Discover more from Raids on the Unspeakable
Reflections of an amateur stylite
"They watched storms out there so distant they could not be heard, the silent lightning flaring sheetwise and the thin black spine of the mountain chain fluttering and sucked away again in the dark."
The line of Technique—i.e., ‘progress’—tends necessarily towards eugenics; fortunately this can also be conducted on the memetic level. We may, as Popper put it, let our ideas die for us; but this is not the sense of natural survival to which Popper constantly appeals: here we let our ideas die for us in shaping ourselves to social demands. Humans cling happily, on the whole, to one group or another; we are an excessively imitative species—to be safe, we also innately dislike being ostracised. Exile is surely an emotional blow, historically it has often also meant death.
What could have driven the Desert Fathers to voluntarily exile themselves? The basic precondition of their flight, at least, is captured by Kierkegaard:
If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.
So thus holding fast these few wait out eternity in the desert—which otherwise seems plainly a bad deal. Most cannot see anything in it but blind faith, whatever that means: it is simply the will to believe; to act as if the desert was that true and proper path, as if this was known absolutely.
Here we might also compare the Desert Fathers to the Arab tradition in which infant sons were sent into the desert to be nursed and live with Bedouins. This was perhaps so foremost for the open spaces and fresh air of the desert, free from the illness and epidemics of denser communities.1 Yet there were also aesthetic and even metaphysical aspects to this custom:
Fixed settlements were perhaps inevitable, but they were dangerous. Their ancestors’ way of life had been the nobler one, the life of the tent-dwellers, often on the move. Nobility and freedom were inseparable, and the nomad was free. In the desert a man was conscious of being the lord of space, and in virtue of that lordship he escaped in a sense from the domination of time. … But the townsman was a prisoners; and to be fixed in one place—yesterday, today, tomorrow—was to be a target for time, the ruiner of all things. Towns were places of corruption. Sloth and slovenliness lurked in the shadow of their walls, ready to take the edge off a man’s alertness and vigilance. Everything decayed there, even language, one of man’s most precious possessions. Few of the Arabs could read, but beauty of speech was a virtue which all Arab parents desired for their children. A man’s worth was largely assessed by his eloquence, and the crown of eloquence was poetry. To have a great poet in the family was indeed something to be proud of; and the best poets were nearly always from one or another of the desert tribes, for it was in the desert that the spoken language was nearest to poetry.2
There are certainly also times when it may be good to leave the city; as with Sodom and Gomorrah, with Noah. The deluge differs further, however, in that it contains a clear purpose: the ark is to carry an ember of the faith through the flood—they flee This World to establish another.3 Similar motivations are shared in the Arab tradition and Desert Fathers, for it is city and town which each escapes. There is thus also a sense in each that the sickness of these places threatens more than mere bodies.
Indeed, the Desert Father seeks foremost to rid himself of a spiritual sickness; it is in search of this that they go to the desert. Thus they also establish another world, even if only within themselves. Paul of Thebes lived alone in the desert for nigh on a hundred years: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” It is this also—the seat of that kingdom within, the soul—which is seen as at risk of infection in city and town.
What is it in static settlements that generates this miasma? One sense is that men have thus by their walls become insulated from nature and the divine; have thereby become irreverent in forgetting His power. Hogg captures the opposite notion, that of the sublimity and faith inherent in bowing before nature:
Before retiring to rest, the shepherd uniformly goes out to examine the state of the weather, and make his report to the little dependent group within—nothing is to be seen but the conflict of the elements, nor heard but the raving of the storm—then they all kneel around him, while he recommends them to the protection of Heaven; and though their little hymn of praise can scarcely be heard even by themselves, as it mixes with the roar of the tempest, they never fail to rise from their devotions with their spirits cheered and their confidence renewed, and go to sleep with an exaltation of mind of which kings and conquerors have no share. Often have I been a sharer in such scenes; and never, even in my youngest years, without having my heart deeply impressed by the circumstances. There is a sublimity in the very idea. There we lived, as it were, inmates of the cloud and the storm; but we stood in a relationship to the Ruler of these, that neither time nor eternity could ever cancel. Woe to him that would weaken the bonds with which true Christianity connects us with Heaven and with each other!4
And yet have we not built This World precisely to protect ourselves from all that? This aspect of man is mocked by Melville in The Lightning Rod Man. A traveler, in the middle of a storm, knocks at the door; he is selling lightning rods, that the inhabitants might thereby be protected. The man of the house remains incredulous throughout, finally he concludes:
… you mere man who come here to put you and your pipestem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leyden jar, that you can thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? Your rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you? Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to peddle round your indulgences from divine ordinations? The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God. False negotiator, away!
We, however, have struck a deal with this man; thus Spengler called our age Faustian. Still the news today is monotonous in its reminders of this false negotiation, as earthquakes and hurricanes and viruses nevertheless batter man; yet it only asks more and more that we conform, thus does it promise to save us—the head is beaten to fit the hat. All this increasingly determines the shape of civilisation and our lives therein, as much spatiotemporal as moral and aesthetic.5
Our new nomos is that of the administrative state; it is this vast empire of inscriptions which constitutes the reign of quantity. We are reduced to reference numbers and dossiers, metadata and statistics; if we are lucky, perhaps even a vote. Thus we are subjected to circumstance and the market, as well as many more rational techniques. The mythic cosmos has further been replaced with a bare bundle of habits clothed by a sprawling storyline, all of which serves variously as entertainment or penance.
Certainly this is no kingdom of heaven; if anything, our world resembles the Tower of Babel. As we have insulated ourselves from God and nature, we have rendered the world instead in our image; it is thus that everywhere we find only reflections of ourselves. The face of God is obscured by steel and concrete walls; or beyond, wrapped in a web of words, images, etc. Thus have we begun a vast construction in defiance of God, as Pope Benedict saw well—per his encyclical, Spe salvi:
Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.
This will has fed the egregoric singularity Jacques Ellul calls Technique; it is a technical will to power, one which demands nature conform to human reason. Over time this has protruded further into our existence, in space by Le Corbusier as mind by Alfred Binet. Ultimately it has absorbed us almost entirely. We inhabit a technical environment—that is, our activity is everywhere mediated by the machinations of Technique. We know the weather, for instance, by television or mobile phone; few remember any longer how read the sky.6
Of course, one can only give a dim sketch of This World: each must dance out its mystery for oneself. Some may well be perfectly content even then, while others may come to feel suffocated. Whatever the case, one struggles to imagine any alternative; yet now the veil between worlds is thinning, faint paths have begun to appear.
There is the Nietzschean going under which seeks power over This World; that is, the way of of politics and piracy.
There are also those that, following Noah, have fled This World and sought to build an ark by which to weather the flood they feel certain.
Then there are descendants of the Desert Fathers, whether monastic or solitary; and their inverted counterfeits, those that seek also exile from This World—whether for a time, as by sleep or swamp, or otherwise more permanent means.
And else—there are us, the all-too-many: we who wait and see.
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
Qu’ran 13:3—“Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who consider!”
Lings, Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, p. 23.
One of Lot’s two daughters, who are perhaps understandably lesser known than his wife, give the symbol far more explicitly: “And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.” Genesis 19:31-32.
Hogg, Shepherd’s Calendar v.2, p. 260.
Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in morning, shepherds take warning.