The reenchantment of the world

The reenchantment of the world

This morning I feel stuck for words. A heat wave has exhausted me, and the end of my holidays looms. To regather my strength I have been reading over old posts, old poems, and contemplating what keeps me going on.

From the movie The Darkest Hour a quote from Churchill (although its provenance is challenged) that inspires me.

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. The courage to continue is what counts.”

In that spirit I am reposting below my post on the Disenchantment of the World, from October 2015. This post was my first after my initial post. Let it be the herald of a year of dwelling in the house of being.

The disenchantment of the world

I have long known this phrase – in German die Entziehung der Welt – from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and known it as the long historical process in which rational, scientific and commercial action stripped the objects of the world of their magic, spirit and divine presence. The life world became a set of manipulable objects, and the mind a calculating machine in which symbol and unreason were shamed, caged and denigrated. Weber’s great essay came from the deep spring of this conflict in his own mind, following his mental collapse, his crisis of depression, his reintegration of the mystic spirit he imbibed from his mother and that made him resent the hard casing of rational vocation and mourn the disenchantment of the world.

In truth, hard practical rationality, perhaps some might call it modernity, although that word was born only in the late nineteenth century and has a troubled heritage, this useful reason that dominates our lives never completed vanquished the spirits enchanting the world, and never completely terminated the mourning for a world in which at least the artist could commune with the spirit world, newly abstracted as the imagination. So Wallace Stevens, late in his Hartford study, would speak to his interior paramour, and “for small reason, think/ the world imagined is the ultimate good.” And well before the graceful emperor of ice cream, it was Schiller who coined the concept, the disenchantment of the world. In his 1788 poem, the “Gods of Greece” – the year this great island where I write was settled by modern European peoples and modernity would encounter tragically peoples bound differently in spirit with this new claimed land – Schiller mourned the vital aesthetic world of the Greeks and spoke of die engotterte Natur – nature from which gods have been eliminated. Later, Hegel wrote in Phenomenology of Spirit:

Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone… The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men.

It is in the mourning of this disenchantment of the world that Gabriel Josipovici places the spirit and the history of modernism in Whatever happened to Modernism?  Its spirit he evokes by expressions of the remorseless need to go on producing art despite an irrecoverable loss that severs the artist, the writer, the thinker, the musician from communion with spirit, continuity of tradition, certainty of authority, divinity of passion. So Kafka:

Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and future but the past too – something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned, it is perhaps the hardest task. (Letters to Milena)

So Wittgenstein:

Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language games any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game . (On certainty)

So Kierkegaard: “What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in one’s self, what might be called one’s limits.”

It is so, Josipovici argues, that Modernism ought not be understood as a passing art period, but rather as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.” It is as such a response to the disenchantment of the world, and so remains as a continuing vital tradition, a never ending work of mourning response to the loss of the cultural, historical and psychological attachments that offer redemption for frailty and failure. It is in this spirit that I am still a modernist, and that modernism, understood not as ideas but as a work of speaking truth in the face of trauma, offers a way to restore a public culture of love and compassion, tragedy and comedy, a public culture that reaches beyond the callow illusions of marketing to the deeper longings we all hold within.

 

 

Advertisements

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Since I am on holidays from work, and not consumed with duties and obligations, I have returned to an old habit of virtue, and spent time memorising poetry. The poem I am committing to memory today is Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium.

The choice of this poem itself was prompted by reading Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, which is an uncluttered, vivid telling of the main storylines of the Byzantine Empire. He connects threads of Byzantium in surprising ways to our own culture – the story of little Red Riding Hood, the use of the fork in Europe, the adaptation of chess, the theft of sericulture from China. This mysterious still neglected story haunts our imagination, without us really knowing how or why. As Fidler writes:

“Once you know the story of this lost empire, you feel the ghost of Byzantium  pressing against you at the crumbling land walls. You become suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia, and you glimpse it within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian. The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know.” (Fidler, Ghost Empire, p. 9)

And it is a story that very much belongs in the Burning Archive, devoted to remembering the ruined cultures and disappearing stories of the world, and the yearning of this tattered cloak upon a stick to enter into the infinite conversation. Fidler titles his final chapter, “The Artifice of Eternity,” in a tribute to Yeats’ poem. And towards the end of this chapter, Sailing to Byzantium itself appears, crowning a discussion of Constantinople’s place as the “immortal city of imagination.” Fidler quotes Yeats from a BBC lecture discussing his poem in which Yeats said

“When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.”

