Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism (1995), Blackwell Publishing.

Gurevich’s approach to this seemingly insurmountable topic involves fairly close readings of texts mainly from the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in other words, the Middle Ages.

Mainly the High Middle Ages. He does touch on Augustine with great tenderness, as though - in fact he says this - noone else would talk about themselves in this way until the Renaissance (thinking here of Montaigne).

But Gurevich’s challenge here has to be to whip the tablecloth of ‘great men’ theory out from under the feast of renaissance cultural produce, baring the table beneath it. The table is, to use an allegorical frame that would have been sympathetic to a person of the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages - the platform upon which the Renaissance is served up to us.

Gurevich has little time for the ‘great men’ approach to history that was pioneered in the Romantic era and still serves as a surrogate for knowledge today. Three quarters of the way through the book, when he is in full stride, Gurevich spells this out: “[I]f we concern ourselves only with great people, we shall not learn very much about the life of medieval society,” where

Individuality is not valued or approved: rather it is feared, and not only in others - people are afraid of being themselves. Manifestations of originality or idiosyncrasy have a whiff of heresy about them. People suffer if they feel that they are not the same as everyone else.

Preoccupation with originality is not “a characteristic mark” of medieval times. Rather, “essence lay in the fact that the person embodied certain ‘vocations’, ‘offices’ or varieties of ‘service’.” “Individuals did not seek inner satisfaction by contrasting themselves with everybody else: they found it in subordinating their egos to preselected prototypes.”

Gurevich is Russian, and this should be kept in mind when contemplating the task he has set himself, and that he undertakes to fulfil. In addition, the works he refers to - approvingly and dismissingly - are also mainly by Russians. These are the works he would have read in his early years, at the time he was developing the archetypes that would enable him to hit the ground running, in a work like this.

Like another popular historian, London-based Englishman Peter Ackroyd, Gurevich has a firm grasp on a broad range of material. Intriguingly, he begins the book not with a glance in the direction, say, of the Provencal poets of the 11th century, but by looking at pagan literature, specifically the sagas and skaldic poems of Norway.

Because this part of Europe didn’t adopt Christianity until the 11th century, whereas Ireland, for example, converted in the 4th century. Gurevich seems to seek an alternative, early and for tonic reasons, to the ‘confessio’ method that he will examine starting around page 100.

Gurevich’s book introduces the reader to a series of interesting ‘characters’ who broke away from the typical ‘confessio‘ using one of other different methods, including autobiography. His main point is that the ‘individual’ did not exist, then, as it does now.

(It was not until the 1920s, in New York, that the ‘profile’ emerged as a short, concise and colourful appraisal of a person.)

In the Middle Ages even the notion of something being ‘personal’ was yet to attain a consistency and meaning that could, today, be discerned.

Yet he digs deep and, interestingly, starts with pagan literature.

The characters of Sverrir, a king of Norway and an innovator (originally from the Faroe Islands and a commoner - no other king would have such a name!), Egill the skaldic poet (and hence warrior too) whose appearance was so terrifying he had magical attributes attached to him, Abelard the poet and scholar who was so irresistible to women his lover’s uncle had him castrated, and Guibert de Nogent, who had visions.

This was the traditional technique for depicting the inner world of the individual: these visions are a reflection of the individual’s attempts at self-identification.

Sverrir’s saga also contains visions but, here, the purpose is to establish just claim to a throne he took by armed force. There are other differences between the pagan and the Christian sense of self. One of these is the place of tribe or clan. While monks in Western Europe were secreting themselves away and mostly tried to expunge traces of their provenance, Northern bards wrote almost exclusively of the situation of the individual as part of a society characterised by clans.

Vengeance for a clan member was a personal matter of vendetta, whereas in the Christian ethos vengeance was a matter for God, who would punish the wicked and reward the virtuous at the Last Judgement. No wonder that early Church Fathers desired to convert pagans to their religion.

It may be possible to estimate this desire as geopolitics. If clan wars disturb trade or security, the best way is to remove vendetta from the clan. How? By converting those people over there beyond the mountains or the lakes to a religion wherein vengeance is a monopoly, not a franchise.

Not unlike the modern state, where violence is a monopoly held by the police force (the state arm of legal action). In Europe's north, Gurevich writes, this was happening, however:

The complete absorption of the individual into the group and his subordination to ritual give way to the emergence of individuals who are more separate and more distinct.

It is Gurevich’s point of concern to delineate the transition from a purely clan-based, to a personality-based culture. In this new type of locus for action, the individual can exist apart from his (or her) group apparatus. But it wasn’t instantaneous.

[Egill the skald] does not doubt for a moment that [his actions] were justified or inevitable. While, for Christian authors, life and its generalised representation in literature are two separate things, for Egill they are one and the same. He is not confronted by a moral dilemma: he acts in accordance with a code of ethics transmitted to him by his clan or group, and he derives profound satisfaction from the fact that he is capable of carrying out the group’s requirements in the most effective possible way.

This sounds remarkably similar to a description that someone living today might make for the public sphere in modern society. The persona of the individual is stripped of its methodological existence and the politician or businessman becomes a means of promoting common aims.

The media participate in this struggle by promoting or detracting from the effectiveness of the individual so ‘framed’. Their own ‘frames’ are part of the ‘system’ of motivation and justification within which the individual must seem to share goals while developing a persona equal to one-on-one conflict.

Going back to Egill, who is part of a tradition of skaldic poetry that is “emphatically and blatantly personal poetry and, in this respect, it is radically different from the epic [of saga] variety”. As for the skald himself: he ‘extolls [his] own poetic ability or discuss[es] and criticis[es] poems by other skalds”. A skald is

… a person who turned particularly frequently to poetry and mastered his art, was a warrior in the service of a Norwegian or other Northern king who, from time to time, would compose poems. Thanks to his extolling of his lord’s martial exploits and other deeds, he enjoyed the lord’s favour and would receive rich gifts as reward for his poems. … [The] skald’s songs of abuse … could have the most disastrous effect on the reputation of the man against whom they were directed, even so far as to undermine his health and prosperity.

At the same time, in France, along with the beginning of the existence of men devoted purely to study - which would lead to the establishment of the university - and the building of the first gothic churches, there is the “subordination of the uniquely individual to the typical”.

Georg Misch calls this ‘morphological individuation’ and compares it to, what would come later, in the Renaissance, ‘organic individuation’, in which “the centre of … personality was to be found within itself”.

But Gurevich is not content to focus only on literates or literary men, and toward the middle of the book takes a step into the locus publicus by examining sermons recorded in Germany in troubled times - in the 12th century the Holy Roman Empire was disintegrating. However, the contents of sermons delivered in the region of southern Germany (the nation know so known) do not differ radically from others printed elsewhere, and at other times.

This is a good move. I enables Gurevich to look into the hearts and homes of the average person who, we are told, did not possess a distinct ‘individuality’ at this time.

This is the common view, held out as a foil to the developments, later, in the Renaissance, when the ‘individual’ is considered to have become possible in society broadly.

Eventually, Gurevich alights, with some pleasure, to be sure, on the figure of Petrarch - the man who climbed a mountain for a purely aesthetic reason - the first European to do so in a distinctly ‘modern’ way (although Chinese poets had been doing it for some time).

Yet Gurevich does not let his interest in what makes an individual get clouded by aesthetic considerations. Sure, Petrarch was a great poet, but Gurevich’s goal lies elsewhere.

This is a fantastic book but it requires a good deal of spare time and quiet to do it justice.

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