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Lost in the Stratosphere…or Somewhere

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That’s how I feel, at the moment–both because I still seem to be feverish enough to be floaty and because I took some Benadryl this morning in spite of the fact that it makes you drowsy, because now I’m stuffed up, too.  I absolutely refuse to be responsible for how anything is spelled.

I do want to address a couple of things, though, not necessarily related. 

First is the contention that Tourists at the Revolution start in the Sixties–it’s not true.  The Princess Casamassima, the title character in Henry James’s late nineteenth/very early twentieth century book, is definitely a TATR.  And, as I said before, TATRs abound in Dostoyevski.

In fact, one of the things I find really, really odd is the way in which so many of the issues, ideas and personalities we tend to think of as resulting from the Sixties actually appear first in the late Victorian era.  In a way, the Victorians built the house we’re all still living in, in matters of politics, and religion, and a good many other things as well.

That’s something that might not be perfectly clear if you’ve read Trollope’s Barsetshire novels and Austen but not Henry James and Conrad, for instance, but it’s there all the same.  Most of the arguments we have now, the very outline of the culture war, existed before us, and hasn’t changed much in the intervening time.

Even things that seem spectacularly new–abortion! gay marriage!–aren’t really.  The late Victorians took up a public discussion on the nature and status of homosexuality–especially male homosexuality–for the first time, and their responses were nowhere near as “traditional” as you might think.   Nor were these ideas and responses restricted to small groups of “intellectuals.”  The fact that they were current in the world is amply demonstrated not only in self-consciously “political” novels like Trollope’s Palliser series, but in more general fiction like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

The Victorians were familiar with Tourists at the Revolution, and it isn’t clear that the Princess Casamassima’s assumptions about her safety (or lack of it) were much different from Lori Berenson’s.  Members of important and aristocratic families had a certain amount of immunity, even in a far harsher time.

If I think something fundamental has changed between then and now in the phenomenon of TATR, I think it comes in the fact that there are at least some groups within present day society that take a certain set of moral values for granted, where they would not have been for Matthew Arnold.

In spite of all the blither about moral relativism, Lori Berenson’s parents and John Walker Lindh’s share a deep-seated conviction that some things are just right and others just wrong–that freedom of speech and protest, for instance, are moral goods fully as absolute as any presented by fundamentalist religion.  If anything, these people are actually less culturally and morally relativist than the “moral absolutists” of traditional religion that they pretend to abhor.  They literally cannot imagine anyone who does not see the obvious truth of the things they hold to be morally good.  That is, I think, why they are so shocked when people (governments, the media) respond otherwise.

The other way the late Victorians built the house for us has to do with religion, because, at least in the Anglophone West, that’s when we first begin to see the widespread occurrence of involuntary loss of faith.

I’m stressing that “involuntary” because there always have been people who have made decisions to abandon faith, who have looked into all the arguments pro and con and come to a conscious decision.

That is not, I think, what happened to Matthew Arnold and the late Victorians.  Rather, they woke up one morning, looked at the Christian narrative they had assumed the truth of all their lives, and went:  oh.  No.  It didn’t work.  It just looked false.  It just looked like a fairy tale.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there is a vast difference between people who., like me, were brought up without faith and people who leave a faith in adulthood.  Almost all the “annoying atheists” you know are converts to atheism, not born ones.

But those who lose their faith involuntarily are yet a third type, and for at least some people the experience can be highly disorienting.  It certainly was for Matthew Arnold.

Arnold drives Robert crazy, but I sympathize a bit.  Arnold did not deliberately ditch the Christianity on which he had been raised and set out to construct a secular morality (and a secular narrative) to replace it.  He just suddenly found himself without the faith he had unconciously based his entire life on, and in its absence he could see nothing that would fill the void. 

That’s what Dover Beach is all about, a poem that is not tremendously good technically, but that so clearly expresses the bind the man found himself in that it has become an anthem for generations of writers who followed him.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here:

http://www.usp.nus.edu.sg/victorian/authors/arnold/writings/doverbeach.html

 

Life, Lear said, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Shakespeare meant Lear to be an exception.  The Elizabethans did not, in general, think of life like that.  For Arnold, Lear’s signature insight is the truth about the world, and the only job of man in it is to find a way to survive through its endless round of meaninglessness and misery.

