Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the giant in the library

The technological history of modernity, as I conceive of it, is a story to be told in light of a theological anthropology. As what we now call modernity was emerging, in the sixteenth century, this connection was widely understood. Consider for instance the great letter that Rabelais’ giant Gargantua writes to his son Pantagruel when the latter is studying at the University of Paris. Gargantua first wants to impress upon his son how quickly and dramatically the human world, especially the world of learning, has changed:

And even though Grandgousier, my late father of grateful memory, devoted all his zeal towards having me progress towards every perfection and polite learning, and even though my toil and study did correspond very closely to his desire – indeed surpassed them – nevertheless, as you can well understand, those times were neither so opportune nor convenient for learning as they now are, and I never had an abundance of such tutors as you have. The times were still dark, redolent of the disaster and calamity of the Goths, who had brought all sound learning to destruction; but, by the goodness of God, light and dignity have been restored to literature during my lifetime: and I can see such an improvement that I would hardly be classed nowadays among the first form of little grammar-schoolboys, I who (not wrongly) was reputed the most learned of my century as a young man.

(I’m using the Penguin translation by M. A. Screech, not the old one I linked to above.) And this change is the product, in large part, of technology:

Now all disciplines have been brought back; languages have been restored: Greek – without which it is a disgrace that any man should call himself a scholar – Hebrew, Chaldaean, Latin; elegant and accurate books are now in use, printing having been invented in my lifetime through divine inspiration just as artillery, on the contrary, was invented through the prompting of the devil. The whole world is now full of erudite persons, full of very learned teachers and of the most ample libraries, such indeed that I hold that it was not as easy to study in the days of Plato, Cicero nor Papinian as it is now.

Note that technologies come to human beings as gifts (from God) and curses (from the Devil); it requires considerable discernment to tell the one from the other. The result is that human beings have had their powers augmented and extended in unprecedented ways, which is why, I think, Rabelais makes his characters giants: enormously powerful beings who lack full control over their powers and therefore stumble and trample through the world, with comical but also sometimes worrisome consequences.

But note how Gargantua draws his letter to a conclusion:

But since, according to Solomon, ‘Wisdom will not enter a soul which [deviseth] evil,’ and since ‘Science without conscience is but the ruination of the soul,’ you should serve, love and fear God, fixing all your thoughts and hopes in Him, and, by faith informed with charity, live conjoined to Him in such a way as never to be cut off from Him by sin. Beware of this world’s deceits. Give not your mind unto vanity, for this is a transitory life, but the word of God endureth for ever. Be of service to your neighbours and love them as yourself. Venerate your teachers. Flee the company of those whom you do not wish to resemble; and the gifts of grace which God has bestowed upon you receive you not in vain. Then once you know that you have acquired all there is to learn over there, come back to me so that I may see you and give you my blessing before I die.

The “science without conscience” line is probably a Latin adage playing on scientia and conscientia: as Peter Harrison explains, in the late medieval world Rabelais was educated in, scientia is primarily an intellectual virtue, the disciplined pursuit of systematic knowledge. The point of the adage, then, is that even that intellectual virtue can serve vice and “ruin the soul” if it is not governed by the greater virtues of faith, hope, and love. (Note also how the story of Prospero in The Tempest fits this template. The whole complex Renaissance discourse, and practice, of magic is all about these very matters.)

So I want to note three intersecting notions here: first, the dramatic augmentation, in the early-modern period, of human power by technology; second, the necessity of understanding the full potential of those new technologies both for good and for evil within the framework of a sound theological anthropology, an anthropology that parses the various interactions of intellect and will; and third, the unique ability of narrative art to embody and illustrate the coming together of technology and theological anthropology. These are the three key elements of the technological history of modernity, as I conceive it and hope (eventually) to narrate it.

The ways that narrative art pursues the interrelation of technology and the human is a pretty major theme of mine: see, for instance, here and here and here. (Note how that last piece connects to Rabelais.) It will be an even bigger theme in the future. Stay tuned for further developments — though probably not right away. I have books to finish….


