Nothing to Say

Let's face it: argument drives scholarship. If we all agreed on how to see the world, if nobody ever made what others consider interpretive mistakes, there would be, quite simply, nothing to say. We might spend some time writing definitions or descriptions, but once written, they'd be finished, after which we could spend our time doing something else, like watching the flowers grow. Academics need arguments in the same way that fencers need opponents. No opponent, no fencing match; no disagreement, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, no academic research.

Okay, okay, so maybe I'm just using the wrong metaphor here: "Argument is War." Maybe arguments are buildings and we should concentrate rather on their construction, building up their foundations and making them safe for people to live and work in. But buildings come with their own reasons for being: people don't like being rained on while they're asleep; wind makes it difficult to work with papers. Arguments only make sense if they affect someone's beliefs or actions; you can't live in an argument. But you can get caught up in one.

I'm gibbering, I know it. It's been a strange week. It didn't take me quite as long as I thought it would to finish the paper that I am giving at our medievalist conference next week, so I found myself earlier this week somewhat at a loss. I could work on those now-infamous book reviews, but...well, I'm still feeling really stuck about what position to take. So I decided to read some chapters in a book that a friend of mine is writing about why the West (a.k.a. Europe and North America) rose to the prominence in human history that it did over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And that riled me up, so I decided to read Hilaire Belloc's How the Reformation Happened (1928; answer: greed), at which point I was pretty much done for and started wanting to pick fights with all the women in the neighborhood who keep harassing me in one way or another about picking up after my puppy. Not a good state to be in.

It doesn't help either that I've spent the past two or three weeks while I've been sick (and, therefore, worrying about how I was ever going to write that conference paper) reading Henri de Lubac's great paean to the medieval mode of scriptural exegesis and wondering, basically, where all the flowers have gone. Why did Europe lose itself at the Reformation, as Belloc would have it? Why has our tradition since then been one long argument between Catholics and Protestants, persisting even (as I constantly tell my students) into the present day, even when those of us working in the field have no sense whatsoever that that is the polemic in which we are engaged? Why did Christianity break apart in the way that it did such that even those of us who want to be Christians are of necessity permanently caught between rival interpretations of our own tradition? Yes, I guess that is what is still bothering me: I can't be a straightforward Calvinist anymore, but neither can I be a Catholic.

Oh, if only it were that simple. Calvinist vs. Catholic is hardly the only dichotomy I'm caught up in. There's also the one that my friend's book chapters sparked: the West vs. the rest of the world. Plus the one that, as a medievalist, I'm pretty much doomed to inhabit, i.e. medieval vs. modern, never mind that (as my friend does effectively show, if not with the emphasis that I would give it) everything that we now think of as most progressive and dynamic about our branch of the human experiment has its origins in the European Middle Ages: the separation of Church and State (God help us); scientific experiment; the free enterprise system and, yes, usury; representative government and the rights of the individual; printing and the free circulation of information; and so forth. Not that some of these developments have not been for the most part extremely good, although many would disagree now even with that. And yet, so what? So what if the West has had its day? Is this at all actually meaningful in and of itself? Or does it in fact matter only if we then go on to say that the rest of the world should behave like the West?

I would be much more articulate about all of this if I knew what position I actually want to take. I'm a medievalist, okay. So is it my role to defend the Middle Ages against those who would claim that this period in European history brought more harm than good? Is it to recover from that past things that our tradition has neglected, like a latter-day fifteenth-century humanist trying to resurrect the ancient pagan tradition? Catholics like de Lubac and Belloc might say yes. But I'm not Catholic (yet?), not sure I really want to be Catholic (yet?), not to mention that I am not at all sure that such recovery is actually possible. One of my students and I were talking about this question yesterday: what if we started trying to write scriptural exegesis according to the four-fold interpretation de Lubac describes? Would it be authentic or just an exercise in creative anachronism, neither of its time nor ours? And yet, if we do not use our studies of the Christian past to help us recover aspects of the (our) tradition that modernity has lost, quite frankly, what is the point other than picking over a corpse that we all agree is past resuscitation?

I'm sick of being careful. I can't stand when colleagues say that: "We must be very careful here." Why? Whom are we going to hurt if we make a mistake in our interpretation of what medieval Christianity meant? Arguably, the Reformation already did as much damage as one possibly could to the tradition without destroying the faith outright. What's left that we, mild-mannered academics that we are, could possibly do? Modern Christians, even most modern Catholics, don't care. It's not as if, for example, my book on the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary is leaping off the bookshelves into the hands of people eager to recover the twelfth-century Marian reading of the Song of Songs. I could have said anything in that book and, again quite frankly, most of my colleagues would have swallowed it, careful or not.

Okay, why do I say that? Because I have been reading the most amazing gibberish about the devotion to the Virgin Mary for the greater part of my academic life, and everybody seems more than willing to believe most of it. Nor does it seem to have any effect whatsoever on the way in which modern Catholics or, indeed, anybody else thinks about the Virgin (or not). Not quite true: it is almost guaranteed that most current discussions of the Virgin will somewhere include the word "goddess," completely missing the point of the Incarnation, but never mind. My being careful has had zero effect (as far as I can tell) one way or the other on that discussion. Am I then just miffed at being ignored? I know, I know, I should try and publish a more "popular" book. But that's really not what I'm upset about now. It's rather the sheer pointlessness of our academic work as such, if, that is, all we want to do is describe.

And round and round. What I want is a clear position to take, like de Lubac or Belloc or my friend. Then I would have something to write about. Then I would have something to say. Instead, I am caught up arguing with nobody--and everybody. For goodness' sake, I don't even know what position to take on the dog poop. But I'll tell you about that some other time.


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