Discover more from Passages
Dimes Square Theology
By way of a few medieval fantasies
I went to the Met Cloisters over the weekend, a pleasant if slightly odd experience. Odd because of the anomalous, ersatz nature of the Cloisters. Emerging from an interminable journey on the A train and having trudged, linen-clad and sweating, up the schist slopes of Fort Tryon Park until the Hudson and the Palisades across the water emerged into view, there it was—this Rockefeller fantasy made material, this congeries of purloined pieces of rubble from European monasteries torn down in the Revolution.
Apparently in order to build this Frankenstein-cloister Rockefeller, besides sending emissaries around the continent to obtain old holy chunks to build into it (a kind of monastery-mortadella or collateralized cloister obligation), also bought up an industrialist’s estate containing an even gaudier faux-Louis XIV chateau, saved from destruction by public protest only to mysteriously burn down a decade later, opening the way for the construction of the museum.
You can tell my attitude towards this Hearst-Castle-on-Hudson, notwithstanding my previous one-cheer-for-America entry of this newsletter, was somewhat skeptical. I was reminded of the pseudo-Gothic architecture of the American elite university, in part the subject of an article I published recently in the New York Times. This kind of architecture can seem like a kind of Baudrillardian simulacrum, a sign removed from its signifier and left to float unintelligibly—an apparition of the Old World, a mimetic artifact protruding (in this case) from the Manhattan schist.
It also reminded me of a line from Santayana I read in an article in First Things (emphasis mine):
It is one of the foibles of romanticism to insist on rewriting history and perpetually publishing new views without new matter. Can we know more about the past than its memorials transmit to us? Evidently we cannot know more; in point of truth concerning human history, any tradition is better than any reconstruction. A tradition may be a ruin, broken unrecognizably, or shabbily built over in a jungle of accretions, yet it always retains some nucleus of antiquity; whereas a reconstruction . . . is something fundamentally arbitrary, created by personal fancy, and modern from top to bottom. Such a substitution is no mere mistake; it is a voluntary delusion which romantic egotism positively craves: to rebuild the truth nearer the heart’s desire.
Any tradition is better than any reconstruction. And wouldn’t it be better to walk around the ruins of one of these decrepit half-oblivionized monasteries, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and the like? There wouldn’t be nice useful placards, obviously, but one could bring a book on the subject or simply admire the mystery. To reconstruct, I think with Santayana, represents a kind of overwhelming hubris, far more so than to construct.
It’s utterly impossible, especially with the paucity of sources but even if there had been more, to enter into the medieval mind sufficiently to know how to construct an edifice faithful to its model; and even if one mind could do so, that would be inadequate. You’d also need the political genius to direct a team of artisans, laborers, etc. to actually perform the work of construction in the right manner. Faithfulness appears in one aspect as something asymptotic, that can be approached but never reached; but in another aspect what is really trying to be accomplished is to turn back the clock, an impossibility and even an affront to the gods.
On the other hand it was nice in there, café prices notwithstanding ($16.50 for some very sad-looking pre-made sandwiches; when I’m mayor of New York I will extend the pay-what-you-like-for-residents Met policy to the cafés). They went to some serious lengths: To make the big Cuxa cloister they had quarried the same lovely mottled pink and white stone as had been used a millennium earlier to make the curious column capitals. The evolution of capitals from late antiquity into the Romanesque is fascinating: from slightly whimsical and not terribly faithful imitations of classical capital types to entirely novel decorations, acrobats making obscene grimaces, etc. Signs floating free of their signifiers.
I sat in the shade of the arcade and read the remainder of Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai and did my best to ignore the waves of discourse breaking over the TL on account of my friend Mike Crumplar’s latest dispatch, of which more later. It was hot in the shade. In the Mediterranean, or in California, even in the heat of the summer the shade of an arcade is enough to make the atmosphere comfortable. Not so in the torrid East, where the humidity still gets you even when the sun doesn’t.
The structure of the cloister is the opposite of the structure of New York City. The cloister is surrounded by walls, with passageways around a central square. It is fortified against the outside—I could only hear the noise of planes flying somewhere out of view. It is a gathering-point for those within the walls, a place to cross paths or linger. The merciless grid of Manhattan is the opposite: in each square block, the walls (that is to say, the buildings) are on the inside and the crowds of people are scattered along the perimeter, drawn along in constant streams and prevented from collecting anywhere. New York City is open but somehow isolating, the cloister is closed but somehow draws people together.
