LIFE BECOME LESS THAN LIFE.

I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

Gospel of St. John 10.10

Last October I began a new series of blog “Old Stories That Tell Us Where We Are Now” . The chosen stories were The Tower of Babel myth in Genesis, Plato’s well-known story of the Cave and Coleridge’s long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Unfortunately going through the Coleridge poem the series lost its initial thrust , meandering rather as I found other subjects to take on at the same time. As a result many new followers will be unaware of the original design as will more occasional blog readers. I have therefore decided to re-run the series over a short period so that readers can follow the developing idea from beginning to end with the original posts being re-edited and re-blogged. This post can act either as a postscript to the series or an introduction as suits the reader.

POSTSCRIPT OR INTRODUCTION

To what extent can we survive without a proper relationship with creation. Science has given us the power to exceed limits of what was long thought possible. Explainers of science have suggested that science alone shows us true knowledge and tells us who we are.

An ancient story from early on in the Bible challenges this idea. It shows us there are limits to what we can do and there should be limits. God as Creator is not to be mocked.

God’s creation is to be respected and indeed loved. Does it not come from God? But humanity is wilful, seeking over-weeningly to impose his power on the Nature. As a consequence the balance of our relationship with the Nature on which we are dependent is distorted. Coleridge’s poem tells a tale in which a mariner loses his connection

Retired from the action of the world as it were comfortably seated in my study-chair as I write this, it is nevertheless easy to be dismayed by what the screen unfolds of the world around me. A recent Climate Change report by the United Nations paints a dire picture of our future based on humanity’s insufficient awareness of the interdependence of our lives with that of Nature. Humanity does not simply belong to itself. Both Coleridge’s poem and the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel remind us of this.

But the human world also clamours for our attention. Is our hold on life, on life in its fullness reduced? T.S. Eliot reminded us “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”. The Plato story, with its mythic dimension, seems to confirm this. For the dwellers in the cave, conditioned to a type of life they think normal, reject the urgings of one escaped from their midst who tells them of a better life elsewhere in the open sunlight.

Meantime those who live in the open sunlight know life is beautiful. We need to get our thinking right and join them.

(Tomorrow see “The Tower of Babel”)

” CAN SOCIALISTS BE HAPPY?”: WHY DOES UTOPIA NOT WORK?

I have just been reading Orwell’s essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy”?” it sounds a challenging title, particularly from a writer of the Left who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Interestingly Orwelll was encouraged to ask the question by comparing the writings of Charles Dickens with a number of more recent writers who had tried to make Utopia convincing. He discusses H.G. Wells who wrote among other things science fiction including Utopian novels (eg. A Modern Utopia, The Time-Machine, War of the Worlds, Men Like Gods).

Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries that we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear. overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that it is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things that Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?

Well perhaps Wells is the wrong writer to read to make Utopia appealing. So Orwell looks wider. He tries the early Fabian Socialist William Morris. But Morris’ News from Nowhere is as unattracive as it sounds : “It is a sort of goody-goody version of a Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a kind of watery melancholy.”

What about the further-back past? Orwell turns to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The early parts are ” “probably among the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written”

claims Orwell- a judgement to ponder- but he goes on:

In the last part, in contrast with the disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the heroes of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, “reasonable ” lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from “passion”, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic priciples, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the early parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and the scoundrelism lead him, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Against these Utopias Orwell points to Huxley’s Brave New World as actually reflecting the fear we might have of these organised Utopias: A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which is within his power to create.

Huxley’s “rationalised hedonistic society” is a society in which sex is so readily available that it has become vacuous; in which promiscuous relationships have taken the place of marriage and the requirement of raising a family is state- provided. The living connections between what Burke pointed to as the unborn, the living and the dead have become severed. Meaningful living is unavailable to a generation uprooted from the past dwelling in such a society.

Readers can make up their minds how close we are to this whether we desire it and the kinds of alternative to it.

