Tuesday, August 09, 2005

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Halls of Academia

Poor old Anthony Grafton! In fact, he's not really all that old (he's 55), and yet he's already a dinosaur. It can't be easy to live in a world where your ideas, your commitments, indeed your whole Weltanschauung, is nearly extinct. In part I must sympathize with him, because like him I study the past. He is a far greater scholar than I, so please don't imagine that I compare myself to him in that sense--but it is difficult, these days, to be a classicist, or a medievalist, or indeed even a historian, in the face of mounting pressures within the universities to divert funding away from the humanities into the applied sciences, or into medical research, or into sports. We must teach ever larger service courses even as our students are being brainwashed by other departments into believing that the subject matter of our disciplines is virtually irrelevant to the life of an educated person these days. Grafton himself laments this situation in an entertaining interview from 2002.

But it is not the subject matter of his scholarship that makes him irrelevant, I'm afraid, even though things were already looking rather grim in the mid 1990s when he published a 241-page book on the history of the footnote. He specializes in intellectual history, and of course that subject, in and of itself, will never really be irrelevant. What happens, though, when an intellectual historian becomes so enraged by the course of intellectual history that he cannot help but infuse his analysis with mistaken inferences? And what configuration of events can be the cause of such rage in the first place?

For Grafton, the cause of the rage appears to be the existence of an intellect that, on the one hand, rivals his own but that, on the other hand, sees the world in a completely different way than he. What intellect could that possibly be, you ask? Why, none other than His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. In an intriguing article in The New Yorker (link to the online magazine only--the article itself is not online), Grafton explores, in his typically witty and erudite way, the foundations of Pope Benedict's thoughts about the nature and structure of the Catholic Church and her teachings. The article, called "Reading Ratzinger: Benedict XVI, the Theologian", adopts a quasi-scholarly tone (wouldn't want that New Yorker audience to lose interest) and employs the methods of Grafton's profession: a close reading of Ratzinger's own writings integrated with an analysis of the historical conditions in which the writings were produced. Grafton does not pretend to be a theologian himself, mind you--why pretend to have expertise in some field when all one is doing is writing intellectual history about that field, after all? Besides, theology isn't rocket science--any well-read amateur can find something intelligent to say about it.

And Grafton is certainly well-read, even in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. I think this is evident in spite of Amy Welborn's suspicion that the only late writing he had bothered to look at was the 1984 interview with Ratzinger published under the title The Ratzinger Report. Ms. Welborn drew her inference, I think, from the scorn that Grafton apparently has for the thought of what he calls the "late" Ratzinger, but it seems to me that his scorn comes not from a lack of familiarity with the writings of Ratzinger, but from the opposite: a thorough familiarity. His scorn is real precisely because he has done some reading, and he does not like what he has read.

If we were to do a little intellectual history ourselves (I am not an intellectual historian myself, mind you--but hey, it's not rocket science) I think we could uncover the source of some of Grafton's animus. It is quite interesting to note how Grafton's attitude towards Ratzinger's work tends to fluctuate throughout the article. He sometimes has positive, even glowing, things to say about Ratzinger's thought--but only those aspects of his thought that show an openness to ideas outside the traditional thinking of Roman Catholic theologians of a Thomistic stripe. He explains how Ratzinger learned to have this openness by studying two central figures in the history of theology, St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, both of whom, according to Grafton, discovered that the truth can be safeguarded more effectively if we expand it to include corrected versions of errors--Donatism, in St. Augustine's case, and the bizarre Tertia Ecclesia of Joachim of Fiore in St. Bonaventure's case.

