Learning to live confidently, creatively & hopefully at the dialectic’s point of change

READINGS:

Some sayings of Heraklietos of Ephesos

Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details. Knowledge is not intelligence. In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected, change alone is unchanging. The same road goes both up and down. The beginning of a circle is also its end. Not I, but the world says it: all is one. And yet everything comes in season.


[Jesus said] A new commandment I give you: that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are disciples of me, if you have love for one another.

From “Full moon at Tierz: before the storming of Huesca” (1936) 
by John Cornford (1915-1936)

                                 I
The past, a glacier, gripped the mountain wall,
And time was inches, dark was all.
But here it scales the end of the range,
The dialectic's point of change,
Crashes in light and minutes to its fall.

Time present is a cataract whose force
Breaks down the banks even at its source
And history forming in our hands
Not plasticine but roaring sands,
Yet we must swing it to its final course.

The intersecting lines that cross both ways,
Time future, has no image in space,
Crooked as the road that we must tread,
Straight as our bullets fly ahead.
We are the future. The last fight let us face.

by Robert Walsh (1937-2016)

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
and in separating, wondering
and telling, unaware that just beneath
you is the unseen seam of great plates
that strain through time? And that your life,
already spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
sent off in a new direction, turned
aside by forces you were warned about
but not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
the level floor set at an angle in
some seconds’ shaking. You would have to take
your losses, do whatever must be done next.

When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. There’s
your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.

“Dunes” (1961-1965) 
by A. R. Ammons (1926-2001)

Taking root in windy sand
    is not an easy
way
to go about
    finding a place to stay.

A ditchbank or wood’s-edge
    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though
    something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Learning to live confidently, creatively & hopefully at the dialectic’s point of change

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a BBC radio programme called “America’s Friends” introduced by Jim Naughtie on the subject of how, in the age of Trump, the USA now views its old European allies. Almost none of the people we heard interviewed expected the transatlantic relationship to go back to where it was before Trump and the overwhelming feeling was that we’re in a new and highly discombobulating place. Here’s how the American diplomat and businessmen John Christian Kornblum (b. 1943), who served as the US Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001 and who now lives in Berlin and works for the German government, summed up the situation as he sees it:

“We’re at the beginning of a new chapter which is going to be dominated by two things. First, the growing of consciousness of peoples about who they are; and by the passing of generations — new people coming in. And so this going to mean that for people like me who have been through, and felt very proud of the last forty years or so, it’s going to be very confusing because it looks like it’s coming apart. But the fact is that’s what happens and so the question is not so much to fight against it coming apart but to see if you can structure it in the best way possible. And I would say that we’re totally unprepared for this era and everyone from our leaders to our twelve year olds are not clear what’s going to happen. [. . .] What’s at stake here now is something bordering on panic. We’re presented with a bunch of challenges, one of them being just the fact that we’re so much richer than everyone else that [other people] want to come to our countries. That’s a very simple thing. Secondly, that the structures of government and what we consider to be the reasonable and positive ways that people govern and live with each other are starting to come apart, being replaced by emotional, sometimes irrational, and at a minimum very subjective points of view. That’s really what’s happening right now I think” (found at 6mins 18 secs - to 8 minutes 11 secs).

The feeling that Kornblum identifies is, of course, one that is being increasingly felt by many of us here today, not only in connection with our transatlantic relationship but with regard to the UK’s own relationship with Europe as well as our own internal relationships. It really does feel like it’s all coming apart and that this is being driven not by reason but by “emotional, sometimes irrational, and at a minimum very subjective points of view.”

But before we despair or panic let’s remember Kornblum’s point that “the fact is that this what happens” and that, in consequence, perhaps we should not so much be fighting against it as seeing if we can structure the falling apart in the best way possible?

Kornblum’s words came back into my mind this week following a chance re-reading of the first part of the Cambridge poet, John Cornford’s famous Spanish Civil War poem, “Full moon at Tierz: before the storming of Huesca”, written in 1936 just before his death in that same conflict.

One might say many things about this poem but, in the context of  the current times, what particularly struck me was his description of the existential experience of waiting for a coming moment of conflict and recognising that it would not move like plasticine, something slowly and gently shaped this way and that, morphing from one shape into another but, instead, the moment would move like the sudden, catastrophic crashing in light of ice at the end of a great glacier.

I don’t know about you but this mirrors my own feelings in this current period of hiatus as I pensively wait for a number of possible coming moments of sudden, perhaps, catastrophic change.

But, as Cornford makes clear, the past which led to what he felt would be a catastrophic moment — “the dialectic’s point of change” — was, in truth, itself the product of a slow, slow plasticine-like process measured in centuries and inches and which had moved in a kind of darkness where so much passes unobserved (and perhaps unobservable). 

