'The Waters No Longer Run Clear'
Thoughts on words, and some other bits and pieces
A few days ago, a reader left a complaint underneath one of my recent essays. He was, he said, unimpressed that my writing had shifted from ‘first-rate cultural commentary to second-rate theology.’ In my defence, your honour, I would say that I gave him, and everyone else, fair warning about this development. And in fact I found his comment almost flattering. If my writing on the Machine was first-rate then I’m pleased, and if my theology can even approach being second-rate I’ll be pleased too. I’m starting from a very low base.
But I understood where he was coming from, and I don’t bring up his comment because I’m feeling defensive, or because I want any of you to puff me up by telling how much you love what I’m currently doing, etc. I bring it up because it got me thinking, not for the first time, about what writing does. About how far the distance is between words that reveal and words that conceal, and where the line is between them. Above all, it made me revisit a question that has haunted me for a long time: what relationship writing can ever have to matters of the spirit.
A writer with a long career will probably end up confusing or disappointing a lot of different people, and this may be no bad thing. Michel Houllebecq once said that ‘after his second book, a writer cannot expect to be read.’ What he meant was that people make up their minds about writers fairly quickly, and especially writers like Houellebecq. Probably writers like me too. Some writers do a singular thing. The thing may attract or repel you, but either way you think you know what the thing is. It has a strong flavour. When a writer stops doing that thing, then, and begins to do another, it feels like Bob Dylan suddenly going electric. Or - a much better comparison - Bob Dylan suddenly becoming a Christian.
A friend of mine, a child of the sixties counterculture, once told me a story about Dylan. He went to see him at Earls Court back in the eighties, expecting the place to be packed. In fact there were just a few hundred people there, and the venue was mostly empty. The reason was simple: Dylan had just produced a Christian album, and most of his fans had run away screaming. He came onto the stage and said something like, ‘I’m not going to play any of my famous songs tonight, and I’m sorry about that. But I do something else now. Something incredible has happened to me. If you want to know what it is, you can stick around afterwards and we can talk.’ Apparently he did.
I realise I have just compared myself, albeit glancingly, to Bob Dylan, and that this is never a good idea. The only really useful comparison is the sudden shift in subject matter. When I started this Substack, a few hundred people read it. Today I have 44,000 readers. The great majority are free subscribers, it must be said, so I don’t know how much they’re paying attention. But most probably got on board to read the ‘cultural criticism’ of my Machine essays. Now they’re getting stories about bearded religious men living in caves.
While I sympathise with their trauma, this is actually less of a wrench than it might seem. My writing life - my published writing life, anyway - extends back three decades now. In that time I have published nine books, only three of which might be described in any way as ‘cultural criticism’ or ‘current affairs’ or the like. The rest were novels, books of poetry and a strange memoir which in retrospect is the story of my being dismembered by God in preparation for something I couldn’t see coming. I find that I alternate as a writer between analysis and story - between right- and left-brain, if you like. After I have spent several years either in the Faerie Realm where novelists dwell, or in the Airy Realm which ‘cultural critics’ inhabit, I find myself drained and thirsty. I need whatever nourishment I have just denied myself. It is impossible to inhabit these two realms at once.
For this reason, switching from deep-dive analyses of Machine culture to accounts of visits to mountain wells is not as much of a leap as it might seem from the outside. The real leap, a la Dylan, is the openly religious subject matter. Even this, though, is not so far removed from my past work as it might seem. I think I have always in fact been a religious writer, in a fundamental sense. The main change is that I have formalised my allegiance. What I am doing here now feels to me less like a sharp break and more like the inevitable next step on the journey I have been on all my life.
You will have seen, if you were reading my Machine essays, the claim, outlined in essays like this and this, that the fundamental truth of our age, and the thing which makes it unique, is its distance from God. It is impossible for me now not to be aware of this. Once you see it, as they say, you can’t unsee it. This is a time of deep spiritual upheaval, and it is going on in a society which barely has the words to even describe what this means. I am keen to try and find the words. Other things can always seem more urgent - the politics, the arguments, the culture war froth - but ultimately they function as distractions. They tear your eyes away from the reality beyond the veil. That reality, for me, is the only thing worth writing about now. More than that, it seems to be the only thing I am currently capable of writing about.
