As history is taught today, the culture of the ancient world was lost during the middle/dark ages, until rediscovered by the enlightenment. Life during the dark ages was a terrible ordeal. Disease, poverty, and misery reigned in an era that was run by the church. How grateful we are that we have cast off the shackles of Medievalism and now live in the light of modern knowledge and technology.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Sure, we have Blogs, Facebook and Cell phones, but I read once that 3 weeks without electricity would transform all of this higher culture we have achieved into an almost irrevocable stone age. I don’t even like the term “Middle ages”, as if the classical age was merely waiting for the church’s influence to wane so that it’s glory could once again be rediscovered by the enlightenment. I prefer the term, “Christendom” to describe this era. That is, the Christian church was, by and large, the cultural force. True, the economic situation was not great. But then, before the invention of the steam engine, when has it ever been? True the glories of ancient Rome were lost. But despite what Edward Gibbon claims in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, this was not the church’s doing. Rome declined because of her own decadence. The church picked up what pieces it could, after the barbarian hordes raged through Europe.
Meanwhile we live in an era of almost total cultural impoverishment. Consider two churches, built in their nations respective capitols. One during the so-called Dark ages, and one during our modern era:
Which of these two structures do you think is more beautiful? Which speaks to an eternal hope, or to inner emotions of any kind? The first is apparently slated for demolition, which is being praised by all. It will be replaced with the offices of a Law Firm. The second is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Consider literature. The Dark Ages gave us Beowulf, and Canterbury Tales and various Miracle Plays. Modernity gave us Lolita, 50 shades of grey, and Twilight.
In Music, the middle ages gave us Gregorian Chant. Now, we have Miley Cyrus doing whatever-it-is to construction equipment.
The first was accidentally tidied up by a museum guard. That’s not the first or only time such things have happened. The recent movie Monuments Men chronicles the heroic work of those who chased down the Nazi’s to save looted artwork from across Europe. The men risked life and limb to save and repatriate these great works. Can you imagine anyone risking even a hangnail for “My Bed”? Heck, some poor soul unknowingly risked their job to undo it.
The difference is that, in the era of Christendom, there was a sense of something greater than self. Fra Angelico’s painting screams for one to reflect on the great themes of life, on humanity, on redemption, on the relation between the human the divine. “My Bed” makes me think I should have been charging admission to my bedroom as a kid. I had way more mess than that. Despite what the museum description says, this travesty invites reflection that never rises above the self. Nor do the Christian Science church in D.C., the sexual fantasies of Nabakov, or the grinding antics of Ms. Cyrus.
We are perpetually obsessed with self. There is nothing greater, nothing higher than self. Which means that there is likely no age as dark as our own.