Thursday, 8 April 2010

Norman Habits

Fate seems to reside upon habits.  Habits are stronger than truth, because their sheer persistence seems to defy refutation.  They appear to self-verify through daily or regular use.  Like a scientific procedure, habits are repeatable with the same or similar results.  But they are also like fate as they conduct you in their repetitive cyclical fashion incrementally along your unalterable inexorable route.

Aristotle calls habits hexis, although this word has many interpretations  - it usually refers to a ‘state’ which is nearly permanent, a kind of second nature.  Habits increase the general level of predictability in human life, as quasi-individual conventions they acquire the status of instinct.  In Aristotle’s Metaphysics hexis is opposed to energeia (activity or operation) – as whatever energy once entered the creation of a habit is thoroughly digested in the shortest of time. 

I have lost my habit of reading at the breakfast table – although I used to learn all sorts of useless information from it.  In particular about habits.  Habitual activities tend to produce habitual results.  Losing the habit may have increased my stock of energeia, or at least demonstrates that one can reverse the flow of nature or quasi-nature.  I never tried to lose the habit - it was probably driven out by a new and stronger habit.  Nietzsche advocates “short habits” thinking that one could distract a repeated action from becoming a habit by cutting it short.  A habit does rely on the temporal dimension but its shortness is no guarantee against its fullness or longevity.  Indeed it is within the realm of conceivability that a habit takes place only once.  Everything else about Nietzsche was long or at least not short.  His thought would be finally thought through in a thousand years, no philosophical system big enough to contain it.
He clung to friendship and family like a Virginia creeper, and one knows there is nothing one can do to annihilate those plants.  Most indestructible of all is his euphoria, it is no short habit.  Habits have the virtue of not always being in evidence; they are discreet if largely recurrent.
A lost cause is also a habit – any fidelity to such a cause merely rehearses a played out melodrama.
Something which is always there, like gaiety, is certainly not a habit, but it is not short either.  Aristotle would have referred to such a semi-permanent state as hexis as well.  But this is confusing.  Something which is always there, never goes away, needs no cause, in this case groundless good cheer, lacks the sine qua non of hexis – privation or a time in which the habit is in abeyance.  No matter how long a habit, even an infinite one – a habit (whatever size, quantity) will never reach “the sharpest point of infinity”. (“la pointe… plus acérée… de l’Infini”, Baudelaire)

One is lucky if one is able to choose to give up one’s habits, more likely the years will take them away, as one can learn from Horace.  “Each year of life as it passes takes something away from us as its prey: they have bereaved me of jest and game, they have deducted wine and kisses and now they wrestle the lyre from my hand, what else do you want?” (“Singula de nobis anni praedantur euntes; eripuere jocos, venerem, convivial, ludum; tendent extorquere poemata: qid faciam vis?” Letter to Julius Florus, Horazens Briefe, translated and edited by C.M. Wieland, Nördlingen, 1986, p. 508)

Once at the breakfast table I learned an old Norman rhyme about habits.
“lever a cinq, diner a neuf,
souper a cinq, coucher a neuf
fait vivre dans nonant et neuf.”
(rise at five, dine at nine,
sup at five, to bed at nine,
you’ll live to be ninety nine.”)
The Normans in Britain lived in their castles according to this strict routine.  Their habits distinguished them from the Saxons whom they conquered.  Were their habits instrumental to this conquest?  The historian G. Macaulay Trevelyan calls them “methodical barbarians”, suggesting they were people of strong habits but not civilised.  Life in a Norman castle was not very refined.  The habit of cooking everything in a pie is at least 6oo years old, as is the use of ginger as flavouring.  Recipes tended to hew everything to dust (hens and pork together) mix with breadcrumbs and egg yolk and boil.  Retainers of both sexes slept in a hall on rushes around a fire.  Everything seems dirtier and less comfortable than in the palaces of Ulysses or Menelaus.  The Saxons were in awe of these sombre piles – never having seen a castle before the Normans arrived on the island.  “The Saxons were slow and difficult to move: they were farmers and herdsmen, who did not mind fighting, if their crops were in and they had nothing to do; and it was difficult to keep them together as an army, unless the call for their services were very urgent.  They (…) thought very little about Art, or Literature and, so long as their neighbours left them alone, showed little interest in other people’s doings.  Saxons lacked the art of combination, and it was because of this they failed against the Normans.” - according to an illustrated children’s book published in 1918. (Marjorie and C.D.B. Quennell, A History of Everyday Things in England, London, 1918,
p. 2)

It occurred to me that a few hundred years before William the Conqueror came from France to trounce the dull-witted artless brutal Saxons another Frank (William was a Norman but ‘Frankified’) massacred and subjugated the Saxons on the continent during a kind of medieval Verdun.  The other Frank was Charlemagne.  The Saxons were so easy to beat because they had learned nothing from the Romans about fortifications.  They tore down all the walled cities or settlements built by the Romans in Britain.  They did not like being confined, preferring to live in clearings in the woods, near their fields.  They only knew how to swarm out in hordes but had little perseverance and only enough engineering to erect some flimsy wooden palisades.  Their idea of fortification was to dig long ditches – like the trench warfare of World War One.  The battle was fought already halfway into the grave.  The Normans fought from above – from the castle mount, on top of which was the keep, on horseback with spear and sword.  The Saxons were as helpless as the Incas or Aztecs (who had a higher civilisation) at the appearance of the conquistadors.  Whether they heeded the cold ‘bells of Angelus’ or warmed themselves at the fire of Woden’s blood sacrifice – all the Saxons succumbed to the Norman habit.  Even before the Norman invasion – the bells used to lead the Danish ‘host’ to where the unmapped Saxon settlements were nestling amongst the trees.
The place where Charlemagne had the Saxons slaughtered was Verden – renowned as the Massacre of Verden of 782.  Later in 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the Frankish Empire between the three surviving sons of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne into Middle Francia, East Francia and West Francia.  



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