Thursday, May 24, 2012

Understanding Henry Adams (if at all possible)

While the readings from Wednesday really incited much confusion and speculation within me as a whole, I was especially drawn to the pieces written by Henry Adams. Adams begin his account of Chartres on page 87 by saying that "no two men think alike" about the cathedral, which is ironic because even Adams' own thoughts on the cathedral do not appear to be cohesive with one another. Adams calls Chartres magnificent; yet, he simplifies the cathedral as well by saying on page 98, "There is nothing about the Chartres you would think you need note how symbolic and how simple the sculpture is...even what seems a grotesque or an abstract idea is no more than the simplest child's personification."

His contradictions even venture toward the Virgin herself. At first, on page 88 he says, “She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her son, who, at Chartres, is still an infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence final.” But then, on page 99, he says that Mary “troubled herself little with Theology.” He insults her feminine taste and equates her childlike disposition with the childishness of the cathedral.

How can he begin by revering the Mother so highly and then later insult her so greatly? Is he conflicted within himself? Or is there some underlying message within the text that I was missing?

During yesterday’s discussion, a point was made that one really does have to view Chartres with a childlike mind in order to fully appreciate it. A child’s viewpoint is that of awe and wonder, rather than the adult viewpoint of speculation and practicality. As Adams said, the American mind would be more concerned with how much money went into the construction of the cathedral, rather than reveling in the cathedral’s mystery and beauty. This made me wonder whether Adams’ referring to Chartres as something for our amusement is in fact a good thing. It seems as though when he visited Chartres himself he was so awestruck, so taken aback by the light and beauty within the cathedral, so overcome by the Virgin’s presence, that he felt like a child again. He said we must rid ourselves of the traditional idea that gothic architecture exhibits gloom and put ourselves in a childlike mindset to fully understand and appreciate the magnificence of Chartres. He says Mary’s first commands were for the cathedral to be full of light and of color, two aspects children would appreciate, and these two elements would have a harmonizing effect. To a childlike mind, the image of Chartres would be breathtaking.

But why not for a mature, adult mind? Would those with mature, logical minds only look at the cathedral for its value or architectural significance?

This is the point I think Adams may be trying to make. Viewing such a spiritual creation with a practical mindset will never give one pleasure in viewing that creation. I feel that when Adams visited Chartres, he was taken back into a state of childhood. He felt that this building was bigger, held more spiritual significance than another building built for architectural enjoyment. This was built out of devotion and love toward Mary, the endless, unconditional, unquestioning love of children. If we are to understand and appreciate anything spiritual, anything that is greater than human life itself, we cannot view it with skeptical minds. Instead, we must open up our hearts and minds like children do, feeling Mary’s presence within Chartres, and taking in all its majesty and beauty.



  1. Not unlike the author, I also find myself questioning what is precisely meant by James in his observational statement describing the place as childlike. I’m fascinated by the notion that the blogger presents in claiming that this mindset is one of “awe and wonder” rather than “speculation and practicality”. One of the seven gifts of the Spirit is notably fear of the Lord, more often referred to as wonder and awe. In this sense, we are meant to be aware of our own limitations and marvel at the beauty and infinite perfection of the Lord.

    The claim that “viewing such a spiritual creation with a practical mindset will never give one pleasure in viewing that creation” is a tricky one. I think this relates to the idea of cohesion that you bring up in mentioning that even James’ own perceptions about Chartres are not cohesive and unitary. I think there is something to be said about the multi-faceted means to develop increased understanding. Perhaps strict logic and maturation prevents us from marveling in the manner that a child might, but it also can lead to a new sense of appreciation and understanding. Perhaps working through and permitting such contradictions to coincide can be formative exercises.

    - LCM

  2. I really like the way that you have worked this out, though you may be imputing the *effect* Adams felt to his *intention* in writing about Chartres. But Adams’ intentions aside, your idea that one must *approach* Chartres with a childlike mind is evocative and perhaps precisely appropriate.

    You write: “How can he begin by revering the Mother so highly and then later insult her so greatly? Is he conflicted within himself? Or is there some underlying message within the text that I was missing?” Adams’ writings both contain contradictions and some stylistic elements that can make them difficult to understand. I would suggest that when he is “revering” Mary, he is attempting to explain how she was understood “in her time” (which is precisely to the point; he wants to present Chartres and “Mary’s time” as an “other” time, which was bygone. But he is also (in my view) “conflicted within himself.” This encounter has created a “disquiet” in him that he must translate into terms that militate against something like cognitive dissonance.