  • The gigantism is a factor too, though, isn't it? I mean, in one sense it's the (you'll have to excuse me) elephant in the room. What I mean is: 'democracy', let's say, was established as a paradigm for social governance for an Athens whose classical population consisted of about 100,000 citizens; and now you guys are using that template as the principle of governance for a country whose population is 320,000,000. (Something similar could be said of the Constitution, designed for the million of so inhabitants of the original thirteen colonies, now shaping the socio-political life of a country 320x bigger). All the advice you quote from Gargantua's letter is small scale, human scale stuff: and wise, as far as that goes. But Gargantua himself is not human scale, as are the three criteria you mention: especially narrative art, which is well suited to telling the stories of small groups and cannot apprehend millions. But 21st-century America, in toto, is not human scale.

  • Adam, I have a comment and a question.

    My comment is that I think one of the reasons the USA has been a successful nation (according to many criteria of “success,” anyway) is that the Constitution, by balancing Federal and State powers, and also balancing the interests of widely divergent geographical regions and those of the national population as a whole, has proven to scale up remarkably well. (The Founders knew that the nation was going to increase in size and in population, dramatically in both cases.) It’s interesting that in the aftermath of the recent electoral disaster some people have argued for the elimination of the Electoral College and its replacement by a simple popular vote, which is to say, they’ve argued for bring the country closer to a direct democracy like that of Athens. But that model definitely doesn’t scale, and while it would have produced a better outcome in the last election, over the long haul I’m pretty sure it would produce more and worse demagogues and would-be strong men.

    My question is: Do you see your point about democracy and scale as having some bearing on the technological history of modernity, at least as I have described it? The initial conditions of modernity having ultimately produced, perhaps necessarily, a kind of gigantism, so that we’re all like the pilots of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim, except without training or expertise? That’s probably not where you were going, so please forgive the flight of fancy. But I’m wondering if you mean to insist on the importance of linking the technological history of modernity with the political history of modernity.

    I guess I have two questions, because I also want to ask if you really mean that “narrative art, which is well suited to telling the stories of small groups ... cannot apprehend millions.” I’m not sure I agree, but surely narrative art can apprehend the experience of being in a world too large, can apprehend the experience of not apprehending millions. (Doesn’t your New Model Army sort of point in that direction?)

    I’m soon to begin a read-through of all of Pynchon’s novels, and he seems to be immensely relevant to these matters. More on that soon.

  • I very much take the point about the federal structures of USA political life as a valuable compromise in this regard. And your first question is exactly the right one—I mean, for life right now, quite apart from your project (of course for that latter!) I'm conscious that there's a danger in over-analysing stuff to which we're still too close to be able to see clearly, but I wonder if the new social media doesn't focus this problem very directly. So, the USA is 320 million people, fifty states, countless smaller tribes and religions and affiliations and so on. But there is only one Twitter; and when your President elect leverages that very platform into the highest office in the land he does so by working with the grain of social-media homogeneity. Partly that’s the content of his ideological gestures, demonising the 'un-American' to solidify in-group identity and so on, political strategies as old as politics. But partly it worked because it harnessed a baked-in (faux, but still) as it were formal sense of unity predicated on the fact that we all log-on to the same platform.
    The point is that the whole purpose of the new technology is precisely to connect. Cars, for example (one of the dominant technologies of the 20th-century, let’s say) are designed precisely not to connect with one another—not to crash, that is—but rather to get people from A to B and to signal status to others. That permits a large variety of different models of car, and capitalist competition can work the way it’s supposed to, driving up quality at the same time as driving down price. But new media tech is about crashing people together, and the fact that, to pick one real life example, I can’t text photos from my Samsung to my wife’s iPhone, as irritation, becomes a force for homogenization. And so we end up with ten thousand start-ups offering alternatives to Twitter, Apple, Xbox etc, and yet everybody uses Twitter, owns an iPhone and plays on an Xbox. Obviously I’m exaggerated when I say that. I’m not exaggerating very much, though. (you’re going to tell me that you’ve come off Twitter, don’t use an iPhone and so on: but this whole blog is testament to the fact that you’re more tech-curious than the average Joe or Joanna). Tl;dr—the Automobile, as tech, was not a Gargantua, however central it became to our lives in the 20th century, where social media are indeed the Jaegars that we’re all stumbling about in as undertrained pilots.
    The second question is even more interesting, but is liable to tempt me into an even more digressive and lengthy response, so I’ll stop for now.

