Falling to Medieval Unconsciousness

I had smacked against the cliff face of shore (my body folding into the rocks like batter) and there have lain sleeping under arcs of orange and lavender atmosphere in the stone city labyrinth named CHICAGO. In my dream I kneel at a molten river, fingering the lines of current, wandering back in time.

The earth of this twisted city is frozen shut with asphalt. It does not liberally let roots through. The people must spend their lives distributing their weight among the stacked rocks, hammering stakes and lashing down their legs to withstand the uncertain violence of the weather. Fingers run white holding their grip. The land would seem to repulse life, pushing it up into the sky, which is the mystic glowing city sky, which shoots orange and lavender on the river water and blows a colored smoke into the glass, filling people with abstract visions of the Middle Ages.

* * *

Giovanni di Paolo

Medievalness of mind: it appears in the form of a shadow (a coldness, darkness, an alluding shape of light), an atavistic consciousness of true memory from beyond experience, or a false memory. It is a highly selective projection, a personal, contemporized, Crichton-ized Medievalism, bleached of feudalism, Christ, and horses: a loose goo with some edges filed into reactionary vividness against the present times. For these times, it must be a boutique Medievalism.

A medievalist might be a hopeless reactionary, an anachronism to the point of parody. Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces: cranky, deluded, and ridiculous (a ridiculousness that projects him off the surface of the real world, and protects him from harm). Post-modernity likes the improvised jumble of Chicago without the liquor of omnipresent rock-hard religion; old blind Money persistently prints out contemporary shapes and circumstances and coping with that will be enough. Here is the pastoralist in an engineered landscape bent into a fractured shape of millions of humans — the Chicago road arrow straight, the Medieval road roving with the wisdom of the walking cows. The modern Medievalist would almost have to be a buffoon.

A parodic Medievalism: actually, doesn’t that seem post-modern? Chicago’s signature frilly Beaux-Art aesthetic (directly influenced by Victorian-era resuscitation of Medieval decorative art) and subconscious Francophilia paints the scene for such a farce. Modern people’s fetishistic mythology of the organic lifestyle, perhaps, will be understood as a parodic yearning to become the Medieval person, the original “natural person,” a human synonym of the soil they tilled. The Medievalist Chicagoan appreciates the local, the romantic, the hermetic, the folk decorative, the artisan, the arts and crafts, the freedom hidden latent in hands, the importance of community in work, the importance of spirit in work.
John Ruskin, iconoclastic Medievalist aesthete and key figure in the late-19th century relaunch of thinking about the Middle Ages, would see the Medieval tradition alive in the Chicago underground DIY music and arts scene. With castle gates to somewhat fend back the world, the artists establish their own order, leaning their own communitarian values as pillars against the prevailing values of the world. (And there is Ruskin in his time, jealously imagining the ordered fraternal spirituality of the Middle Ages against the bleak alienation of early industrialism’s factories frivolously eating generations of people.) Medieval art is art put to the service of religion, politics or society, rather than as an outlet for personal expression or for its own sake (a Renaissance sensibility); DIY Chicago uses art and music to bring people together, make love, create community, and (to some extent) engage with and change society. Some modern artists and musicians after the Medieval strain make spiritual art as healing antidote to the Age — and while doing it feel “out of time.”

20th century events trephinated Western heritage, blotting out pieces of the Enlightenment brain (such as conventions of visual representation and devout progressive rationality); a musty Middle Ages mind leaks out, scabbing over the wounds as generations peel off in the night.


A powerful image of a Woman opened the door of my Medieval unconsciousness. Time marked by, the Woman mystified and possessed me. In her realm she would rub a lamp and I would be compelled to appear. I was a genie made from magic yet before her enchained. Then I was bellowing monophonic music in my heart, quilling low verse, and making crude vernacular paintings. Then I could effortlessly spend the duration of my life dragging stones in her honor, then I sought a quarry. The very trace of her compelled me.

