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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.


Now Is the Acceptable Time

I've forgotten how I wound up reading something at onepeterfive.com earlier today. It's not a site I normally visit. What I've seen and heard of it indicates that it focuses very much on the crisis of the Church, and I decided a few years ago that I just wasn't going to pay much attention to that anymore. I can say that it was a rational decision based on the fact that there's nothing I can do about this or that bad thing coming out of the Vatican or the USCCB. But the strongest reason was more elemental: I was sick of it.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this piece by Hilary White, which discusses our response not so much to the crisis of the Church as to that of the world. You don't have to go quite as far as she does in believing that the pandemic is being manipulated. I mean, you don't have to agree that the manipulation is as extensive and focused as it is, but I don't think there's any question that the situation has been successfully manipulated for purposes which were not in the general interest. I am not suggesting that the disease is not real and really dangerous, only that it has been exploited. 

No, you don't have to go very far at all in doom-and-gloom and paranoia to see that there is something really bad going on in the world, and that Christians in particular may in the not-too-distant future have a really bad time of it. At the very least, we're going to be marginalized and despised by the people who hold most of the power and influence, and by those who support them.

I've never been one to engage in end-of-the-world speculation. Every period in history has been more or less disastrous. And I don't like the kind of paranoia that sees the active hand of Satan in every bad idea or trend. I don't look for signs of the end, or of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, whether or not the prophesied individual by that name is among us or soon to be among us, there is such a thing, a vaguer thing, as the spirit of Antichrist. And it's here, right now. It is the spirit that teaches that there is no God, that any "salvation" available to us is of this world only, and that we can achieve it by our own efforts. I think it's fair to say that that spirit is more widespread and powerful than it ever has been, for the very straightforward reason that over the past century and a half or so we have in fact done astonishing things to improve the material lot of mankind, things never before seen in human history. To many, the attainment of some sort of earthly paradise seems possible, maybe even imminent: if only those who refuse to join in the effort would cooperate.

What to do? Well, these words from Hilary White's piece seem to be where we should start. They're especially appropriate for Lent.

The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good [emphasis in the original]. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.

What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?

 


The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc.

Front Porch Republic's magazine, Local Culture, devoted its last issue to Christopher Lasch. One of the highlights is this lengthy and excellent essay by Jeremy Beer: "Limits, Risk Aversion, and Technocracy." It explores the curious juxtaposition of license and coercion that is now such a visible feature of the leftward side of our politics, observing that the squaring of this circle is accomplished by the appeals to safety promised by technocracy, which is considered the only source of truly reasonable approaches to any problem.

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Madison Jones: A Cry of Absence

One reason for reading this novel is that it's an extremely good one, and that's reason enough. Another, and one that's more important to me personally, is that it is a remarkably perceptive account of the racial situation in the South in the 1950s, when the push against segregation was really getting under way, producing the resistance which now occupies a decisive symbolic place in the American consciousness: a simple narrative of KKK goons vs. saintly black people and their enlightened Northern supporters. That aspect isn't false, of course, but reality was, as always, more complex. 

The story takes place in an unnamed small Southern town in 1957. According to the back cover of the book the town is in Tennessee, although if that's mentioned in the novel I missed it. But the description of the seasons certainly fits Tennessee more than it would south Alabama or south Mississippi. (Madison Jones was from Nashville, and I grew up less than a hundred miles due south, in a similar landscape and climate.) The year is specifically stated, so it's after Brown vs Board, but before the decisive years of the early '60s. And that's important. The foundations of the Southern segregationist order were shaking, but still far from collapse.

Hester Glenn is a middle-aged divorced mother of two sons, Ames and Cameron. Ames is a college student, Cameron, or "Cam," still in high school. The novel alternates in viewpoint between Hester and Ames. The family is of the upper class, at least in the context of the region. Hester is a genuine believer in the romantic ideal of the old South: wealth and privilege are expected to carry with them, perhaps to justify their existence by, adherence to a code of honor, duty, justice, and generosity. She reveres her ancestors. She's a member of a local preservation society of which the main purpose is to remember and honor the past--including, for instance, a statue of a Confederate soldier, cherished, not apologetically, because Hester does not acknowledge that there is anything for which to apologize, but in the beginning simply, and then, when such honoring is attacked, defiantly.

The culture of the town is changing not only with the times in general--the federal courts, the civil rights movement--but specifically and directly with the arrival of new people from outside the South who run the new industries which promise to save the town from economic decline. These people hold the native white people in contempt, and their contempt finds ample justification in the blatant racial oppression. From the broad cultural point of view, then, there are four forces at work in the narrative: Hester and her kind, the newly arrived white people, the black people, and, faintly, natives who are of Hester's people but see, or begin to see, the justice of the case against them. Perhaps a fifth should be separated from the latter group: the townspeople who don't necessarily disagree with segregation but can see the economic price they will have to pay for its continuation and are willing to let it go. They are not portrayed as being especially admirable.

