Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part I

…Let me begin the formal segment of our Conference by admitting that there are a number of assumptions planted in its description. First, there is the problem of defining, and locating, the modern.

Modern and Pre-Modern

As a chronological boundary marker, “modern” is a notoriously elastic term. The historians of jazz, as I understand it, trace the birth of the modern to the 1950’s. Modern art is usually said to have begun in the period between the world wars. Historians of architecture find the germs of the modern in roughly the same period, incubating in the cubical wombs of steel and glass conceived by the Bauhaus brotherhood. In literature, the modern age is usually said to begin in the late eighteenth century, with that most contemporary of literary genres, the novel. Philosophers detect the first stirrings of modernity through as wide a range of periods and personalities as those of Descartes, Macchiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. History itself takes the longest view, placing the dawn of the modern in the late fourteenth century, in the Renaissance, the age of the rebirth of the ancient.

There is thus enormous variation from discipline to discipline in locating the modern; what’s more, there are always recalcitrant individuals who refuse to respect the frontiers of official chronology. In music, Bach’s discords and suspensions are disturbingly modern, while twentieth century composers such as Vaughan Williams seem eternally stuck in Tudor England. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Macchiavelli and Castiglione were almost exact contemporaries: one very forwardly looking and modern, the other determined to preserve a code of gentlemanly conduct that goes back to Homer. Nietzsche is assuredly a most modern literary critic, but a half century on, T.S. Eliot (though identified by literary critics as one of the founders of the modern movement in poetry) was himself, as a literary critic, a defender of what he called “tradition”.

Such anomalies could be multiplied, and I mention them only by way of admitting that almost any definition of the modern is bound to be idiosyncratic, made all the more so by the fact that the word “modern” itself has about it an almost triumphalist aura. Modernity is an attitude as much as an historical designation, as illustrated by the view of most of my first-year undergraduates for whom the modern era began the day they were born, and whose thinking thereby tends to relegate the whole groaning process of history that led up to that blessed event to the dark mists of antiquity.

Those of you who have been in my classroom before have already heard me animadvert on our fetishistic advocacy for the modern as an entirely, well, modern development. If what we call “Civilization” dawned some time around 3000 B.C., then for the first 48 of the 50 centuries thereof, it was more or less universally assumed, by poets, priests, and philosophers, at any rate, that things were always and inevitably getting worse.

The biblical myth of the Fall, and the classical myth of the four “metallic ages”, are both succinct expressions of this dour view of the future. Rather than looking breathlessly forward to some hitherto unrealized utopia, the pre-modern imagination looked back to a lost paradise or golden age, which it was the purpose of literature, art, philosophy, and religion to cooperatively restore.

I have argued that these pre-modern assumptions are infinitely more salutary – morally, politically, and psychologically – than our own utopian optimism, which has spawned, amongst other horrors, the Nazi and Communist holocausts of the last century. More to the point here, a belief in a lost golden age and in the progressive degeneration of mankind would have made us a little less inclined today to assent to the Narcissistic illusion that every present generation is better educated, more politically equitable, morally enlightened, and artistically fecund than the previous one: that our social arrangements are more compassionate and just, our art is more creative because it is untrammeled by convention, our consciousness has been raised higher, and our deepest selves are more fulfilled than ever before in our patriarchal, sexist, racist, Eurocentric, xenophobic, homophobic, and generally benighted past.

This is merely jingoism of the chronological sort. That I don’t happen to share these modernist prejudices is, of course, wholly beside the point, but that the ancients certainly didn’t is entirely germane to our project here. For that reason I must leave this theme only to take it up some time later in the context of the pre-modern writer’s “bookishness”, as C.S. Lewis has called it, that is, his reverence for authority and tradition, together with his apparent failure to strive for, let alone care about, originality.

For now, however, I merely want to stress that the pre-modern and the modern attitudes towards modernity are fundamentally antithetical.

When, then, does the pre-modern era end and the modern begin? Since it is a difference of attitudes that concerns us here, the precise date doesn’t really matter.