    Would you agree that Adams gives us an appropriate way of approaching the Virgin and Marian devotion through Chartres despite himself?


  3. I too wondered if there was some way we could rehabilitate Adams' invocation of "childishness" in order to understand his reading of Chartres and the experiences of "modernity", but the more I think about it, the more muddled I become. If he associates maturity of thought with logical, skeptical, and above all, pecuniary thinking, how does this not bring his argument down upon itself? When confronted with a building that is so immense, so lovely, so awe inspiring, he tells his readers to revert to a state in which they were able to appreciate rather than deconstruct and criticize--childhood (this itself might be a 19th century quagmire, for the idea of the imaginative and trusting child bears little resemblance to precocious and critical children of my acquaintance). But this seems to resurrect that other topos of 19th century thought about the medieval mindset-- feeling, rather than reason. Yes, we feel awe in the presence of monumental architecture, and perhaps a similar sense of awe in the face of the divine inspired it. But could not one, even a rational 19th century American thinker obsessed with cost and efficiency, see a building like Chartres, acknowledge the immense cost of time and money, not to mention sophisticated architecture and engineering, and see in that evidence of a highly reasoned devotion? He seems, ultimately, to see it as a child misspending an allowance.

    I had a very hard time with the Adams reading, because I had the sense the whole time of someone setting up a straw-man. I felt that he was entering into his readers (presumed) perspective, and preparing to overturn it, and yet the straw-man was in the end intact (although maybe if we continued to read about his reaction to the World's Fair, he might have made a connection to the feeling of awe and seeking a "modern" mysticism there?). I agree that he seemed to be of two minds, and I had hoped that in some incisive moment, he would point out the absurdity of describing the sculptural symbolism as reductive and childlike, of calling upon his readers to enter a childlike state in order to appreciate a mysticism that is now dead, while asserting that there is in fact nothing abstract or confusing to be seen.


    1. Great comment, JLST. You have some really fantastic turns of phrase here that explain some of the difficulties in Adams and modernity more generally.

      You show that, despite avowals to the contrary, the problems in Adams lie with modernity, not the Middle Ages.

  4. Upon meditating on Adams’ critique on the Medieval tradition of Mary and on his own modern take on her, I cam to ask what is wrong with this rejection of tradition? Is it wrong to see Mary in such radically new and modern terms? Should Mary be kept pure and crystallized in her traditional original form? How far is too far?
    Inevitably, her image with change and perhaps this is best for accessibility to her devotees. We are stuck in our modern lens, and it may in fact be impossible to separate our modern context from our view of Mary. Maybe it is important that we update her in whatever way that makes her as comprehensible to us as possible and thus enable us to devote ourselves to her and, through her God as best we can.
    However, this can go awry. I think a problem arises, not when we update Mary, for evolution is not necessarily bad, but when we discredit and belittle tradition. It is simply ignorant to call the Medieval Marian tradition childish. And to totally reject this and all pre-modern canons of devotion is to reject all of Mary’s past. Maybe Mary should not be kept in the middle ages, but this does mean that we should ignore this aspect of the life of Marian devotion. This also does not mean that we should box her away as they did in the Vatican’s Lumen Gentium proclamation and reduce her role to simply a servant of God and another member of the church. This is yet another denial of tradition.
    So where does this leave us? I think that it is naïve to think that Marian devotion will not grow and that certain aspects of if will not be lost along the way. And I do not think that this is bad either. Adaption is a necessary part of life and this is no different for Mary. But perhaps it boils down to respect: respect for the past and respect for the development that Mary has undergone, in its entirety.


  5. "I feel that when Adams visited Chartres, he was taken back into a state of childhood." This, for me, is precisely the problem: the only way that Adams thinks (feels?) that he can experience (allow himself to experience?) Chartres as its builders intended is to imagine himself feeling as (he imagines) a child would feel. But this in itself is a modern conceit: that feelings of religious awe, rather than being something cultivated, learned, or mature, are rather "regressions" to an "infantile" state, more expressive of immaturity than complex theological understanding. I think that you are also right to point to the contradictions that Adams seems to have felt in encountering Chartres and the feelings (thoughts?) that it called forth in him: he senses something in the architecture, but the only labels that he has for it ("wonder," "awe," "magnificence") have to do (in his mind) with children. Our question: is this the builders' failing--or his?


