Beyond Progress and Nostalgia
'Being called names is supposed to scare you into silence, but it doesn’t work if you wear the names like a medal on your chest.'
This made me chuckle, perhaps we should all introduce ourselves differently, 'Hi, my name's Anna and I am a Woodburner owning Nazi with a tendency towards far right extremist homesteading and bigotry, I also keep chickens and tend to live a simple life'. I would interested to see what reactions I'd get. :-)
Are you going to write a book about The Machine, Paul? Perhaps 'Rage Against the Machine'? I would love to see all your thoughts on the Machine gathered together in one text. Loving your newsletter.
Great stuff, and yes, of course. I wonder what we can do to subvert the linearity of so many of our assumptions about the backwards and forwards look. But maybe the big sweep of the story of redemption in the Bible is that we look forward to what we once enjoyed ...
Perhaps we are on the threshold of a great change. I hope so. I see green shoots, like your writing and that of others, but they look terribly vulnerable before the caterpillar tracks of the juggernaut. We can just keep breathing and loving, being patient and faithful.
An obvious, rather trivial comment while I sort out the big thing in my head.
The thing about nostalgia is that it depends on partial vision and partial memory. That our-England-is-a-garden sensibility can ignore (as I know you do not) the rapacity of the colonial system, the Mordor being simultaneously created from Coalbrookdale to the Black Country and their imitators across the globe, and the experience of people like my six-year-old grandfather: an orphaned Wiltshire peasant, kept as a farmworking semi-slave, sleeping in a hut, until he ran away to join the army at 13.
The Machine has more ancient roots than the National Trust recognises.
I'm looking forward to your next posts, Paul: I've been stumbling around in odd places online for so long now, reading and listening to the great unravelling of all things yet somehow never getting further than a kind of collective yell of horror at what's happening, and the petrifying rate of the collapse. Somehow your words today have struck a match in the gloom and for perhaps the first time I can see that it is possible to hold it all at once and still keep breathing. Beautiful and inspiring poetry too. Thank you, and again, much gratitude for the gifted subscription to read your work.
Thank you for this essay. It made me think of "But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it." We have to navigate between one need to live in the world to earn money to preserve our bodies and the other need to live outside the world to preserve our souls. We walk a tightrope between being fools for God and not foolishly wasting what God gives us. When I read your essays, I feel less alone on my tightrope - I see that there are other tightropes out there and other people walking those tightropes. Thank you for this.
Thanks Paul - great essay as usual and the territory you have staked for future essays looks promising. Another take on Nostalgia/Progress is explored by the historian Timothy Snyder in Roads to Unfreedom (particularly interesting given what is happening now) and On Tyranny. He frames his discussion around the politics of inevitability ('life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased slot) and the politics of eternity ('eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse.....an oligarch spinning a tale of an innocent past offers fake protection to people with real pain'). Interesting and illuminating, Snyder gives us a historian's take on where we are today. Looking forward to future essays! Thanks.
So the task now is what it has always been: get one’s house in order, dance with the way things are moving. True indeed.
Also true is the fact that the times now are no different from what they have always been. We’re obsessed with it now because, like AI dissolving high-status career choices, it’s happening to the people it was never meant to happen to: “us,” the whiny, comfortable, centrally-heated, pampered Western middle classes with their fantasies of the end of history.
But conditions have always been crumbling, dreams have always been failing, out of sight, far away, especially if you live close to nature, especially if you have no power, especially if you live too close to more powerful or greedy neighbours. Whether one is an Anglo-Saxon nobleman in 1067 or caught up in the Black Death or the Thirty Years’ War or trapped in a slave ship or caught up in a war or a blitz or a holocaust or, as we all will, suffering from chronic health problems or any of the 10,000 other perfectly normal eventualities that humanity has always known - someone’s world has always been collapsing, the task has always been to have one’s house in order and dance with the way things are moving.
At 84 I remember vividly the real hawthorn hedges, the barn full of hay, the neighbouring farmers winnowing, the carthorse’s buxom thighs as he pulled the wagon delivering the milk churn to the stone platform at the end of the lane. I grew up in the wild, there, in a big stone house with no mains water, electricity, or gas in the English Lake District . And while it was hard work keeping it warm and livable, it was a Paradise, where I was free as a little child to wander, to be knee high to bracken and to herd the few goats with a long stick, as a teen to ride bareback in the mist all day, and yes I experience a surge of love and loss as I’m writing this. Some of this landscape still remains unspoiled and secret, and we spend time there too… where there is no "signal"!
Now, I’m touched deeply by your words. I’m grandmother to eight young adults, and I know that I can’t design a future for them, yet they respect and adopt some of my ways, contrary to what is now common practice, and I believe they will have and create a good life, assuming there is life after the collapse. And Cavafy's poem recorded by Sharon Robinson many years ago rings true NOW.
Good stuff, Paul.
I do have doubts about the Mark Anthony option. It sounds too much like the noble renunciation of those who engage in the Machine's games, are defeated, and seek to leave a name behind them. Shakespeare did give him the line, "This was the noblest Roman of them all." That is surely hubris, which the gods usually punish.
Cavafy places him, and by extension us, in the role of incorruptible hero standing firm against overwhelming evil. You just know that the casting director would choose some impossibly handsome hero to go down to a glorious principles defeat: inspiring, yes, but isn't that trope one of the Machine's deceptive distractions? (You've gotta ask why superheros with quasi-magical powers are grossing so much money for the film studios and Wall Street right now.)
