Realism – Realities III

Caravaggio may have also indirectly reflected on another dimension: the two people, kneeling at the feet of saint are obviously poor, really poor. Although the two are not obviously threatened by absolute pauperism, not threatened by final misery, they are not in this situation by free decision. If we take the term poverty in its true meaning we would surely say: nobody will choose to live in poverty. But at the time this had been an issue of a different concern. At the outset it has to be recognised that we find different strands and attitudes going together. In other words, the picture is by no means homogenous, without conflicts.

At least the following basic lines have to be distinguished.

We may start with the one that is possibly most known – although it is quantitatively not necessarily the most relevant.

‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff,’ Christ had commanded his apostles. He had sternly warned, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter into the kingdom of God.’ And he had instructed one of the faithful, who had asked what he needed to do to live the most holy sort of life, ‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’

(Bailey, Michael D., 2003: Religious Poverty, Mendicancy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages; in: Church History; Vol 72.3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 457-483; here: 457; with reference: Mathew 10:9-10, 19:10, 19:24, and 19:21 respectively; quotes taken from the New Revised Standard Version)

It is surely remarkable that this is actually not about poverty in the strict terms. Instead it is about modesty characterised by two moments: (i) a fundamental material security and the satisfaction of basic needs; and (ii) the obligation to share. Interestingly we find a rejection of poverty:

and give your money to the poor

In actual fact one may well say that the emphasis is on modesty not as matter of material standards but of some genuine integrity – a topic that goes through history as one of the standard themes. And indeed, it is a controversy about paradigms but even more so a controversy about life style – and paradoxically: although it is fundamentally a controversy about the mode of production it is in actual fact usually only recognised as matter of “values”. – This is well reflected in the recent section – the contemplation that questioned realism to the extent as it had not been an approach to real reality, at most only dealing with reproduction and the sphere of circulation.

Today’s occasional attractiveness may well be due to the fact that the secular development is characterised by a more or less huge step: a development of further alienation with the emerging mode of production, presented earlier as Gates-Jobsian shift emerging from the undefined polyphonic post-Fordism.

In the occasional discussion of the emerging new mode of production it had been also mentioned that cooperative aspects may play a new role, with this also changing the “what” of the productive process. In this light, Augustinian claims appear at least as in some way as attractive.

Allowing some liberty in the interpretation one may say that it had been Calvin (1509–1564) who translated this into the Protestant ethics: the orientation on sacrifice in this world as price for the place in the other world. But the this-worldly purgatory had not primarily been the simple life, but man’s sturdy labour

… in the sweat of his brow ..

Of course, the indulgence in luxury had been seen as problematic. The option of legitimising personal indulgence by claiming to return the appropriated surplus in form of the work of arts back to the community – this had been the justification the Medici and their contemporaries claimed – had not been accepted anymore.

The new orientation emphasises the good-doing as central concern of the conduct of life. In this light, the approach of the ruling elite of the Renaissance may be seen as a very egoistic and even hedonist overcoming of the catholic conduct of life and the initiation of what should later become the protestant display of benevolence by which mercy had been substituted.

This leads us to the second feature of vital importance. The distinction between deserving and non-deserving poor. We may say that this move had been not anything else than the answer of the time to the need of the time: the deserving poor had been those who had been confronted with adverse living conditions and, despite all efforts, did not find on their own behalf and means a way out. It is important to recognise that these two conditions had been underlying the deserving poor. The undeserving poor had been the scamps: the situation they faced had been (seen as) self-inflicted and moreover it had been said that they did not show any regret: once rascal – rascal forever. Being seen as standing completely outside of the bonum commune and thus not considered being worth to gain sympathy, respect let alone that they deserved in the eyes of the hegemons of the time any support. This allowed finding an answer to the fact that poverty had been increasingly a mass-phenomenon. With some respect we see a “quartering” of the poor – and with some justification this can be even maintained until today, though with different qualitative meaning and emphasis.

* The first group consists of those who are the “holy” or “blessed” poor – those who live voluntarily a life in extreme modesty, not showing any interest in profane affluence.
Ora, non labora . – They could do so as their monkish existence actually secured a live that was free from any hardship.

* The second group brings together the deserving poor – an image of consecrated life, though not voluntarily entered. Help, support should allow them to return on the right way: a life in humility, but more importantly life as self-abandonment in work. Ora et maxime labora.

* The third group is the group of those who are the non-deserving poor, punished or not. If they had been lucky enough they could lead a hidden life: finding some alms despite the fact that begging had been illegalised, despite their major, finding casual work as they those who had been really lazy, real scamps had been the exception. But most of them did not: the workhouses had been meant for them. Vos operari, nos orare. Although this will come along as cynical, for these people the superintendence by god had been replaced by the supervision coming from the new rulers. This found its most extreme version in the panopticon. The lengthy title of the work is presented by Bentham in 1787:

A Series of Letters reads Panopticon; or The Inspection-House: Containing the Idea of a New Principle of Construction Applicable to Any Sort of Establishment, in which Persons of Any Description are to be Kept Under Inspection; And in Particular to Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, and Schools.

It can surely be seen as a little history on the close connections of different forms of social integration and their deformation.

– Is it pure prevalence that it had been invented at the very same time as the Principle of the Greatest Happiness for All[1] appears on the stage of political-economy? And is it pure incidence in the connection of both the same name comes up: Jeremy Bentham?

And we easily overlook that this had been actually the “friendly”, the “humane” way of treating them. A fourth group consists of those who had been seriously punished in addition to the punishment of being destitute. The condemned poor.

