Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

History's Eddying Currents

 At the end of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, the main character returns to the monastery which was destroyed by fire, and searching among the ruins he collects a number of scraps of parchment from the books of the library, fragments of writing from the works that were lost.  

Along the return journey and afterward at Melk, I spent many, many hours trying to decipher these remains.  Often from a word or a surviving image I could recognize what the work had been.  When I found, in time, other copies of those books, I studied them with love, as if destiny had left me this bequest, as if having identified the destroyed copy were a sign from heaven that said to me: Tolle et lege.  At the end of my reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.

* * *

The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message.  But these incomplete pages have accompanied me through all the life that has been left me to live since then; I have often consulted them like an oracle, and I have almost had the impression that what I have written on these pages, which you will now read, unknown reader, is only a cento, a figured hymn, an immense acrostic that says and repeats nothing, but what those fragments have suggested to me, nor do I know whether thus far I have been speaking of them or they have spoken through my mouth.  But whichever of the two possibilities may be correct, the more I repeat to myself the story that has emerged from them, the less I manage to understand whether in it there is a design that goes beyond the natural sequence of the events and the times that connect them.  And it is a hard thing for this old monk, on the threshold of death, not to know whether the letter he has written contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all.

But this inability of mine to see is perhaps the effect of the shadow that the great darkness, as it approaches, is casting on the aged world.

Est ubi gloria nune Babyloniae? Where are the snows of yesteryear? The earth is dancing the dance of Macabre; at times it seems to me that the Danube is crowded with ships loaded with fools going toward a dark place.

This passage has been in my mind lately, as on several fronts I have thought about developments in our present world.

I used to have what is perhaps a young man's conviction that there were clear currents and directions to history.  The advent of modernity had released a good deal of error and chaos, but it seemed like institutions and movements I respected, from the Catholic Church to the conservative movement, had come up with answers to these errors and were making steady progress towards bringing goodness and order back to our culture. Sometimes, from a very short trend, it is possible to extrapolate a line in a way that is no longer possible as one sees more data points.  When you're young, you have fewer points, and it is far easier to extrapolate confident lines.

Within the political world, it seemed to me fifteen years ago like the paroxysm of war and dictatorships and communism from 1914 to 1991 (the short 20th century, if you will) had resulted in a wider understanding across the world of how nations should govern themselves.  

Within the Catholic Church, it seemed like the uncertainly and chaos resulting from the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s coinciding with the attempt to prepare the Church to address the modern world via Vatican II, has being brought under control and from the ruins was rising a new and richer understanding and practice from the long papacy of John Paul II and then Benedict XVI.

Neither of these proved to be a trend of any long continuance.  

On the world stage, many old oppressive regimes such as communist China never fell, but transmuted into new forms, while in countries like Russia the initial promise of freedom collapsed into a strongman regime where rampant corruption had kept anything like a real democratic society or market economy from ever coming forth.  Within thirty years of the collapse of communism under its own contradictions, we see the younger generations longing for state socialism. Meanwhile our elites insist sex is only a construct but race is utterly essential to everyone's being and must be worked out through struggle sessions. The conservative movement in which I once placed so much hope has sunk into little more than a self destructive "own the libs" exercise.

Within the Church, the collapse in the broader practice of the faith continues, with fewer people getting married in the church or having their children baptized, while the struggle between aging progressive Catholics and younger orthodox ones has only splintered into more factions and more bitterness rather than fading into the building of a stronger, more missionary, and more beautiful Church.

And as years pass, I am more than ever convinced that this is as it has always been.  It is easy at any moment to imagine that it is clear what direction history is heading, but again and again come the reversals, the unexpected obstacles.

History is a long string of events.  Each has effects that change the course of events after.  But this does not mean that it is some long path leading in one direction.  The arc of history does not bend towards justice.  It just zigzags around.  

I'm sure that in Justinian's Constantinople it looked like, over massive obstacles, the Empire was coming together again.  The code of Roman law newly recodified by the emperor was setting things on a good foundation for the next five hundred years of Roman glory.  But five years after Justinian's death, Muhammad was born, and soon enough the wave of jihad would reduce the empire to a mere regional power.

And such reverses are not the exception but the rule.  

It is not history which is marching towards a clear end but each of us.  Each of our lives has a path, however wandering.  We are born, we grow up, we age, we die, we face our Maker.  There is a clear end to that path and a clear direction.  But history is the sum or countless lives, seething and interacting, helping and hurting, attracting and repelling.  No sooner do people latch on to some truth then they repel others with their enthusiasm.  No sooner is some evil corrected than its opposite evil is embraced.  

The human pendulum swings wildly around the golden mean, managing to miss it on every pass and careen off in some new direction.

The stories are worth knowing.  The way that people and movements and cultures interact and affect each other is worth knowing.  But it is no long march toward anything.


Donald R. McClarey said...

Interesting meditation. History does have some lessons to teach however. Here are a few: In the long term betting against the Catholic Church is not something to wager the rent money on. Authoritarian regimes are often surprisingly frail. Most bright new things are forgotten in a century. History is not a straight line progression, but I think Mark Twain was on to something when he noted that History sometimes rhymes.

Darwin said...

Thanks, Don. Indeed, I definitely agree that history has a lot of lessons to teach us -- in part because one of the things that keeps history from moving in clear straight lines is that human nature remains the same broken thing it always has been.

Agnes said...

Interesting. It's been so long since I read The Name of the Rose...
This brought to my mind the ending of The Bridge of San Louis Rey which, in turn, questions the simplified idea of clear direction of human lives and brings a more nuanced meaning to it.
Oh yes, it hurts to feel that history doesn't have that clear-cut path toward the greater good. And your thoughts of shorter, 2-decade long periods seeming to go in one definite direction resonate with me too. Perhaps, just perhaps, if "history" (perceived trends) continue too long in the same way, people become complacent and too entrenched n their ways, they'll cling to their direction and their half of perceived good principles so much that they embrace the faults and temptations inherent in their standpoints and don't see the good principle existing on the opposite side (I'm not sure I can explain this well, but I'm thinking of identifying "our side" with the absolute good, defending indefensible evil if people on "our side" commit them etc.) Perhaps our broken human nature needs shaking up and shattering beliefs in anything we turn into gods instead of the one God.