31 July 2009

Just who did we think we were?

Obama has been in office a little more than 6 months.

I don't doubt he has been coming up with some pretty threadbare answers. That doesn't mean there haven't been some very, very good questions along the way. And though it is unlikely that today's neat little ideological boxes are going to be of much help here, surely we can think our way out of them? Provided, that is, we can find words old enough, and rich enough, to re-frame and ask our questions in the right ways. Words that more nearly encompass who and what we human beings are, and not just all the wonderful things we'd like to make, and buy, and sell.

Only to find the right language we may have to re-locate our workspaces for a brief while. We probably will need a breather from the narrow, stuffy aisles of today's infallible Economics and Politics. For far too long, too many otherwise sensible people have had their noses buried in the likes of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Perhaps it's time they consulted some other writers who can shed a more generous and penetrating light on human behavior as a whole. Authors like Arthur Miller and Chekhov and Chesterton. Like Dostoevski, Dickens and Wordsworth. Like Pascal and Shakespeare. Maybe even Dante or Aquinas, or St Augustine. Or St Paul.

As for the questions themselves, I'm afraid the best-worded and best-phrased among them will have to wait for a more gifted blogger. But for now, here is my personal best:

Does anyone know what on earth our recent Masters of the Universe were thinking of? (Assuming they were on earth at all, and not locked away in some ivory tower of self-infatuation?)
How did such an extraordinary concentration of intelligence, talent, wealth, ambition and - in some cases at least - hard work, manage to produce such monumental foolishness? such epic confusion? such instantaneous poverty? How did the superhuman vigor and self-confidence of a few issue in such a paralysing loss of confidence in the rest of us mere mortals? In this Best of All Possible Countries, I thought we paid our geniuses stratospheric salaries for making things go right (as distinct from making them go right off a cliff). So when did human talent become something merely to be worshiped and appeased - rather than channeled, and disciplined, and directed finally to some decent earthly use?

On second thought maybe I'm being naive. A mere cursory examination of the facts might be enough to explain how our wise CEOs, investment bankers, auditors, etc, managed to do it. The better, but less pleasant and more difficult question might be: How did they become morally capable of it? (And with so many others - politicians, economists, historians, pundits, preachers - looking on approvingly?)

But to address that would demand a much harder, much closer look at ourselves as an actively-thinking Nation - at our intellectual and moral and business cultures - than most of us at present are capable of. Myself included.

A Matter of Quality

Some may complain that I grossly over-rate the power, the beauty, the penetrativeness of mere words. Maybe I am a little soft-in-the-head - to believe that attentively-chosen, watchful, heedful words and phrases can actually change, and not just the ways we write and read, but the things we think and do. I'm sure, too, there are pictures that can paint a thousand words a thousand times over. But do they always paint them well?

Think of the last time you saw a photograph, a drawing or a painting that "spoke" to you. Do you remember how it did its speaking? Was it only by means of other pictures or images? Or was it also in words?

28 July 2009

The Point of this Blog

For those who feel completely lost - believe me, I know the feeling - this blog is about words, and how they sound, and why we use them. It is also about paths - both good and bad, wise and foolish. Paths that may seem to us very new but which are in fact very, very old.

As I see it, only God the Father has ever done anything new. And only God the Son has ever been humble enough to be the complete reflection of the Father in all that He is and does. And to be that big-enough receptacle in which everything else - including us - can be made new in its turn. That is the only Way you and I can ever do or be anything new: - i.e., through Him, with Him, in Him. And in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

So far as I can tell, we humans left to our own devices don't change all that much. We keep on doing the same fast, slick, clever, kickass and badass things we've done ever since Cain committed the first murder, and then went on to build the first city. What's new is how we keep on coming up with ever-more powerful techniques and procedures and gadgets for doing them. And of course (dare I forget?) organizations, to extend our wondrous achievements indefinitely through time and space.

