Archive for June, 2015


“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“Yeah, proof is the bottom line for everyone…”

In 1994, Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a mass-market book in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain twentieth-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a lively but little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” by holding up the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as “a highly significant core defeat” the academy hadn’t even known it had suffered:

It shows how little the academic medievalists have made an impact on popular culture and its view of the medieval world. Costner’s Robin Hood signifies social failure for the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and the Medieval Academy of America. But I expect the august personalities in those exalted precincts never gave a moment’s thought to this connection.

I recalled Cantor’s smart, spirited (and, in retrospect, debatable) rant when I read last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Dicken, a philosopher of science who’s keen to write for popular audiences despite the sneering of colleagues and peers:

Yet as I struggle on with my apparently misguided endeavors, I sometimes think that maybe the search committee had a point. It is difficult pitching academic material in a way that is suitable for a popular audience. I don’t pretend to be an unparalleled communicator of ideas, nor do I kid myself about my ability to produce pithy and engaging prose. After many years of writing for peer review, I have developed a nasty habit of overusing the passive voice — not to mention the usual reliance upon jargon, excessive footnotes, and the death by a thousand qualifications that undermines any attempt to state a clear, precise thesis. It is definitely a learning process. But no matter how dull the final product, I was at least confident that I could express my ideas clearly. That’s what we’re trained for, right?

I’ve known plenty of scholars who write lucid books and blogs; I doubt the academy nurtured the requisite skills.

When I decided to start writing in earnest, I drove wildly around England and Wales collecting material for travel stories. The Washington Post published two of them, but only after an editor nudged me with notes like this one from 1999:

I don’t think this lede works; it’s too slow and diffuse for our reader—imagine a bagel-eating Sunday morning householder, an occasional traveler seeking a weekly fix of travel infotainment—but surrounded by a pile of other sections tugging at his time, and household things about to start tugging too…this is different from someone who settles in for a long night with a New Yorker and a hot toddy.

A good editor knows how to improve and refine our writing without shearing off all of the frills and frippery we vainly adore. Thanks to that guy and a couple others like him, I sloughed off three-and-a-half years of bad grad-school style and (eventually, arguably) learned how to write. Paul Dicken, stick to your plan: keeping readers engrossed in weighty matters without overusing the passive voice or condemning them to “death by a thousand qualifications” doesn’t require “an unparalleled communicator of ideas.” Just know your audience, then decide what you’re doing is, among other things, art.

* * *

We’re overdue for great shifts in our obsolete cultural coalitions; the creaking we hear as they seize up and fail is also the venting of truths. In another Chronicle of Higher Education piece last week, philosopher and science historian Lee McIntyre decries the recent “attack on truth” that he believes has us ambling into “an age of willful ignorance”:

It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.

That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?,” Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. “Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?”

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Having noticed, as Norman Cantor did, how rare it is for new discoveries about the Middle Ages to prosper off-campus unless they’re being exploited for linkbait, I was startled by this whole line of thought. I’ll have to read McIntyre’s book to see if it’s true that postmodernist humanities scholars influenced “hard-right conservatives” or “climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists.” I doubt it, although I suspect that the latter have at least heckled the former to live up to the credos implied by their critical approaches, but what a remarkable admission: that a fair amount of recent work in the humanities is baloney that was never meant to be consumed, sold, or even sniffed by outsiders.

Humanities theorists have insisted for years that when we set our work loose, it’s no longer our own. They’ll find in the end that intentions still matter: there’s more pleasure and solace in writing and art when you believe what you’re doing is true.

“You hear the playback, and it seems so long ago…”

Eight years ago today, after learning PHP and tinkering with a template, I published the first modest post on this blog, which promised “a place to ponder books, writing, teaching, and medievalism.” Blogs were a thriving medium then, and virtual strangers sent new readers here.

Free to tinker, I found projects that suited this format: From 2008 to 2012, I read everything by young-adult writer Lloyd Alexander and posted reviews of each book. In 2009, I posted a bit of light verse that turned, fifty-some poems later, into a book of poems inspired by the National Cathedral gargoyles. You’ll now find occasional posts about such recent fixations as gardening and taking pictures with antique Polaroids, but medievalism and poetry remain the twin caryatids that prop up this slouching facade.