Arnold’s attempt to solve the problem is in his long essay Culture and Anarchy, and it’s not a very good solution, really.  But then, he didn’t want to find himself in the position of needing such a solution.  He got hit on the head by disbelief.

I think this exactly mirrors where a lot of people are today–I think we are living in a time when the Christian narrative has become increasingly implausible to many of us.  Some very few of us have responded to that by becoming militant atheists of the Hitchens and Harris varieties.  Some even fewer have gone in for revolutionary politics as a substitute for religion.

For most people who don’t believe, though, there’s no animus and no impetus.  They just hear the Christian story and their brain registers it as “fiction,” automatically.  They’re  no more capable of changing that response than they are of growing a horn out of the top of their heads.

In a way, all the things I have been arguing about here since this blog began have been about this:  the fact that there are more and more of us every day for whom the Christian narrative–or the Jewish one, or even the Muslim one–is nothing more than a narrative, at best a metaphor, at worst a fairy tale.

Even if you’re one of the people who truly and sincerely believes, you’re stuck living in a world where a lot of people don’t.  And if we’re going to be able to live in that world together, we’re going to have to find a way to ground  moral principles that do not rely for their authority on “God said so.”

Arnold’s answer was feeble, and Thomas Henry Huxley’s wasn’t much better, but the tradition of moral philosophy outside religion is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the West.  Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel and Heidigger–hell, even Aquinas and Peter Abelard–knew they had to be able to present a workable moral code in a way that would appeal “to reason alone.”

That’s a Catholic term, meaning “without revelation.”  The Catholic Church decided, early on, that men and women could know God’s law “by reason alone,” even if they were raised in false religions, or non at all.  The Catholic Church also assumes we can all know that God exists “by reason alone,” but I think they’ve been less successful at that one.

I think that what I’m trying to say here is that Tourists at the Revolution are not the children of the Sixties, but the roadkill of a civilization that can no longer rely on its founding narratives provide structure and meaning to its people, and that has as yet not found a compelling alternative. 

Tourists at the Revolution are playing Messiah games, like children dressing up as brides and grooms.  They give structure to their own lives by inserting themselves into a story of rage and redemption.  They direct their rage mostly against their own societies because that’s where they can direct it and still be safe.  Rachel Corrie sat down in front of a bulldozer in Israel, not in front of a madrassah in Riyadh, protesting the Saudi government’s ban on driving lincenses for women.

Tourists at the Revolution are engaged in a kind of make-believe.  They like to imagine themselves as Heroes, and Saviors, and Saints.  They’re usually very careful not to enmesh themselves in situations like the ones that got Lindh, Berenson and Corrie in trouble.  That’s why stories like those three are so few and far between.

And that’s why the new atheists are, by and large, devoted to deconstructinng Christianity, and not Islam.

Deconstructing Islam can get you killed.

Okay,  I’m wandering all over the place today, and I have oranges. 

 

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2008 at 11:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Lost in the Stratosphere…or Somewhere'

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  1. Maybe I should try Benadryl. I’ve had a bad attack of tinnitus for the last 5 days and its difficult to sleep with a freight train roaring through my head!

    Jane is loosing me with her references to Victorians. The only author I’ve managed to read is Kipling. The others tend to put me to sleep. Perhaps its the style or sentence structure.

    “The Victorians were familiar with Tourists at the Revolution, and it isn’t clear that the Princess Casamassima’s assumptions about her safety (or lack of it) were much different from Lori Berenson’s. Members of important and aristocratic families had a certain amount of immunity, even in a far harsher time.”

    Yes but that was when most of the world was controlled by Western European countries. You can’t call Lori Berenson and John Walker Lindh important and aristocratic.

    “a deep-seated conviction that some things are just right and others just wrong–that freedom of speech and protest, for instance, are moral goods fully as absolute as any presented by fundamentalist religion. ”

    An interesting switch from legal guarantee that the US government will not interfere with freedom of speech and protest to a claim that those are moral goods and can be applied anywhere against anyone.

    ” think that what I’m trying to say here is that Tourists at the Revolution are not the children of the Sixties, but the roadkill of a civilization that can no longer rely on its founding narratives provide structure and meaning to its people, and that has as yet not found a compelling alternative.

