Commenter Dale Nelson just shared a quote that deserves better than the swift oblivion of a comment thread, so I am elevating it to the slightly less swift oblivion of a post. He tells me that the passage was written by Robert Aickman (1914-1981), an English conservationist and writer of weird tales, and that it was warmly approved by the American paleoconservative and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk.
“I believe that at the time of the Industrial and French revolutions . . . . mankind took a wrong turning. The beliefs that one day, by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known, and every problem and unhappiness solved, seem to me to have led to a situation where, first, we are in imminent danger of destroying the whole world and where, second, everyone suffers from an existential angst, previously confined to the very few.”
My cursory search failed to discover the original source of this passage, although it is certainly congruent with what I was able to discover about Aickman’s general outlook on the world.* As I said in answer to Mr. Nelson, it is also congruent with the Orthosphere’s general outlook on the world. We all know and enjoy the benefits that have flowed from the aggrandizement of reason and the scientific method, but we also know and suffer its very considerable costs.
In my answer to Mr. Nelson, I mentioned that my wife and I attended a dinner party last evening, and that a sign hanging over the fireplace exhorted whoever might read it to “choose joy.” In fact, I seem to recall some of my wife’s home décor likewise exhorting me to “joy.” When I noticed such exhortations, I snorted and was stricken by a slight malaise, for joy is not a servant that will come when I call for it. It is more like a wild animal that I may put myself in the way of seeing, but that I may even then fail to encounter. And like all other wild animals, joy grows increasingly secretive and rare in the world that reason and science have made.
Like the old man in this poem, joy has become for modern man an increasingly distant memory.
“There’s something in a noble boy,
A brave, free-hearted, careless one,
With his uncheck’d, unbidden joy
His dread of books and love of fun . . .
His shouts may ring upon the hill,
His voice may be echoed in the hall
His merry laugh like music thrill,
And I in sadness hear it all,
For like the wrinkles on my brow,
I scarcely notice such things now.”**
Here is a second quote that seems to point in the same direction. It was written by the American nature writer John Burroughs in an account of his travels in Europe in the 1870’s. Looking back at the United States, Burroughs saw what he described as “the leanness and depletion of our social and convivial instincts,” which I take to mean that his homeland was a place where joy was seldom sighted.
“European cities differ from ours . . . . They have a homelier character—more the air of dwelling-places, the abodes of men drawn together for purposes other than traffic. People actually live in them, and find life sweet and festal. But what does our greatest city, New York, express besides commerce or politics, or what other reason has it for existence? This is, of course, in a measure the result of the modern worldly and practical business spirit, which more and more animates all nations, and which led Carlyle to say of his own countrymen that they were becoming daily more ‘flat, stupid, and mammonish.’ Yet I am persuaded that in our case it is traceable also to the leanness and depletion of our social and convivial instincts, and to the fact that the material cares of life are more serious and engrossing with us than with any other people.”***
The devolution of that word homely is telling, is it not? Here it means the “sweet and festal” milieu of home, whereas for us it means the ill-favored mug of a woman who will not go far in this world.
Burroughs saw that “the modern worldly and practical business spirit” (offspring of science and reason) was infecting all nations, but averred that his own countrymen were well ahead in the universal race to flatness, stupidity and mammonism. The creed of mammonism holds that the pursuit of money is the purpose of man’s being and his highest calling; and, as Carlyle explained, it is therefore hardly surprising that
“We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man.”†
Indeed it does absolve and liquidate all engagements of man, until every place on earth is a part of the universal marketplace (i.e. “global economy”). But search as you like in this universal marketplace, you will find no vendor of joy! You will, however, find abundant substitutes for joy. Indeed, much of the trade in the universal market is a trade in synthetic bliss, double-distilled hilarity, and costly exhortations to “choose joy.”
This trade thrives because what we have truly chosen is to starve what Burroughs called our “social and convivial instincts.” We have chosen to live in this universal marketplace, and to run our lives on the nervous energy that Aickman called “existential angst.” And, as Aickman said, by so doing we have chosen to put ourselves “in imminent danger of destroying the whole world.”
And Carlyle agreed:
“Enlightened philosophies . . . will tell you: ‘Enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, Heaven, Hell and such-like: yes, all that was true enough for old stupid time; all that used to be true: but we have changed all that . . .’ Well; if . . . man have no heroism in him deeper than the wish to eat, and in his soul there dwell now no Infinite of hope and awe . . . behold the Abyss and nameless Annihilation s ready. So scandalous a beggarly Universe deserves indeed nothing else.”
*) Mr. Nelson supplies bibliographic information in a comment below.
**) Nathaniel Parker Willis, “The Boy” (1835)
***) John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine (1875)
†) Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843)