Periodizing Eras of European History

Periodizing the eras of European history is a useful way of studying and understanding European history as it helps one to remember more monumental chunks of that history and make simple associations among the elements within those chunks.

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It can also be misleading for a number of reasons. Not all works or events within a given period will necessarily share an enough similarity to make their grouping easily understood.

An example of that issue is in the period of the Renaissance, if one compares for example the work of Desiderius Erasmus with that of his Italian contemporaries. What is most apparently lacking in the former is the spirit of classical antiquity, in particular that of Rome, which makes the word Renaissance (Rinascimento) so apt for the Italians and, for example, the works of Montaigne.

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Another criticism of the periodization of history is that it obscures continuity between eras, perhaps even causes important influences to be lost or forgotten as they do not fit into the constructed scheme.

For an example of this one could point to the relatively unheard of, at least by non-Italians, Sicilian vernacular poetry which would come to have a great influence on Petrarch and Dante, among others. It was also a member of the Sicilian school, Giacomo da Lentini, who is credited with the creation of the sonnet.

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The most glaring issue, from my perspective, with this method of classification is highlighted by the period of roughly the mid-16th through the 17th century for which a number of different categories are used, namely the Renaissance, Reformation, Baroque, and the Scientific Revolution. The problem is that these diverse trends can be hard to square in the mind of students of European history.

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It is true that, for example, Baroque refers mainly to an artistic style, whereas the Reformation refers to a split and reorganization within the church system of Europe, so that one might say there is really no issue at all. Insofar as it is the reality, it is true, but the problem is rather that by breaking a single period into a number of independent trends, the student risks being unable to conceptualize the period as a whole.

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So, while such periodization is entirely acceptable for highlighting specific events and trends in a period, it becomes less helpful for seeing a time as a unity. Such a defect might be remedied by seeing the Baroque as tied to the Counter-Reformation within the catholic church. Nonetheless one must be careful that by the use of periodization one does not rather obscure than illuminate what is under consideration.

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Still, despite these and many other criticisms, I would defend the practice of periodizing history if only because it is a useful aid, if accompanied by some minor cautions, to learning about and discussing the history of Europe. It operates as a schema to which additional considerations and nuances can easily be added.

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The European Tradition

This post is intended for an open discussion rather than a definitive statement.

One helpful way of conceptualizing the European Tradition is through a historical and developing canon of great works, whether literary, artistic, or philosophic.

Another question might be, does a work need to possess certain ideas or qualities in order to be considered part of the European tradition?

My own answer would be a somewhat ambivalent yes. In order to be part of the European tradition, a work must be in conscious dialogue with that tradition and on behalf of that tradition and therefore not on behalf of another tradition foreign to Europe. A marginal case might be a work which is in dialogue with the living customs and traditions of Europe in a local and geographical level, yet still on behalf of that tradition and not on behalf of a tradition foreign to Europe.

Because in our modern day, Europe and other western societies have developed under the influence of many great works, even dialogue on the local level which mean to be conscious of the European tradition would do well to be conscious of precedents in great works, thinkers, and actors from the past.

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The Central Importance of Beauty

The pursuit of beauty has lately gone out of fashion, whereas for thousands of years it was held to be one of the highest values. This movement away from beauty has gone even so far as to view beauty with suspicion and even open hostility, laying the blame upon its pursuit for those who do not or cannot live up to its ideals. As a result and to everyone’s loss, tactics have been mobilized against beauty, such as claiming its total subjectivity, and little by little standards of beauty have begun to vanish. This can be seen most acutely in the state of modern architecture, but even in modern art.

What must needs therefore be done is to inform people what beauty is and why it is important. To begin with, beauty relates to our highest ideals and natural human goods. A beautiful person, for example, exhibits the qualities of health and strength and is therefore capable. In matters of personality, beauty is envinced by courage and intelligence. These are ideals which humans benefit by living up to and looking up to, in oneself and in others.

Beautiful forms are often expressions of order or harmony and thus give structure and clarity to the mind which in turn helps us to overcome our doubts and indecision.

