An Ogre Hates My Patch of Blue Sky

“Once religious imagination and yearning have departed from a culture, the lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence becomes not just one of reality’s unpleasant aspects, but in some sense the limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things.” (David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath (2009)

For years I have had a recurrent daydream.  It may have originated as a sleeping dream, but it is now a staple of my waking imagination.  This daydream steals over me whenever I feel myself slipping under the anesthetic of a committee meeting, or I am forced to wander through a wasteland of what Hart calls “epic drabness,” or I am closeted with a vampiric atheist who invites me to loosen my collar and close my eyes.  With this daydream, my imagination proposes that all of these experiences are, at bottom, one and the same experience.  I am of a romantic disposition, so I take the propositions of my imagination very seriously.

In this daydream, I am lying at the bottom of a of rock-walled pit or cellar that is incompletely roofed with a dome of fitted stones.  Through a gap in the dome, a patch of blue sky is visible.  But silhouetted against this patch of sky, I can also see the upper body of an ogre who grunts and mortars a stone that is fitted to close the gap in the dome. Growing aware that I am looking at him, the ogre lays his trowel to one side and peers down at me; then, with a wry smirk, he lifts the mortared stone into place and seals me in darkness.

This pit I take to be Hart’s “lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence.”  The dome is the modern philosophy of “positivism” that nowadays sets the official “limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things.”  It is the naturalism that has “disenchanted” our world.  The blue sky beyond is what I call heaven, although the masonic ogre disagrees.  To me that patch of blue sky is a symbol of everything transcendent and metaphysical.  To the ogre with the trowel (who, incidentally, has his back to it), the blue sky is, of course, a sorry superstition and old wives’ tale.  Indeed, he built the dome to rid me of it, and by fitting that last stone into place, he aims to complete my enlightenment.

If you have ever come very near to drowning, as I once did, you know the feeling of physical suffocation.  This feeling is not agreeable, but like the knowledge that one will shortly be hung by the neck, it does concentrate the mind wonderfully.  There is, however, one difference between the prospect of death by drowning and the prospect of death by hanging. Because a drowning man can very often cheat fate and save himself, his mind is wonderfully concentrated on the urgent task of staying alive.  When I was sucked into that long black culvert, for instance, my mind was wonderfully concentrated on the urgent task of feeling for the tiny finger-holds whereby I might claw my way back to the blessed air.  Death was most certainly “breathing down my neck,” but he didn’t yet “have me by the throat.”  I imagine that the mind of a man condemned to the gallows, as in Johnson’s famous aperçu, is wonderfully concentrated on death itself (such was the case, for instance, of the miserable Fagan near the end of Oliver Twist).

When I imagine that masonic ogre sealing me up in that rock-walled pit, I always experience a frisson of metaphysical suffocation.  And just as those desperate minutes in the black culvert wonderfully concentrated my mind on finding the means to claw my way back to the blessed air, so the imagined sound of that last stone grating into place wonderfully concentrates my mind on the finding the means to preserve my patch of blue sky.

It is, of course, madness to see that patch of blue sky beyond the dome.  On this the ogre and I agree.  Our difference is that I follow Plato’s Socrates and say it is a “divine madness” that grants “release from the ordinary ways of men,”  whereas the ogre follows Euripides’ Pentheus and says it is an “evil dream” that spreads a “foul contagion.”  In Plato’s philosophy a man is overcome by divine madness when something in the rock-walled cellar of this world reminds him of  “those things which [his] soul once saw when in company with God.”  In the philosophy of Pentheus (and the ogre), a man falls victim to“evil dreams” when he strays beyond the official “limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things” (1).

My patch of blue sky is an instrument of anamnesis, or un-forgetting.  My frisson of metaphysical suffocation is, therefore, a lively and desperate horror of metaphysical amnesia.  Just as I felt horror when I was sucked into that black culvert where even the memory of oxygen could not long survive, so I feel horror when I imagine the sound of that last stone grating into place and dooming even the memory of my patch of blue sky.

My patch of blue sky is a symbol of beauty and love, as these have been the two principle instruments of anamnesis in my experience.  There are other instruments, such as the experience of truth, but I am a man who, in Plato’s words, “when he sees the beauty of the earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty,” and maddened by this recollection “would like to fly away, but . . . cannot.”

