Henry Adams's Bequest
OF THE VARIOUS motifs that animate Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, none recurs more insistently than that of the Gothic expression's exceptionality in the course of human experience. The achievement, Adams assures us, holds ever aloof from our reflex effort to know it as part of a sequence. The "twelfth-century windows break the French tradition. They had no antecedent, and no fit succession" ( A I469). The thirteenth century offers "a beauty not always inherited, and sometimes not bequeathed" ( A I352). "The immense structure" of Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae "rested on Aristotle and Saint Augustine at the last, but as a work of art it stood alone, like Reims or Amiens Cathedrals, as though it had no antecedents" ( A I665). And in the book's closing paragraph, Adams declares that the cathedral's anguish and aspiration are proclaimed "as no emotion had ever been expressed before or is likely to find expression again" ( A I695). The nonsequential uniqueness of the expression requires an irregular and singular study: if we "want to know what Churches were made for," we must return to Chartres "on some great festival of the Virgin" and give ourselves up to it; and for this we must "come alone! That kind of knowledge cannot be taught and can seldom be shared" ( A I441).
By such insistence would Adams share some part of his sense of the expressions' miraculous character--the genius by which "the infinite rises into a new expression, always a rare and excellent miracle in thought" ( A I 441). As miracle it defies sequence; it cannot and indeed must not admit of mere evolutionary explanation, the historian's prediction-in-retrospect. It is rather as debacle that it enters history--history conceived as a decreation that in the end excepts nothing, translating all phenomena as variously expressing the equalization of cosmic force. In the History, the question of whether American experience would prove miracle or debacle remained rhetorically open, the moral catastrophe implicit in the failure of the Republican visionaries suspended by the seemingly uniformitarian and
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Publication information: Book title: The Literary Vocation of Henry Adams. Contributors: William Merrill Decker - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1990. Page number: 258.
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