04 December 2010

Perpetual Escape, Perpetual Activity

by Edwin Faust

. . . I recalled a story I had recently read: a dark yet beautifully resonant tale by George Eliot entitled, THE LIFTED VEIL:

The principal figure – one would hesitate to call him a hero – is Latimer, the frail and sensitive second son of a wealthy banker who owns a large country estate and has in his first son, Alfred, a proper heir: robust, handsome, commanding – all that most men admire. But Alfred represents to Latimer all that fills him with despair and repugnance. He sees in Alfred the shallowness, vanity, complacency and, at times, cruelty of that attitude of mind and heart that protects one from the vulnerability of genuine love and brings instead the egoism that finds its fulfillment in worldly success. Latimer’s sensitivity, his preoccupation with natural beauty and poetry, is regarded by his father and brother as the sign of an enfeebled body and weak mind. His father has tried to reform Latimer by providing him with an education in scientific disciplines, but the experiment has failed and, in the last round of his formal instruction in Geneva, Latimer discovers, not the realm of work and solid accomplishment, but a strange ability: he is given at times a vision of scenes that will occur in his later life, and, added to this, he discovers that he can read the thoughts of others and see into their hearts. This latter capacity is not subject to his will, but thrust upon him by the proximity of another person. It becomes Latimer’s curse.

There is one exception to his powers: his brother’s fiancĂ©, Bertha, whom Latimer loves. His brother’s untimely death delivers Bertha to him as his wife, along with the social responsibilities that should have devolved on Alfred, who would have relished them. For Latimer, however, to be in society is a torment. His irresistible reading of minds and hearts makes the grand dinners and parties he is required to attend occasions of dread. He even comes to penetrate Bertha’s inmost being and discovers there, not the hidden depths he had imagined, but a prosaic, unimaginative world of petty vanities. He becomes more reclusive, more derided by those around him as an inept husband and an eccentric.

As I thought about this story that night in the newsroom, it struck me that Latimer’s curse has become a general condition. We do not possess his power of penetration as an aberrant mental faculty, however, but rather come by it with the aid of ever more omnipresent and obtrusive media. And whereas Latimer could not escape this awareness, we pursue it.

As I write this article in the peace of my home, legions of people are rushing about madly in all the corners of the Earth, from the great capitols to the remotest villages, looking for news, looking for something to report, hoping for the sensational, the spectacular, the glorious, the grotesque, the odd and improbable – for anything that might excite the eyes and ears of their readers or listeners. The results of their relentless ferreting come to us in many ways: through newspapers and magazines and televisions and radio and the Internet and the now ubiquitous handheld devices. It is endlessly discussed and commented upon, by everyone from the media savants to the people in the checkout line at the supermarket. There is almost no escaping it, short of sealing oneself up in a cave. Latimer’s curse has become our curse, but few of us regard it with the loathing and regret that he felt for his strange power. Some even see their jobs of providing this endless stream of information as a sacred trust, and those who assiduously follow the news often think that in staying informed they are fulfilling some presumed duty incumbent upon them as citizens of the republic or men of the world.

And following the news in all its form and gradations becomes an addiction. From a cabinet meeting in Kabul to the latest Hollywood divorce, the desire to know is fed and grows and becomes insatiable. But this knowledge has little or no value. For most, it is a substitute for, indeed an escape from, true knowledge. Most knowledge these days is of this superficial kind: purely nominal.  Yet, most men are as avid for this sort of surface knowledge as they are averse to deeper meaning. Why?

There is a phenomenon which modern philosophers talk about in various ways that goes back to what the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard called “despair of weakness.” This despair may not immediately seem to be such. It often manifests itself as bustling activity and overarching optimism. It may pursue with great energy some ideal, even a noble one, but its driving force is a desire to avoid the most radical reality: our nature as creatures of God endowed with the power of choosing our eternal destinies.  Put simply, this despair amounts to a refusal to be who we are.