I’ve assigned it to the year 1800 – with mock precision, as I’m sure you realize. (I think I made this arbitrary decision while remembering an early music program that I used to listen to on the radio called “Music Before 1800”.) Even still, there are good reasons for my choice, which I hope will become clearer throughout the course of the lectures.


“Involuted Mysteries”

I’ve called this Conference “Involuted Mysteries”, which sounds like one of those high-sounding made-up phrases one might hear at a convention of New Age priestesses, or crop circle enthusiasts, or (I regret to say) academics. Let me assure you therefore that the phrase has an ancient and legitimate pedigree.

It comes, as I recall, from the Mystagogus Poeticus of Alexander Ross, an English mythographer of the late Renaissance. When Ross used it, it was indeed a phrase of his own concoction, but one yoked together nonetheless from real words freighted for centuries with real meaning.

Let me take a few minutes to explain, at least superficially, what these words meant, and in the course of doing so to anticipate some of the themes and topics that will occupy us in due course.

The adjective “involuted” derives from the word involucrum, a term used by medieval literary theorists to describe the way in which the inner symbolic or allegorical meaning of poetry is hidden deep within the outer wrapping of the literal sense. Involucrum is a synonym of sorts of two other popular medieval literary terms, velamentum, which means covering in the sense of a “veil”, something that hides, and integumentum, which means “covering” in a protective sense. (Integumentum comes from the Latin verb tego, tegere, tegi, tectum, from whose past participle we get the English words “protect” and “protection”.)

Both ideas, that the literal sense of poetry “hides” the allegorical meaning, and that it “protects” it from the eyes of the unworthy, are central to the ancient and medieval conception of literature and art as “mysteries”. But for reasons that will become clear, I hope, involucrum is my term of preference. Its allusive imagery is richer.

You all know what the English cognates “involve”, “revolve”, “evolve”, “volute”, “evolution”, “revolution”, and so on, mean. They come from another Latin verb, volvo, volvere, volui, volutum – so, I presume, does the overpriced Swedish automobile – which means to “roll” or “wind”. The allegorical meaning of poetry, according to the medieval commentators, was thus “involved”, a mystery “wound up” and so hidden in the deep centre of the literal words – like the living seed, in fact, protected within the dead and disposable shell or chaff (to use another popular medieval analogy), or Plato’s spherical World Animal, whose soul, the Mind of God, is rolled up invisibly within its material envelope.


“Mystery” and the Sacred

Now to the noun in our title. You are all familiar with the popular meaning of the word “mystery”: something difficult or impossible to understand or explain, because it is unusual, paradoxical, or even miraculous.

We have just passed the festival of Christmas, or what the demystifying fanatics of political correctness insist on calling the Holiday Season. Christmas, as you know, celebrates the first of the two central “mysteries” upon which the Christian religion is founded: the Incarnation – the coming of the eternal, incorporeal, and invisible God into the flesh and the world of space and time. As the text of the Christmas motet begins, O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum: “O great mystery, O wondrous sacrament”. The text is instructive: its more or less synonymous conjunction of the words “mystery” and “sacrament” tells us something rather important for our present purposes.

In popular modern usage, we might call any phenomenon that is difficult to comprehend or explain a mystery: for instance, the mystery of flight (as folks at the beginning of the last century used quaintly to refer to the new technology), or of calculus, or (to continue to list things I’ll never understand), the mystery of the golf swing.

But in the pre-modern imagination, the word “mystery” was reserved for an entity or event that was not merely incomprehensible but also experienced as sacred, as a sacramentum; and indeed the mystery – the incomprehensibility and wonder – of it was inseparable from its sacredness. Everything that is mysterious is sacred: ordained by God, a manifestation of God, or a concealment of God; and everything that is sacred is by necessity mysterious.

That mystery is rooted in the Divine was, of course, the universal attitude of the pre-modern. As anthropologists have long recognized, the special mark of the primitive – they used to call it the savage imagination before the dawning of the age of political correctness – is to invest with – to project upon – that which is otherwise inexplicable to it in nature, a consciousness and a will, very much like its own, in fact, only more powerful and therefore more dangerous. Every important event or anomaly in the natural order – earthquake, flood, a birth, an unexpectedly bountiful harvest – was conceived as the effect of God’s inscrutable and capricious beneficence or displeasure.

