Thursday, July 31, 2008

Astrum Rebelle

"Why should the candid sun excel
My native light, and blind the eye
Of man to my fierce dignity?
It better were he did compel
Me hence, so falling I might spend
My flames to scar His heavenlies,
And quench my hate beneath the seas,
To some strange depth my pathway bend,
And take my end."

-Thomas Banks-

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thoughts That Kneel

From the first moment we begin to grow in them, our thoughts dictate to us our chief concerns. Those matters we have pondered are the only ones on which we can act with sober policy. The proportion of thought, then, that we allow to each human dilemma testifies to how sensitive or indifferent we are to every circumstance we confront.
Certainly it is of no small moment that we conduct ourselves in our appointed offices with the humility that reflection by itself cannot produce. A critically minded person can measure how wide a margin lies between himself and the perfected execution of whatever he must perform, but untempered by humility, and unwilling to admit where he is weak, he breaks himself upon hard surfaces. A sharp intellect submitted to the uses of life means little if can take no punishment.
Humility is a fragile thing, and it is all to easy for a man to forsake it, and with it all other men, in service to an easy and unknowing satisfaction with himself. ("Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.") And as should be the case with any fragile thing, Humility is not without its defenders. Humility in a man may be snuffed out, but his conscience is always breathing. Macbeth can kill, and in killing steal a crown, but his wife cannot get her hands clean. Thoughts come to us, though we would have none of them. They undermine our best defenses.
We cannot deny ourselves the habit of thinking, but it is ours to govern the thoughts we have. They occupy a space in all of us, and in that space we arrange them in their files. We give some to work, some to those we love and those we hate, some to art and some to politics, and not a few, if we are wise, we give to God. The arrangement of the patterns of his thought is the only freedom that a man cannot be denied. This we may take for fact that admits of no argument. To think otherwise only proves the point. Everyone is free to choose what type of vessel his mind will be, whether noble or ignoble. It is true that what imposes itself upon us from without has some part in this, and that men in all times and places are not so free as to choose their own path as we in ours, but still this part of ourselves, if nothing else, escapes all attempted containments. Boethius wrote his Consolation from prison. Dante began the Comedy as a political exile on the verge of suicide, ("Where closed/ The valley that pierced my heart with dread. . .") yet his imagination took this sight for its reward:

I look'd
While sight was unconsumed; and, in that depth,
Saw in one volume clasp'd of love, whate'er
The universe unfolds; all properties
Of substance and of accident, beheld,
Compounded, yet one individual light
The whole. And of such bond methinks I saw
The universal form; for that whene'er
I do but speak of it, my soul dilates
Beyond her proper self.

Granted its unconditional freedom, how does the mind best arrange itself? Even if we set aside moral considerations for a moment, it is naive to accept that all thoughts have equal claim to our attention. Both the educated and the uneducated mind are undemocratic, because our desires exist in disproportion, and where desire exists, thought and action bend their dual course. The oinophile gives more thought to the right conditions of his cellar for storing wine than he does to making room in it for a water purification system, simply because water purification is a subject in which he has scant interest. If someone is sitting with the other front row fanatics at a Nascar race, chances are his thoughts are not equally fixed both on the spectacle in front of him and on the latest Phillip Roth novel. His thoughts naturally follow the track of his greatest desire, which is in this case a circular one. Every mind selects its own aristocracy, except in cases of insanity. Madness is anarchy, every bit as much as Anarchy is Mad. And as with anarchy, madness ends with the most violent nerve ending making a tyrant of itself and imprisoning the mind in the despotism of a single thought. Lunatics are nothing if not single minded.
It stands to reason that the mind that is careless of its government will end by abandoning itself to gross authorities, as is the case with many countries that falls into crisis. The Will selects the aristocracy of thought as Desire directs. From these thoughts the individual takes council, and their quality of government determine what principles take root in him. Here he must ensure that the aristocracy lives up to its title. Lack of dignity in thought can only produce lack of dignity in action.
No individual can keep company with the best class of anything by itself and still retain the wisdom of the serpent. We must live in the world, and the world offers unsightly things as well as beautiful, the profane mixed with the sacred. To turn the mind only to cultivated things, whether in the arts or sciences, is no more advisable a project than the Tower of Babel. Every thought should know its place in our conscience and say its piece there, and give way to the next in order. No proverb, however wise, can speak to the sum of human affairs, and no single pillar of wisdom can support the arches of a broad philosophy. The single councilors of our conscience guide us as far as their power permits, each giving place to the one above him, until all our councilors-all of our reasons- have spent their earthly powers, and the last falls silent. Then we in turn do likewise, and take in faith our seat beneath the throne of God.