You are bang on with faith, though, for at least two reasons. One, recognising the ultimate does give us a reference which will endure even through the Fall. Two, it offers us a path of making that same Fall just that little bit easier for those of us who live through it, and of shaping what comes after.
Augustine is also a companion for a time such as this. Also - I was today years old when I discovered that Leonard Cohen's song was inspired by Cavafy ('Alexandra leaving'), so I'm off to listen and read it afresh. Thank you, as ever.
Well, the timing of this essay couldn't be better. I've been lying sick in my bed these last couple of days in the sweet company of nostalgia. A pretty good quality nostalgia though. About a week ago I got hold on the handwritten memoires of my late grandmothers early years, which I've been devouring tucked away in bed. And only yesterday I discovered a video being shot in the early 60's in the frisian village my mother grew up in. In it I discovered with great joy my grandfather on his bakery-bike delivering his bread around the village, and my own 3-year old mother and her twinsister walking shy yet curious towards the camera.
(By the way: everyone in this video smiles when they discover they're being filmed. Nowadays, nobody smiles when being filmed, boredom seems to be the apropriate posture when on camera. If anyone wants to see the smiling people of the village of Twijzel, and my grandfather (2:18) and mother (31:16) - the silent movie is on youtube: https://youtu.be/fUMyirrckfs)
After reading the memoires of my grandmother and watching the village-life of my mothers early years, I was pretty envious at both of them. I know their lives were far from trouble-free. But they belonged somewhere. They lived without the internet. They were part of a community. People cared about their homes and local cultures, maintained them, cherished them. Such a different world from the one today. Just like you wrote: there is no doubt at all that given a splinter of a chance you would prefer to live in them.
Feeling forced back into the world of today, I felt also envious of the birds I heard outside my bedroom window. They know nothing about wat has been before of what might come tomorrow. What a life that would be!
Today I went downstairs again. The neighbour on the one side slid a handwritten card through the letterbox by which she wished us all to get better soon. The neighbour on the other side brought me fruit and took my son with him to play games, so I could sleep. This made me feel welcome and at home again in today's world.
We all have to go downstairs again at some moment. I wish we all meet our neighbours there.
'What to do? Stay green.' And I might add to that: stay together.
What gives me hope is this:
"The story of Progress is a danger because it is based on a delusion, and it gives humanity permission to attempt to deify itself. At its heart is a refusal to accept limits, to live with our given nature, and to respect the nature of the rest of life."
- if those limits are natural, good and God-given (which I believe they are) then "progress" is destined and certain to fall. Each instance of growth beyond the 'limit' weakens progress. Like a plant which grows too tall makes itself more susceptible to being blown over - the growth of the machine and its institutions, "culture", and its systems well beyond the good limits makes it susceptible to collapse (from many of the self-destructive forces you have highlighted in previous essays).
A collapse is therefore inevitable, and in great part I think it will be from economic growth displacing and destroying too much of the biosphere(the biosphere being perhaps the ultimate limit). In an environment of collapse, those technologies, institutions, cultures and ways of being that are/were conducive to stability, limits, joy, naturalness, and sustainability may become precious means of navigating the chaos as they are more attuned to the now obviously limited collapsed environment/society. Nostalgia (or more actually what we are nostalgic about) therefore may be means of survival, rebuilding and transformation - and perhaps most importantly, a reorientation of values and virtues.
Much to think and ponder on from this piece, thank you Paul.
Progress is a trap, nostalgia is a trap, and despair an even worse trap - one that I am most prone to! There is little sense looking for paradise on earth, either in the past or the (human) future, but there is even less sense in hopelessness, and I find stoicism walks a narrow line on the edge of hopelessness too. Recently I scribbled this in my journal after a gray and depressing day:
Since God created you, He did so for some definite, good purpose, at this point in time and not another, in this place and this body and not another. You are neither random or accidental, nor a candidate or applicant for the receipt of God's grace. So there is no use fretting about why you were born today, when it seems that a previous time might have been better, or rich when poor might seem better. These things are neither accidents nor curses nor tests to pass, though they may be trials. And all fallen creatures need trying: perhaps these are the conditions perfect for your perfection in faith, whether you know it or not. And they are also gifts, the conditions and settings in which you are invited to help God fulfill his good purposes, for which you and you alone were created.
Thus Job says to God: "I do not understand!" And God says to Job: "You do not understand."
Suffering can be redemptive, if we take it in faith; at all times in all places we humans have our crosses to carry!
i've noticed a strange (and potentially hopeful) thing recently: many of my favorite thinkers seem to be discussing the same process of letting go, turning away from the collapse of modernity toward something necessarily different—and all seem to be writing almost habitually in a tone of lonely resignation, even though they are evidently far from alone. i think there's some genuine momentum building behind this project. (i wrote a version of this comment over at Stillness in the West just yesterday.)
this might be an impertinent practical question, but the answer seems vitally important: where do people gather, when we're done writing our elegies? where do the people who are ready to begin the work start sharpening their tools? what takes the place of this galaxy of individual (brilliant) SubStacks and personal brands, when their usefulness runs out?
i'm interested in writing fiction as a way to chart that narrow path between nostalgia for the past and a romanticized (unattainable) future. should i head over to Dark Mountain? is that where the party is?