Tabs Open #34: In Those Days There Was No World Beyond The Mountains

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of making a pair of new friends, a couple from Montana by way of the east coast. One of them brought an offering to our little potluck gathering: elk meat, from one he’d killed himself. It was his first hunt and his first kill, he said, and he and I spent a few minutes trying to unpack how it is that we could be in awe of elk in the wild and even revere them and still feel no compunction about eating their flesh.

The goal of this newsletter is not to solve that dilemma; I am both too lazy and too hypocritical to settle the issue myself. But what was it C.S. Lewis said? I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.

Whether the contradiction of my awe at the majesty of elk and my willingness to eat it is a form of attachment or detachment I cannot say. But it is not indifference. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives - unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation - not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

To be indifferent in Eliot’s sense seems to me to be a conscious, active process, almost Buddhist—a choice to work at removing oneself from earthly cares as one works toward self-actualization. But I’m not sure it’s any more honorable for having been thought through. Recently, in her very solid advice column, “Ask a Fuckup,” Brandy Jensen wrote:

That’s why I would like to take a moment to state something clearly: I do not think that the primary mandate of becoming an adult is learning to accept yourself if you are, in fact, behaving unacceptably.

She is writing, broadly, about a number of people who have written her because they wronged others and are looking for some sort of permission, either to let it go or to go make things right. And hidden in that request, as Jensen cleverly teases out, is a desire to be accepted, warts and all, despite having done whatever awful thing they did. I don’t mean to imply that I think people should torture themselves over the things they’ve done to people for as long as they live. But while these people are clearly not detached, they are looking to become indifferent, in the Eliot sense, to put the past in a tidy compartment that they never need open again.

How one should square this with, yes, needing to heal, needing to move on after you have wronged somebody, I don’t know. This has always been a newsletter of more questions than answers.

I’d like to return for a moment to the poem from Eliot above. God, those lines about expanding love beyond desire do something to the heart. It’s worth noting that indifference, to the poem’s speaker, is not an insult, but reads here as a desired state of being. But I don’t agree with that one bit—I don’t think there is anything to be praised in trying to remove oneself from the cares of this world; this world is all we get, in my estimation, so we should be both present and active in making the most of it. Liberating oneself from both the future and the past removes all cares, certainly, but it removes all potential, too. The poem itself uses the word unflowering to describe it, analogous as death to attachment and detachment’s life.

Philip Pullman (who’s having a moment right now, what with the new His Dark Materials TV show) gave a speech back in 2001 about a conceit such as this that I quite like. He puts himself in opposition to everyone from C.S. Lewis to Tolkien to Chesterton as he opines about the fictional world’s “republic of Heaven”, a term he coins in opposition to the Gnostic or Christian worlds’ more rigid and pleasure-less “Kingdom of Heaven”:

No, if the republic of Heaven exists at all, it exists nowhere but on this earth, in the physical universe we know, not in some gaseous realm far away. Nor can it be truly depicted in most fantasy of the Tolkien sort: closed fantasy, as John Goldthwaite calls it in his brilliant and invaluable study, The Natural History of Make-Believe. As Goldthwaite points out, such fantasy is both escapist and solipsistic: seeking to flee the complexities and compromises of the real world for somewhere nobler altogether, lit by a light that never was on sea or land, it inevitably finds itself enclosed in a mental space that is smaller, barer, and poorer than reality, because it’s sustained by an imagination that strains against the world instead of working with it, refusing and not accepting. The result is a hollowness, a falsity. Tolkien’s Shire, his idealized modest English landscape…is no more real than the plastic oak paneling and the reproduction horse-brasses in an Olde English theme-pub. It’s a great pity that with the passing of time it’s become less easy to see the difference between the artificiality of the Shire and the truthfulness of the great republican fairy tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”: both the real and the fake now look equally quaint to the uninformed eye.

The difference lies in the connection, or lack of it, with the everyday.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Tolkien, and his stories and the movies they inspired have brought me boundless joy over the last 18 years. I also don’t care about “Jack and the Beanstalk” at all. But I think I’m with Pullman here, in the sense that Tolkien does not (and perhaps due to who he is cannot) create a fantasy world that is egalitarian and little-r republican, that values above all else the commitment to shared joy in this world knowing that there is not one to come after. (Pullman’s later jab— “No one in Middle-earth has any sexual relations at all; how children arrive must be a complete mystery to them”—did come, in his defense, before Liv Tyler had graced the screen as Arwen. Hachi machi.)

He goes on:

So the republic of Heaven is a place where the people behave like us, with the full range of human feelings, even when they don’t look like us, even when they look like beings that have never existed, like Tove Jansson’s Moomins, or Sylvia Waugh’s Mennyms, or Mary Norton’s Borrowers. The people in the republic are people like us even when they’re dead. The republic is thronged with ghosts, and they have full democratic rights.

Now it’s entirely possible that I’m just a sucker for anyone who shouts out the Moomins. But I think this whole treatise from Pullman is important for its insistence that we embrace the world we have—not in ignorance or acceptance of its horrible parts, but in commitment to making it a better, more joyful place. To embrace the horrors of this world or one’s own death, no matter the circumstance of it, because one must be destined for a better place, and to structure society based on that belief, would be and has been a grave misstep.

So I like narratives that align with Pullman’s idea here, especially when those narratives show a progression of belief from the Lewis-esque Kingdom to the pullman-esque republic. (Savvy readers will recall that this same idea was at the fore of Martin Hagglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which a previous issue was dedicated to discussing.) For this reason I am still enamored of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, for my money one of the best things ever written about America as it is and as it could be. He wrote something in that book that has stuck with me for several years now:

May all of our memory myths repair themselves.

See you next week.

-Chuck