The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing
by Didier Maleuvre
California University Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
392 pp, illus. 20 b & w. Trade, $29.95, £20.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This is not, as the author modestly acknowledges in the very beginning of his book, a timely publication. This work on the cultural meaning of the “horizon” does not propose, indeed, the fashionable mix of empirical research and critical critique that attracts today’s PhD students. Neither does it reject the almost encyclopaedic and semi-abstract of the books that were so typical of immediate academic writing till the 1950s (as far as I am concerned, I could not stop thinking of Auerbach’s Mimesis, for instance). Moreover, it embraces and links subjects that modern specialization tends to keep apart: philosophy, religion, art, mostly. Finally, it accepts to limit its research to the Western, more specifically Greek and Jewish inspired traditions of the phenomenon under scrutiny. Yet despite all these (apparent) restrictions, The Horizon is a great book, and one that should be read also as a defence of the kind of broad cultural studies that can be highly profitable to contemporary humanities and even more to their perception by a broader audience (for the ideal reader of Maleuvre is the interested layman, not the disciplinary specialist).
The Horizon turns around two simple questions: what is the horizon?, and what does it mean? For Didier Maleuvre, the horizon is much more than the line where the land or the sea meets the sky. The horizon is the place of encounter between immanency and transcendentalism, and therefore one of life’s aspects or elements that are most open to all the fundamental questions that Man has been struggling with since the very dawn of civilization: What is the world that I am living in? Is there something beyond the horizon? Is there a God? Who am I? Eternal questions, perhaps, but not questions that travel through time without changes. Maleuvre explains very well how the notion of horizon has permanently been reshaped, and how our interpretation of its meaning cannot be separated from the way in which we define the horizon as such.
This enquiry takes mainly two forms. First of all, Maleuvre describes in large brushstrokes the various types of (once again: Western) civilizations that have one after another tried to cope with the problem of the horizon: the archaic age (Egypt, Ancient Greece and the invention of life as a journey, translating space in temporal terms, Israel’s exile in the Desert), the philosophical age (centred on classic Greek philosophy), the theological age (from the first Christendom and Augustine till the Gothic culture and the discovery of perspective), the scientific age (Renaissance and baroque), the scientific age (Enlightenment), the subjective age (Romanticism and beyond, with a great emphasis on the confusion of man and God in American religions such as Mormonism, which Maleuvre paradoxically identifies as a religion of atheism), and finally the mathematical age (our science-dominated times, which tend to "solve" the problem of the horizon by declaring it irrelevant). In each period, he foregrounds a certain paradigm, or a set of paradigms, that establishes a certain relationship between man and what is beyond man’s understanding. Each period, moreover, is described as an answer to the problems and difficulties raised in the previous one. And even if the author refrains from suggesting that the history of the horizon obeys a certain teleological path, he demonstrates that the transformations of the frontier between the immanent and the transcendent do follow a certain line: our Western culture tends to “reason away” the problem of the horizon. Yet although it is perfectly thinkable that one day our culture will have evacuated or forgotten the question of the horizon, this question remains still open today, and there is no reason to think that we will live tomorrow in a purely immanent culture.
Second, Maleuvre succeeds very well in putting some meat on these abstract bones by linking philosophical and cultural issues with illuminating cultural analyses. The metaphysical interrogations that lead humanity from one answer and one era to another are always connected with the major cultural productions of that period, and this back and forth movement between cultural artefacts and highly abstract questions is, undoubtedly, one of the great forces of the book (the other qualities being, besides the great originality of the approach, the admirable clarity of the style and the incredible depth and breadth of information selected, summarized and remastered by the author). None of these analyses may be entirely new, but the overall story certainly is, as is the rhetorical tour de force of Didier Maleuvre who manages to show the both eternal and permanently shifting nature of questions that we may have become afraid to discuss so openly and directly as he does.