-Thomas Banks-

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Brief Note on Pantheism

If you were an omnipotent god, why would you disguise yourself as a globe?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"If in That Syrian Garden"

If in that Syrian Garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, Son of Man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your fears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

-A.E. Houseman-

Thursday, July 17, 2008

By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross

Sombre and rich, the skies;
Great glooms, and starry plains.
Gently the night wind sighs,
Else a vast silence reigns.

The splendid silence clings
Around me; and around
The saddest of all kings
Crowned, and again discrowned.

Comely and calm he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall:
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.

Which is more full of fate:
The stars, or those sad eyes?
Which are more still and great:
Those brows; or the dark skies?

Although his whole heart yearn
In passionate tragedy:
Never was face so stern
With sweet austerity.

Vanquished in life, his death
By beauty made amends:
The passing of his breath
Won his defeated ends.

Brief life, and hapless? Nay:
Through death, life grew sublime.
Speak after sentence? Yea:
And to the end of time.

Armoured he rides, his head
Bare to the stars of doom:
He triumphs now, the dead,
Beholding London's gloom.

Our wearier spirit faints,
Vexed in the world's employ:
His soul was of the saints;
And art to him was joy.

King, tried in fires of woe!
Men hunger for thy grace:
And through the night I go,
Loving thy mournful face.

Yet, when the city sleeps;
When all the cries are still:
The stars and heavenly deeps
Work out a perfect will.

-Lionel Johnson-

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Learning from History- Part I*

Santayana's Rule, which I will not insult my readers by here repeating, has never succeeded in putting the fear of a vicious cycle into me. There stands behind this stern charge the not so well disguised belief that nobody has ever done right by its admonition, and presumably never will. It goes far in damning mankind's common span of attention. This is its only virtue. Otherwise, to adopt a cyclical view of history is to solicit the applause of defeatists at the price of little exercise of one's own imagination. Certainly if history makes no steady, if not uninterrupted motion forward, its own inertia testifies against it. For who wants to take part as a character in a tale whose author (or authors) has no thought as to arc and climax? Presuming our own free will to do so, I believe the most humane course of action we could take in such an instance would be to refuse to participate; to become the audience of history rather than its actors; critics, rather than co-creators.
If this strikes some as unmanly, they have my sincerest apologies, but the charm of playing out a saga of three hundred and sixty degrees is hopelessly lost on me. As a Theist, I find myself hard pressed to say that I would not join the other camp if I felt that God's construction of the Great Tale had the shape of the self-devouring serpent. I say this simply as a matter of aesthetic principle. I enjoy the notion, however naive, that history improves upon itself, and is driven to do so from time to time by the jolts and goadings of the Numinous.
This said, I cannot go further to describe what form our final triumph will take, or even if the appearance will be of a kind as would now touch us as particularly becoming a triumph. There may be no laurels. I cannot say whether the consummation, when it comes, will have been driven more by the operations of politics or of religion, if its success will lie at the doorsteps of the Church or of the courts and capitol buildings. My only reason for hoping as I do is this, that when the testimony of mankind's failed endeavors to improve itself, either in its nature or its circumstance, stands in contradiction to the testimony of the nature of God, that willed that our first nature be pure, and our first circumstance be a paradise, we give little credit to ourselves to let the reproachments of the first drown out the appeals of the second.
I am a Humanist as well as, or even because, I am a Christian. If the Son of God was willing to become the Son of Man then there is a native dignity in mortal flesh. I also believe personality and its expressions to be blessings as great as grace. That God would endow us with these gifts, and then leave us no applications for them, save those whereby we sank ourselves irrecoverably in the pit, seems to me an odious notion. There are those fellow travellers who persist, often with noble motives, in pointing to the adage "Narrow is the way, and those that find it are few." To them I would say that history partakes of more than the present tense; "Are" is not "Ever shall be." I do not mean here to stage my argument on purely theological grounds, because the world's last triumph must resound with a richer timbre than the feeble cantus Ecclesiae seems capable of producing at the present moment, just as the full scope of its causes, I expect, were they revealed to any historian living today, would still exceed his talents of transcription; the heart of man from age to age remains in large measure the same, but the list of his material motivations and the political vocabulary with which he keeps their record are ever increasing. The list of our cardinal vices and virtues is the same now as it has been for two thousand years. The names political philosophers give them- Capitalism, Marxism, Industrialization, Globalization- appears to be without limit. To describe the interplay of these forces in the future lies beyond the powers of even the most prescient theorist. Its events would be, and must be too large to rise fully formed in his imagination before their day should come. Let them come as they will.
It is of course pompous to assign ourselves a seat at the center of these events I have suggested, and to hope too much after these things invites disappointment. We should know the place that moderation supplies to our expectations as well as our desires. We should feel both our greatness beside all created things and our insignificance next to the Creator. Our own place is a great and glorious one, but it may not be a vantage from which we can view the pinnacle of the human monument. Let that be enough. As Browning says in his "Andrea del Sarto,"