  • To gesture at a response to your second point:

    “I also want to ask if you really mean that narrative art, which is well suited to telling the stories of small groups ... cannot apprehend millions. I’m not sure I agree, but surely narrative art can apprehend the experience of being in a world too large, can apprehend the experience of not apprehending millions.”

    'Narrative art' probably does cast the net too widely. Stick with the novel. From its inception, the novel was content with small-scale stories and largely domestic narratives of courtship and family life. In the nineteenth-century, though, certain novelists became ambitious to paint a larger canvas, even to try to apprehend the whole of society. One way of doing this was Le Naturalisme: Zola's 20 Rougon-Macquart novels, or Tolstoy's War and Peace. These texts generate a sense of society as large and various and busy and complex and so on by chucking lots of specific detail at the page; and as a narrative strategy that works pretty well. But what both those texts actually do is tell the story of two families: the Rougons and the Macquarts; the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs (with Pierre as a p.o.v. observer figure from a different family who ends up a member of the latter). And that means that the novels are inflated versions of the old familial domestic novel, not new attempts at a vision of society. They inevitably construe society as such as a kind of giant family. Dickens tries a different strategy in Bleak House, where there are dozens and dozens of characters from all different levels of society and walks of life, all seemingly individuated from one another. But as the novel goes on connections are revealed between all of these people, such that by the end every single one of them is connected to all the others by the web of Dickens's plotting. It's masterful, really, but at the same time it falls back into precisely a familial mode: Lady Dedlock and Esther, who start the novel as strangers, one at the top of society, the other the bottom, are revealed at the end to be mother and daughter. In a way Dickens can be forgiven this, because his ethics was founded in a NT sense that society actually is a family, just a family that has forgotten its nature (we're all brothers and sisters in Christ). Nonetheless, I wonder if what is wanted is a novel that apprehends the scale and diversity and sheer overwhelmingness of society without distilling it into one or other reassuring metaphors. Has there ever been such a novel? Pynchon is a possible, I agree. Or something like Bolano's 2666, maybe. But are Pynchon’s governing metaphors better than ‘the family’? Society is a missile so fast it destroys causality? Society is a secret quasi-masonic postal organisation conspiracy? Hmm: I’m not being fair, I think. And indeed I think I’m losing my train of thought.

    Will you be blogging the Pynchon re-read, I wonder?

  • I will heroically blog my way through Pynchon, with your navigation of Burgess as my model and guide.

  • Whoops, hit send prematurely. I will also during that process have things to say about the issues you raise here, I hope. But one quick note for now: Bleak House is a great example of your point because it openly contests both Mrs. Jellyby's "telescopic philanthropy" on behalf of people she'll never meet and Mrs. Pardiggle's strenuous moral police work on behalf of people she encounters physically but never comes to know. In other words, it acknowledges the powerful barriers of both geography and class. Esther's great speech to Mrs. Pardiggle on doing good to those immediately around her and gradually, slowly expanding the circle of her influence is Dickens's blueprint for extending familial bonds of affection into society — but only on a manifestly human scale. You know this, of course, I'm just saying it to remind myself.

    What a great book that is. I used to get to teach it fairly regularly but am unlikely to do so again, which makes me sad.

  • Well I for one am looking forward to your Pynchoniad. I agree about Bleak House, obviously; although if I'm honest I cycle through a triad of 'Bleak House is the greatest', 'Little Dorrit is the greatest', 'Our Mutual Friend is the greatest' states of mind on an endless loop. I'd say I'm in the second phase, at the moment.

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