That Whitsun, I was late getting away…
I have written before about May’s skip-in-the-step. Over two or three weeks from mid-April the world turns green, a callow lime, then in another two or three weeks in mid-May the earth gets very warm, retaining that moist dawn chill. Time was I would feel an urge to load up my panniers and cycle to a wooded area well away from London to make it with enough sunlight to pitch a tent, to make it to last orders in a village inn and be woken up under canvas by the dawn chorus. May in England was a happy interlude for the people between the hard work of sowing and seeding and harvesting. The pastoral exuberance became tied in with the church calendar, Ascension Day and Whitsun following on from the unwaveringly pagan May Day. The days off are still in the calendar making it a prelude to summer, when working for the man briefly becomes a sideshow.
Around this time of year a long time ago in student days I spent a weekend at the cathedral city home of my then girlfriend. That was the first time I met her father, an erudite, witty and world-weary history teacher at a boys school. He was enclosed by a scruffy armchair and engrossed in a thick, compact leather-bound volume. The book was Middlemarch, and he remained defiantly in the same position for most of that weekend, interrupting his absorption only for occasional barbed commentaries on the family activity around him and for a few hours on the Sunday when he drove us to hear Evensong. It added to my intrigue in the novel first stoked by my English teacher telling me that this was the best in the language, though it was never on our syllabus.
I finally read George Eliot’s ‘Study of Provincial Life’ (as she subtitled the novel) over several months of last year, largely while crouching for my early morning evacuations or belly down on my bed, head and elbows embracing my pillow, during the eyes’ and brain’s final efforts of the day. Occasionally I would sit in our own armchair in the silence of living room, may be on Sunday morning, before upstairs stirred. But I read the book in snatches of time, the short intervals between duties and distractions. Words imprinted in fast delible ink on my consciousness, before skittering off who knows where, like the surrendered leaves during last year’s stunning and mild autumn, the backdrop to my sojourn in the county of Loamshire.
What can I say which has not already been said and re-said about Middlemarch? We can expunge first all the superlative clichés. Tour de force, masterpiece, being in the presence of greatness, inspiring awe and plumbing the depths of humanity.
Her prelude, which like most of the content of this long read, quickly forgotten, used the trope of Saint Teresa of Avila to forerun Dorothea Brooke. I was at first completely unsympathetic to Dorothea, with her puritan maid foibles seeming to cloak a hermetic monomania. Dorothea is the object of patronizing, hagiography, ‘the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp’ speaking with the musician Ladislaw in sad ‘recitatives’. After several chapters of Dorothea’s stultifying interiority, it was a relief to meet Mrs Cadwalader, introduced as the ‘high-coloured, dark-eyed lady with the clearest chiselled utterance’, and later described as having a ‘mind, bracing injection of acerbic vim and humour.’ This early heroine sprays about bile and sarcasm, some about her own life choices, having been ‘obliged to get my coals by stratagem, and pray to heaven for my salad oil’.
Dorothea had been steeped in Rome, the post-nuptial sojourn imposed by Casaubon, and suffered the disorientation that the city induces in all of us who live non-epic lives, with its ‘oppressive masquerade of ages’, ‘everywhere like a disease of the retina’. But through her intense though brief psychological incarceration with Casaubon she is renewed as the redeemer of souls, a craved-for bolt of pure kindness.
The author’s muse is an intricate galaxy, aware of the universe. She describes her undertaking: ‘I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevance’s called the universe.’
Eliot never allows sentimentality to obtrude unchallenged by perspective: like when she deploys with exquisite irony the ease with which Sir James Cheetam’s overcomes the disappointment of being spurned by Dorothea, knowing that Celia would be a worthy back-up; like when she perceives how in courting you flinch from strutting to impress when you realise you may have given offence, with Will Ladislaw ‘taking the usual course from detraction to insincere eulogy’; like on the snobbery of Mr Vincy’s middle class, equating any former female teacher as a ‘woman who had had to work for her bread’; like on the tedium inflicted on the childless who are expected to admire ‘rapturously’ in the presence of someone enjoy someone’s (Celia’s) baby, like a model for Saint Catherine; and like on the clock-ticking intensity of the uncomprehending silences as Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage degenerated – ‘the total missing of each other’s mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other.’
