Thursday, 6 September 2018

The greatest story never told

The other day I saw a link to a story published by the US news outlet BuzzFeed that contained a set of short reviews of 35 new books (mostly, but not exclusively, novels) and I had a look at who had been recommended to read.

Out of a total of 35 authors, 24 were women and a large proportion of all the recommended works were by people from backgrounds that were other than European. The same day I had read a story published on Medium about cultural appropriation written by a woman who is ethnically a mixture of Chinese and European. She lives in Scotland and said she has always been puzzled by the concerns some people seem to have about westerners borrowing influences from foreign cultures. Lionel Shriver, the US author, made similar comments publicly some years ago, and was attacked for them.

The two things made me think. I made a comment on the Facebook post that included the Medium story, talking about how it was evidently fine for people in developing economies to benefit from the advantages offered by modern technology and from democracy, which were European innovations that had appeared at specific places at specific times for specific reasons, but somehow westerners were being made to feel guilty for making Chinese food. There was no response to my comment, which to me spoke volumes.

At the same time as these things are being discussed, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is having discussions with the University of Sydney about a degree program, although the Australian national University in Canberra had earlier refused to countenance a degree program organised with the think tank because, it said, it did not want to compromise its standards by relinquishing control over staffing and curriculum decisions. Someone I know on Facebook who teaches at the university has been vocal, publicly arguing against such a collaboration on the grounds that it would serve merely to promote the narrow interests of an ideologically-driven organisation at the expense of real scholarship.

But the problem is also visible in the way that Australian intellectuals deploy ideas taken from postcolonial studies in their work, often in a way that suggests that they feel a kind of nameless guilt about belonging to the dominant global culture. In whatever way they can, they want to rebalance the scales in favour of the oppressed. Hence the BuzzFeed book recommendation list avoiding men from Anglo backgrounds.

I wrote about this last month in a post that started out as a review of a book by an Australian about an endangered migratory bird. The fact remains that modernity is the greatest story ever told, and it pivots around three specific things that occurred in northern Europe starting in the early 14th century. Those things are:
  • Literature in the vernacular instead of Latin
  • Moveable type
  • The Reformation
All of this contributed toward formulating the Humanist project, from the definition of humanities studies promulgated by the classical Roman author Cicero. It happened at specific places at specific points in history at specific points in time. Without any of the three components listed above the revolution in learning would not have taken place.

There is a fourth element as well which I have not listed as it was arguably less influential. This is the rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek literatures, starting in the 12th century with the reintroduction of the work of Aristotle to Europe. Some people might argue that the explosion in learning that started in the 16th century could not have happened without this element, and I agree that it was a powerful spur to innovation because it served to offset the stultifying influence of the Catholic Church. Certainly, people like Petrarch, Montaigne and Bacon, whom I mention in what follows, were richly conversant with classical literature.

The Humanist project started in the Middle Ages with the appearance of the vernacular poetry of Dante Alighieri (1285-1321), whose ‘Commedia’ in three books took an encyclopedia view of the world. His innovation was taken up by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374, also known in English as Petrarch) who grew up in Avignon in southern France with his parents, who were part of the court of the Pope, who had moved there for political reasons, and he launched by his example the Renaissance craze for resurrecting classical Roman and Greek books for contemporary audiences. He also wrote love poetry in Italian.

This trend for publishing books in the vernacular instead of Latin was no doubt one of the reasons why John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar, began to push for a vernacular Bible. He completed an English translation from the Vulgate (the official Latin version belonging to the Catholic Church) by 1382. His heresy inspired Jan Hus (1369-1415), in what was then known as Bohemia, to demand church reform 100 years before Luther protested the sale of indulgences (the practise of enabling people to get expiation for their sins by giving money to the church).

The first vernacular Bible translated from the original languages it was written in (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) was actually published in Spain in around 1520, just a few years after Luther’s initial overtures to the church, by Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Their ‘Complutensian Bible’ exerted a profound influence on the later Humanists in northern Europe, who took the gains won from their leaders in the realm of religion, which saw them developing personal relations with God instead of ones mediated by the hated clergy, to spread their ideas through the new medium of printing, which had arrived in around 1440 in Germany.

Different countries had different solutions to the problem of educating boys in how to read the vernacular, which was now required by the new Christian denominations so that people (at least, men) could worship their God. In England, the tide turned when Henry VIII told the Pope to rack off and, unable to get a divorce from his Spanish wife, who could not give him the son he craved, set up his own church in England instead. As a result all boys went to school, and hence we have Shakespeare.

The new technology of printing threw up unexpected jewels in unexpected places, including Montaigne’s ‘Essais’ (1580), in which the French author turned away from God, the normal point of reference for writers of the time, and examined his own feelings. In 1620, Francis Bacon’s ‘Novum Organum’ appeared which is like a manifesto for the scientific method. In it the English statesman told his readers to turn away from the divine and instead focus their attentions on the secular realities surrounding them.

But apart from these individual works that changed the ways that people thought about themselves and their places in the world, the bigger influence was due to all of those men publishing books on all sorts of subjects as a great rate, in fact at a speed that was unprecedented in history. The process of nominalisation, whereby sentences and phrases are distilled into nouns (and verbs) that could then be deployed along with adjectives (and adverbs) in other sentences for the purpose of strongly promoting arguments in the public sphere, was accelerated by the new technology and by the new regime of education that proliferated especially in northern Europe.

