Monday, October 26, 2015

An Afterthought to Yesterday's Post

The post that I wrote yesterday evening made a fair stab at expressing something that is very dear to me. Indeed, in the last few months I have been circling around the same themes from rather different angles, in a whole series of posts-- the series on tradition and the series on my ideal Ireland, in particular.

Yesterday's post took quite a lot of time, not only to write, but also because I had very frustrating formatting problems-- every time I 'cut and paste' extended quotations, it seems to knock out the formatting, and strange things start happening to the font size of whole sections. This is incredibly aggravating, and I was quite fatigued by the time I finally got the thing properly formatted.

However, reading over the post, I still feel a sense of dissatisfaction. I missed something out.

I wrote about the importance I perceive in the unconscious and collective and cumulative aspect of social and cultural institutions-- whether that institution is as small as a joke or as big as national identity. I emphasised the need to cherish these 'non-rational' elements, and the danger (as i see it) in seeking to subject everything to a rationalistic critique-- though that danger might simply be that we create an insipid and rootless and banal world.

But there is another element I am missing out. It is the element of distance. By distance I am talking about distance in time even more than distance in space.

Although distance can sometimes be heartbreaking, I think it also has a deep beauty and poetry to it. Once again I must quote C.S. Lewis, and once again it is a passage I have often quoted before, one from Surprised by Joy:

The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it annihilates space. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.

I think it's essential to everything that really elevates our social and cultural life that it is, as it were, spaced out. It allows breathing space.

Tradition is the best example of this. Take a tradition like Halloween. It only comes once a year. There are spaces in between-- spaces of a whole year. There is distance for the memory of each Halloween to mature and marinate in that time-- because we haven't been thinking about it, or 'looking at it'. And when we contemplate Halloween as an institution, the distance involved-- the sense of distance, of spaces in between-- seems to be part of its magic, its sense of the sublime.

What I am trying to get at it is well expressed in the proverb "distance lends enchantment to the view", but without the irony usually implied in it. Distance does lend enchantment to a view. Think of the sight of a cityscape, on a misty morning, with church spires here and there punctuating the sea of roofs.

Here I think of another memory, one I mentioned in my infamous 'Purple Notebook' series-- the memory of listening to my uncle singing "The Fields of Athenry" (a gentle and melancholy Irish song) in the bathroom, in his farmhouse in county Limerick. The great thing about my aunt and uncle's house was that they never had the television on except when they were watching it-- which was quite seldom. So I experienced there something which I rarely experienced in Dublin, growing up-- that is, silence, and all the little sounds that you only hear against the backdrop of silence. The sound of my uncle's voice echoing against the tiles and porcelain of the kitchen, and the awareness that we were surrounded by a small farm, and that even beyond that farm there was so much open space, gave me a delicious sense of distance-- of distances between, internal distances, the distances that makes something (whether it's a farm or a way of life) so much bigger inside than it seems from outside.

Another example to which I want to apply this idea of distance-- of 'distances between'-- is the reception of artistic works. Take Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance, the Beatles' most famous album. When this came out, as I've read (and, indeed, as I've heard, from people who were around at that time) it was a massive sensation-- people felt that it was an epoch in itself, that it was going to change society. I've heard that some radio stations simply played it non-stop.

But, of course, although that initial sensation is part of the 'story' of Sgt. Pepper, but the impact and significance of the album only really emerged over time-- when the initial hype had gone away. Recently, I listened to 'A Day in the Life' (on vinyl) with my horror club, in one of the members' houses, on his top-of-the-range sound system. ('A Day in the Life' is possibly the most celebrated song on Sgt. Pepper. As for why my horror club was listening to it, sometimes we branch out beyond horror) We listened to it in silence, contemplatively. It seems to me that the song means so much more now, and has so much more of an 'aura' now, because its reputation has endured (and perhaps grown) in the years since its release. I first heard it in 2006, when I was lodging with a family in Stillorgan. I have, of course, listened to it periodically since then. And I feel that the intervals between those times are part of the experience of listening to the song, evaluating it, absorbing it. Everything that has happened in popular culture and history, since it was released, is also somehow present in the experience of listening to it. With any song or book of movie that you keep coming back to, the times that you're not thinking about it are as important as the times that you are thinking about it. The distances, the spaces between, are important.

Once again, my subject is getting away from me. So I want to finish up on one image that came into my head this morning, in the supermarket queue, and led me to write this 'afterthought'.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager with no experience of reading academic writing, I read an academic book about Yeats's poetry-- because I was a fan of Yeats's poetry, and I found this book in the library. I was quite taken aback (but quite delighted) at the denseness of the text, the seriousness and depth with which it analysed Yeats's words.

There was much concentration on his occult themes, and one thing that really struck me was a claim that the suits in playing cards-- diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs-- are derived from the suits in tarot cards, and that these in turn are based on the treasures of the ancient Celts, such as the 'Stone of Destiny' and the 'Spear of Lugh'.

Now, that may all be codswallop, and I might be getting it wrong anyway-- it doesn't matter. What matters is that suddenly the suits of playing cards-- diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades-- took on a depth and a meaningfulness that I'd never seen in them before. But this was only possible because I had spent so long looking at them, without really looking at them. They had already entered into my imagination, and they were latent there, through the repetitive and semi-hypnotic process of playing card games. While the analytic part of my mind was absorbed on the card game, the 'poetry' of the cards was entering into my imagination-- the same kind of 'two-pronged' action of active mind and contemplative mind that we experience when reciting the Rosary.

Now, if I'd been reading that book, and I'd never played cards, this idea wouldn't have aroused me so much. Spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds just would not have had the same resonance for me. Even if I knew that card games were very popular and I was told that these were the four suits, the sense of the sublime that I felt would not have been the same. I had to have the lived experience of playing card games over time, and with intervals (distance) in between the different games-- intervals when I wasn't thinking about card games or card suits at all.

It's the same with all symbols, from the Cross to a barber's pole. They derive so much of their power, so much of their sense of the sublime, from the frequency with which we have seen them-- and the fact that we weren't usually focusing on them or thinking about them, most of those times.

I'd better stop there. Perhaps I have expanded this subject far beyond what the reader's patience could bear. But I really did feel I had to add this idea of the 'distances between', to round off my previous post.

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