I posted a poem rather than my usual blog last week because I found myself stuck for words. The entry before it had been difficult to write, partly because it drew on my own experience of depression and partly because it was heading for a place where words fail. Words can fail for good and bad reasons, out of despair as well as hope; and the poem, written about a year before, seemed to embody that ambiguity in quite a stark way.
It had been my intention in the present blog to move on to an equally ambiguous journey, one with which most of us have some familiarity, namely that quasi-ritualistic experience of commuting to work each morning. However, sitting on the train yesterday morning a conversation from the previous day kept reverberating in my mind. A friend happened to mention that she did not envisage having children since her ancestors had been a rather mixed lot and she seriously doubted that the line was worth continuing.
As a result I started to reflect on another journey that the poem was, I suspect, in some sense about - namely the human journey through time. By that I do not mean so much visible time for which we have tangible evidence or records, or which we can extrapolate from our existing understanding, but rather that vast invisible patchwork of relationships, chance meetings and tenuous connections extending back into time immemorial, wherein perhaps the qualitative dimension of our humanity resides. If visible time is measured and ordered, a place in which we can plan and anticipate, learn from our mistakes, form an understanding of ourselves and of each other, and within this context also make sense also of what is by contrast dis-ordered or confused – then invisible time might be described as that latent chaos of implicit connection and disconnection, being and nonbeing, too vast to make sense of, which underpins it. Within this latency it seems to me there is a desire to be which goes beyond not just the conscious mind but also beyond our instinctual desires. A desire witnessed to by the sheer beauty and fecundity of nature (ours included) which in some cases goes well beyond what is strictly necessary for survival.
I do not mean however to venture into the territory of religion, merely to point to a larger context of being which we are all I think implicitly aware of but lack adequate words to express. This larger context consists not just in the complex balancing act of the biosphere that is in fact a constant re-balancing, facilitating the emergence of ever more complex life forms; rather of more immediate relevance to us, is a comparable balancing within the human psyche itself. If one leaves aside the rules, conventions, abstract principles and the power structures that support them then the qualitative dimension of human life, that subtle realm of hard to define qulaties that make us human in the full sense, is far more tenuous, but also perhaps much more dynamic, than we normally take it for. Seen in these terms the continuity of human life consists not so much in biological reproduction as in the continuous death and rebirth of these qualities; a renewal which of course would not happen but for its biological counterpart.
In a more traditional society the way these deeper qualities were conveyed through time from one generation to the next was perhaps more straightforward than in a modern multicultural society in which the state, almost by default, is forced to play an ever larger role. Even in a traditional society however there is a tendency for traditions themselves to harden as those charged with teaching them become fearful of the risk of letting go, of allowing the more subtle and in some cases potentially dangerous qualities implicit in tradition to be explored from within rather than merely replicated from without; fearful perhaps of death, or the return to chaos which it archetypally suggests. Such a hardened traditionalism is in effect one in which the ancestors rule from beyond the grave. Death is seemingly held at bay and order prevails, with the consequence that those who see themselves as authority figures in such a society identify more with the ancestors, or their semi-deified view of them, than with those they rule over; becoming themselves in a sense the living dead.
The threat to the continuity of human life in our own society is no less real, it is simply more difficult to see. Globalisation, effectively the triumph of Western culture, is also its point of maximum danger. For the success of Western civilisation has historically owed less to its own relatively shallow roots than to its genius in drawing upon the roots of others; roots which it now, naively, imagines itself to have outgrown. The danger, paradoxically, is that we are at risk of turning in upon ourselves even as we imagine ourselves, in our control of the world and in our access to limitless information, as turned outward.
If the danger for a traditional society is in being rooted artificially in the past it may be, by contrast, the threat we face is of being in rooted too firmly in the present. Even as we pay lip service to progress our idea of the future tends in reality to be merely a grander and more facile reflection of where we are right now - rendering us incapeable of embracing the future even as we ostentatiously wave around the title deeds to it.
Human words and actions do not merely replicate past behaviour, nor does their value depend wholly on there immediate meaning or value. Just as animal instinct is formed over immense periods of time and contains within itself a sufficient repertoire of possibility to respond to the unexpected so even more so also that delicate human sense of inner spaciousness, our capacity to reflect and imagine, is oriented by its very nature to the future - an unknown which by virtue of its unknownness is also a calling, a calling in effect to that true humanity whose existence consists solely in its conscious renewal. Human beings then exist, more than any other creature in time; time in its formed or comprehensible sense, but more particularly in that unformed, latent, chaotic sense that seeks, like the vines of an encroaching jungle, to reclaim merely static structures in the name of true fecundity.
In the case of humanity this fecundity is also within us and we utilise that life giving energy to the extent that we fully embrace our existence in time, past, the present and future. History has been defined as a dialogue between the present and the past, but this involves implicitly a dialogue with the future also - for freedom from the present, or the known, means taking the risk of seeing it in the light of the unknown. What is involved here is not mere knowing but rather the renewal of life itself, in effect embarking on a journey.