6 September 2009
Several times in this forum I have mentioned Kenneth Clark’s documentary Civilisation: A Personal View. I have a great admiration for his engagement with important ideas, and his willingness to be bluntly honest about this personal views, to admit his prejudices, and to simply say what he thinks. It is easy to get people to say what they think, but most opinions are not informed opinions. Recently on the Foundations of Mathematics listserv Allen Hazen wrote: “Moral, if there is one, is that intuitions have to be well-schooled. When one has studied set theory as deeply as Gödel did, or as Woodin has, one’s intuitions will start deserving respect.” Kenneth Clark has well-schooled views on civilization that deserve respect, although it is also important to point out that I disagree with a great many of his interpretations. What is valuable in an interpretation is not the selection of facts, of which any person familiar with the given area of study should know, but the way the facts are shown to hang together. Sometimes this can be challenging, as different people see the world hanging together in different ways. But it is the challenge that inspires us to think for ourselves.
Of the episodes in Clark’s documentary, my favorite is the first. In fact, I brought the DVD with me to Norway and re-watched part of it last night. The first episode is pregnant with much that deserves to be unfolded in detail, and it is here that Clark presents his most general, overarching theses on civilization, with which many I disagree. Clark begins his entire series by invoking the Vikings, employing the image of the prow of a Viking ship floating along the Seine, striking fear into the hearts of medieval Parisians. He returns to this image several times, and indeed later in the same episode stood in the same Vikingskipshuset that I visited today to showcase the marvelous Oseberg and Gokstad ships.
For Clark, the Vikings represent what is not civilization, and perhaps even the antithesis of civilization. I think it is fair to characterize his views in this way as he quite explicitly invokes the Vikings in order to contrast their life and their world with the life of civilization and the world of civilization. Well, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone from the British Islands has a low opinion of Vikings. After all, the Vikings pillaged, plundered, looted, killed, and took as slaves his ancestors. This is not the way to win friends, though it may well influence people.
Though Clark resists giving an explicit definition of civilization, he tells us that he knows it when he sees it. He sees civilization in the edifice of Notre Dame de Paris, and apparently does not see it in the Vikings. There are several places in the first episode that Clark comes perilously close to using civilization as a evaluative term, rather than a descriptive term, not only in his treatment of the Vikings, but also in the implied (though not stated) idea that the early Christians kept the flame of civilization dimly lit throughout the Dark Ages, so the Christianity comes to be implicitly identified with civilization.
One of the properties that Clark tells us is crucial to civilization is a feeling of permanence. He extends this to the moral and psychological elements of civilization, telling as that people have to believe that civilization is worth the effort, that people must believe in what they are doing. Clark presents the Viking ship as a symbol of impermanence and fluidity, invoking the truly fluid and beautiful carvings on the prow of the Oseberg ship. For Clark, then, the Viking ship is a motif of transience, and civilization must be about permanence, not transience, therefore the Vikings were not civilized.
Clark also says that the northern imagination takes shape in fear and darkness, and to illustrate this point he again invokes the Vikings, showing a magnificently carved animal head and contrasting this to the Apollo of the Belvedere from classical antiquity. Classical antiquity, he tells us, cultivated order, harmony, proportion, and a sense of permanence. How shall we understand Clark’s denial of Viking civilization? Firstly, Clark has an interesting and perhaps eccentric undefined definition of civilization, as later in the series he uses a Hogarth painting to explain why England at this time was not “civilized,” but I will not attempt to deal with that now. The point is that Clark’s conception is obviously subtle and nuanced, and civilization can be denied on a number of bases.
It is certainly true that the Vikings were all about mobility, and this is illustrated not only by their elegant and functional ships, but also by many of the grave goods on display in the Viking Ship Museum. There is, for example, a wonderful cooking pot that is as elegant and functional as the ships. One can see that it is designed so that the frame that holds the pot over a fire can be completely collapsed, though it easily folds out to form a stable tripod, and each leg of the tripod ends in a three-pronged talon that would bite into the ground. It would be difficult, more than a thousand years later, to design anything better. There was also a bed with beautiful dragon heads that could be completely disassembled, loaded on board a ship, and re-assembled at the next destination. What does this evidence other than a sense of order, harmony, and proportion, though it is the order, harmony, and proportion of the transient life? And what is life if not transient?
Thus Viking life and Viking technology were built around transience and predicated upon transience. They created a civilization of mobility, but a civilization nonetheless, for the Viking era produced a civilization of the mind that remains meaningful and moving today. One cannot honestly say, as Clark said of the exhausted Romans of late antiquity (echoing but not crediting Gilbert Murray’s matchless book Five Stages of Greek Religion with its famous failure of nerve thesis), that the Vikings had nothing to live for and that they saw no point in going on. On the contrary, the Vikings were deeply committed to their lives of plunder and rapine. It was, as I suggested yesterday in Art and Landscape, a way of life that naturally emerged from the geography of Norway.
We can say, as a matter of fact, that the Viking life gave way before the pressure of Christianization and the expanding medieval European economy and hence, by extension, way of life, but this is a separate historical phenomenon. Compare, for example, the nation-state system in our own time: just because every people has attempted to assimilate itself to the nation-state paradigm as the reigning political form of our time does not mean that these peoples were all intrinsically dissatisfied with a political order not based on the nation-state system. Similarly, the Vikings gave way before Christianity and medieval European kingdoms (the reigning political paradigm of that time), but that does not mean that the Vikings decided that they preferred to earn their bread by the sweat of their own brows when bread could be had for pillage.
It may well be what distinguishes the Vikings and the civilization of the mind they inhabited was their form of historical consciousness. I can imagine a Viking raider of the ninth or tenth century desiring that his transient life of raiding should go on forever. His view of history and of the world was not cyclical, as with most pre-modern peoples, and it was not strictly speaking a linear historical consciousness (though, as I have noted in From Islam to Iceland, Norse mythology is strikingly linear). Perhaps the Viking civilization of transience was predicated upon an historical consciousness of the eternal present, something such as I credited to classical antiquity and called the history of the eternal present (in From Islam to Iceland). But just as the order, harmony, and proportion of the Vikings was not that of classical antiquity, so the history of the eternal present of the Vikings was not that of classical antiquity.
Finally, about the claim that the northern imagination takes form in fear and darkness, which is connected to the claim of the frightening apparition that the Vikings would have been, with their carved animal heads and barbaric appearance: any people who live by the sword know that they can be more successful if they achieve shock and awe. Warlike peoples often knowingly cultivate a fearsome appearance, and this can go to the extent of living a known known by repute to be fearsome. In other words, the frightening Viking art may have been intentionally frightening. The Viking mind was not about fear; the Vikings played to the fear and the darkness in the minds of their victims.
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