Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Compliments to the Chef

Edward Fitzgerald, in his glorious Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, famously wrote:

Ah, Love! could Thou and I with Faith conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Everyone has felt like that sometimes. But I think that there's a lot more to be happy about than to be unhappy about it in the way the world is ordered. Yes, there's disease and oppression and violence and loneliness and a myriad other ills. And yes, these are real evils that are not to be overlooked through some kind of Pollyanna-like cheap optimism. They are why our world needed, and needs, a Redeemer.

But I think it takes a determined obtuseness to fail to see Providence at work in the structure of our world. It's quite the masterpiece in so many ways.

For a start, there's the division of the human race into two sexes. This fact is a source of endless delight. I can easily imagine a world which was asexual, which would be unspeakably boring-- but which is apparently the ideal of many progressive thinkers. (It reminds me of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's philosophy of Bagism.) A world which was divided into a myriad of sexes, as per the visions of many science-fiction writers, would also be less satisfying-- diversity is good, but it seems appropriate that something so central to all human life should be a dyad rather than a myriad.

It delights me that the man/woman difference is one that runs through every nation, every era, every family, every workplace, and almost every organization. It's a theme repeated in endless variations. Although ideas of masculinity and femininity have changed through the ages and across cultures, they're always very recognizable to us. The man/woman relation is endlessly fertile in more than the biological sense. It generates so much-- jokes, stories, poems, dance, folklore, clothes, games, and so on into infinity. It creates endless mystery, because no man will ever know what it is like to be a woman, transexual attempts nothwithstanding. And vice versa.

Ultimately our common humanity goes deeper than our sexual differences, of course. But I think it's glorious that our sexual differences go as deep as they do, and I don't understand how anyone would wish it otherwise. I take enormous, never-ending pleasure in simply contemplating this. Why would anyone want to bend genders? I don't understand that at all-- but the irony is that every attempt to subvert gender only ends up affirming it-- because you cannot create anything human outside those poles of masculinity and femininity, any more than you can create a new primary colour. All you are left with is Bagism as an alternative. And Bagism won't satisfy for very long.

Another source of endless delight to me, another dyad I contemplate with great relish, is the division between outdoors and indoors. Can you imagine if the climate of Earth was so hospitable that we needed no clothes and no shelter? How dull would that be? How much fascination and drama does it bring into the world that space is divided into all these little spaces, made by walls and partitions?

Have you ever noticed how differently people behave outdoors than they do indoors? Study a photograph of somebody, say, who is walking through a street. There is something expectant, alert about their facial expression that you don't see indoors. Their heads are usually raised a little, scanning the horizon. They look a little lost, a little disorientated, but in an endearing way. Their very individuality seems fragile, precious, accentuated. They seem somehow smaller, but more themselves as well, as if by contrast with their environment. This is always what we notice when we run into a friend or a family member who is out and about, when we weren't expecting to see them. It's like really seeing them for the first time.

As for the indoors-- do I really need to laud the indoors? Anyone who's lain in bed reading while the wind whistles outside knows the joys of the indoors.

Whereas I despise gender-bending, I have always been fascinated by places that are neither indoors or outdoors, or that are both at once. Even something so simple as an indoor shopping centre possesses this fascination. If you walk out of one of its shop into the main mall, you are walking out, but you're still in. I savour the Russian doll aspect of that. I can't explain the fascination any further.

Personally, I've always been more of an indoors man than an outdoors man, though I like the outdoors in its own way. I especially love places that are windowless, like cinemas and oratories and bathrooms.

Another aspect of the world that I relish, every single day, is its division into nations and peoples. Once again, I fail to comprehend how anyone could regret this. It's easy to imagine a single language, culture and social system prevailing over the entire Earth. But why would anyone want that? I've never really understood why provincialism is a bad thing, or why it's an insult to consider something or someone exotic. (Nor do I understand what's exciting in the concept of a 'global village'. I prefer a world full of villages myself.) It gives me considerable pleasure to think that China and India and Mongolia are like alien civilizations, so far out of my ken that I barely know the first thing about them. The world is always bigger, far bigger, than any one person can grasp. It makes me especially happy that even educated, informed people can simply not have heard of some countries-- or at least, know next to nothing about them. (What do you know about Kyrgyzstan?)

I'm not as hostile to multiculturalism as I used to be. I've come to think that national character and national difference are compatible with a high degree of multiculturalism. Just look at America, which might be the most vibrant culture on Earth but also the most multicultural. On second thoughts, it's not so much that I've become less hostile to multiculturalism, as that I've simply stopped believing that multiculturalism is really possible. Whatever new synthesis comes about when cultures mix, it's not multiculturalism.

But, of course, the jubilant diversity of mankind isn't exhausted by diversity at the national level. The existence of regional accents is yet another of those joyous aspects of reality that we seem to overlook all too easily. It makes me especially happy that these don't appear to be eroded by television, radio and other forms of mass communication.

Then there's childhood. I've often heard it claimed that human beings have the longest childhood (so to speak) of any animal on Earth. I don't know if that's the case of not. But there certainly seems to be something essentially human about childhood. If human beings could spring into adulthood fully-formed, we would feel they were less than human. Even the most hard-headed materialist, I think, would concede that childhood is something spiritual as much as something physical or developmental or biological. If we could find some kind of drug to speed up childhood, I imagine very few parents would have recourse to it (unless from motives of dire economic necessity).

I can imagine the reader smiling at the obviousness of this reflection. But that's the whole point. It is obvious. It's too obvious. Nobody ever seems to remark upon the desirability of childhood, of the nature of the human life cycle. Why do we take it for granted? Why do we miss the artistry, or at least the apparent artistry?

And let me not forget the division of time into days and nights. I can imagine our lives being one continuous, uninterrupted flow of time, without the punctuation of sleep or night. The very thought seems hideous. Days possess a unity of their own. Each one has its own mood, its own theme, its own uniqueness. They are divided by each other by little streams of dream and oblivion. We wake up and the world is newly-minted again.

Of course, I am well aware that a tough-minded scientific materialist would read this and smile knowingly and say: "But you approve of all this because you're predisposed to approve of it. Haven't you heard Douglas Adams's parable of the puddle?". Yes, I have, and I find it unconvincing. Human beings complain about the limits and pain of human nature, and the flaws of the world we find ourselves in, very often. These are often made the basis of scepticism about a Divine Providence. Surely, if criticism is permitted, praise has to be permitted.

Oh, and that reminds me-- there's also the miraculous fact that human intelligence is self-reflective, and that we can imagine things as being other than they are. I suppose the puddle would congratulate itself upon that, too. If puddles could think. Which they can't.


  1. Haha I can't add anything to this, but thank you for writing this article. A wonderful reflection on the things in life we take for granted.

  2. Thanks Antaine! I'm glad somebody commented on it because I especially liked this article (if I say so myself).