Monday, March 2, 2015

Abstention

As I have noted on previous occasions, each generation believes that the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  How could it be otherwise? Whether it arrives via a footsore messenger, a sailing ship in port from distant lands, telegraph, television, or the Internet, the News of the World is not, and has never been, calculated to inspire confidence in the goodwill and beneficence of humanity.

Thus, when I launch into one of my periodic rants about Modernity (Science, Progress, the media, politicians, et cetera), I ought to know better.  Yes, of course:  the World is going to Hell in a handbasket.  But this has never been the fault of current events, which are invariably horrendous and dispiriting.  Nor is it the fault of the makeshift (and risible) political, economic, and scientific nostrums that are developed in each generation in order to "explain" and "correct" all that is wrong with the World.  Rather, this has always been a matter of False Gods versus Eternal Verities.

Still, I must confess to believing this:  when it comes to the balance between Eternal Verities and False Gods, there has been a grievous wrong-turning.

                    On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (1964).

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

The False Gods usually have the upper hand:  their superficial appeal and their promise of immediate gratification are alluring.  The Eternal Verities are, on the other hand, sober and tradition-bound.  Old-fashioned. Sentimental.  Boring.

You may have noticed that I have not attempted to define the False Gods and the Eternal Verities.  Although I have no illusions about human nature, I persist in believing that most of us know the difference between the real and the feigned, the true and the false.  In the final scene of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Artur Sammler stands beside the body of his nephew Elya Gruner, which lies on a gurney in an autopsy room in the bowels of a hospital.  In "a mental whisper," Sammler speaks the final words of the novel:

"At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be.  He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet -- through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding -- he did meet the terms of his contract.  The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.  As I know mine.  As all know.  For that is the truth of it -- that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet (Viking Press 1970).

                         Existence

Clearly this stupid world doesn't inspire
anything now but an intense antipathy,
an urge to vanish and be done with it;
you hardly dare pick up a newspaper.

Perhaps we should go back to the old home
where our ancestors lived under the eye
of heaven, and find the curious harmony
that sanctified their lives from womb to tomb.

It's some kind of faith for which we yearn,
some gentle web of close dependencies
transcending and containing our existence.
We can no longer live so far from the eternal.

Michel Houellebecq (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove (The Gallery Press 2013).

Charles Cundall, "Temeside, Ludlow" (1923)

A poem that Mahon wrote long before he translated Houellebecq's poem seems apt.

                  Nostalgias

The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches;
The kettle yearns for the mountain,
The soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On a desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing 'Abide with Me.'

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Lisbeth Jane Brand (1907-1970), "Winter"

The Eternal Verities are, well, eternal.  Call them revenants, but they are always there.  Let me be clear:  I have only a vague notion of what they are. I remain in thrall to the False Gods.  But the choice is ever ours.  Perhaps abstention is the first step.

                 The Valley Wind

Living in retirement beyond the World,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And stuff my window with roots and ferns.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season;
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.

Lu Yun (4th century A. D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Remember, and take heart:  "They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it."  Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (1952).

Charles Frederick Dawson, "Accrington From My Window" (1932)

9 comments:

bruce floyd said...

When a man is tested his true character will reveal itself. We see this over and over again in the novels of Joseph Conrad. We all know the story of how Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness", when put to the test, proved hollow, allowed the worst part of himself to commit the most egregious atrocities.

Conrad's "hero, Marlow, clung to a few verities winnowed out of experience and thought, and relied upon them.

When the boat has engine trouble, the travelers are put ashore to mingle with the natives, to "go have a howl."

Marlow stays on board. Conrad knew evil existed, that it lurked in every man. He knew too that the only way to stand up to evil in with truth, belief, adamantine belief, rock-hard truth.

Principles and sentiments are fine things perhaps but they thrive when a man is sitting by a warm fire, his belly full.

In a crisis, a man must cling to a strong belief, a certainty. He must meet the "stuff" of evil with his own "stuff."

