Past Masters

Raymond Williams

  • Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the 19th Century by Marjorie Reeves and Warwick Gould
    Oxford, 365 pp, £35.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 826672 3
  • Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature by Hilary Fraser
    Cambridge, 287 pp, £25.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 521 30767 8
  • The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton edited by John Bradley and Ian Ousby
    Cambridge, 537 pp, £45.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 521 32091 7

What can we possibly say of the claim that ‘the first great revolutionary movements in Europe’ were all ‘more or less imbued with the ideas of Joachim of Fiore’? Or, if ‘more or less’ offers an escape clause, what can we say of another claim: that ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’? Or that ‘it is hardly too much to claim that the vague and powerful assumptions we all make about historical transition have their roots in Joachism’?

‘Aggregate of symbols’, ‘vague and powerful assumptions’, ‘more or less imbued’: whatever the actual history, these phrases bear the mark of very recent times; all were written, in fact, within the last twenty years. The tide of metaphysical and idealist speculation in the humanities is not yet at flood. Within a period of persistent political reaction, and of more specific kinds of political resignation, even the jetsam has its fascination: yet there is also a more serious problem, which the new study by Reeves and Gould directly addresses. By what actual processes are ideas preserved, circulated and developed? ‘Can the ideas of one person or group lurk around in the atmosphere, having, as it were, a continuing life of their own, so that they can be plucked out of the air by a later generation? Or is it the case that certain modes of thought or certain symbols can be generated spontaneously and afresh from archetypal sources working in repeatable types of human experience?’ This formulation of alternatives is, to be sure, itself inadequate. Both ‘lurking around in the atmosphere’ and ‘generated spontaneously ... from archetypal sources’ have built-in idealist assumptions. In the great majority of cases of the persistence and revival of ideas, more practical means are quite evident: notably the continuity and relative dominance of certain kinds of institution, which literally teach and reproduce.

Yet there are indeed cases, like this revival of Joachim, where there are enough discontinuities to make normal explanations doubtful. Once it is started, of course, the process feeds on itself. It becomes a matter of anxiety not to know Joachim, or a matter of fashion to know at least the name. Yet there are enough cases of the apparent persistence of some heterodox or underground tradition, specifically not taught in the dominant reproductive institutions, to return us to the more general problems of persistence and revival. Reeves and Gould, reaching beyond their title to our own century, offer an interesting analytic example.

The claims for Joachim (c. 1135-1202) are based on his application of the Christian Trinity to history. Full divine revelation in the world has three stages, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the ‘Third Age’ of the Holy Spirit, in concordance with the two previous ages, will come, or is about to come. A development of this scheme by one of his successors, Gerard, made the authority of the two previous ages, and the Old and New Testaments which correspond to them, obsolete: their place would be taken by the Eternal Evangel, the everlasting gospel of the Apocalypse. Joachim, it appears, did not believe in this sharp and (it might be said) revolutionary break, but his name was associated with it and the ideas were denounced as heretical.

It is then both the original proposition, of three stages of history through progressive revelation, and the developed proposition, that the third stage is a millenarian or revolutionary break, that, often confusingly, are cited. Reeves and Gould examine the citations, from Schelling and Michelet to Yeats and Merezhkovsky. In their wealth of detail, demonstrating every kind of loose correspondence, appropriation and inflation as well as some kinds of genuine influence, they may indeed, as they say, ‘put a spoke in the wheel’ of the ‘Joachimist bandwagon’. Yet the pressures of the time, and of some of its influential cultural formations, are so complex that they may, after all, give it a further shove. Neither the orotund reference to Joachim of Fiore, nor its placing within some ‘instinct’ or ‘archetype’ of ‘thinking in threes’, is as potent as that current fantasy of some intellectuals, represented here by a citation from Eco’s Name of the Rose, that ‘books talk among themselves.’ It is this originally despairing but now rather settled and comfortable idealism which is the real bandwagon.