When Facebook and Twitter prompted an exodus that made the blogosphere feel as empty as Iceland’s interior, I stuck with it. The culture craves pithier social media—photo memes, five-second movies—but I like long-form writing, even if some days I feel like a ham radio operator or a shut-in dialing into the Internet with a screeching modem and a Commodore 64.

So why do it? Well, I like interacting with those of you who still write or read blogs, since you don’t care to chase the cool kids. I also love having a site of my own. Because I do plenty of paid writing elsewhere, I don’t need to please editors, chase trends, or julienne my thoughts to fit someone else’s word count. You don’t have to monetize your writing for people to find it.

And they do find it. Every day, someone new discovers my two most popular posts: a 2007 piece about a line in an Indiana Jones movie that represents the best thing Charlemagne never said, and a 2013 defense of the real professor behind the much-maligned textbook from Dead Poets Society. Those posts have attracted tens of thousands of readers; my page-view stats tell me that many others land here because of books I’ve reviewed, historical recipes I’ve tried, or gargoyle-festooned churches I’ve written about. Once in a while, they buy my books.

Eight years on, “Quid Plura?” has the same design template it had on day one. As always, I struggle to find time to post, and I’m delighted when people stop by. Whatever brings you here, no matter how long you stay, whether you lurk in peace or leave thoughtful comments: thank you! I appreciate your eyeballs. As this blog lurches forward, however sporadic, I hope what you find here is still worth your time.

“Unsheathe the blade within the voice…”

Is polysemy now unseemly? Two weeks ago, when historian Steve Muhlberger traveled to that great North American ent-moot, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, he found himself in the midst of “a lot of griping and grouching about the misuse and ambiguity of the word medieval.” In a lucid and laudably concise blog post, he calls out the problem behind the problem:

You would think that a bunch of scholars who by their very nature of their discipline are experts in the evolution of the meaning of words would by now have gotten over the fact that though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call “the Middle Ages” by that term, and that coming up with a really good, chronological definition of those ages is impossible, we are stuck with the words medieval and Middle Ages anyway. But no . . .

Steve is a scholar of chivalric tournaments and an experienced combat reenactor, so he knows how to land a disarming blow:

This can be intensely irritating for people who know that certain phrases and analyses lost their cogency back in 1927 and want to talk about what their friends are doing in the field now. Nevertheless people whose business is words should really accept the fact that words like “medieval” have a number of popular meanings, and when one of them shows up in current discussion (when, for instance, a Game of Thrones shows up and is widely labelled as medieval, even though the world of Game of Thrones is not our earth at all), the fact can be dealt with a good-humored way. It certainly would reflect credit on any field where a good-humored approach was the norm.

It would indeed. Off campus, the world blissfully resists more than a century of scholarship—pop culture still depicts Vikings in huge horned helmets, for heaven’s sake—and I respectfully suggest that more scholars contemplate why this is so.

As the rare soul who’s read every volume of Studies in Medievalism, I’ve marveled at the field’s mania for nomenclature. Since at least 2009, contributors to the journal—and its sister publication The Year’s Work in Medievalism, and its annual conference, and a pricey new handbook of critical terms—have kicked around the meaning of “medievalism” and “neo-medievalism” until every syllable simpers for mercy. Because I write about medievalism not as a professional scholar but as a footloose amateur, I miss the many years of meaty articles explaining, say, how boys’ chivalric clubs helped inspire the American scouting movement or why we’re perpetually tempted to make Dante a mouthpiece for generational angst. Forged from an accidental alloy of romanticism, nostalgia, politics, religion, and wishful thinking, medievalism can’t help but have jagged edges. It’s tiring to hone terms of art so finely that they cease to exist in three dimensions; we may as well flaunt the imperfection.

When it comes to the matter of the merely medieval, here’s Steve Muhlberger again:

David Parry made the most sensible remark of the entire week when he pointed out that an imprecise word like medieval has a lot of cultural value for people who make their living interpreting that era. Indeed there is a financial payoff being associated with it.

What’s the worth of a timeworn coinage? Steve’s full blog post answers that question, with the suggestion that settling on terms can pay other, less measurable dividends too.