Saturday, January 26, 2019

Rewriting the Middle Ages, James Harpur's 'Kells' 3/3b

This is the fourth, final post about James Harpur's 'Kells'. 
Opinionating in progress. 
Does it matter if Harpur’s Gerald doesn’t fit what is known about his historical namesake? I think it does, in this case. ‘Scribe B’ can be ‘generic early medieval Scribe with (possibly modern) attitudes’ but there is nothing generic about Gerald of Wales. Nor is this the rivet counter's question of historical accuracy which dogs historical fiction. Harpur’s poem is not an episode in a Netflix pseudo historical costume drama whose sole purpose is to entertain the largest possible audience and to hell with the details. 
The poem is a well-written consideration of spiritual questions. It seems to want to be taken seriously. And therefore the argument it proposes or explores is diminished by a mismatch between poem and history. 
And there are two of these. The first is the obvious one. Tact and Humilty are hardly qualities that one can associate with Gerald. 
The second is less obvious.
It’s difficult not to read the Medieval church backwards. Over the last few decades the modern Christian Church, as an institution, has not had a good press. We have been treated, repeatedly, to the news that men of God, some with positions of power and authority, have behaved in an abominable fashion. The medieval Catholic church can be read through the contempt of its protestant critics at a time when it was undoubtedly corrupt. 
It’s dangerously easy to imagine that any career orientated cleric in the 12thcentury, must, as in this poem, have made a choice between individual spirituality and public advancement and been, if not corrupt, then corrupted.
1)     But I’m not convinced that this is true. What Gerald believed, his own ‘spirituality’ is probably much more complicated, and possibly unknowable, but I don’t think he can be used to represent an opposition he would not have recognized. 
2)    Earlier in the poem Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger are offered as two different approaches to the numinous. Bernard was unimpressed by art, Suger gilded his church. This is true, but like most apparent binaries it’s the extreme points at either end of a continuum.
3)    This is complicated by the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert which is referenced at the head of the poem. This seems to qualify 2 because it suggests the worldly, rather than being a conduit to the numinous becomes an end in itself. This shift in the argument is not marked in the poem but instead drifts.
4)    Gerald then becomes a representative of one who a) encounters the spiritual through art and b) turns aside for the pursuit of worldly power and c) regrets doing so in his bitter Old age.
5)    I’m not convinced you can use Gerald to epitomize 2 or 3. I think the simple binary ‘spirituality or worldly success’ or, in the poem’s term’s ‘a will to advancement vs spirituality’’ is a modern one based on a modern concept of Individual ‘spirituality’, tainted by modern attitudes towards the church.  
6)    The story about Kells that Gerald tells (See first of these posts) is just one more story in a life time body of work that is an anthology of wonder stories. The miraculous book is one of many miracles. Gerald does not recount any kind of epiphany when he sees the book. He merely writes at the end of his description, if you saw the book ‘…you will not hesitate to declare that these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels’. He then tells the story of the book's miraculous creation (see first post in this series) then he writes…’And then we shall set out those things that happened in more modern times’ and proceeds to tell the story of a talking cross in Dublin.  The world for Gerald was a place of wonder and miracle. He has been accused of being a credulous audience for wonder tales, but it’s also possible to argue that for Gerald the world was a site of wonders which pointed towards the God who had made it.
7)    Gerald’s attitude towards the spiritual and the worldly was much more complex than a simple binary would allow. Towards the end of ‘The Jewell of the Church’, having gone to great and often funny lengths to castigate the ignorance of priests, he realises he has suggested that all bishops are damned, recoils and qualifies his point. (Gemma Ecclesiastica trans John J Hagan Distinction ll, chapter 38). His attitude to power and spirituality is not straightforward. He was quite happy to lecture the pope when he thought the Pope was wrong. He admired both Beckett and Langton, both of whom played major ‘political’ roles. He was against prelates who did not do their job properly, and who were out for personal gain, or who were lackeys of the King, but he was not against the temporal power of the church. The structural hierarchy, and the responsibilities of any position in that hierarchy are taken as given. His ‘will to advancement’ is as much a sign of his spirituality as the chosen isolation and poverty of a hermit he admired.
8)    Gerald failed in his attempts to become Archbishop of Wales, or Bishop of Saint Davids, and he may have lived out his years at Lincoln, amongst his books, but it’s difficult to imagine him saying at the end of his life ‘everything is meaningless’ without qualifying it in some way. (Harpur has him say this twice, p59 and p63).
9)    With scribe B, once the background is established, there is room for invention. As I suggested in the previous post, that room isn’t infinite. With Gerald, it’s much more difficult to go from ‘Medieval Attitudes towards X’ to “Gerald’s attitudes towards X’. Only martyrs and lunatics are rigidly consistent, and if it’s difficult enough to work out ‘medieval attitudes towards spirituality’ it’s even more difficult to imagine what Derek Attridge calls ‘idioculture’; the unique configuration of cultural forces which combine in any individual. What Gerald believed, his own ‘spirituality’ is probably much more complicated, and possibly unknowable, but I don’t think he can be used to represent an opposition he would not have recognized. 
10) Poems, with their generic tolerance of ambiguity, are ideal places to explore the contradictions that characterise belief and the awkward alterity of the past. 
11) Am I criticizing Harpur for not writing the poem I would have tried to write in his position. No. I’ve written poems about Gerald and rewritten some of Gerald’s stories. Am I guilty of rivet counting?  It’s a poem, not a history essay? 
12) A literary character is nothing but a set of attributes and actions collected round a proper noun. Scribe B, emerging from the established ground of ‘anonymous Irish Medieval Scribe’ offers the writer some freedom to create a ‘character’. But when the proper noun also belongs specifically to a historical, biological entity, who is knowable, then I think this isn’t nit picking. If a writer is going to advance an argument, or use a character to represent or personify that argument, I think being faithful to the original becomes necessary. 
13) This in no way detracts from Harpur’s achievement, because most people reading the poem won’t care and he’s not writing an historical essay. He’s writing poems, which is something he’s very good at. 
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14) It’s just possible that Harpur is quoting Gerald. Perhaps somewhere he found the words he uses. In which case everything changes, or would if there was some form of annotation indicating what was found and what was invented. 

End of opinionating....

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