One of the by now innumerable Dimes Square articles (a superabundance for which as many of you know I share the blame) pays especially close attention to the urban geography of the “square” itself, making reference to
the makeup of the block, the way that Division smashed into the butt-end of Canal to create an acute angle rarely seen on Manhattan’s gridded sections, and a triangle island that placed extra storefronts between the two intertwined passageways.
Dimes Square is not exactly a cloister, talk of downtown Catholicism notwithstanding. But it’s no accident that the conjuncture occurring là-bas is occurring in one of the few parts of Manhattan that focuses the flow of people into the same space.
We’re going to Dimes Square but not quite yet. First I wanted to mention another modern attempt to remake a medieval cloister, another inquiry into signs floating free of signifiers—a study in liberalism and traditionalism, domination and submission, heresy and orthodoxy that I read recently and that Crumps’ latest made me think about again.
The book is Umberto Eco’s famous debut novel The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery that takes place in a Benedictine abbey in the fourteenth century, against a backdrop of clashes between the papacy and the Franciscan order. The attempts by a disciple of Roger Bacon and a young German novice to solve the mystery bogs down in constant and stimulating fashion in theological debate and sexual intrigue among the monks.
William of Baskerville, the Baconian in question, was once an inquisitor—but he doesn’t like to punish people for heresy and, when pressed, reveals deep reservations about the way the Church thinks about heresy. William is a kind of proto-liberal, with a deep faith in the power of science —the “good magic”—to improve man’s material conditions. He seems to believe in punishment only when it’s socially useful (albeit justified with an argument about how difficult it is for men to know the ways of God: liberalism has the odd quality of being at once highly abstract, even divine, and also highly materialistic, even vulgar).
He offers an interesting class account of heresy:
“You have a clear conception of the people of God. A great flock—good sheep and bad sheep—kept in order by mastiffs—the warriors, or the temporal power—the Emperor, and the overlords, under the guidance of the shepherds, the clerics, the interpreters of the divide word. The picture is straightforward.”
“But false. The shepherds fight with the dogs, because each covets the rights of the other.”
“True, and this is exactly what makes the nature of the flock unsure. Concerned as they are with tearing each other apart reciprocally, dogs and shepherds no longer tend the flock. A part of it is left outside.”
“What do you mean by outside?”
“On the margin.”
Shepherds, dogs and sheep. A bit reminiscent of the “neo-reactionary” blogger Curtis Yarvin’s endorsement, in the juvenile pseudo-medieval argot of fantasy, of a version of Adrian Vermeule’s integration from within. In Yarvinian terms “elves” (elites) govern “hobbits” (the masses) and only devious “dark elves” (elites made sensitive to the masses) can disrupt the current (i.e. progressive) rule of the elves.
What about the part of the flock left outside? William’s explanation continues:
Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only to keep the leper as he is. And for the lepers, what can you ask of them? That they distinguish between two definitions of the Trinity or of the Eucharist? Come, Adso, these games are for us men of learning. The simple have other problems. And mind you, they solve them all in the wrong way. This is why they become heretics.
William’s gentle approach toward heresy is not enough to prevent an inquisition from taking place in the monastery after he is unable to solve the crime. Bernard Gui (whose character bears the name of a historically real medieval inquisitor) draws out a false confession from one of the monks accused of heresy. The false confession is a curious, almost erotic act of submission to the inquisitor (yet also an act of defiance of him and what he represents) by the accused heretic, who had been a part of the millenarian band of Fra Dolcino, burned at the stake for heresy decades before the events of the novel.
Before lying about committing the murders in the monastery, the accused monk gives an account that seems true enough about the reign of terror of Dolcino’s band of heretics:
We burned and looted because we had proclaimed poverty the universal law, and we had the right to appropriate the illegitimate riches of others. … We had to kill the innocent as well, in order to kill all of you more quickly. … It was worth turning the waters of the Carnasco red that day at Stavello, there was our own blood too, we did not spare ourselves …
William favors mercy for the heretic—but not for the enemy of liberalism. He battles with Jorge, a wizened, blind Italian monk who hates and fears new things. Jorge wants to keep hidden a lost book from Aristotle which describes the dramatic purpose of laughter. Allowing the learned to see the virtue in laughter could let them laugh at the Church and occasion the downfall of its power. Jorge won’t let that happen.
