You are Charged with Being Guilty of Innocence!
As you may recall, we spent the first seven or so months of 2009 blogging about nothing but Balthasar, Balthasar, Balthasar. Why? Because I ware reading nothing but Balthasar, Balthasar, Balthasar. His body of work is so vast, that I decided to stop reading him so that my blogging could catch up to it. But now the blogging can't catch up, because I'm on to something else, thinking about other things.
This whole idea of "catching up" with myself is odd. It's as if the posts are my vapor trail -- or, as the trolls would say, my "back end." I'm always aware of cutting into the cosmic edge -- or the edge of myself, at any rate -- while the blog is a kind of real-time diary of my non-efforts.
This is also why I can't even think about writing another book. Blogging -- at least the way I blog -- is utterly different from writing, as different as, say, work and play, or comedy and drama, or music and architecture, or jazz and classical. The danger, of course, is that blogging can descend into mere self-indulgence, like the present post.
Is this post actually going anywhere? That's the thing -- I have no idea until I get there. You can't write a book that way. Publisher: "So, what's the book about?" Me: "Good question. I have no idea. I'll let you know when I get there." In fact, my agent wants to know how "the next book is coming along." The good news? It's done -- as is the followup. The bad news? They're entangled somewhere inside 1,500 blog posts, and I'm not the man to disentangle them.
So yesterday we had some objections from one of those traditionalist commenters who believes that history took a wrong turn with the renaissance. This is what Schuon and all of his followers believe. First of all, I do not ridicule their point of view. These are serious men, and even if you disagree with them, it is still worthwhile to read what they have to say.
There are two dangers, I think. The first is idealizing the past and denigrating the present; the second is idealizing the present and denigrating the past. I simply take a moderate position -- which is not the same as a mealy-mouthed compromise.
Rather, I think the only proper conservative position is to preserve the best of the past, not the whole thing, lock, crock and barrel. I think Schuon would counter that cultures are organic, and that you cannot simply pick and choose what you like and don't like.
But this overlooks the fact that once we awaken to the dream of culture, we cannot get back inside the dream. You cannot go home again. Man could no more return to a premodern mentality than an individual can go back to his childhood.
Remember the film American Beauty, in which Kevin Spacey determines that his life took a wrong turn with adolescence? He tries to recover his proper future by returning to the past and reliving his life over. At the very end of the movie, he is seen looking at a photo of his family, as if awakening to the infinite value of his present life. Then a bullet to the head. At least he dies a happy man.
This reminds me of an old patient of mine. Like Kevin Spacey, he was a sad and angry middle aged man who thought that his life had gone completely off track somewhere along the line. In his case, he traced it back to the experience of the 1960s. He had been something of a "square," and was therefore "on the outside looking in" on that dionysian decade.
But as we eventually discovered, "the sixties" was just a symbol for him of his own alienation from the vital core of himself. His visions of beautiful hippy chicks dancing naked in the rain were just a projection of his own suppressed vitality. They were as real as those commercials that show supermodels pounding beer on the beach while playing touch football with the guys. Yeah, that's what supermodels do. Hang out with drunken losers and throw up on the beach.
As far as I am concerned, it is just too easy to be "alienated," whatever historical era you were born into. Who feels completely comfortable on earth except for a well-loved child or well-stocked opium eater? I can guarantee you that if Schuon had been born in 1500, he'd be complaining about....
Well, we don't even have to really speculate. One of the values of this history of American conservatism is that it demonstrates the continuity of a kind of mindset that endures despite changes in the content. There's always something to complain about. Things are always going to hell in a handbasket. But only always. Once you are aware of this, then you can appreciate how the container determines the content, so to speak. Whenever this pattern occurs, you are trapped within a kind of parasite, because you are no longer apprehending reality, only your model of reality (which will be self-authenticating, only focusing on those aspects of reality that confirm it).
This is why, as Allitt points out, prior to the 1950s, conservatism was much more of an attitude than any fixed ideology. On the one hand, it is always skeptical, discerning, elitist. But this can conceal a kind of romantic naïveté about the past, as if one could resolve one's existential problems by living in a more coongenial time. You might say that progressives escape existence by romanticizing the future, while a certain type of conservative does so by romanticizing the past. But I simply see no evidence that people in the past were any less troubled than people of the present. They were just troubled in different ways and by different things, that's all.
In a comment yesterday, I mentioned that this book I'm reading, The Age of Wonder, goes into the history of surgical anesthesia, which was not available in England until 1853. Prior to that, the horror of surgery was mind-boggling. Were people back then tougher than we are? Yes, perhaps marginally. But none would have chosen their lot had they had an alternative. These procedures were "unimaginably painful. The pain also caused shock, which itself could kill. The only known form of a painkiller [alcohol] was largely a method of controlling terror and deadening shock..."
He writes of one physician who performed over 200 amputations on the battlefield in a single 24 hour period (using Obama math, he would have earned a cool ten million dollars that day, i.e., 200 x $50,000). Imagine his horror! There is the account of a woman with cancer who had a mastectomy done without anesthesia in 1811: "When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast -- I needed no injunction to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted [continuously] during the whole time of the incision.... So excruciating was the agony... All descriptions would be baffled... I felt the Knife racking against my breast bone -- scraping it!"
Now, I do believe that most people were probably "different" in the past. In a comment, Susannah touches on the reasons why, that is, the prevalence of infant mortality. She writes that,
"One of the unifying features is that every mother lost a child to some disease or other that we now think nothing about, thanks to vaccinations [not to mention antibiotics -- ever tried to endure the screams of a child with an earache?]. It's heartbreaking to contemplate. I can't even imagine how fearful the first appearance of a cough or fever must have been. I read or listen to a lot of 19th century American writings, and notice the frequency of death, the length of illnesses (weeks in bed!) and the mistaken notions of medicine that were just par for the course then. In short, like you, I am very, very grateful for modernity."
I do not see how infant mortality couldn't have had an adverse effect on attachment and bonding, and therefore adult character and psychopathology. I think for many mothers, it was just too painful to bond with a child until there was some certainty that the child would survive. But those first 6-12 months of infancy are when the baby most needs the "infinite love" of the mother. Deprived of it, they would grow up to be emotionally blunted themselves, since their "core" wasn't intimately responded to when their brain neurology was being assembled. Talk about 'missing the sixties'!
In fact, there is another chapter on the European discovery of the "innocent paradise" of Tahiti in the late 18th century. They were sexually free (to the sailors' delight) and had no notion of private property. Therefore, theft was totally natural. Also totally natural was infanticide, so common that no one gave it a second thought. It was "used with regularity and without compunction as a form of birth control." The explorer, Joseph Banks, questioned couples "who freely admitted to destroying two or three children, showing not the slightest apparent guilt or regret."
You see? Innocence. Isn't it wonderful? But forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.