Cam is accused of participating in the murder of a young black man. Hester and Ames come to suspect that he may be guilty. And since the jacket blurbs refer to the novel as a tragedy, I'm not giving anything away in saying that the events which follow are in fact tragic.

Hester is a rigid sort of personality. We are given to understand that her divorce was, from her point of view, due to her husband's incorrigible immorality, but to suspect that from her husband's point of view it may have been that her uprightness made her cold, maybe even, to use a word one doesn't hear much anymore in its sexual sense, frigid, and at any rate remote.

In reaction to the news of the murder, she says

"It makes all those things they are saying about us up north seem to be true. About how cruel we are to Negroes. All of us. Because of a few scum," she said, her voice hinting at her passion. "As if we were all scum and didn't hate such people as much as anybody else."

But do they really? Is it perhaps the case that it is the violence of the "scum" that helps to support the hierarchy near the top of which Hester resides, and which she loves for more than crudely selfish material reasons? It is a devastating question. 

The book is beautifully written, and I have only a couple of mild reservations about it. One, the narrative sometimes proceeds by flashback in a way that can be confusing. Two, I'm a little skeptical about the plausibility of one part of the climax, though I can see the argument that it is inevitable. 

But these are mild indeed. I was only nine years old in 1957, and so wasn't really aware of the racial situation--not, I mean, with an adult consciousness of right and wrong. But by 1964 I was very much aware of it, and can remember enough of that period to know that the book's portrait of it is quite accurate. Anyone who wants to understand it in the kind of depth that is generally foreign to present-day views should read it. And, as I said, it's a first-rate novel by any standard.

I have Rob Grano to thank for introducing me and readers of this blog to Madison Jones. Here's a link to the piece on Jones which he contributed to our 52 Authors series.

I guess everybody knows about the intense rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University (UA vs. AU). I went to Alabama, and I don't recall that I ever considered Auburn, because at the time I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and Auburn didn't have a journalism program. The fact that Jones taught at Auburn made me wonder for the first time (as far as I can remember) whether maybe I should have gone to Auburn. He was probably writing this book, which was published in 1971, at the time when I would have been there. I would surely have taken at least one course from him.

This little image was the only one I could find of the cover of the LSU Press edition that I have. There are at least three others.

CryOfAbsence


An Advent Gripe

Not about, but on the occasion of: the complaint I made last year about the thing called "Holiday":

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned.

"Middle of the last century"? I must have meant to say the 19th. It certainly predated the middle of the 20th. But anyway:

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent.

Which I'm currently doing. 

 


From The Hedgehog Review

Several years ago someone recommended Hedgehog here. I had seen ads for it and bits of essays and thought it was worth a try, so I subscribed. It's a little expensive, and I probably wouldn't have ventured if I hadn't gotten some kind of promotional discount offer.
 
I was somewhat disappointed, not because the work wasn't good but because most of it just wasn't that relevant or interesting to me. Issues accumulated without my doing more than glancing at them. One, for instance, was devoted to our relationship to animals, another to our relationship to food ("our" being, I think, Americans). The Summer 2020 edition is called "Monsters" and seems to be concerned with the presence of same in popular culture, although I'm not sure because I haven't read it. These things are certainly worth studying, and the writing and research seem to be of very high quality, as is the physical production. But I myself am not interested enough in them to spend much time reading about them.
 
I wouldn't have renewed for a second year, but they offered it to me at a steep discount, so I gave it another year, with more or less the same result. I had decided definitely not to renew for a third year, until the most recent issue arrived. It's called "America On the Brink," and it concerns, as you would suppose, our political and cultural situation. I've only read the first essay, "Dissent and Solidarity," by James Davison Hunter. It alone has me thinking of renewing my subscription after all. He includes this quotation from Martin Luther King:
The question, What is man? is one of the most important questions confronting any generation. The whole political, social, and economic structure of society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question. Indeed, the conflict which we witness in the world today between totalitarianism and democracy is at bottom a conflict over the question, What is man?
That question, I submit, is at the root of the division. I don't think I'll try, in a blog post, to summarize the answers given by the two factions, especially as they are not as a rule clearly articulated, except in the case of orthodox Christians. Neither does Hunter, but he makes this observation:
Fault lines already well established between elites and the general public and between the left and the right became open cleavages through the 1970s and 1980s. Those cleavages deepened even more after 1989. With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a common enemy against which to define shared national identity. With no external enemy, collective identities were formed against the enemy within America itself.
The emphasis is mine. This is the state of things: the factions regard each other not as fellow citizens with whom they disagree, but as enemies. For the most part they offer different answers for King's question. And that is another way of saying that the conflict is a religious one. You can read the whole essay here. It's faintly hopeful. 

Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

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