Friday, May 18, 2012

Black Golden Age

The poetic imposition of metallic ages upon history—always viewed in retrospect or awaiting realization in the future, because we always, always live in the bottom-most iron age, and with clay feet yet—arises, I think, from the same faculty where poetry arises, a sense that we come from a higher realm. When ages are projected into the past or the future, the times are secular. We’re living in the flatlands. When such a state is projected vertically to Heaven, the times are religious. Progress is the word we use to say that we’re approaching—in horizontal time, of course—the Golden Age. But when chaos begins to cloud up the sky to such an extent we no longer see the promised light of dawn just below the horizon, there is a tendency to imagine that times past might have been much better and that we are declining.

I confess this to be one of my failures—hence frequent contrasts here between the secular and the religious, with the implication added that the religious is better. But when I look at things through the lens of daily life, is that really true? From time to time I make some efforts to check. It’s easy to do. I pick a century and look up what happened then. The process is always sobering, although I learn some history. I put a magnifying glass on any past period, and what I see is pretty much the same thing. What history records are so-called important events—almost always wars. The well-off are always very few, the majority always labors in some misery, certainly those at the margins. Punctuating this are names of wise people here and there, the names of great books or sagas.

The important difference between all earlier ages and ours came with the invention of ways to use fossil fuels—and then their massive exploitation. This lifted the status of the masses all across the world. But. But it also brought about an unprecedented growth in population quite unthinkable, in fact, had coal and oil not happened. Progress therefore has had an actual physical underpinning. And if we now feel a decline—and who can doubt it—it is because the population is still growing while the Age of Fossils is pumping its way to a terminus.

The poets of old were expressing something inwardly felt but wrongly projected. And their imaginations failed them. They settled on the metals, rather than on organic chemicals. If Virgil had projected an Age of Oil, he would have been right on target. Alas, for my grandchildren’s children that age is also coming to an end.

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