The necessary counterposition, beyond any merely reductive sociology of ideas, was clearly enough stated in the 1920s, against the early Formalists, by Medvedev and Bakhtin: ‘It is not works that come into contact, but people, who, however, come into contact through the medium of works.’ This proposition holds, moreover, beyond the simplifying contrast of ‘materialist’ and ‘religious’ ideas which Reeves and Gould at one point employ.

The distinctions for which Reeves and Gould provide some of the important material are then decisive. There really are fundamental differences between ideas of a coming Golden Age (simple millenarianism), ideas of a universal spiritual transformation beyond the perspectives of orthodox religion (some forms of romanticism), and projects of liberation or revolution (now often generalised to Marxism but of course much wider and more diverse). That in confused times and minds these ideas are made to overlap is less significant, finally, than that they are different and often alternative or even opposed perspectives. To suppose that ‘the self-interpretation of modern political society’ or ‘the assumptions we all make about historical transition’ have their roots in Joachim’s ‘aggregate of symbols’ is not so much interpretation as an option for one perspective in preference to another. Where there is widespread perception, as in Vrchlicky’s poem on Joachim, of a ‘world sinking in the flood of vanity and blood’, it is all the more important to distinguish between alternative responses to it, and these are not so much ‘materialist’ and ‘religious’ as historical and meta-historical. The commitments that follow from these alternatives have become, in our time, fundamentally opposed.

Was this so also in the 19th century, where in movements as diverse as romanticism, positivism, spiritualised history and socialism the doctrine of Threes – with generalised bows to Comte or Hegel, liberation or the dialectic – can with some initial plausibility be applied? I find I read that long crisis, and the very different crisis of our own century, in quite another way: as its actual history first, but then as the complex interaction of a received and still dominant religious consciousness and the new general formulations of both ‘society’ and ‘art’. Hilary Fraser’s book, and the new edition of correspondence between Ruskin and Norton, illuminate elements of this long and unfinished interaction.

It is interesting that neither Ruskin nor Carlyle seems to have known this particular heterodox tradition of absolute spiritual transformation. Each appealed to a kind of innate mystery, offering ways of getting in touch with it. Presumably one distinction that needs to be made is between the outcome of felt mystery in a new moral and social system and the effectively different outcome in a newly revealed state of being. The overlaps here are many and continuous, but there is some evidence for a reliable distinction in the special appeal of the heterodox tradition to people who have come to see no other possibility of substantial change.

This indeed becomes the ground, in our own century, of the settled ideological contrast – very noticeable in Eastern Europe in the last fifty years – between what is seen as authentic spiritual transformation, bringing a new human order, and what are seen as the more limited, earthbound, even mechanical perspectives of social reform or revolution. Revolution itself, as a concept, has this confusing differential character in many general pronouncements. It is a process in which basic social relationships are decisively altered, or it is one in which they are at last superseded and replaced by human (‘universal’) relationships within a newly spiritualised order. Then, though appeals to the heterodox tradition of the coming Third Age are relatively common in the 19th century, they seem to be more decisively developed in our own century, in which confidence in either progressive social reform or in the liberating effects of revolution can be said, by this kind of mind, to have shown itself as illusion. There follows either resignation or the transfer of hope to this alternative dimension, often in practice amounting to much the same thing.

The central 19th-century arguments are indeed those traced by Fraser. She examines four phases: the attempt to rejoin religion and aesthetics, in the Oxford Movement; the bridging of self-consciousness and transcendence, in Hopkins; the extension of religious truths to morals and art, in Ruskin and Arnold; the new ‘religion of art’, in Pater and Wilde. This useful study identifies certain strands in the complex retreat of orthodox religion and in the many attempts to preserve its kinds of consciousness in an aesthetic – and thence by transfer ‘creative’ or ‘spiritual’ – dimension. The key to this movement is always its offered contrast with ‘materialism’.

