The Answer


As one of my favourite song-writers, Loudon Wainwright puts it:

It's been a hard day on the planet
How much is it all worth?
It's getting harder to understand it
Things are tough all over on earth.

Well, it's not just been a hard day of course, but a hard few weeks in which we have seen continued unrest and violence in North Africa and the Persian Gulf, the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan and, in the latter, of course, the appalling tsunami and ongoing nuclear incident.

All this, as we are aware, is going on against a developing unsettled political, financial and cultural situation here in the UK and Europe and, in one way or another - unless you are deliberately doing that very popular head-in-the-sand thing, we are all feeling that it's getting 'harder to understand it' and are asking how much is it all worth? At such unsettled and disturbing times many, naturally, start again to seek answers to 'the problems of life'. There will be plenty of churches and religions in the coming years that will serve up a variety of proscriptive, hard and simple answers - believe A, B and C and all will be well. But, here at least, we know that much, most even, of what is and will be on offer is of no more use than snake-oil.

So, what answer is on offer here - what would help us both feel we could say we understood the world and, even as we face so many hard things, we could also live with a measure equanimity and even occasional joy?

It would be nice for me - certainly a weight off my shoulders - to be able to point you to a ready-made collectively agreed answer liberal but that simply doesn't exist amongst us here or more widely within our General Assembly nor amongst liberal churches as a whole. So, with all due apologies, all I can do is offer you an outline of the answer that strikes me as being true. There are a million ways I might present it but, to keep it brief, I'll hang it on Robinson Jeffers' poem 'The Answer'.

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams. 
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
      and their tyrants come, many times before. 
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
     the least ugly faction; these evils are essential. 
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
     and not wish for evil; and not be duped 
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
     not be fulfilled. 
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
     the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand 
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
     and his history ... for contemplation or in fact ... 
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
     the greatest beauty is 
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
     of the universe. Love that, not man 
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
     or drown in despair when his days darken. 

So now let's walk through it. What does Jeffers see as the answer?

Jeffers begins simply enough by saying, it is not 'to be deluded by dreams.' OK, but there are dreams and dreams - and so he turns immediately to clarifying what kind of dreams we must not be deluded by.

Jeffers tells us that great civilisations have broken down into violence, and that their tyrants have come, many times before. The dream to avoid is, then, of harbouring any thought that any human civilisation is a permanent fixture in the scheme of things. Although this is a generally accepted truth that most of us have no problem acknowledging - after all Shelly's 'Ozymandias' has gone into our cultural canon - Jeffers wants us to realise that this is, of course, true of our own civilization right here, right now and it's clearly overdue (in Chris Woods' memorable phrase) for a grand correction to commence.

Jeffers continues to unfold this thought by saying that 'When open violence appears' we are 'to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction'. Here he reminds us that although we must, really must, try our hardest to avoid violence if we cannot do this in honourable ways then we have to choose the least ugly faction for to do otherwise would be to commit an existential betrayal too deep to countenance. Jeffers remains clear, however, that violence remains for human-kind an evil even as it seems to be an essential - if highly regrettable - aspect of our species.

But, Jeffers feels that even as we acknowledge this essential evil, this does not mean at the same time that we as individuals and small communities need to embrace it as central, and he is clear that at a more primal level it is possible for us to 'keep [our] own integrity and to 'be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil.' But for Jeffers this way of being is highly localised and it flourishes best and most widely when we don't tie it to fixed and monolithic human ideologies concerning what might be the best kind of civilisation. So he wants us to be absolutely clear that our integrity, mercy and incorruptibility is intimately related to our ability 'not be duped / By dreams of universal justice or happiness' because, he says, 'these dreams will not be fulfilled.' Why? Well, remember these words are being presented in the light of his opening lines which makes it clear he thinks that even if we were to succeed in creating the utopian civilisation we dreamt of, it, too, will in time, break down into violence and out of it tyrants will come.

Now to many people all this seems an utterly bleak and painfully circular vision. You act on a good utopian vision and try to build a new society or civilisation upon it, but, says Jeffers (and history), it will inevitably fall back into violence and repression. In the inevitable fight that follows someone else will be forced to pick the least ugly faction with its new dreams and, if they win and succeed in creating a new society it, too, will in time, break down once more into violence and out of it tyrants will come. (Remember, even Emerson, that most optimistic of writers, once said that: 'The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.')

But that's not the end of it for Jeffers thinks we that this bleak vision is only certain to occur in so far as we continue to subscribe to the myth of the centrality of humankind and its insatiable desire to civilise the world - that is to say to make it conform merely to human dreams. (People may be interested in following this link to the Dark Mountain Project which is concerned to articulate this more clearly. I've joined recently joined this grassroots network myself).

Jeffers begins to challenge this myth by introducing a theme which runs throughout his work namely, that 'however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.' But be careful to remember, as I have been showing you over the last couple of weeks, that Jeffers' understanding of beauty runs right up to the very edge of the abyss that is the Sublime - that greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. Because Jeffers' vision is born out of being prepared to survey whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance his understanding of in what consists beauty is no easy one.

One of the things he sees with his steady and clear-eyed gaze is that 'A severed hand / Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history ... for contemplation or in fact ... Often appears atrociously ugly.'

Jeffers is pushing us hard to see how an exclusive human frame of reference, one which lies behind so many of our activities especially the creation of civilisations, severs us from the earth and stars and our history and makes us appear often atrociously ugly.

Civilisation severs us from the earth because it has all too often made us think of the earth as something other than us, some 'thing' which we can master and use as mere resource and upon which we think we can walk when, instead, it is the dark, mysterious matter out of which we come, within which we are indissolubly commingled, and *through* which we move.

Civilisation severs us from the stars because it has all too often made us think of them as revolving around us at the centre of the universe rather than as mutually interdependent brother and sister worlds whose dust is our dust, whose earth is our earth.

Civilisation severs us from history because it makes us think that it is possible in one fell swoop to create the New Jerusalem - to become some new ideal race and civilisation without first doing the hard work of uncentering ourselves and dispelling the myth of civilisation. As Jeffers says in another poem, Carmel Point, 'We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.'

Jeffers thought we began to live a wise, unhuman, uncivilised life when we succeed in concentrating on what he calls 'Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things'. It is only by diving deeply into this wholeness that we can begin to find a real, primal 'integrity' in which we can touch 'the divine beauty of the universe' - a beauty which is there even when we are not.

The answer, then, for Jeffers, is to love this Sublime beauty, this organic wholeness and 'not man / Apart from [this]' because, if we do not, we will continue to 'share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.'

The first ten years of this century seem to me to be riddled through with countless pitiful confusions and in so many ways I see our days darken.

But, for all that, again and again, when I take time to notice the organic wholeness of life and things I see nothing but divine beauty.

This spring, more than any I have experienced before, the beauty about which I have just spoken has hit the core of my being. I know it will be there whatever we stupid and thoughtless creatures do and, in that beauty, I know I can rest as confident as the rock and ocean I was made from. I know I can go on in hope and a measure of joy even as the waves crash in and the crazy warmongers (whether our own or others) fight yet more stupid wars.

Just hold on to Jeffers' answer - that integrity is beauty and that he greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of things. Love this and not the man apart from it. So live and be joyful even in these darkening days.


Anonymous said…
Amazing where one finds the Divine.