Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Short History of my Priggishness

Readers are warned that this post is going to be even more introspective and idiosyncratic than usual. Perhaps 'navel-gazing' is a better term. Nevertheless I feel the urge to write it. Nobody has to read it-- that is the great thing about blogging.

I wanted to write a few thoughts on my history as a prig.

I have always been a prig. I think I will always be a prig. I am trying to learn where priggishness is good and where it is bad.

Chambers English Dictionary, eleventh edition, describes a prig thus (and the definition is rather poetic): "A precisian, a puritan; a person of precise morals without a sense of proportion; a sanctimonious person, certain of his or her blamelessness and critical of others' failings; a coxcomb".

I think the only part of that definition that applies to me (in the sense I mean here) is 'a puritan'. I have always been a puritan, though my puritanism has been more aesthetic or cultural (or maybe behavioural) than moral. 

I have always had a craving for the purified, the consecrated and the intentional, over the mixed, the ambiguous and the matter-of-fact.

I have often written (to the point of tedium, I hear my reader think) about the Halloween party that fired my childish imagination. The thing that excited me was the sense of consecration-- this night was consecrated to all things spooky. It had a flavour and an atmosphere and a character all of its own.

A time to be spooky

I wanted, and have always wanted, everything to have a flavour and an atmosphere and a character all of its own. I wanted, from my earliest age, human beings to be avatars. I wanted each one to be a vessel of a particular ideal and way of looking at the world. I didn't really care what that way of looking at the world was, as long as it was there. Teenagers who were heavy metal fans I could understand. Adults who were proponents of some political viewpoint, I could also understand. But people who weren't really anything...who expressed no obvious view of the world, whether idealistic or hedonistic or otherwise....I couldn't 'deal' with them. They disgusted me, in the literal sense of that word.

Of course, I could never have expressed all this in words, as a child. But it was there.

I loathed what Yeats called 'the casual comedy' in his famous poem Easter 1916; the banal, business-like, humdrum attitude towards life that, the poem tells us, had been superseded in the Ireland of that time by the high tragedy of the Rising.

W.B. Yeats
The philosphical depth of that poem amazes me more and more, as I grow older. Yeats managed to encapsulate (and anticipate) all the debates about the 1916 Rising in one poem, indeed, in one phrase-- "a terrible beauty". But it has a philosophical depth beyond its historical subject, too. In one passage from the poem, one which I did not even understand when I read it as a teen, Yeats expressed both the seduction and the peril of this urge towards purity, towards single-mindedness:
Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,   
The rider, the birds that range   
From cloud to tumbling cloud,   
Minute by minute they change;   
A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;   
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   
And a horse plashes within it;   
The long-legged moor-hens dive,   
And hens to moor-cocks call;   
Minute by minute they live:   
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart...

Jean-Paul Sartre believed that human beings, out of a desire to escape from the existential freedom which we find so unbearable, aspire to become a thing rather than a person.  I don't believe this exactly, but I think it shows considerable insight.

Yeats himself, who said that poetry is created out of the argument with ourselves, was also drawn to the idea of purity in his own way. "One day when I was twenty-three or twenty-four this sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half-asleep: "Hammer your thoughts into unity." For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence." 

When I was a boy, I knew a couple called Holly and Harry. (I am changing the name and the details to protect the innocent.) When I visited their flat, i was delighted with their way of life. They had a piece of sculpture on their bookshelf, and a large and rather artistic painting on their wall. They gave me curry, which was unimaginably exotic, with chopsticks! They had poufs to sit on. I think there was incense involved, as well. It seemed to me they were living the refined way of life that I craved. 

Later on, I realized that they watched game shows and listened to rap music and followed sport like everybody else. And, to make matters worse, they quickly moved away from the aspirations of their early years. I felt unutterably betrayed and disillusioned.

In school, when I was about ten or eleven, we read a story taken from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was a tale-within-a-tale in which children are told how strict Sabbath observance was in their grandfather's day. Their grandfather (as a boy) goes out to play with a sled on a Sunday, when his own father is asleep, despite Sunday being utterly devoted to Bible reading and solemnity. My sympathies were not with the boys, but with the solemnity of the Sunday. I had never heard of such solemnity and consecration before and I craved it. 

Another time, I fell in calf-love with a girl who was several years older than me in school. I didn't know her name but she seemed to me like a vision of rather vampiric beauty. She had raven-black hair, slanted eyes and an alabaster complexion, and she moved and smiled with a demure grace. She looked very intellectual and as though she came from an upper-middle class family. I imagined her life as being one of art exhibitions, concerts, bike rides, intellectual debates around the dinner table, reading poetry in a meadow, etc. etc.

She should be reading poetry.

I remember how crushed I felt one day when the thought occurred to me: "She watches television. Of course she does. Like everybody else." I was about fifteen. I watched lots of television.

Lord of the Rings was a source of fascination for me; particularly Rivendell. I wanted everything in life, and everything in society, to be graceful and ceremonious and meaningful and stately like it was in Rivendell. Indeed, even the Shire seemed to me more gracious and ceremonial than the 'casual comedy' I saw around me.

I wanted this...

Not this...

...or this.
It is understandable that such a boy should be drawn towards cultural nationalism, as I was. When I learned about the Irish Revival, or the Gaelic Revival, of the late nineetenth to early twentieth century, it completely enchanted me. Indeed, that enchantment has never gone away, though I reacted against it for some years.

The Gaelic Revival was part of a wave of cultural and (important adjective) romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century and onwards. Romantic nationalism saw the art, folklore, dress, cuisine, literature etc. of a particular nation as being an expression of its national soul. Where those things had decayed, it sought to revive them.

