Inside the fog

When I am reading history, it is always as a partisan. There is no war in which I have not taken sides. Indeed, figuring out what side one would have been on is part of the pleasure in studying the past, and a goad to intimate involvement. “You had to be there,” and since we are not, suddenly we must do everything we can to get there. We were called, invariably, by some little glimpse, some little scent, the sound of a distant bell. For a moment we have detected something that is really there. It has touched us, arrested our attention, stopped us in our riding by.

That partisanship is a natural mark of belonging. It grows from the encounter with the past. It arrives from beyond the era about which we are reading; it comes along with us, as it were. But now we have a connexion with that past, and in return, it has a new connexion with us. We are no longer simply looking and deciphering, as one might do with a fuzzy photograph. We have begun in some sense to participate. “All history is modern history,” and all of it contains people, places, things, capable of fully engaging our attention. There is a “ring of truth,” and we know that we are there.

As a late adolescent, reading Huizinga, my whole life almost disappeared into “the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth centuries.” It all happened in the first few pages of a book. I saw, smelled, heard, small but characteristic particles of the later Middle Ages. A very learned scholar had evoked them for me. It was the pilgrim’s call. Many have spent their whole lives as historians of such an era, or even smaller tracts of space and time. Many have also wasted their lives in this way, not realizing that a great scholar must not be confined to a speciality; that the understanding of the speciality itself requires a much broader learning; and that the very wisdom that is acquired through mastering the ability to communicate what has been found, is bound up in the finding.

At the root of that first enchantment — always I should think — is something real. Nothing comes from nothing, and the cynic’s belief that every noble thing is a “romantic illusion” is actually quite naïve. In the end I do not believe anyone, not a clinical madman, will die for a romantic illusion. (This is what, to my mind, Don Quixote was all about, and why it has the power to bring tears to one’s eyes, even at the richest and most satirical moments of farce.)

Chivalry is now our “for instance.” The whole cult, as any that is staffed by humans, was rank with posturing and hypocrisy. The “spirit of chivalry” was and is a fog. But venture into that fog, and we will sometimes encounter the real thing: acts of dramatic yet unselfish bravery, rising to sanctity. The person who does not expect that, will be hit by the horse flying by.

In a kingdom not of this world, I believe, things are the opposite of what we’d call “spiritual.” It is rather in this world that an aura of “spiritualism” surrounds hard truth. (Reverence and love were instead required.) Heaven is not a congealed fog; though “Heaven’s gate in Jerusalem wall” lies hidden in the fog. Only the partisan will seek it. And the faith that finds it knew where to look.