But this is only ever half the story (though the point can be made without questioning Fraser’s chosen emphasis). The long transaction between the ‘moral’ and the ‘aesthetic’, important as it was, never carried the force of the desperate exploration of relations between the ‘moral’ and the ‘social’, each originally founded in direct appeals to religion. The genius of Ruskin was his attempt to inhabit what were rapidly separating regions and dimensions: art, society, morals, religion. It was his deliberate and sustained exposure to the interrelations in experience of these separating and now tidier but also smaller categories which made him so important. It can be said that the exposure broke him, or that his ‘hopeless attempt’ revealed basic personal weaknesses. These claims can be used, retrospectively, to write him off. Yet we have only to think of how much was at stake, in his attempt to make a whole position through the dislocations and disintegrations of profound social and cultural change, to see how petty it is – as in the fashions of modern biography – to start from the private inadequacies.

There are two especially interesting moments in the sustained correspondence between Ruskin and Norton. Norton was a significant figure of cultivated American dissent from the thrusts of a commercial and democratic American culture. European art, as in some other significant cases, was his touchstone for a higher order of life, and he respected, indeed often revered, Ruskin in these precise terms. Yet that was only ever one aspect of Ruskin’s whole project. The first interesting moment comes when Norton, like many others then and later, tries to steer Ruskin away from what can be seen as his obsessive concerns with social justice, the dignity of labour and the relief of poverty. How could a man who had so many fine things to say about painting and architecture, and of exaltations of natural beauty, bear to descend to these worldly concerns, which were, moreover, in their intractability, threatening his judgment and even his sanity? This confident question, often confidently repeated, leads not so much to the ‘religion of art’ as to the facsimile which often stands in for it, and is in practice much more common: the ‘religion’ of dilettantism or connoisseurship, or in the end of ‘Criticism’. Norton the Harvard Professor of Fine Arts is in this sense a portent. The ‘religion of art’, however curious the concept, can lead to the strenuous disciplines of practical concentration and creative production. Its facsimile is a rentier or academic shadow, always following the primary efforts of others yet offering to absorb them by the display of valuable collections or gathered and eventually professionalised knowledge. The contrast with Ruskin as Oxford Professor is very marked. His hurried schemes for lectures cover the ‘Relation of Art’ to almost everything: ‘religion, morality, (material) use, alter word perhaps’, and so on through furniture, arms, dress, lodging, medium of exchange to line, light and shade, colour, clay including glass, wood, stone, glass in windows, schools of painting in natural history, landscape, human figure. This scheme ends, in the letter: ‘I’ve no more time today.’ The exposure and also the self-exposure are quite evident. Yet that range, and indeed an even wider syllabus, was the project, the necessary project.

The second moment, late in Ruskin’s disabling mental illness, involves the relations between a difficult personal life and the record of public achievement. The occasion is Froude’s surprisingly candid biography of Carlyle. Norton, fiercely fastidious, denounced Froude’s breach of both trust and taste. Ruskin reacted even more furiously: ‘what demon of insolence, and cowardice, provoked you ... ?’ However incoherently, he was defending his idea of a whole life and project – the deep truth of Carlyle – against more protective but also more flattening versions. It was the rage but also the affirmation of prolonged exposure against a tidier mind.

It has been said that all our ideas about the relations between art and society, art and nature, art and morals originate in Ruskin, just as some now say that our ideas about historical transition and political analysis originate in Joachim of Fiore. Neither judgment is even approximately true, but this search for singular sources and masters is so ingrained an intellectual habit, as an alternative to more general analysis, that we shall not soon see its end. Yet there is something to be learned from this continual production of past authorities and supposedly heterodox traditions, as an intellectual alternative to any autonomous contemporary project. It is true that the habit is carried over to the continual production of contemporary masters offered as playing the same role, though themselves rapidly succeeded and superseded, as on a kind of intellectual stock exchange. Yet this is itself governed, in several notable cases, by conformity with the other pattern: the sudden and arbitrary discovery of some figure from the past who is then rapidly translated into contemporary authority and relevance.

It is no more than might be expected of a deeply reactionary period, in which reaction, at all costs, must be covered by the appearance of radical breaks and revelations. To be seriously interested in Joachim or in Ruskin, or in the influence of either, is understandable. But surely we discover them, as we go on looking, in the 12th and the 19th centuries, and then learn how to measure their effective distance from our own time.