(All my life, while despising revolutions of the destructive kind which seek to wipe the slate clean and start again, I have been fascinated by the idea of a revolution which transforms everything but which destroys nothing. The title of the much-mocked spoken word album by William Shatner, The Transformed Man, has always beguiled me.)

Thefore, in an Ireland that had been losing its national culture and ways of life for generations, a massive campaign was launched, amongst cultural nationalists, to revive our national language, our national folklore, our national games, our national music, our national architecture etc. in a particularly Gaelic idiom. Traditions would be revived-- and where there were no traditions, new ones would be invented.

This was manna to me. The essence of the thing was that which was unthinking and incidental would become deliberate and intentional-- that which was almost arbitrary would become meaningful. Dressing and storytelling and painting and eating and making speeches and sending Christmas cards would become an expression of the Folk Spirit, as well as everything that they were already.

I have never aspired towards the kind of 'spontaneous' national identity that some cultural nationalists aspire towards. I remember, in one Irish language class, the teacher taking one of my class-mates to task for writing, in an essay, that a particular Irish language writer had "a great love for the Irish language". "Nobody ever says that English writers have a great love for the English language", she moaned. "It's just the language they naturally write in."

But that was exactly what I did not want-- for Ireland to regain her national traditions and way of life just to become blasé about them. This was long before I came across a quotation of Chesterton's which exactly expresses my dislike of this attitude: "This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself". Chesterton somewhere else describes this as: "Losing a thing as soon as you find it."

Obligatory G.K. Chesterton picture
I will go further. I have never been able to really regret that Ireland lost her language and traditions and has had to regain them. I don't wish we spoke Irish today as the French speak French or the Spanish speak Spanish-- matter-of-factly. I think there is something heroic and life-giving in the project of revival. Chesterton said that the way to love something is to think that it might be lost. Ireland had lost so much, and yet-- would we have loved it so much if it had not been lost? Wasn't the 'turn' towards tradition in itself a noble thing, especially when it was an all-but-disappeared tradition?

Kathleen Ni Houlihan; Ireland's Uncle Sam
My cultural nationalism was a romantic, backward-looking, traditionalist, poetic form of nationalism, one that idealized the Irish countryside and traditional ways of life and that personified Ireland herself as Kathleen Ni Houlihan. I simply did not see the point of any nationalism that was not a 'thick' nationalism in this sense-- that did not want to "Irishify" everything in the national life.

When I realised that there were indeed nationalists who had contempt for this attitude, I was shocked to my core. Kathleen Ni Houlihan they considered sexist and outmoded and naive-- they wanted a bullish, anti-sentimental nationalism that wanted to make Ireland a progressive, modern, secular, multicultural nation. Aside from removing the British presence from Northern Ireland, and providing 'language equality' for Irish speakers-- because even seeking to revive the language was a bit too conservative for their liking-- they seemed willing to ditch the entire project of cultural revival. Wearing Aran sweaters and putting up paintings of Blasket Islanders in your living room were out. Bob Dylan songs and blue jeans and plays about tortured sexuality were in. This, in part, caused my strong reaction against nationalism for many years.

I'm not bashing gays-- but why does it have to be so tacky?
I could go on to describe the influence of my priggishness upon my religious faith, but this essay is already longer than I intended it to be.

I'll mention two things in conclusion.

The first is-- ladies and gentlemen, please do not consider me an out-and-out prig. Indeed, I harbour in my soul quite the opposite hankering, too, though it is not nearly as strong. There is a part of me that revels in 'the casual comedy', the infinite openness and indeterminacy of life, and of society. I do want to get outside, or at least to know there is an outside-- I do want fresh air. I have known the rather bracing sense of dizziness when it is borne upon one, through a snatch of overheard conversation perhaps, that other people have preoccupations and ways of looking at the world that are utterly different from one's own. I sometimes revel in the 'messiness' of modern liberal democracy. Louis Macneice's 'Snow' is one of my favourite poems. I even had these lines printed onto a t-shirt once:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

Louise Macneice, renowned tangerine eater
And yet I think the cleavage is not as simple as that, either. Just as Chesterton said that, if you leave a white fence to itself, it will not remain a white fence but become a muddy grey, so I think that the diversity of the world actually requires a solicitude for singleness and purification. Perhaps tangerines only exist through the unnatural selection of fruit-eating human beings over the generations, as certain dogs have been bred for their distinctiveness. Even if this is not the case with tangerines, you know what I mean. Volumes could be written on this tension, this paradox, this dialectic, or whatever you may call it, between essentialism and pluralism.

Finally, I want to leave you with an image. I have been practicing mindfulness for several months now-- something I dismissed as a fad, but I have been compelled to accept as having genuine scientifically-established merit, and something that is of particular usefulness to me. There are many forms of mindfulness, but I have hit upon my own favourite-- staring into the flame of a candle for twenty minutes, focusing entirely upon that flame.

Staring into the flame makes me realise how important fire imagery has been to me all my life. In the Bible, some of my favourite stories involve fire-- the Burning Bush and Pentecost in particular. And one of my epigraphs you will find at the bottom of this blog is from our Blessed Lord: "I have come to bring fire to the Earth."

And then there is one of my favourite lines in all English poetry, the last line of this verse from the poem The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon:
The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

The wild fingers of fire are making corruption clean. That is what I have craved, intermittently, all my life. That is what makes me a hopeless prig. And, although there is much to be said against priggishness, I think there is something to be said for it, as well.

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