medieval predilections (臥遊)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Van_eyck_virgin_child_canon_1436In Japan, I knew a gentleman who ran a 200 year old miso shop. K san was also a bon vivant par excellance! Studying Samurai-style (Enshu school) tea ceremony, he wore stylish kimono by day and organized French film festivals for our town on the weekends. He also spent a fortune on tea bowls and art, which he often would show to his friends.

Everyone in town knew him and his miso shop was a gathering place of local luminaries.

Of all the interesting things he was involved in, my favorite was his gramophone club. Once a month like-minded collectors would show up with a favorite record (or not) and sit around listening to old records while drinking sake. Need I say more? The man had endless curiosity and tremendous style. He was my kinda guy!

Speaking of which, I recently finished the most unusual book by Normon Cantor, called Inventing the Middle Ages. The book is about twenty prominent 20th century Medievalists and their impact on the study of the history of the Middle Ages. When I first heard that this book was not just a best seller but was so popular it was even available on Audible, I could hardly believe it! Really? I love anything related to the Middle Ages and so would have read the book no matter what, but I must admit that I was utterly fascinated by the popularity– as well as the controversy surrounding this book, which after all was on such an obscure topic.

So, I picked up the book immediately.

I wasn't disappointed either.

The book is absolutely wonderful in conjuring up the genius and style of these men. Of the twenty prominent “giants” of Medieval scholarship, Cantor is perhaps best on Johan Huizinga (whose wonderful book on “play” I recently wrote about in these every pages). He is also really engaging on the topic of the inklings–JRR Tokien and CS Lewis, in particular. They all show up as such interesting characters–sharing (dare I say it) something in common with my old friend K san (not to mention with Mi Fu (of whom I wrote about in May). Something all these “characters” share could be summed up in this quote by CS Lewis (discussed at length by Cantor ), describing the way the inklings were engaged in an active resistance to the times:

“In talking to me you must beware because I am conscious of a partly pathological hostility to what is fashionable.”

That is how Mi Fu was. And so too K san, who believed that the golden age was in the past and it was there that one could find the most exemplary models for how to live. I think the inklings were like that, as described in Cantor's book:

Both men were deeply affected by a nostalgia and a love for a rapidly disappearing England graced by the middle-class, highly literate Christian culture into which they had been born. They saw a continuity of this culture stretching back into the Middle Ages, when, in their perception, it originated. For them, these vibrant, imaginative, complex Middle Ages were in many essentials still activated in the donnish world of mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge and the English countryside, if not so much in London. Lewis and Tolkien wanted not only to preserve but to revitalize through their writing and teaching this Anglo-Edwardian retromedieval culture.

Theirs was a reaction against the mechanistic, capitalistic, aggressive age inherited by Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, he would suggest. It really was not all that unlike the last Northern Song dynasty emperor, who turning away from the barbarians at the gate, continued to focus on the ancient bronzes of a thousand years earlier, since that was where virtue was to be found, he believed. (He lost his empire accordingly). Like Mi Fu and Emperor Huizong, this kind of cultural nostalgia (and a love of unicorns) could also be seen in Catholic converts like Graham Greene and Chesterton…. and my favorite Catholic convert of all, Evelyn Waugh. Like Lewis or Tolkien, Roman Catholicism for Waugh becomes a means to escape the relentless utilitarianism of our times. As Jenny Hendrix wrote about Waugh here:

By attaching himself to something ancient, Waugh was able to remain conservative even as Modernism, as he saw it, led the rest of history astray. (Joyce “ends up a lunatic,” he once said; he abhorred Picasso, plastics, and jazz.) A man committed to the defense of a nonexistent world, he loved nothing so much as a unicorn.


I also love nothing so much as a unicorn.

My astronomer and I are getting ready to head back to Europe to look at more pictures. We became so taken by the donor portraits we saw by van Eyck and Memling in the Louvre, in Ghent and then in Bruges –and, as I wrote here, I was struck over and over again by the way time was conflated in the paintings. Like a wormhole connecting discrete and distant points in time, these late Medieval and early Renaissance pictures were stunningly transportive in terms of time and space so that, for example, Mary and the baby or the Christ were depicted side-by-side with contemporary figures. Contemporary donors appeared in the paintings accompanied by their patron saints, who thereby formed a link between these two worlds.