I reached for the weird words of Henry Adams, Mont St Michel and Chartres. Writing in 1904, Adams surveys the immortal glory of 12th-century French Gothic architecture and concludes that the forgotten secret to the success of Medieval civilization is its worship of Woman. Adams describes a spiritual interregnum, a brief golden window around the 1100s when the old White Goddess (“the eternal woman,— Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite”) ruled again, costumed now as the Virgin. For Adams, this deity built the great cathedrals. The form of the Virgin gave Medieval people an alternative type of consciousness (lost in the patrimonial smog of his times) — an enlightened ideal feminism, where sex and the irrational were admitted in the Church’s front door. For a brief moment, Woman was the ideal, the superior of men, and at the center of the social order. Adams, holding the sculptured light of Gothic Cathedrals beside the Science then discombobulating his world, ultimately concludes that “the proper study of mankind is woman.”

Modernity, with emergent feminized consciousness, probably has renewed access to an occult Medieval type of apprehension of and engagement with the world. The rich meat of the Middle Ages is its soul: the Medieval world is the ensouled world, anima mundi, where goes systemic social purpose (the elements of Medieval society in purposeful Cosmic interrelation, unified under the boot of their God) streaked with sunken magic symbols (as Roger Bacon’s semiotics, 600 years before Peirce or Lacan) rounding a Boethian Wheel of circular time (relieved of linear time’s mythology of progressive growth). Many vernacular institutions have gone dormant in our time, but soul does persist and we also still have love, the classic gushing love that fuses. Post-modern people dream of the ensouled world of the Middle Ages, and still live in it.


When a man undertakes to create something, he establishes a new heaven, as it were, and from it the work that he desires to create flows into him… For such is the immensity of man that he is greater than heaven and earth

— Paracelsus, Middle Ages occultist and psychosomatician


Chicago Wiping Its Face Off

It was free day at the Chicago History Museum and I was pleased to refresh the broad strokes of Chicago history.
Chicago: swamp of destiny. Inhabited by the Algonquian for 1000s of years before French explorers rolled through. Chartered as a city in 1837 with about 4,000 residents, by 1870 Chicago had become the second largest city in the America with 299,000 residents. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned it all down and Chicago became a different place again.

The Fire feels like a wall keeping away the more distant past of the city. Only seven buildings from old Chicago stand today. It almost seems like the pre-1871 city of Chicago should go by another name, that we would remember it better.


Interesting to imagine this inaccessible place: old Chicago, the damned wooden metropolis on the lake built against the withering wind of the prairie. A floating city of boats in Lake Michigan. Migrant people dense on the land. I can imagine the strange lighting. (Interesting also to imagine the way this land was used and inhabited by Native Americans, unwrap how the land has been bent from its prehistoric form.)
In deeper prehistory (and editorial), I think Chicagoans and Great Lakes people all should rep their limestone bedrock. Limestone is sound rock to stand on. You could seriously be standing over something much worse.


So the dreadful fire of 1871 wiped off the city’s face and Chicago boomed again. By 1900 it was home to 1.7 million people. (I try to imagine so many rooms being built and inhabited.)


The Chicago History Museum tells the city’s history through the changes of its industry. Chicago was once a renowned capitol of diverse industries, such as steel, lumber, fur trading, railroads, meat packing, beer making, furniture making, candy, leather, television, motion pictures, finance and more. A pattern emerges: Chicago innovates an industry, dominates it for a while, then gradually loses its hold until it completely disappears. A confluence of geography and infrastructure (especially transportation) keeps the city relevant.

A sort of discontinuity is central to the city’s identity. Very little of the city remains the same from 100 years ago. In Europe, you share many city vistas with a person of the Middle Ages; in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, you can stroll city geography preserved from the 1700s; in Chicago, you are hard pressed to find any building from the 19th century. Even the celebrated Chicago Water Tower, which predates the fire, was actually re-built in 1913.

Chicago plows over its past and plants within it. The people of Chicago are left with myths, their imaginations, and an immensely complex urban infrastructure made by people in the past. The city has unconscious agreement and affinity with the generations of builders and demolishers who came before, anonymously working in industries we forgot ever existed. It seems sometimes you can sense the people who filled this space before.

(All images are dioramas from the Chicago History Museum)