Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Tea Party in Flatland

The chief marker of a secular era is its worldly and temporal character—this in contrast to a religious era in which the spiritual and eternal aspects of reality are emphasized. Let’s ignore the debate about the claims of either era and proceed. In secular times the spiritual and eternal are simply denied all standing but are tolerated as life-style choices. In religious times the world is still recognized as real, but its importance is minimized. If we express the secular in geometrical terms as a flat surface and the religious as a vertical, it turns out that the religious conception of reality is the more complex of the two. It has a third dimension that the secular times lack. So far, so good. In a flat cosmology time itself is a function of matter with its threefold divisions into past, present, and future.

When troubles erupt in secular ages, two ways of coping with the problem tend always to surface—and only two. Only two because a transcending movement into the vertical, as it were, isn’t thought to be possible. Part of the public embraces the future which, still unknown and not yet realized, may be envisioned to hold the sought-after relief. The others, especially those in a better economic shape—who tend to remember better times—envision the solution to lie in a return to an earlier and happier period. Living memories are short; hence the real past is largely forgotten or only selectively recalled. Thus the past’s as good a canvas on which to paint a golden age as is the future.

Futurism and archaism. These labels were framed by Arnold Toynbee, the cyclic historian. In effect, of course, both are futuristic in the sense that any new order much desired will be achieved, if achieved at all, in the future. The labels therefore refer to strategies. Futurists wish to achieve the new order by ridding themselves of current restraints; archaists hope to bring back into the present what they imagine has been lost.

The French Revolution serves as a classical and large-scale example of a real try at futurism. Its henchmen even changed the names of the months on the calendar. The current Tea Party movement serves as a minor example of an archaist reaction to the initiatives of the Obama administration. That administration is wrongly seen as futurist in its intentions. Alas, it’s merely rational—but unfortunately also inept. Its futurist coloration is a very pale shade of pink and derives from the illusion that change can be made almost entirely by magical PR gestures intended to influence public opinion.

Secularism see-saws this way, back and forth. These dreary rounds remind me of Hell’s fourth circle where, on a flat piece of territory, hoarders and squanderers roll gigantic rocks against each other, crash, separate, and do it all again. Here is the scene in Dante’s words in Dorothy Sayers’ translation (Inferno, Canto VII, 22-36):

         As waves against encountering waves advance
             Above Charybdis, clashing with toppling crest,
             So must the folk here dance and counter-dance.

         More than elsewhere, I saw them thronged and pressed
             This side and that, yelling with all their might,
             And shoving each a great weight with his chest.

         They bump together, and where they bump, wheel right
             Round, and return, trundling their loads again,
             Shouting: “Why chuck away?” “Why grab so tight?”

         Then round the dismal ring they pant and strain
             Back on both sides to where they first began
             Still as they go bawling their rude refrain;

         And when they meet, then each re-treads his span,
             Half round the ring to joust in the other list;
             I felt quite shocked, and like a stricken man.

But you don’t have to go to hell to see it. CNN will bring it to you live.
For more on “Charybdis,” see the previous post.


  1. Honestly, that piece from Dante's Inferno just screams out computer game, computer game, don't you think?

    Arsen, this post is really nice. Your use of two dimensional plains versus three dimensional plains in differentiating the secular and the religious eras is very vivid and compeling.

  2. Suggest you also read today's post on Siris. There Brandon introduces the geometrical concepts Dorothy Sayers formulted for creative activity generally, namely triangles. The post is here. You'll benefit by it too!


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