Mental Toil of the Unexamined Life

The plants are all busy outside. At least, one thinks so when one looks out now that the weather’s warmer. All the humans are sleeping at 3AM, but the plants sleep not. And yet, do I want to say they’re awake?
What are they? Are they the living impulse awakened or the living impulse dormant? They seem to be the living impulse without consciousness, though of course I can’t be sure.* They are the living impulse with the permanence of the place, unmoving, rooted, raising up over the years into the sun and the wind the gratitude the earth feels, casting it back down in showers of autumn leaves. A bit of structure on formless matter imposed for a while, and then gradually dissolved, like all the objects of this world.
Which is why the world of objects cannot be the basis of reality.
* * *
I’ve been reading a few thought-provoking articles found through Arts & Letters Daily. One was written by a guy who teaches evolution at a university in Kentucky. A lot of his students come to school knowing nothing about evolution, and he makes it sound as if many of them reject it. What was interesting was a stray remark that crept in about the imperfections of the human body. He believes we get backaches because our organs are hung from a spine originally meant to be parallel not perpendicular to the ground.
I’ve encountered that sad evolutionary idea in the full melancholy of it in the two works by Michel Faber I’ve read: Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things. It represents–at least it suggests that to me–a sense of bitterness about the world and our existence; it is the tragic sense of life, but with resentment, not resignation. Where there was a mystery developing that you then find out is a yawning chasm of insurmountable imperfection only the dimwitted deny. Is it like Blakeian experience, with no innocence of outcome left? Still, the possibility of something better is perceived, and dimly desired. It is tragic because and innocence still lingers, the heart is not altogether stone yet. It is the heart of a tree, however: vegetable and no longer animal, and you can’t help thinking they’re going the wrong way.
* * *
The other article I read was about how the internet itself is changing and what it does to us. It suggested this: if the telephone is a way of being where you are not, of speaking disembodied, then the internet is a way of being what you are not, of existing disembodied. It suggested that to me because that’s how I think about the telephone, which I do not love, and it wanted to say that the telephone was one step and the internet a next step.
It also suggested to me that the present impulse to have tattoos, the whole transgender thing, the ability that now exists beyond quantities that–I think–can safely be encompassed by the category of the deranged of so many to mess surgically and permanently with their outward appearance, their whole body, and at the same time the fad of fitness, of personal image, all this is a kind of internet driven attempt to project oneself even in the world of objects. As if a disembodied existence were colliding with embodied existence with no attention to the underlying reality, to the self that grows. Perhaps that’s why all the issues of gay marriage, and other nonsense of the day seem to have come out of nowhere. They are part of how we think about the world when the internet and all it entails has attained a lodging in our lives the way it has.
* * *
I do think it is interesting how we form our perceptions of how things are. I remember hearing with dismay years back that more and more Christians are social drinkers. Things, I felt, are getting worse. I have not learned from that not to feel sometimes that things are indeed getting worse, but to wonder about the measure I’m using.
For the premillennialist, things are supposed to be getting worse. If that’s your outlook, then you will see it. And often things are getting worse, could get worse than they are, and even might. And if you are an amillennialist things stay the same. For the postmillennialist things are getting better, and it makes sense if you consider that things are improved, sometimes they are even getting better, and could improve more, and even might.
We live in an age of transition, like the tumultuous 16th and 17th centuries. I’m reading Russell Kirk, and he points out how much thinking about what makes life stable came out of those tumultuous times. He’s a good chronicler of ideas, it seems to me. And one of the things he points out is how little design and how much accident goes into the shaping of whole nations and the way people live.
It made me think of Roger Scruton’s elegy for England that is no more. That some living and changing thing is gone is true enough, but the idea of it still yields and will yield whenever it is perceived in the many memorials still mediating it to us, just as Greece which rose splendid of old and destroyed itself still yields and fructifies, just as Europe does which rose up long ago now and committed suicide, but was of old. It makes me wonder about WWII is what it does. Did Britain survive the war only to lose the invisible and shining greatness of Logres? Scruton thinks so. Of course, we evaluate what we have now in terms of what we remember, and we do not always remember accurately. Maybe we didn’t have that much to begin with, one can think, or maybe we have more at present than we think. It had an incarnation that is lost, and that’s a heavy loss. But a thought-provoking loss that makes Logres memorable, and it reaches a new stage of life while fading out of living memory.
That’s perhaps too grand, but I do think it is a kind of squalor of desire to be all tamped down in a kind of frantic dejection about this world. Is it not a vegetative thing, more like a tree? I must be an amillennialist simply by temperament.
* * *
Here are today’s trees, skies, ideas and trajectories. We are subjects incarnate in the world of objects (O thank you Scruton for that insight!) and we do not remain the same. Bad influences arise and take their toll, and they are countered, leavened, mitigated, and even have unexpected outcomes for good. So thought Kirk, at least, and I suppose he must have been an amillennialist.
Innocence of outcome, what you expect: the tree will flourish and the tree will die, but need its wood fall to the forest floor and rot? I remember when I think of these things that Jesus always chided us for having hard hearts, expecting meager and reduced things, being anxious. Not that we are meant to be glib or shallow, but to have a deeper joy beyond the solemn and vast tragedy that fills the limited dimensions of our experience of reality, incarnate in a world of objects with which at present we have no mastering congruity.
Is it a dream? I write these things so deep into the night that it is almost morning.

*Have you ever noticed how people who hunt think they can get inside an animal’s head? It is one of the oddest things about reading Roger Scruton that he tells you sometimes with certainty what he believes is going on or not going on in an animal’s head. It must be that to hunt you have to study and predict, and that when you make successful predictions you get the idea that you have succeeded at entering the animal’s consciousness and become certain about things which you only imagine. But we know from the Ptolemaic system that successful prediction does not mean you have arrived at the inside truth of a thing.


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