Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Contradictions of Modern Life

I've been sick as a dog the last few days (though I must say dogs don't strike me as being particularly sickly) and confined to lying in bed. I didn't even get to Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception today, which makes me feel bad, but I think it was a justified absence. There is a mound of tissues piled on my bed-side desk.

Yesterday I wasn't even able to sit up very comfortably, so I lay down and listened to audiobooks on my laptop (mostly Plain and Parochial Sermons by John Henry Newman). Today, a little better, I've been reading my beloved volumes of Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles.

I was struck by this passage from one of his 1928 articles:

"Now, if we look carefully at our daily life, we shall see that catch and contradiction everywhere. The forces that are conquering everything are defeating themselves. The energies that are devouring everthing are devouring themselves. Let me take another obvious example. The distant village of Hugby-in-the-Hole is very picturesque. The more respectable parts of Hoxton are not so picturesque. It is therefore very natural, and even very right, that people in Hoxton should wish to go to Hugby. Is is even natural, or at least pardonable, that they should wish to go to Hugby as quickly as possible....They go to Hugby; they settle down at Hugby; and they proceed, on the same line of argument, to set up the same machinery of rapid movement which they felt to be justified in Hoxton. They have garages of ghastly architecture, petrol-pumps of fiendish colours, advertisements of petrols and cars and all the rest, exactly like those which plaster the streets of their original home. They originally went to Hugsby because it was different from Hoxton. They then proceed to make Hugby exactly like Hoxton."

I wrote a whole post about this a long time ago; one that was, perhaps, not very felicitously expressed, but that was trying to make the same point as Chesterton.

I called it "The Pioneer Paradox, or the Cowboy Contradiction"; because I took as my symbolic figure the cowboy of the Wild West, whose entire purpose was to make the West less wild and to destroy the very romance that hangs around him.

I wrote:

"I think the same idea applies to the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs figures of this world, all the college drop-outs who eschew shirts and ties and build vast business empires clad in Bermuda shirts, huddling in computer laboratories all hours of the day with other wacky, free-spirited visionaries, living on take-away pizza and coffee.

Do they build empires of wacky, Bermuda-shirt wearing executives who skateboard into work whenever they feel like it and work till the wee hours, in between games of Nintendo?

No, they produce more and more glass and concrete cubes where more and more cubicle slaves pass their lives in mortgage slavery.

Or take inveterate tourists, or-- as they like to consider themselves-- people who are passionate about travel. They see themselves as cosmopolitan, open-minded, adventurous. They seek places "off the beaten track" and that aren't "touristy". They shop for souvenirs of actual, indigenous art.

And, to cater to their appetite, more and more books and websites and magazine articles reveal the latest "unspoiled" village or beach or valley, which soon becomes a tourist hotspot, and whose inhabitants are soon making war-masks or woven sweaters or mosaic patterns for the tourist market.

I think this principle applies, too, to liberal or left-wing nationalism. I don't understand the weird hybrid of patriotism and Marxism that Sinn Féin have embraced. I understand DeValeran protectionism, ruralism, and traditionalism; I understand the internationalism, liberalism and futurism of a thoroughgoing communist.

But how can the liberal nationalist, who sees national liberation as an end in itself, but longs for his country to become "outward-looking", "progressive", and "pluralist", not see the contradiction in his own position? Does he not see that, when the political struggle has succeeded and his country has attained its own government, his whole political philosophy has negated itself? There is no longer any reason to be a nationalist. Soon the currents of history, with his full approval, will wash away all trace of his struggles and passions; the patriotic ballads fade away, to be replaced by the honking of fancy cars and the blare of rap music.

The same applies to liberalism in general. Liberals strives for the emancipation of groups, such as Muslims or travellers or ethnic minorities, whose entire culture and survival is threatened by liberalism's own inexorable logic."

I see this cowboy contradiction, this pioneer paradox, everywhere. I see it in the rampant commercialism that loves to evoke (in its advertising, for instance) images of family life and of holidays, but actually works to erode both of those things. (In America, the Thanksgiving weekend is being shortened to one day as stores force their employees to open earlier and earlier on Black Friday, which is a day of unmitigated consumerist greed.) I see it in the pressure that is put upon holidays and happy occasions, like Christmas, so that they are no longer holidays at all but rather a very pressured form of work.

I see it in the love of "sport" that becomes more and more focused on winning and results ("winning isn't everything, it's the only thing") so that very soon there is no "sport" left in sport at all, and it is entirely a business.

I see it in politics, where we become so used to accepting the idea that politics is "the art of the possible" that eventually, electability becomes the sole criterion guiding what policies should be adopted.

I see it-- as many other people have seen it-- in "labour saving" technologies that end up increasing the workload that each person is expected to perform.

I see it in the forms of women's liberation by which women cease to be women at all, and instead become men in skirts. Have you ever noticed how the favourite entertainments of so many women-- especially the most hardheaded, professional women-- tend to hark back to pre-Women's Lib times? There is something in Jane Austen and Downtown Abbey (which I've never seen) and other windows onto a bygone age that has special appeal to women-- perhaps a hunger for a time of chivalry and ceremonial roles for both sexes.

I see it in the clamour for same-sex marriage, which seeks to expand an institution in a way that makes the whole point of that institution obsolete.

It all bewilders me. I am too simple to live in this world of Escher-like reversals and paradoxes. I'm going to go back to reading Chesterton now.


  1. Glad to hear you're on the mend. Sounds nasty. I've wrapped the computer display in cling film just in case.

    Which volume of Chesterton's ILN articles would you recommend as a starter?

  2. Hi Jonny

    Thanks for the good wishes!

    I don't recommend any particular volume-- I think they are pretty much uniformly good, or as near as makes no difference-- but for goodness' sake do NOT buy any of the volumes written during World War One. Or, if you must (because we are all completists at heart) leave them till last. Even the general introduction to the columns admits that the World War One columns were little more than propagandistic hackwork. Of course, it is still Chesterton, and it is still brilliant, but the subject matter become so monotonous and (I say it sadly) jingoistic that they are almost unreadable.

  3. In that case, I'll let thrift be my guide and go for the 1935-36 currently on eBay at £17.42.