Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine


H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Obsessed with Western decline... the value of unreliable texts... an alternative holiday ballet... "birdpeople" Lionized...

Gloomy obsessions
It isn't so much the decline of Western civilization that fascinates author and historian Arthur Herman, it's the idea of the much-heralded impending demise.

From philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to right-wing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, social commentators have long predicted the end of the capitalistic, democratized model. Bork, like other ultra-conservatives in U.S. politics, laments the decline of Western ideologies. Nietzsche and others, however, have encouraged social decay to make way for a new culture with "new instincts."

Herman's 521-page book, The Idea of Decline in Western History (The Free Press, 1997), analyzes the scholarly and popular obsession with the fading West. His work focuses on just what's going on behind the sky-falling agendas of such Chicken Littles.

"However dubious the notion of Western civilization's demise, the idea permeates a lot of popular culture," says Herman (PhD '85), an adjunct professor at George Mason University, who also has taught European history courses in Hopkins's School of Continuing Studies Odyssey program.

The fear of Western decline is nostalgic stuff, as Herman's book cites: "One Swiss scholar in 1818 even seriously suggested making Iceland a museum of European cultural artifacts before civilization vanished completely."

But Herman's take goes further, delineating between two camps of prognosticators. On the one hand are the "cultural pessimists," like Nietzsche or black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who pointed out the West's errors to speed up its collapse. Herman considers other naysayers "historical pessimists," including world historian Arnold Toynbee, author H.G. Wells, and modern conservative politicians.

"The conservative stance in American politics is that society is dissolving and that our culture is worn out," Herman says. "Historical pessimists see this as tragic."

"Cultural pessimists watch the same phenomenon and say this is actually good news," Herman explains. "The original culture was rotten, otherwise it wouldn't reach this kind of sorry state. They want to see the breakup of the traditional family, and the end of free market capitalism."

So, what's the verdict on actual decline, according to Herman?

"There's a lot of worry about it," Herman says, "Pop culture can be very degrading and superficial, but what do you do about it? I'm not sure the response that's most constructive is to decry things, though, instead of making a contribution to change." --JC

"A high-tech dreck catcher."
--That's the World Wide Web, according to author John Barth '51, who gave a reading in September at the 50th anniversary celebration of The Writing Seminars


The "social logic" of medieval texts
Professor of history Gabrielle Spiegel wryly notes that historians have accused the subject of her scholarship, medieval historiography, of being "inauthentic, unscientific, unreliable, ahistorical, irrational, borderline illiterate, and, worse yet, unprofessional." They say that the works of medieval chroniclers are unreliable as historical accounts and unworthy as literature.

None of which deters Spiegel. In her new collection of scholarly writing, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), she makes her case for studying what she calls the "social logic" of the historical writing done in medieval times.

"We have to understand these texts in terms of where they're located in a very local, dense historical context," she says. "We also must be very sensitive to their formal properties as texts. Social logic does both. If I can figure out how these texts work in a literary way, I can better understand what's going on."

Medieval historical texts, such as the chronicles written by monks at the abbey of Saint-Denis from the 12th through the 15th centuries, cannot be read as accurate accounts of medieval France and its royal court. They are full of inventions, perpetuated myths, and other deviations from factuality. And Spiegel concedes that they are not good literature. Yet they contain a historical reality, she says, and by studying them as literary texts, she gleans knowledge about how the chroniclers thought, and about the social context that surrounded them.

For example, the Saint-Denis monks perpetuated a mythical bloodline linking the medieval Capetian kings to Charlemagne. Thus, when King Philip Augustus seized territory from the count of Flanders and King John of England, he wasn't conquering territory to expand his wealth and power; he was rightfully restoring the imperium of his "ancestor," Charlemagne. No such bloodline existed in fact, but the monks went to some trouble to invent it and then pass it on from one generation to the next. Making such an effort to invent a genealogy for Philip Augustus, Spiegel says, indicates how important it was to justify the actions of a medieval French king by establishing his genealogical legitimacy. It demonstrates, she believes, how the medieval French viewed the past as something that could be rewritten to legitimate the present.

