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Watch the Great Fall
Beyond Progress and Nostalgia
My name is Paul and I am a nostalgic.
Sometimes it can be good to get things off your chest. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or alcohol, but I have often been addicted to dreams. This is the lot of the writer. You become a writer because the world you encountered in the stories you read as a child is more exciting than the world you are actually living in. More exciting and, in a strange way, more real. Your world is school and suburbs and bus stops and breakfast cereals and maths homework and being forced to wash your dad’s car at the weekend and wondering how to talk to girls and listening to the charts to work out what kind of music it’s permissible to like. This is not Lothlorien, and neither is it Earthsea. The worlds created by Tolkein and Asimov and Verne and Howard are better than this, and there is no doubt at all that given a splinter of a chance you would prefer to live in them. Then, one day, you pick up a pen and realise that you can create your own.
Meanwhile, out in what is fondly called ‘the real world’ by people who often don’t know very much about reality, you are living in the Machine. If you have the kind of sensibility which prefers Lothlorien to Isengard, this means that you are a character in a tragedy rather than a heroic epic. Most of the things you like are fading away. The great forests and the stories made in and by them. The strange cultures spanning centuries of time. The little pubs and the curious uninhabited places. The thrumming temples and dark marshlands and crooked villages and folk tales and conviviality and spontaneous song and old houses which might have witches in them. The possibility of dragons. The empty beaches and wild hilltops, the chance of getting lost in the rain forever or discovering something that was never on any map. A world without maps, a world without engines.
This world, you can see, is on the way out, if it is not already long gone. The one that is manifesting to replace it is a left-brain paradise, all straight lines and concrete car parks where the corn exchange used to be. The future is STEM and chatbots and cashless parking meters and economic growth and asteroid mining forever and ever. There is no arguing with it. You can feel the great craters that it makes in the world, you can feel what is being tarmacked and neatened and rationalised into oblivion, and the depth of what is leaving, but you cannot explain or justify it in the terms which are now the terms we live by. And so, given your sensibility – you who are already becoming a self-exiled poet – you find that nostalgia is a form of rebellion. The world in your heart merges with the world that used to be. At least you have somewhere to hide.
I seem to be talking to myself. Mostly I have taken the world too personally. When I was younger, this made me very prone indeed to nostalgia. We all recreate our preferred old world. Mine was – probably still is - an awkward melange of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer culture and rural England before the First World War. Is it possible to wander the whited hawthorn lanes of Edward Thomas’s south country, the barrows intact up on the downs, smoke curling from the chimneys of the old inns, the motorways and superstores nowhere to be seen, whilst also hunting mammoths? Probably not, though it might make an intriguing backdrop to a fantasy novel I will never write.
Nostalgia is a curious thing. The love of a dead past is, on the surface, pointless, and yet it seems to be a universal, pan-cultural longing for something better than an equally dead but often less enticing present. This is something which its critics never seem to understand. ‘That’s just nostalgia’, they say, dismissively, when you suggest that a high street made up of independent shops might have been better than one giant superstore, or that folk songs around the fire in the pub might be better than Celebrity Love Island. The suggestion seems to be that this thing, ‘nostalgia’, is a kind of sickness, like flu or measles, that just hits you sometimes, with no rhyme or reason to it. Of course, there is a cure: a commitment to Progress. To the future, rather than to the past. There was no Golden Age - but there will be! Keep the faith. Keep going.
I would suggest, instead, that nostalgia can be a rational response to a world heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps a practical response too. If the Machine is destroying so many things of value, from the home to the ancient woodlands that once surrounded it, then remembering those things is not only an act of rebellion, but can also be the first stage in an act of necessary restoration. Those of us who have long tried to do at least some of our work with what Ivan Illich called convivial tools, be they pens or scythes, have long had to endure the mindless mockery of those who imagine that new is automatically good and that the past has nothing to teach. We who believe that things of value are being lost, on the other hand, know that you cannot restore anything precious if you don’t first remember its contours.
