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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

On the sociable and medieval addictions

A long time ago, there was an exchange at Phoebe's blog about whether the sociability of smoking made it a better form of self-medication for the sad and lonely than the inveterately anti-social activity of taking anti-depressants. Now, Cristina Nehring goes into (digital) print with this thesis:
The question, quite possibly, is not how to banish obsession, addiction, idolatry, and habit altogether, for they are inherently linked and ineradicable parts of human nature. The better question might be: How to choose one’s habits and addictions wisely—or, if not wisely, at least relatively pleasantly or interestingly—and not just according to despotic current fashion.
You clink with wine glasses—not pill-containers. You make a toast to your comrades with pints—not milligrams. So even if and when the buzz wears off, you still have real-life contacts, social skills, a flesh-and-blood community. Your friends may sock it to you sometimes, but at least they recognize your face on the street. They know about the trips you take and sometimes accompany you on them: They don’t take off alone in the bathroom by their medicine cabinet.
Rather than re-state the whole of the argument for smoking and drinking made at Phoebe's blog (which to my more sympathetic readers ought to be self-evident!), I instead want to highlight this nice deployment of the Great Sociability of the Past as against the Lonely Individualism of the Now trope. This is a trope not unlike (but maybe more useful and true than) the Great Immobility of the Past that I mentioned a couple posts ago. It reminds me of Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood, a detailed history of the development of modern family life that grows out of one fairly simple claim: Back when no one ever bathed, highwaymen haunted the roads, entire families slept in one bed, death - violent, puss-filled, and otherwise gruesome - was omnipresent, and the brief time before that death was spent in drinking your lord's mead during the 360 festival days of the year, things were awesome. Because, unable to find a moment's privacy, we were at our most sociable, and thus, our happiest. That is how we are, by nature and divine intention, meant to live. Bathing optional.

Nehring and most others who seek the Great Sociability of the Past don't explicitly take the Middle Ages for their ideal, at least not with the forthright zeal of Aries, who was a Vichy sympathizer and so I suppose could afterwards afford such comparatively harmless admissions as a longing to return to the twelfth century. A perfect example of this ideal unacknowledged is Whit Stillman's interest in reviving "dance crazes" in Damsels in Distress. (However, in this article on what was once a favorite hobby horse of mine, pedagogical eros, Nehring's exemplars are more explicit: Abelard and Heloise.) But even if they don't look to the Middle Ages per se, I think that what they do seek is nonetheless a vaguely pre-modern conception of the human good. The extent of man's natural sociability is diminished but never conclusively defined by modern philosophy, despite Hobbes's particular protestations to the contrary, so versions of a medieval ideal persist as an alternative often unmoored from their Catholic foundations. (Sometimes radically unmoored, as in the varieties of socialism, just so you don't go off thinking that the dream of consummate human sociability is unique to the right. But not always so unmoored - every article by Helen Rittelmeyer and Eve Tushnet also fits this paradigm, and they can hardly be unaware of what they're drawing on.)

None of this is to say that the Great Sociability of the Past is not a useful corrective simply because it's a medieval and Catholic corrective. I post this article because I approve it. Up with booze and smokes, and I guess bloody bar fights! Down with pills, and even showers, if it gets to that! Modern alternatives to modernity must come from somewhere, and the past is a reliable source of opposition to the present. All I want to point out is that this is an impulse from the past, and a very unlikely past for most of its proponents at that.

7 comments:

Flavia said...

Now I really want a drink.

Fortunately, I'll never have to choose between boozing and bathing. I hope.

Miss Self-Important said...

That's how medievalism tempts - take just my blessings, it says, and leave the curses by the wayside. Next thing you know, you're a mendicant monk in a potato sack singing for your dinner, and you haven't had a proper bath (not counting the time you were thrown into a river by angry villagers for making off with someone's goose) in a year. But the mead flows plentifully on St. Whoever's day, which is every day. And mead is pretty good.

Jeff said...

so versions of a medieval ideal persist as an alternative often unmoored from their Catholic foundations. (Sometimes radically unmoored...

Heck yeah. The French are (as usual) their own unique case, but to a great extent, the history of medievalism in America is the history of our effort to disentangle Catholicism from the Middle Ages so we can use the art, architecture, cultural products, and historical figures for our own purposes. Dante was huge among Protestants in the latter half of the 19th century, and Joan of Arc fandom was rampant during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It occurs to me now that even when medievalism was used as a backlash against capitalism, factories, etc., the emphasis was often on the individual. (Haskins knew his audience, and his times.) The "sociability" suggestion is uncommon—although I did recently see one plausible argument that a desire for a presumed-lost sociability at least partly explains the increased interest in Ren Fests, reenactment groups, and live role-playing...freed of medieval Romishness, of course.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm deliberately obfuscating a little bit to make this seem more general and less like a blog about How Everything Is Really My Dissertation. The sociability to which I refer is the Aristotelian idea, theologized by Aquinas, of man as naturally sociable and desiring to live with others, and politics as therefore natural. This seems to be pretty much universally agreed on(?) prior to the early modern move towards versions of Hobbesian individualism, a move which may well have begun with late medieval voluntarism, which also emphasized the individual will at the expense of his other qualities.

Whatever philosophy's nebulous direct effects on actual life, one trickle-down effect of the unsociability thesis is something like the desire for or even assertion of a right to privacy, which I think can reasonably be characterized as "modern." But if man really is naturally sociable as Aristotle claimed, then he will never really be comfortable in the society erected on the presumption of his unsociability. This need not be expressed in any explicitly medieval way like Ren Fairs - we will simply grasp for others any which way, and some of these ways (drinking, smoking, dancing) will be more effective at satisfying our longings than others (internet trolling).

Withywindle said...

Where do we fit in Pufendorf and the sociability based on self-interest in this scheme?

Miss Self-Important said...

Post-Hobbesian reconciliation. I haven't gotten to Pufendorf yet; still mid-Grotius. There, the sociability and self-interest remain two separate and I think competing principles of human action.

hardlyb said...

In support of the idea that the present is always worse than the past, I offer the following observation by
Sextus Propertius: Every man now worships gold, all other reverence being done away.