Tuesday, December 28, 2010

If ever time should flow calmly on...

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After reading the fine collection of essays / reviews in George Steiner at The New Yorker several months back, I have found myself to be haunted by one in particular, Give The Word (on James Murray and the OED). As my life has been becoming increasingly entertained by the challenges of learning a new trade and running a business, I have more than a few times returned smiling, often laughing out loud, to these first two paragraphs concerning Murray and the ethos of Victorian culture that he worked within:

Did Victorian pundits need less sleep than we do? Consider the facts. They tramped miles over brake and through briar before breakfast or high tea. At either or both of which collations they would consume flitches of bacon, grilled kidneys, silver-sides of Scotch beef, a garland of mutton chops, kippers and bloaters in silvery shoals, and half a dozen cavernous cups of Indian tea. They sired more offspring than Jacob the Patriarch. They breathed Homer and Catullus, Plato and Vergil, Holy Scripture and Bradshaw's Railway Guide through their stentorian nostrils. When they voyaged, it was either through Turkestan with a walkind stick and one change of flea powder or to the spas of Europe with a pride of steamer trunks, portable escritoires, tooled-leather vanity cases, and mountainous hampers. The Sunday sermons that they orated or listened to ran anywhere up to two mortal hours. A second service, with an average of eleven hymns, four homilies, and assorted benedictions, followed in the afternoon. After which there would be Medelssohn's "Songs Without Words" at the piano, a reading out loud of two or three of the shorter epics by Clough or Tennyson, a charade featuring General Gordon's celebrated descent of a staircase at Khartoum in the grinning face of death.

Between which accomplishments out sages, scholars, boffins, and reformers would learn languages, sciences, literatures, and crafts at a rate and with a mastery to make lesser generations cringe. Victorian memories ingested epics, Biblical family trees, the flora of Lapland, Macedonian irregular verbs, Parliamentary reports, local topography, and the names of third cousins with tireless voracity. Victorian wrists and fingers wrote, without typewriters, without Dictaphones, to the tune of thousands of printable words per diem. Histories of religious opinion in six volumes, lives of Disraeli ditto, twelve tomes of The Golden Bough, eighteen of Darwin, thirty-five of Ruskin. Trollope had composed his daily stint of several thousand deftly placed words before the professional working day had even begun. Dickens could produce a quire at a time with the printer's devil puffing at the door. But this was only the half of it; for after the public leviathans came the private immensities -- diaries that run to thousands of minutely crowded pages, personal reflections, maxims, and exercises in pious meditation straining the hinges of marbled notebooks folio size, and, above all, letters. Letters of a length and deliberation of which we have no present imagining. Letters in the literal thousands and ten thousands: to Cousin Hallam on the Zambezi, to the Very Reverand Noel Tolpuddle concerning the thorny points raised in his nine addresses on infant perdition, letters of credit and discredit, epistles to every member of the family, to the beloved across the street. Written by hand. Very often with a first draft and a manuscript copy (no carbon, no Xerox). With scratchy pens. In the yellowish, straining aura of gaslight. In rooms getting chillier by the hour.

Time rushes by at an ever increasing speed. I often feel as if I am being thrown forward into the future with such violence that I am able to only jot down, create only the most ephemeral of impressions. Hours are minutes, days are hours, weeks are like days. I work on The Book as fast as I can, deliberately slowing myself to remark upon what seems the most superficial, telegraphic details. As the pages pile up before me, they seems mere outlines of what would write if I had more time. How much more? A hundred more years would not be enough. I happily, with typical morbidity, imagine only a few are left ahead of me. I must complete the Book.

And everything else. More realized drawings of Yoshitoshi's 100 Views of the Moon, The Ox-Herding Sequence. Paintings of the 10 Images of Incarnation in the style and structure of the Tibetan Thangka. Wood carvings of enormous bones and skulls. Origami structures inside a hundred bottles recovered from the sea. Scratchboard wood-cut style allegorical tales in the tradition of Lynd Ward, the story my mother told me, The Black Flower. Long blank verse epic poems about God as an organ grinder on the street corner and the dancing monkey. The Diary of the Ship Wrecked Sailor. Articles of local history on Bubbles Finley, the Equality Colony, Scrimshaw, Lost Hopes for Utopia in the Coal and Timber Booms of the past. A meta-novel that allegorizes The Maltese Falcon as a search for the lost presence  of God in Western Culture. Photo-comics about the dreams of dogs. Postcard series exploring the Rosarium Philosophorum. Photographic explorations of the local flora. Letters and cards to friends and family. And music, Seven Murder Ballads, The Forlorn Suite, Blues in the Key of Bone, live performances of The Insane. And more, always more. All of this in addition to the writing of The Stange and Sorrowfull Life and Terrible and Aweful Death of B. Jones. All of this in addition to owning and running a business. All of in addition to doing graphic design for several local companies.

And where would I begin to see any end to the mountains of books to be read, music to be listened to, films to be watched...

It is all good. There is time enough. And love. I take heart from the Victorians. From the core thesis of  Toynbee's Study of History: the greatest challenge triggers the greatest response, whether it be in civilizations or the creative minority of human beings. The Faustian wager, remarked by Toynbee,  is increasingly relevant:

Faust: Comfort and quiet! -- no, no! none of these
For me -- I ask them not -- I seek them not.
If ever I upon the bed of sloth
Lie down and rest, then be the hour in which
I so lie down and rest my last of life.
Canst thou be falsehood or by flattery
Delude me into self-complacent smiles,
Cheat me into tranquility? Come then,
And welcome, life's last day -- by this our wager.

Mephistopheles: Done.

Faust: Done, say I: clench we at once the bargain.
If ever time should flow calmly on,
Soothing my spirits in such oblivion
That in the pleasant trance I would arrest
And hail the happy moment in its course.
Bidding it linger with me....
Then willingly do I consent to perish.

Finally, the days burn bright. But burn. Often by the end of each, there seems nothing else to feed the flames. No more time to spend, no coin, no cent remaining. I go to sleep a penniless fool. Then the night restores. Mystical transference. And I wake up wealthy again, the world on fire around me.

I once thought of holding the Dragon's Tail. There is a fallacy in this. Wittgenstein's "If a question can be put into words at all, then it is also possible to answer it." Trying to hold the Dragon's Tail is a set up for the fall, for the un-holding.

So what is it? How to allude towards what needs not to be said? William James comes to mind. That resounding phrase of his: "The Moral Equivalent of War."

Its upshot can, it seems to me, be summed up in Simon Patten's words, that mankind was nursed in pain and fear, and that the transition to a "pleasure economy" may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its degenerative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear-regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase; fear regarding ourselves now taking the place of the ancient fear of the enemy.

Finally, Cormac McCarthy:

There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

There's no paranoia here, only a sense of urgency in the face of fleeting time, in the grinning face of death. I'll be the first to admit it's a personal decision. And a necessarily lonely one. Better: lone. The incessant refrain: there is work to do. Rising out of the wastes of my life, there is nothing more important than creating some artifact, however crude, of my redemption.