Friday, June 15, 2018

In Season and out of Season

The title of this blog post is, of course, taken from the Second Letter to Timothy: "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season".

The word season is a magical word to me. I have mentioned this before in previous posts. I love the "Unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes, and I fully understand why it's so popular.

The very existence of seasons has always seemed like a gift to me. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" much less we would value those mists and that mellow fruitfulness if they were there all year round!

I can easily imagine a world with no seasons. It's a horrible thought.

The word "season" itself delights me. Ireland's current President, a Marxian intellectual named Michael D. Higgins, is also a poet. One of his poetry collections is called The Season of Fire. The poetry is dreadful, but I adore the title.

In fact, the very names of the seasons are poetry to me. The first time I heard the phrase "Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer", I thought it was the most evocative phrase in the whole world. Similarly, the title of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale bewitches me.

So I love seasonality. I love the cycles of nature and the cycle of life. I love the liturgical year. 

And yet, some months ago, I became aware of an apparent contradiction in my own thought, and in the thought of conservatives (and fogies) in general, which gave me some cause to ponder. I tried to write about it on Facebook and on the Irish Conservatives Forum, but I don't think I was very successful. I'll try again, in the comparative leisureliness of this blog.

At the time this contradiction occurred to me, I was reading academic articles about Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson's epic narrative poem. One of the perks of my job is that I have access to various online databases and the electronic holdings of various academic journals, many of which have had their whole archives digitised. So I printed off about a dozen articles and took them home to read.

The articles were drawn from various different decades, and I was struck by their frequent references to academic currents. For instance, many authors compared Victorian idealism to mid-twentieth century cynicism. Loftiness and otherwordliness were celebrated when Tennyon was writing The Idylls, while disillusionment and anti-romanticism were more prized between and after the World Wars. And many authors referred familiarly to the academic fashions which were dominant at the time they were writing their articles.

Now, I've generally considered myself an implacable foe of intellectual fashions. When I was in college (and even before) I raised my banner against post-modernism, post-structuralism, and all those other fads. I viewed them with utter contempt, and railed against them.

And I still do, for the most part. They seem to me like a sickly and feverish manifestation of intellectual fashion.

But might there be a healthy sort of intellectual fashion, and literary fashion, and artistic fashion?

Why not? After all, there have always been fashions in these things. Schools of architecture and art and poetry are clearly identifiable down through the centuries.

In fact, when you really think about it, it would be strange if there were no such intellectual fashions. The world changes and we change with it. Surely the arts and culture of a society will be shaped by historical events, technological changes, social changes, discoveries, and so forth?

Even without those changing conditions, surely a change of mood and emphasis is inevitable. We can't even repeat the same word or phrase over and over without using different intonations as we go along.

The problem with modern intellectual fashions, it seems to me, is that they are so exaggerated and self-conscious. And just downright silly. I wouldn't dismiss postmodernism out of hand, especially as a diagnosis rather than a programme, but it has been a justification for any amount of nonsense.

I'm not talking about those extremes here. But, outside those extremes, might conservatives be too dismissive of the "spirit of the age", of the zeitgeist, and even of fashion?

Why are we appreciative of character and diversity when it comes to geography, but not when it comes to time? Every conservative is happy to discover a local custom or a regional tradition, and wishes to keep them alive. He is usually even more anxious to preserve national and regional character. So why are conservatives so unappreciative of "character" in the order of time?

Of course, the truths of religion and morality should be a constant. But how much lies outside of those!

I even think that my beloved G.K. Chesterton was sometimes too dismissive of his own zeigeist. He very often complained about frock coats and top hats, which seem like delightful period pieces to us now. (At the same time, I think the vast bulk of his criticisms of his era were spot on, including criticisms of such intangibles as mood and atmosphere.)

I've been a contrarian all my life. I grew up with a marked antipathy to any kind of fashion or trend. I admired people who were self-consciously archaic and sought to carry the atmosphere of a bygone age around with them. But are we missing something if we do this? Should we enter into the spirit of the age, as we would enter into the spirit of Christmas? Or, if we cannot enter into it, should we at least be more tender towards it?

Or perhaps we might grant that the spirit of the age is a good thing, something that makes life more interesting...yet, at the same time, insist that fogeys also make life more interesting. We can appreciate the frock coats and top hats of Chesterton's era today, but it doesn't give us any less appreciation for his own epoch-defying cloak and swordstick.

Whatever the correct attitude might be, I hope you might also find this subject ponder-worthy!

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