March 8, 2008
DFTD Chapter 3 “The Good Letters”
OK—I think that I have understood some of what Barzun is presenting. Part of my problem with this material is my weak credentials in history and, in particular, the definitions of key words such as humanism.
One possible take on this is the departure of religious figures from ‘pure religion’ that retains the mystical aspects of ceremony, ritual, symbols, the Latin Mass, etc. It seems that he is opposed to much of the behavior of the elite who subscribed to the art and life style associated with the Renaissance and that focused on ‘this world’ and not the life after death. (Perhaps the painting that serves as the book cover is his vision of life during the Renaissance. I’m almost certain that the statue in the background is Michelangelo’s David.)
I am amazed by the intensity of the debates that governed the fate of some of the more controversial characters described in these early chapters, including Severtus and Savonarola, both of whom were burnt at the stake. But, as I read other reports on these characters, I learn that complex social, financial and even sexual factors played central roles in their fates. For example, Savonarola was a hugely successful Dominican friar whose emergence was linked to the disparity between the elite (and it was the wealthy elite who fostered and supported the advanced cultural achievements of the Renaissance) and the common man. Savonarola, amongst other activities, purged Florence of homosexuals, ‘plundered’ the homes of the rich and burned their possessions in the famous “Bonfire of the vanities”. His almost fanatical preaching of the need to destroy the vestiges of worldliness were enhanced by the devastations of war and the introduction of syphilis into Florence near the turn of the 15C. Apparently he exploited millennialism (and the associated fear that these were the Last Days) as well. But, eventually his powers waned because his spiritual focus on things not of this world led to economic hardships on the people. Pope Alexander VI eventually had his way and, after days of torture, he signed, with his remaining right arm, his confession that led to his being burnt at the stake in the same place (La Piazza della Signorina) where he supervised the Bonfire of the Vanities.
All of this historical review is an attempt on my part to understand Barzun’s treatment of Savonarola. On page 55 Barzun writes: “The Italian Humanists witnessed one fit of Evangelical zeal and it was enough.” I walk away from this chapter with the sense that Barzun’s considers humanism to be a contributor to the decadence he uses in the title of his book. Maybe he is striving for ‘pure faith’ and, perhaps, he views Savonarola’s fire and brimstone as one of the last gasps before the descent into irreversible decadence, a state of affairs that is the consequence of innovativeness, humanism, dedication to the sensual aspects of the arts, etc.
“As for the Humanist methods, it is the one still in universal use. Its conventions are commonplace everywhere in government, business, the weekly magazines, and even in schoolwork—who has escaped “research”? who dares ignore exact quotation and date, consulting previous work, citing sources, listing bibliography, and sporting that badge of candor, the footnote?”
Why so negative? Perhaps he prefers the mystical, at least the mysticism defined by the ‘True Church’. I think that he opposes the reformation, humanism, innovation, materialism, worldliness, sensual art and, to the extent that any of these aspects of his ‘modern era’ are reinforced the science, he opposes science or at least the scientific method. This may be too broad a sweep but, I think, that some of his thoughts go in this direction. Interestingly, I have not yet discovered what he promotes. I plan to search in my reading of FDTD those historical events that Barzun endorses.
This is an interesting aside—I recently joined FaceBook at the invitation of my son Paolo who wants to use this medium as a means of sharing some of his musical videos. Upon joining I was asked to include a photo. The only one I had was a photo taken by my colleague Jim Tanko for purposes of the University. I think this was taken about 10-15 years ago so it may be hard to recognize me from the photo.
I got a message yesterday from Emre Isin, a former graduate student who worked with me and how now works at AstraZeneca in Sweden. He wrote:
“I was pleasantly surprised to see you in Facebook, professor. And a good photo, too. Resistant to the years.”
It was the “Resistant to the years.” that led me to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde and to a review of his biography. He lived a debauched, decadent life that led to a famous trial and his incarceration at hard labor for 2 years. Following release he tried to join the Church but his request was denied. He died at the age of 46 in poverty. The following quote records the end:
"He was conscious that people were in the room, and raised his hand when I asked him whether he understood. He pressed our hands. I then sent in search of a priest, and after great difficulty found Father Cuthbert Dunne ... who came with me at once and administered Baptism and Extreme Unction. - Oscar could not take the Eucharist".
The story is interesting because many of the issues touched on by Barzun in these early chapters are reflected in Wilde’s life.