Friday, March 20, 2009

Bending the soul

This may be babble. Tell me.

I was reading Colin Renfrew's new book The Prehistory of Mind, and his discussion of the growth of religion in the context of "cognitive archaeology" set me to thinking about concepts of freedom or captivity in the soul in the Renaissance. Given Hawkes' insistence that religious and economic discourse in the period should never be separated, any presumed inclinations of the soul may also be understood as a kind of warping influence upon an at least conceptually neutral (or random) model. This is true even if the inclination in question is "natural" because one can only be inclined from some original imagined position. That some kind of alteration of form is implied seems clear when you look at the early popularity of the word "bent" to describe an inclination as Milton does in his famous sonnet XVI ("When I consider how my light is spent"): "my Soul more bent / To serve therewith my Maker," his speaker says. The "bent of the soul" was a popular phrase in the period.  Donne also alludes to it in his Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart, three person'd God." "Bent" means inclination, but it implies bending, which comes ultimately from binding (and a "bend" in nautical speak is still a binding knot).   There's lots more that could be said about the use of the word in those two poems, but there are epistemological implications as well. The dissolution of Aristotelian teleology in the 17th century could be seen as a kind of unbinding of the soul (and resented as such by many).  I'm thinking that chance, understood in discrete terms followed a similar path.  Chance in an earlier world is bent away from the verticality of the random by the will of God. But that means the concept of such verticality is there, even if it is never supposed to be in operation.

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