Meanwhile Rosamond’s wish fulfilment is projected onto Will, in whose
presence she felt that agreeable titillation of vanity and sense of romantic drama which Lydgate’s presence had no longer the magic to create. She even fancied — what will not men and women fancy in these matters? — that Will exaggerated his admiration for Mrs. Casaubon in order to pique herself. In this way poor Rosamond’s brain had been busy before Will’s departure. He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui. She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes.
True likeability is only truly embodied in Mr Farebrother, who ‘without grins of suppressed bitterness or other conversational flavours which make half of us an affliction to our friends’, may be the only character bucking the narrator’s maxim that ‘We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.’
Of course there is irony in every paragraph, but it is trumped by compassion and sympathy. This is especially true when the narrator herself intervenes on behalf of the tragic half-villain Casaubon:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
I personally can relate to the delusions of intellectual grandeur which are the object of the narrator’s patronising meditations, as Casaubon vainly clung to hopes that ‘there might still be twenty years of achievement before him, which would justify the third years of preparation’, as he was ‘carrying his taper among the tombs of the past.’
One of the most poignant scenes in literature follows Casaubon receiving his unhappy prognosis from Lydgate. Dorothea, restraining her angry urge to lash back out at his cruelty, sees his frailty, and waits for him at the top of the stairs.
“Dorothea! … Were you waiting for me?”
“Yes. I did not like to disturb you.”
“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”
… She put her hand in to her husband’s hand, and they went along the broad corridor together.
This is akin to Lear and Cordelia in their last moments
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness.
The claustrophobia of relationships gone sour is mirrored in proud Lydgate and vain Rosamond, each deluded severally, though even at their lowest ebb there are little gestures of affection, soft touches.
And then there is Bulstrode, ‘his terror of being judged sharpens the memory’, so that ‘a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present… it is a still quivering part of himself, bring shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame’. Bulstrode was able to marry his religion with his business of profiting from lost souls so that by arguing that they were compatible, they became compatible. An army of misdeeds ‘like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness’ evaporated before the rhetorical question ‘Who could use money and position better than he meant to use them?’ A reasoning which the narrator points out is ‘no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide praises for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen.’ It is the self-justifying refrain of every millionaire in the world.
Dorothea explains her beliefs after the last vestiges of hope in her marriage had vanished:
“That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower. “
And she stops Will Ladislaw when he attempts to categorise this wisdom:
“Please not to call it by any name… You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl.”
Hearing from her uncle the fall from grace of Bulstrode and Lydgate, Dorothea was ‘full of health and animation, and stood with her head bare under the gleaming April lights’, and at the churchyard gate entreated alliance with Farebrother restore Lydgate’s reputation. She becomes the agent of regeneration as she rides to speak to Rosamond, at one with ‘the clear spring morning, the scent of greenery from out their half-opened sheaths’.
Later, as Will nears the redemption proffered by Dorothea, the narrator distils her formula further, – ‘pain must enter into its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion’. Pain, via memory, into compassion: the equivalent of Wagner’s Parsifal, Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor.
But Dorothea is able to go beyond compassion, after her last trial, a distraught night sleeping on the cold floor of the Manor,
She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
This is her epiphany, seeing herself from the outside, part of involuntary palpitating life, and this in turn enables Rosamond to perceive and to recognise human kindness, unlocking the door to reconciliation with Lydgate. It is Shakespeare rewritten in prose.