The comedian Stewart Lee, in his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, wrote of how his experimental comedy routines, which largely consist of two hours of complex, interconnected, audience-insulting idea-play, had rendered him unable to do shorter stand-up gigs, formulaic jokes, or the once-simple job of acting as an MC for a roster of other comics. Though he was often asked, he said, he would always say no. ‘I am no longer fit for purpose’ he wrote, only half-jokingly. I feel the same about that ‘cultural criticism’.
How much do words reveal, and how much do they conceal? All the concepts, models, ideas, arguments: do they actually limit and tie down and shrink? Is that not what they are designed for? Are they not, in fact, a trap? I have felt for years that the sphere which is inhabited by politics, debate, ideas and abstractions is not only inimical to spiritual development, but is an abyss designed to swallow it. Back when I was practicing Zen Buddhism, I used to hear a lot from teachers about the importance of stepping back from this model of thinking, and the Orthodox saints teach the same thing. Here is St Silouan the Athonite :
In the vast sea which is the life of the Church, the true tradition of the Spirit flows like a thin, pure stream, and he who would be in this stream must renounce argument. When anything of self is introduced, the waters no longer run clear, for God’s supreme wisdom and truth are the opposite of human wisdom and truth.1
St Sophrony, the Russian holy man who founded England’s first Orthodox monastery in Essex, and who was also St Silouan’s biographer, expanded on this teaching:
The Staretz’s2 path meant that he who followed it could quickly and easily obtain the gift of God’s mercy; whereas the self-willed and self-opinionated, however erudite and sharp-witted, might mortify the flesh by the harshest feats of asceticism or learned theologising, and just pick up a crumb or two falling from the Altar of Mercy.
It is time for me to stop being, or pretending to be, ‘erudite and sharp-witted.’ Stories, not arguments: this is my direction now. Perhaps I will write about society again at some point. Sometimes the hermit is dragged out of his cave and back to the world, whether he likes it or not. We’ll see. But for now, here I am, sitting with the stories of people like St Silouan, and trying to figure out how to tell them well. I know that contained within them is something we need. I’m not sure, at this point, that we need anything more.
While I’m here, let me recommend a few things to you which I think you might find interesting, from me and (mostly) from others.
Here’s a podcast which features me talking to the good folk at Plough magazine recently about one of my favourite subjects: demons in the Internet.
For some cultural criticism mixed with theology and storytelling, I highly recommend Graham Pardun’s recent essay on the relationship that Orthodox Christians should have with power. I’m on his team on this one. If you haven’t come across Graham’s explosively brilliant little book The Sunlilies, I recommend that you come across it as soon as you can. We’ll be reading it together at the Abbey book club when I get that off the ground.
My friend Martin Shaw also wrote recently on the subject of ‘wildness’ and whether it is compatible with the Christian Way, in his essay Wild Christ Not Feral Christ, which dovetails well with both my work and with Graham’s.
John Heers, podcaster and director of a Christian foundation which does great work among poor communities worldwide, has his own Substack, Heavy Things Done Lightly. His latest essay, on masculinity and the meaning of humanity in the age of the Machine, is worth reading. Both his take and his language are distinctive.
Finally, for some grounded, practical advice on how to resist the Machine in the context of family and community, Ruth Gavskovski, whose brilliant Substack School of the Unconformed is required reading, has begun a series about practical ‘Unmachining’ - which apart from anything else is just a great word. Tool yourself up.
I think that’s all for now. See you on Sunday by the well.
From St Silouan the Athonite, by St Sophrony of Essex. You can buy the book direct from the monastery.
Staretz is a Russian honorific meaning ‘elder’ or ‘teacher’.