Ah, yes, sentiment and principles were great things to Kurtz when he was in Europe, before he entered the heart of darkness, and when he crept into the darkness, his principles and sentiments, all of them founded upon nothing stronger than a butterfly's wings, were impotent to prevent his descent into the worst kind of barbaric behavior. Kurtz's grand idealism faded as breath into the wind.

When the monster is set free, is unshackled, a man cannot met it with sentimentality or shallow principles. He can meet it only with a few trusted verities, a few simple rules by which he lives, out of which he hammers out belief. Kurtz is corrupted; Marlow is not.

The below passage from "Heart of Darkness" might help explain why.

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there-- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity-- like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you--you so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage--who can tell?-- but truth--truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder--the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff--with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won't do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags--rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row--is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. Of course, a fool, what with sheer fright and fine sentiments, is always safe. Who's that grunting? You wonder I didn't go ashore for a howl and a dance? Well, no--I didn't. Fine sentiments, you say? Fine sentiments, be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes--I tell you. I had to watch the steering, and circumvent those snags, and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man..

Phil Ewing said...

Wonderful - many thanks and blessings.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you indeed for sharing the passages from Conrad. He is hard to beat on this topic, isn't he? Marlow is one of my favorite fictional characters.

I am no expert on Conrad, but I think an argument can be made that this is the underlying theme of nearly everything he wrote. Certainly Lord Jim deals with the same issue. In a previous post, I quoted this passage from the book, which I think is apt here: "It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge."

Again, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for sharing this.

Stephen Pentz said...

Phil Ewing: Thank you very much. I'm pleased you liked the post. I'm happy you found your way here, and I hope you will return soon. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I like the last poem very much -- a great weather-watcher, I like the idea that I am attuned to cosmic changes.
And excellent paintings -- the shapes of the bare trees, & the sense of earliest spring light, are lovely.
Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: It's good to hear from you again. I'm glad you liked the poem. It is one of my favorite Chinese poems, which is attributable no doubt to another of Waley's lovely translations. The last two lines are wonderful: particularly "My cottage becomes a Universe." In that regard, I hope you have been able to make your home a Universe while enduring this winter's weather back there!

I agree with you about the tree branches and spring light. I was noticing the patterns of the trees on one of my recent walks, and I think it led to me choosing these paintings. I was thinking that, although I am happy at the arrival of spring, I will miss the bare branches against the blue sky.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Wurmbrand said...

It's about 11:00 am on the 10th of November 2015, and I have just discovered this ... I hesitate to say blog, will just say this place. I anticipate good hours of exploration. Samuel Palmer, Walter de la Mare, C. S. Lewis and more.

Wurmbrand said...

Do you know Phyllis Sandeman's little book Treasures on Earth?

From a piece about the book that I wrote a few years ago for the New York C. S. Lewis Society (though I live in rural North Dakota):

Lewis wrote to Phyllis Elinor Sandeman on 10 Dec. 1952 to thank her for the newly-published book Treasure on Earth, her account of Christmas 1906 at her family's great Cheshire country house of Lyme Park (called Vyne Park in the book). He praised her evocation of a child's consciousness of home life, and liked her illustrations for the book. The house had recently been given to the National Trust, and the book's epilogue, dated 1946, conveyed Mrs. Sandeman's reconciliation to the vanishing of ways of life the house had represented. She felt fortunate in being able to remember "a gentler world -- a world before total wars and atom bombs and horror camps and miserable starving slaves," but accepted the inevitable loss "of all earthly things; whether it was a world civilisation or a human being, or a house." Lewis responded sympathetically: "it isn't only Houses: the very earth is being destroyed, the shapes of the hills disappear, the rabbits are gassed."

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you very much for your two comments, and for your kind words about the blog. I'm pleased that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return.

And thank you as well for the information about Phyllis Sandeman's book (which I hadn't heard of), and Lewis's comments on it in his letter to her. I was able to find a copy of the letter on the Internet, and it is lovely. I like how he quotes Tennyson after the passage you quote in your comment: "All things are taken from us and become Portions and parcels of the dreadful past." Very nice.

Thank you again.