But to get back to the title. In showing imagined Utopias as undesirable Orwell. asks where in literature we find a living sense of happiness to pose against these failed Utopias. It is Dickens he points to: the Dickens of Pickwick and the concluding scenes of Christmas Carol where the Cratchit family are shown enjoying their Christmas dinner.

the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance,the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover -and Dickens’ understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power- their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat…. The steam of Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour…

Dickens is master of showing human enjoyment and happiness. This may surprise readers who also know his novels -the later ones- as dark. But as Orwell points out the two go together. He prizes the creative enjoyment and revelry of the poor because he knows how hard won it is.

So if Utopias are to be desired but yet fail where does this leave us?. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Judaeo- Christian narrative begins with a kind of perfect world- the Garden of Eden which cannot last. Ever since humankind has had to take account of sin and death and also the difficulties of earning bread (“In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” Genesis 3:19).

The Bible suggests however the struggle is not mainly socio-economic (which does not stop the prophets speaking out about exploitation and justice to the poor is a preoccupation) but to do with our relationship with God; so to imagine a society- Socialist or whatever- in which our social problems are resolved is unrealistic. The struggle for meaning and meaningful living is central to our human search; and that search cannot be resolved by a Utopia- socialist or otherwise- that attempts to take the struggle away.

NEW YEAR: LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD.

As we move from one year to another I wish all followers and occasional readers a happy New Year, secure from the worst that might assail us. I wish to thank you also for your support, as readers from around the world from a variety of cultures. I am delighted you have found in this blog something to interest and refresh you and I am encouraged by that support to keep on plying you with posts on a variety of topics to do with literature , religion and culture and how they have worked together.

I thought a short review of what I am seeking to do with this blog might be helpful. Although I have no set programme I do have a sense of thematic development in which there will be some kind of unified considerations of themes and preoccupations that I have developed over a lifetime of reading. (I happen to be reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. just now. My wife asked me if I had read it before. “Yes about sixty years ago”, I had to reply” -so you will see what I mean by “lifetime”!).

However much it may look like it from time to time, my blogging is not a sort of desultory wandering, like a butterfly lighting on one flower and then another. At the same time I do not seek to make it too organised. Suddenly, for instance, with Christmas coming I dropped Coleridge’s Rime for the time being and took on Christmas carols. This took me to folk music and folk culture and its development, a completely unexpected turn. Yet it is in line, with my interest in culture as an organic growth within a particular society and the degree to which the full range of its cultural expression hangs together.

At the heart of earlier blogs was an interest in Romanticism as a word, a concept and a manifestation and what it means, how it changed things, and what it means for us, living today. In the early days a starting point was Wuthering Heights and its relation to the Romantic novel. Then on to pre-Romanticism, Jane Austen and the picturesque. The direction was towards Romanticism as a movement, expressing the creative human spirit. It was a surprise development however-and I mean a surprise for me as this was not planned- that Coleridge, suddenly, became so central His quotation linking poetic creativity with the kind of creativity manifested by the Creator God as pictured by Genesis 1 inspired me to consider many connections between Bible stories, and great poetry. How do we read the story of God encouraging Adam to name the animals? How have great poets used their imaginations to conceive of God? The focus on the myths of Genesis widened to include Plato’s cave. The series bringing together the Tower of Babel myth, Plato’s Cave and Coleridge’s Rime was an example of this. All this is not meant as a curious byway of study. As the two posts bringing the Tower of Babel and Plato’s cave up-to date all my posts are directed in some way to thinking about where we stand now in our present world.

Large statements of the present day world are not, however, my intention. My feeling and hope is there is a place for the kind of explorations I am engaged in: seeking to bring together religious faith, poetic creativity, cultural expression- what is most living from the past- as a a way of recharging our thinking as to what we can bring our confused world from what we have inherited.

WHY DOES GOD GET ADAM TO NAME THE ANIMALS?

If you are a regular reader of this blog post you will be aware that recently I have become fascinated by a Coleridge quotation linking God’s boundless creative imagination, the great I AM, sustaining creation and therefore sustaining us in consciousness and our own urge to be imaginatively creative (see God Said”Let Newton Be!”). This interest has encouraged me to look again at the creation stories of Genesis for further enlightenment.

