Sunday, February 9, 2014

Winter Into Spring, Part Seven: "Mystery, Unresting, Taciturn"

Lo and behold: yesterday I saw the first crocuses of the year.  Purple and yellow they were, on a sunny patch of ground facing westward.  They seem a trifle premature in this week's freezing weather.  And tonight the snow has begun to fall.  Ah, but what do I know?

There is ever a mystery to all this, isn't there?  And our ability to put names to it, to "explain" it -- in the language of Science -- means nothing.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "February Afternoon"

                         The Wood

I walked a nut-wood's gloom.  And overhead
A pigeon's wing beat on the hidden boughs,
And shrews upon shy tunnelling woke thin
Late winter leaves with trickling sound.  Across
My narrow path I saw the carrier ants
Burdened with little pieces of bright straw.
These things I heard and saw, with senses fine
For all the little traffic of the wood,
While everywhere, above me, underfoot,
And haunting every avenue of leaves,
Was mystery, unresting, taciturn.
          .          .          .          .          .
And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (1919).  The ellipses are in the original.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I tend to be skeptical of the primacy of Science in our modern world, and the claims that are made for it in the name of "progress."  (See, for example:  Wittgenstein and "Progress"; Edmund Blunden and  "Progress"; R. S. Thomas and "Progress.")  I should be clear that I am not opposed to the practice of science that leads to cures for diseases, efficient plumbing, and The Wonders of the Internet.

But I am opposed to the utopian belief (which is what it is: a belief -- no different than any sincerely-held religious belief) that Science, by "explaining" all, will ameliorate our ills, improve our lives, and, ultimately, bring us to the gates of Paradise.  Alas (for true believers), scientific "explanation" leaves one tiny thing out of account:  the human soul -- individual, indissoluble, and inexplicable.  As it happens, this tiny omission invalidates the whole utopian project.  For which we can all be grateful.  Oh, well, back to the drawing board . . .

John Aldridge, "Bridge, February" (1963)

               In the Conservatory

A bird's nest lined with leaves and moss
Kept here through the winter . . .
                  Spring come, I find among leaf-mould
A brown mouse -- the tail an unlikely flourish --
Modelling the letter 'C'
As if it stood for Comfort,
Though it lay there fixed and cold.

Clive Wilmer, The Times Literary Supplement (December 8, 2006).

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"


Anonymous said...

Your comments on scientism are apposite and handsomely made. These magnificent paintings themselves point clearly to the 'something more' that materialist dogma will always fail to account for.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. You make a great point about the paintings and the "something more" they embody. I could look at "Besyln's Pond, Great Bardfield" for hours and never get to the bottom of it (no pun intended).

This (along with political utopianism) is a long-time bee in my bonnet, as you've no doubt noticed. Of course, I realize my concerns are hopelessly out-dated and quixotic.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

From John Gray's book "Heresies," from a incisive and insightful chapter on Joseph Conrad:

"The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have."

As you intimate,now, these present days, is good time to be living if you have dental problems, need a cataract removed from an eye, but the human predicament is still with us, no matter how albaster teeth glitter. In the dark night of the human soul Ahag still roams the sea, his wooden leg tapping on the deck of the "Pequod."

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: you are the second reader who has called my attention to John Gray after I have gone off on one of my apostrophes about progress and science. I am still ashamed to say that I haven't gotten around to reading any of his books. But I suspect that his writing will be very congenial to me.

The passage you quote is perfect (and states things much more cogently and insightfully than I am capable of doing). I'm intrigued by the fact that it comes from a chapter on Conrad, who I am very fond of. I tried unsuccessfully to track the full text down on the Internet after receiving your comment, but wasn't able to do so. So I will pick up a copy of Heresies.

However, I did find Gray's introduction to the book, which contains this: "Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration to the human condition. . . . History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs."

I think this goes quite well with your quote from Gray -- and with your image of Ahab.

Thank you very much for your thoughts.