Time for a book review!
The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance is a really excellent book and it’s one of the rare works which is as valuable in the narrative it presents as much as it picks and chooses it’s citations.
I had a difficult time reading the book. The book is thick, but in the information density sort of way. The writing itself only stands at 263 pages, with the last 30 pages being devoted to notes and citations. This is where the book is amazing – the citations alone could propel someone into spending a year reading this book. The few months I spent reading it were made in short bursts of progress. Godwin would mention a topic or person who I wasn’t familiar with, I would flip into the notes and citations, and find that a week had gone by between reading those references and making progress in the book. In this way the book is delightful to read, and spending time picking through all the byways and forks in the road will lead the reader on a fantastic, meandering journey.
The other side of that coin is the book can be dry, and it seems to show when the author becomes bored of a topic. Another factor is the prints of art referenced in the book are only in black and white for their reproductions. A pet peeve of mine is a book on art which refuses to use full color prints, and instead we have been left with small reproductions in the marginalia of the pages. While on the topic of European gardens this might be barely acceptable, this format does not do justice to either the size nor color of the works it references. It would be a bit like visiting an art museum with sunglasses on – and this is the hardcover edition of the book. On the subject of Godwin’s writing – there’s three distinct phases to the book. The first third is filled with enthusiasm, and the next third wanes a bit and tapers off towards the end. Godwin seems to almost disagree with what he’s writing and I actually flipped to the end of the book to see if the bit with “satyrs gendered gaze” was written by a different person. My speculation is that the topic was broad enough to be notable but otherwise underrepresented in art. Finally the last third which we can think of as the end of the renaissance is treated with an almost clinical tone. The fire is definitely in the first half of the book. It is important, however, to read the entire book as this is critical to the expression of Godwins ideas.
Godwin’s narrative is paraphrased with the idea that paganism survived by the wealthy, and that Christianity itself has an uneasy relationship with the “default religion” being a latecomer to Europe. He says that Pagans generally treated Christianity as Yet Another Mystery Religion, viewing it through the lens of “the mysteries are presented through the interpretation of this particular temple”. There would be Bacchanal mysteries, presented by the Temple of Bacchus, and so on. Establishing the providence of these temples occupies the middle of the book, while the first part deals with antiquity. Following Christianity’s introduction to Europe, it has to establish itself. It has a duty to establish itself, because rather than presenting the mysteries (speaking from a Christian perspective), it claims to be the infallible word of God himself made flesh. This is viewed to the pagans as a boast, at best, but to the Christians it is the fulcrum of their faith. In this way, the pagans are tolerant and accepting of Jesus sitting at the High Table, but the Christians have to have the pagan Gods destroyed and pushed aside. While not discussed in depth in the book, this is how Christianity became more of a political force in Europe than a religion per se.
Who dabbles in politics, and has a court and land? The well-to-dos of the period. What we know about Paganism isn’t the passed on stories making a cohesive tapestry from the common folks, but the things which people left behind. The common person of the age was spent carving out what life they could from the earth, and couldn’t read or write, let alone paint. Sure we have stories and snippets of folklore passed along, but the narrative of the book draws from the art, and producing art was the equivalent of the space program in the 14th century. Art called for brushes, which are hard to make, inks which have all sorts of secret ingredients and processes, and the most precious resource in an age without electric light – time. All those things cost money, and so the art naturally followed around the rich, and the rich had painted what they desired to see and meditate upon. In this way we can tell that not only was paganism (as we call it today) alive and well in Europe but that the wealth of pagan art speaks to the legitimacy of the belief among the Europeans. In fact this was so prevalent in the fabric of social life in Europe that this art was oftentimes displayed in the public spaces, and not just limited to the private retreats of the wealthy.
The “modern pagan chapter” starts late in the book as “Garden Magic”. Here, Godwin thankfully retains the classical eye that such places were meant to inspire awe, and then contemplation, and we come full circle from curated temples of glowing marble to gardens built for such purposes too. Here also an important thing happens: Machinery is brought in to help inspire that awe. Imagine, if you were someone in the 13th century with no knowledge of machines as you know them now, who witnessed water jumping and playing music as it moved. It would be reasonable to assume that the water was somehow enchanted and bewitched. Now imagine that you’re someone who was wealthy, and that you might even have overseen the construction of the water organ itself. It would inspire you to consider the limitless supply of water out of the spring, and why the area was special, perhaps even blessed by the Gods and pleasing them that you’ve made a marvel out of their natural offering. This play, this theme of “switching places” happens throughout the book. The well to do and the makers of the age see fit to sanctify the natural world by creating inspiring works. Those living close to the springs instead see the supernatural qualities of the place and their thoughts are elevated towards the organization of a universe which has been shaped by the Gods. Their springs have now been imbued with hidden qualities and magic. This is not a lie in either case – the well-to-do depend on the spring for their works and inspiration as much as those living close to the land do for their daily sustenance. They both share the essential worship of the spring – they both revere the spring for the water it gives. There is a positive re-enforcement here where the well to do make altars and Gods out of the spring to honor those Gods, and the close to the land folks worship there and draw inspiration from this public art. The natural grottos and places of worship of Rome and Greece never left.
Fast forwarding to the end of the book at “Versailles, and after” serves as a warning to those who would remove the reverence of the Gods for their own decadence. The people who corrupted Europe ultimately did so because they put their own gratification above their relationship to the Gods. To them, the water organ was simply an organ. They indulged their hedonism and forgot to honor the Gods of the place. By discarding their reverence and profaning art – making art and science and building things into goals unto themselves (consumerism) – they fell to hedonism and debauchery. They deprived things of their natural dignities. Here enters Rene Guenon and Julius Evola. Quite a fast forward in a single chapter, but this contributed to my opinion that Godwin ultimately got bored writing the book. Both of them realize that Europe and Americas are hedonistic and decadent and hold nothing as Holy. Its easy to become depressed about such things when living through the first two world wars, but even while the politicians and wealthy are stirring the fires of war – they realize that even art has become enslaved to propaganda. Beauty has no longer been a product of inspiration, and philosophy, and mysticism, it has fallen to the service of manipulation. Both of them drop out of society and write sharp tracts against the modern world. Ultimately both of them realize the problem is internal, and that by forgetting the Gods, humanity has become selfish and blind. Guenon would eventually go on to adopt a sort of Islamic mysticism, while Evola found comfort in an inward journey which sits much more comfortably in modern mystic practices. Both of them spoke of Nietzsche’s “overman” idea but realized it came from much older sources in hinduism and mystic ideas. However, much in the same way Christianity came to Europe and had to become Pagan-esque to find any foothold at all, Nietzsche, Evola, and Guenon essentially “rediscover” a value which was there all along. Their upbringings in society had blinded them to these essential truths.
Godwin ends with “We can contemplate the Christian myths as well as the Pagan ones, and appreciate the values each has brought to the world. We are free to believe, or not to believe, in any of them. And this is to say nothing of the non-European cultures whose legacies are spread out before us. Yet in gratitude for this plenum, this superfluity of the past and the overwhelming superiority of its treasures, we may sometimes wonder what we will leave to our descendants, five hundred years from now. Are we creating anything of lasting value, or are we, for all our material success, mere spiritual parasites living off the capital of our ancestors? What is todays equivalent of the pagan dream, what riches of the imaginal world are we revealing for the future delectation of our kind?”