Meanwhile, the fact that ‘nostalgic’ - like ‘Romantic’, ‘Luddite’, ‘reactionary’ and any other word that suggests attachment to anything before progressive Year Zero – has become a term of mockery makes it a tempting label to embrace if you are conducting a personal rebellion against the Total System. 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. Romanticising the past, you say? Well, maybe I do. But it’s a hell of a lot better than romanticising the future.
Why am I writing about nostalgia? Because we are living in a time of obvious decline and fragmentation. All of my essays so far in this series have tracked between three intertwined phenomena which together make up that decline: the cultural disintegration of the West; the ongoing degradation of nature; and the rise of revolutionary technologies, especially in the digital sphere. Taken together, this adds up to an age of revolution. This is a time in which nothing, from received culture to the climate of the planet itself, can be counted on to remain stable. Disintegrative forces are pulling at everything from all angles. Sometimes it feels like living in the heart of a whirlwind. It is only going to get fiercer.
In a time like this, I can see three potential stances that we can adopt as we face into the storm. Two of them are traps. The third - well, the third might just allow us to endure the weather front with our sanity mostly intact.
The first stance is the simplest, and by far the most popular. It is the stance that every established institution and every popular and officially-endorsed narrative promotes: to embrace Progress. We all know this tale. Everything has been getting better since the Enlightenment; Science and Reason will get us through; technology is our friend; we are leaving behind oppression and hate and embracing liberation and love; the arc of history bends towards whatever Western progressives are up to this month. This story is designed to be comforting, and for quite a while, for many people, it was. At root it tells us that the smart people are in charge and, despite inevitable hiccups along the road, will get us where we need to go.
The story of Progress is increasingly trickier to embrace, though. We can look around at the state of our streets and oceans and countries and find it harder and harder to persuade ourselves of humanity’s persistent moral and practical betterment. In this context, the second stance – nostalgia – comes into play. Where Progress tells us that a Golden Age lies in the future, nostalgia tells us that it lies in the past. Here, nostalgia has the weight of history on its side, as virtually every myth and religious origin story on Earth also teaches that we have fallen from a lost world which was better than the one we fell into. In this sense, nostalgia can be a more intuitive – more natural – story than that of Progress. It has another attraction too: unlike the story of Progress, which requires ongoing work, nostalgia requires little more than the ability to dream, regret or remember.
And this is the problem. 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. The nostalgia story, though, contains a danger of a different kind. While Progress offers the possibility that your dreams may one day be realised (which is its attraction), nostalgia places them firmly in the past. Something good was lost, and you have to live with it. Everything worthwhile is behind you: so why bother? Whether you long for the return of the hawthorn lanes of old England or Holy Russia or pre-colonial Africa or the Islamic caliphate, if you let the dream capture you - if you forget that dreams, like the past, cannot be laid out on the map of the present – you can be made bitter, or worse. We’ve all seen it. Perhaps we’ve been it. These days this is the shape of at least fifty percent of our politics. As the world gets worse, nostalgia starts to become an ideological position.
The promised future, the lost past: both are unobtainable. The universe appears to be an organism in constant motion, like the human body. A swirl of circumstance comes together to create a moment or a culture or a being or a situation, like cloud comes together to create rain. It showers or it pours and then the clouds are dispersed by the sun. It is wise – in fact, it is vital – to be guided by the past. It is wise to cleave to a living tradition. If you think you have nothing to learn from your ancestors you are headed for a fall, and if you abuse those ancestors then your fall will be harder. But you have to remember also: your ancestors are dead. Soon, you will be joining them. Robert Frost, in a short, famous poem, used far fewer words than I just have to sketch the shape of the eternal story:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Gold is not the natural state of a fallen world. Gold is not the natural state of the leaves of the sycamore. The flower fades to make fruit, as another American poet, Robinson Jeffers, put it a century ago, gloomy and accurate as ever in a prophetic poem about the state of his nation:
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught - they say - God, when he walked on earth.