Reading the chronicles of the Saint-Denis monks illuminates other aspects of the historiographers' worldview, Spiegel says. For example, there's a striking lack of chronology in the chronicles. The sequence of events mattered to the authors, but the date when something occurred did not. Nor were the monks much concerned with what would be called characterization, in literary terms. "What mattered was how the king performed his office, not his personality," Spiegel says. The monks tended to portray monarchs not as individuals but as kingly types who behaved in the manner of legendary rulers like the biblical David, Constantine, or Charlemagne.

And unlike most modern historiographers, who are intent on getting behind the why of historical events and actions, the medieval authors were not analytical about cause and effect. In the monks' worldview, some things were simply God's will. In other instances, the past exerted a sort of causal force on the present. Alexander the Great or Charlemagne had behaved a certain way, so of course Philip Augustus behaved similarly as the "new Charlemagne." His individual personality had little to do with it, in the eyes of the chroniclers. He was a king, and this is what kings do.

Spiegel finds interesting the tension between historical reality and the literary license exercised by the monks. Most history, she points out, is the study of "mediated access to the past." That is, since we weren't there, we have to depend on someone else's account. The issues raised by contemporary literary theory, regarding what sort of meaning any text really conveys, further muddy the waters. Many things cannot be ascertained with certainty. But, says Spiegel, "we can have an approximate historical knowledge, and that's good enough for me." --DK

Lightner Photography
Leaping in the face of tradition
Christmas traditions feeling a bit worn out this year? Peabody Preparatory is staging an "alternative" holiday ballet. "It's called The Snow Queen, and it's an alternative to The Nutcracker," says Fran Zarubick, dean of Peabody Preparatory. "You see The Nutcracker year after year. It's a tradition, but some people are sick of it."

The school's winter dance concert, The Snow Queen, is an original ballet choreographed by Roudolf Kharatian, a guest faculty member at Peabody and renowned teacher at the W*ashington School of Ballet. On December 14 and 15 at Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, Peabody Prep students and guest soloists from the American Ballet Theater will dance to the lyrical music of Edvard Grieg.

The ballet's theme weaves around the popular Hans Christian Andersen tale by the same name. It's a story of love and loss in a tiny village ruled by an evil troll and a misguided snow queen.

The show, in its second year at the Prep, also will unveil a new set this December. Gone will be last year's painted backdrops of cozy villages and snow palaces, says the Prep's artistic director Carol Bartlett. "There will be a modern rendering: illustrations that have a light touch and are colorful," she says. "We hope there will be much more fantasy and less tradition." -- JC

Image courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts
A fanciful world of zithers and erhus
Ever since she was a kid in high school, Trina Lion '92 has been drawing "birdpeople"--little cartoon figures with human bodies, their faces dominated by beaks. Now her creations cavort in a series of three children's books commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Last May, she finished Drum, String, and Shake It.

For each book, she wrote and illustrated a simple narrative that centers on musical instruments from the museum's collection. In String, a boy finds a Chinese erhu, a sort of fiddle, at a yard sale, and plays it on a playground while a basketball game swirls about him. The books, aimed at children 5 to 8 years old, include pull-up flaps that briefly explain each instrument; the instruments in String are exotic varieties from all over the world, including a Zairian kundi and a crocodile-shaped zither from Burma.

When the museum advertised for illustrators last year, Lion "went ballistic on them. I called them continuously." In two months, she worked up six illustrated manuscripts. She recalls, "They said we can't do six right now, but how do you feel about three?"

At Hopkins, Lion had created her own major, Culture and Media Studies, combining coursework in art history and The Writing Seminars. Her first drawings of birdpeople were in response to the remarkable number of her high school classmates who were having cosmetic surgery. "Whenever anyone came into the school wearing sunglasses and black eyes, everyone would talk about the nose that would emerge from the bandages," she says. "It really disturbed me. So I started drawing figures in which the nose is the face, yet everybody has the same nose." Over time, the noses became beaks, and the figures became birdpeople. --DK

Written by Joanne P. Cavanaugh and Dale Keiger