20 November 2012

And the Glory of Europe is Extinguished Forever

[The following was written some years ago for a private blog.]

Esteemed Contemporaries!

Since our discussions about specific citations from Burke in the past weeks, the above phrase has returned often to my mind.  The glory of Europe is, in itself, a grand concept.  What is the glory of Europe?  What a thought that it is forever extinguished, that we have passed into an age of permanent death and decay in which only the memory of greatness can preserve us from vice, pusilanimity and general corruption.

But the phrase “the glory of Europe” demonstrates a principle of all good rhetoric: it inspires the attributes it describes.  How awesome that this speaker should even know such glory!  How wonderful that here we have a description of it, even in vague terms — that it is even mentioned!  And so Burke’s text creates in us a mirror of the events it describes.  We are elevated, and then feel our own tragic (and therefore almost more beautiful) demise. 

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis criticizes Gaius and Titius (his pseudonymous textbook authors) for teaching a very abstract principle of rhetoric in place of more basic literary criticism.  They claim that “the waterfall is sublime” means “I have sublime feelings about the waterfall” and Lewis scoffs at them.  Rightly so, if their point is that all beauty and goodness is merely a product of the mind beholding, if they are siding with Hamlet, who tells us that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  In that case we, too, scoff at them and their ignorance of beauty and goodness, for only someone woefully inexperienced in the wonders of nature and the joys of life could think that either beauty or goodness is confined merely to minds.  The fault of the reductive mind arises not from a knowledge too precise, but from a failure to know at all.

But were we more generous with Gaius and Titius, we could see a way in which they are correct.  Not that the attributes I see in things are merely attributes of my perceptions of those things (I do not have green feelings about a green crayon, e.g.), but that in everything we see that is good, true and beautiful, insofar as we recognize these qualities, we feel ourselves called onward to goodness, truth and beauty.  If Plato teaches us well when he has Socrates define rhetoric as the ability to move men’s souls with words, then we can see something of rhetoric in the world at large, some more communicative side to the rocks and trees and hills.

And so, it seems that this is one of the ways God speaks to us in life.  Four years ago I was applying to college and needed an activities essay for the Common Application.  I was struggling with a rather unpleasant bout of depression at the time, and so when I just let myself go I generated the following:
I agonize.  This is a strange fact, but an important one.  Frequently I, a lesser mortal, find myself without words, motivations, or thoughts.  I am blank, but really I am not blank.  I am filled with thoughts of blankness, which motivate me to search through the words of dead men for something worth saying.  

“Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” “Do bats eat cats?  Do cats eat bats?”  Scraps like these take over my mind like viruses, and all I do is moan and chant them at anyone who will listen.  Few people put up with me during the empty days.  They tell me I am isolated, and I admit this isolation.  They tell me I am depressed, and I say “Yes, I am depressed.”  But then I turn to those who sneer at me and say, well, nothing.  It is in the moments of emptiness that the disorder of our lives comes to a point, and we are lost.

The essay was, of course, never submitted (I wrote one on my love of socratic interrogation instead), but it captured the general breathlessness, the despiration (were that a word), of the time.  I have admired the aptness of the expression in that short piece ever since.  In particular I am fond of the last line:  “It is in the moments of emptiness that the disorder of our lives comes to a point, and we are lost.”  There is something wonderful in finding a succinct description of what we already know very well.  I know that feeling very well, and so delight in its description (forgive the self-indulgence).

But the reason I bring up this short essay is that its final sentence, the one I always loved best, contains a factual error.  Melancholy and depression never lead us to a “point”.  Disorder is not pointed, but rather vague and fuzzy.  The closest thing to emptiness we can experience in life is a sense of dispersion.  The real existential crises come when we are alone: when we feel that everything is receding.  Perhaps this is why in Annie Hall the young Alvie Singer stops doing his homework after he finds out that the universe is expanding.  Anxiety is a fear before nothing — a fear whose object could never ultimately be realized.  And thus we experience anxiety in isolation, for things can always become more distant from us; the world can become less significant to us; we might always matter less and less.  There is no end to the feeling of anxiety, and so there cannot be a point to it.  Anxiety unfocuses, insignifies, distances.  The falcon cannot see the falconer, and flies out into the empty expanse of space.

So what I would like to say about the final sentence of that essay is that its greatness, the rhetorical flair in it that has always given me such pleasure, is borrowed from a topic not its own.  The essay tricks us (as we melancholy ones often trick ourselves) into enjoying sadness and anxiety by draping what is sickly and vicious with the trappings of beauty, virtue and goodness.  This confirms the Thomistic thesis that in everything we pursue, what draws us is some perceived good.  But I have wandered far from my original point.

“The glory of Europe is extinguished forever,” says Burke.  I decided to write this essay in a fit of inspiration.  I was listening to Philip Glass, thinking about my friends and their successes, and I felt (as I have so often felt over the past year) the opposite of what I described in that essay.  It is when we are most keenly aware of the fullness of things that the order of life comes to a glittering point, a veil is torn aside, and we behold the stones crying out the glory of God so that even the mundane trappings of a dirty dorm room suggest a deeper life and significance. 
That’s what I wanted to say.