One Thousand Words or So

What’s Old is New Again, I Guess

While I wanted to get Eugene Vodolazkin’s First Things post, “The New Middle Ages,” off my browser last night, I realized that I needed to take a closer look at it, and I’m hoping to get to that today.

Right from the get-go, he dives into the notion of the past repeating itself. In fact, his first sentence makes it pretty clear: “The past is returning.” Except that it’s not terribly clear. You can’t just write, “The past is returning” and then go on with your day, supplying no further explanation. He doesn’t. He immediately throws in some monkey wrenches, such as this one: “Any return presumes a preceding departure. Perhaps, though, the past never left, and its absence will turn out to have been an illusion.” Well, now. That’s an interesting thought. Talk about a nonlinear concept of time.

Maybe, Vodolazkin posits, the past is like traits that are always there in someone’s genes but just don’t show up at first. When they do rear their heads (ugly or otherwise), it can be thought of as a return. Hmmm.

We obviously see time as linear, marching forward, second by second, day by day, century by century, but according to Vodolazkin, this concept was not always the accepted one. In antiquity, time was seen as cyclical, with events continually repeating themselves. Christianity replaced the circle with a spiral, so events repeated themselves, but on different levels and in new conditions. Hence, Jesus is the new Adam and the twelve Apostles are the shinier version of the twelve tribes of Israel.

If we’re to meet the past again, now, which past will it be? According to Vodolazkin, we are entering a new Middle Ages. Yes, I agree that this is a strange notion. What in botheration is he talking about? Let’s bear with him, shall we?

Well, first of all, Vodolazkin tells us that he’s not alone in seeing a return to the Middle Ages. Apparently, a man named Nikolai Berdyaev predicted the same back in 1923, and more recently Umberto Eco concurred.

Maybe before we continue on, we should clarify “Middle Ages.” According to an internet search, the period is defined as the years from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance, so the 5th to 15th centuries. That’s one thousand years, not just a blip on the screen. Even if the period seems barbaric to us, it had its own sense of logic.

As it happens, one particularity of medieval texts is the near absence of what we would consider cause and effect. In these accounts, unlike in contemporary histories, one event doesn’t lead to another. Any new event is in some sense a new beginning. Whereas contemporary historical narration takes as its basic structural unit the event, medieval historical narratives take as their basic structural unit a chronological period: a year in Russian chronicles or a reign in Byzantine ones. One event does not beget another; year follows year or reign follows reign.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that medieval texts were fragmentary, often consisting of previous works (or parts of previous works) mixed in with new stuff. In some cases, this was due to the additions made by scribes, and in other cases, it was due to writers taking whatever they needed from the past to flesh out what they were trying to communicate. In the first instance, the degree of textual stability depended upon how sacred the texts were: the closer one got to Holy Scripture, the more likely the text would have undergone few, if any, changes. That second variation is where it gets more interesting, and it seems to be more important to Vodolazkin’s thesis. It is at this point that we get to the concept of authorship and the excerpt I included in yesterday’s post, the one about most medieval texts having no attributable author.

So, in our world, an author writes a book. It is a complete entity that belongs to him alone. Not so in the Middle Ages. A text could be copied/reused by someone other than the original writer and it would simply be seen as a different version of the first story, but it did not negate the first version, it simply coexisted with it. What’s more, the second writer was viewed almost as a collaborator with the first. There was no harm, no foul. Think, for a moment, about how foreign this is. I remember when Alexandra Ripley came out with Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind, in the 1990s and how horrified and indignant I and my fellow booksellers were. It seemed like a sacrilege for someone to just pick up Margaret Mitchell’s characters and plop them down in a new book.

But then again, here we are, a little more than two decades later, in a time when it’s nearly impossible not to stumble upon fan fiction in one form or another. My sons Jack and Sam continually argue over what is “Canon” in Star Wars and what is “Legend.” (It’s mostly just Sam trying to get Jack’s goat, but you get the point.) How much money have Youtubers made off the creations of others?

So, now that I think about it further, I need to change my tune, because I guess the medieval way of “writing” is not so foreign after all. Isn’t that fascinating? Indeed, what am I doing here, but expanding upon (reinterpreting?) Vodolazkin’s original?

Vodolazkin asserts that medieval readers were not looking for originality. They wanted familiar texts, and you know, the more I think about it, the more I understand where Vodolazkin is going with all this. How many box office hits in the past ten have been completely original: with screenplays not based on books or comics or previous movies?

Okay, I’ve gotten through about half of the “The New Middle Ages.” Perhaps tomorrow I’ll pick up where I left off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *