Stirring the ashes of our dreams

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[NB: I began this essay one evening a few weeks after the Notre Dame fire on April 15, 2019, then put it aside, hoping to return to it after a few of the ideas stewed a bit more. Life intervened, along with events in the world at large, including the 2020 election season and the pandemic, all of which crushed my sense that words alone could do much to help make things better. Now, still in the middle of what’s turning out to be a multi-year crisis, possibly the new permanent situation, where we slip from pandemic to insurrection to climate-driven catastrophe one hot on the heels of the other, I think that perhaps now is as good a time as any to slip this note into a bottle and launch it, to let it find it’s way in the wider world. — GT]

Now that the immediate trauma of seeing Notre Dame in flames has had some time to pass into memory, we can take stock and ask why this particular event mattered so much to so many people. Within a few days, hundreds of millions of dollars had been pledged to rebuild the cathedral, while around the world so many other, more humble, sites of worship lay smoldering. We live in an age when churches are put to the torch by haters, when synagogues and mosques are sites of massacres. In a world of pain and unspoken grief, many still found that seeing Our Lady burn felt like a singular blow to the heart even though it was accidental. Why?

There is of course the obvious fact that the cathedral was a visual icon, part of our shared cultural heritage, familiar from photos and movies, a backdrop for lovers across generations and from around the world. Dreamers who strolled the Isle de Cité at sunset, or perhaps still tipsy at dawn, come to watch the rising sun glint off the spires. Or, for those with a more prosaic turn of mind, the cathedral was evidence that civilization could endure through centuries of war, riot, and revolution. For French of all faiths, or those of no faith, the cathedral forms part of the national identity. This much was already well known. But still that doesn’t feel like it gets to the heart of things. It doesn’t excavate deep enough into the significance of the event in the current moment we find ourselves living within, and so it’s worth pulling on some threads, to see where they lead.

Zealots of every age seem to have a hatred of the human form. Angry mobs during the French Revolution dragged statues of kings from the vaulted spaces within the cathedral out into the public square for beheading, thinking they represented kings of France when they instead were the ancient kings of Judea. But, the flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings of the cathedral itself remained intact down through the centuries. Those structures carried no threat to any ideology, apparently, even though a church is the physical manifestation of a metaphysical system of belief. Perhaps those physical structures were recognized as feats of mere engineering, staking their claims against the disinterested hierarchies of gravity, not propping up human political systems.

Online, I too found myself sharing images of the fire in real time. This is strange for me. Ordinarily, I tend to lurk, as an unwatched watcher of the human drama. My habit is to suspend judgement until the facts clarify, a scientist by habit of mind not only by training. But on the night of the fire, I found myself moved, and wanted to share online in some larger trauma while it was ongoing. I began reposting images and videos. Why?

King Priam of Troy, upon hearing news of the death of his beloved son Hector, fell to his knees and, taking a handful of soil from the ground, poured the dust of the earth over his grief-stricken head. In the modern world we are usually too self-conscious for such outward and spontaneous expressions of grief, and many of the causes of our grief are too diffuse anyway, too ramifying and various, coming one upon the other. News of the death of loved ones might allow us to speak our personal grief, among those who share in it, but we are less prone to do so with the more distant news of the death of cultures and whole species. Perhaps the flames of Notre Dame not only burned away old wood, but turned to ash the old and comfortable idea that, whatever comes, our civilization will surely endure. 

In her 2016 book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene, the Australian geographer Lesley Head argues that modern society suffers from two forms of grief. Like two-headed Janus, looking back to the past and forward to the future, if we look with open eyes we see desolation and loss in both directions. These two forms of grief, according to Head, are largely unremarked and usually suffered in silence. Until we come to grips with them, until we acknowledge and process them fully, we will not be able to move on to a more realistic stage of hope, the grim kind of hope held by a dying man who sees things clearly, knows that he is about to pass from this life, and yet still believes there is reason to act for the good of others who will live on after him. In such a frame of mind, effective action can still be taken. Until our society achieves this level of steely-eyed realism about what we face in coming decades, tempered by a deep and open-hearted love of the world, we will never truly deserve to put our name anthropos on the current age. 

The first form of grief Head identifies looks backward in time, and is the grieving for a lost past. This is not just nostalgia for the world of our childhood, but paradoxically the sense that we have lost a past that never really existed, one that formerly provided the ground upon which our present and various human civilizations claim for their national identities. Traditional societies have the comfort of creation myths that stabilize their understanding of origins, but the origin stories of modern societies seem to shift in each retelling. The more we learn about our past, the more complicated the story becomes. Our sense of our history destabilizes. What seemed once a solid understanding of our past dissolves under the acid test of listening to other sides of the story, as told by those who were long silenced or ignored. 

In the Marshall Islands, in the late 19th century, a Baptist missionary took it upon himself to dig up a coral outcropping the locals considered the body of a goddess turned to stone. He took it in his sailboat out beyond the reef into deep water and dropped it overboard, as a way to prove the old gods were false. Western societies do this kind of thing to themselves regularly, this tossing of the old gods overboard, or the beheading of stone kings. 

