Umberto Eco, in a pair of essays now canonical in medieval studies, proposed that we are living in a new Middle Ages. “What is required to make a good Middle Ages?” he wrote in 1983. “First of all, a great peace that is breaking down, a great international power that has unified the world in language, customs, ideologies, religions, art, and technology, and then at a certain point, thanks to its own ungovernable complexity, collapses.” He had in mind the Pax Americana, a judgement premature by nearly three decades. “At the collapse of a great Pax, crisis and insecurity ensue, different civilizations clash, and slowly the image of a new man is outlined.” Eco’s sketch of the new Middle Ages focused on the recapitulation of largely negative themes: insecurity, the translation (and dumbing down) of written texts into images, art that is “not systematic but additive and compositive,” an epoch distinguished by “immobility and dogmatism” as well as, paradoxically, “cultural revolution.” His was a pessimistic vision colored by a lifelong ambivalence toward Catholicism: “Naturally the whole process is characterized by plagues and massacres, intolerance and death.”
But it is possible to view the recurrence of the Middle Ages with optimism. Eugene Vodolazkin has argued in these pages that we are entering a period of deepening, integration, and refinement analogous to that which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. He writes,
Nikolai Berdyaev divides epochs into days and nights. Days include antiquity and the modern age. They’re colorful and magnificent, and they go down in history as moments of explosive display. The night epochs—such as the Middle Ages—are outwardly muted but profounder than those of the day. It is during the sleep of night that what has been perceived during the day can be assimilated. A night epoch allows for insight into the essence of things and for concentrating strength.
He elaborated this vision in a subsequent essay, “The Age of Concentration.” Perhaps prompted by Eco’s notion of “the image of a new man” taking shape amidst the turmoil of collapse, Vodolazkin argues that “Our dispersed and untrained souls need to be shaped and formed, attaining focus or concentration.” Individuals must gain genuine independence of mind before undertaking the work of reconsolidating civilization. “Personal concentration works against the dispersing influences that might otherwise gain control of our souls.”
These “dispersing influences” isolate us from vital truths in order to mire us in merely “horizontal” connections. The modern vision of authenticity is one such influence. “[The] paradigmatic modern way of achieving independence from mass consciousness is one of social protest,” writes Vodolazkin. “But this is horizontal—the position of ‘against.’ The vertical connection provides a much stronger position. It puts one in position ‘above’ and transcends the horizontal web of social relations.” In other words, concentration is impossible without a rediscovery of religious truth. We require the weight of glory bearing down on us.
This brings me to Paul Kingsnorth’s essay for the March issue, “A Wild Christianity.” Kingsnorth captures precisely what is missing from our efforts to resuscitate Western civilization: “In a time when the temptation is always toward culture war rather than inner war, I think we could learn something from our spiritual ancestors. What we might learn is not that the external battle is never necessary; sometimes it very much is. But a battle that is uninformed by inner transformation will soon eat itself, and those around it.”
This inner transformation, according to Kingsnorth, requires we imitate—not only as individuals, but as the Church, as the bedrock of our civilization—the “wild saints” who “took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the Enemy.” Culture-warring is a “horizontal” action. Retreat to the wilderness is “vertical.” And we need theosis. We need to be united with God, made holy, made whole—made divine under the weight of his glory—in order to return to the world armed for battle.
However, “There is no theosis without suffering.” The “night epoch” of Vodolazkin and Berdyaev surely holds many nightmares. The cave mouth beckons us to journey to the underworld. As Kingsnorth warns, “There are dark things down there you need to meet.” Are we in the West, so long accustomed to comfort and convenience, prepared to suffer? I think not. But prepared or no, we must suffer. Our civilization depends on it.
I read Kingsnorth’s essay with a certain wistfulness. I envy his access to a wilderness that hums with traces of ancient saints. Ireland is a palimpsest, a manuscript scraped imperfectly clean and reused, the old text bleeding through the new. A landscape with a long memory. As an American, I grieve the mnemonic emptiness of the New World. I long for ruins.
What does it mean to cultivate Christian wildness in North America? The land affords a phenomenology different from that of Ireland and the rest of the Old World. There are few markers of deep memory by which to orient ourselves to the work of concentration. Farther south on the continent one finds ruins—pyramids, even. But these, like the smattering of sacred mounds and isolated standing stones in the north, are pagan.
“Texts were not so much composed as compiled in the Middle Ages,” writes Vodolazkin. “New texts contained, almost consisted of, fragments of preceding ones. Rather than retell an event, a compiler would just reuse the text from a previous account.” For American Christians pursuing the work of concentration, of reintegrating ourselves into the great text that is the body of Christ, the palimpsest is mostly bare. Which is to say that, phenomenologically, our wilderness is true wilderness.
Kingsnorth’s cave saints faced true wilderness. They created markers of memory for future generations of believers. America’s Christians are blessed with an opportunity for building their own markers. I pray the Lord makes us equal to the task.
Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things.
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