Fidler leaves out of the quotation the last clause of Yeats sentence: “so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”

I wish I had a symbol of a holy city to which I could sail, fleeing from the fires in the archive and the depredations of merchants and treasonous clerks. Through loving attention, perhaps I can create one.

In the meantime, here is a musical realisation of Yeats’ great poem – set to music by Andrew Howes in a world premiere performance by Sydney Camerata at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 18 May 2012. I don’t know if the music exceeds the beauty of Yeats’ language.

And here are the final stanzas of Yeats other poem, Byzantium:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Image source: Four Icons from a Pair of Doors (Panels), possibly part of a Polyptych: John the Theologian and Prochoros, the Baptism (Epiphany), Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis), and Saint Nicholas, 15th century, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

More reflections on 2017: a multi-polar world

More reflections on 2017: a multi-polar world

I was asked the other day in conversation with a friend, what was the best thing about this year? She had earlier said the best thing was the collapse of Donald Trump’s opinion poll ratings. After a little thought, I said, perhaps perversely, the best thing about the year was Donald Trump’s presidency because it has led to a steep decline in American prestige – or as people like to say today, soft power – and has marked the reemergence of a multi-polar world.

In July 2016 I predicted Donald Trump’s election victory and his diplomatic defeat. In Donald Trump and America’s Wounded Pride, I wrote:

“The country is in decay, and it is lashing out like a wounded giant. But the giant is in an iron cage of its own making – all the declamations of pride, all the wild gestures, the threats, the desperation make no difference, and only damage the giant more. This wild, violent, bleeding, insulting and falling giant is what scares the world. But I suspect the world will do well as American falls, even if its desperate pride provokes more conflicts in the world. Trump will truly bring America into its darkest hour.”

Perhaps this was too pessimistic vision. The American economy appears to be rebounding, and that may renew American confidence and American leadership. But, the institutional weaknesses of America are too great, and this late blooming may repeat Eliot’s line that “April is the cruellest month.” Indeed, the wild erratic conduct of Trump as President are the epitome of those weak institutions. America is without doubt, in my view, an unravelling empire.

So, what have we seen in 2017 that suggests the emergence of a multi-polar world? Obviously, China has grown in wealth, power and assertiveness. Xi Jinping has launched diplomatic and economic initiatives that look a lot like a new form of empire: the One Road initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the beachhead islands of the South China Sea. It has strengthened ties with countries of South East Asia, like Cambodia and The Philippines, that have reasons to resent the American Empire. It has even emerged as a spokesperson for an alternative form of international order with a changed system of global economic governance:

“we should develop a model of fair and equitable governance in keeping with the trend of the times. As the Chinese saying goes, people with petty shrewdness attend to trivial matters, while people with vision attend to governance of institutions. There is a growing call from the international community for reforming the global economic governance system, which is a pressing task for us. Only when it adapts to new dynamics in the international economic architecture can the global governance system sustain global growth.” Xi Jinping, Speech at Davos January 2017

China opens its arms and welcomes others aboard the “express train” of China’s development; America turns inward and surly, muttering how the rules are not fair, and it must make itself great again.

In Syria and Iraq Islamic State has been defeated territorially; and surely the decisive player in this defeat has been Russia in its backing of Assad and its preparedness to act where America cowered. It was in Munich in 2007 – ten years ago – that Vladimir Putin spoke out against the unipolar globalised world, dominated by American law, firms and culture, and became a single voice galvanising the rebirth of other centres of power.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

In 2015 Putin went on to challenge the conceit of American foreign policy – that it is the World’s Policeman, the Indispensable Nation, the fomentor of its model whatever the consequences – in a speech to the United Nations that asked:

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that. Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”

Is it any wonder that the American foreign policy and security establishment are in hysterical overdrive about the threat that Russia poses to America. The Secretary of Defence and other top officials claim Russia is the greatest threat to US security. In truth, America is engaged in a heated ideological war against the power that declares an end to its unipolar vision of security.