Until fairly recently, genealogists had a dubious reputation, given that for so many the goal of digging into their family history meant finding how we are descended from nobility. As if the rest of our ancestral lineage was of no worth. But the Scottish have a saying: “Those who have no thieves or whores among their ancestors were begat by lightning.” Head’s first form of grief, therefore, the one that looks to the past, flows from the realization that we are descendants not of gods, but of some mix of a divine spark and mud, with disenchanting science claiming the spark is present more as a narrative arc to keep us interested. The divine gives a name to that part of things many of us still find mysterious. 

The grief for a lost past, therefore, is a legacy of both the study of history and the advance of science. Historians refuse to let us believe the fairy tales of the old national origin stories, and they reveal the national heroes to have feet of clay. Meanwhile, scientists tell us we are star stuff, begat of the lightning of distant stellar explosions. Beyond that nugget of knowledge, science is silent on what it all means and agnostic on the question of purpose, all while claiming to have reliably subverted the answers to those questions proposed by other cultural traditions. Therefore, science always feels half-finished, iconoclastic, always tossing the goddess out of the boat when the human yearning for meaning is taken by science to be the work of others. So be it. Bring on the artists and dreamers, tinkering in their workshops, exploring the byways of the human spirit, to help us play and find a home in the new world that science has built.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell reflects upon the remarkable notion that a working family should be able to put decent food on the table, a roof over their heads, and expect some leisure in the evening to enjoy one another’s company. Even the idea that their children could have a childhood. This image of the warm hearth well tended is a recent invention, historically speaking. In past centuries, the life of working people could be hard, brutal, and short. Childhood as we now understand it as a time focused on play and learning, not work and hardship, is an invention of the Victorian imagination. Orwell worried that the future might also be bleak, and that future historians of the working class will see our current age as a brief sunlit interlude between centuries of darkness. 

Head seems to agree with this prospect, in the following sense: the second form of grief she identifies looks forward, and concerns the loss of a future we now realize is likely to be forever out of reach. A future of ease and steady progress, both social and technological, or perhaps a world where the science of social progress is perfected, and comes to be seen as a kind of technology itself. Utopias always require history to come to an end, the achievement of perfection, and in our imaginations the future becomes simply brightness trapped in amber. 

Large changes will have to be made to put our civilization on a long-term footing, a topic I’ve discussed in other posts in this blog. A realistic view suggests that while our children might live in something like the world we have known, our children’s children will probably not unless we get to work and make that possible. Right now, we’ve torched our shared remembrance of the past by touching the electric rail of a truer history, and botched our imagined future because we did not really plan for it. We do not yet provide for our children’s children by adopting open-ended ways of doing things. It’s a truism that things that can’t continue forever eventually come to an end. In our creative destruction we are so often like the farmer who casts seed on stony ground and then walks away.

Where Head argues that we suffer from two forms of largely unacknowledged grief, in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argued that we also suffer from two kinds of alienation. We live cocooned in built spaces that separate us from the natural world, the most familiar form of alienation. But, modern sciences of the mind have also revealed that we are separate from our true selves, and hence alienated from even our own deepest desires. 

And so, we have lost our future and our past, our deep contact with nature, and the belief that we can truly know ourselves. This is the legacy of enlightenment and science. Is it any wonder some feel a tug for the dreaming spires of the Middle Ages? 

And yet, perhaps even the dreaming spires are a story we’ve told ourselves, this idea that those centuries past were a deeper and more spiritual age than ours. Perhaps it’s only because what’s built in stone lasts longest. Careful historical researches show that other major projects of the time were far more practical: road building, canals, irrigation, waterworks, all built of wood or piles of dirt now softly decayed or merged back into what only seems to the untutored eye to be a natural landscape. Taken together, counting hours of work and wages paid, those more prosaic projects consumed much labor and effort, perhaps given their extent as much the cathedrals. But those efforts are now largely erased or merged into what seems a natural landscape, and in the erasure a more spiritual age seems to emerge like a dream.

Why don’t we celebrate the workers who dig the canals that bring the water to grow the food that feeds the people, as much as we do the ones who carved the gargoyles, up in their eyries overlooking Paris all day long, carrying lunch and tools far above the city, pondering the nature of God and his demons with each hammer strike?

Within a few days of the Notre Dame disaster, I began to read online claims that cathedrals were special marks of human civilization, that multigenerational efforts like cathedrals were the only human endeavor that stretched across generations, where a workman might enter the project long after its start, contribute his life’s work, and then pass on long before its completion. I like the poetic imagery, but I have to respectfully disagree that this is something that distinguishes cathedral building from any other form of human endeavor. It’s not so much the focus on the multigenerational nature of it, which is generally lacking in our current market-based just-in-time world. What I object to is the claim to its uniqueness. Such claims separate us more than they bring us together, for there are other subcultures where we still labor for the ages, so to speak.

For example, the effort to create a working fusion reactor has also been a multigenerational effort. I have known fusion scientists who spent their entire career on that work to bring on the millennium, a noble dream shared by men and women who labored in the scientific vineyards their entire careers, who went into retirement knowing that a working commercial reactor was still a generation or two away. In fact, this willingness to keep the faith, knowing the full reward always lies somewhere over the horizon, this is true for all of science. We know science is always going to be a work in progress. It will never be finished. And beyond the sciences, my colleagues in the humanities teach their students that they should think about research and scholarship as joining a long conversation, one that started before you were born, and one that will continue long after you leave the scene. 

You enter that conversation by first listening, then joining the flow. And you can only hope that after you’re gone, some of your ideas will linger in the minds of others.

Image: GodefroyParis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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