17 August 2011

Some Work That Has a (Human) Future

We humans are not the only makers in the world. And that is, I think, an important point to bear in mind when we consider that every single thing we do make once came from something else we did not. But even if it were both lavishly possible, and infinitely profitable, to make over every tree on earth into something else, that doesn't even remind us of a tree, I think it might still be worth our human while to keep at least a few "unmade" trees around. The reason is that every tree we keep alive and around is a door we keep open, whereas every dead tree is a door more or less permanently closed. Any living tree is a door, or at least a window, into an aspect or a facet of the mind of God that we ourselves can never hope to recover, or reproduce, or make reoccur - no, not even in our most munificently-endowed space laboratories. The most spitting-image clone we make, and that of the healthiest tree we choose, is still a tree refracted through our minds, our hearts, our hands. Whereas the most pitiful living tree we chance to stumble on is by comparison, as it were, not stale or hothouse, but fresh from the mind of Another. And not, of course, just any other, but One who knows us both in our innermost entireties, because He is both its and our Maker.

Which brings me to what is, I believe, quite probably one of the biggest questions we Christians are likely to face, both at the present time and in our imminent future. A question on the answer to which may hang not only much of our future understanding of that strange, ongoing work we call the Universe, but the future of our own, human, work too. The question is which of the two is more revelatory - more intimately and confidingly self-disclosing - of not only the mind but the face of God (to say nothing of His heart and soul): that tree, or tortoise, or hare, or human being as they've been made; or any, or all, of these creatures as we humans have made them over.

One might argue, of course, that any answer to that question is necessarily a contingent one. That it depends, among other things, on the degree of complexity or sentience or even selfhood, that is already in the creature we're trying to make over. And also upon our own motives in trying to remake it. There is, for example, that wheat whose "nature" we domesticate for our otherwise unsupportable human population-growth, so that a mere grain becomes the basis for whole new civilizations. And then there is that monkey whose nature we distort for our own amusement or self-exaltation, in the hope of making it behave more like a donkey; which practice of cruelty can become the basis for whole new barbarisms. One might suggest even further, perhaps, that the ultimate quality of our motives depends on that part of us - or that place in us - from which those motives come. Suppose there was a "place," as it were - even in us busy hypermodern humans - a place that was most sensitive to, most reluctant to stifle or adulterate or mutilate, the pre-existing selfhood of another living thing. As distinct from some other, more aggressively proactive part of us, which might be prepared to treat even higher living things - and even "unmade" human beings - as just so much "material," like our unfortunate monkey: as things having scarcely more pre-existing selfhood or consciousness than the clay from which one molds a sculpture. Of the two "places" in us, is there one that might be more truly reflective of the nature - or even the Image - of God? Or at least of that face towards us which He "turns" when He is most pleased with us? As distinct from that other face He sometimes shows us, when He finds us most pleased with ourselves? And might not that former place be the source of all the best in our motives? And even - or especially - of those motives by which we Grace-fully remake, or "cultivate," ourselves and each other? This is a matter which I think we'd best leave open at this point: though it is a point to which we'll be returning shortly.

But for now, let us both repeat and expand on our original question: Which creature, in this present and fallen world, is more consistently revelatory of the nature of God - that is, of our Maker as He most longs and yearns to reveal Himself: the man-revised, or the un-man-revised, human or other living being? And if our answer depends, in turn, upon the kind of revision being made, which revision is the more God-revealing: That change which more nearly respects the original nature and personality of the creature being revised, in an effort to discern in them both some original purpose of God (assuming there is any); or that change which more nearly runs roughshod over both nature and personality, in an effort to bend them ever more rigorously and thoroughly to our own purposes? On the answers to these two questions, plus one other, I believe, there hangs the future of our human work. And particularly whether that work is merely great, or truly good.

Because, it seems to me, all work we do that isn't bad or mediocre is either mostly great, or mostly good. Now great work is quite easy to recognize, besides being extremely if not monotonously common these days. Great work essentially is of the kind that dazzles and overwhelms (and sometimes even disorients) you, spinning you around and tossing you head over heels; it can be taut and gripping as a movie, and exhilarating - or nerve-racking- as a videogame; but in any case it's always of the kind that makes you follow, if not chase frantically, after it. Except that when it's "over," you as often as not find yourself wondering just what has been accomplished, or even generated, other than more work. Indeed, one of the strangest things about great work is that it never seems to stop at all. Which is one of the reasons, I think, why it's much better done by all the hyperglorious devices, and systems, and procedures, and ultimately even persons, that we humans create - and will create - rather than by any of us mere humans ourselves. Just watch, I'm telling you, our future superintelligent androids in the making. Watch them take to that same great work, in which we mere land-creatures are presently all but drowning, as a shark takes to water. I question how far any human creature - including the most aggressively driven and enterprising among us - will relish the prospect of swimming with those kinds of workers. Or owners, for that matter (give it time, give it time).

