Saturday, April 10, 2004

Mirror of the West

Once upon a time, in a place perhaps no further than your town center there existed a world which in attitude at least, would have understood the passions and the hatreds of places like Najaf or Fallujah. The following passages have been taken from the classic first chapter of Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages. I have quoted passages here to remind myself, like a memento mori, that despite the claims on both sides that an irreconcilable conflict now exists between Islam and the West, we are not as unlike as we think. The world of the Middle Ages towered into the clouds like the dream of Islam. Yet we now know that it was not the apotheosis of faith, but it's degenerate counterfeit. Reviewer Wiltrud Goldschmidt observes:

Huizinga discerns a gradual rigidification of all manifestations of life: faith degenerates into superstition, love of beauty into ostentatious display, models of conduct deteriorate into empty formalism. Once-vital expressions of love, piety, courage and honor become so stylized that they lose all meaning. Profanation of the sacred, blasphemy and idolatry abound. Itinerant preachers whip up mass hysteria; witch hunts and prosecution of heretics are the predictable result. In the arts, excessive and repetitive use of imagery and allegory stifles creative impulses.

It could have been written yesterday in Najaf. Fanaticism, someone observed, is always the product of doubt: never faith; the grasping of the doubter after the certainties of youth. It is the last fire before the dark; or perhaps, as some of the wise in Islam may suspect, the final gathering of shadows before the real dawn. The following subheadings are mine to illustrate the parallels, but the incomparable text is Huizinga's.

The Childlike Nature of the Islamic Street

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. ... There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health. The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils. Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty.

The Call of the Muezzin

But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits, who with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation. People knew them by familiar names: Fat Jacqueline, Bell Roelant; everyone knew their individual tones and instantly recognized their meaning.

Clamor in the Streets: the Mighty Sermon

Processions must have also been deeply moving. During sad times -- and these came often -- they could occasionally take place day after day even for weeks on end. .. They continued from the end of may into July and involved every different groups, orders or guilds, ever different routes and ever different relics ... there were always many small children with them. ... Processions were joined or watched, "with great weeping, with many tears, with great devotion".

Rarer than the processions and executions were the sermons given by itinerant preachers who came, from time to time, to stir the people with their words. We, readers of newspapers, can hardly imagine anymore the tremendous impact of the spoken word on naive and ignorant minds. The popular preacher Brother Richard, who may have served Jean d'Arc as father confessor, preached in Paris in 1429 for ten days running. He spoke from five until ten or eleven o'clock in the morning ... when he informed his audience after his tenth sermon that it would have to be his last ... "the people, great and small, wept from the bottom of their hearts as if they were watching their best friends being put into the ground, and so did he".