Psalm 104:1-4
Spring Green

St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Well said. I am probably the only person on planet earth that gets excited about going to to the dentist. Actually there is one hygienist there that loves to see me coming so much that they schedule my teeth cleanings around her schedule! Honestly it feels like a party. Why? because I am so incredibly grateful for good toofees-and a wonderful dentist and crew(David Whitworth Mac-he asks about you sometimes).. Ol PJ Orourke said to an acquaintance who felt he would have been happier in the days of the cowboys and Indians "Let me give you one word-dentistry".
The least citizen of the US can call 911 for a medical emergency and an ambulance will come storming down the road with real urgency to bring him to receive medical care that kings of old would have traded their kingdoms for..
I think one of the greatest life lessons taught me by mama and my adopted black grandma was to appreciate what you have been given. It drives out pride and makes you an all around sweeter person. Another old black man told me "I thanks him with my mouth and my eahs hear me praise him and ma heart wanna thanks Him more"
I will never forget that. The more you are thankful the more you are made aware of how much you have. The more you are aware of how much you have the more you will be thankful. Such a deal!

"Attitude of gratitude" :-) I don't generally care for cute little slogans like that, but I have to say that one is pretty much right.

Dentistry, yeah. It used to be pretty normal for anyone my age to have few or no teeth. Apparently it was especially bad for women, because of something having to do with childbearing and nutrition. I was reading something a while back about a woman in the early 19th century from a middle-class farming family who by her mid-30s had lost all her teeth.

And so many things we don't think about much. People say "I don't know how we ever lived in this climate without air conditioning." Never mind air condition: what about life without window screens? Etc etc etc

"Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone?"

This is something that both our "right" and our "left" need to be constantly reminded of, because in certain areas they have both accepted the fallacy of what someone has called "technological solutionism." Part of that fallacy is that technological progress occurs on its own, so to speak, irrespective of the culture that surrounds and supports it.

"That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives."

I'm increasingly realizing that the only people really worth reading nowadays are the writers who "get" both sides of this. Alas, they tend to be few and far between.

It's downright tragic that so few conservatives acknowledge or emphasize the importance of conservation with regard to the natural world. Of course it has to do with the often-noted fact that in our context "conservative" usually means a species of classical liberal.

Russell Kirk was complaining about that very thing decades ago. He often asked, What are conservatives actually conserving? We/they obviously haven't learned much in the interim.

I know--there's always been that Kirkian dissenting element in American conservatism. But as far as I can tell it's never had much political effect. It gets lip service at best, frequently just disdain.

Roger Scruton was the prominent voice in modern conservatism along those lines, but unfortunately he never got much attention from the mainstream American right.

I've never actually read much of Scruton, which is a lack I should remedy.

If at some point you'd like some recommendations let me know; I've read a lot of him.

How about one book? I'm not likely to read more than one, at least not anytime very soon.

A very good "personal" sort of book is his memoir Gentle Regrets. For politics I'd probably go with A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. And his little book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction is excellent.

Pick one -- depending on which side of him you want to see!

The memoir sounds like maybe the best bet. My first thought was a sense of some sort of duty to read the political one. My second thought was "that's stupid."

Actually, a better "political" work might be his small book Culture Matters, which has the subtitle "Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged." If memory serves it came out roughly the same time as Gentle Regrets, i.e., 2005 or thereabouts, and makes a good companion piece. I remember reading it twice in rapid succession then raving about it to my conservative friends, none of whom, to my knowledge, ever read it.

To be fair, most if not all of my conservative friends at that time were of the sort that were much more interested in politics proper than in cultural matters, while for the last 20 years or so I've been just the opposite.

In any case, those two smallish books by Scruton make a very good back-to-back read.

Gentle Regrets is $35 from B&N! And only a little less from Amazon. Kind of a shock. The others seem to be more reasonable.

Wow, that's surprising. I know I didn't pay that much for it when it came out. Wonder if it's out of print?

He also has another memoir-ish one called News From Somewhere which is quite good. A quick look on shows that one as available for substantially less. There are a few copies in the $6 - $10 range.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)