Good work, on the other hand, can be much harder to recognize (especially as it is often so closely interwoven with the great - and in some cases may be all that makes the latter truly purposeful and fruitful). But in any case its results are also, as a rule, much easier and more pleasant to live with - besides being much more humanly (or at least successfully humanly) proportioned. Good work is the kind that does not run away with or from you. And the reason it keeps pace with the one doing it is because it above all it is faithful. Faithful, first of all, to its purpose; but also both to the doer, and to the one(s) on whose behalf that work is being done. In short, good work hews - or adheres - closely to three things:

1) its aim;

2) the nature and the capacity of the worker;

3) the needs - and not just the wants - of those whom that work is meant to benefit, or bless.

And so it follows that any good work, if it is to remain good, must be very deeply and investedly concerned with the lives of those living creatures for whom, by whom, and (in some cases even) around whom it's being done. Which is to say, good work never quite ceases to remember that those human and other creatures who are its means and its ends are, when all's said and done, still God's creatures, and not its own.

And yet even here, much as good work is pleased - and even enraptured - to see the hand, face and heart of God at work in any living thing, it is never content to rest in that knowledge. Rather does it long to be taken, as it were, by those same hands of God to approach, and by those same eyes of God to see into, and even behind, the face of the creature itself. "But whose face?" you ask. First - and most immediately and urgently - the human face, of course. And yet not in such a way as to exclude the faces of those lesser creatures we may encounter, in whatever degree they may be said to possess personality. After all, you don't love the Person of God better by despising, crushing or mutilating the personalities of any of His creatures, any more than you would love the author Dickens more by hating Mr Micawber. Or, for that matter, the author Collodi by hating Pinocchio.

And so finally, as I mentioned earlier, there remains one other question, on which I believe the future of all our good work depends. It is the question of to what face in any creature are we appealing - or better yet, again, what place in that creature are we visiting - when we attempt and resolve to do good work. For there really are, after all, only two places in any living thing, human or otherwise, that we're seeking chiefly to satisfy in any work that we do. Earlier I tried, in a very tentative and rather poor way, to define these two places more or less as the proactive, and the responsive. But I think now may be the time for some rather more thorough - albeit far more poetic - attempts at definition. First, and most familiar to our everyday lives, there is that place, flawlessly level, smooth-paved, sun-baked, endlessly (and exhaustingly) wide and long, in which any creature is most dependent upon itself, and can easily become most conscious and proud of that self-dependence. And then there is that other place, cool, shaded, rippling-streamed, secret as the soul, in which that same creature is most needful -  indeed most haunted and pursued and possessed by the memory - of its Maker. My point is that all meaningful and rewarding work, even when it's being paid for, is an attempt to satisfy some creature's want however shallow, or some creature's need however deep. And of course, in any living being - in any of us - the most pressing and immediate of things crying to be gratified are normally also the most outward. But now suppose that the whole Key to satisfying rightly even the most surface of our wants were found to lie ever further and deeper inward. How then could we know we'd met even our shallowest wants intelligently and wisely -  apart, I mean, from some consideration also of our deepest needs? How could we be sure we'd even begun to satisfy that broad-paved, sun-beaten, most starkly and drily "independent" place in any creature? Until, that is, we'd made at least some attempt to enter into that other, most dependent place of all, dark and cool as that first evening in the Garden when the Lord God walked abroad and Man hid himself, because he knew he was naked, and was afraid?

09 August 2011

A Gun to the Foot

I wonder: Is there such a thing in politics as deliberate self-marginalization? If so, then something tells me our beloved US Congress has just written the definitive book on the subject. For years to come.

I suppose there's nothing quite like mutual sneering, denouncing and anathematizing (as Washington burns) for letting the rest of the world know they don't need you. 635 points in one day. And that's just the Dow. Seriously, did our righteous brothers and sisters do a number or what?

Meanwhile the Dream goes on . . .

07 August 2011

The Dream That Dare Not Speak its Name

Don’t you think the world would be a much simpler place, as well as more cleanly and efficiently run, if more of us would cease to regard our lives as our own? If, once and for all, we’d simply resign ourselves to being self-, leisure- and family-denying foot-soldiers in what, after all, is really a great Global Army of Growth? What’s anyone’s so-called happiness finally worth anyway, compared to the Success of Mankind in ensuring its own indefinite survival, and its own capacity to overcome all human and natural obstacles? What’s friendship finally worth compared to these aims? Or sleep? Or unhurried conversation? Or reading? Or the Humanities? What finally is the value of uncontaminated food to eat, and uncontaminated air to breathe, compared to the immense, presently unimaginable power and longevity we shall soon bequeath to our descendants? 

