Posts Tagged ‘History’

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.


Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.

Medieval Pilgrimage

Posted: November 16, 2020 in Artistry, Culture, Music
Tags: , , ,

Listening to the recording shown at left, my mind drifted to various cinematic treatments of Medievalism, including The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, and too many others to cite. Other associations also came tumbling out of memory, including my review of The Hobbit (the book, not the movie, though I reviewed both) and a previous blog post called “What’s Missing.” That post was a rumination on community and meaning lost in modern technocratic societies. In light of fetishization of the Medieval Period, including for example the popularity of Renaissance Faires, there seems to be more to say about what’s missing.

The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (English: Red Book of Montserrat), known as such because of its 19th-century binding and its being held the Monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia (a region of Spain), is a collection of devotional texts also containing late Medieval songs. The Wikipedia article indicates that the monastery also holds the shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat, a major site of pilgrimage at the time the Red Book was compiled. Accordingly, its songs and dances were probably intended for pilgrims to the shrine and were part of a well-developed oral folk tradition. The 14th-century manuscript does not identify authors or composers. Furthermore, it predates modern musical notation, so performances and recordings today are reconstructions.

The music on the recording fuses sacred and secular (folk) elements and strongly suggests communal participation. In contrast, the modern concert hall has become the scene of rigid propriety. Audience members try to sit in stone silence (notwithstanding inevitable cell phone interruptions) while performers demonstrate their, um, emotionless professionalism. Live concerts of popular musics (multiple genres) instead feature audiences dancing and singing along, creating an organic experience that transforms the concertgoer into a participant situated in the middle of the flow rather than at the distant receiving end. Middle ground, such as when symphony orchestras perform film or video game music, often draws untutored audiences who may want to participate and in doing so frankly offend others trained to be still.

Is there cultural connection between pilgrimages, processions, and parades? The first is plainly religious is motivation, such as visits to Catholic shrines, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or Mecca. Processions are more ceremonial and may not be religious in orientation. A wedding procession is a good example. Parades are more nearly civil in character, unless one insists on nationalism (e.g., Independence Day in the U.S., Bastille Day in France, Victory Day in Russia) being civil religions. The sense of devotion, sacrifice, and hardship associated with pilgrimage, historical or modern, contrasts with the party atmosphere of a parade, where Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Día de Muertos in particular invite licentious participation. Typical U.S. holiday parades (e.g., Independence Day, Thanksgiving) feature spectators arrayed lazily along the streets. There is even a subgenre of march form (used in band concerts) called a “patrol” that employs a broad crescendo-diminuendo (getting louder then fading away) to depict a military column as it marches by.

I suspect that modern processions and parades are weak echos of pilgrimage, a gradual transformation of one thing into something else. Yet the call of the open road (a/k/a wanderlust) resurfaces periodically even when not specifically religious in motivation. The great westward migration of Europeans to North American and then Americans across the untamed frontiers attests to that venturing spirit. In literature, Jack London’s memoir The Road (1907) describes the hobo life hopping trains in the 1890s, while Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) tells of traveling across America by car. Another expression of wanderlust was penned by forgotten American poet Vachel Lindsay in his self-published War Bulletin #3 (1909):

Let us enter the great offices and shut the desk lids and cut the telephone wires. Let us see that the skyscrapers are empty and locked, and the keys thrown into the river. Let us break up the cities. Let us send men on a great migration: set free, purged of the commerce-made manners and fat prosperity of America; ragged with the beggar’s pride, starving with the crusader’s fervor. Better to die of plague on the highroad seeing the angels, than live on iron streets playing checkers with dollars ever and ever.

Lindsay invites his readers to embrace a life better lived traversing the landscape in a voyage of self-discovery. His version lacks the religious orientation of pilgrimage, but like the Medieval cultures depicted in film and music from the period, possesses tremendous appeal for modern Westerners starved of meaning that arises naturally out of tradition.

Regular readers of this blog understand that for a decade plus, my thinking has been darkened and clouded by impending disaster regarding multiple, interlocking dilemmas: epistemological crisis, social disintegration, periodic financial crashes impoverishing tens of millions of people at a time, ecological collapse and mass extinction stemming from climate change, and at least two bits of irrational mischief (an obvious euphemism) before we all take a dirt nap and the human species goes extinct alongside most others. The first bit of mischief is the doomsday sort, meaning that, in keeping with dystopian, fictional narratives being reliable predictions of actuality, recognition that our time is severely limited will enable some psychopath with his or her finger on the button to rationalize “We’re all nearly spent, so fuck it. Let’s first convert some large portion of the Middle East into a sheet of glass.” Once mutually assured destruction (MAD) is loosed, the second bit will be to convert the entire globe into a lifeless sphere. No doubt this is a worst case scenario, but the necessary dominoes are lined up and ready to topple, and 2020 has already handed us several severe perturbations to make the endgame more likely with each passing disastrous month. It hasn’t quite happened yet and outcomes may take years or decades to fully manifest. Still, eternal optimists offer hope in defiance of reason that we can still rescue ourselves from self-defeat; I’m not so sanguine.

