It was with supreme happiness that I formally marked my progress in the Eighth Edition, Volume One, of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I have thoroughly read, analyzed, and comprehended the entire section on Early Middle English, from the early Middle Ages (Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman literature) until the end of the 13th century.
The last two sections were especially riveting: poetry (or lais) by Marie de France, whose works I have also read in the French; and “Ancrene Riwle,” a manual for anchorites or anchoresses, those individuals of the 13th century who chose to “live apart” from the world as religious recluses.
There are indeed moments when the life of an anchoress appeals to me. Those moments, however, are counterbalanced by the anchors that are a “part” of the world that I inhabit - a world of beauty that also includes deception, turmoil, shattered dreams, broken hearts, and not a few heavy hearts.
Bitterness can infiltrate even the most resilient soul. I therefore try to find inspiration in every book that I read. This book is a quiet cornucopia of motivation and revelation. At times, the writers offer epiphanies. I try to be inclined, or open, to such moments in my literary life.
In technical terms, I have consumed 3/8-inch of the pages of this book. There remain 2-3/8 inches for this reader to digest until she arrives at the hardbound back cover and its soft blue fabric. This book is quite a haul, but its 2,904 pages are worth every turn of the page.
Soon I shall make the leap to Middle English Literature of the 14th and 15th centuries!
The foundational work for this next niveau has been neatly and lovingly laid. I will build upon the themes and motifs from the writers of the previous section. Many of those authors from the early Middle Ages were anonymous or obscure; very little was known about them. For other writers, their work was partially lost or their authorship of the work remains questionable.
I expect that as the months pass by, in real and in literary time and with the turning of the pages in this anthology, the writers will become more obviously identified with their works and more possessive of them. They will wax more self-conscious with each effort they put into their writing. Consequently, in some unintentional but unavoidable way, the accurate and overt attribution of the author will detract from the overall luster of the lines.
A large part of why I am so drawn to literatures of the Middle Ages in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman lands is the nature of this writing. It is very fundamental and thus quite spiritual. The language is vivid, direct, concrete, and beautiful. The writer makes no bones about talking about the bones of any man, woman, child or beast.
It’s a welcome and delicious treat, this retreat from the current spongecake of political correctness that is boilerplate camouflage for any of a number of topics. It’s not correct to say that the truth gets lost that way; the truth was never there to be found in the first place.
Truth is often not the goal of the modern storyteller; opinion - disguised as historical fact and fiction - is the intent. With the medieval writer, truth and beauty were synonymous. Who cared about his opinion? I highly doubt he did!
You see, “He” did not see his name writ large or small upon the printed page. The medieval author was anonymous. He initially spoke to tell a tale; the concept of fame or the desire for it did not exist. Later, someone else wrote to tell the tale. And as time marched on, along with wars and famine and plagues, those tales ebbed and flowed, sometimes by the wayside, sometimes as the only river of thought upon which people of yore could sail their boats of imagination.
Always there was the need to dream. Always there was the desire to be free to dream. And with that need and that desire, heroes and heroines were wrought large in the lives of humble people who wished to be bigger than they were, who looked up at the sky and asked their Merciful Maker if, on that day, or on that lightless night (for there were only the moon and the stars to light the medieval night) - perhaps those quiet souls could be just a bit grander that next day so that they could meet the foe and the curse that had threatened to consume them that afternoon.
It was with the hope of those ages that these stories were conceived and spoken, and later scribbled. Finally, sometime around 1439, with the invention of the printing press (and its use of moveable type) by Johannes Gutenberg, mankind took a huge leap toward knowledge.
Books were no longer the province of princes and priests, no longer the domain of kings and queens and the aristocracy. The hoi polloi could hoist a book on their backs and look beyond the squalor of their lives. They could gaze beyond the towns where they lived and they could dream of other worlds, other people who might be just like them: the common thread that wove community to community was sewn by the written word, and the world has never since been the same.
In the world of ideas and in the transmission of those ideas, the progress achieved by man toward knowledge and freedom can never be fully measured. At the dawn of the new millennium, boastful scribblers in the electronic media heralded that the digital era - namely, the computer - had revolutionized the world far more than even the printing press.
How does one measure the impact of any revolution, large and loud, quiet and small, or silent and magnificent? How does a modern gauge or even begin to comprehend the immense difference in the life of a farmer in the medieval shire of Northampton when he read a book for the first time? The individuals who first used computers were already literate. They built upon skills and abilities that had been achieved and honed prior to the invention of the computer.
That eager boast of our progress in the past thirty years points to how little we truly know about how far man (and woman) came to make that giant jump into counting 1s and zeroes. Progress is measured not in material gains but in the ability of humanity to use those material gains for the good of others. It is a dilemma only modern man struggles to solve because in his quest for progress he is too often blinded by light, the white noise of his own invention that shouts his success and his fame, like a siren in the shipwrecked days of yore.
I believe that the real progress of the computer and the expanded progress wrought by the Internet are measured in terms of freedom. I believe that the Internet is a weapon for freedom in those lands where dictators, tyrants, Communist thugs, and armed autocrats have ruled for far too long.
And I believe that one day the provinces of China will once again be free. People from that ancient country have voiced their grave doubts to me. I, the distant but passionate observer, have no doubts. When you have a gun pointed at your back and one at your front, it is hard to move forward, but it is not impossible.
Today, we don’t need anyone with the guts to tell Gorbachev to tear down his wall, although it would be heart-warming and soul-enriching to hear that statement directed at any one of too many rotten rogues and repressive regimes distant from America. The reason why we no longer need the Voice of America directing and misdirecting Communist traffic is that the people behind each wall of each repressive regime will do the tearing down for themselves. The people’s revolution is happening, in spite of the walls or - because of them.