We were prepared to do it once. If misguided people once considered their own lives as just so many replaceable rungs on the Ladder of Progress, and all in the service of a bad cause – Communism – why can’t we more enlightened ones regard our own lives in a similar light, in the service of a good cause? If people then were prepared to sacrifice their lives, when commanded to do so, to incompetent organizations that barely kept them alive, clothed and fed, how much more should we now be prepared to give our all without question to competent ones – especially seeing that we’re being merely requested to do so, and by organizations that feed, clothe and shelter us efficiently, successfully, and at a profit available to all? And all the more enthusiastically, when you consider that you remain free to do otherwise – that these organizations are in no wise prohibiting or forbidding the satisfactions above-listed, but merely making them more difficult and costly to obtain? 

05 August 2011

A Child Shall Lead Them

I know I've touched on  this subject before. But some things bear repeating. And particularly when that repeating opens the door to further exploration, and deeper discovery.

Time and time again, through many years of reading, I've found my favorite "modern" English poet, Walter de la Mare, to be an all but unique kind of literary master. A master at deriving a sort of sense, or atmosphere, from out of some of the strangest things you'd ever think of. Things so tiny, so faintly and tremulously real, you would think they'd have all they could do just to be themselves, much less carry their own atmospheres about with them. Things like the seeming eternity - or eternality? - of certain often very private, and very brief, interludes of human experience. Or brief, at least, in terms of what de la Mare calls clock-time.

Now in this instance, I'm not sure of everything the author was trying to put into that strange "children's" tale (razor-sharp in both its quietude and its intensity) that he calls "Maria-Fly." But whatever may have been his intentions at each point, I doubt if I've ever been more sure of what I've been able to get out of a story.

Every so often it happens - de la Mare seems to be telling us - it happens that we get a glimpse, a tremor, a tantalizing savor of what the Divine joy in us is like. A taste of the Divine joy in the joy of any living creature at being its own unfettered, unstrained, exquisitely idiosyncratic Self. A Self that is really more like a kind of fragment, or patch, or island, of what we were back at the Beginning - back when we older and newer and fresher than sin. Or, in a word, independent of sin. Because, after all, it is only as we become conscious of ourselves, and self-conscious, and self-critical, and critical of the creatures we've been made (as if we could have done better), that we grow tempted to fashion ourselves, and become fashionable, and so fall into really ugly and ingrained habits of rebellion and sin. But every once in a while we forget ourselves - much as do both Maria and the fly in the story. And then something of the original brilliance, the crystalline glow of the Divine handiwork may show through: both through us, I mean, and through whatever, and whomever, it is we are looking at and trying to get to know. And particularly it may show through - de la Mare seems to suggest - when the encounter is between two distinct, and even distant, kinds of creature. It's as if there were no limit to how happy, and lovely, and love-able the whole world would seem - and even (in a sense) be - given the most intimate degree of self-disclosure between one order, or level, of visible creature and another. And how much more so ( I myself am moved to ask) when that self-disclosure is exchanged between a creature of one kind, and that One who is behind and beyond all kinds?

And then, having come up from such an encounter, as if from out of a cold, sense-awakening baptism, the question is, With what best words do we tell the story, to others of our kind? First of all, with words that know how to do the job, obviously. Yet not just in their usual mercenary and professional ways. Rather, what we want are words that secrete within themselves, as it were, a kind of pastoral vision, acuity, intensity. Which is to say, words that do their jobs not just for love of the pay, like a hired hand, or even for love of the calling or profession. What we need, rather, are words that do what they have to do out of love for the creatures they must tend and care for, like any good shepherd - and however deeply those same words must sometimes cut:

Up until then it had been a morning like a blue-framed looking-glass, but now a fleece of cloud was spread over the immense sky. Far away in the kitchen-garden she came across the gardener, Mr Pratt. With his striped cotton shirt-sleeves turned up over his elbows, he was spraying a rose-tree on which that day's sun even if it came out in full splendour again would shine no more. Maria watched him. 

"What are you doing that for?" she said. "Let me!"

"Steady, steady, my dear," said Mr Pratt - "you can't manage the great thing all by yourself." But he put the syringe with a little drop of the liquid left in its brass cylinder in her hands. "Now push!" he said, "all your might."

Maria pushed hard, till her knuckles on her fat hands went white, and she was plum-red in the face. But nothing came out. So Mr Pratt put his thick brown hands over hers, clutched the tube, and they pushed together. And an exquisite little puff of water jetted like a tiny cloud out of the nozzle.
"It came out then," said Maria triumphantly. ''I could do it if I tried really hard. What, please, are you doing it for?" 

"Ah," said Mr Pratt, "them's secrets."

"Ah," said Maria imitating him, "and I've got a secret, too." 