Beauty inherently leaves room for variation. In its classical form, it is characterized by a graceful arrangement across which the eyes may glide without any glaring elements which would shock or jar the senses, but beauty can also take the form of the picturesque, where the surprising is artfully arranged to fill the observer with delight and awaken in him longing, excitement, and even fond memories. The sublime is likewise a form which beauty might take, with the effect that the observer is overcome by the grandeur of what lies before him. The scene may be one of mystery or magnificence which awakens the mind with wonder at our very existence.

It is the work of beauty, as the core of art, to inspire and let the witnesses know that there is more to life than their animal needs and remind them that they too are capable of pursuing higher goals if only they would set out with passion and determination.

Beauty as a value is antithetical to the economic mindset, as in beauty value is understood in terms of natural wealth. An uncultivated piece of nature is economically unproductive, but the joy and meaning it can bring to one’s life is beyond measure. If one was made to forego all proximity to beauty and live out one’s days in an entirely industrial landscape of warehouses and concrete, every sum of money would instantly lose all worth.

The pursuit of beauty means making the world into more than it was when we found it, and in this we can take inspiration from the work of Capability Brown:

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and we must ask ourselves why, when there is already so much cause for despair in the world, one would waste one’s effort to contribute to it further rather than spending one’s time cultivating the world into a place worth living.

Finally, we must all come to better understand what is meant by tradition, another concept which is sorely misunderstood in our time. Tradition is not a meaningless reptition of formalistic techniques or empty rituals. Tradition is the sum of all meaning expressed in the past, whether in art, thought, or action. To be engaged with tradition is to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue with both the past on behalf of the present and the present on behalf of the past.

The Spirit of Great Art

All great art expresses both the spirit and the potential of its time as well as a vision to guide its time. The most significant means by which this is accomplished is through style, themes, scope and focus.

Much great art can be categorized as belonging to stylistic movements. These styles are not arbitrary – there is no conflict between style and substance in these cases  – because the movements are themselves representative of the spirit of their age – including particular intellectual and aesthetic developments as well as the hopes, strivings, and concerns of the age. In other words, the styles or characteristics of the movement tell one something about the age, its potential, and its vision as a whole. That does not mean that a style or movement must necessarily be viewed positively by the public, connosseurs or what have you, but rather that a great style express more than an a mere affectation of the artist.

The greater the unity, or rather harmony, the greater the work. In that sense, the themes may already be inherent in the style or characteristic of the movement. Nonetheless, themes may also stand on their own in relation to the age, dealing with the issues which are being faced and used to express the potential of the age and the vision of what may be done with that potential. Because one’s age is always central (which is only natural since an artist is also a human being and if an intelligent being will be aware of, concerned with, and therefore influenced by his time and its concerns) all artists are simultaneously limited by the shape of their age and able to transcend it by the scope of their vision, so long as that vision accounts for the potential inherent in their age.

Many confusedly believe scope and focus to be the most important aspects of art, sometimes even the only important aspects. This is what is expressed by the admonition of a work as exemplifying style over substance. The scope and focus of course determine the substance, but the substance – in the hands of a skilled and intelligent artist – must be decided in relation to the artist’s vision for the potential of his age. This is because a work of art is always affective. If the vision is entirely negative, the affect on the potential of one’s age will likewise be negative. To frame this opposition as one between optimism and pessimism is wrong. What is often called optimistic or pessimistic is really merely a difference between realistic and idealistic. What is always at stake is the character of the future – if not as a goal then as a direction – and the qualities needed to take us forward.

To be more concrete on the topic of scope and focus, the artist must be circumspect about which aspects he chooses to exemplify the spirit of his time. What is at issue and what is at stake? Who is it that can press their stamp upon the age or lead it into the future, and among which conditions might they arise and with what might they contend if they are to actualize their potential in pusuit of that vision of the future.