The perennial goal is to keep on doing what we've always done, only this time, not to succeed momentarily, but to triumph. Not just to be famous and glorious for a brief spell, but to be permanently happy - or at least "fulfilled" - and supremely powerful. But above all, to be able - finally - to insure ourselves against those rather unpleasant consequences that have always attended the limitless, conscienceless pursuit of power and wealth, whether in the individual, in the organization, or in the species. Consequences like the gradual, steady corruption of the soul. Or the peril of eternal damnation.

To put it politely, we are an ambitious race. I don't believe there is anywhere in the physical universe that we humans cannot and - Time permitting - will not go. Not that even then we'd be satisfied. If we could, we would commute regularly back and forth between life and death, with the express aim of conquering Heaven and extinguishing Hell. Lotsa luck.

27 July 2009

Words Imperfect

Nowadays everyone means business. (Though I wonder, does anyone ever bother to ask what business means? or what it ought to mean?) And so we try to say whatever we have to say in the bluntest, most heavy-handed, most hard-hearted language available. Apparently the cardinal sin of today's serious writing is to let a stray grain or two of poetic rhythm wander into the meat of your essay. Especially (dammit) when you're supposed to be making a point.

But never despise words simply because they have music, simply because they flow, or because they persist in resounding and echoing deep into the well of one's heart or soul or memory. Often the word that stirs in us the longest, richest chords of memory is the one that knows us best, because that is the word which goes most bravely and deeply inside us. Indeed, no explorer enters into the heart of things - both of the thing itself, and of the often forbidding jungle of our own hearts - more boldly than the right word.

Just look at the modern carelessness with which we toss off the clumsy, the makeshift, the wrong word. And then notice how often we find ourselves resorting to deliberately offensive, even spiteful language, just to make our precious points. And where has it gotten us?

Might that same habit be a small part, not only of why we argue badly, but of why we keep on coming up with the wrong answers, the wrong solutions, the wrong certainties?

26 July 2009

A more-than-American freedom

"And their voices repeat
Words ancient and sweet
A rune once I knew,
But, alas, now forget,
A rune known of old
Which, alas, I forget. -"
- Walter de la Mare

". . . Stand ye in the ways, and see,
and ask for the old paths, where is the good way,
and walk therein;
and ye shall find rest for your souls.
But they said, We will not walk therein . . ."
- Jeremiah 6: 16

"Old." "Rest." "Walk." Not exactly the sort of words that seem to have a lot of traction these days. But who knows? For some time now we've been living in a most aggressively new and laborious and driving Age. And I don't think even the best ministrations of Barack & Co are likely to change that. Assuming, of course, they even want to.

And yet don't we all reach a point where we've driven - both ourselves and others - as far as we can, and for a change have to walk? Where we've worked ourselves as long and hard as we can - only to find rest forced on us? Where we've pursued the Almighty New and Young and Restless to what seemed like the outer limits of human consciousness - only to get the nagging, creeping feeling we've been there before? And that it really didn't work out so well then either?

Except that now we're so different, aren't we? So much smarter than some musty old history or literature or legend or faith? So much better at getting ahead, and still coming out on top, than any Hitler or Napoleon, any Macbeth or Julius Caesar, any King Herod or King Ahab?

Then again, America has always been a passionate lover of the new, and of opportunity. And what now lies in front of us - at least when some of the ideological smoke clears, and the screaming dies down - may be an unprecedentedly new opportunity. An opportunity to seek a kind of freedom that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Or maybe just sorely neglected. Not the usual freedom to be a first-class prick. Rather, the freedom to see, and know, and understand the prick in all of us. And most urgently, to know that first-class prickliness will no more work for us moderns - that we can no more "get away with" it, or be made happy in it - than it worked for the blackest-dyed villain in the world's oldest fairy-tale.

A sort of Cinderella-pushed-into-the-corner-by-the-fire kind of freedom. But somehow also, I think, a freedom that will prove to be both older, and bigger, and deeper, and more satisfying - and more holy - than anything a "husky, brawling, big-shouldered" America ever offered to its most ambitious immigrants.

A despised, Cinderella kind of freedom. Let's pray we don't pick the wrong Prince.