"What's that?" said the gardener.

She held her finger at him. "I - have - just - seen - a - fly. It had wings like as you see oil on water, and a red face with straight silver eyes, and it wasn't buzzing or nothing, but it was scraping with its front legs over its wings, then rubbing them like corkscrews. Then it took its head off and on, and then it began again - but I don't mean all that. I mean I sawn the fly - saw it, I mean."

"Ah," said Mr Pratt, the perspiration glistening on his brown face, and his eyes at least two shades a paler blue than Mrs Poulton's, as though the sun and the jealous skies had bleached most of the colour out of them. "Ah", he said. "A fly now? And that's something to see too. But what about them pretty little Meadow Browns over there, and that Painted Lady - quiet, now, see, - on that there mallow-bloom! There's a beauty! And look at all them yaller ragamuffins over the winter cabbage yonder. We won't get much greens, Missie, if you can underconstumble, if they have their little way."  

Maria could perfectly underconstumble. But she hated greens. She hated them as much as if she had eaten them on cold plates in another world. It was odd too that nobody had even the smallest notion of what she wanted to say about the Fly. How stupid. But she looked at the Painted Lady none the less. It was limply perched on the pale paper-like flower of the mallow, with its ball-tipped antennae, and sucking up its secret nectar for all the world like the Queen in her parlour enjoying her thick slice of bread and honey. And then the sunshine stole out again into the heavens above them, and drew itself like a pale golden veil over the garden. The Painted Lady's wings, all ribbed and dappled orange and black and white, trembled a little in its gentle heat, as if with inexpressible happiness and desire.

But though Maria admired the creature in its flaunting beauty more than she could say, this was not her Fly - this, at least, was no Maria-Fly. It was merely a butterfly - lovely as light, lovely as a coloured floating vapour, exquisitely stirring, its bended legs clutching the gauzy platform beneath it and supporting its lightly poised frail plumy body on this swaying pedestal as if the world it knew were as solid as marble and without any change; even though now it appeared as gentle as a dream.

Maria was not even thinking as she watched the butterfly, except that she was saying over to herself, though not using any words, that she did not want to go into the drawing-room any more just now; that she had no wish to see her fly again; that she didn't ever want to be grown-up; that grown-ups never could underconstumble in the very least what you were really saying; that if only they wouldn't try to be smiling and patient as though the least cold puff of breath might blow you away, you might prove that you were grown-up too and much older than they - even though you had to eat your greens and do what you were told and not interrupt old gentlemen writing sermons, and must wait for bed-time - no, she was not really thinking any of those things. But her small bosom rose and fell with a prolongued deep sigh as she once more glanced up at Mr Pratt. 

He was hard at work again with his syringe, and now, because the sun was shining between herself and its watery vapour, it had formed a marvellous little rainbow in the air, almost circular, with the green in it fully as vivid as that of the myriad aphides clustered like animated beads round the stems of the rosebuds.

"I told you," she quavered a little sorrowfully, though she was trying to speak as usual, "I told you about something and you didn't take any notice." 
( from The Old Lion and Other Stories. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1942)

In short, what de la Mare is asking and questing for, I believe, are words of an almost superhuman - or Divine-human? - dexterity and delicacy. Words that, assuming that our encounter has taught us anything, are far less clumsily invasive, and more delicately effective, than even the most intelligent and considerate of modern surgical instruments. And that is to say, finally, words so knowing, and so loving - of both the known and the knower, both the You and the I - that they're able to combine the least trauma, pain and inflammtion with the utmost excision of the actual disease: namely, that peculiar disease of Self - called Self-Importance - which most prevents us from enjoying any God-made thing. Including one as puzzling and exasperating as a human child.

A Conspiracy of Dunces

I don’t typically believe in conspiracies. At least not on the mere human level. The great majority of us suffer from far too limited foresight – and these days, increasingly, attention spans – to sustain a really good conspiracy over more than a few decades. And in particular the more swaggeringly ambitious young bucks among us, who also happen to be, as often as not, the most history-impatient, and history-disregarding. I mean, how can you hope truly to master – much less manipulate – something you consider beneath your dignity even to know and understand? (Although, to be fair, I’m told we make pretty decent stooges, pawns and playthings of certain other beings, entities, etc, who occupy a rather mysterious level at once higher and lower than the human. And that, if anything, the greater and more arrogant our contempt for history the more pawnable we become.)   

But there is one thing – and only one – that I’m sure of, concerning this country’s recent game of chicken over the debt-ceiling issue, and the daily-more-receding mirage of resolution that followed. If the “aim” all along has been, slowly but irrevocably, to make this country an utterly negligible factor in world affairs, then suddenly the mist clears. All at once, everything that’s been happening (and failing to happen) starts to make – not just absolute – but perfectly defensible sense.