The point to grasp here is that the endless fluxes and flows of the natural world — which include, of course, the fluxes and flows of our human world’s of art, religion, politics and so on — the endless fluxes and flows of the natural world have and will never stop moving; they remain at work as much in the slow shaping of plasticine as they do in the sudden crashing in light of the glacier; as much in our moments of apparent stillness and hiatus as in moments that feel like an uncontrollable “cataract” and as “roaring sands”. Yet, for all this ceaseless movement, Cornford in his moment of waiting before the coming action, felt that we can always play a small, modest part in swinging things to their final course because we are ourselves always-already part of the dialectical fluxes and flows of the natural world that underpin both plasticine- and glacier-like moments.

Now these thoughts were running around in my head when, again by chance, I came across a poem I did not previously know written by Robert Walsh (1937-2016) who was the minister emeritus of the First Parish (Unitarian) Church in Duxbury, MA called “Fault Line”.

His words seemed to be speaking to all those people — and, of course, to some extent and at times this has included me — who have forgotten that, although we in Europe and the US have been fortunate to have lived through an almost plasticine-like seventy-year period of history — a social-democratic one slowly morphing this way, now that — the ceaseless fluxes and flows of nature will always be bringing everything at some point to “the dialectic’s point of change”. Walsh’s poetic image for this moment is not the sudden crashing of ice at the end of a glacier seen by Cornford but the sudden movement of tectonic plates. Massive, slow moving geological plates that have been silently, imperceptibly, inching along against each other for centuries before suddenly giving way in an earthquake that can shake our once stable and familiar world down to its very foundations.

Walsh is surely right to ask how many of us have ever stopped to think that there might be a fault-line like this passing underneath our living rooms and, by extension, through every other apparently stable structure of our lives? How many of us have ever been properly cognizant that our once ordered lives “could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces you were warned about but not prepared for?” That “shelves could be spilled out, the level floor set at an angle in some seconds’ shaking”? For the most part we never think thus. But then why would we, we who have been living in an age and culture singularly marked for over seventy-years of plasticine-like, incremental social-democratic movements?

But a careful study of nature’s endless fluxes and flows, of how they underpin equally both the slow movements of things and the sudden, catastrophic movements of things, should serve to remind us, to return to Kornblum’s basic point and question, that the fact is that the arrival of dialectic’s point of change always comes and so the question should never be how we are to fight against things suddenly coming apart when they do but to see if we can structure it in the best way possible and, like Cornford, play a small, modest part in swinging things to their final course.

Walsh agrees with this thought and his answer concerning this is rooted in another nested set of fluxes and flows operating in our natural world. 

He realised that our singular flaw has been in too easily trusting that which we have been seduced into trusting the most, namely “solidity”, which he poetically describes as “weighty slabs of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered beam.” This image must not be taken simply to refer to physical structures like buildings but also to our all too often rigid structures of religious, political, economic, financial and cultural thought. These rigid things can never save us, can never restore “the fractured order.” 

Walsh encourages us, instead to learn to trust in the endless fluxes and flows of love. For him these fluxes and flows are “tensile strands” that “bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life that’s often torn but always healing.” In the fluxes and flows of love — which are, of course, themselves also always-already products of, and nested in, the fluxes and flows of matter — there lies our strength. As Walsh says, everything for us as existential and material beings proceeds in some way from the fluxes and flows of love and matter.

Walsh sees that endlessly moving fluxes and flows of matter and love — that is to say of material and love, of mater and love, of mother and love — form the groundless ground on which we are always-already able to walk together in our attempts to build and shape new worlds following any catastrophic movement of either history or tectonic plates.

And here I find myself back at the poet A. R. Ammons’ poem “Dunes” which I have brought before you a number of times over the last couple of years:

Taking root in windy sand
    is not an easy
way
to go about
    finding a place to stay.

A ditchbank or wood's-edge
    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though
    something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

This thought may disturb some of us but, to repeat Kornblum’s words once again, “the fact is that this what happens” and there is no point in fighting against it but, instead, seeing if we can structure our inevitable moments of falling apart in the best way possible.

I think we can only succeed in this task and become able to live confidently, creatively & hopefully before, in, and after the dialectic’s point of change when we have fully understood and internalised at least three things: 

1) that firm ground is not, never has been, nor ever will be available ground; 

2) that in this loose world we are always-already wholly dependent upon the ceaseless fluxes and flows of nature that underlie both the crashing of glaciers, the quaking of the earth and our times of slow, incremental, plasticine-like change; and 

3) that our true strength as human beings will always lie in the tensile strands of love that are able to bend and stretch to hold us in the web of life that’s often torn but always healing. 

I realise, as did Ammons, that this not an easy way to go about finding a place to stay, but I genuinely think it’s the only way available to us in the loose world of nature’s endless fluxes and flows. 

So, in the coming months and years I’d encourage us not to forget to hold on to the genuinely hopeful thought that after every sudden, even catastrophic moment or point of the dialectic’s change a root will always touch water, a tip of grass will always break sand, mounds from this will rise on held mounds and we will, once again, be able to make a loving gesture of building, keeping, and a trapping into shape that makes, for a while at least, new worlds of beauty, joy, meaning and purpose, a world in which our true strength remains in the ancient “new commandment” given to us by Jesus some two millennia ago, that we should love one another (John 13:34). 

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