the bin, not the wall) making the odd re-appearance.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion that sundry Mensheviks have been escaping, intent on wreaking all sorts of mischief.
But one commentator will be pleased, and indeed will feel vindicated. Over the last couple of decades or so, he has continued to evoke the Dustbin of History, and he has done so without any need to resort to apologetic irony. We are of course referring to that Hegelian philosopher and social commentator, Homer Simpson, famed for reducing the concept to a resonant three-letter acronym: “DOH!”
Suggested essay questions
- “Hegel hielt weniger auf Plotin als auf Proclus, und legte besonders diesem Buche des letzteren einen grossen Wert bei.” (Friedrich Creuzer) Discuss
- Set in order: i) the UK Parliament ii) British Home Stores iii) Welsh figure-skating
- Have you used both sides of your paper?
- Conjugate: i) ecstatically ii) with ironic detachment iii) soundly
- “All proper tea is theft” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the Lapsang Souchong Crisis of 1764.) Are you calling me a liar?
- Can you catch the Zika virus from a toilet seat? (Please demonstrate.)
- Ever felt like just giving up and starting again?
I have sat up with them, the last of Edinburgh’s rentier class, as they blew what remained of their inheritance on amphetamines
Thanks to Lynn Barber’s recent TV interview with a portly pop-eyed gentleman, name of John Lydon, it has all come flooding back. Public Image Limited. That’s what they, we, were listening to. In chi-chi Cumberland Street mews flats, in shabby genteel apartments in Marchmont and Bruntsfield. The soundtrack to that time and space.
Ainslie, Fiona, Mark Cunninghame, Adj. Someone probably pledged one day to write about you. Only later might they have realised there was nothing really to say.