When science finally comes along to explain these events by ascribing them to purely physical causes, it can only do so, of course, by de-mystifying them. It must, in fact, expunge from the universe every trace of Soul or Mind or God. The inscrutable living Spirit that was formerly and from time immemorial thought to reside at the centre of, to animate and govern everything that exists and occurs in the world, is pronounced dead, and the de-spirited carcass of the cosmos is now moved by the cold hand of mechanical law.

Here, again, is one of the most obvious differences between the modern and pre-modern outlooks. If the ancient reflex was to multiply and aggrandize mystery, the modern project is to diminish and ultimately abolish it.

But from the eighteenth century to the present, science, and scientific criticism, have tended to pronounce the death of mystery and God with a dogmatic excess of certitude and materialistic zeal. It has told us with overweening confidence, for instance, that the parting of the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus was the result of no miraculous intervention by God, but is merely the dim folk memory of a freak draught or unusually low tide, abetted perhaps by a sudden windstorm.

This is a nice bit of modern scientific rationalization, but as such it is of course wholly beside the point. To reduce a religious mystery to a meteorological event, and explain that event in accordance with the principles of natural causation, is to completely misapprehend it.

As any student of mythology knows, the parting of the Red Sea didn’t happen, at least not in the sensible world of space and time; it is poetry, not history, symbol not fact. The very point of the story is mythic and symbolic: to demonstrate the majestic power of the God of Israel, who with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (in the words the writer of Exodus) shepherded his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land – as He would liberate them from captivity in Babylon and greater Persia, as he would be beseeched to liberate them from the Empires of Greece and Rome, and as eventually He would release all mankind from bondage to Satan, sin, and death.

The Israelites’ passing over dryshod of the Red Sea is, beyond that, an only subtly veiled historical transcription of the ancient Near Eastern mythologem of the nocturnal death and matutinal resurrection of the Sun-god, who every night set in the Western sky and descended into the waters of the underworld sea, there to encounter the chaos-dragon Tiamat or Apophis or Rahab or Leviathan (alternatively historicized by the Hebrew authors as the evil Pharaoh), to conquer him and deliver from his belly the captive dead into the light of salvation. This, as we will see, is one of the foundational and recurrent myths that govern the whole course of the so-called “history” of the Judaeo-Christian Bible.


Mystery and Myth

For the ancients, then, mystery and myth always lay just beneath the surface of the visible order. This is to say, really, that it was in the subterranean stratum of mystery and myth that the hidden intelligible meaning of natural phenomena and historical events – actualities that were, in themselves, meaningless – was found.

This is one reason why Aristotle wrote in the ninth book of his Poetics that myth is a somewhat more “philosophical” genre than history. History records, as Aristotle explains, what actually happened to this or that person, in this or that place and time, once and for all. Myth is the record of what happens in all times and places, recurrently, everywhere, and always.

In Platonic terms, history belongs, we might say, to the mutable and particular dimension of existence (what Plato called “Becoming” or “Not-Being”), whereas myth refers to an eternal and unchanging Reality. The historian Herodotus might thus chronicle the rise and fall of Croesus’ Lydia, or of the Persian Empire; a Thucydides, the rise and fall of Sparta; a Livy, Carthage; a Gibbons, Rome. But as soon as one speaks of a king or nation’s “rise and fall”, one is using the language of myth, not history. One is observing one of history’s universally and eternally recurrent patterns, on the model of the mythic journey of the Sun, or the pitiless rotation of Fortune’s Wheel.

Historical events can be observed and natural phenomena measured, but Meaning, of course, is an entirely incorporeal and invisible entity. To search for it beneath the superficial currents of history or sensible things involves a great leap of faith, whether in the name of religion or science.

Like the religious postulate of the Divine, the quest for meaning at any level involves the projection of the interpreter’s own Intelligence into an inanimate and therefore unintelligent world. The only difference is that, where the pre-modern imagination used to call that Intelligence God, the scientific imagination now de-personalizes it as the Laws of Motion, or of Thermodynamics, or Gravitation, or Relativity, or String Theory.

But it is, all the same, a projection and a leap of faith.