Sunday, June 14, 2015
Why I Am a Traditionalist (II)
I am more excited about this series on traditionalism than I have been about anything I've written here in some time. It's a subject of immense importance to me-- and not only that, but one of immense delight. It's a subject I dearly love to think about.
What is the appeal of tradition-- to me, and to other people? Why do we prize it?
It may be no surprise to you that I've thought about this a lot. To a great extent, I think it comes down to our attitude towards time.
Poets, philosophers and others have written voluminously on the subject of time, but it remains mysterious to us. However, I am not talking about the nature of time in a hard, metaphysical sense here, but rather in a 'softer', more experiential sense. I mean our perception of time, our experience of time.
I don't see any way to write about this without sounding like a continental philosopher-- Jacques Derrida or one of those people. Please bear in mind that I am, of course, speaking figuratively throughout. I'm not suggesting time really does anything but move forward at sixty seconds a minute. I'm talking, again, about our perception.
I think the appeal of tradition-- and I have written this elsewhere-- is that it reconciles two parts of our nature. We are beings that exist in time, but we also crave the eternal--- the eternal not understood as infinity (though we crave that, too), but as timelessness. I think we are always seeking the eternal. I think this is the appeal of the John Keats poem 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'. We live in time, but we feel as though we don't entirely belong there. In tedious periods, it hangs heavy upon us. In happy periods, the moment is over too soon-- we can't preserve it. Even in living it, we are losing it.
But even the opposition between time and eternity is too simplistic. What do we really know about the eternal? I don't think it's really the eternal we crave, since we can't even comprehend it. It's something akin to the eternal.
I think there is (in a manner of speaking) a whole spectrum of different 'times'. Time seems to move differently in different situations, in different atmospheres. It seems to have a different frame of reference, too.
One of the most vivid experiences of my life-- and one that I chronicled in my purple notebook, famous (or infamous) to regular readers-- is a time when I was studying my history text-book during a free class in school, when I was about sixteen or seventeen. I was sitting in the central hall of the school, from which radiated all its various corridors and passages. It was quite a nice hall, with religious statues and other works of art dotted around the walls, and with the Dominican emblem worked into the tiles on the floor. It was coming to the end of the day, and a kind of hush had fallen over the school--- as though from a mixture of fatigue and waiting for the final bell. There was hardly anybody in the hall.
My difficulty in history was always fixing dates in my head, so I was trying to memorize a series of dates in Irish history. (My textbook helpfully had a list of key dates after every chapter.) I suppose I felt into a bit of a trance from the peacefulness of the atmosphere, and from my concentration on the subject matter.
And suddenly, I seemed to see history as a real sequence of events, rather than a succession of self-contained episodes. It was like looking down a long, long corridor, or down a long, long street. The reality of the past struck me. All these people had been living, breathing people like me-- and there was no one moment when they all suddenly vanished. There was no one moment when the past became the present. I was downstream of them in exactly the same current of time, and 1870 really wasn't so long ago. Of course, I had always known this-- but now it really came home to me.
For those few moments, I was occupying historic time-- time with a frame of reference of generations, not of moments. Time itself seemed to move differently for those moments.
(But even to say time 'moves differently' is an attempt to express the ineffable-- it's more fine-grained than that. Time seems to have a different pulse, a different flavour, a different level of compression when we are in these different 'flows' of time. Every one differs from every other.)
Here are some situations where the flow of ordinary time seems to give way to a different flow-- and please bear in mind, each one is different. It's not just a question of 'ordinary time' versus 'extraordinary time'.
You are standing on a mountain and looking at the landscape below. The shadow of clouds glide over the fields. Cars, tiny from this distance, creep along far-distant roads. The only sound is the song of birds and the faint, muffled drone of a far-away airplane.
You are looking at a photograph-- an old, inky photograph from the nineteen-seventies, say. It might be a photograph of a street celebration, or a political convention, or a crowd coming out of a football match-- something involving motion and drama. But now it is suspended, frozen. You examine the expressions of the people in the photo, their body language, their interactions. The more you look, the more you seem to see, the more you become absorbed in this moment that seems to have its own solidity. The kettle boils and you awake as if from a reverie.
You are at a wedding and you are dancing, along with everybody around you. You lose yourself in the motion, the patterns, the sense of togetherness. The world around you seems to be swirling.
You are having a conversation with a close friend in an all-but-empty hotel lounge. A small fire is burning at the other end of the lounge. Soft music is playing, unobtrusively, in the background. You are sitting beside a window that looks out onto the pedestrianised town square. It is almost ten p.m. and very few people are about. You are talking about some deep subject-- perhaps about how society has changed since your childhood, or about the language of dreams, or about strange things that you have witnessed. The profundity of the conversation seems to give all the sights and sounds around you a kind of heightened reality.
You are sitting on a bed, cross-legged, writing out Christmas cards with your beloved. Christmas songs are playing on your smartphone. (This one is a real memory.)
You are looking at a bonfire on Halloween night, as fireworks crackle on the crisp winter air, and thinking of all the Halloweens you have known, all the Halloweens you have heard about, all the Halloweens you have vicarously lived in horror movies and scary stories.
You are walking through a leafy suburb on a day when you are not working but everybody else is. From a distance, you hear the haunting sound of children playing in a school playground. The sound makes you dreamy, reflective. You are in no hurry at all.
You are in a cinema lobby, well ahead of time for the movie you came to see. It's too early to take your seat so you linger. There are posters from several decades of movie history framed in the lobby. You go from poster to poster, examining them, taking pleasure in how each one savours of its particular era.
You are clearing out your attic and lingering over old magazines, old copy-books, old invitation cards, yellowed old newspapers that you originally used for wrapping but that have now taken on an interest of their own. You started this as a chore but find yourself becoming more absorbed in the process.
You are watching a documentary about Christmas movies on television. The curtains are drawn. In the corner, the lights of your Christmas tree are blinking in the semi-darkness. You spent the morning Christmad decorating, and later on you are going to be meeting some old friends for drinks. But now, you are deliciously at your ease, out of time.
Well, I may be enjoying this more than my reader. (I have been listening to Bach's cello suites while write.) I could multiply examples forever. But I think, or at least I hope, that you know what I'm getting at.
I think these sort of experiences of altered time-- heightened time, slowed time, curved time, time out of time, whatever term you might give to each one-- are essential to the appeal of tradition. I hope to analyse this further in future posts in this series.
As for this one, I have enoyed writing it more than almost anything else I've written on this blog.