"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 21, 2016

In Praise of Oubliance

It was some 20 years ago, through a combination of reading Alasdair MacIntyre and William Cavanaugh, that I came to realize how much the structures of modernity are hidden from us, how much the liberalism of modern nation-states disguises itself as a neutral mechanism for the pursuit of competing visions of the good life--if, indeed, there even is such a thing as a good life, on which liberalism purports to take no position, though of course it does. Liberalism created, or certainly made more acute and problematic, the categories of "secular" and "sacred" and in so doing pretended to the former state while also privatizing and attempting to control the latter. Thus the ringing declaration of John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason"Once, there was no 'secular'."

In light of Milbank, Cavanaugh, and MacIntyre, it became obvious to me that the idea of "religion" is also a modern construct designed, in part, to try to domesticate and control transcendence, and also to disguise the theological claims made by "secularists." Cavanaugh's article "A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: the Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State" was pivotal here in pulling the mask off and showing that the post-Reformation "religious" conflicts that devastated parts of Europe were, in fact, much more properly considered as the bloody birth of the nation-state. He would develop this argument in much greater detail in his extremely valuable 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. 

I mention all this to sketch the context for considering a new book by Andrea Frisch, Forgetting Differences: Tragedy, Historiography, and the French Wars of Religion (Edinburgh, 2015), 208pp.

About this book we are told:
This study argues that the political and legislative process of forgetting internal differences, undertaken in France after the civil wars of the sixteenth century, leads to subtle yet fundamental shifts in the broader conception of the relationship between readers or spectators on the one hand, and the matter of history, on the other. These shifts, occasioned by the desire for communal reconciliation and generally associated with an increasingly modern sensibility, will nonetheless prove useful to the ideologies of cultural and political absolutism.
By juxtaposing representations of the French civil war past as they appear (and frequently overlap) in historiography and tragedy from 1550-1630, Andrea Frisch tracks changes in the ways in which history and tragedy sought to 'move' readers throughout the period of the wars and in their wake. The book shows that a shift from a politically (and martially) active reading of the past to a primarily affective one follows the imperative, so clear and urgent at the turn of the seventeenth century, to put an end to violent conflict. The emotions that neoclassical tragedy and absolutist historiography sought to elicit were intended above all to be shared, and thus a medium via which political and religious differences could be downplayed or forgotten. The book aims to illuminate some of the ways in which the experience of the wars of religion, as registered in tragedy and historiography, contributed to a restructuring of the ever-vital relationship between emotion and politics, and thereby to historicize the very concept of 'esmouvoir'.
The book begins by asking what difference the Edict of Nantes made to French historiography and history more generally--what, that is, was different after the edict called for the deliberate "forgetting" of the events that had taken place up to the start of Henri IV's reign: depuis le commencement du mois de mars mil cinq cens quatre vingtz cinq jusques à nostre avenement à la couronne. Thus the edict begins what Frisch calls a politics and a policy of oubliance, calling for a deliberate forgetting of the previous Catholic-Protestant conflict, which is to be regarded as estaincte et assoupie, comme de chose non advenue.

The author notes that the effect of a policy of oubliance was "overwhelmingly negative" on French theatre, literature, and other areas. She notes, further, that there were differences in how oubliance was understood theologically by Catholics and Calvinists.

From here much of her book becomes very narrowly focused on the effects of this policy in French theatre and literature. But to my mind there is room to consider the utility of something like a new edict of Nantes today in such seemingly intractable conflicts of Eastern Christian historical memory as the Union of Brest and the Pseudo-Sobor of Lviv of 1946, about which more another time.

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