I discovered an article titled “Heaven Can Wait” face up on the kitchen counter where Brigitte had been preparing vegetables. I removed carrot peelings and rescued the page to read it. It was a book review in the Sunday Times (May 8) by Clancy Martin, philosopher, novelist, and now teacher at UMKC, once one of our environs. Martin was reviewing John Gray’s book, The Immortalization Commission. The book deals (and evidently harshly) with big names in the period that overlaps the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who took seriously the notion that souls might survive death. It’s not the sort of book I’m likely to buy—because I find that containers often contaminate the contents. But I found the review itself laudable and balanced, although Martin’s ultimate conclusion on the subject is that of a young man who has not yet felt the airs of the beyond icily whistling in the wilds. Martin’s conclusion is “that life seems to get much of its meaning from the fact that it ends.”
But my subject isn’t survival but meaning. I remembered the article when headlines, sort of melting into each other this morning, suddenly produced a phrase in my mind. I thought it was a mental stumble. The phrase was “the tragedy of the moderns” — and I thought my mind was trying to retrieve instead “the tragedy of the commons.” But no. The thought, occurring in that still half-awake state of early morning, meant what it said and soon unpacked itself. The tragedy of the moderns is belief in progress—and progress in this realm alone, where, indeed, everything ends. The troubled striving for additional gains (in the form of battles over gay marriage) competed and melted into headlines strongly signaling the passing, everywhere, of coherence and order—not least erosions of gains that had made the United States, when I arrived here in the early 1950s, a seemingly happy and confident time—yes, despite McCarthyism and the silent generation, and all that. The ordinary American still had unbounded confidence, and this confidence produced a wide-spread benevolence in society that those of us arriving from war-torn Europe found almost magical.
Present in that thought was a commencement address at Worchester Polytechnic Brigitte read me over lunch yesterday, made on Peak Oil by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. The speech was couched in positive tonalities, addressed as it was to the young. The facts it presented, however, sharply clashed with my sense of what they really signaled. Yes. Let’s by all means try to picture 7 billion people making a rapid transit into a post-fossil era. The little minions that labor invisibly deep within me where already beginning to build that phrase, “the tragedy of the moderns,” even as I turned to the practical problems of coaxing our new HD TV set to produce close-captioning for the hearing-impaired.
The University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) and Rockhurst College (these days Rockhurst University) are kitty-corner from each other, one to the west the other to the east side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City. I went to school at Rockhurst, but all of us in the family then, and later Brigitte and I as a couple, with our children, often visited UMKC, not least its wonderful theater. Indeed our last house in Kansas City was within the boundaries of its extended campus.
Rockhurst taught eternal values grounded in hoary Catholicism. UMKC, an outrigger of the state university, was modern. Meaning at Rockhurst was placed vertically above us, outside of time. The modern values are horizontally arranged, achieved in time. In the one salvation is the word to use; it is personal and, ultimately, independent of the realm in which it must be achieved. To be sure, selflessly laboring for the common good is one of the means of achieving the vertical goal. Tradition therefore does not ignore cultural and social obligations. In the other, where progress rules, there are gains and there are losses. The tragedy of the moderns is that, anchored entirely in time, gains must be but never can be held for long, and then years or centuries of effort can indeed be wiped away and leave no trace of meaning. From a traditionalist point of view, Clancy Martin’s conclusion, however, is indeed correct, even if, as quoted above, it is incomplete. Much of the meaning of life does derive from its bounded nature—but not because it ends but from the personal state we have achieved when it does.