20160124

Impermanence and the imperceptible

The idea of progress never rested mainly on the promise of an ideal society—at least not in its Anglo-American version. Historians have exaggerated the utopian component in progressive ideology. The modern conception of history is utopian only in its assumption that modern history has no foreseeable conclusion. We take our cue from science, at once the source of our material achievements and the model of cumulative, self-perpetuating inquiry, which guarantees its continuation precisely by its willingness to submit every advance to the risk of supersession.

That nothing is certain except the imminent obsolescence of all our certainties—our scientific theories, our technology, our artistic styles and schools, our philosophies, our political ideals, our fashions—naturally gives rise to the sense of impermanence that has been celebrated or deplored as the very essence of the modern outlook, the sense that "all that is solid melts into air," in the often quoted remark by Marx and Engels. What is less often remarked is that impermanence appears to assure a certain continuity in its own right when conceived as an extension of the self-correcting procedures of scientific discovery, which allow the scientific enterprise as a whole to flourish in spite of the constant revision of particular findings. A social order founded on science, with its unnerving but exhilarating expansion of our intellectual horizons, seems to have achieved a kind of immortality undreamed of by earlier civilizations.

Whatever else we can say about the future, it appears that we can safely take for granted its sophisticated contempt for the rudimentary quality of our present ways. We can imagine that our civilization might blow itself up—and the prospect of its suicide has a certain illicit appeal, since at least it satisfies the starved sense of an ending—but we cannot imagine that it might die a natural death, like the great civilizations of the past. That civilizations pass through a life cycle analogous to the biological rhythm of birth, maturity, old age, and death now strikes us as another discredited superstition, like the immortality of the soul. Only science, we suppose, is immortal; and although the unlikelihood of its melting away can be experienced even more intensely, perhaps, as a curse than as a blessing, the apparently irreversible character of its historical development defines the modern sense of time and makes it unnecessary to raise the question that haunted our predecessors: how should nations conduct themselves under sentence of death?
—Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven
That sense of impermanence hasn't at all abated, of course. Indeed, if anything it is more keenly felt than ever. News media, fed by social media, are ever ready to outdo yesterday with the latest trend, the newest product, the most current means of distracting oneself from the hollowing out of the space in our hearts for long-term commitments. Fiction retreats from the slippery present into settings which are either historical or entirely fictional. I'm the only person I know without a smartphone. Perhaps most crucially, we seem more comfortable with this constant flux than ever before.

Now when the great civilizations of old declined and fell, material gains did not reset to zero—even if, for the most part, the historical record did. After the collapse of the Mediterranean civilizations of the Bronze Age, only Egypt and Mesopotamia were left standing. But the rest of the Mediterranean did not revert to the Stone Age. Likewise, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Italy, Gaul, and Britain did not revert to the Bronze Age. Thus technological advancement is cumulative even between civilizations, at least to a degree. There are major setbacks when trade networks and political centers collapse, urban areas are depopulated, and social capital is dispersed—but not to such an extent that the "fresh race coming from a lower level," as Henry George put it in Progress and Poverty, have to start from scratch. Even so, the transition wasn't smooth. As George noted:
Over and over again, art has declined, learning sunk, power waned, population became sparse, until the people who had built great temples and mighty cities, turned rivers and pierced mountains, cultivated the earth like a garden and introduced the utmost refinement into the minute affairs of life . . . lost even the memory of what their ancestors had done, and regarded the surviving fragments of their grandeur as the work of . . . the mighty race before the flood.
But hasn't such a great forgetting already happened? Don't we already regard the work of our ancestors as the work of people we hardly know anything about, if we regard it at all? Yet here we are, typing messages with our thumbs and driving horseless carriages on paved roads (though not at the same time, of course, if we have any concern for our safety). But a civilization is more than its material comforts and its technical processes. We may know more in the technical or mechanical sense than anyone did in ages past—but in terms of cultural memory we may be increasingly inferior.

So not only is our civilization unique in its confidence, but in another way as well: the decline of memory that one would expect to accompany the decline of civilization has, in our case, preceded it. And in previous cases of such decline, there has always been a glimmer of what came before that remains, at the very least, in the oral tradition of a freshly illiterate people. We are more literate than ever, and have the memories of our ancestors unprecedentedly accessible in writing, and yet even when we read them it is as though we are getting a picture not of ourselves but of a curious people to whom we have but a chance relation. L.P. Hartley's phrase comes to mind: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It has become a commonplace among those who have defected from the established Left and Right that we give insufficient consideration to the lessons of the past. But I'm going to suggest something different, if not contrary: that we have insufficient cultural technology by which to experience and interpret the present, and that simply reading about the past, or attempting to relive a particular period in the past, are inadequate or even counterproductive means of redeveloping such technology.

