Sunday, July 03, 2011

Exploring Silence II

Much of the work on ancient and medieval texts has been done quite consciously and deliberately through the ideological filters of scholasticism, Calvinism, neo-scholasticism, Freudianism, positivism and empiricism; there has not been much opportunity for them to reveal what in fact they have to say on their own terms. We need to reconsider the methodology we use to examine them, and to be extremely careful in the choice of words we use to talk about them. Words can either help or hinder us in communicating a message that is difficult enough for any human being to take on board—difficult because it is simple, not because it is complex—much less twenty-first century people. Otherwise we are in grave danger of losing the ability to interpret these texts at all; and indeed, given contemporary cultural pressures, it may already be too late.

Most modern interpreters—there are a few exceptions—do not appear to understand the model of the mind or the dynamic that underlies ancient and medieval texts, nor do they recognize the significance of some biblical texts or the sense of the words within them, even though these texts may be quoted in the work in question. Interpreters often treat as philosophical abstraction or linguistic transmission what is actual—the way the mind works, or the way it 'feels', that is, its effects on the body—which anyone, literate or not, can work out if they take the time to observe their own mind. In addition, any use of the word mind seems to provoke a knee-jerk reaction that often wrongly labels the work (or the interpreter) Platonist. Just because someone is talking about the mind does not mean s/he is a Platonist. This label is particularly misapplied to biblical interpreters if they use the word mind, in spite of the fact that one of Christianity's core texts (Phil. 2:5-11) includes this word. The passage, among other things, is describing a psychological truth: that outward behaviour is changed only after and in consequence of a profound interior shift. Will, in Piers Plowman, persists with the question that underlies this passage: how can I come to 'kynde knowing'? But Holy Church and her companion Job's comforters not only will not but no longer can tell him, for the institution has lost its empirical base; instead, they subvert, invert, and ignore his question.[1]

Pseudo-Denys is another example. I have come to think of this much-discussed writer as John the Solitary (John of Apamea) in fancy dress, the costume being the language of neo-Platonism clothing a dynamic that cuts across religions and cultures. Pseudo-Denys is a hot topic, widely contested, but the confusion is all the greater because few of the scholars working on him understand this foundational dynamic/model. Since, as Iain McGilchrist [2] reminds us, form follows function, it is not surprising that there is a good deal of correlation between the insights of the ancient and medieval world about the the mind's work in and with silence, and contemporary neuro-psychology; whereas the assumptions of many modern interpreters of ancient and medieval texts are sadly wide of the mark—if, indeed, there is any coherence to their theories or their language. These misunderstandings distort scholarship in many disciplines: classics, patristics, medieval studies, history, theology, philosphy, to name but a few.

[1] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255.

[2]Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale, 2009).


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