“What was the question? I was looking at the big sky.”

The past is a foreign country—and, as David Brooks has discovered, they don’t hold presidential elections there. The New York Times columnist recently read an essay about C.S. Lewis and the medieval view of the cosmos and became rather fond of it. Imagining the world through medieval eyes is, Brooks claims, a “refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool” after covering politics for more than a year:

There’s something about obsessing about a campaign—or probably a legal case or a business deal—that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties. Campaigns are all about message management, polls and tactics. The communication is swift, Blackberry-sized and prosaic. As you cover it, you feel yourself enclosed in its tunnel. Entire mental faculties go unused. Ward’s essay has been a constant reminder of that other mental universe.

It’s a pleasure to see a political columnist, someone who’s immersed in the dreary ephemera of campaign journalism, pause to contemplate a subject as profound as conflicting views of the heavens across the centuries. It’s also gratifying to see an op-ed writer acknowledge that medieval people were not mental primitives, but that they may in fact have made better use than we do of certain mental faculties.

Unfortunately, Brooks stops short of neo-medievalist epiphany:

The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

Notice his last-minute change of heart: what has been a “constant” reminder of the medieval world will, in the end, only be useful to him “from time to time”—and then only as a form of escapism.

Brooks’ cheerful hesitance reminds me of some of the students I’ve met. Happy students tend to fall into two camps: the friendly, chatty souls who chirp “fun class!” as they hand in their finals and forget what they’ve read; and their more serious classmates, the ones who know that having been amused or distracted for fourteen evenings is hardly enough, the folks who hearten me by emphasizing, when they say goodbye, how much they learned during the semester. Most of them will never be medievalists, but a tiny piece of the Middle Ages—a character, a stand-out scene, a piece of historical context, a few lines of life-changing poetry—will always be a part of them.

In his column, Brooks demonstrates that he’s willing to ponder a new notion, turn it over a few times, and marvel at the alien beauty of a mindset other than the modern. But he’s reluctant to make that more audacious leap, the one that requires him to return to the present with what he’s learned in the hope of seeing the modern world anew. The Michael Ward essay clearly dazzled him, but the resulting aesthetic and intellectual experience remains a novelty he can’t or won’t internalize. Medieval history, he implies, will not enhance his analysis of polling data, inform his ruminations on current trends, or alter his understanding of social dynamics; it’s simply a distraction. Like students who are so happy to be entertained that they can’t be bothered to think a little harder, Brooks is denying himself, after 15 months on the campaign trail, what more political writers surely need: a fresh, overwhelming perspective.

4 thoughts on ““What was the question? I was looking at the big sky.”

  1. Karl: Thanks! Glad to have you as a reader.

    Dave: Thanks for that link. I’m surprised to see so much foaming at the mouth in those responses: partisan griping, misreading escapism for nostalgia, unoriginal use of “medieval” as an epithet…

    Even though I think Brooks should treat studying the past as a more profound diversion than, say, reading a novel or playing a friendly game of golf, I wish more pundits were as willing as he was (at least in that one column) to step back from the election-year pronouncements of technocrats and gain a little perspective. One might argue that campaign analysts and political junkies perceive and interpret their own universe of figures, portents, and signs with a religiosity and aptitude for abstraction that are, in their own way, rather “medieval.”


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