At that time, I wondered if this was not the ultimate selfie. I was wrong. For what I should have said was that these donor paintings must be the ultimate anti-selfie!

Masaccio,_trinitàThe tremendous transportive power of these donor portraits reminds me a lot of the Southern Song dynasty landscapes from China. Highly contemplative, both styles of art aim to spiritually elevate by juxtaposing a the realism of physical landscape or interior with that of human imagination…

Dream Journey over Xiao Xiang 瀟湘臥遊図巻 is one of my favorite paintings in the world (see below) A Song dynasty masterpiece, it is now a National Treasure of Japan. Without a doubt, it is within this landscape that I travel more than anywhere. Maybe many of you will feel the same when I say that very rarely do I meet a person who is so agreeable; who engages me so fully on the level of the heart that I am quite certain that a lifetime with that person would never be enough. That is also how I feel about this painting. And, for 10 years it has been my computer desktop wallpaper. Some of you will, I suppose, be thinking: Wow, 10 years– that's a long time to look at the same painting. But believe it or not, I never grow tired of looking at it; as it continues to fascinate and draw me in.

Lacking a fixed perspective, the southern Song landscapes are pictures that are not only viewed but are paintings that one can “walk around in.” This is the Dream Journey implied by the painting's title. It is the potentially rich empty space in the painting– the hallmark of Southern Song landscapes– that in effect carries the viewer far beyond the painted images into a pure and natural realm beyond the “dust of the everyday world.

Obviously, it isn't easy to brush off the dust when one is living down on the flatlands– where the air is foul and stifling– so one needs props. “Gayu” is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters 臥遊 “dream journey.” Like the ability to imagine mountains even when you are down on the plains, for a literati scholar it was paramount to always be able to access this world of cultivated mind and spirit– even from within the dusty and oftentimes unbearable confines of ordinary life in the city.

The donor paintings functioned like that. They served as part of the person's spiritual practice. Both pictures also function as a kind of time slip…. in the case of the Chinese landscapes connecting the viewer to the pure and spiritually uplifted world of a golden age natural world and in the case of the Renaissance pictures connecting the imperfect participants to the heavenly world of saints and gods. Both are, in effect, a kind of nostalgia. Like for that of a unicorn.

Despite is snobbery and classist politics, I have always been a big fan of Evelyn Waugh. Like the other characters in this post, they are fascinating, clinging to fantasies of the past at the expense of their actual real life realities (Mad Ludwig being my own personal favorite). What is it about them that makes for such great story-telling? And what of the similar charisma of works of the kinds of art with which they were so enthralled (not to mention of quests and relics, phonographs and the tea ceremony of the samurai)? Cantor describes his medievalists as being unable to imaginatively and intellectually withdraw and accept defeat in the face of the decline they saw in the world. They resisted the levelling power of global capitalism and resisted in the only way they knew how–through a culturally-rooted pursuit of art, beauty and truth….Emperor Huizong and Mad King Luwig; the inklings and the Catholic converts…yes, Brideshead Revisted!– For whatever reason you can name, as characters, these lovers of unicorns remain tremendously enigmatic (as is the art they loved!)


For more: “The Best Picture in the World

I leave you with Rilke on the Unicorn Tapestries at Cluny:

O this is the beast who does not exist.

They didn’t know that, and in any case
– with its stance, its arched neck and easy grace,
the light of its limpid gaze – they could not resist

but loved it though, indeed, it was not. Yet since
they always gave it room, the pure beast persisted.
And in that loving space, clear and unfenced,
reared its head freely and hardly needed

to exist. They fed it not with grain nor chaff
but fortified and nourished it solely with
the notion that it might yet come to pass,

so that, at length, it grew a single shaft
upon its brow and to a virgin came
and dwelled in her and in her silvered glass.