Friday, June 16, 2006

Pearl Poet: William F. Klein's Review of Condren

Logo Borrowed from:
The Medieval Institute College of Arts and Sciences
University of Michigan Library

Thanks to Ian Myles Slater for pointing the way to The Medieval Review, which offers a free online review of Condren's book by William F. Klein, of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. For the ignorant among us (and that includes me), Ian helpfully adds:
For those not familiar with it, TMR, formerly Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, is "a moderated distribution list," run by and for medievalists. It offers a searchable collection of reviews going back to 1993.

I didn't know all that, but as my older brother, Pat, once remarked to me in a well-honed putdown, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." This applies in spades to my knowledge of Medieval numerology.

Klein's review is useful not because he shows that Condren is right or wrong, for he admits: "That his analysis is sound I cannot claim or argue. His book will have to make its own way in the world." But he is impressed enough to add: "At this point we must give Condren the benefit of our doubt." Why is Klein willing to do this? Because he believes "that Condren's study of the manuscript does in fact display a structural design that cannot be other than utterly intentional and that everyone who would like to claim knowledge of the manuscript and the poems should read his book."

I'll leave Klein's review to my readers to read, but I would like to quote here Klein's quote of Condren's own "Afterword":

The implications of the highly wrought strategy we have been discussing, in which mathematics serves as a revealing analogue to metaphysical matters, might be stated in various ways depending on the context one wishes to emphasize. To a mathematician the conversion of a measuring system based on fours into a system based on fives requires the magic of an irrational number that leads to infinity if applied repeatedly. To a medieval theologian the New Law expands and enriches the Old Law through the advent of Christ, whose teaching, if continuously applied, in turn translates the New into eternal salvation. To a poet there is little difference, for his epiphany comes in recognizing the parallel between mathematics and theology and in realizing poetry's power to make palpable what otherwise would be ineffable. Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have a foot in both the four cornered world and the world that supersedes it. The duodecimal basis of the former, the four fitts of the latter, and the worldly concerns of both suggest the sphere of Purity and Patience. The 5 square prime number of stanzas in both Pearl and Gawain, the fifth Platonic solid suggested by the former, and the latter's pentangular emblem, five-line bob-and-wheel, and power of regeneration imply the abode of the Pearl maiden. Above it all lies the manuscript's astonishing representation of elegant coherence. The profound congruence of the universe with man's theological and moral concerns, and with all that lies on his too-much-loved earth, unfolds before us with subtle simplicity. The disciplines of the quadrivium--arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy--have been drawing their lines unwaveringly toward the judgment on which will depend the eternity, not only of the characters described in its lines, but also on every reader humbled by this manuscripts exquisite beauty. ( Edward I. Condren, The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet: Beyond Phi, page 147)

This certainly demonstrates that Condren has thought long and hard about the potential implications of the numerical relationships that he believes himself to have found. If he's right, then his book is brilliant -- and the Pearl Poet even more so.

This is the sort of book that my old history of science professor John L. Heilbron would find fascinating, given his interest in the confluence of mathematical astronomy and Christian theology in the The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories.

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At 5:29 AM, Blogger Alcuin Bramerton said...

In esoteric spirituality, another name for God is the "Great Central Sun".

At 5:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If I recall, Kepler had a similar view.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:03 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Well. the review is interesting. It says nothing about the key issues...not really. It pays homage to a brilliant work of scholarship, but its silences suggest uncertainty. I remember someone describing my early interests in numerical composition as looking for "madness in the method". So, I am not going to damn, but... I worry that the most obvious claim is false, as you nicely put it, in the previous post. The Pearl poet would have to add some forty plus lines to his manuscript to create phi. And if he was such a good mathematician that he knew Fibonacci and decimals, would he have been so imprecise? I have read all kinds of numerical poetry and none of it looks like this. There is of course a huge question here. By the time a reader gets to Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Donne, a tradition had been established. A reader can justify his/her reading by an appeal to tradition. Pearl etc are the inception of that tradition. So, other ideas could have prevailed. But even so, the poet is out a limb. I have posted some humbler observations... I am itching to read Condren's book, but the life is too short and the craft too long to learn!

At 7:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I looked at your "humbler observations" but couldn't post there, so I'll just post here what I tried to post there ... not that I've anything significant to say:

"Very interesting suggestions. I lack the expertise to evaluate them and see once again my limitations.

The Medieval world was different from our own but not any less sophisticated. I have a lot to learn.

With respect to the Medieval period, it is we moderns who live in the dark ages."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:42 AM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Jeffery, I get near-daily emails from the Bryn Maur Review, still titled "BMR: [title of book being reviewed.] I recommend subscribing to their service, as a lot of very interesting material will come into your inbox on a more or less daily basis. It will be more than you can read, but you will be able to keep an eye out for items of interest.

At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Ian Myles Slater said...

Nathan, The Medieval Review has been showing up in my e-mail as TMR + number + author + short title, instead of as BMR, since October 2004.

Which, come to think of it, is when I re-subscribed to it directly, finding that I hadn't been receiving anything much for quite a while through a joint sign-up through BMCR. That now works better, and does still use the BMR label for referred TMR material. (Just to play it safe, I decided to keep getting both sets!)

You may have a joint subscription or may be "grandfathered" into their server files; or something too esoteric for me to guess at!

Signing up with The Classical Review seems to generate an even greater flow of reviews of fascinating-sounding books I will never read; and even reading the reviews would be a major task.

But I've been making cross-references to some of them in my own reviews of the same books, which I've posted on Amazon, offering them as supporting evidence for my less-than-expert opinion, or for alternative views. So far, I don't think that there has been any such useful overlap on medieval titles.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Thanks for the comment! I had inadvertently changed my comment set-up whilst fiddling around with settings. Sorry, about that... you are right, the Pearl poet does show how sophisticated the so-called "dark ages" were. Probably, they would not have seen the term "dark" as a pejorative either. Darkness was good.


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