Navigating Belief and Morality in a post-Christian World: Considering Polidori’s The Vampyre

On a number of occasions in John Polidori’s The Vampyre, conflict between belief and reality is made explicit. Indeed, our first introduction to the story’s protagonist, Aubrey, describes him as someone who has cultivated imagination over judgement and come to believe the dreams of poets to be the stuff of reality. The impression I received after finishing The Vampyre was that, despite the story being decidedly secular, in that there was only one passing reference to the Christian mythos, from what I could tell, the story continues to operate within the Christian framework, only with a focus on “evil” rather than “goodness”.

The figure of the vampire, embodied in the character Lord Ruthven, has as much in common with the Christian Devil figure as it does with vampire’s considered as a mere blood-sucking predator with characteristic qualities. In fact, the one direct reference to the Christian mythos was an association of the character of Ruthven to the Devil, saying that he possessed the “serpent’s art” of seduction using his words, the serpent often being associated with the Devil in relation to the story of Adam and Eve.

Ruthven is depicted as having no sympathy with the virtuous and, while he provides charity to the idle, vagabond and beggarly, to it is attached a curse which lands the recipients either on “the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and the most abject misery”. In this quality there appears more than the power usually granted to vampires and which rather a hint of divine providence about it, though a decidedly malevolent providence. Also like the Devil, Ruthven plays the role of the tempter, seducing women “from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue, down to the lowest abyss of infamy and degradation”.

These facets made me think of one of the earliest influences to the Gothic movement, namely Milton’s Paradise Lost in which the power and seduction of Satan’s personality causes him to take on heroic proportions. I also thought of the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-Bas, whose main focus is the interest in Satanism during his time. Particularly in the latter novel, as it is part of a larger sequence of works which recounts the conversion of the protagonist to Catholicism, it is clear that Satanism, or the pre-dominance of evil’s seduction, is not something separate from Christianity but just one aspect of its greater mythos. Indeed, in some ways one might even be tempted to interpret Satan and Hell as instrumental to God as acting as the whip which drives humanity away from evil acts whereas Heaven would act as the carrot luring humans to the good.

As the story opens, the protagonist Aubrey is said to have recently arrived in London and, upon experiencing life in high society, realizes that his fantasies of which he has read so much have no relation to reality. He had become enthralled by the romantic notions of honour and candour and believed that everyone else, when all was said and done, also sympathized with virtue. He was about to give up on his dreams when he saw Lord Ruthven for the first time, whose aloof demeanour caused Aubrey to imagine him the hero of a romance. From that moment on, Aubrey would follow Ruthven’s progress in society out of a desire to know more about him.

There is irony in the fact that Aubrey is said to be able to give up his belief in the higher nature of virtue only to be saved from utter disillusionment by the figure of Ruthven, who turns out to be a personification of evil. Aside from that, this circumstance points to something more significant about the narrative. The story takes place in a disenchanted world. Not only that, which is to say, more specifically, the story takes place in a world which is disenchanted with the power of virtue understood as “goodness” in its Christian meaning.

When, later in the story, Aubrey is told tales of vampires by the peasant girl Ianthe, even the explicitly described dreamer’s first reaction is to laugh them off as mere fantasy. In this sense, Aubrey alone is convinced of the power of virtue and is disbelief of the power of deep vice. Again, ironically, it turns out that the tales of the vampires are the ones that in this world happen to be true. Not only that, Aubrey happens to fall in love with Ianthe on account of her innocence, yet she almost immediately after becomes prey to the malevolence of a vampire’s bite.

Later in the story still, when Aubrey has come to accept the reality of the vampire but is unable to reveal their existence because of the power of an oath he has made, he is believed to have gone mad. At one time in the Christian world, direct communication with God and holy visions were believed possible and even taken as evidence for the existence of the Deity. At a later period, those claiming to experience visions or hear the voice of God were considered insane and sometimes even locked up. In the context of The Vampire, the connection between the experience of the supernatural and the judgement of insanity are re-introduced but turned on their head such that, from the perspective of the reader, Aubrey, who is considered insane, is actually the only one who happens to know the truth, except instead of knowledge of a benevolent God, Aubrey knows only of the reality of embodied evil.