Whether in human affairs or in the affairs of the rest of nature, nothing gold can stay. The republic will perish like the ripe plum in autumn. Nostalgia is the state of wanting the plum to remain ripe forever. Translate it into politics and, if you’re not careful, it translates into rage at the perishing of the republic, and a search for the enemies responsible. But all republics, all kingdoms, all bodies will perish. You can’t hold on.
Looks like I’m talking to myself again.
My point is this: as we refuse the rising Total System, as we stand against the Machine, we need solid ground on which to brace ourselves. Neither Progress nor nostalgia offer that solidity. Perhaps we all tend in one or the other direction. Perhaps we tip between the two depending on the day. But I think it is incumbent upon us to draw ourselves out, into the present, into the ongoing moment, and to acknowledge the reality of where we are. To open our eyes, and take in the moment.
There is a momentum behind these times. The vastness, and the destructiveness, of human technological civilisation is unprecedented. The Earth’s very nature is shifting in response to the threat. The great acceleration that I wrote about in a previous essay is only accelerating faster, tipping us now into the age of artifice, the war on reality itself. The speed of the technological and cultural changes, the number of people on Earth, the size of our cities, the rates of extinction, the scale of pollution: all of it is overwhelming to the small human mind. The great and historic shift that began when we cultivated the first grain of wheat is playing itself out. We fell from Eden into farming and cities; now farming and cities are reaching their endgame in the creation of a Total System which is being constructed to prevent the tottering Machine from collapsing like the Tower of Babel before it.
In the tornado of all this, each one of us is a grain of sand. Grains of sand can complain all they like about the tornado - but it isn’t listening. We are all living through what Robinson Jeffers described in another poem as ‘the falling years’. Jeffers had a ringside seat as the mid-twentieth century American republic transformed itself into a global empire in thrall to consumer materialism. As an isolationist, a lover of wild nature and an inheritor of his preacher father’s tendency towards thunderous sermons, the poet channelled his contempt at what his country was becoming into a kind of wilderness stoicism. Progress he dismissed with a wave of his hand. Nostalgia was no hiding place either, though it was necessary to salute the past. As an alternative to both, Jeffers embraced a kind of deep green stoicism: the only thing left when both civilisation and God are tried and found wanting:
These are the falling years,
They will go deep,
Never weep, never weep.
With clear eyes explore the pit.
Watch the great fall
With religious awe.
Jeffers tried hard to cultivate his stone-faced stoicism, but he kept falling back into a grand spiritual vision, one stripped of his father’s Christianity but which still orbited around what he called ‘the wild god of the world.’ As a younger man, the poet had tried Nietzsche like you would try smoking pot, but the ubermensch turned out to be no substitute for the divine heart of being. Jeffers found that divine heart in the wild cliffs, the ‘lonely oceans’ and the ‘heartbreaking beauty’ which ‘will remain when there is no heart left to break for it.’ Humanity was incidental in this world, and would fade, with all its foolish dreams. When it did, the cliffs would still be there.
You don’t have to embrace Jeffers’ theology to see that he was on to something in his instruction that we ‘never weep’ at having to live through ‘the falling years.’ Throughout history, empires and nations rise and fall, and something seems to pattern them, some mathematics, some bell curve of inevitability. When the falling years come, you cannot stop them, any more than you could have turned things around when the first steam engines or printing presses began their work. We all live in history, and are products of culture: to ‘watch the great fall with religious awe’ is not easy, and especially when the fall is this big. And yet this - the third stance - is perhaps the best chance to survive history as it enfolds us.
Another poet once tried to paint this stance in verse, drawing on history to do so. I first came across him a few years back, when I was writing my third novel and had found myself stuck. The central conceit and the title of a work of a fiction usually hold together in an intimate balance, and I wasn’t quite sure about either. Then one morning I opened up my email to find that a reader had sent me a poem by the twentieth-century Greek poet C. F. Cavafy. I don’t know why he sent it, but it gave me my title, and the core of my story. Cavafy’s poem was inspired by Plutarch’s tale of a dream which Mark Anthony had on the eve of his defeat by Octavian at the Battle of Actium. Anthony heard the sound of a procession passing by on the streets of Alexandria, making its way towards the gates and out of the city to the sound of ‘Bacchic revelry.’ Bacchus was Anthony’s god: the procession was his god abandoning him to his coming fate.
