A Few Binaries

Yesterday, I was looking through Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond looking for a passage where she writes, as far as I remember, about the tacit understanding instilled during childhood that one is to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. It seems now that many have forgotten about the old cultural mores, and expect one to become borderline hysterical when faced with chaos, if they are to believe one is having a rough time. But there may not be much point in that. I did not find the passage I was looking for in Macaulay, and instead found another topic of interest: that of good and bad, which also happens to be mapped out against a Greek-Turkey landscape - the same landscape that inspired the art of Jean Lurçat, an artist I came to know during my time at  l'Université catholique de l'Ouest, who was also concerned with the good and bad.
Reacting at every rupture or shaking of the earth, while not bad, is perhaps not wise. An analogy can be drawn to why Socrates stayed married to his wife despite her throwing pails of water on his head: through tolerating this abuse, he found it easier to face the criticism of him from people outside of his home. How easily, though, such a home situation could unleash evil from within another kind of person, not Socrates. This illustration of fortitude is thus closely related to an understanding of good and bad, even if not quite the same thing.
Macaulay writes of this binary: "Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, ... and it was all extremely interesting and exciting. And they went on talking about their conflicts all through the ... 19th centuries, and James Boswell ... wrote to his friends, 'My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!' and the baronet he wrote this to did not probably think it peculiar ... I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead. I do not remember that when I was at Cambridge we talked much about such things ... we talked about everything else, such as religion, love, people, psycho-analysis, books art, places, cooking, cars, food, sex, and all that."


Macaulay was of course alive during the end of the period of the Grand Tour, and Towers includes many funny quips about travel and travelogues. Is the openness to the East, and travel in that direction, a readiness for questions of morality? To think of the Renaissance is to also think of Greek questions, e.g. in how they were adapted in the Florentine Academy, or how Erasmus made philological translations: to visit Greek museums is to read about how the gradual demise of Constantinople lead to a brain drain to the West that led to this spread of thought. Geography may or may not be another binary, like that of good and bad.
Lurçat travelled that landscape, though after Macaulay. Here is a link to a painting he made during those travels. It is a painting of a burned city, one that becomes transformed in modern geography, through modern war. Lurçat is most known, at least to me, for the tapestries he made after the famous 14th century Apocalypse Tapestry housed in the Chateau D'Angers. Like the Renaissance man was once the miniature of the microcosm, man in Lurçat's tapestries is the one who can restore balance to the precariousness that is chaos (that also erupts through the wars he himself wages). To have faith in man, the exhibit says of his views, is to be optimistic, and to cultivate the wish to believe in harmony and a benevolent progress for mankind, while pessimism demarks discouragement.
While I don't feel qualified to make sweeping statements about mankind, I would say that on the individual level, it does nothing to gulp down information of nosediving trends but makes a world of difference to have faith in mankind and in the tiny difference a single person can make: in the benevolent progress of the individual.
To really look around, one can see people who seem to defy all odds through their mere existence, and hold up a lamp of hope for other people, or keep a certain message alive that needs to be heard, like the daughter to anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherin Bateson. She speaks, on the radio programme On Being, of social change by drawing parallels to endosymbiosis, the theory according to which a nucleus "came about by one single cell organism taking up residence inside the other in a way that was mutually beneficial. ... And it is now understood that they were originally like algae that took up residence inside these cells, because they needed a home that they didn’t have. And so for millions of years, every cell in every leaf is actually a cooperative enterprise." Developing this idea, she defines "homemaking" as "creating an environment where learning is possible."


M. C. Bateson is a lamp for keeping alive her mother's question about how to make a better world for posterity. Her mother's idea was about evolutionary clusters, which has to do with not doubting what a committed, thoughtful group of citizens can do to change the world. Rather like Lurçat's hope in man. But to bring this post full circle, M. C. Bateson is dissatisfied with the modern day division between the self-proclaimed "spiritual but not religious" who reject a belief in an abstract, higher good, while remaining confident in evil. Instead of their self-proclaimed one-sided binary, she suggests we speak instead in terms of wonder.
Also like Lurçat, she has a model for keeping the precariousness of impinging chaos in balance: she speaks of jazz improvisation, which is far from being chaotic and spontaneous, but is, rather, something practiced. Practice is the saving grace. So, what are people practicing today? Moaning a lot, one might say. What a contrast to the example set by Erasmus, who I am reading about in Jebb's account: Greek was hardly a subject of study when he taught it, and he himself picked it up in a way we might today call unconventional, but he complained not and went about his business, translating. Making use of what he knew.
But not all of us possess the intelligence to do groundbreaking work. Perhaps some of us can only hope to be torchbearers (λαμπάδια ἔχοντες διαδώσουσιν ἀλλήλοις ἁμιλλώμενοι τοῖς ἵπποις). In the modern Olympic Games tradition, to be a torchbearer has meant to also run with the flame, in a relay. Such sport, while through its demand on time and effort may seem counterproductive to the allegorical matter at hand, nonetheless has a return in not only yielding results in terms of physical strength but also in teaching one endurance and to take things one step at a time. This might not make one popular at this particular time in history, but it may help one be prepared to hold up the side of the binary one might prefer to be on, if one questions such things to begin with.


Brush: misprinted type.

2 comments:

  1. One of the strongest evidences that indeed "not doubting what a committed, thoughtful group of citizens can do to change the world" was not exactly a citizen, but a humanist from the 16th century who is still remembered in Mexico, especially in Pazcuaro, for the order he wrought, (based upon More's Utopia) that still retains some of the quality and tranquility of its beginning - or at least did when I visited that city 14 years ago: Vasco de Quiroga. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasco_de_Quiroga

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    1. Thank you for directions to such a diversion: I have just logged on to write about how marvelous it is to divert the mind from frustration to fascination.

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