On living in uncertain times
Satie and the remnants of democracy
I stumbled upon this brilliant slideshow with Erik Satie’s melancholy compositions in the background, most prominently the Gymnopédies, of course. The pictures in question, on the other hand, were previously unknown to me. A series of oil-on-canvas by Edouard Cortes, a French artist known as “The Parisian poet of painting” focusing on various cityscapes of Paris in painfully nostalgic twilight.
The paintings accompanied by Satie was one of the more moving aesthetic experiences I can recall during recent years, the composition of colours, light and indirect sentiment of yesterday’s blossoming dreams of a future now forever lost, somehow brought out the troublesome indefinite character of the period we now find ourselves in. The aching uncertainty of this looming shadow of an inevitable end we know not quite the character of.
As I then went for the evening walk, I saw fog sweeping up overland from the lake, veiling the few scattered lamps between the faintly golden birches in the semi-darkness on the far shore, all the while twilight embers could just about be seen beneath the horizon. No longer summer, not quite autumn. Neither day nor night.
And I thought, yes, these are very much liminal times. Pertaining to boundaries. The in-between. The neither-nor; the neverwhere.
Moneycircus, this peculiar journalist one can never really seem to figure out, remarked that while the first Elizabethian Era ushered in modern Western civilization (and, I would add, industrial society in general), last week’s end of the second one very likely bookends the whole spectacle.
I look out into the digital hellscape by which we find ourselves under siege, and am constantly reminded of those very best aspects of that painfully ambivalent tower of Babel being trampled underfoot. The high-water mark now defaced by ignorance, sloth, and sheer cowardice.
My peers, this generation facing perhaps all of history’s most daunting task, this sorry, beautiful lot, in general seem almost incapable of the humblest original thought. Unable to grasp the simplest of subtleties since they lack almost all orientation apart from the very latest iterations of popular culture. Kubrick who?
A first-year student who lived in our church for a couple of weeks, waiting for a proper apartment, half-assumed the rest of us hadn’t even heard of his hometown, the most significant early-medieval cultural centre of the entire Nordics.
I might be a luddite, but I’m not a complete cynic. I do believe things could have taken another path. That all those painstakingly crafted Enlightenment ideals were not totally vacuous, nor the rich soil from which they grew.
That the celebration of the sovereign human spirit on which our entire civilization rests, while twisted and perverted beyond recognition, at its heart was properly truthful. A beautiful affirmation of an irrepressible mystery, this enigmatic rational soul, an image of the Divine, out of whose nature could be discerned these inalienable rights that would never again be weighed down by chains and arbitrary servitude.
But now we throw reason to the dogs.
The ruling classes’ contempt for their subjects’ capacity for self-rule seems rivalled only by the latters’ voracious appetite for the most transparent, most simplistic sort of gutter-press propaganda.
Our forebears did bleed and die for freedom of thought and conscience, and much as I’d like, I can’t discount all the fruits thereof as simply nothing more than bread and circuses. There was genuine potential there, lost and scattered as it may be.
I went to the voting booth this past Sunday. Swedish parliamentary elections.
And we’re set to choose between these two “teams”, because apparently spectator sports terminology is now being projected upon our political discourse. Really, the “team”-metaphor is constantly being bandied around, which was basically unheard of in Swedish politics until late summer.
The first team is headed by a WEF asset, and just made us a NATO puppet over a couple of weeks on the basis of a report little more than propaganda. This happened without anything akin to a referendum, and in explicit disregard for public opinion. Although “due democratic process” had been observed, they said, so we shouldn’t worry.
The other team is headed by another WEF asset and has been lobbying for NATO accession since the end of the Second World War.
The election itself was aptly compared to the Eurovision Song Contest, being reduced to a tasteless sort of reality-TV entertainment. Most amusing moment certainly being when a high-level representative of the Sweden Democrats almost, but not quite, performed a genuine Hitler salute on the air, complete with a homophone of the “Sieg Heil”. Her trying to walk it back is quite untranslatable and very painful to watch.
Suspenseful music was being played during “exciting” moments during the ballot count. Interviewers asked pundits and partisans about their emotions while party functionaries and zealots danced and drank champagne in the background.
On Instagram, Greta Thunberg sports a facemask and admonishes me to do my democratic duty of checking a box.
Little, of course, is said about our duty of rational deliberation. An acquaintance of mine, a popular public theologican and intellectual, recently argued for giving an invalid vote, a “blank vote”, in case one could not get behind any of the commodities being marketed.
He was duly lambasted for his wicked attack on democracy, our duties towards which apparently begin and end with our formal sanctioning of a pre-selected set of shady coteries.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
The majority of this generation cannot reflect, only reproduce. A recent study on plagiarism in the university setting laments students’ inability to grasp the difference between independent interpretation and analysis and the mere reproduction of source material. A full third of the students questioned in another study admits having plagiarized in academia.
I guess this connects with how people assume, as a matter of course, that one’s positions, statements and arguments either derive from “trusted sources” or are manufactured, hostile propaganda. “Where do your opinions come from?”, asks the new Swedish ministry of propaganda. People cannot seem to fathom that another’s thoughts are anything but informational products manufactured on either side of a black-and-white divide.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Still, there’s great beauty in twilight. In late 2017, I encountered Australian post-rock project We Lost the Sea and their then-recent Departure Songs. It’s an intimate and rather horrifying in-depth exploration of great failures, of tragedy in the classical sense, within the framework of the beautiful, the admirable, yet ultimately unsuccessful endeavours of the Great City.
While listening to this album five years ago, I wrestled with the question, but now I realize that uniting our great civilizational failure to the passion of Christ does nothing to diminish its tragic beauty. It’s rather that our full appreciation thereof is possible precisely in how it touches upon the infinite depths of humiliation that lie in that ultimately arbitrary (all of free will and wanton Grace) sacrifice of the Greatest.
‘But,’ you reply, ‘it is not death—not even painful and premature death—that we are bothering about. Of course the chance of that is not new. What is new is that the atomic bomb may finally and totally destroy civilisation itself. The lights may be put out for ever.’
This brings us much nearer to the real point; but let me try to make clear exactly what I think that point is. What were your views about the ultimate future of civilisation before the atomic bomb appeared on the scene?
What did you think all this effort of humanity was to come to in the end?
(C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age”, Present Concerns, 1986)
He’s right, of course.
In the above essay, Lewis admonishes the reader to let go of these childish fantasies and start engaging with reality again. You and everyone you love is going to die, so “let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
Ultimately, the end of civilization is rather inconsequential. It has happened before, and it surely will occur again.
The only thing that really matters is how well you fought, and whether, at the dawn of a new day, your master replies: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
“As if there were not enough unhappiness in all you have designed already! However, enough of pathos and death-dealing. It is time to come to your senses.
You are to live and to learn to laugh. You are to learn to listen to the cursed radio music of life and to reverence the spirit behind it and to laugh at its
distortions. So there you are. More will not be asked of you.”
Gently from behind clenched teeth I asked:
“And if I do not submit? And if I deny your right, Mozart, to interfere with the Steppenwolf, and to meddle in his destiny?”
“Then,” said Mozart calmly, “I should invite you to smoke another of my charming cigarettes.”
(Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf, 1927).