This entry more or less started as I took my boat out yesterday afternoon on the sea from Veules les Roses. The north-east wind was light and there was little swell. I close hauled into the wind and the tidal current to be sure of getting back to the slipway. For this purpose, I hugged the cliff so that I could make a little slow progress towards Saint Aubin, and then I went right out to sea on an exhilarating beam reach before finally going back to the beach and my launching trolley. It was perhaps during that time near the cliffs when the thought kept coming into my mind – why were are here, why we exist, all the usual questions everyone asks in childhood and old age.
The answer isn’t always to be doing things, but simply being, being gratuitous, being faced with the beauty of nature, the sea and the cliffs. It is not the first time I write about such themes of autumnal introspection, but I had not said everything with my postings on the so-called Benedict Option and the earlier articles on Romanticism. It is easy to look nostalgically to the past, whilst knowing that paradise is not found in this world or in time.
I vaguely remember my Scholastic philosophy from the Angelicum, all of thirty years ago, and something about the Transcendentals, in particular knowledge, truth, justice, goodness, love, beauty, being and the notion of home. I’m not bothered about the “right number” of these “things”, but about notions that are distinct from our fundamental animal instincts of survival (finding food, reproducing and defending one’s own life and sometimes the lives of others). The transcendent has nothing to do with survival, but things we yearn for as human beings, but which we will never find on earth in perfect form. We will always be unsatisfied in our quest for all these notions. It is one apologetic argument for God and the next world: it is pointless to yearn for what doesn’t exist. This yearning, which is universal, points to God and what lies beyond bodily death. I love the quote from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
This notion of desire is an important part of the Romantic mind. It all ties in with the traditional Christian desire for heaven. We so often ask God in our liturgical prayers to teach us to relativise the things of this earth and yearn for heaven – doceas nos terrena despicere, et amare caelestia.
* * *
The second part of my reflection concerns the question of humanity, and the notion of humanism that largely sprang from the Renaissance. It was an attitude that sought to see the best in humanity, and which gave rise to movements seeking to help the sick and the poor, to abolish slavery and the death penalty. This tradition continued into the Romantic Russian soul like that of Dostoevsky and later philosophers like Nicholas Berdyaev. Of course, humanism has its limit unless it includes our spiritual dimension. Christian humanism was eventually replaced by secular humanism, giving rise to the worst or arrogance in technology, science and capitalism. Eventually, this kind of humanism would turn into post-humanism and trans-humanism. At this stage, we are faced with phenomena that are no less shocking than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The thought of many thinkers nowadays is increasingly anti-human.
Some are even advancing the notion that human beings are no higher or better than any other animal species, and therefore that humans should be culled by about ninety percent to provide a saved planet for the remaining elite. If war and famine won’t do the job efficiently enough, diseases like Ebola in a refined form would work wonders. Who would bury the bodies in the post-apocalyptic cities like in the movies? There is also forced sterilisation. All of a sudden, Nazism is back with a vengeance even without the raging Austrian corporal, the jackboots and Prussian military marches.
Anti-humanism is usually much less extreme than packing people onto trains to Auschwitz, but it is the anti-life ideology decried by Pope John Paul II in particular. The last of the secularists call for an end to human rights, abortion (compulsory if necessary) and euthanasia for those who “steal oxygen”. For the anti-humanist, who in reality is the modern philistine, art, creativity and personal genius have no value. They are just conventional ideas. Freedom is an illusion. It is easy to imagine these people dreaming of having the western world go under Sharia Law and the barbarity of radical Islam.
Christian humanism recognises and bewails the effects of sin and depravity, yet humans carry the image of God. God became man that man might become God in the ideas expressed by some of the Church Fathers. In this expression is found a notion of transfiguration or θέōσις of the lower into the higher. This notion is not restricted to Eastern Orthodox theology but is also found in some of the western Fathers and even in the high-church Anglican divines of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. For example, John Wesley’s writings of full of this notion of salvation that begins here in this life. That humans can be united with God gave the spirituality of men like St Francis de Sales and St Philip Neri among many others. This is Christian humanism, which may be the only thing that will defend humanity against the encroaching darkness.
I dream of a new Romanticism beyond the superficial drifts of the Bohemians, Beatniks and Hippies, something profound and not limited to dress and tastes in modern music. We humans need to rediscover feeling and purify it from banality and shallowness. Many turn to a world other than hopelessness and the idea that money is absolutely everything. Money is usually our recompense for complete conformity to a world that seeks to enslave, exploit and kill the spirit. Romanticism is not an ideal in itself, but an attitude that will probably develop yet again in history. It will develop as an antidote to the extreme rationalism of management, business, bureaucracy and politics. I can tell whether the best aspirations have succumbed, even those communities calling themselves free and respectful of diversity, when they are entirely in the “politically correct” mould and reeking to high heaven of hypocrisy.