    1. Dear SS,
      I too felt the tensions pressing against each other in Adams' piece, which seem or threaten to break out into contradictions. As you pointed out, he is trying to distinguish always this from that. The Mary of Majesty, Regina Coeli, from the Mary which Rome found comfortable (93); the “emotion” of Bernard contraposed to labyrinthine scholasticism (90-91); the ‘contradictions’ with which ‘metaphysical Theology’ is full against the unconscious ways of men’s mind, including the ‘latent scepticism’ of that Theology (94-95) – these are just examples of such tensions or contrapositions Adams found in the world of mediaeval Chartres.
      I generally found Adams a charming and enjoyable writer and his descriptions of the child-likeness or simplicity of a child no less charming. At the same time, they are rather discomfiting for precisely the reasons that RLFB brings out: Adams praises the simplistic child-likeness of Chartrean Mary cult because it renders it innocuous as well as charming to our ears (well-noted by JLST as bringing in the “19th century quagmire” of Romanticism idea of childhood and its inherent opposition to serious, dull, ‘adulthood’). If the living spirit of Mary with her people, in child-like awe, is absent, Adams seemed to indicate, the church edifice is “dead-born (101-102).”
      On this last comment, I detected what had been bothering me in Adams’ piece, namely, the almost complete absence of discussion of Chartres as a locus of and for the liturgy. He treats it, as far as we read, as abstract art, which can be enjoyed and, apparently was enjoyed, by the people, who happened to be there praying. It is the artistic representation of finite humanity’s struggle with the infinite (103), akin to the deep emotion of Bernard (90), the result of the architect’s struggle in his design and among his squabbling, demanding patrons (168-169), and as true art: “It was very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful and very true, - as art, at least: - so true that everything else shades off into vulgarity…” (186).
      I suggest that Adams’ insightful and charming text, with its attempt to appreciate Mary and Chartres as innocuous monuments to a past sense of religious child-hood, is the thought not of a genuine appreciator, but of an aesthete. Writing only fourteen years after Adams (1904), Romano Guardini - a leader to the liturgical movement (to which Ratzinger referred in his “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine…”) – strongly opposed the attempt to appreciate the liturgy and its art from vantage of the outside aesthete:
      “It is an incontrovertible proposition that people who consider a work of art merely from the artistic point of view do it an injustice. Its significance as a composition can only be fully estimated when it is viewed in connection with the whole of life. …Deadly destructive to the work of art, however, is the purely artistic perception of the aesthete [such as Oscar Wilde]. …Aesthetes are everywhere looked upon as unwelcome guests, as drones and as parasites sponging on life, but nowhere are they more deserving of anger and contempt than in the sphere of sacred things. The careworn man…, the busy woman…, the many people… all these penetrate far more deeply into the essence of the liturgy than does the connoisseur who is busy savoring the [beauty of the pieces as art].” [Romano Guardini, Spirit of the Liturgy, 1918; ]

    2. Without trying to claim that the medieval world exhibited a harmonious synthesis of all things or diminishing the real tensions and conflicts it experienced, I believe the strange, discomfiting tensions and contradictions Adams’ portrayed arise from his attempt at splitting the acceptable from the unacceptable, the childlike beauty and emotion from, say, the “old thicket of ignorance” (389) of other medieval aspects, chiefly though, the forgetfulness of Mary as liturgical agent (be it in mass or hourly office, private regime or personal devotion).
      Once we restore Mary to her liturgical center in Chartres, among other places, we then take another avenue into Adams’ language of the child-hood aspect. For, despite, Guardini’s very harsh words against a superficial, aesthetic approach, he and Adams do converge on the playfulness of the cult and of liturgy in general. Adams’ idea of Chartres as “toy-house” (88) to please the Queen is not so far from Guardini’s view of the serious play of the liturgy:
      “But this has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art--it has no purpose, but it is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God's sight--not to create, but to exist--such is the essence of the liturgy.” (Spirit, )