August 16, 2005

The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Joscelyn Godwin

Readers will have their own opinions on whether men, and women, are psychologically different now from what they were 400 or 10,000 years ago. It is the kind of opinion that is unlikely to be shaken by argument, because for the historically-minded, much of ones worldview hinges on it. The present book is intended as a modest contribution to the question, not so much in the hope of resolving it as of stirring up the waters and foiling any attempt at an easy answer.

The specific question to which Godwin gives no easy answer is: When the new humanists of the Renaissance started surrounding themselves with classical culture, building temples with statues of antique gods, and dressing, for some special occasions, as like the ancients as they could, what did they think they were doing?

One of the answers is that it was an escape from the actual religious pain of the time. Philosophers who couldn't answer the questions that rent Europe with religious wars could escape into a 'religion' which had no conflict because no-one really believed it.

Another answer is that they were doing magic; that enacting images of a perfected world, images full of hidden meanings and correspondences, would bring this world closer to perfection. How this compared to Christian ceremony, I don't know. Godwin points out connections both to esoteric traditions that may have believed they were doing magic, and to public spectacle used to cause political faith... Oddly, he says we have no modern parallel to the heroic entries and processions, when I think I've seen citizen-parades with mythic allegories in several towns: on the Fourth, of course, but also for military occasions and Gay Pride parades. Opera, to close the circle, was developed by classicizing musicians.

The subject-matter is still, as it was when new, pretty and suggestive to look at with only its exoteric meanings. Godwin provides many illustrations, because he's concentrating on visual art; unfortunately they're smallish and blurry on uncoated paper, but they're good enough for pointers to pretty copies. There are also plentiful pointers in the text to arguments for mystical meanings, even to claims that secret orders maintained esoteric meanings for centuries, while their members were Christian prelates and kings. The text itself is very un-argumentative on the subject, saying, particularly of gardens such as the Villa d'Este, that these claims can likely never be proved to reason, but to walk through the garden spells it out to the imagination.

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So wrote clew in Art. , History.
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