They had been outside of the world of praying and even outside of the world of working.

They had been in some way even outside of life – if not in any other way than at least by way of the total exclusion from society. Outside of society: condemned in a cell as in Munkácsy Mihály’s work.

A guard is apparently not needed anymore – hidden, nearly invisible. Invisible and perhaps even inexistent as the introversion which in actual fact as indifference. Similar to the monkish poor external objects do not count anymore. They do not have even the meaning of personal history, former appraisal: Do we see the bible on the floor, tattered, ignored like the dish? Do we already see the condemned person fading away, being absorbed by the table – the white tablecloth merging with the sleeve of the white shirt? Do we see such a deep resignation that doesn’t even allow thinking about the “from where” and the “to where”? Do we see how the vest merges with the wall – the colours nearly matching each other? At least we may ask that question in which the condemned does not show any interested: Is he possibly a wall on which the top of society, its roof is erected? Is he possible the table that is carrying the burden? If so, now after having fulfilled the role as a living human being there still remains a role to be filled: that of the scapegoat as we saw it earlier in The Scamp of the Village or Night Wanderers.

All this is for the condemned apparently not of any interest anymore. But the viewer may feel urged to ask: to be or not to be, a question that is easily translated for many into the question of “Who am I? How can I define myself – and how do I define myself within the framework that is given to me?” – And the question is surely especially devastating, nihilist for the explicitly condemned existence.

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In this respect an interesting perspective unfolds in front of us when we look a little bit more into Munkácsy Mihály’s work. We just looked at his painting of the Condemned Cell. But – if in the spirit of the artist or not – we can draw a line:

Already earlier we saw the The Scamp of the Village or Night Wanderers.

The condemnation – although the title of the painting speaks of The Condemned.

The Condemned then in his cell – as just looked at in the painting introducing this series: the final exclusion, the rule of two walls. The guard turning his back to the condemned, the condemned himself turning away from the world.

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Looking at poverty, four different kinds of poverty had been outlined: the ‘holy poor’, the ‘deserving poor’, the ‘un-deserving poor’ and the ‘condemned’.

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Finally there may be a “life-philosophical” or “trivial-philosophical” perspective coming into play: the confrontation with the fact that we are all in danger of being in some way condemned: not as consequence of our deeds, not in consequence of social reputation but as fact of nature’s capers. Milton being one of them – his Paradise Lost being also a personal matter: the loss of his eyesight. Gesture, expression, posture are surely not entirely distant from that of the condemned in his cell. Looking into his face in detail we see more – in some ways we see what the blind man is still able to see.

Just the inside, follow the introversion: being thrown back on ourselves. Whatever these conditions are, how different the conditions and ways had been for Milton and for any other who is condemned: in this worlds terms they are finally both facing their Golgatha.

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Space – looking back at William Mulready’s Seven Ages of Man – emerged now as well as historical time, opening up as multidimensional time. This had been generations as distinct units, replacing the firm grip of what we tend to call communities. And it found its replication on the social level as matter of different time frames – also time frames with each having a different meaning. Fernand Braudel, we may recall, speaks of three frames. Quoting my own forthcoming work

Time gains a new meaning insofar as it has to be made part of considerations in its meaning of a (très) longue durée. Instead, time is meaningful, not as a matter of historical consciousness, but as part of immediate practice – histoire événementielle interwoven with and welding with the longue durée and vice versa.

(Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Do We Really Need Human Rights?; in: From Big Bang to Global Civilization: A Big History Anthology; ed. by Barry Rodrigue et altera: University of California Press)

We can briefly look back at the painting by William Mulready, take a somewhat schematic view to detect clearer the historical perspective which had been to some extent already explored at the earlier occasion.

  1. the general historical development (“civilisation”)
  2. the specifically economic development (from “medieval knighthood” to “developed agriculture” to “trade” [mind the pillars as repercussion of classicism])
  3. the replication of the secular development in the existence of the individual (including the delicately captured movement between raise and fall)
  4. the eternal hope (freedom between indetermination and the move to open natural [=genuine] space (a) and love (b) respectively
  5. the permanence of institutionalised, reified power

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With this, two other openings had been put before us:

  • The social as distinct era
  • The spaces for defining meaning – and even allowing us to ask if there is meaning at all. If we follow Ludovico Vives we are guided to the vis vegetativa (Vives, Ludovico, 1555: de anima et vita, Lyon, 1555: 11; in Borkenau, op.cit. 76). Franz Borkenau points out that we are dealing with a hugely consequential matter, contending:

Ficino saw these cravings and the circular flow determined by god as centre of attraction. But now this is not seen as valid anymore. These cravings do not have the hidden meaning of leading to god; the centre of the circle is not anymore god. Moreover this circulation of the living does not have any centre of meaning anymore. It is the circulation of rise and decay, without inherent meaning.

(Borkenau: 76)

Doesn’t here Milton’s face, and also the face of the condemned poor show up again: both being confronted with the fact of an inescapable end, a space without any given scaffold that can be seen as eternal meaning.

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This is, for us today, a move that we can hardly understand in its fundamentally revolutionary character. Sure, we may ask ourselves occasionally this question: Why do we do all this? Why don’t we just stay home …? But the answer is probably rather simple. Having once obtained the tools for deconstructing the world, we have to go simultaneously two ways: the way of further deconstruction and the way of permanent construction.


[1] The phrase is frequently attributed to Jeremy Bentham though it had actually in these words by been spelled out by John Stuart Mills. However, the meaning is probably expressed in its clearest way in 1789 by Bentham in Chapter one on The Principle of Utility in the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

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