There is something unique taking place in the Gothic’s, perhaps unconscious but certainly secularized, exploration of Christian themes. At the end of the story, when Aubrey returns home after many hardships, his sister is given the role of his final comfort, to the point of nearly erasing all of the past from his memory. Yet the description of Miss Aubrey tells us of the “melancholy charm” of her mind. And Aubrey, who was never particularly taken with the life of society, is said to have rather stayed home and “fed upon the melancholy which overpowered him” but would “sacrifice his own comfort to the protection of his sister” and accompany her in society as her protector.

The Gothic marks the ascendance of a dark aesthetic and its thrills satiate the dark desires which flourish in the human subconscious. The story of The Vampyre ends with the victory of Lord Ruthven and with him of evil. Far from this being an event for the dismay of the collective unconscious, The Vampyre played a significant role in cementing the passion for the vampire figure in Western culture.

The European Malady – An examination of Byron’s Fragment of a Novel

1.

The focus of Byron’s Fragment of a Novel is Augustus Darvell, who attracts the attention of the story’s unnamed narrator. Darvell is described as suffering from occasional inquietude “approaching to alienation of mind”. Stories have circulated about Darvell alleging various sources of his disquietude, including “ambition, love, remorse, grief” or “a morbid temperament akin to disease”. Due to the contradictory nature of the stories, the narrator could not name with any certainty the origin of his unease.

The narrator finds himself obtaining Darvell’s friendship with difficulty and has hope that Darvell’s “restlessness… and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded” would incline him to accept an invitation to accompany him on his travels to ill frequented countries. Our narrator did not hope in vain, as Darvell accepted his invitation.

They travel first to the south of Europe and then east. The narrator comments that though Darvell must have been robust in his early life, he had been lately wasting away without suffering from any physical disease, and during their trip was becoming increasingly silent and sleepless.

The two friends arrive at Smyrna, once an ancient Greek city but since brought under the rule of Turkey. From there, the friends were to embark on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, ancient cities of the Greeks and Persians respectively. The narrator attempts to delay the trip, considering the purpose of pleasure incongruent with Darvell’s dark mood, but Darvell possessed an eagerness to proceed which ill-suited the “oppression on his mind, and… solemnity in his manner”.

They pass through marches and steep gorges on their way “to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana — the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques”. When Darvell’s illness takes a sudden downturn, they are forced to stop at an abandoned Turkish cemetery. “[This] ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge for my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.”

Darvell reveals that he has been to this place before and confirms that he is indeed dying. He has the narrator swear not to reveal his death to anyone and after his death to complete a ritual which includes casting the ring he is wearing into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis at precisely noon on the ninth of any month and proceeding to the ruins at the temple of Ceres at the same time the next day where he is to wait for an hour. The story ends abruptly after Darvell’s death and burial.

2.

This fragment of Byron’s fits both chronologically and thematically in what is referred to in academia and cultural history as the “mal du siècle”. In his essay Who Invented the Mal du Siècle, Armand Hoog provides an analysis of the origins and connotations of the term. He quotes a draft of a preface by Benjamin Constant for his novel Adolphe which diagnoses the malady as “the fatigue, the uncertainty, the lack of strength, the perpetual analysis that saps the spontaneity of every feeling”. In 1824, a writer for Le Journal de Commerce said that Romanticism itself was a malady.

Hoog relates that the writer Evarist Boulay-Paty has it said that the malady arises from the “premature knowledge” which results from advanced civilization, thereby indicating that it is a kind of disenchantment or disillusionment with the world as seen from the perspective of extensive knowledge which leaves little room for mystery.

Other perspectives are also provided such as that given by Maxime du Camp in his novel Mémoires d’un Suicidé where he asserts the disease to be a form of dreaming. Eduoard Alletz, in his story Le Désenchantement has protagonist ask his mother what purpose there could be “to dream without acting, to hope without attaining, to burn alone without giving light to others”.

