A Dream of Cathedrals

We just finished watching the Swedish television series Arn – Tempelriddaren (Arn: The Knight Templar in English) last night, and I find myself thinking about time and how we perceive it. In the series, based upon Jan Guillou’s trilogy of novels, Arn Magnusson, a member of the Folkung clan, falls in love with Cecilia Algotsdotter, whose father is allied with the rival Sverker clan. Their illicit love, and her pregnancy, butt up against local politics, and they end up, because of wild accusations by Cecilia’s jealous sister, sentenced to twenty years of penance, her as a lay sister in the local convent, and he serving as a Knight Templar in the Holy Land. At the end of twenty years, and many struggles, they reunite and are finally able to marry and live in peace–at least, until the Danes show up, because if there is anything you can depend upon in a classic Swedish story, it is a Danish villain lurking somewhere.

What has me thinking about our perceptions of time is not just the length of their separation, nigh unimaginable in this era of rapid transportation and instantaneous international communication–but also occasional shots of Cecilia working on a piece of embroidered cloth. Embroidery threatens to become another lost art, replaced by machines into which one can program the design and then sit back and have a cup of coffee while it whirs away. For several years now, there have been Bernina sewing machines also capable of embroidery, machines which could connect to the internet and download whatever pattern you wanted. However, in the “Middle Ages,” it could well take years to complete an embroidered design. Items like the Bayeux Tapestry were the work of many hands over a longer period of time than folks today would likely devote to a doctoral degree, even those slow people who become enamored of their dissertation and just unable to finish it. And, of course, it’s long been remarked upon how insanely time-consuming was the construction of cathedrals, how few architects ever actually lived to see the completion of one of these magnificent structures, some of which were works-in-progress over a span of centuries.

Historian James Burke, in his two most well-known television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, made quite clear how little the life of the average medieval person changed. The idea of novelty is, actually, itself a novelty, something new in the human experience, here only since the rate of technological change inaugurated with the Industrial Revolution made change itself a feature of our lives. Just think how poorly we react to the inability of companies to offer us continuing novelties. Apple has recently been raked over the coals for offering only a thinner version of the iPad so many people already possess, rather than some quantum leap in computing or usability that the iPad, itself less than ten years old, symbolized. People want more and more change, and they want it now. Never mind that, if I look back over my own life, I can bear witness to fantastic developments that make even the years’ old laptop on which I am writing these words seem a veritable dream: the Commodore 64 which could only run even the most rudimentary of programs on several large disks, early attempts at online communication such as Quantum Link, noisy dial-up modems, and, of course, games like Zork (“You are likely to be eaten by a grue”). Now, you can download an array of Girl Scout-themed lesbian pornography onto your phone from anywhere in the world, and you’re still not satisfied?

But the emphasis upon novelty has infiltrated more worlds than simply the technological. Now, a writer is only as good as his last book, an artist only as good as her last exhibition, actors only as good as their last movies. Now, we struggle to remain relevant in a world of constant change. Even academe, the changeless and stodgy ivory tower, has fallen prey to this. Due to the increasing professionalization of our society, we have more academics than ever before, and as one gains promotions and tenure only through publication, and as publication is, in many respects, relative to the number of people publishing (your one article come out this year doesn’t look so hot if all your colleagues have published three each), there is more and more pressure to put out more and more work so as to make a name for yourself, or at least to keep your name in circulation. The number of journals has exploded, no doubt in part to meet the need of academics needing to publish, but some of these journals are predatory, open-source journals which charge writers exorbitant fees to print their work but actually lack scholarly credibility–they are profit-making, fraudulent enterprises.

As someone who reads a lot of academic books (and, moreover, as someone who can usually get a free review copy of what I want, because I do so love writing book reviews), it’s hard for me to mind the explosion and expansion of scholarship, especially as it has opened up new fields of inquiry, such as genocide studies, which tackle the less laudable aspects of our human history and psychology. However, I do think that something has been lost with the infiltration of novelty into scholarship, and it is that medieval sense of time which rendered one’s labors, one’s whole life, even, as but a work in progress, a contribution to a mission larger than oneself–and one whose completion we will not live to see. We threaten to lose sight of the meaning of our work as we work toward goals that service ourselves rather than our fields of inquiry.

I am, perhaps, at an advantage over some academics, for I do not work in the usual university teaching position but rather as the editor of an online encyclopedia. This has freed me somewhat from the pressure to publish and present at conferences (though I nonetheless do the former with some regularity), but it has also graced me with an insight into the bigger picture and into the role each one of us play in it. Encyclopedias are respectable but not ground-breaking institutions, and ours, having been online now for several years, has a few thousand articles on it. Some of those entries have been written by noteworthy academics. Some of those have been written by students. Some of those have been written by local historians or by the curious and interested. But each article has a place. Each article is one more bit of history than we had before. Moreover, as encyclopedias are conservative institutions, distillations of material that has been already published, I find myself acutely aware of just how many have come before me–not just the university historians but also the editors of, and contributors to, local historical journals, folks who worked not for tenure but simply to preserve what they could, having no greater goal than passing on knowledge.

The folk singer Utah Phillips often remarked that time was an enormous long river, and we could reach down into that river, reach down into that past, and pull something from it that we need, the stories of our ancestors that could help us in our present dire situation. However, we are not simply takers–we are contributors to this river. Our names will most certainly be lost in this river, if only because the remembrance of so many would threaten to overburden our ancestors, but the eddies and whirls we make will, over the space of years and centuries, eventually shift the course of the river, just as so many unknown stonecutters and masons shifted ancient city skylines.

How much more vibrant might our scholarship be if we acknowledged that we, ourselves, are unimportant to this equation, that we will not live to see in what direction the river shall go? Might we not take the time to dream of cathedrals, even if we could not claim the whole project as exclusively our own?

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