Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Modernism and Acedia

The Waste Land: Waiting for Godot

The literary movement known as Modernism is now widely misunderstood—indeed, misrepresented to be its opposite.

I am a big fan of modernism: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, Hermann Hesse, and so on. But the common perception now is that they were a bunch of angry or exhuberant young men seeking to overturn cultural traditions and do battle against the sureties of religion, art, and Western Civ.

Go back and read what they were saying. They were lamenting instead that we have lost our moral core. Here is Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

He was lamenting, and sounding an alarm, that we were losing touch in our modern life with the essentials, with truth, good, and beauty.

“Many ingenious lovely things are gone,” he begins the poem 1919:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

This is hardly a celebration of the new freedom from conventional moral restraint.

In “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Pound laments:

All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall reign throughout our days.
… Faun's flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint's vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.

Modernism was a lament over lost culture. Not a rebelionl against culture.

In The Waste Land, Eliot writes:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

This is a vision of modern London as Dante’s Hell. Nobody looks up any more…. Eliot was seeing the spiritual Waste Land that soon enough manifested itself physically as the waste land of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

Conrad captures the same sense of loss of meaning again and again in Heart of Darkness:

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere.

We had lost the plot.

Somehow, more recently, this lament at losing touch with the good, the true, and the beautiful has been transformed into a claim that there is no good, no truth, no beauty. And aggressive persecution of anyone who suggests otherwise. Now we are no longer waiting for Godot. We actively do not want Godot to show up. Yeats or Pound lamented that people were destroying the beautiful, ingenious, lovely things. Now we are run around demanding that anything thought beautiful or meaningful be shunned or destroyed as oppressive.

What we now call “Modernism” is plainly enough the very thing the Moderns were fighting against.

This is a good illustration of the difference between two vital concepts: melancholia and acedia. Melancholia is true, involuntary depression, the result of psychic shock. It is a sense of loss of meaning. The moderns were describing a culture going through depression, thanks to the First World War, and the new doctrines of Darwin and Marx which seemed to deny morality. The Waste Land or the landscape of Waiting for Godot are perfect literary portraits of the experience of depression.

But people today are indulging the sin of acedia. This was once recognized as the worst of the Eight Deadly Sins, then dropped when the list moved from the cloister to the general public. It is spiritual sloth: giving up the hunt for truth, the good, and the beautiful, the quest for which we humans exist. It is deciding it is all too hard, and you might as well just stay in bed. Or that it is more important to drink that next slug of whisky and stay oblivious to it all.

The task at hand, to use Yeats’ imagery, is to get closer to the falconer, back within earshot, and re-establish our ability to hear his voice. It is not to deny he exists.

Of course, the future is not going to be the same as the past. But we need to reconnect the threads. Until we do, we remain in the Waste Land.

One does not and cannot, of course, simply choose to believe in Truth or in God because it might be comforting to do so. That is necessarily not belief in Truth or God: you cannot choose to believe. The point is to keep looking, to keep waiting, to keep oil in the lamps.

But that is not the temptation, is it? Not according to the Modernists. Nor the Ancients. The temptations are the world, the flesh, and the Devil. A too-facile belief is not in that list. That is a bogus excuse for not looking. Accepting the existence of God and of moral obligations, or of Heaven and Hell, is not obviously more comforting than the doctrine that we are all free to do and believe moment by moment whatever we want or find pleasing.

But one must sincerely seek Truth and God. Not succumb to the temptation of acedia. Which is where we are, as a civilization or a culture, right now. If you do, you have his promise: you will find.

And that is the terribly inconvenient part about sincerely seeking for God. You are sooner or later going to find Him.

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