Saturday, 13 February 2016

Come Josephine...

I am at this time suffering a bout of writer's block. I have two posts in mind, both of them thesis material (but not, when finally written down, of that quality I expect), but I find that overcoming apathy, and the kind of dased disinclination that can only come of several months of arising from the pit at 2am, is very difficult. Nevertheless, The Anti-Gnostic put me in mind of this in his latest post on the city and its tower.
Is it natural for men to fly?
The question of what is "natural" is difficult to countenance in this post-modern world. Much of what is now seen as ordinary would have been inconceivable in generations past; much of what is natural to-day would have been seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as unnatural in yesteryear. When carnivorous plants were first described by European botanists, some ecclesiastics wrote of them as abominations. The very idea that a plant could ensnare an animal was unthinkable; it was "against nature." Talk to anyone about the death penalty, which I very much support, and you will invariably encounter stark horror. The idea that the state can judicially end a man's life, which, in the thought of faithless men, is all he has, is unnatural. Even if you get past that, the manner of the man's death is subject to intense scrutiny. What constitutes a "cruel and unusual" punishment? Should the punishment fit the crime? For a nation that tolerates abortion, and even promotes assisted suicide, are we not hypocritical in our condescension of the Arabs whose penal code is written in blood? Who in England to-day, let him be the most sadistic of men, could stomach to see a man disemboweled or gibbeted? I'd like to think I could. I must admit that if executions were still legal and performed in public I would go to them, not to croak but to witness the crime justly strangled to death. This comes more of a profound sense of justice than morbid curiosity.

Paedophilia and to some extent pederasty are the new unforgivable sins. This has nothing to do with Matthew 19:14 but rather more to do with how decadent we have become. Since all manner of sexual acts and identities, between men, women, the other "genders," mute objects (but strangely not yet between brute beasts, or the dead), have become "natural," perfectly normal, we cringe in horror at the idea that a man of thirty might find a boy of fourteen attractive. Do we forget, perhaps, that girls of twelve summers were married to men of forty until the 19th century? Our Blessed Lady herself was probably no more than fourteen when Christ was born, and certainly betrothed to a man twice her age. But if we remember these inconvenient facts at all, we undoubtedly say that those ages, all ages to date but our own in fact, were savage, riddled with swift death, taboo morality and little bliss. By contrast, our own age, riddled with standard of living and striving to level all perceived inequalities, falls into a curious, almost ad hoc morality in these matters, designed to obviate the gross lack of standards and consistency in public perception. Paedophilia is wrong not because interference into the innocence of a child is wrong but because we are desperate to say that we have some semblance of moral outrage. And what does that say about most people? As for the Greek custom, I'd like to know why people think that the arbitrary "so-long-as-he's-over-eighteen" rule has any validity whatsoever.

Times change, sensitivities change. Even for many nominal Christians the idea that something could be "against nature" itself goes against the grain. "Against nature?" That has a prejudicial ring to it, surely? But we all seem to do things nowadays that go against nature. We eat fruit out of season; we marry for love, &c. We do these things unconsciously because we scarce can conceive of any different. We're also unbelievably lazy. That's why people shop online. I don't know if you've noticed but Amazon have recently started to deliver on Sundays. I challenged an Amazon courier once about posting a book I had ordered through my letterbox one Sunday and said that I didn't want to receive it until Monday but I just couldn't get him to understand my position and he left the book, along with my indignation, with me. I had no choice but to leave it in the porch and refused to open it till the morrow. We're also so lazy nowadays that we make journeys light of their time, expense and distance by flying through the air. I have taken longer to arrive at this argument than intended but the fundamental question in this post-Industrial age is: is it natural? Is it proper? Is it in accord with God's will and purpose for man? It's a difficult and certainly hypocritical question to ask for someone who has many times been in an aeroplane, and once a hot-air balloon, but inconvenience and saving face notwithstanding, I cannot eschew the vision I have of "the city and its tower," and the curse that came of the arrogant presumption of the sons of men who thought to reach heavenward. Tolkien wrote very eloquently on this subject, even so (emphasis my own):
"I wonder how you are getting on with your flying since you first went solo - the last news we had of this. I especially noted your observations on the skimming martins [I'd like to read those]. That touches the heart of things, doesn't it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualise desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Great Bomber." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No.75).
This has to be among the most brilliant of Tolkien's observations, especially the stuff in bold. It is these two, the attempt to actualise desire (which is seldom but morally questionable) and thence create power in this world, that underpin the hubris of both the accursed "sons of men" who built the heavenward tower and the Númenóreans who waged a blasphemous war against the Valar. It is also the driving force behind the "internal combustion" engine and, by incremental degrees, the aeroplane.
You may say that my objection to flying is just as fatuous as those ecclesiastics who wrote against carnivorous plants. The difference is that carnivorous plants exist in nature. Aeroplanes, helicopters, hot-air balloons, blimps and so on exist by man's devising. For centuries men desired to soar above the clouds. Even if we concede that aviation, facilitated by man's devising, procures some good and the desire itself to fly is "natural" (I don't personally think it is), the work might begin well but it is inexorably in the nature of man to turn bad. Legolas and Gimli observed this when they entered the city of men, Minas Tirith. At best it becomes an occasion for laziness, which I would attribute to people who use commercial airlines to go on holiday (or even more reprobate, on pilgrimage). At worst...well, British and German cities during the Second World War suffered irreparable damage due to man's unnatural invention, not to mention the 9/11 inside job. Only the Ringwraiths took to the air to make war in Tolkien.