A new Romanticism would not have the appearance of the old one of Keats, Shelley, Brahms, Wordsworth and Beethoven. What would be similar would be the inner idea of a boundless energy and desire for a new world, which can be reproduced in this world as “in a glass darkly”. One theme that penetrates throughout the New Testament is that of the law and grace, bondage and freedom, especially in St Paul but also in the Gospels. The law was given for man in his lower unreasoning state. The children of the free woman know no law but that of love and grace, the Transcendentals as I mentioned above. This is the principle of Christian anarchism, because law and totalitarianism are consequences of sin and falling from grace.
Romantics fell into sin, and often very seriously through every turpitude possible, but that does not condemn the ideal, the essential of which was freedom from dead convention and law (compare that with what Christ said about the Pharisees), the love of nature (a lesson we learn this day from St Francis of Assisi) and devotion to beauty. Beauty is an icon of our desire for what is attainable only in heaven. For our day even more than at the end of the eighteenth century, who, if he is a sensitive person, would not wish to be emancipated from the mechanisms of bureaucracy and managerial organisation in favour of intuition and dealing with issues individually and on the merit of each. Who would not prefer to negotiate with a banker for a loan rather than be “evaluated” for “security and status” by a computer? Who would not prefer a parish to be human and pastoral rather than a machine for processing information and people considered as consumer units or whatever? These are the aspirations of many of us, and possible only in small societies where people care about each other. This is the essential of the Romantic spirit, just the same as that which opposed the absurdities of the late eighteenth century and the revolutionary Terror just as much. As in the early nineteenth century, there needs to be something new with its roots in a more human and Christian age. To maintain a balanced position, there has to be organisation in life for practical reasons. Machines have to be designed to the user’s specifications. Not everything can be left haphazard or to chance. Even my little Diocese has meetings, discussions on how to do things, and we have rules and laws which are more of a reference in case of a dispute rather than a spirit of legalism. That is one thing I love about our ACC.
As the old Romantics reacted away from the boundless capitalism of the Industrial Revolution and the bloodthirsty moralism of Robespierre’s Terror, we react today against the excesses of European regulations and standards coming from the Brussels bureaucracy. We are concerned about the spectre of control and surveillance, the cult of the politically correct and intolerance masquerading as liberalism and love of freedom. We are over-regulated. Unbound capitalism flaunts itself as the “end of history” (at least until the money runs out). Our values are marketed and distorted, culture is sold off. We are dehumanised. We are being ripped off by the banks and politicians, by the global elites of oligarchs. We have the internet, and it is still an open forum of ideas – at least for now…
Romanticism is implicit in a good amount of thought of our times or just before. Tolkein is the great example of the imagination and the fantastic, the idea of another world. C.S. Lewis constantly expressed these themes in his work and thought. Modern cinema is something amazing, very much the art form of our time since the silent movies of the 1920’s and 30’s. We have virtual reality to make films of things that are completely impossible in our world. I have almost fallen in love with the baroque and gothic buildings in Star Wars, all made of virtual reality and carefully selective photography. The myth of the Jedi is entirely built on notions of medieval chivalry, and strikes home with a familiar note. Fantasy films take us away from “reality” into the rapture of a dream. Such is the power of the imagination enhanced by technology and art.
How many of us would like to break from conventions in fashion and appearance. This is one motivation that brought me to decide to stop cutting my hair three years ago. The symbolism of a man with long hair is powerful. He is a person who has broken out of slavery (slaves and prisoners used to have their heads shaved) and is a free man. Christ is more likely than not to have had long hair (if we go by the Turin Shroud) and most men of any originality in history had long hair. Many people go much further in their expression by clothing or accessories like piercings and tattoos. This rebellious behaviour in dress and appearance began in the 1960’s and even the 1950’s in a few places. The dandies and fops of the nineteenth century were no different in the way of their time.
I would love to see aspects of the new Romanticism move towards an appreciation of the past as well as their vision of the future. I have a couple of medieval style shirts that I love wearing around the house with their extremely baggy sleeves – but my wife hates them! Perhaps Romantics could wear medieval and nineteenth century style dress to set a new way that might inspire some. If you have the money to spend and dare to turn a few heads, here is an example of a shop that sells all that kind of stuff, mostly for disguises and theatrical shows. Clothing is only the exterior – L’habit ne fait pas le moine, but it is significant for us.
One things about the Romantic temperament is that a person considers himself as wild. We see the appeal of Tarzan and the vision of the man in a boat at sea, walking over the high Alps, being away from mass tourism and other people worrying about whether you are safe. [OK, I wear a lifejacket in my boat and a seatbelt in my van. I try not to risk my neck, but I prefer to take my own responsibility for the matter.] I am rather bored by horror films, and the modern ones are downright nasty. Perhaps there is the exception of a fine Frankenstein film from the 1990’s. I mentioned in another posting that I loved thunderstorms as a boy, something that caused my mother no small amount of concern. There is something of the Sturm und Drang in the new Romantic. This is something I always loved in Beethoven’s music inherited from Haydn before him. It was an instinct that drew me to the pipe organ. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo character inspired me considerably as a boy. Later I learned about his dreadful passion for vengeance and killing by ramming and sinking naval ships with his submarine. He was not only a passionate Romantic but a rather unpleasant psychopathic killer. This is the drama, to a lesser degree in many.