Putin and Jinping do not espouse the same model of development, but they represent the death throes of Western dominance. However, we have also seen more diplomatically assertive European countries. As Britain collapses into nostalgia for the empire on which the sun would never set, Germany and France have shown more diplomatic initiative. Chancellor Merkel took responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that shamed America’s conceited, insular inaction. President Macron has maneuvered France into the position of peace broker in the Middle East, following Trump’s recent petulant, bear-baiting assertion of unilateral diplomacy: the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

There are no doubt many more examples. But I am no expert in international affairs. I only believe that a multi-polar world is a better, safer place to live in, yet still carries many risks. It is, however, surely the most profound shift in politics and culture that I have observed this year.

And it recalls the book I read at the outset of the year, John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Darwin doubts the belief in a great transformation that provides an integrated culture. The history of Eurasia, which he so masterfully recounts, shows that the diffusion of so many social and cultural practices across its many states  “failed to induce a common view of modernity or of what it was to be ‘modern.'” (p. 505)

The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex. Their effect has been not to homogenize the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade have often looked forward.” (p. 505)

America, and its dreams of itself as the indispensable nation, have fallen, like so many empires of the past, into the shadow of Tamerlane’s failure.

Image source: Russia Insider

 

 

 

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

In reviewing my notes for the year – diligently if effortlessly recorded in Evernote – I came across  my discovery of an essay from the late 1970s by Leszek Kolakowski, “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” I do not recall how I discovered this gem, as apposite to our times as Kolakowski’s exile from Poland in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a book review by another politically ambidextrous thinker, John Gray? In any case the recommendation fell on prepared ground; and spoke to some universal themes in this year’s political chronicle.

Kolakowski was a philosopher and former Communist from Poland, who,  after the Prague Spring, broke the spells of orthodoxy and the privileged life of an insider, and then led an itinerant and dissident life in the main universities of “the West”. I used to possess his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (I sold it in a fit of poverty in Canberra the year the Berlin Wall fell), and absorbed its deep aversion to the totalitarian spirit at the heart of that hydra-headed monster. I am forever grateful for the lifelong immunisation against that spirit, and look warily on spruikers of the revival of Marxist ideas in our troubled times.

Those ideas are resurgent in response to growing concerns with inequality, the disappointments of growth, and the predations of a merchant elite. Kolakowski’s essay recognises the truth in socialism, without succumbing to that instinct for one-party rule, for intellectual domination of society by the vanguard of the proletariat. He writes that a socialist believes:

“That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. ” Kolakowski

But his essay also sees the truth in liberalism. The ambidextrous liberal believes that the State must play a role in security, and that security should be extended to health care, education, employment, and a basic income. But they also believe that “human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness.” Today, Kolakowski might also see a threat of the strangulation of communities through the strictures placed on thought and speech by a radicalism that seeks to cleanse humanity of its traditions, affiliations and improvisations because they inevitably contain errors, guilty associations and unexamined habits.

That cultural repository is the domain of the conservative: the garden which serves as a refuge from a troubled world. Kolakowski gives the conservative three truthful propositions. Firstly:

“That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. ” Kolakowski

Secondly,

“That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.” Kolakowski

Thirdly,

“That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment — that envy, vanity, greed, and  aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed — is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.” Kolakowski