To shift that last stone into place and achieve his end of “enlightenment” (i.e. metaphysical amnesia), the ogre must therefore prevent my experience of beauty, love, and truth.  He must roof me in under a perfect dome of ugliness, hatred and lies.  He must lock me in anesthetic meetings, lure me into the wilderness of “epic drabness,” and lull me to loosening my collar and closing my eyes.

I think I may know that ogre’s name.

(These reflections occurred while driving to work through this.)

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(1) See Plato’s Phaedrus and Euripides Bacchae.

11 thoughts on “An Ogre Hates My Patch of Blue Sky

  1. Pingback: An Ogre Hates My Patch of Blue Sky | @the_arv

  2. Excellent. Remain steadfast, ye acolytes of the blue sky! Dawn will find its way into the deepest cave. It has already.

    With my mind less elevated, your pictures remind me of Americans’ libido for the ugly. Mencken: “I have seen, I believe, all of the most unlovely towns of the world; they are all to be found in the United States. I have seen the mill towns of decomposing New England and the desert towns of Utah, Arizona and Texas. I am familiar with the back streets of Newark, Brooklyn and Chicago, and have made scientific explorations to Camden, N.J. and Newport News, Va. Safe in a Pullman, I have whirled through the gloomy, God-forsaken villages of Iowa and Kansas, and the malarious tide-water hamlets of Georgia. I have been to Bridgeport, Conn., and to Los Angeles. But nowhere on this earth, at home or abroad, have I seen anything to compare to the villages that huddle along the line of the Pennsylvania from the Pittsburgh yards to Greensburg. They are incomparable in color, and they are incomparable in design. It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them. . . .

    “Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got. There must be causes behind it; it arises and flourishes in obedience to biological laws, and not as a mere act of God. What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than elsewhere? Let some honest Privat Dozent in pathological sociology apply himself to the problem.”

    • Thanks for the Mencken quote. His generation was reacting against landscapes that were built in the late 19th century–the great industrial cities and the railroad towns (Gopher Prairies) of the Great West. You see similar opinions in Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford. Today we are preserving those mills and main streets because we see the buildings as superior to most of what came after.

  3. Pingback: An Ogre Hates My Patch of Blue Sky | Reaction Times

  4. @JM – What you describe resonates strongly with me – the ‘iron cage’ of modernity, the shallowness and sordidness of a materialist ‘subsistence’ (not Life) – I was aware of this very sharply from age 13 when I read Lord of the Rings and simultaneously felt the shades of the prison house begin to close – But it took another 45 years before I eventually perceived that this was an inevitable consequence of incrementally-progressive Western denial of the reality and truth of the divine.

    • The onset of the dis-ease came at about the same time for me, and it certainly coincided with my first reading of Tolkein. At the time, I thought Tolkein was simply a palliative, but now see Lord of the Rings as an instrument of anamnesis. I do not think that everything must be made pretty, but I am convinced that aggressive squalor has a spiritual significance.

      • @JMSmith
        On the other hand. Why not?
        Although its not essential. If there are means available from left over resources then making something a bit more beautiful for improvements sake as long as functionality isn’t negatively impacted or even enhanced is worthwhile for its own sake.

        Beauty is its own good after all. Adding a bit more won’t hurt.

      • Certainly! I’d even sacrifice some “functionality.” If my assumptions are correct, beauty has a function.

  5. At least campus is pretty (if you like beige)!

    In the ’60s and ’70s, this stretch was thriving with car dealerships, high-end specialty stores, restaurants and more. My first doctor was in the building to the right of the pawn shop sign in the last photo.

    The tide turned in about 1980, when Post Oak Mall opened in CS and drained retailers away from downtown, when explosive growth in university enrollment made CS instead of Bryan the economic powerhouse, and when the city fathers frankly quit paying attention to infrastructure and other needs, not to mention strategic planning for such growth. When land is plentiful the incentives to maintain and restore are lost.

    As Bryan gentrifies I expect things to change. That’s some prime real estate, even though lots of folks refuse to venture north of Villa Maria.

    But to your larger point: You are absolutely right, and your readers are profoundly grateful for your posts.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, from a fellow denizen of Bryan no less! I should add that there is plenty of beauty to be found in our local landscape, for those who have the eyes to see it.

  6. “. . . because we see the buildings as superior to most of what came after.”

    Horrifying in a way, but certainly true. (The same dynamic holds for the latest string of American presidents.)

    By the way, I must have forgotten some HTML in the link above. Readers may edify themselves by reading the entire essay. “Libido for the Ugly.”

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