When I am writing intensely, as I most certainly am these days, I don’t read any new books. I read the old, familiar ones. The aging brain can take only so much. Last night I plucked from the shelf Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. As with all familiar books I did not begin at the beginning. I read some scenes that I like, including the one where Dunstan Ramsay re-encounters Paul Dempster performing as a magician in Mexico City. In the run-up to that life-changing event, Ramsay is sitting in a church watching the people who have come to see and experience a famous robe displaying a miraculous picture of the Virgin Mary, “the goddess of mercy, the Holy Mother, the figure of divine compassion” and admires the beauty of their faces. He then asks himself where mercy and divine compassion will come from for these poor people, when they have received the “inestimable benefit” of modern education? He goes on to muse:
Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we will have to pay for it, and in what coin.
Wonder no more, dear Ramsay, at least about the coin. We do not yet know how much of it we will pay. The coin is “economic and educational advance” run amok in an orgy of consumption, commodification, technological displacement, financial speculation, and violence. What was, briefly, benign and even meritorious in this advance, turns rapidly into a nightmare. The coin is alienation from Nature, whom we now treat, not as the beloved mother of Humanity and all Life, but as a property, a colony, a servant or even a slave, a commodity, a garbage dump, a thing to be exploited, an expendable. The coin is alienation from each other, a disintegration of nations, regions, cultures into tribes who eye each other in degrees of separation ranging from indifference to open hostility. Tools for communication on a scale hitherto unimaginable have become weapons in inter-tribal rivalries, assertiveness, and violence. The coin is incessant noise, so that we can no longer hear each other speak or ourselves think, let alone the “choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world”, as George Eliot described it. The coin is alienation from our own individual and collective humanity to the point where everything good in human nature, in our selves and others, becomes, one way or another, something to be exploited for base or trivial purposes, or distrusted, or abandoned as irrelevant. In short, the coin is the perversion of everything holy, everything benign, everything that natural and cultural evolution and human creativity have achieved. This perversion is not yet complete, has not yet become irredeemably grotesque, although the situation is grave. To steal a phrase from W.H. Auden, a little but not entirely out of context: This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.
I do not make or believe any predictions, because the future is in principal unknowable. I am however prepared to assign probabilities, based on knowledge and experience, not only my own. I am even prepared, with all humility and caution, to extrapolate a little, given the necessary data and rigorous estimation of relationships. I was highly trained to do that, and have spent my working life practising. I perform these intellectual and imaginative exercises as conscientiously as I can. I look at the results, and they are full of menace.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. We can still talk, and we can still listen. We can still write, and we can still read. We can still create, and we can still absorb. We can still use our five senses and our brains, our hands to reach out, our feet to cross divides. We do not have to tag along. Stephen Leacock, over the whole of his wide career as a writer, speaker, and teacher, advised us to bring to bear a creative melange of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion and Humour. We can still do that. We do not need to stop or reverse the economic, educational, and other long list of advances that have done us so much good. We have evolved wonderful tools. They remain wonderful. They are being perverted by vicious self-serving people and our own appetites for consumption, comfort, security, convenience, and entertainment. We do not need to disavow the advance. We need to recognize the perversion for what it is, and put a stop to it.
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P.S. I am now writing my Leacock Anniversaries book, The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles. The Preface was released quietly on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at voyageur-at-bmts.com and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.