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Author Topic: [119] Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres--Henry Adams  (Read 3329 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: January 09, 2014, 08:43:38 AM »

Bungee Jumping from the Summa

After a long hiatus, I resolved, as of New Year's Eve, 2013, to make a year's worth of progress on the Decade Project: another 52 works.  We'll see.  I've recently read a lot about education and its plight, and that reading led me to Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams, a Decade book.  But, about eight chapters in, I realized that Adams wrote that book as a follow-up to his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, also a Decade book.  So, the latter became the starting point for this renewed effort.  Chartres this week, Education next.

Throughout, I kept asking myself, “What is this book about?”  It starts off with Adams addressing the reader as he would a niece whom he accompanies on a walking tour from the Mont Saint-Michel cathedral, on the coast of France, to the Chartres cathedral, about 180 miles away.  We have our kodaks, and Henry plays the cicerone, though he himself claims also no more than tourist status.  This tour, however, takes on many facets as it progresses, for Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres represent two poles of several continua, and the passage from one to the other is not so much a geographic or an architectural trek as it is a cultural trajectory, culminating in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.  In fact, only the first half of Chartres deals explicitly with the two cathedrals, while the second half explores the thirteenth century, ever harkening back to the cathedrals' architectural details through analogies.
In the section on Mont Saint-Michel, Uncle Henry may seem only to take us on a walking tour of the cathedral, but he gives at least equal time to the Chanson de Roland.  The two seem equated in Adams's mind: the Romanesque cathedral and the thoroughly masculine, military, and secular epic poem.  But Adams then leads us through the early gothic Chartres, presenting it as a century-long project, micromanaged by the will of the Virgin Mary herself, whose feminine, emotional, and frankly anarchistic sensibilities controlled the will of every architect or abbot who became involved.  While inside Chartres, he expounds on the older and newer towers, the rose windows, the stained glass, the arches, the buttresses, the floor-plan of the apse, and a myriad of details, all of which he presents as mimetic of the larger culture.  One enjoys in these passages a delightful romp through architectural and aesthetic details, worthy of long study.
Once we leave Chartres, the quintessential shrine to the Virgin, we find ourselves wandering through a labyrinth of medieval attitudes toward femininity.  The historical personages of Mary of Champagne, Eleanor of Guienne, and Blanche of Castille define the period for Adams, while the fictional personages of Nicolette (from a thirteenth-century poem, the chantefable, Aucassins and Nicolette) and Marion (from Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion, by Adam de la Halle) lead us into the concept of courtly love, a defining moment in the pre-Enlightenment world.  From courtly love, we return to the Virgin, and her many miracles, and then a third cathedral, erected within the human soul out of centuries of faith.  This temple of faith appears in the concluding three chapters: one about Peter Abelard, for once discussed apart from Heloise; St. Francis of Assisi, rebellion personified; and St. Thomas Aquinas, the paragon of thirteenth-century unity.  Here, in these concluding chapters, I think, Adams comes forward and directly states for us the tight cluster of ideas he has obliquely explored from the beginning.

As a working subtitle for Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams had chosen, “A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity.”  Secondary sources seem to agree that these reflections contain more fancy than fact, although the commentators I've looked at don't bother with specifics.  I'm in no position to judge, but that assessment makes a lot of sense.  Adams paints the thirteenth century as the historical moment when the entirety of Western Europe achieved a fleeting harmonic unity that we modern tourist can only recognize dimly in the architecture, poetry, philosophy, and culture of the period—recognize, but never fully appreciate or even adequately understand.  This harmony he attributed to the fiction of Christianity, its dissolution to the emergence of science, and its only access for us through our feelings.  He presented the period as a turning point of history, wherein certain assumptions, carried over from the previous millennium, reached a peak of development due to the pairing of an unshakeable faith with the human urge to pursue, build, explore, learn from mistakes, and harmonize all with all.  However, the very same human nature that drove the miraculous aesthetic achievement of Chartres, never, he thought, to be surpassed, has also driven us to reject that meaningful fiction of religion in favor of a cold, soulless, scientific world, devoid of pity, imagination, or deep feeling.  In other words, he saw the tragedy of modern Europe as the working out of heartless, adamantine laws of history.  In fact, toward the end of his life, Adams proposed a theory of history based on an analogy with the second law of thermodynamics, in A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910).  So, despite his avuncular tone, Adams despairs that the last seven centuries have witnessed no progress at all, but merely the tragic play of irresistible forces driving civilization toward entropy.

Adams, though a historian by trade, has a magisterial literary style.  I thoroughly enjoyed the tone, the humor, the occasional bursts of rhapsody, and the erudition in this work.  Wikipedia and Webster's accompanied me throughout, as I tried to make some sense of his paradoxes and allusions.  Some quoted passages he refused to translate, insisting that no English rendering could do justice to the original.  (True as that may be, I confess to an occasional resentful thought that some sop thrown to us poor monoglots couldn't have harmed us.)  The chapter on Peter Abelard, moved me unexpectedly, dealing as it did, not with the celebrated love affair, but with his philosophical life.  Adams presents Abelard as a medieval Spinozist, a crypto-pantheist, within whom the inhuman force of logic laid waste to any hoped-for unity of faith, leaving him no recourse but to publicly evade the inevitable conclusions he must have clearly seen.  Logic within Abelard's soul led to dissolution, just as the logic of history led America into a civil war and Europe into a World War, both during Adams's lifetime.  No easy reading, this, but thoroughly educational and rewarding.

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