My conclusion (drawn more than once) that the world has again fallen into madness is the central point here. Whereas previous instances were major disruptions leading to political regime change, world wars, genocides, etc., each eventually concluded and what life remained went on. This iteration could well be different. My warning is not perpetual fearmongering that politicians practice. Electoral politics keep raising specters of insecurity to be solved by each incoming administration but then never manage to be resolved. Indeed, that’s the condition of our industrial, technocratic civilization: processes and problems have grown too massive, intractable, and instititionalized to be managed even in sane and stable times. Rather, my warning is about understanding death stalking us best as possible. I also offer no solutions.

Over the years, I’ve written several multipart series of posts that address my conclusion directly and many more one-offs that nibble at the margins. The main ones are The Frailty of Reason, Dissolving Reality, and Pre-Extinction Follies, all (IMO) worth a read. As I contemplate our situation in mid-2020, I had in mind to write another multipart series but have found myself unable to gather disparate thoughts under one cohesive theme or title. So I’ve decided to break with my own habits and instead offer this preview of drafts already begun — at least insofar as I can map them now.

  • Unitary Consciousness. My rumination on the misapplication of the scientific method’s divide-and-conquer strategy for understanding reality and the mind.
  • Making Sense and Sensemaking. An exploration of fascinating yet frustrating attempts to draw conclusions about the world we inhabit.
  • Align Your Ideology! A survey of historical instances of madness overtaking us at the level of whole nations or societies.

Much as I would prefer to tie these together under one title, nothing coalesced in my thinking to allow for tight integration. Nor do I have an order or schedule in mind. I’ll chip away at it, more for my own purposes than to achieve influence or notoriety. All the same, posts will be published here for whatever value you may garner.

I’m aware of at least two authors who describe American character in less than glowing terms: Alexis de Tocqueville and Morris Berman. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (two vols., 1835 and 1840) is among the most cited, least read (by 21st-century Americans, anyway) books about America. (I admit to not having read it.) Berman’s American trilogy (titles unnamed, all of which I’ve read) is better known by contemporary Americans (those who read, anyway) and is unflinching in its denunciation of, among other things, our prideful stupidity. Undoubtedly, others have taken a crack at describing American character.

American identity, OTOH, if such a thing even exists, is somewhat more elusive for a variety of reasons. For instance, Americans lack the formative centuries or millennia of history Europeans and Asians have at their disposal. Moreover, Americans (except for Native Americans — multiple synonyms and euphemisms available) are immigrants (or their descendants) drawn from all around the globe. Accordingly, we lack a coherent unifying narrative about who we are. The American melting pot may come closest but is insufficient in its generality. National identity may well be fraying in other societies as each loses its distinctiveness over time. Nonetheless, two influential factors to formation of a loose American identity are negative identity (defining oneself as against others, e.g., adolescent rebellion rather fitting for a young nation) and borrowed identity (better known as cultural appropriation). The latter has been among the chief complaints of social justice warriors.


To orient oneself in life, a person chooses from among myriad narratives, typically assembling a hodgepodge worldview out of diverse parts. According to Oswald Spengler, cultural artifacts (e.g., the arts, humanities, and sciences) arise “needing the guidance of inspiration and … developing under great conventions of form.” The very same can be said of our origin and orientation stories, ancient or contemporary. Narratives intertwine and need not necessarily be discrete, mutually exclusive, or competing, even though that’s what’s often implied by time-worn tensions underlying science vs. religion, sometimes understood more philosophically as logos vs. mythos. Indeed, they cohere despite conflicts of logic and their being ahistorical. The power of subscription and consensus overcomes all objections.

If a master narrative exists, it ought to be simply reality obtained, though that is probably visible to only a small percentage of people able to apprehend the world clearly. For the rest, scales not yet having fallen from the eyes, the considerable benefit of hindsight can help clarify the view, but only if one has sufficient nerve to behold it honestly. Instead, our dominant inspirational narratives promulgate a wide variety of incompletely fulfilled hopes and desires. Few such promises bear much resemblance to reality, those of economists, politicians, and clerics demonstrating the most striking discontinuities from the actuality experienced by ordinary folks. A Chris Hedges article at called “The Folly of Empire” discusses this departure from reality in his characteristically erudite style (apologies for the long nested quote):