. . .and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying a while the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting place is found,
The C major of this life, so, now I will try to sleep.

*Special thanks to Messrs. J. Moss and E. Wilson for the help I had from them gathering these thoughts in various conversations, though I think the above trifles imply disagreement with both.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Our Debt to the Serpent

If the first fruit of Romanticism was the belief that Man may feel as he will, and if the subsequent harvest of Modernism dictated that he may then do as he feels, it is a question worth pondering why even now we have such a word as "Inhibitions." The ethical interests of Modernism have not shifted much with the passage of a century, and when the word in question is brought up and tossed about, it is most always in a tone of voice reserved for discussions of Richard Nixon, Kristlnacht, or Evangelical Christianity, subjects which, in the mind of the speaker, are inseparably related.
Inhibition, as the speaker would have us believe, makes a man's soul small and his glands defective. It leaves him to be governed by values without, rather than within himself. The inhibited man is a suspicious citizen, but his suspicion is turned on himself rather than his neighbor. The two gentlemen act with no fear of one another aside from "What he might think if he saw me engaged in. . ." But this in no way stumbles either in their exchanges of politesse. Thus it is that inhibition bodes well for democracy. In fact, democracy is the only bedfellow inhibition, in its shivering chastity, is willing to keep, and democracy, ever considerate, must make plenty of room under the sheets. The repressed man must be made to feel "Self-actualized," and to this end requires outlets for that potentially baser energy which he has bottled up inside of him. The political left ingeniously offers this in the form of any number of popular causes that afford him both personal satisfaction and a purchased morality, while keeping him an affectionate ward and dutiful philistine.
Were I to write the history of inhibition, I should no doubt have to include some discussion of the Puritans, the adjectival form of whose name attends inhibition as crumpets attend tea. But I should be wise to go only this far: the Puritans did not introduce us to inhibition. They introduced us to representative government, and representative government, given a couple of centuries, did the rest. The Puritans were radicals and fomentors, two personality traits which, while completely intolerable to a civilized man, leave little room for repression. The best of them appear to have had guts and testicles in due proportion.
We must go further back. To recount the history of inhibition is to recount the history of Original Sin, for both begin at the same moment, with the eating of the apple. It was then that Adam and Eve saw that they were naked and knew Shame. Before this, thoughts of propriety and personal reservation were as alien to them as thoughts of evil. This is why it is foolish to blame hypocritical forms of repression on Christianity, or even more absurdly, on God Himself. Restriction in the Garden of Eden was nothing if not itself restricted. I would advise anyone who thinks the breadth of Adam and Eve's allowances too closely fenced to reflect on the fact that the first list of "Thou Shalt Nots" God ever imposed upon mankind began and ended with a bit of damned foliage. Let us pursue some other case study of despotism, shall we?
Many of the same people who read despotism into a single restriction have sought in themselves not a New Adam but the Original, sans the Original Sin. They have attempted to speak his language, but the sincere poetry of "Flesh of my Flesh, Bone of my Bone" can only sound cynically contrived in modern mouths. Language becomes less sincere the older it gets, which it in part makes up for with a wider and more varied vocabulary. It makes us capable of greater ironies, all of which have at the back of them a refined and middle class knowledge of Good and Evil, a knowledge which makes us not only sinners but gentlemen. So before we crush the serpent's head for the first we can thank him for the second.

-Thomas Banks-

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I'm back. Start reading again. (Please)