Cavafy turns this story into another lesson in how to survive the falling years:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive - don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen - your final delectation - to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
After everything Anthony has done, everything he has fought for: it turns out that the gods have the final say. And when the procession passes, the poet tells us – when Alexandria is lost – you must not fool yourself with empty hope. You must have grace and courage. You must go to the window and watch the procession pass by. This is not ‘losing hope’, or ‘giving up’. This is being strong enough to see what is passing by: and to salute it as it goes.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
In both of the spiritual traditions in which I have immersed myself over the last decade - Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity – this spirit of necessary detachment, this sense that to tie yourself too closely to the churning affairs of the world is to invite destruction, is the precursor to the work. To a Buddhist, the ongoing effort to ‘detach’ yourself from created things is the only way to sidestep the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: that ‘to live is to suffer.’ From an Orthodox perspective, to live after the Fall is also to suffer. The work of the Christian who wants to find the way home again is to ‘die to the world’: to rid himself of the ‘passions’ of worldly attachment as the essential prelude to walking the narrow path which leads to theosis: union with God.
The theologies of Zen, Orthodoxy, Mark Anthony and Robinson Jeffers differ wildly, and yet they alight, all of them, on this same reality. So does every other religious tradition I know of. To watch the great fall, to say goodbye to Alexandria, to accept that nothing gold can stay: this is the task of people who find themselves living through the falling years. It is the prelude to doing anything useful with our time. If we spend that time lamenting the fall, or trying to prevent it, or stewing in bitterness at those we believe responsible, we will find ourselves cast into darkness. If we ‘degrade ourselves with empty hopes’ of some form of technological or political salvation yet to come, the darkness will be just as deep.
No: the only way out is through. To dance with the way things are moving. To watch the great fall, accept its reality, and then get on with our work. What that work might be, in the age of the Total system, will differ for each one of us. Rebellion, restoration, protection, the building of new structures: I’m going to explore each of these in coming essays. But before anything can happen, we have first to get our inner house in order.
Me, I have to watch my tendency towards nostalgia. The things we mourn can be the things that make us human: the source of poetry and song, of the crooked places and small things, of everything that we hold dear against the Machine. Sometimes it is a pleasure to dream of the hawthorn lanes and the stillness before the engines. But it is necessary to dance only lightly with any of it. We are all sojourners here. Nothing gold can stay, and dreams can easily blind us.
As I wrote somewhere before, many lifetimes ago: there is a fall coming. Now, I think, it is here - and it is civilisation itself, at its very foundations, that is on the rack. The modern experiment has failed. The tower is coming down. There are opportunities to be found in all of the cracks that are spreading upwards from its foundations. In the rotting of the old world is the seed of the new. But only if we let go - of both the past and the future.
Nothing is coming back.
We are not going where we thought we were.
Beyond Progress and Nostalgia is the third stance: I will meet you there. We can watch the fall together.
Another poet, the grumpy Welsh vicar R. S. Thomas, wrote exquisite lyrics about the Machine, about rural life, about the search for belonging amid the maelstrom. Sometimes he despaired, but more than once he seemed to pinpoint the right disposition for surviving the laughable madness of modernity. Once he saw it appear as he watched an old farmer - aptly named Job - working his fields one morning. I will give them both the final word:
Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.
Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain's hearse,
Wind-drawn to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.
What's living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me
Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls
Live large, man, and dream small.
Poems quoted are Robert Frost, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’; Robinson Jeffers, ‘Shine, Perishing Republic’, and ‘For Una’; C. V. Cavafy, ‘The God Abandons Anthony’; R. S. Thomas, ‘Lore’.