The “wall” built by dictators to block overseas websites from reaching the people living behind that wall – that obstruction, or inconvenience, merely challenges the creative minds of freedom-loving individuals to devise software, satellites, and devices of extraordinary ingenuity to permit people to climb over the “wall.” Dictators and armies and even Communists cannot move as quickly as creative minds, determined to live in freedom.
Those resourceful individuals might be found out by the enemies of freedom, and they will likely be eliminated from the face of the earth. But their souls cannot be erased; the memories of their noble deeds, their silent heroism, and their pure and powerful love of freedom – those sacred, eternal elements cannot be destroyed by dictators and their minions.
The electronic pathways always find a route, a way to flow. The circuitry simply – or not so simply – becomes routed another way. Dictators don’t know human nature or the flow of electricity or the flow of human desire. They only know the deadly path to deadly power. In time, they lose that power and then they are dead, leaving in their wake the debris of corpses, communism, crushed hopes and despairing and broken dreams.
I once debated an instructor who told me that China was too big a nation and had too many people to be self-governing: Communism was right for them. At the time I was not yet an adult but I voiced my youthful disagreement which was based not on idealism but on realism. I still strongly disagree with that opinion. My words now are the same as they were then: Communism is not right for any living thing.
This truth is why I believe that the provinces will one day reign within a China that allows freedom for its people. That day may be years, perhaps even a decade away, but that day will come. How long can a superficial, glitzy image of prosperity survive when everything underneath the surface is so ugly?
It is agonizingly hard for any country to prosper when its history has been partially erased. The Internet once again is a weapon, this time not merely for the truth but for the facts of history. Truth is never erased and the facts of history do not vanish. They live forever, long past the lives of the despots who spend lives trying to destroy and distort them.
The future is always unknown, but there are always probabilities that we can count on; and there is the probability that tyranny falls of its own corrupt dead weight. Anything based on fraud and duplicity does not endure. It cannot. It is like a cancer, eating away at itself, destroying life itself.
There is always the certainty that the human need for freedom cannot be stopped. Brain-washing perhaps works for a while. But when oppressed people see free people – there the revolution begins.
There the revolution is real and it radiates in spite of the darkness of the dictator. Once the mind of any person is opened to the light of freedom and to the light of truth, that mind cannot turn back. This truth is why dictators have the guns and the citizens do not.
This truth is why dictators block the Internet with walls that will one day come a-tumbling down. The sword of the modern Joshua is the software that will eventually cause the rain of liberty to fall upon the reign of the murderous thugs and decadent dictators and the overgrown bullies of the world.
The pompous pariahs in charge of regimes have become fat and corrupt and lazy. Drunk on their own power, they fool only themselves about the supreme nature of their illegitimate power. The rulers of China are not immune from the underbelly of capitalism, the vicious greed that can destroy the soul. And they certainly are not immune from all of the vices that are Communism.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, one day the armies of Red China will bleed, not red, but terror. The terror that they use to rule the people of an ancient and proud civilization will be turned back upon them. The vast numbers that the Communists must control and contain can only work against them.
The cost of maintaining an evil regime will annihilate the regime. Red China is no more grand an illusion than was the U.S.S.R. The cost of human suffering in the name of “progress” might be comparable, but those figures are not kept or kept accurately, at least here on earth.
The sale of Jordache jeans was the first step in the undoing of the corrosive charade called the Soviet Union. Perhaps a makeup palette from Paris has already paved the first steps in the formidable pathway to freedom for the women of China. Once those females demand the lives they were born to live, any man who is a man will fight for their God-given rights and for their natural dignity.
The people who have left China and other lands of persecution to journey to free nations, like America – those people are the symbols and the measurement of progress. They lead the way for others who have not yet thrown off the shackles of fear and the mantle of indoctrination, those time-tested tools of the terrible and the terrorist. To those brave, free individuals, I say,
“Your role is not yet over where your unfree brethren in your homelands are concerned. You lead the way for those who remain behind, for those who must find the courage to follow in your footsteps. So smile, once for yourself, and once for them.”
Of such matters is progress to be weighted and evaluated, counted and even computed. The computer is a tool; a marvelous, wondrous tool that is also a weapon. Such an instrument against ignorance might yet prove to be a double-edged sword with both edges harmful: misinformation intermixed with faulty information that neutralizes or even obliterates accurate, wise, and truthful information.
Both blades, however, could prove to be benevolent and bountiful, depending upon the means and the ends for this sword of communication, commerce, creativity, and enlightenment. This weapon of wonder is the light of hope for the people seeking illumination, not the darkness of hatred. The computer can ultimately doom the eternally vile attempt to control what can never be controlled - the human spirit.
In the light of all of the progress of the past centuries, I look tonight at that blue-fabric bound tome of English literature, and I still think that the progress of mankind is bound more between those covers than it is bounded by the clicks and chips of the computer. Progress is boundless when it is measured by the dreams of free individuals.
Perhaps there are moderns who regard progress as a dilemma because of their erroneous belief that progress is an either-or proposition. The computer did not replace books. It merely enhanced the knowledge they can offer. The written word never died. It was reborn.
That development is progress. It will lead to the rebirth of nations who have been left behind the learning curve of any measurement of progress. When the 21st century dawned, there were too many souls who remained in the twilight of the ungodly gods who demand that citizens render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; and that they also render unto the Communist Caesar that which belongs to God.
It does not matter what name is used for the Ineffable. No one on God’s green earth can play the rules as God. Only the despotic deities known as dictators believe that madness to be truth. In good time they will learn the real truth about the world they thought they ruled.
Such a tale is told by John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress. That marvel of English literature begins on Page 2143 of the Norton Anthology. I hope to progress to that place in good time!