Medieval Order and the Palpable Obscure

Hello all. I might as well begin addressing you, my dear readers, since the category now has referents.

Today we have a reflection on this morning’s Western Civ section. We’ve been talking in Western Civ about the dissolution of Medieval culture in Western Europe, and what I’ve been most struck by is the trajectory of order to chaos – we go from Jesus with a protractor, laying out the world, to Jesus torn and bloody as a third of the population dies. (Forgive my historical simplifications, please.)

This is particularly striking to me, since, well, I love the Medieval mind. Even more than this, I love the idea of an ordered world – a lucid world, the philosopher’s dream. And as order slips away from the Medievals, I’m mourning along with them. I’m sympathizing because my own world – happy and healthy and materially-ordered though it may be – has developed a rash, as it were. Everywhere I turn I’m finding more spots to the world; I can’t keep track of them; they create nuances and loopholes and they mar what I’d hoped would be a neatly beautiful image.

This confusion became doubly poignant for me when we briefly spoke about William of Occam and nominalism. If you can’t see the big picture, if the ordered world isn’t within your grasp – you just point to objects, like a child. What presents itself in front of your face is what you get; there’s no extending beyond and piecing together. (Okay, okay, I may be slightly exaggerating.) And despite all my dreams about being able to get at the essence of a thing, idea, or situation and really “name it well”, the world of “the way things really are” is not my world. I’m within existence, per Kierkegaard, and I don’t see the relationships and I don’t see the essential characteristics and I definitely don’t see the forms. But I’ve got to bumble my way through the messy world nonetheless, keep away from the sticky walls when possible as I burrow on through the tunnel. And for whatever reason (custom? God-given desire or task? love particular to me? sheer oddity?) I keep on giving names, making labels, even though they’re not sufficient. Even though I change them. Even though they fall off after a few minutes.

So then I wrote a poem about it in my Western Civ. notebook.

Back to addressing the audience: I’m not sure how you all feel about the inclusion of poetry here, but for some reason the impersonality of this blog and the fact that you can just stop reading at any time if you’re bored means that I don’t really mind putting in the occasional poem here or there. Maybe that’s annoying. I doubt that they’re really terrible; I also doubt that they’re of much interest to anyone who isn’t thinking about what I was thinking about when I wrote them. But they’ll probably keep appearing nonetheless.

My poem is a simple haiku (yes, that’s redundant). I’m on a haiku/cinquain kick lately; I think the restrictions force me to produce somewhat better work. (It’s Miltonic in origin, please note. I’m reading Paradise Lost and the poem draws its central image from the section in which Satan leaves Hell and passes through chaos on his way to Paradise. Milton actually uses the phrase “palpable obscure” at one point, which I loved – that’s exactly what’s so maddening about obscure things, I think – they’re palpable!, you can just get in touch (ha) enough with them to have a vague sense of what they are – but they’re “merely” palpable, reason in its visual domain can’t get at them. Thus: obscure. We’re blind, living feelingly instead. (Imagine if Plato’s prisoner had felt the sun! What then?! Imagine the implications for the trajectory of Western philosophical history!))

So have a poem. Then have a Rembrandt sketch.

Will I be able

in the palpable obscure

to christen chaos?


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