Past Arcadia and Kingdom come — a guest posting by Julian Holloway
|Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia ego|
Ted Hughes Tales from Ovid 1997
Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical -
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his outlook on heaven.
In this way the heap of all disorder
It was adorned with the godlike novelty
And the first age was Gold.
Without laws, without law’s enforcers,
This age understood and obeyed
What had created it,
Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.
Men needed no weapons.
Nations loved one another.
And the earth, unbroken by plough or by hoe,
Piled the table high. Mankind
Was content to gather the abundance
Of whatever ripened.
Blackberry or strawberry, mushroom or truffle,
Every kind of nut, figs, apples, cherries,
Apricots and pears, and, ankle deep,
Acorns under the tree of the Thunderer.
Spring weather, the airs of spring,
All year long brought blossom.
The unworked earth
Whitened beneath the bowed wealth of the corn.
Rivers of milk mingled with rivers of nectar.
And out of the black oak oozed amber honey.
For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.
And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.
Address — Past Arcadia and Kingdom come
We moved here from a village on the coast of northwest Scotland as far from Iceland as it is from Cambridge. In the 70s and 80s it was a port for the “Klondykers”. These fish processing ships serving the Eastern Block trawlers then massively over harvesting the international waters of the North Atlantic.
In the village lived a quiet retired civil servant — who, local rumour had it —was a retired MI5 officer keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the port. I met him a few years ago, when the Cold War was over the rusty ships had gone.
One of the things we talked about was the neolithic tombs in the wilderness nearby. I’d just visited one of them — rather damaged by peat cutting, I’m sorry to say. It is in a place where the wind howls in from every direction. I said how ‘nasty, brutish and short’ I imaged the lives of those early farmers had been — raiding parties from other tribes, cold — and wet — and lonely — and hungry.
The old gentleman said very politely that it wouldn't have been like that at all: At that time, around 5000 years ago, the climate was far warmer than now; the population density was so low that there was masses of space to forage and hunt and do a little farming; that the families in that community would have had nothing to fear because they were practically alone in a fruitful landscape, and everyone else had all that they needed so there was no cause for conflict.
This startled me a little because he was seeming to bath the harsh landscape that surrounded us in the golden light of Arcadia. But, afterwards as I thought about it I felt that I would be a better man if I could share this old spy’s willingness to believe the best about mankind and our past.
Last night I rang an archaeologist friend. He assured me that the northwest Scottish Highlands in the Neolithic period would still have been a pretty cold and windy place, and that even in the Mesolithic period — when we were hunter gatherers, before the discovery of agriculture — there had been plenty of war.
So was the old man wrong? I think he was so wrong he was right. And we are in a church here, where we look to the power of ideas and sometimes soften the precision of our gaze to see what stories actually mean.
My ‘nasty brutish and short’ attitude came out of Hobbes on the political side and is powerfully buttressed by Darwin. Its a pretty standard modern point of view — that the natural condition of mankind is anarchic, a condition of violent competition, if not fundamentally evil.
I’m currently working, very slowly, through Don Quixote. And was struck by one part where where he ludicrously lectures a group of kindly goat herds, saying:
“Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden… no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather from the sturdy oaks their sweet ripe fruit… Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord…”
Of course the deluded old Knight is apeing the passage from Ovid that we heard earlier.
Ovid himself set out a whole structure — a wretched slow-motion fall of man…
We have a sense of the Golden Age. In addition to peace and plenty, there was no need for justice because all was in balance… and ‘Man kept faith with the Source’.
The Age of Silver was harder to survive in, but mankind was still good.
“The Age of Brass
Brought a brazen people,
Souls fashioned on the same anvil
As the blades their hands snatched up
Before they cooled.”
Then the Age of Iron… “the day of Evil dawns”. Gold, war, commerce. “The brides heirloom is a piggybank for the groom to shatter. Brothers who ought to love each other prefer to loathe…”
Finally the giants — seeing how man behaves — assault the Gods and are ‘squashed like ripe grapes’.
Its quite a spiral down.
Then Ovid makes something happen that speaks to the fears of today: Ecological disaster falls. Jove decided to drown mankind — the ice-cap melting, perhaps.
Which of these ages do we live in?
I think most of us believe we live in the Age of Iron. And isn't there something a bit pathetic about this assumption — an assumption Ovid had already noticed when he wrote — that most people think they live in a time so unsatisfactory they have fantasies of it all ending, as if life isn't good enough. Evidence of this fantasy is found in the success of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ or the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ when suddenly, like the flick of a switch a violent ice age falls.
Don Quixote has his weaknesses - most obviously that he is potty - but (putting that aside) you do have to admire his courage and, above all, his optimism. At one point he says to dear old Sancho Panza “I — by Heaven's will — have been born in this our age of iron to revive in it the age of gold…” This is an almost messianic declaration. He’s mad, but by saying it Don Quixote shows us that some people in every age still look at the future as being worthy of becoming Golden again. And he thinks he can make it happen.
In Judeo-Christian culture, the Garden of Eden has its equally persistent twin: A heavenly last stage of history, when the Messiah comes down and imposes God’s order on earth. Like Ovid, Isaiah (in the reading) presents it to us as a feast where God and the earth’s bounty is given without sadness and toil.
Jesus — the new testament is peppered with references to Isaiah — uses the image of the banquet persistently. Both of them promise that God will “swallow up death for ever”. This happy apocalypse was central to what the Jesus offered his followers, and the Kingdom of Heaven was even more imminent for the early church than the ecological catastrophe is to us. That said, the Kingdom of Heaven didn't come in the most extravagant sense. And that sense doesn't mean much to me, except that it shows me a fallible Christ which worries me. And if Christ’s literal Kingdom meant much to you, you’d probably be worshipping at a very different church this morning. For us the apocalypse is likely to be moral or physical.
But there is a Kingdom which we — at the progressive end of the religious spectrum — can help to persist.
As the parable said “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” This I take to mean that part of Jesus’s Kingdom is to be lived here on earth and that somehow processes are at work for the greatest of all possible goods. We can really live with that and for that.
Now the point of what I am saying is this:
Everybody believes that the age they live in stinks. Jesus did. Cervantes the creator of Don Quixote did — he was enslaved for some years. Most of us do — though in many ways this the best time that there has ever been to be alive.
Many people also believe that human beings are too ‘natural’, evolved through Ages of ruthless competition, to be really benevolent, or really deserving of benevolence.
But this is a hopeless position. If the sense that man had a Golden Age — either behind him or in front of him — were entirely extinguished in every heart our civilisation we would surely be in the Age of Iron, and… back to Ovid: ‘The inward ear, attuned to the Creator’ would be trodden underfoot, and Astraea “the Virgin of Justice, the incorruptible — last of the immortals — [really would abandon] the blood-fouled earth.” Goodness would be extinguished in the world, because we would have lost faith entirely in our human goodness.
I can see the magic for those people who wait, expectant for a literal Kingdom of Heaven to arrive on earth. And I think it has evident value, because preparation for the supernatural Kingdom, helps many many people live with goodness and kindness and care in the world. I certainly don’t hold onto these supernatural aspects of a future Kingdom of Heaven. But I do believe in the goodness and the need to live our lives with benevolence and fellowship… and the need to hope — as poor mad Don Quixote hoped — wish for the revival in this, so often, sad world of ours the Age of Gold.
The ‘hope’ that we were once truly happy and can be again is I believe the leaven the parable speaks about. And that is what I began to learn from an old spy on a stormy evening as we talked about neolithic burial sites.