Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Sky and the Ground

Sometimes I think the greatest pleasure in life, after chocolate, is contemplation. I think some distinguished people have suggested this before me.

In recent months, or perhaps recent years (it's hard to tell), I've been taking tremendous pleasure in contemplating one aspect of life. I think the best way I can describe it is the contrast between the almost-infinite freedom of the human soul and the intractability of circumstances. I take pleasure in both these things, and also in their collision, or marriage, or whatever you want to call it.

First of all, the freedom of the soul. Lots of people have rhapsodised about this. "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage". "I could be bound in a nutshell, and consider myself king of infinite space." Or the line from the Shawshack Redemption: "You get busy living or you get busy dying". There are so many stories of how people have transcended imprisonment, concentration camp, paralysis, etc. etc. to achieve something great or just affirm life. Stories like those of Helen Keller, Christy Brown, etc. Every moment offers infinite possibilities, even in the realm of consciousness and imagination. Louis MacNeice wrote about how Rembrandt made "the little world he knew world without end."

But then, there is just the opposite; the objectivity and reality of the world, all of the circumstances that we can't change no matter how much we want or how much we try. True, these are often simply tragic: tumours, mental illness. But mostly it strikes me as a very joyous and bracing reality. No matter how smart or rich or charismatic or dreamy you are, whether you are Napoleon or Leonardo Da Vinci or William Blake or anyone else, you can't remake the world in your image. We all live in history, time, place, background, etc.

The idea I'm trying to describe is very hard to articulate, but I think Chesterton put it best in "Wonder and the Wooden Post": "I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes."

I remember feeling this joy when I was a kid visiting my aunt's farm and I had to walk about a mile to get to the nearest shop. 

The image that always comes into my mind is a merry-go-round, history and life as a merry-go-round and all of us, great and small, going up and down on the horses of circumstances. I also think of the title of the Anthony Powell novel sequence I found so disappointing: A Dance to the Music of Time.

But, again, it's the combination of these things that brings me the most joy. The sky meeting the ground.

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