The mal du siècle had originally been interpreted as resulting from the end of Napoleon’s First French Empire which left man young men idle who, as Hoog quotes Balzac saying, “did not know what to do with their energy”.  Hoog says there are reasons to doubt this interpretation and quotes the father of Alletz’s aforementioned protagonist as evidence. The protagonist of Le Désenchantement is said to be a second generation victim to the malady. His father, being of the first generation and considered to have lived through it and recovered and who is therefore thought to know better, calls the malady “the curse of God who punishes up to the seventh generation a nation without faith.”

Where I am in disagreement with Hoog is in considering the latter interpretation to be in conflict with the former. It is likely rather than what has been called the “revolutionary faith” is in fact an attempt to replace the void felt in the absence of a God or gods. A study on his subject has been undertaken by James H. Billington in his monumental work Fire in the Minds of Men.

3.

The philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche, who also associated Romanticism with illness, had a similar concern with the protagonist of Alletz’s story, that of aligning the will with action which he proposed could be accomplished by orienting the striving of man with the desire to become something more than merely human, in the lowest sense of the term.

Byron is sometimes credited with bringing vampire lore into the popular consciousness, as the Fragment was intended to continue with the character Darvell returning from the grave as Nosferatu. There are interesting considerations to be had in this connection. A vampire is also a being which was once man but since has transcended that state to become something more, often possessing such qualities as superhuman strength and the ability to live eternally. Also significant is the process whereby, in becoming a vampire, the human life must first expire so that the individual can rise again in his new form.

If we reconsider the description given by Byron of the destination of his two protagonists’ excursion (“the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana — the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques”) we notice that the characters were on a pilgrimage to a place where three different religions had arisen and subsequently perished from the scene.

Thinking in terms of Hegel’s notion of the zeitgeist, and interpreting Byron’s Fragment as an attempt to work through the mal du siècle, then the latching onto the mythology of the vampire could be considered part of a greater effort to reinvigorate Europe with a new mythology in the wake of the Enlightenment’s discrediting of Christian belief. Just like the passing away of the human to be reborn as a vampire, European culture would need to experience the demise of Christianity to be reborn under the new belief in accord with the understanding of the age.

In this connection, it is also curious to consider that, at the end of his life, Byron travelled to what was then Turkey in order to engage in the revolutionary wars to secure the independence of Greece which at that point was held under the dominion of Turkey. Perhaps the latter was itself part of a greater hope that, in restoring the location where European culture originated, a new Renaissance would arise in Europe.

If I may allow myself to succumb further to conjecture, I might suggest that the reason Byron did not finish his tale is revealed in the manner which the fragment is concluded. Byron has Darvell elaborate a list of instructions for the narrator to undertake following his death. These instructions are highly ritualistic in nature, well suited to the descriptor “superstitious”. If Byron’s fragment was indeed an attempt to work through the mal du siècle, then it is likely that he was, whether consciously or unconsciously, dissatisfied with a solution to that dilemma which falls back upon unfounded superstition. For that reason the vampire is never revealed in Byron’s narrative but its superstitious character is shown in the ritualistic rites which Darvell requests follow his death.

Afterword

In his essay, Hoog also suggests that the mal du siècle was cured by the mid-eighteen hundreds. While this post does not admit room for such an examination, it is an assertion that I also take issue with. I believe that this malady continued to stalk Europe until 1945, after which it was (even if unconsciously) suppressed and forgotten, but had already reached the most acute stage at what is refered to as the fin de siècle (the turn of the 20th century).

I hope to explore this topic in further posts. Already I have planned a series on the engagement of the philosopher Leo Strauss with the ideas of Heidegger, which I feel at least touches on this theme.

If you wish to experience the feeling of the mal du siècle then I suggest you listen to Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. For an optimal experience, listen to it alone with headphones, in a dimly lit space, while viewing paintings of the Romantic era.

Bibliography

Lord Byron, George Gordon. “Fragment of a Novel.” Mazeppa, John Murray, London, 1819.

Hoog, Armand. trans. Brombert, Beth. “Who Invented the Mal du Siècle?” Yale French Studies, No. 13, Romanticism Revisited, 1954, pp. 42-51.