To be reductionist I can say that the novel is a comedy. Like a new Taming of the Shrew, the evasion and courtship of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, in whose weaving dialogue, words are picked up like unwieldy tools, passing them back and forth turning them against each other. It is humanity in its various forms, no black and white caricaturing, weaknesses and secrets, all are deserving of some measure of sympathy, and the story ends with marriages which both author and reader have been urging on, between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, and with the resuscitation of the fallen marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond.
Middlemarch eschews Dickensian comeuppances, or the dark dissonant endings of pessimists and cynics. Life just goes on. Reckonings are mild and tempered. It is a pastoral Ulysses.
The growing good of the world depends on unhistoric acts.
How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
April 23rd: St George’s Day and the Birthday of the Bard.
We share George, who was a Syrian, with Portugal, Romania, Georgia, Malta and Gozo. It is a day to raise pints of ale in honour of True Englishness in all its mongrel, inclusive, tolerant diversity. This exuberant cocktail of Celtic-Pictish-Roman-Anglo-Jutish-Saxon–Danish-Norman-Jewish-Irish-Huguenot-Jamaican-Indian-Nigerian-Polish-Syrian homo sapiens. That’s what makes up the English. So England for the English.
It is the successive, unpredictable waves of immigration, of thoughts and ideas, of people and things, to this verdant other Eden which inspires hope and holds out the promise of redemption. A thoroughfare of saints and sinners, charity and rotten lucre.
On this youthful day of spring day of blossoms and bird song, let’s not cease to build Jerusalem.
Tomorrow my team plays ‘La STIB’, La Société des Transports intercommunaux de Bruxelles, the public transport service, whose first football XI is composed of grizzled Moroccan tram drivers evincing a compelling blend of truculence, modest technical ability and comedy play-acting.
We have had several memorable encounters with la STIB over the years, like when they forced us to play on their second home pitch, a surface so scuffed and holey that after two minutes of play our captain gathered the ball in his hands and announced that conditions were too hazardous to continue, invoking article something or other of regulation something or other. We duly flounced back to the changing rooms sporting neither bead of sweat nor smear of mud.
No, my team, which boasts its own hard core of flamboyant Moroccans, doesn’t get on with la STIB.
In our most controversial set-to to date, tensions had already been running high when suddenly, amid the niggles, theatrical face-offs, flailing elbows and general shithousery, midway through the second half, our athletic and otherwise placid inside right (not of Moroccan descent) lost his shit, planting a firm right hand jab in the face of his latest assailant. As is customary in such circumstances, the other players clustered around the couple, some of them remonstrating, others pretending to mollify and restrain. Threats were bandied to and fro – one issuing from a representative of la STIB who promised the starkest of reckonings ‘après le match’.
“Après le match?” retorted our resident pugilist, his ire once more raised. “Mais chaque fois tu dis après le match’. And with that he landed his right fist on a second face belonging to la STIB.
Neither of these blows received answer in kind, because in my limited experience Moroccan men, though often adept at threatening violence, are generally peace-loving servants of God. Meanwhile, almost forgotten amidst this isolated melée in the Brussels suburb of Evere, stood the referee, waiting for the storm to settle. He said nothing, brandished no cards and, when the squall subsided, actually awarded a free kick to my team.
The rest of the game passed without incident; likewise après le match.
In another game, now as a substitute I sat on the bench, watching the action next to our (Moroccan, injured) captain. La STIB had a promising free kick, just outside our penalty area. Their coach prowled hopefully along the touchline, barking, coaxing and cajoling. The ensuing effort scudded harmlessly wide of our goal. ‘Bien essayé! Bien essayé!’ he shouted encouragingly, before turning away and exclaiming irascibly to himself in Arabic how he really felt .
Our captain chuckled as he translated for me this intensely private exclamation: ‘C’est quoi cette merde!’
My three-old is inclined to arrange objects in a line at regular intervals, a series of temporary installations which she invariable calls ‘a train’.
Last night’s ‘train’ rested on what we can assume to be a ‘track’ of a beige, two-metre strip of paper, punctuated by foam packaging which we may consider represent sleepers, one of which bore an lapel of artificial white carnations.