These nostrums speak to our times. In this year we have seen increasingly shrill debates between progressives, conservatives and radicals in a house they no longer wish to share. We have seen a backlash of populist nostalgia for ordinary ways of life . This is a revolt against the Enlightenment purity of economic reformers and their dangerous vision of a society ruled by contracts between individuals. This idea has dominated elites for thirty years. I have seen it up close. It has ravaged the institutions of government, and filled the halls of power with amoral condottiere, who ceaselessly mouth inanities about change and reform but do not comprehend what they have undone. We have seen a radicalised sexual politics, with its utopianism of the bedroom foisted onto classrooms, that is every bit as scary as Marcuse’s polymorphous perversity. We have seen a return of sacred violence, which can only be understood by acknowledging the power of traditional forms of social life, and especially religion. We have seen domineering autocrats, with no respect for the subtleties of our cultural inheritance, rise to power on the back of resentment. This resentment has been fueled by the attacks of reformers, corporations and identity politics on the lebenswelt of their fellow citizens.

Kolakowski’s invention of the ideal pluralist political thinker – the Conservative-Liberal-Socialist – is a gift of wisdom to our troubled times. It provides a way through the confusion of this moment of cultural disintegration that is infecting our political institutions. In this weekend’s Australian, the doyen of Australian political columnists, Paul Kelly, has published a piece entitled – “2017: West challenged in a spinning world.” It begins:

“Our age of disruption, decay and transformation reached a peak in 2017 and unleashed a shower of contradictions: democracy looks ineffective, politics has surrendered to an era of strong men, and the quest for enhanced individual autonomy now drives the culture.”

Like all political columns, it is an improvised interpretation of events passing before us. Just as, I suppose, any blog is too. While I do not share all of Kelly’s unease about the defeat of the Christian tradition, I agree with his three principal ideas: our political system is collapsing into dysfunction; our culture is experiencing deep losses and decay, and these two trends are deeply intertwined.

“The problem of our dysfunctional political system does not relate just to politics, finance, parties or the parliament. It is also about the public culture and where that culture is ultimately heading.” from Kelly”2017: West challenged in a spinning world.”

Nietzsche: “We are definitely ephemeral.”

 

Reflections on 2017

Reflections on 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and while it is yet weeks from New Year, the office christmas party season is in full swing, and my mind is turning to an upcoming holiday. I am approaching the end of my current assignment and am going into my annual leave without knowing what I will do or who I will be working with next year. It seems I am very much in internal exile in the minor provincial bureaucracy on which I depend for my livelihood.

I have a crushing sense of defeat in what I suppose I may still call a career. All the qualities that I have seem unwanted, and I can only suppose that the consultocrats and courtiers who run my Castle have decided rightly that I will never be a loyal follower to them. I need to begin to look elsewhere, and to find hope and purpose in more nourishing lands.

So, it occurs to me this morning that one way I can reconnect with a sense of strength is to reflect on this year through the lens of my blog. In many eyes it has been a dark year, but events of the world and events in the life of the mind have different rhythm.

So today let me recap the topics of my posts this year, and next week allow me to reflect on the themes and stories of the year.

In January, I had returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia during which I reread the redoubtable After Tamerlane by John Darwin.

  • It led to a post on the unravelling of empires “adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence” that defeat beliefs in any unitary imperial order, as we see today, when America declines into narcissistic tantrums and China redreams the One Road of Tamerlane.
  • A post on massacres in history discovered a precedent for Islamic foreign fighters in Syria in the exodus of youthful enthusiasts for Hellenic and Christian culture to the Greek war of independence. Among these fighters was the original literary psychopath – mad, bad and dangerous to know – Lord Byron.
  • Then my failure to read Don Quixote, led me to reflect on reading ambitions, and the sheer impossibility of realising them all in our media-saturated world. But the attempt led me to pose the paradox: “In our madness is our truest dignity?”
  • By the end of the month, by now returned to work, I began my series Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, inspired by Wallace Stevens poem with the same perspectives on a blackbird. I described this series as “an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.”

In February, I wrote posts in response to stanzas I through to V of Stevens’ poem, each with a new subtitle: I vigilance amidst stillness; II the three-eyed raven; III the craft of the cameo actor; IV in unity is death; and V the beauty of the bureaucrat.

