Sunday, November 30, 2008


Just like happened with The Secret Life of Puppets, several friends and acquaintances began mentioning to me a novel by a contemporary writer, John Crowley (see photo). Or rather, a series of four novels called the Aegypt cycle. I just finished the first of them, The Solitudes, amazed not only at how Giordano Bruno keeps turning up (we've seen him before in this blog), but mostly at the depth, beauty and subtlety with which Crowley speaks about history.
His main character is a historian, Pierce Moffett, who begins to suspect that perhaps "there is more than one history of the world":

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there.

Contrary to common assumptions, it is not rationality and science that have caused the "disenchantment of the world", but historical consciousness. But history is a strange thing, with a double face. On the one hand, in the wake of 19th century historicism
it seeks to describe "what really happened": "one damn thing after the other", as Moffett observes elswhere in the novel, all of which is as true as it is meaningless. But on the other hand, the mark of a good historian is his ability to imagine the past: to enter it imaginatively, like a story, and somehow imbue it with meaning and significance. There is a deep paradoxality here: although historiograpy leads to demythologization, good historiography requires the powers of the imagination.
I do not yet know how Crowley is going to resolve the paradox (if he is going to resolve it at all), but I'm reminded of a famous quotation from Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism:

For the mountain, the body of things, needs no key; it is only the nebulous wall of history, which hangs around it, that must be traversed.
... True, history may at bottom be an illusion, but an illusion without which no perception of the essence is possible in time. The wondrous concave mirror of philological criticism makes it possible for the people of today first and most purely to receive a glimpse, in the legitimate orders of commentary, of that mystical totality of the system, whose existence, however, vanishes in the very act of being projected onto historical time.

In a very different way, John Crowley's novel seems to be about the same problem, which is ultimately that of nihilism.
One of Scholem's close colleagues, Mircea Eliade, juxtaposed myth and history as the domains of the sacred and the profane, and hoped that a revival of archaic mythological consciousness could be an antidote to a meaningless world ruled by the "terror of history". Scholem was grappling with the same problem, but his answer is much more subtle: it is not by escaping from history but by confronting its challenge that, like Moses, we might receive a "revelation from the mountain". Is the illusion of history the only reality by means of which we can glimpse a mystery to which our emotions assent intuitively, even though (or perhaps: precisely because) our reason denies it?
I'm very curious how Crowley's answer will be. In The Solitudes he sets the stage, brilliantly and in powerful prose. But there are three more volumes to follow: Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things. I can't wait...