The end of the strip of paper overlay the first of three cardboard boxes, which constituted I suppose the carriages of the train.
These carriages contained in turn:
And at the at the head of the train, two children’s chairs lying on their backs.
The whispering suspension of supernatural breath
A poised avalanche trembles on thrusting root
That groans and rustles in the dark
James Kirkup, For the 90th Birthday of Sibelius
Today’s Gospel reading is the wedding of Cana, the traditional first miracle of Christ. In John’s urgent narrative (captured in the incendiary opening bars of Bach’s Passion), already before the scene opens in Chapter Two Jesus had been cosmically situated, been baptised and had assembled his entourage. The boozy nuptials mark the transition from Jesus’ hitherto mundane life, represented by his family, to his short and spectacular roadshow.
Mary approaches Jesus with a remark coy and terse, ‘There is no wine’. Jesus at first reacts like a hoodie who has been tapped on the shoulder after walking past a car with the alarm set off. ‘So what? Nothing to do with me.’
He had a point: If they are already drunk, he reasoned why should I give them more? Anyway I can’t.
But then suddenly he glimpses the abyss. ‘My time has not yet come’.
Wine had made him think of blood, his blood, and the last supper, his last drink of vinegar sucked from a sponge on the cross. This is Christ foreboding, as we see him at the end of the road in the Garden of Gethsemane, albeit played with less intensity, the sort of comedic premonitions with which Shakespeare laces Henry IV Part I. Jesus is reluctant to start the journey, knowing where it would lead.
(Or else the episode is just show, a mother goading, teeing up her favourite: Go on my boy, show them what you can do. In that reading the whole thing is a rehearsed display, the opening night. And if he had not performed miracles before, how could Mary be sure that he had one up his sleeve? I suppose she, more than anyone, had witnessed his precocity.)
There is no answer to his rejoinder, his challenges are rhetorical. This briefest of exchanges could even be read as an interior monologue, Jesus’s mother playing cipher, prodding him towards his destiny.
With her son in his reverie, Mary doesn’t try to persuade him. Instead she breaks off and – knowingly, wryly, even wearily – instructs the servants – ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ The master of the feast complements the bridegroom on the vintage drawn unexpectedly from the water jars. The best wine saved till last, miracle wine, a boon, an unwarranted plenty when your needs are modest.
Now full with fire and the spirit, in the next scene Jesus takes up a whip and drives the merchants from the Temple. Off we go.
In our garden, a single heavy fall of snow two nights ago was loosened by occasional rain, but a thick layer has been sustained by the low temperatures, giving it an aerated quality, a satisfying crunchiness under foot. This moment, not the winter solstice, Christmas or New Year’s Day, is the real beginning of the cycle, when the cold seizes the forest and the spring stirrings underground have to be imagined.
Spears of snowdrops, prematurely clustering in their usual dip at the back of the garden, are now themselves covered in snow just as they were beginning to push through their silent white petals. Hesitancy and defiance.
This survey is not about Syria, as you present it. It is about whether to agree with the Tory Government to use our air force to drop bombs on Daesh targets in Syria.
There are a lot of men in Syria, especially those fighting for Daesh, who consider it an honour to be cruel and murderous toward the world around them. If this unique diplomatic moment allows the UK to use its military force to diminish the ability of these men to perform wicked acts, even by killing them, then the UK should do it. It is a horrible thing to do, but it is, on balance, better than doing nothing. And just talking about the problem, is tantamount to doing nothing.
I hope that one day technology will enable good people to stun bad people before they do bad things; to freeze them in the act before the harm is done, and then force them to talk and negotiate. So that, in the process of attempting to prevent harm, nobody gets harmed, not even the person intending to commit the harm. Technology might get us there one day. Human nature, which is at core brutal and animalistic, and by evolution, gratuitously destructive, will not.
There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat . But when his disciples saw it , they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it , he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. …
It did not take long for the wheels of the Great British Hug-A-Refugee bandwagon to fall off.
Yesterday in response to a rabid Daily Mail headline the story occupied the airwaves of a Home Office contractor using a luxury car to ‘transit’ asylum seekers from one hovel in London to another in Manchester. The BBC served up an earnest reporter to explain to concerned viewers in their sincere voice saying that the firm had apologised for the error of using inappropriate transport for asylum seekers and that the premium which presumably usually attaches to such taxiing would not be passed on to the public purse. And so the nations anger is quelled.
Inappropriate. When has there ever been an appropriate use of a limo? The rapid transiting of Russian kleptocrats or Chinese autocrats through foreign capitals? Lary hen parties giving it large in Basildon and environs?
In August David Cameron and his foreign secretary Philip Hammond spoke respectively of ‘swarms’ of ‘marauding migrants’ threatening our ‘standard of living’, in a sort of imagined reverse siege of Calais, where England’s island tranquillity had to be shielded from the unshaven hordes in ‘the Jungle’. Then in September the images of a three-year-old Syrian washed up on a Turkish beach made it suddenly fashionable for politicians and journalists to substitute ‘migrants’, with its connotations of mischief and opportunism, for ‘refugees’, more redolent of unfortunate strays in desperate need of our pathos and donations. It has not lasted long. Yesterday the familiar dehumanising lexicon made its exuberant return, with ‘intimidating’ groups of migrants ‘overwhelming’ an English village.
First of all this should not be a story at all. So what if a carload of the world’s downtrodden have happened to travel in a posh vehicle for a few miles. And so what if it was a mistake and they should actually have been bundled into a minivan?
Second, if it was to be of journalistic interest, it could have been a semi-humorous, saccharine piece of journalism about how Mr Whatshisname had within weeks gone from fleeing torture and barrel-bombing in Syria to leather upholerstered chauffeured stretch Hummer.
But no, in England there must be outrage that the government may have funded a one-off expensive taxi ride for an asylum seeker. The implication that these are the least befitting of any form of luxury. That they ought to be grateful for even being admitted to detention in the country, pending an asylum decision. Any upgrade on a shithole is an insult to hard-working taxpayers and to unemployed servicemen. It is now necessary to issue public apologies for inadvertently dispensing modest and ephemeral privilege upon displaced Africans.
In other words, asylum seekers are subhuman.
This was a week after Theresa May cynically inverted facts about economic benefits of immigration. From a Home Secretary who has attempted to curtail freedom of expression on grounds of ‘incitement to hatred’, this was brazen, inflammatory and divisive right wing politics at its most contemptible. The Tories are sowing and cultivating animosity between poorer sections of society, diverting frustration at inequality and injustice towards the most defenceless. I heard the other day Emily Dugan, a thoughtful and conscientious investigative journalist, documenting the social fracturing which afflicts Boston Lincolnshire, the town with the highest proportion of people from post-2004 EU enlargement in Britain.
We are told that this is an overcrowded island. Bollocks. It’s like food shortages, famines and malnutrition when two thirds of the affluent west are overweight or obese and where waste enough food to feed the planet. Of course there is room for immigrants, the thousands or hundreds of thousands who are committed and resourceful enough to find their way to this wet corner of Eurasia. I would offer them temporary digs not on former inner city council estates, or in Longford, LB Hillingdon, or Boston Lincs, but on country estates, in the Prime Minister’s bucolic constituency, or in the west London penthouses left empty by oligarchs in order to launder their ill-gotten wealth. I would even offer a family my spare room while they get themselves set up. Why, in the 21st century, should the indigenous, relative poor of western countries be burdened with accommodating the migrating poor?
It is often speculated in pulpits around Christendom that Jesus, had he appeared today, the suffering servant, would appear in the guise of a stateless unshaven migrant, or a trafficked prostitute: ‘despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not’.
Jesus did not have an easy life, but he did not make a virtue out of misery.