Like you, I am so lazy that I travel by aeroplane. I don't fear flying like my brother but I don't enjoy it much. In some ways, it detracts from the satisfaction of having made the journey. Like borrowing money to buy something rather than saving up for it. But we have to live in the world as it is to an extent. Flying is inevitable because the alternatives are more expensive and time-consuming. Who could afford to take the time off work to travel to Italy by foot? An old friend of mine once posted to her Facebook a photograph of her standing at a crossroads signpost that said "United Kingdom, 7,000 odd miles," this way with the arrow pointing. I don't know where she was. The sign itself was totally useless except as a curiosity aimed at tourists but I thought then, and still do now, how little that distance means. You can get anywhere in this world within mere hours to-day. The world is becoming both much bigger and much smaller. I expect you know already what I'm getting at. Where does this leave the simple Christian? Can you be a Christian and work in marketing? Can you be a Christian and live in the city? Can a Christian do anything without sin? It seems to me that we are beset on all sides, and some of those sides aren't even watched by most Christians.

What do you think? Perhaps these are ravings!


  1. Travel isn't through empty "space", it is through particular places with a spiritual reality & thus to whizz through - or above them - is to alter the spiritual nature of travel significantly, perhaps tempt us to a disdain for our creatureliness. And that in two ways, (1) in tempting us to think we are gods without the reality of theosis, and (2) in tempting us to "use" things without due thankfulness and regard for creation's sacramental nature. I think it must be (morally) similar to winning the lottery. It gives one something for too little effort and so must corrupt us. Someone or something is paying for all these modern luxuries, probably us eventually. A very long walk up Mount Purgatory for us moderns, without engines (if we are so fortunate as to be there).

    I am tempted to correct Tolkien above, and say that he should have said that the failure of desire in our machinery, and the desire of such Power, are something to do with the Fall, and not only the use of machinery for evil purposes.

    1. You have said in a paragraph what I was groping blindly in the dark for a very long-winded and verbose article to say. I wish I had more than a gut feeling about things sometimes.

      Of course, we must be mindful of this life too. When the machines fail, what becomes of us? Since we are so hopelessly dependent upon them...

    2. But your main point is that flying per se might be bad for us. I'm inclined to consider the argument, since there isn't a single story that I can think of, sacred or profane, where mortals flying - without divine assistance or mandate like Perseus or Elijah - isn't a sign of pride and followed swiftly by disaster. Incidentally, I've often wondered how one learned in the lore of the stars would read the appearance of the satellites visibly in the sky, new "wandering stars"... perhaps Chiron would have been able to see that they were omens or portents.

    3. Precisely.

      On "wandering stars," I am inclined to recall the hairy star of the Bayeux Tapestry, seen as a portent of ill omen by the English. Even so, that was a natural phenomenon. Man made stars, satellites, synthetic angels to watch us (but not "watch over" us)...that is a whole other story.

  2. Recently I noticed that I used the term 'evolutionarily normal' instead of normal, because the new normal is decidedly dysgenic and borne of responses from an artificial environment.