To avoid recognizing that God is the ground of his being, a man will make a lot of noise, much like a child does when he doesn’t want to hear something: he holds his ears and scream. Whenever he is threatened with being alone with God, such a man will run away. He will duck into the movies, or turn on the television, or sit in the sports stadium and yell for the home team; he will spend countless hours on the Internet, moving pointlessly from one site to another, filling his senses with images and his mind with blather; or he will drink or drug himself into a stupor. Mostly, though, he will work. It matters little what sort of work it might be, so long as it fills up the time and distracts the attention. And work is thought to be virtuous and praiseworthy. A man can be assured of social approval while he is working. And work brings money, and money buys stuff, and stuff brings a moment’s satisfaction. Then, the man of work is back where he started, still looking for ways to escape himself. And the round of ceaseless activity begins again.  And at bottom, there is despair: a deep-seated recognition that the game he is playing is hopeless and that the things he tries to fill himself with only increase his sense of emptiness. He lives in fear of his own reflection.

The Catholic thinker Josef Pieper identifies this despair with the capital sin of Sloth, which is not laziness in the face of work, but a refusal of the very terms of salvation: a deliberate turning away from God, which amounts to a turning away from our true selves. The slothful man will be forever engaged in trying to construct an alternative reality to that made by God: a reality in which man is self-sufficient, enclosed in his own concerns, owing nothing to anything or anyone outside of himself.

And the miracle of the Web is here to facilitate such an alternative reality. Enter the blog. By publishing a blog about our life, we can become the lord and master of a self-created universe that seems real because it can be read on a screen and illustrated with photos. It has as much reality as other media, as the news, and it has the added fascination that it is all about us.  We no longer need the vicarious thrill of reading or hearing about the famous, for we can become famous ourselves. We can become the news. All that is required is a computer and a little madness, both easily come by. Then, we can make our own broadcast: “And in the news today, I decided to ask Sharon out on a date, but first I went to get a haircut.”

But publishing the details of our lives on an electronic screen makes them no less banal, no more fulfilling. Such exhibitionism simply transmutes the despair of weakness into what Kierkegaard calls "the despair of self-assertion."  But this paring of despair may be a too-subtle philosopher’s game, for at bottom, all despair is a turning away from Hope, which is a theological virtue. All true Hope is Hope in God. Hope in anything else, made into a final end put in the place of God, will end in despair. Saint Augustine’s most famous line holds true: “Our hearts were made for Thee O Lord, and cannot rest until they rest in Thee."

Failing such rest, man becomes perpetually agitated. Constant activity becomes necessary, along with the belief that such activity will bring the sought-for happy ending.Thus, we come to that deeply depressing optimism that is standard rhetoric at corporate meetings and political rallies. We are always about to turn the corner. The cycle will swing upward again and all will be well. If only we keep working, we will get there, ad nauseum.  And so the world of work and the world of fantasy coalesce to form a barrier against God, the barrier of Sloth.

But Sloth is not the peculiar property of modern man. It may manifest itself more generally now, so that it has become almost the norm, but it has always been with us. It is a bequest from Adam and Eve. It came with the first sin in Eden, man’s first rejection of the terms of salvation. And it recurs throughout Scripture.

Being a man is both terrible and wonderful. We have been given this extraordinary intimacy with the Divine: we have been made sons of God. To be incorporated into such a family, however, confers on us dignities and duties that we sometimes find frightening and unwanted. We more often than not prefer to lounge undisturbed. Whenever we want to engage in a less than godly pastime, we say to Christ: “Go away – at least for now. I’ll call you when I want you.”

But we are inescapably in this presence of God. To realize this is simply to acknowledge the most obvious and most ignored of all truths. And what’s more, we are not only in God’s presence, but God is present within us. And what’s more, He is present in everyone we see. We are always seeing Christ, speaking to Christ, thinking of Christ, whether we know it or not. We are Christ-drenched, Christ-submerged, Christ-surrounded.

That gloomy Dane who though so deeply about despair has also said that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. But there is really no place to fall from, no place to fall to. We are already and forever there. We might as well surrender. It is our only hope.

- Edwin Faust.

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