    Tourists at the Revolution are playing Messiah games, like children dressing up as brides and grooms. They give structure to their own lives by inserting themselves into a story of rage and redemption. They direct their rage mostly against their own societies because that’s where they can direct it and still be safe. Rachel Corrie sat down in front of a bulldozer in Israel, not in front of a madrassah in Riyadh, protesting the Saudi government’s ban on driving lincenses for women.”

    The roadkill idea may explain some of the protests in the Western world but they do seem rational enough to realize it isn’t safe outside their own culture.

    Oh the whole, I agree with Jane that the TATR are very selective in their causes and protests. They want a SAFE revolution which looks to me like a contradiction!

    jd

    13 Nov 08 at 1:09 pm

  2. Can’t vouch for much of late Victorian fiction. In real life, people start heading off to take part in the nearest revolution some time in the last half of the 18th Century. I think Henry Lee was on his third when he wound up in America, and Tom Paine would leave England to take part in the American Revolution, and leave America to take part in the French. In that sense, like the Philhellenes, they’re tourists, but they knew what to expect.

    I think it’s a valid and important distinction that after about 1964 we have TATR who mostly pick “safe” revolutions, and who, when they don’t, still expect the rules of Western democracy in peacetime to apply to them. This is new. The Creator in whom they mostly don’t believe is now expected not just to endow them with rights, but to enforce them. When Garibaldi led his Red Shirts to serve the French Republic and Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, they may have been serving bad causes, but they served them with courage and some realism. The Corries, Lindhs and Berensons of our era do not rate the same respect,and should not be called by the same name.

    As for Matthew Arnold, how he lost his faith does not directly concern me, but his proposed replacement morality very much does. Many lapsed Christians still uphold Christian morality by custom and because you evidently can base a civilization on it. Some follow Aristotle, who has an arguably viable system. Arnold felt you could improve on Christian ethics with a system based purely on aesthetics. Picture–briefly–all the horrors which might be aesthetically pleasing, and you won’t sleep well tonight. Toss in for good measure his attitude toward those who were abolishing the slave trade and making Britain more democratic. His comments drip condescension: THOSE people were a bunch of philistines, and clearly hadn’t read the right poetry. I see him as a forerunner of the horrors of the Twentieth Century. Arnold didn’t try something good and fail. He tried to do something horrible and succeeded.

    robert_piepenbrink

    13 Nov 08 at 5:59 pm

  3. I don’t really have enough time right now to think about this in much detail…

    John, I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for the Victorian period, although their style isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t unique to them, though. A friend, ESL, asked me to help her with a book she’d been given. It appears to be a translation of a Turkish work, but the English is just fine. Her problem arose from the translator’s use of long chains of clauses, liberally sprinkled with slightly formal vocabulary. Not quite a Victorian writing style, but certainly not a really modern one.

    Anyway…

    ‘Yes but that was when most of the world was controlled by Western European countries. You can’t call Lori Berenson and John Walker Lindh important and aristocratic.”

    But they come from the most powerful country in the world – one which does, moreover, pride itself in speaking up fo all its citizens. That’s the modern equivalent of aristocracy (if you’re not counting pop divas or movie stars).

    “a deep-seated conviction that some things are just right and others just wrong–that freedom of speech and protest, for instance, are moral goods fully as absolute as any presented by fundamentalist religion. ”

    An interesting switch from legal guarantee that the US government will not interfere with freedom of speech and protest to a claim that those are moral goods and can be applied anywhere against anyone.”

    What Jane says is what people do! It drives me crazy sometimes. People say ‘I’ve got a right to…’ in a way that certainly implies that they think that they do indeed have an unquestionable moral right to whatever it is. But if you question it, ask why they think it’s a right, and they act as though you questioned whether the sun was going to rise in the east. It’s obvious. You can’t question it. You should do anything at all, up to and including bombing civilians to make sure everyone else agrees with you if they’re so benighted as to be unable to see that your belief is right. So Lori Berenson is willing to risk her life to try to get Chile to accept her views.

    There are different levels to this – some people run off to Chile or Israel to find a place to fight, and others sit at home thinking they have a right to a degree without the liberal arts! I don’t think they all go after safe revolutions. Some who maybe do go for safe revolutions misjudge them. Lori Berenson survived Central America before she took on Chile.

    I’m not being terribly coherant and I don’t have the excuse of cold meds or lack of sleep. Well, more than the normal lack of sleep.

    cperkins

    13 Nov 08 at 6:00 pm

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