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Indeed that murderous energy of Nemo was motivated thus:
La mer est le vaste réservoir de la nature. C’est par la mer que le globe a pour ainsi dire commencé, et qui sait s’il ne finira pas par elle ! Là est la suprême tranquillité. La mer n’appartient pas aux despotes. À sa surface, ils peuvent encore exercer des droits iniques, s’y battre, s’y dévorer, y transporter toutes les horreurs terrestres. Mais à trente pieds au-dessous de son niveau, leur pouvoir cesse, leur influence s’éteint, leur puissance disparaît ! Ah ! Monsieur, vivez, vivez au sein des mers ! Là seulement est l’indépendance ! Là je ne reconnais plus de maîtres ! Là je suis libre !
Star Wars often mentions the Dark Side of the Force. It is not merely evil and sin, but a nemesis we have within each of us. I find Jung’s psychology and gnosticism fascinating. It is one means by which we can attain some degree of self-knowledge and healing of our difficulties whatever they may be in each of us. The theory is complex, and I won’t go into it all here. Our life is made of choices, and perhaps the shadow or the “dark side” is what we do not choose, or choose if we go really bad! It is a story of Jeckyl and Hyde in each one of us. If you want to know more about this subject, here is an introduction. This theme of the light and darkness go right the way through Romanticism. The above quote from Verne and his Nemo character is full of this dialectic of committing monstrous evils for a noble reason.
One thing I do notice is that many independently-minded people moved from the cities to the country and bought old farms or houses. That’s what I did, and I have lived the solitude – in and out of marriage – more or less well. I also notice the growth of eco-villages and intentional communities, some of which are totalitarian caricatures, but most are founded on the respect of diversity and the notion of friendship. Many are quite “New Age”, whilst others may find a deeper spiritual and cultural expression.
Many people think it is unhealthy to look back at childhood, but we read this in Holy Writ:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
This text will be capable of many interpretations, but the child’s world is one of creativity and naivety. As I took up sailing, I returned to my thoughts of a twelve-year old boy. This time, it was no longer the vengeful and powerful Captain Nemo but in a frail sailing dinghy. Swallows and Amazons is a theme that is close to my heart, both through my origins in the Lake District and these children of the 1930’s. What parent would allow their children to go off sailing unsupervised nowadays? In the 1960’s, we could still climb trees, get our knees grazed, make a kid’s tricycle into a sailing kart with an old bedsheet on a broomstick, go fishing. In the house, I loved to dress up as a girl to play with my sisters. I often wish I had the long hair I have now! This was really brought home to me when I saw paintings of long-haired boys from the 1890’s and 1900’s before their breeching. To some extent, I have “unbreeched” myself even though I wear trousers when I need to. Breeching tended to make the free-minded boy into a boring and conventional man. This connection over a span of time of forty-five years has done a lot for my spiritual and mental health. Perhaps this is getting close to what Jesus had in mind…
Another dimension of the Romantic mind is a love of a rose-tinted middle ages. We know that the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries were violent times, when you could die a very nasty death. Disease, filth and the lack of many things we consider indispensable nowadays – just for having a crap! At the same time, there was chivalry, the cathedrals, the illuminations in books of chant and liturgical books. The liturgy in its complex ceremonies was something normal inherited from the way things were done. The Romantic version of the middle ages might not be historical or authentic, all Viollet le Duc and Pugin, Percy Dearmer and the Dreaming Spires and temples of youth of Oxford and Cambridge. Despite its undoubted distortions, something lovely came out of the Romantic era and that of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin and Dearmer. That is something that brought me to be interested in the old Sarum liturgy from the early 1980’s rather than the rigid authoritarian style of Roman Catholicism.
Such is the desire for something unattainable on earth. Living in France, I would listen to Vaughan Williams, Elgar and other English composers. I am often overcome with emotion about my English origins and an England that was never mine. Every time I make the trip over by car and ferry, I am confronted by the reality of a life that is all about money and nothing but money. I see the political hypocrisy and cant that has ruined my country. Housing is unaffordable. I don’t really belong in France either, but I have a house and enjoy the rebellious and unconventional attitude of the French. It has always been like that! Finally the England of my dreams is not England, but something only beyond the veil. Perhaps listening to this will bring you to feel as I feel:
I doubt that you will feel it as I do. Perhaps you might. Music conveys things no human language can. What is important is not where you live but who you are, where you are.
Finally, a word of warning. Any movement of thought is susceptible to becoming rationalised, organised, managed and controlled. From that point, the salt loses its savour and is no good to man nor beast. This is something I have seen with some intentional communities and official “culture”. It happened to Christianity, and how Christianity survived Christianity is a mystery to me! The seed is still with us and it comes up again and again in history, even implicitly and using language other than “church” language. I would hate to see a new form of Romanticism become “mainstream” or “official”. I hate to be “in fashion” and I would hate my own ways and appearance to become fashionable! I speak not only of externals but also these questions like freedom and desire for the Transcendent.
Let it be something we can each discover and live in our secret gardens, wherever we live, be it inspiring or arid. This is something of my purpose in this blog.