Sunday, October 20, 2013

Special Times, Special Places

It's Halloween again (or getting there), and doors and windows everywhere are decorated with rubber skeletons, plastic goblins, smirking skulls, and "Enter if You Dare" signs.

Commercialization? Maybe, and it would undoubtedly be nicer to see home-carved pumpkins with real candles lighting their eye sockets. (Apart from the fire hazard, of course).

But, since we live in a consumerist society anyway, I think it's better that people buy plastic skeletons with their disposable income than Sex in the City box sets, or Hello Kitty jewellery.

I love Halloween. I was born at this time of year, and it always stirs my depths. The very colours of nature-- the grey-white sky, the sepia and lemon and russet leaves, the golden sunlight-- all seem to conspire to create a mood of mellowness, richness, and dreaminess. Autumn is the middle age of the year, with all the (underpraised) virtues of middle age.

I started seriously writing poetry in my teens, when my family first got a computer in 1994. The first poem I wrote on this computer was a simple three-line lyric entitled "October", and I don't think it was at all bad:

October's chilly evenings die a painful death
Succumbing slowly to the freezing tide of night
Gone are all the sated skies of summer now.

Part of the reason I love Halloween is because I love horror. I can't remember a time that I didn't love horror. My little brother and my older brother are both horror fans, too, and horror was a big part of our childhoods. (Not real-life horror, thankfully.)

In fact, we wouldn't even have thought of ourselves as horror fans when we were kids. We just accepted a fascination with ghosts, vampires and werewolves as being the most normal thing in the world. We used to sit together on the couch during horror films, the room in darkness and a blanket stretched over our knees, ready to be pulled over our heads if something too scary appeared on the screen.

The Spirits of Time and Place

Halloween nights are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood. And, although I loved it for all the obvious reasons-- the fireworks, the dressing-up, the fruit, the horror films on television-- I think what I loved most of all was the consciousness that this night was special.

This thirst for specialness-- for special times and places, particularly-- is one of the deepest thirsts of my soul, one that has always haunted me.

When I was young, I saw specialness everywhere. Like primitive tribes that see every grove and hill full of a genius loci, every place and time and person stood out to me as utterly unique and filled with its own distinctive spirit. It's impossible to explain how powerful this impression was.

I thought every place meant something. I thought the boiler house in my school was saying something to me, as was the old walled-off garden overrun by nettles on my uncle's farm. I didn't think this consciously. I was under no delusion that these places had a literal soul, or a mind, or any kind of uncanny life. But the impression was so powerful that it amounted to the same thing.

I had the same impression with people, and this time, I did believe it literally. I thought that that every adult stood for a particular view of the world, a particular philosophy of life. I thought they had answers-- not necessarily the answers, but answers of some sort.

I remember once carrying a Christmas tree home with my sister. She must have been in her late teens at the time, but that was adult enough for me. We had just taken some advice from the young man selling the trees-- I forget what the advice was. I asked her how we could trust him. "When you're my age, you get a sense for who to trust and who not to trust", she said. That was the sort of thing I wanted to hear from adults.

I expected every adult to have a completely formed view of the world-- the fruit of experience, reading and reflection. I didn't expect them to be right. I knew they disagreed. Indeed, the disagreements were part of the drama of life. I just expected them to stand for something.

When I eventually learned how lost many adults were, I was shocked to my core. Indeed, I've never really got over it. I don't understand how so many adult human beings can be not only agnostic but apathetic when it comes to life's burning questions.

Not, indeed, that I merely expected adults to have definite religious, political, cultural and social opinions. I wanted them to be able to put a value and a priority on everything, to have a theory of everything, an attitude towards everything.

The Man on the Ballads Page

One image in particular comes to my mind when I think of this expectation. It's the memory of a ballad page in a magazine, a regular feature. It was edited by a particular fellow-- I forget the name, but I vividly remember the photo. It was an inky, dark picture of a man with long, dark hair, a dark beard, and a thin face.

It satisfied me because he seemed exactly the kind of person who should be editing a ballads page in a magazine. His expression, hair-style, facial features, even the background of the photo (a dim street scene) and its graininess seemed to express a particular spiritual atmosphere.

This was what I wanted. When I learned that most people were not like this-- that, for the most part, their actions and words were not statements of a particular view of the world, but (as I thought) as random and meaningless as the twitching of a newly-dead corpse-- I was deeply disillusioned.

This, and the fading of my childish impression of particular spirits in particular times and places, distressed me greatly. It still does. I feel drawn to people with many and strong opinions, in real life and in my reading. (G.K. Chesterton is a great example.) And I am always trying to rekindle that sense of special times and places.

I think we all feel these yearnings, but some of us are more conscious of them than others.

Those of us who are strongly conscious of them tend to be traditionalists, or traditionalist conservatives. We tend to be protective of national and regional cultures, of the delicious differences between men and women, of the difference between childhood innocence and adulthood, of the difference between poetry and prose, of the difference between sport and business, and of many other differences that liberals (and non-traditionalist conservatives) seem to want to abolish, through misguided ideals of multiculturalism, or gender equality, or tolerance, or artistic experimentation, or economic freedom.

Bringing Religion Into It Again

One of the reasons I am a Catholic-- one of the reasons I believe that Catholicism is true, and has a supernatural insight into human nature and human yearnings-- is its respect for this human need for specialness, this human need for particularity.

The Protestant Reformers had many plausible arguments against the cult of saints, against feast-days, against religious devotions and pilgrimages, and against many of the apparent fripperies of the Catholic faith.

For example, I personally find it difficult to construct an intellectual defence of prayer to saints. After all, Christ is our high priest, isn't he? Why should we need intercessors?

But, all theological arguments aside, what seems clear from experience-- especially from the slow death of European Protestantism-- is that the human heart needs all those practices that the Church blesses, and that offended the Reformers so much.

(I've been browsing through a book called A Gift of Roses, an anthology of memories from the amazing 2001 visit of St. Therese of Lisieux's relics to Ireland. An estimated three million people came out to see them. This speaks for itself.)

I think that cosmopolitans and egalitarians are in danger of breaking themselves against this rock, too. The brotherhood of man is a deep truth, and the infinite worth of every human being is a deep truth-- but any attempt, in the name of these deep truths, to impose a deadening sameness upon the human race will, sooner or later, provoke a reaction.

Because the human heart yearns for special times, for special places, for specialness in general.

And that is why the sight of a plastic skeleton in a window, in the weeks leading up to Halloween, makes me so happy.

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