In other words, I want to accentuate that cultural memory doesn't just come in the form of recollections of the historical past but also in recollections of everywhen—stories which "never happened, but always are," in the words of Sallustius. Such are the old myths. And as we hinted earlier, sometimes stories about the past become stories about everywhen, as in the case of the Trojan War. What could have been understood—and is often understood today—as a mere recounting of historical claims, or as a fanciful legend told for entertainment's sake, became a body of lessons about morality and the soul. The Iliad teaches us about the wages of war; the Odyssey about the journey of the soul back to its origin.

Such stories relate the Many back to the One. Without them, our experience of the world is desemioticized; we lack a kind of knowledge which is irreducible to matters of physical or historical fact. This is what I mean by "insufficient cultural technology." Narrative is not merely something we impose upon the world; it is integral to our very experience of the world. In the words of Bruce Charlton, "Man knows perceptible reality via his perception—the senses of vision, hearing, smell touch and taste . . . and Man knows the imperceptible reality via the faculty of Imagination." In the quoted post, Charlton excerpts one of the essays in Jeremy Naydler's The Future of the Ancient World:
The cosmic being who presided over Ra's diurnal voyage across the sky was the heavenly goddess Nut. It was she who gave birth to Ra each morning, and who received him into herself again in the evening.

Each evening, when the sun god Ra entered her interior realm, he entered the secret and wholly invisible world that the Egyptians called the Dwat [usually spelled Duat]. The Dwat was conceived as being on the other side of the stars that we see when we look up at night. The stars were imagined as being on the flesh of the goddess Nut, and the Dwat was in some sense behind or within the world of which the stars demarcated the outermost boundary.

All creatures were believed to return to the Dwat at the end of their lives, and were born from it again, just as the sun God was born from the Dwat each morning.

Knowledge of the interior world of the Dwat was considered by the Egyptians to be the most important, most profound knowledge, for people living on Earth to acquire. The Dwat was not only the realm of the dead, but the realm of the gods and spirits, and furthermore the realm from which all living things emerge. All life issues from the Dwat.

To know this mysterious interior world was to become truly wise, because then one would know both sides of existence—the invisible along with the visible.

The Egyptians lived with an awareness of a dimension of reality that is best described by the term 'Imaginal'. It is a nonphysical yet objective reality that we become aware of through the human faculty of Imagination.
By means of narratives such as this one regarding Ra, Nut, and the Dwat, the Egyptians were able to convey to each other notions about themselves and the world that it would take much less parsimonious language to express today. Concrete facts, ontological propositions, and moral truisms could all be referred to by means of the same language-game (to use Wittgenstein's term); they were integrated, in other words. By contrast, we today are not simply capable of using, but generally require, distinct vocabularies in order to talk about such things. We deny or ignore that there is an imperceptible reality linking them, and accordingly we are starved of stories by which that reality can be known, let alone discussed.

Now that isn't to say there are absolutely no such stories in the collective mind, conscious or unconscious, of the West. We still have our old myths, however neglected or shallowly understood they may be. And whenever we derive a moral principle from an account of history, or whenever we craft an allegory on the spot to explain some aspect of the world, we are engaging the function of Imagination and thereby grasping, however feebly, at that reality which lies beyond the senses.

But in order to derive truly timeless lessons from history, we must accept the applicability of such lessons in the first place. As long as we remain convinced that our civilization cannot die a natural death, there will be as much of a barrier between ourselves and our posterity as between ourselves and our ancestors. And should that death occur while we remain high on hubris, those who will eventually pick up the mantle will have less savory things to remember us by than they will if we choose instead to humble ourselves before the forces that created us.

Modernity may furnish an entire vocabulary by which its predecessors can be denigrated or disregarded, but the reverse is just as true. We have only to consult the stories they've left us to find a potent indictment of modernity:
"Now," quod he thoo, "cast up thyn ye.
Se yonder, loo, the Galaxie,
Which men clepeth the Milky Wey
For hit ys whit (and somme, parfey,
Kallen hyt Watlynge Strete),
That ones was ybrent with hete,
Whan the sonnes sone the rede,
That highte Pheton, wolde lede
Algate hys fader carte, and gye.
The carte-hors gonne wel espye
That he koude no governaunce,
And gonne for to lepe and launce,
And beren hym now up, now doun,
Til that he sey the Scorpioun,
Which that in heven a sygne is yit.
And he for ferde loste hys wyt
Of that, and let the reynes gon
Of his hors; and they anoon
Gonne up to mounte and doun descende,
Til bothe the eyr and erthe brende,
Til Jupiter, loo, atte laste,
Hym slow, and fro the carte caste.
Loo, ys it not a gret myschaunce
To lete a fool han governaunce
Of thing that he can not demeyne?"
Gustave Moreau, Phaethon

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