27 July, 2006

Middle Ages

I had a wander round the gallery of treasures at the British Library today, soaking the place with drool. I was at the Library because a wealthy American collector and philanthropist—a charming man, with a charming wife—is paying me to hunt through old auction catalogues for obscure manuscripts, as part of a general project to locate and catalogue every pre-1600 MS in the Western world. It's repetitive work, but at least I can daydream about buying ex-Ambrosian Bibles on finely miniatured vellum for 1l 10s 6d. A few weeks ago, he took me to an auction at Sotheby's—my first—where he was shifting units, and by units I mean lavish 1450s Histoires Universelles worth a quarter of a million apiece. It was an odd experience.

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Gawain, my new old sparring partner, has been writing about middle age, a theme carefully interwoven with his frequent and generously illustrated discourses on Balinese dance. He wants to know, Why can't we adults stop being so serious and just fuck about occasionally? If youth is about war and competition, the agon in all seriousness, Gawain's middle age is relaxed and playful, contemplative and insouciant. I would like to think that even at my age, I can be all of these things. I use irony for the purpose.

My friend O taught me to see all things with contempt—the contempt of the devil's advocate, only half real, never accepting entirely, retaining instead a healthy sense of flippancy. It is a richer emotion than the contempt of youth for last season's fashions, almost a game of sincerities between interlocutors—akin to the Holmes/Moriarty problem—to what extent is one serious, or facetious? There is a great moral importance in this dismissive irony, greater than mere scepticism, for it allows one to be tragic and grandiose at the same time ("I bard myself with the vestments of maturity, so as to inure myself to the deadening crassness of youth"). It's a British trait, essentially, though it has lost currency now among so many Britons. Unlike American apathy or French ennui, our British flippancy helps to relieve the stifled anger which afflicts the young. O would sometimes be serious, and I learnt to reply, with irrefragable vehemence, You don't really believe any of that shit, do you? He would laugh delightedly. We both felt so free.

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M expressed the fear tonight that he likes old books purely for the sake of their being old. He was comparing Browne's effervescent Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a roasting of the Plinian superstitions still prevalent in 1646, with a book owned by his brother on the wacky stuff modern Americans believe, you know, like engrams, or alien abductions, or Jews dying on crosses for our sins, that kind of thing. He favoured the former, but dismissed as trivial the latter; still he worried that his criterion was no more sophisticated than time-period. Put an idea into elaborate Renaissance prose, write it in a period typeface on yellowing paper, or even just take it back in time tout court, and it's automatically interesting. Would Chrononhotonthologos amuse to the extent that it does, were it written last year? Probably not. Why should a Histoire Universelle of the late Middle Ages appeal to me? The illuminations are cute, after all, but hardly Leonardo, and there are a zillion similar texts, written in similar hands, on similar paper. It's just old. M and I, at least in this respect, are still in thrall to a fetish of the aged, a secular remnant of the belief that the first men had immediate experience of the divine.

2 comments:

Gawain said...

What a lovely essay, Conrad. What a pleasure.

Is it age? Or is it them being recondite? Sei Shonagon and I have discussed this many times -- the attraction of things odd, distant, exotic, and -- yes -- obscure. Secrets, mind you, things only we and just a handful of friends, a band of brothers, know about. The hidden grimoire, the secret masonic handshake.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. Both, I suppose, the one going hand in hand with the other. But age presents immediate aesthetic differences, whereas obscurity has no (direct) bearing on sensory qualities.