In March, I completed the series, Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, with VI through barbaric glass darkly; VII at the feet of thin men; VIII involved in what I know; IX servants of Utopias; X flight in green light; XI people who live in glass coaches; XII the thaw, the flight; XIII the long waits of winter. I felt the last few posts were rushed, more lapidary, more gnomic. I have since collected all 14 posts together, and may yet expand into a short book. But I am so wary of the publication industry; I may simply self-publish.

In April, I turned to more literary and cultural themes. In that month I was intensely preparing a secret government report on violence and mental illness, and what, if anything could be done, to prevent acts like the Bourke Street vehicular homicide.

In May, I experimented with writing posts late at night in bed in response to the daily prompt on wordpress and fragments composed on my daily commute. It was, I confess, a search for readers.

  • I reposted a series of older posts from my blog, like six asides about culture (and Havel), and going sane writing, which was prompted by a role model of sorts the British psychoanalyst and essayist, Adam Phillips.
  • I curated more of my content, linking to an essay and conference paper I wrote on “Why is alcohol policy difficult?” This paper I presented to a conference of public health scholarly zealots. At least one person came up to me after my talk and expressed appreciation for what I said.
  • I reflected on Hannah Arendt and her philosophy of natality, which “spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.”
  • I appreciated Kenneth Slessor’s poem, Five Bells, linking to a beautiful radiophonic performance, and continuing the thoughts on natality:”To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success… Only for those five bells”

In June, I returned to something of a more stable pattern. I reflected on Robert Frost’s practice of poetry and the form of the blog in Waste books and epigrams.

  • I wrote an essay “On Humility” prompted by one of my favourite quotes by Jung and likely prompted by still more humiliations and rebuffs at work.
  • I posted the complete paper that I had presented to a conference on children’s voices and the history of emotions. The paper was about how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse created a new way of feeling about trauma. I will return to this paper, and my reflections on this inquiry in the tradition of truth and reconciliation commissions, over coming months, since I am committed to writing a long essay on the significance of this public event.
  • I castigated the Nobel Prize for literature for awarding Bob Dylan the prize.
  • I explored the powerful metaphor of the infinite conversation, which emerged for me as an important theme for my writing, my recovery and my psychotherapy.

In July, I published two poems of mine – The state of politics, and Nouriel’s shoes.

In August, I turned back to themes of politics. I was struggling to find a new place role for myself, and began to reach out to the powerful men who I knew as mentors if not as patrons.

  • I wrote some starting hypotheses for a planned essay, Republics in Distress. “So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.”
  • I wrote on my long held view about the restrictions of freedom of speech and freedom of thought for public servants.
  • Then I wrote a darker piece, The death of the soul, prompted by debates in the press about the decay of culture and decline of religion, in which I asked: “How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts?”

In September, amidst work I was undertaking on lone actor terrorist attacks, I reflected on the return of sacred violence, and this was a kind of dissent against comforting progressive notions of the causes and responses to terrorism.

  • I commented indirectly on the debate on destruction of monuments to historical figures who are no longer as widely esteemed. Here I said: “There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.”
  • And I posted more poems, with the best being Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel.

In October, I wrote about sorrow in response to my aged mother’s declining health and cognition; the Red Nostalgia I observed at a lecture on the centenary of Red October, the Russian Revolution; and the meaning for me of Keats’ poem, When I have fears:

  • “In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.”

In November, I returned to reflections on major cultural figures with Conrad’s DarknessForgetting Foucault; and Self-portrait in a time of hunger, which was a kind of premonition of this review of my own work. This last post contained some reflections on my enduring purpose and abiding concerns:

  • “I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?”

Lastly, in December, I have written just last week’s post On revenge, stirred by images of Captain Ahab, and this long recapitulation of the year.

Such has been my year. Reviewing my words, my reading, my images from the year has given me new strength. The verdicts of courtiers and consultocrats should not bother me. They bring nothing to the infinite conversation. I will survive beyond their defeat of me. I will walk unburnt from the flaming archive.

 

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art

 

The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper