Conversations June 22, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

4:30 AM. All right, who’s up?

Remember to include yesterday’s insight with this record.

All right. I take it that is tying two strands together for purposes of your own.

Yesterday I had this thought: In his writing, Hemingway attacked or addressed certain threads, not necessarily certain individuals. Critics looking for the key to his fiction can’t see that sometimes he may use this thread from here, that thread from there, to create a character. The threads are from life. The characters and situations and incidents don’t have to be.

[EH] The point of recording that is that it illustrates how you can work from a theory that is wrong, and still get good results. Nobody in my day thought in terms of individuals being collections of threads in quite the way you have been given it, but we thought of traits and moods and streaks, and came out at about the same place.

Examples of epicycles.

Examples, anyway, of life trumping theory, and observation of life trumping science or theology in showing you how things are. When your model changes, it isn’t like you throw out everything you ever knew; you just see it differently.

For instance.

For instance the end of the world, like you were talking about to your friends last night. The end of the world — you have come to understand — isn’t so much the end of any particular social arrangements or physical structure; it’s an end to the world people know, and an end to the way they see things and feel things; an end to the people they were. Mostly, it is an end to the production of more people like the ones living then: Their children are going to be alien to them in how they think and act. You embodied it, as part of a post-war generation. Fitzgerald and I embodied it for the post-World War I generation, even though we ourselves had grown up before the war.

In times of accelerating change, such as you’ve lived your whole life in, and I did too, it becomes natural to see change as if it were constant. If things were to come to a halt, you’d find it a hell of an adjustment.

That doesn’t seem very likely to happen.

What seems likely and what you get don’t have to be the same thing.

No, that’s for sure. And so the point is what — that we’re going to come to an end of change?

No, that’s the nightmare your survivalists live under. Everything goes bang and they spend the rest of their lives in the forest, gathering nuts. Not going to happen.

So –?

So “the end of the world” was just an example of epicycles. Anybody in your time who wants to see, or in fact isn’t dead set against seeing, can’t help see that what you’ve got can’t go on very much longer. Depending on which piece of the puzzle they have, they see the disruption differently, but who do you know who’s saying “It’s always going to be like this; this is the way it’s always been and this is how it will be for our children”? But there were lots of times in history when it seemed that way, because change came slowly and usually incrementally rather than by a sudden event.

I was moved, yesterday, to pull out Hillaire Belloc’s The Crisis Of Civilization, that I bought some time ago with two other of his books. I read the other two immediately but couldn’t bring myself to pick this one up or get past the second or third page. Yesterday I read the first third of it, and I’m anxious to read the rest.


I guess. Hillaire Belloc argues that the fairest, most human, most satisfying society the West has ever known — and I think he’d say, the world has ever known — was the society of the High Middle Ages, after Christendom had survived three centuries of attacks from the Norsemen and Asian hordes, and had thrown back the Muslims from central France back over the Pyrenees into Spain, and had begun the long slow Reconquista.

I don’t know anybody who longs for a return to the Middle Ages. On the other hand, I don’t know anybody who knows even as little as I do about that age’s successes and satisfactions. Hmm, Bertram, are you interested in discussing the subject? A little three-way conversation between a sometime author in the 21st century, sort of an amateur; and a globally famous author of the 20th; and a Norman English monk of the 1200s.

You’ve never been sure if I am in the 12th or 13th century, and autobiographical detail means nothing. Yes, I am here.

It must be a curious feeling, talking to your future, so to speak. As if I were to talk to men of the 29th century. You’d think there would be some limit to how far anybody could stretch himself, even without a body to contain him to one idea of himself in one time and place.

If any of us were separate, perhaps that would be so.

Yes, I see. I tend to forget that the “I” that was (is?) Bertram or Ernest or Frank is intimately connected to others, however it works. So you may have “reincarnated” as others in other times and hence be as much at home there as where you were.

You have forgotten, somehow: You originally conceived that you yourself are a reincarnation of me. Your ideas have matured since then.

So they have. Matured and gotten fuzzier. Well — taking up my job as ringmaster — let’s discuss the Middle Ages and us. And, as I write that, I begin to see a commonality – Ernest’s Catholicism and mine, and our dissatisfaction with this very unjust, restless, vulgar — being tasteless and without what I can only call “class” — civilization we were both born into, and our equal inability to live within what we experienced the Church to be in our times.

It is in fact the place where you meet, as with you and me it is the ability to manipulate language, and the internal concern shared with our friend Joseph in ancient Egypt to hold the chord.

So — about the Middle Ages.

It is the one model your times do not examine, for they imagine they have nothing to do with each other. As Lord Clark said in the passage we had you quote, the Dark Ages were a time of isolation, ignorance, and despair — and your time confuses the High Middle Ages with a time 300 or 400 years earlier, as if your own time were to be compounded with the 1600s or 1700s. But there is a reason why your times do not see the Middle Ages straight — they don’t want to. It’s too uncomfortable.

The contrast, you mean.

Yes indeed. Fixed in the idea that Christianity — Catholicism, as Hillaire-Belloc rightly points out — was and is superstition, it dare not examine any possible way out of its own extremity that might lead in that direction. Hence the prevalence of superstitions such as that of “progress” and of “evolution” (taking a process for God) and of “science.”

You might say “those who forget the past are condemned not to be able to repeat it.” Wrong ideas imprison.

Now, Carl Jung has said, and I believe it because it immediately resonated, “the gods never re-inhabit the structures (maybe he said temples) they once abandon.” I don’t have any sense that the Catholic Church as it stands can long endure, or can be reconstructed, or that either model would represent a way forward for the West. For Africa and what was once called the Third World, yes — and it is going great guns there, apparently. But not for the West, as far as I can tell.

But what if the West is a dead-end?

Grim thought, if you happen to be living there.

Is it? What if the end of the world is proceeding on schedule as it began, or seemed in retrospect to begin, in 1914? Perhaps the values of the West — by which you mean the values of the Protestant north and west of Europe, and its daughter societies, more than the south and east — perhaps those values were developed beyond their just proportions. Perhaps the result was one-sided, closed, superstitious and often irrational. If so, those within it — Ernest, you — may feel isolated and alienated from it. You may cast about for an organic fulfilling life that in your time has no recognized container. The Church in your day is not and cannot be the Church in mine, and anyway you did not come into being as and when you did in order to imitate a medieval life. And so you exemplify a longing that your time has been unable to satisfy.

Let me get this a little clearer, if possible. I get the impression that we are being told here that the West and the West’s values may be dead ends, and that the loss of the West’s dominance of the world is for just that reason — that it has lost its inspirational ability.

Let’s put it this way. Look to your literary friends and see what they have in common. Long before you were particularly concerned with Hemingway you were immersed in Thoreau, and sort of instinctively — hardly needing to read him — in Emerson. They were very Protestant but very much against the superstitious grain of their time with its belief in “progress” because of rapid technological development. Their perceptions, their values, attracted you, long before you had any idea why, or had even thought to ask the question. No need to list the influences but they form a line of descent. Toynbee, Buckminster Fuller, William Irwin Thompson, Yeats, Colin Wilson — they may not seem to have anything much to do with each other, but there is a common thread, or a couple of threads, that should show you what you are.

I see. Sort of a minority report on the intellectual world I grew up in.

You might better look at your life as a fidelity to strands in your civilization mostly forgotten because considered old-fashioned, or impractical, or superstitious — when not forgotten entirely. And it is from such rejected stones that the cornerstones of the future will be found, of course. So it is well to keep them in the common mind of your society and its successor.

And so you should understand us to say, not that the West as a political or social force is at an end, but that if it is to survive — and there is much good in it that might be preserved with it — the values that made it into the West are the ones that will have to be rediscovered and lived again, in whatever container. And this is so difficult that it easily may prove to be impossible for your time.

I can provide an exact analogy. An example, actually.

Welcome, Dr. Jung.

Something within me forced me to study alchemy, and “forced” is the correct word. I found it inconceivably, incommunicably repugnant. To waste my time in such nonsense, when I had received scientific training? Why must I do this? Yet as often as I would close the book in disgust, so many times would I be compelled to re-open it, for there was something there, and I was being used to recover it. The scientifically trained parts of my inner community — my person-group, as we are experimentally naming it — were actively repelled by the traits that led people into Gnostic or alchemical ways of thought. But another part of my inner community knew, and dragged me along until I began to see — and at that time I needed all my scientific training, all my languages, all my professional experience, to comprehend it.

I was perhaps the last person in the West who might have accomplished the bridging task, for I had skills and knowledge and a personal background among what you would think of as the peasantry that were increasingly unlikely to be able to be replicated. This is where your generation stands. You are to be the bridges, and if the bridges are not constructed, those who come after you are decreasingly likely to have the mental and social backgrounds to be able to do so. In that case the world will proceed on its way, but it will be less than it might have been in richness and resource, as it would have been less had I not been able to lead the retrieval of alchemical knowledge that has yet to gather steam, but has been nonetheless been rescued from oblivion, in the nick of time.

And so our task is to study the rejected thought of the past?

Your task is to allow yourself to go where your spirit leads you, and not decide too quickly that you are being led down the garden path. You cannot really be seduced, not really. An external force — a seemingly external force — may entice you into studies that you would never have undertaken otherwise, and those studies may change your opinions, and your opinions may lead to a new viewpoint which may

Sorry, lost the thread; wool-gathering.

Your extended consciousness is at an end for the moment, as you have been about this for longer than you are used to. There is always another time.

Until there isn’t. All right, go in peace, friends. Thank you all.

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