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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Tuchman, B. A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century. New York: Ballantine. Tuchman, Barbara W. New York: Ballantine, The prize-winning historian traces the major currents of the fourteenth century, revealing the century's great historical rhythms and events and the texture of daily life at all levels of European society. Nielsen Library.

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Eliot's picture of a desolate world is therefore exacerbated in order to make the transfiguration of this world more than a necessity, and the use of the mythical method implies that the correct response must be a spiritual one, because the problem, after all, is fundamentally a spiritual one. In other terms, Eliot dramatized the decline and death of a civilisation so as to question the possibility of its renaissance. As such, it was conspicuously used by Joyce in order to structure Ulysses , where Bloom's life recapitulates the Homeric hero's adventures in modern Dublin.

If by mythical method we mean that the old wisdom and knowledge of a forgotten age is used to set the pattern of modern life, we come to a paradox, as it implies that it is the traditional world which has to speak the truth of the modern world. Beyond the precise utility of myth as a means through which to restore order in the world, in the case of Eliot's poem, the idea that the ancient world possessed wisdom was widespread in the period. For instance, both Lawrence and Eliot had read and admired Frazer's Golden Bough , but their paths had somewhat diverged from there.

A Distant Mirror The Calamitous 14th Century - Veritas

In this latter book, the continuity between the Pagan world and Christianity was extended to the medieval legends of the Holy Grail: the main idea being that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ continued and perfected the previous myths , ensuring the final and complete redemption of the whole of mankind. The extent to which Lawrence and Eliot diverged in their diagnosis of the situation of the world, and regarding the solution they offered, is a question which has given scholars endless opportunities to study their conflicting attitudes to modernity.

This interpretation, of course, is controversial, but it not so much a condemnation of Lawrence's beliefs as the acknowledgement of the appeal of an enquiring man in what were difficult times. Lawrence and his contemporaries were at the least unanimous in depicting this modern world as being doomed, and in conveying the idea that regeneration was possible, if only people would credit the traditional interpretations of the human condition. And there is also one common denominator to their solution to save the modern world. Hence the Nietzschean idea that the world is like a work of art, and its Heideggerian corollary, that the mind of the artist is the place where the essence of the world is conceived As a consequence, the other values deployed themselves and came to be judged according to criteria introduced by the notion of progress.

A Distant Mirror

This explains the formidable impact of science and technology, as they were considered the only positive - that is to say, useful - values. Yet, as there is very little hierarchy or differentiation between these various values, truth is no longer a stable concept: it becomes a relative concept.


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  6. But this needs some further philosophical and contextual clarification. Since the highest value has been discarded, values can no longer be fertilized by any theological source, and it is thus possible to imagine that the fluidity and transience of the world permeates the mind of the artist and also the work of art. And therefore man, or the artist more particularly, remains the only place that is left for the unveiling of true reality. The artist is the only residence where truth is allowed to stay and to develop, in the infinite and hazy reconstitutions offered by artistic creation, because the mind of the artist is perfectly adequate to the ever-changing dispositions of the world.

    Hence the naturalistic pattern characterised by the accumulation of information and diverse elements of knowledge about the world, without any assurance of certainty. Of course this relativist conception and the crisis which it provoked was widely debated among philosophers well into the 20 th century, notwithstanding the fact that the shortcomings in the idea of progress were pointed out with a vengeance after the First World War. Insofar as modernity is founded on progress and on the constant overtaking of new values, one possibility, in order to make sense of the world, is to invoke values which have stood the test of time and to adopt a very exalted standpoint, suggesting that these values had in the past been the foundation of a harmonious way of life.

    Making sense of the world may also mean providing a direction and a purpose, ordering things, so as to supply some significance to people's lives, something people really needed after the chaos of the First World War.


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    And this direction, this purpose and this ordering in life is generally called a tradition, a culture, or a wisdom, deposited by the ages through a long refining process. Lawrence and his contemporaries to the modern dilemma might be judged to be idealistic, if not totally utopian, insofar as their main tenets, even though they were grounded in a perfectly matched philosophical content, seem to favour a traditional world that has been pitilessly cast off into the past. Such tenets were widely considered as either outlandish or set in such obsolete and reactionary terms that they could only meet with general disapproval.

    At best, their attitude could be welcomed as a kind of Philosophia Perennis perennial philosophy , a wisdom devoid of any reference to either space or time, detached from people's real and concrete everyday occupations. It would however be a mistake to ascribe to Eliot, Lawrence, Yeats, to Joyce or the other artists of the period the singularity of such an opinion, as the criticism which they addressed to modernity went far beyond the context of the First World War and the limits of their lives.

    If it were the case, we would have adopted other ways and means, especially in our modern and democratic age.

    Distant Mirror : The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (Reissue) [Paperback]

    At least, we might give some credit to the position held by Francis Herbert Bradley in his Ethical Studies, published in This opposition and criticism belongs to the modern predicament, but this is perhaps the only real choice left, before we can find another solution. Eliot and D. Lawrence Palgrave, Bradley , Ethical Studies , p.