Turning to Ratzinger, we find that in the late 1950s and early 1960s he acted in an Agustinian/Bonaventuran manner himself when dealing with the theological disputes of the time, coopting some of the ideas of such thinkers as de Chardin, de Lubac, Chenu, and Congar. For these thinkers, according to Grafton, "no doctrinal system could encompass all truths", and that is manifestly a Good Thing if you are Anthony Grafton. Only later, during the late 1960s, did Ratzinger begin to steer "a more careful, traditional course." It is at this point in Grafton's essay that the subtext begins to change its tone. Up until now Ratzinger was, in some sense, an intellectual, indeed, a daring one who was willing to experiment with the theological ideas coming out of the philosophical schools of France; now, he appears as a timid and emotional worrit for whom the preservation of the "truth" is the controlling motivation. And this is manifestly a Bad Thing if what you mean by "truth" is something that some particular doctrinal system can encompass in its entirety; for Grafton, that is exactly what the new Ratzinger did mean.

It's quite fascinating to see how Grafton plays intellect against emotion in this essay. Intellect is clearly quite important to our Intellectual Historian, and he is not afraid to use it. In fact, the only modern scholar whom Grafton actually cites in the essay is Eamon Duffy, whom he characterizes as "a brilliant historian of the Church who teaches at Cambridge." Why does Grafton cite him? Well, it turns out that Duffy, that brilliant historian, "was only one of many Catholic intellectuals" who were "infuriated" by some remarks made by Ratzinger in The Ratzinger Report. What Duffy was "infuriated" by, apparently, was Ratzinger's invocation of the notion of value when he claimed that the Church had already incorporated whatever was of value in liberal culture. Grafton's analysis:
For Ratzinger, it seems, liberalism is another alien creed, like Judaism but far less profound, and consists of "values" that can easily be identified, summed up, and extracted for Christian use.
For Grafton, it seems, liberalism is the only creed, because it consists of "values" rather than "facts". How could there be moral or theological "facts", after all, when intellectual history shows that the beliefs and values of various times and places change and are malleable? Those who would insist on "doctrinal purity" are living in the past: Grafton appears to take some delight in outlining the quaint liturgical practices of Ratzinger's youth in order to show how the man is now a slave to sentimentality in matters having to do with Church practice and teaching. When Ratzinger is intellectual, he is Good Ratzinger; when he is emotinal, or sentimental, he is Bad Ratzinger. But really it boils down to this: when Ratzinger is a liberal relativist, he is Grafton's Ratzinger; when he is a moral realist, he is just a doofus.

Grafton's project could not be clearer than in the following passage:
Ratzinger's descriptions of the Church's ancient ritual life and dogmas, meanwhile, are as "thick" as his analyses of foreign ideologies are "thin." When Ratzinger traces the complex interplay of Church architecture, priestly speech and gesture, music, and congregational response present in a single Mass, or patiently explains those doctrines, liek the Immaculate Conception, which seem most alien to a rationalist turn of mind, his discourse glows with local color and detail. His deep love for the Catholic past is manifest whenever he engages in the priestly acts that clearly mean the most to him.

Ratzinger, in the end, sees all traditions and historical experiences outside his own as gray, while the castle of Catholic tradition that he inhabits is suffused with the deep reds and blues of stained glass and the flame of candles.
That last sentence is either the funniest bit of unintentional irony or the cleverest piece of self-parody that I have seen in some time.

It is truly unfortunate, as Amy Welborn also remarked, that the article ends with a disdainful and condescending mention of the whole Harry Potter kerfuffle. Clearly Grafton did not employ his usual scholarly acumen to that little episode--it is apparent that he did not even bother to look at the documents involved--because if he had, he would have come up with something a little more intelligent to say about it. But when your project is to contrast the scholarly but doctrinally fuzzy Ratzinger of the past with the new, more emotional but "razor sharp" Ratzinger of the present, how useful would it be to point out that Ratzinger gave a perfectly ordinary pastoral response to a letter from a concerned believer?

Poor old Anthony. It must be infuriating to find that there is somebody out there who could have been so much more like him, if only he had exercised his intellect in the right way. Grafton's animus is no different from what one sees all the time in academia: the adolescent posturing of relativists, infuriated by the possibility that their own values and shibboleths are not everyone's values and shibboleths, and yet they can't, with consistency, complain out loud about that. So let's write the intellectual history of our enemies instead--the winners always write the histories, you know, and after all: it's not rocket science.

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