At the beginning of Genesis God speaks creation into being: ” Let there be light and there was light”. and there are various stages in the creative process to the culmination, the creation of humanity : “so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1.27K.J.V)

God creates us in his own image. It is a striking phrase which would seem to endorse Coleridge’s emphasis on the imagination being central. In creating us, in speaking us into existence, God reflects his image into the bodied form of human kind. God is creative and makes us to reflect his creativity. God looks and sees that the creation of the day is good, so he enables us to look out, to be conscious as no other animal can be, at the surrounding creation, enabling us to see that it is good.

The second story of creation(Genesis 2.4-25) works more at ground level. God is a kind of artist, a sculptor, say, he forms man out of the clay on the ground as a sculptor might form a human figure from chosen materials. But it is not only a material, a physical act, for God breathes into his nostrils the breath of life and he becomes a living soul. I love that phrase “living soul”. In essence the second story is saying the same about human creation, except it is the creation of the one sex, man. By breathing life into him God is giving his spirit, his life into us from the start so that we are not just material bodies, not just embodied creatures like the other animals, we are “living souls”.

What does this mean in terms of the meaning of being human? What power are we given when God makes us living souls? There follows a passge which again seems to me to endorse Coleridge’s stress on connectedness between God’s creative power and our very much more limited creativity.

Here is the relevant passage:

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make an helpmeet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air ; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not a helpmeet for him.

This is a curious passage interposed between the creation of Adam and the creation of Woman. The parade of the creatures seems ostensibly to be linked to the search for a companion for Adam. But none is found, causing the need for a fresh creation. All this seems a little clumsy compared with the first creation story in Genesis 1. At first too the story of the naming of the animals seems somewhat bizarre and awkward when compared with the tight impressiveness of the first creation story. We have not for instance been informed of Adam’s capacity (presumably God-given) to use language . There seems a rather amateurish almost playful awkardness about the parading of the animals for naming all ostensibly for the sake of finding an appropriate helpmate for Adam to ease him from the burden of living alone.

What the second story enables, however, in the naming of the animals is something I find striking given the connection with the Coleridge quotation on the creative imagination of man. The naming of the animals (we have to accept here this is mythic story telling rather than realistic, hence we are not required to puzzle as to how Adam was versed in language) may at first an almost playful and anachronistic categorisation. But remember how in the first story of creation in Genesis 1 God names things and they emerge as themselves and are then declared good. Adam in naming is looking at and recognising each creature to be different, to be seen as a creature that is distinctive. The naming of the animals therefore enables Adam to recognise and respect the goodness of creation. It is a creative act of recognition linking the creativity of man with the greater creativity of God. The naming of the animals is the first explicit act of man, showing his God-given capacity (as one given speech) to be at his own level, creative.

There is also an underlying significance, I suggest, to the activity in that it involves respect for the distinctive nature of God’s creation and by extension a shared apprehension of its goodness. Critics have quibbled over the use of the word dominance, the giving power by God to man over Nature (see Genesis 1.28). It seems to me however this story places an obligation of man to be responsible in his treatment of Nature. (This emphasis will indeed be furthered by the story of Noah protecting the animals by taking them on the ark in Genesis 8).

What we have then in this story within its context is vitally important. God as consciousness passes on consciousness to Man. God also passes on speech to Man. Indeed it might be argued that it is the ability to make speech, to share language that enables Man to be above the other animals, a living soul. God brings forward creation through speech. Man uses his God-given speech to enable him to be creative. The unfallen world is good; it meets God’s approval. Man, set in a garden, is appointed to look after creation and maintain its goodness. The Genesis stories then endorse the importance of looking after creation and they also point to the primacy of the creative imagination as linking the creativity of God with the creativity of man.

The Bible is a work in which God has the power to connect with humanity and Man with God. Moses and the prophets are encouraged and inspired by God to speak that which is needful to be heard. Coleridge is to suggest this power is continued through the work of the inspired human imagination. That power of connectedness, of inspiration, of imaginative creativity is prepared for by this mythic tale of God passing on the art of speech to Adam enabling him to name the animals.