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.

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