Thursday, November 18, 2004

And now for something completely different...

Ah, good to see so many here with their critical apparatuses functioning. I hope to be able to say something insightful as we proceed, but for right now, I'm just enjoying stuff like this way too much:

So came the money in Gwyon's family: since he disapproved of table delicacies, an earlier Gwyon had set up an oatmeal factory and done quite well. Since his descendents disapproved of almost everything else except compound interest, the fortune had grown near immodest proportions, only now being whittled down to size. (p. 14)

Pardon me while I laugh like an idiot (which could also be the fault of the bourbon, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year Lot B, in case you're wondering).

But bear with me: after reading about the Town Carpenter telling young Wyatt stories of "figures like Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, and Prester John" (p. 31), I remembered a nifty little book called Serendipities, by Umberto Eco, which might be an interesting adjunct to TR, given that (as the jacket copy sez) it examines "layers of mistakes that have shaped human history."

Specifically, I'm thinking of the first essay in the book, titled "The Force of Falsity." Eco sez:

At this point, it can be said that, over the course of history, beliefs and affirmations that today's encyclopedia categorically denies have been given credence and indeed believed so completely as to subjugate the learned, generate and destroy empires, inspire poets (not always witnesses to the truth), and drive human beings to heroic sacrifices, intolerance, massacre, the quest for knowledge. If this is true, how can we not assert that a Force of the False exists?

(I'm just going to whistle past the graveyard on how this applies to current affairs.)

Anyway, here's part of the Prester John section of the essay, upon which my tenuous connection-making exists:

In the second half of the twelfth century a letter arrived in the West, telling how in the far-off East, beyond the regions occupied by the Mussulmen, beyond those lands the crusaders had tried to wrest from the dominion of the infidel only to see them returned to that same rule, there was a flourishing Christian region governed by a legendary priest John, or Presbyter Johannes, or Prester John....

[...Eco quotes letter at length, here's a site with a different but similar version]

In the course of the following centuries--until the seventeenth--translated and paraphrased many times into various languages and versions, the letter had a decisive importance in the expansion of the Christian West toward the Orient. The idea that beyond the Moslem territories there could be a Christian kingdom justified all ventures of expansion and exploration.


Where did Prester John's letter come from? What was its purpose? Perhaps it was a document of anti-Byzantine propaganda, produced in the scriptoria of Frederick I. But the problem is not so much its origin (fakes of every description were abundant at that time) as its reception. The geographical fantasy gradually generated a political project. In other words, the phantom called up by some scribe with a knack for counterfeiting documents (a highly respected literary activity of the period) served as an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia, a welcome argument favoring the white man's burden.

Interesting, no? I'm not sure how much resonance this has (or might have, going forward in the book), but I find Eco's essay mighty intriguing, especially now that we have the topics of copies and forgeries (the Force of the False) in the forefront.


Blogger DerikB said...

Thanks for that background, Rake. I never did get around to looking up old Prester John. The story itself and the uses to which it was put seem fairly typical of Christianity to me.

November 18, 2004 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Scott Esposito said...


You might find Eco's "Baudolino" interesting reading, since Baudolino, the main character, is exactly the scribe discussed in your quote. In Eco's books, Baudolino (the main character) and his friends create a fale letter from Prester John and bring it to the King so that they can be dispatched out to the East to find Prester John (whom they believe really exists).

In fact, "Baudolino" is all about forgeries, both in terms of artifacts and people. The book might be an interesting adjunct for anyone who wants to take on a 500-page novel in addition to out 950-page main book.

November 18, 2004 at 11:37 AM  
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