‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Medieval and Modern Afterlives

This is interesting: from a festschrift for Aron Gurevich:
Yelena Mazour-Matusevič: Why do you think modern Christians, unlike their predecessors, all seem to believe that they safely go to paradise after death? You hear over and over again in the United States this confidence “Grandpa went to God, or aunty is with the Lord now.” How do you explain this shift?

Aron Gurevich: Around twenty years ago there was a book published in the United States called Reflections on Life after Life by Raymond A Moody. In this book, an American physician describes the experience of his patients during clinical deaths. In all these descriptions of experiences the soul would leave the body, see the light at the end of the tunnel, through which they would see their deceased friends and relatives, and then come back to their bodies. I became interested in this book because, in the Middle Ages, a special genre existed called visiones that recount how people would die temporarily, and then come back to tell what they saw. Interestingly enough, while twentieth-century American souls all had exclusively positive vision of the afterlife, medieval souls reported quite the opposite: that the majority of people were in hell, and only a very small minority was saved. No medieval “witness” ever traveled to paradise. Isn’t it remarkable that none of the American witnesses reported any visions of hell? [Saluting Aron Gurevich: Essays in History, Literature and Other Related Subjects (ed. by Yelena Mazour-Matusevič, Alexandra Schecket Korros; Brill NV, Leiden: Netherlands 2010), 359-60]
There's something important here, I suspect. I've been poking around, looking at medieval visions of the afterlife for something I'm writing, and it is throwing up some excellent stuff. Reviewing Gurevich's 1988 Medieval Popular Culture in the LRB, Tom Shippey notes that the dedicated scholar really needs to read, in addition to the usual sources, 'saints’ lives, miracle collections, penitentials, and visions of the after-life like that communicated by the Essex peasant Thurkill to his parish priest'.
Extraordinary nonsense emerges from this: King Cormack MacCartey on his throne in heaven, but doing three hours a day in hell, the corpses of unbaptised infants being staked down to prevent them walking, knights with demonic servitors who work without pay just because they enjoy being near people, like the soulless longaevi of fairy-tale.
Nonsense seems a harsh judgement, howsoever modified by extraordinary. Some of this makes perfect sense to me.

Indeed, I wonder if there is quite such a disparity between medieval and modern visions of the afterlife as Gurevich suggests. Moody's work hardly involved a representative sample of the global population, after all; and there are surely plenty of visions of heavenly bliss in medieval literature (though not, I'm compelled to agree, in actual visiones of postmortem existence). If we want to argue for a medieval hell-bias, or a modern heaven-bias, then the common sense explanation would be that life in the middle ages was just much harder, less forgiving, nasty brutish and Peter-Dinklage-size. This is, more or less, the explanation Gurevich himself offers:
I think that this positive, exclusively pleasant and comforting vision of the afterlife is just part of a modern worldview preoccupied first of all with comfort in every aspect of life. Look, in modern American civilization all efforts are directed toward eliminating suffering, pain, crisis and loss. Everything is taken care of, everything is planned in advance and invested in: you have a bank account, a little house, a retirement plan, medical insurance, anesthesia etc. All is well except one little problem—death. So, they wonder how they have a free and guaranteed ticket to paradise as well. They cannot deal with discomfort or pain, so death becomes a kind of family reunion.
Then again, as-it-were 'literal' accounts of the afterlife are only ever going to be part of the picture. Magic, in the strong, medieval sense (in, that is, the religious sense: as referent to that part of human existence that cannot be rationally or materialistically explained away) has mostly been banished, in modern culture, to certain types of culture text: Fantasy, say. Which is to say: such texts operate as a kind of cultural subconscious articulating widespread human anxieties and aspirations for, amongst other things, survival after death. And as far as that goes, Tolkien's 'white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise' has largely been supplanted in the general imaginary by something more grimdark, GRRMish, and altogether medieval-hellish.


  1. Both the question and answer assume that the phenomenon is (a) recent and (b) American. Is there good reason to grant either assumption? I'm wondering who these "predecessors" are who lacked this "confidence": after all, the BCP's service of The Burial of the Dead speaks of "the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection," and one of its concluding prayers begins, “Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of them that depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity....” I could cite many other examples from other Christian traditions. And since many of those consoling phrases are biblical and appear in many ancient liturgies, I don't think we could safely call them post-medieval either. Gurevich seems to be taking a handful of visionaries as having a greater normative force that the worship practices of the whole church.

  2. (All this is not to say that visions of hell are absent from any Christian tradition, but that no matter how tiny a percentage of souls one imagines make their way into blessedness, that percentage will always include Grandma and Grandpa and most of the people one goes to church with.)

  3. Well, I'm not so sure. There's an element of caricature (or necessary simplification, perhaps) in this Q&A format; but I'm not sure that (a) recentness is implied -- isn't the contrast between the medieval and the modern? nothing is said about when we draw that line? It does not surprise me that Christian scripture has positive things to offer the faithful about reward in heaven, but it's also full of direful warnings about punishments: 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' and so on. The point is not that Christianity lacks for messages of hope and redemption; it is (surely) what the emphasis used to be: you'll probably go to hell unless you make extraordinary efforts to be worthy of heaven, where now it tends to be: you'll go to heaven unless you make Hitlerian or Hannibal-Lecteran efforts in the way of wickedness. That there has been a shift of emphasis seems to me likely, over the sort of timescale were talking about.

  4. The 'America' stuff looks, I grant you, like an old-school Russian twitting the US as decadent and soft. Though there are less ideological barbed versions of the same idea: John Updike's definition of the USA, for example, as a conspiracy to make you happy. Mind you, the problem strikes me as a version of the old theological worry, that too vivid an afterlife (heavenly or hellish) tends to distract people from the business of actually living to the best of our abilities in the here and now, which is actually what God wants us to do. There's a similar argument made about Fantasy etc over and against Realism and Documentary and whatnot. There's something Kafka said in his notebooks which I like a lot: 'Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life ... The expulsion from Paradise is eternal in its principal aspect: this makes it irrevocable, and our living in this world inevitable, but the eternal nature of the process has the effect that not only could we remain for ever in paradise, but that we are currently there, whether we know it or not.' That's a better mindset, I daresay.

  5. That Kafka quote... Nearness that remains distance, distance that is here. And yet the distance shapes the path through here. I wonder if Kafka dwells on Moses because he is the only one of the party of wanderers who knows and experiences that "we are currently there."

  6. That's a great quote - and Kafka probably never even read Kant's The End of All Things.

    On the "sure and certain hope", the story I heard was that opinions in the early Church about what happened to believers after death were divided between "extinction followed ultimately by bodily resurrection, very much as depicted by Stanley Spencer" (which is what's being referred to there), "incorporeal bliss and admission to the presence of God" and an older (although not orthodox Jewish) model of "sheep on the right, goats on the left". So they kept them all in and left subsequent generations to sort them out.