In England, where the largest number of new discoveries appeared over the ensuing centuries, culminating in the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine, popular magazines that contained articles about new scientific discoveries alongside reviews of new novels and books of poetry were printed and consumed throughout the country in the 18th century by a newly-literate middle class. And women were an integral part of the public sphere, as we can see notably in the success of the novels of Jane Austen in the early decades of the 19th century.

All of this because of vernacular poetry. Everything we value, from antibiotics to jet engines, from the internet to Bob Dylan, comes from the process of nominalisation super-heated by demand for printed material among ordinary people.

Why it didn’t happen in China, where movable type had appeared earlier than it did in Europe, was due to the centralised form of government that obtained there. With one source of official power and a spreading bureaucracy with a subservient army, it was possible for the state to tightly control what was published in every corner of the realm, whereas in Europe many different countries competed for supremacy against one another. The dynamism of the European market for knowledge, where different rulers sought to achieve an advantage over their neighbours in all sorts of ways, including through their militaries, meant that there was competition for ideas there in a way that China could not equal. Diversity is strength.

The China nexus is important here because you can see the new reality that was enabled by science influencing how relations between Europe and China developed from the 18th century. In 1793 George III sent an embassy to Beijing headed by a peer of the realm named Macartney. His embassy set out in a square-rigged ship of the same kind that had been used for centuries for commerce, war and diplomacy. The embassy took several years, during which time Macartney met with the emperor, who eventually refused the overtures of the UK monarch in favour of setting up trade links. The emperor needed nothing and his people were quite ok without European goods. Thanks, but no thanks.

This wasn’t the end of the problem however, regardless how the emperor saw things. The British fought two wars against China in the middle of the next century when it was able to deploy steam vessels against the emperor’s sail-powered junks. The first of these wars ended in 1841 with the cession of Hong Kong to the British and the establishment of other trade ports along the coast. A second war was fought between 1856 and 1860. In both cases, the British were victorious due to the superiority of their military technology. The wars also served to weaken imperial sway over the country (the emperors were from a foreign dynasty, the Qing, who had established rule over the country in the 17th century) which resulted in the overthrow of the dynasty at the start of the next century.

This story of technological and scientific progress should also give courage to political progressives, as well, as they have of late been made to denounce rising waves of fascism among people of European ancestry. In Australia, we had recent reason to listen to such views because Steve Bannon was interviewed by Sarah Ferguson on the ABC’s ‘4 Corners’ current affairs program. Bannon was erratic, overbearing (consonant with his chosen “maverick” pose), and displayed an alarming lack of knowledge about things he spoke about. He struck me as more of a walking bag of talking points than an experienced political debater, and I think that he would not last a week in the public sphere in Australia if that’s where he was based.

We are used to more sober analysis here, based on facts rather than on sparkling random notions conjured out of the zeitgeist like magic cards grabbed out of the air by a magician giving a smooth performance on-stage. So my story is actually an antidote to the hatred of lunatic right-wing ideologues, in fact it is the only effective antidote, as it explicitly contradicts the tales of racial superiority that have been peddled by the unethical to manipulate the gormless since the end of the 19th century. Here, now, is a story that everyone can participate in, because it sets out in a clear and unambiguous form exactly what happened, when, where, with whom, and why.


Matt Moore said...

Some scattergun comments:

ContraPoints had nice take on cultural appropriation here:

Lionel Shriver took a fair bit of flack for that Brisbane Writers Festival speech. And I both agree and disagree with her. I agree that writers should be free to write in any voices they want. HOWEVER they are not then free of criticism from others about doing so. Recently on Twitter, female writers posted the worst examples of male writers writing from a female POV. And they were excruciating. TBH I am more interested in reading takes on an experience I do not have (e.g. being a woman, being Afro-American, being gay) from those with direct exposure to that experience - obviously with the proviso that the author has to have some talent in the first place. To use the metaphor that starts Shriver's talk: just because you choose to put on a hat does not mean that you will wear it well.

We have moved from a world where being white, male, het, etc meant that you could largely do what you liked with other people's experience and not be challenged. And now you can't. Are all those challenges valid? I don't think so. But they are worth considering.

Ramsey Centre: I saw the reading list they recommended for the course and didn't hate it. I read Tony Abbott's Quadrant article and near soiled myself with laughter. If conservatives want to spend millions of $$$ on a course so its graduates can go to IPA internships and Liberal party staffer roles then sure. It's not great but there are far worse things they could be doing with that money.

Re: Bannon. I think you consistently overrate the quality of Australian political discourse - he would do very well on Sky News Australia - but otherwise I agree with you.

Matthew da Silva said...

I honestly don't know how people like Tony Abbott imagine that western civilisation developed, or where it do things well that other civilisations didn't do well. He probably imagines it had something to do with Christianity (lots of plus points there, no doubt) but he's probably not really up with the details. They don't have to be, these men. The success of the west on all counts (including in its treatment of minorities) is so far in advance of the rest of the mob that it's not funny, so it's self-evident to the great unwashed. Fortunately, I wash daily.