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Ladder of Shadows by Gustaf Sobin

Jeffery Beam

  Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc.
Gustaf Sobin.
University of California Press, 2009.
236 pages, $24.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0520253345 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

Back in Oyster Boy 13 I reviewed Sobin's Luminous Debris which focused on southeastern France's history from the prehistoric to the Gallic-Roman. This sister volume journeys from the Roman Empire's decline to the birth of the Romanesque—a critical time in Western civilization. In it, the classical world crumples into the Dark Ages, and slowly recovers, renewing itself into modern Europe and the glories of the Renaissance. It's also the story of the sweeping victory of Christianity over Paganism—the debasement of the serpent/dragon and the elevation of the Virgin and Mary Magdalene.

Published posthumously, Ladder of Shadows exhibits the same finely tuned intelligence as in the first volume. Sobin crafts precisely and elegantly cut gems which recount an often told story (told equally brilliantly in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization), but with a difference. Sobin's erudite eye falls on the debris left behind, and the singular stories embedded in their waste, such as a bronze coin which "all too often . . . will correspond—within a few years—to a specific wave of invasion."

For him the history told therein perhaps reveals more than the stories of the mighty—his heroes are frequently the craftspeople (glassblowers, potters, sculptors, stone masons), the peasants, the farmers, the priests, the patricians—those who lost much as their world collapsed around them, but who found, in the influences creeping in from the world outside them, tools to salvage and reinvent their cultural impulses. Sobin's work is valuable not only for the insight into the past he provides, but for his reflective and deeply empathic mind, which warns of the precipice we currently stand on—reminders that no civilization continues forever.

A paragraph from the essay "Apt: An Antique City as Palimpsest" provides a glimpse of Sobin's quiet passion:

The past draws. It draws, I feel, to the extent that the present, the cultural and ultimately the spiritual present, has failed to generate generative image: the kind, that is, in which societies might come to recognize their veritable identity. In default of such image—such eloquent mirror—one turns backward. Goes under. For certainly one is never searching for anything except oneself. Be it among the blown detrital particles of some vanished galaxy or the thrashing tails of some microscopic protozoan, one is always in search of the kind of phenomena that might, potentially, confer sense upon one's own existence. This is especially true, of course, with the cultural. For never do those inherent identities find fuller expression than in the glissando of an aria, the floating gaze of a saint on some pitted fresco, than—yes—in these choked cellars, blind corridors, the interrupted running of so much finely molded plinth. Curiously enough, the relative inaccessibility of these caves only adds to their attraction. Against the cultural poverty of one's own times, it seems befitting, I feel, to travel under. Examine vestige. Explore the subterranean chambers of an antique city as if they constituted, as suggested, some deep, richly endowed level of human consciousness.

Sobin's landscape is one of melancholic oblivion, but one also of brightly hypnotic insights into us. Such writing is rare and defies categorization—history, poetry, memoir, polemic, devotional hymn. Prepare to be entranced.

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