John Reid, one of the fix-it-men of the late Blair years, though certainly not a star of the first magnitude in recent political life, did to his credit trot out some memorable – albeit overworked – clichés. One of his commonplaces seemed to paraphrase partially the sentiment expressed by Christ in the house of Simon the Leper when he was annointed with perfume, a vignette indicating the nervous restiveness among the disciplines; the last anecdote in the Gospel of Matthew before Judas sloped off to offer his betray for thirty silver coins and the story of the passion gets underway. ‘Nothing,’ Reid once said to me, with a twinkle in his eye and a twitch in his neck, ‘nothing is too good for the working classes’.
Nothing is too good for the tired, the huddled masses, yearning to be free.
Rarely you read something that alters how you look at the world around you. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity was one such book for me. It is not a masterpiece. It relies on the familiar large-fonted, sweeping sensationalism which is now the stock in trade of paper publishing, and a lot of his generalisations are for the birds. But with his direct, clipped prose Harari opens up blinding horizons. Like how Keanu Reeves must have felt after his near-death snog with Carrie Anne Moss gave him the ability to see the Matrix.
Adam’s descendants have faithfully executed God’s instruction to fill and subdue the earth. It was already obvious from the concrete expanses of our towns and cities, intervening deforested landscapes dissected by roads and intense farming. But I hadn’t realised that non-domesticated mammals give humans a wide berth because they have learned to fear us through thousands of generations of repression and abuse.
The hitherto unremarkable Sapiens moved out of East Africa across the earth following a mysterious eureka! moment 70,000 years ago: the ‘cognitive revolution’, which Harari attributes to a new skill for forging fictions which suddenly were powerful enough for humans to form cohesive groups of over 150 individuals. Since then all the great fauna considered rivals to our supremacy have been annihilated, including our closest peers, the various other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans who, far from being the cliched ‘missing link’, co-existed with Sapiens in the same way as there are several species of each other animal genus today. ‘The earth a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man,’ writes Harari. ‘It’s our current exclusivity not that multi-species past that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating… we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.’ The leading theories for the extinction of neanderthals are competitive replacement, pathogens, or plain genocidal violence: the last of these would come of no surprise to anyone who follows the news, or even merely considers the trivial unthinking acts of wilful destruction that go unremarked, like the splatting of insect intruders in our homes. Now we are at last ravaging and devastating the oceans, nature’s last redoubt.
We look for pristine way of life and purity of intent in less civilised inhabited parts of the world, but the fellow sapiens living there are themselves descended from foraging migrants who laid waste to competitor species, like the original human invaders of Australia 45,000 years ago whose depredations wiped out each of the multiple species of large animal inhabitant excepting the kangaroo. Mass extinctions recurred whenever humans first appeared: the latest being New Zealand 800 years ago. Mankind envelopes the earth like the W.G. Sebald vision of sleep’s death sickle laying people down as night falls progressively around the planet. The archaeological pattern is always the same: first diversity and human absence, then a human bone and a spear point, then only men and women. The casualty list is extensive, and includes the elephant birds of Madagascar 1500 years ago, the giant ground sloth of the americas 12000-50,000 years ago, the diprodopon of Australia.
The will to conquer is enduring. I heard once that finance and banking have always consisted in the strong and intelligent finding ever more ingenious ways to rip off the weak. Politics is an exhausting and brutal game of shifting alliances of convenience and doublecrossing. The office, the sports field, the dinner party are all powerplays of one man or woman trying to outwit the other. Why am I writing this blog? Because I want people to pay attention to me, to say nice things about me, to like me, and not someone else.