But William’s violent desire to read and divulge the Aristotelian text causes a fire that burns down the monastery and its precious library: the book closes with the young novice, now an old man, wandering the ruins of the cloisters and wishing that God will forgive his old master for his sins. William emerges an ambivalent character: charming, lively and free like the liberalism he represents; but also a sober and sobering indictment of that liberalism’s excesses.
Now to Manhattan. If Crumps’s latest report is true in its relation of his being lured into a theater so as to be publicly lambasted by associates of the recipients of one of his negative reviews—by a motley assemblage of downtown-Manhattan-affiliated filmmakers, personalities and hangers-on—he seems to have ended up the target of a unique kind of inquisition, one conducted by those who consider themselves outsiders, lepers, heretics.
At one level this was simply the playing out of a dynamic Crumps himself foresaw in his initial review of the film in question:
The only way I could convey my genuine reaction would be walking into a discursive trap—I would just be another woke leftist who is too hung up on identity politics to appreciate subversive art.
Which is what he was made out to be in this “struggle session.” Crumps’s original review is in fact not so much a negative review of the film as it is a negative review of his own “signature style” (lulling reactionaries into letting down their guard then detonating the “meta-contrarian” vest), which in the form of the film was presented with a problem it couldn’t solve. But the article wasn’t perceived that way by the film’s creators and their associates, who planned their revenge—only to find, upon consummating the plot, that they had provided Crumps with his best set of material yet.
Curtis Yarvin’s version of the events predictably repeats the charge of wokescolding that Crumps foresaw, in the form of an analogy involving a still different set of animals (these ones, at least, are real). “I’m afraid some people really do deserve to be struggled with,” he writes. “Harmless fun!” This kind of mean-spiritedness from a self-styled underdog reminds me of one of Adrian Vermeule’s favorite catchphrases, attributed to Louis Veuillot by Montalembert:
Quand les libéraux sont au pouvoir, nous leur demandons la liberté, parce que c’est leur principe; et, quand nous sommes au pouvoir, nous la leur refusons, parce que c’est le nôtre.
I cannot speak to the worth or lack thereof of the cinema of Betsey Brown or of Peter Vack, but one thing that struck me reading through Crumps’s report is the “pure mocking incredulity” that he argues was the response of the audience to his claim that writing is equal to cinema in artistic value. There are a handful of impressive literary types associated with those circles, but despite the local literary production (a newspaper, some magazines) and only in part because the scene was originally focused on visual art, I have the sense that there is a generalized kind of imperviousness to or disinterest in the written word there. Where in Dimes Square can you read a book?
Broader concerns. I am on the record noting that submission, sexual and political, is a theme that seems central at least to Red Scare Thought and perhaps more broadly to the downtown scene. As I put it in parts of my email to Julia Yost that weren’t included in her Times piece, what Red Scare seems to offer its audience is
the rejection as unrealistic or undesirable the forms of liberation or domination theoretically on offer to women and minorities from progressivism and instead to try to begin to protect the realm of the self starting from a position of the acceptance of one's subordinate position.
From this perspective it’s very clear why Catholicism, with its own emphasis on submission, also appeals at least in superficial ways to the lost children of downtown.But in Catholicism in question is submission to the magisterial teachings of the Church: obsequium religiosum. In contrast, the submission on offer downtown doesn’t seem ordered to anything, and in its emptiness it is so vulnerable to the kind of dialectical inversion that would transform it into a will to dominate more bloodthirsty than the one often attributed to the regime, the Cathedral, the Democratic Party, and so on.
That seems to be what happened at the Daryl Roth Theatre on July 29 and it seems to mark the exhaustion of a certain tendency downtown. Perhaps some kind of healthier synthesis is possible. In America, in New York City, I wouldn’t bet on it.
And what about the thrill of being the object of an inquisition? The jouissance that the monk in Eco’s Name of the Rose just couldn’t resist? You’d have to ask Crumps about it.
Of course, you could easily say the transatlantic traffic in signs has now gone the other way. We don’t build this kind of thing anymore but the French do open restaurants with names like “Brooklyn Tacos.” A friend recently passed along a photo of a restaurant in Talinn, Estonia called “Palo Alto.”
Though as I also mentioned in my email, the Catholic trend may already have peaked and surely it’ll be something else soon.