February 26th, 2012

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Memes Ancient and Modern

Intellectual fashions are often as interesting for their fashionability as for their content.

I've twice found myself thinking about such matters this week, in both cases thanks indirectly to lady_schrapnell. First, I reread a story to which she introduced me, and that I now happen to be due to teach. Frank O'Connor's "My Oedipus Complex" got me wondering about the grip of Freudian theory in the middle of the twentieth century. Its year of publication - 1952 - might stand as the high water mark of Freud's general intellectual cachet, and the story seems at first to be a demonstration of his grip at its tightest: because of the title, of course, and the way it exemplifies classic Oedipal anxieties. In practice, though, naming the story after the Complex robs the latter of its explanatory power. Freud's theory becomes part of the furniture, the framework around which the story is constructed (as a child might make a den by throwing a sheet over a clothes horse that happens to be in the room), rather than something to be revealed as an epiphanic truth by the analyst/critic. The title appears to be a tribute to Freud, but it leaves the door open to an ironic reading of his ideas. At any rate, it directs our attention to the interpretative procedures we bring to the fiction, making us more conscious of what we might otherwise do without thinking - which is, of course, the most Freudian of reading techniques, here applied to Freudian analysis itself. The rest of the twentieth century was, I think it's fair to say, a bumpy, downhill ride for classic Freudianism.

(This is how I read it, anyway. I don't know how O'Connor actually felt about Freud. lady_schrapnell?)

The second intellectual fashion came to my attention from dipping into lady_schrapnell's birthday present, Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica - a book I've previously owned only in selections. Near the beginning, Browne is talking about the various reasons why people shouldn't make unthinking obeisance to the wisdom of the Classical world. Most of these look very reasonable reasons: they were fallible, like us; people always think "the old days" were better, and in future times our grandchildren will look back on this as a Golden Age just as we do on the time of our own ancestors; a lot of Latin and Greek adages are nothing to write home about ("Tempus fugit" - well, duh!). Amongst the rest, though, he spends some time on the mendacity of the ancients' fables, which he explains away as exaggerated versions of more mundane events. Collapse )

And there's much more of the same. How could this pack of nonsense have seemed so persuasive to Browne, to the extent that he sets it alongside the more "sensible" comments about the ancient world on an equal basis?

Browne's not unique in this, though. Look at Francis Bacon, who was perhaps more aware than any of his generation of the perils of cognitive bias. (I used to make my students read the section in the Novum Organon about the Idols of the Mind before letting them loose on the Monty Hall problem.) In The Wisdom of the Ancients (1619), a book about classical myth, he showed himself aware of the dangers: "I know very well what pliant stuff fable is made of, how freely it will follow any way you please to draw it, and how easily with a little dexterity and discourse of wit meanings which it was never meant to bear may be plausibly put upon it." Nevertheless, he went on, sometimes one finds "a conformity and connection with the thing signified, so close and so evident, that one cannot help believing such a signification to have been designed and meditated from the first, and purposely shadowed out."

And what were the evident correspondences that his canny lawyer's brain found so incontrovertible? Amongst the interpretations that follow, we learn that the legend of Perseus was an allegory of the art of war, and the figure of Cupid a representation of the atom of Democritan materialism. In fact we can say of Bacon, as Jean Seznec said of Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (c.1340-1370), that "we find him rejecting this or that fable because of its improbability, and in the next breath accepting some no less absurd fabrication".

Well, it's always easier to see other people's biases at work than one's own (or so I am assured by a popular Althusserian meme inhabiting my own head), but these are cautionary tales indeed. Browne, Bacon and Boccaccio were far from being fools - any more than many a convinced Freudian of the 1930s. From our vantage point we can see that there was a strong motivation to find hidden messages in the classical myths during the Renaissance - for how else could a Christian prince or Pope justify hanging all those pictures of naked pagan gods on the walls? Allegory was the bulwark of classical civilization against the fanaticism of the Reformation (both Counter and Great-Tasting Original). Seznec told that story long ago in The Survival of the Pagan Gods, and it's the one I learned as an undergraduate - although perhaps by now the story's changed. (Come to think of it, it has a rather counter-cultural feel that might have made it appealing to my 1960s-educated lecturers.)

One thing these theories have in common is that they're about ways of reading stories and situations. But then, so is the theory of memes itself, which has such an appeal to our own age (and, I'll freely admit, to me). Will people look back in a century or so and wonder how we became so besotted with what is, after all, only an analogy with gene theory, rather than a "proper" theory with a body of evidence behind it?

Probably, but at least I've the comfort of having anticipated them.