Those of us who profess to be generous progressives of socialist bent are no different. The Labour Party is currently in existential crisis because it does not know whether it should be trying to wrest back government or instead to indulge in ideological smugness. Each wing is striving for vindication and superiority. They struggle to accept that each of us, as we accrete worldly items, a partner, a house, a car, children, become conservative – we will resist any force which, like Ed Miliband or refugees from Syrian, seems to want to take these away. It is easy to propound the redistribution of wealth when your possessions are not at stake, such a political stance adds a glam ideological accoutrement to an already affluent wardrobe. No one is immune to this self-absorption: one of the most saintly figures of our day, Aun San Suu Kyi, herself appears completely indifferent to the situation of the stateless Rohingya because that is politically expedient thing to do.
We all peddle myths. Elites who in the past who used to talk about the Great Chain of Being and social classes, now preach ‘equality’ and ‘meritocracy’. Back to Harari: ‘Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the exisetnce of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.’
Our current stock of myths deliver diminishing returns. We now need to formulate a myth which will stave off ecological catastrophe and the Singularity, when the computers take over. Perhaps the former can only be prevented by the latter.
Once when we were in the Alpes after a day’s hiking in high summer among the marmottes and ibex, we saw below in the valley a network of buildings, little coloured vehicles mostly parked, a few moving sliently along the roads. ‘Humans are a plague,’ remarked suddenly my closest companion. I jovially shrugged away this uncharitable observation. And yet, consider the impact of the supreme species of our green- blue globe in an unfeeling, unfathomable universe, and the dark epigram is irrefutable.
A little perspective can be asphyxiating.
Exploitation does not pertain to corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is the consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Close readers of this blog may have surmised that I had a somewhat religious upbringing, and that over the years some of the loonier notions have been jettisoned while the tenets of the faith permeated deeper. I’ve long realised that there is no pure unmediated connection with the divine, and I’ve been exasperated by fundamentalists. First because they reduce the scriptures to the arbitrarily selected passages which justify their own prejudices. Second because they fail in their Biblicism to see that assuming the infallibility of presumed authors and revisers of the books of the Bible implies equal infallibility in the decisions of the compilers of the canon, of which books should be included or excluded. Better, following Irenaeus, to spend time contemplating the life of Jesus and emulating his example, rather than fixating – as Paul demanded – on the propitiatory transaction of salvation through his death.
But then a few years ago I picked up, at bookshop in the Church of St Edmund on Lombard Street, a musty 1950s edition of Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament, which for the first time transported me into the mists of the Christian dawn. I became haunted, I think that’s the word, by the historical Jesus and his immediate followers. Jesus, even as mediated and shaped by the gospels, certainly used different lexicon (e.g. ‘son of man’) to St Paul and other writers of the New Testament canon, and he almost certainly was driven by a different set of priorities. What exactly happened after the concentrated collective trauma of the Crucifixion? (Wie es eigentlich gewesen, as all good history students start off by asking.) It looks like Jesus’s brother James led the early church in Jerusalem until the powderkeg of Roman rule over the Palestinian Jews (in which Jesus was only one of the agitators) erupted catastrophically with the emperor Titus’s destruction of the city in 70AD. Then the centre of gravity of the new sect moved out to the provinces of Asia Minor and eventually to Rome itself, and the umbilical link to the Jewish heritage, especially its more recent Maccabean sedition, was gradually severed. There ensued an agglomeration of founding myths, political expediency and compelling theology. Knowledge and orthodoxy crystalised and became bound up with power. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s masterpiece, A History of Christianity spans time and geography to recount the rich, intimate and bloody tapestry that has been woven since.
So much for Christianity. People are all what Leibniz called ‘windowless monads’, individuals moving in space motivated by instincts most of which we cannot or refuse to question, but which tend to coalesce into collective action; collective action which is mostly, as Leibniz believed, harmonious, apart from the occasional genocide or other act of gratuitous cruelty. Each of us thrives or suffers according what we have inherited or else our ability for gaining at the expense of others. The backdrop to and side effect of this human experiment is, of course, accelerating environmental degradation.
I am going to pan back further, inspired by what Yuval Harari has euphemistically called humanity’s ‘disturbing secret’, where the sense of the uncanny becomes unbearable. Maybe tomorrow.