Around the world, the hoodlums and outlaws are running amok, in their suits of armour made of lies. By contrast, the sheriffs seem downcast, overwhelmed and on the run. I feel downcast and overwhelmed, too. Might it mean that I’m a sheriff, in disguise ? But there is no star in my cupboard.
The picture I have, or image I’m struggling with at the moment, is that, to an extent that’s hard to fathom, we – as individuals and citizens – are like onions, or trees. We are each surrounded by many layers of growth, and to a significant degree, are made of them. Those layers can fairly be called our “culture,” the medium in which we live and move.
We can be made to feel whole and solid by these layers and we function in the world through them. They are like layers of clothing but also of skin, and go deeper in even than that and often it’s hard to differentiate between them, and harder still to tell where we begin and they end. They support, hold, interpret, orientate and place us. They provide us with familiar landmarks, aspects of the self and the world we can recognise and feel at home in and part of, memories and echoes, traditions, forms and norms of behaviour and expression, regular seasonal events, formative and instructive experiences in our pasts, etc etc.
And, in the present bewildering times and onrush of new worlds, layer upon layer of these formative aspects of our being have been made redundant, even flayed off, made unfit for purpose, useless as signposts, or sheltering structures, leaving us feeling bereft, undefended, diminished, raw, adrift and at sea, like immigrants in a country which keeps making us strangers.
It’s as if we’ve been equipped with keys which no longer fit too many of the world’s locks. But many of us keep thinking and acting as if they are still relevant, or still what they once were. We seem incapable of doing otherwise. Perhaps it’s not surprising.
I wrote the original of this piece as a message to a lifelong Roman Catholic with slightly Puritan rumblings in his belly. Perhaps for that reason, I refer at this point to Christ’s struggle with the Pharisees. That struggle was resolved on the Cross and represents a permanent tension in human life – that between the true and central informing principle, the “still point” at centre, and the various forms and interpretations of that still point, the laws and modes of behaviour out here on the surface of the “turning world.” The principle informs the law which must then be written in human letters, the pharisees’ book of rules. But what then ? In the turning world, the letter may speak at first as a fair interpretation of the principle upon which it was based. But for how long ? And in a world turning faster and faster ?
The pharisees were aghast that Christ “worked” on the Sabbath, for instance. But that is not the true meaning, or intention, of the Law, Christ answered. Over time, you have made nonsense of the principle. You have come to worship the merely outward form, the human letter of the law. In a sense, you have come to worship merely yourselves.
The letter remains true for only a very short while and never more briefly than in our present time. So obey the letter for its short while, but never worship it. And on the surface of our turning world, keep reviewing and refreshing it, so that it remains a true expression and application of the central principle. Too easily the letter becomes a dead letter and hence a bringer of death. Not guidance through reality, but retreat from it, a false and dangerous, voracious god.
But in these times of unprecedented rapidity of change ? How can you keep up ? How can the letter change fast enough ? How can consciousness stay alive to so much change ? On the contrary, the temptation is to hang onto the letter, or old forms now defunct, even tighter than ever, out of sheer fear and confusion.
And in too many cases, it is the lesser or plainly wicked people who now climb on board these hollow, failing forms, blind to their own incapacity, or seeking to profit, in some way, from the degrading of standards. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is an example. He has been a disastrous choice and leader of the Labour Party. His own personal refuge and comfort zone, his hollow castle on a hill, was initially mistaken for a necessary and realistic “radicalism” ; his incapacity to inspire, to manage and to lead were misinterpreted as being “authentic” and “different from the others.” Johnson, of course, is another, but he belongs more to the wicked end of the spectrum, and is doing rather well out of it. But in these circumstances, what’s “doing well” ? As things stand for all of us now, even the hooligans will suffer if hooligans “do well.”
At the time of writing, Jeremy Corbyn is about to stand down, deluding himself to the end, claiming that – despite Labour’s grievous loss at his hands – he and his gang of bumbling back-room in-fighters “won the argument.” And we are able to study, to some extent, the people competing to replace him as party leader. And we can follow their contorted attempts to speak words, find explanations, that might carry, that might fit, that might “cut it” with the membership. Does “cut it” mean speak true ? No, it seems to mean, find some facile slogan that will soothe people and make the sloganiser more popular than his/her rivals. As popular as Jez once was ?
And the successful candidate will be the person judged most likely to be able to save the “Party” and bring it back to power. But to what extent is Party now a dead letter, just a support system and substitute family (highly dysfunctional) for its own members, a mere familiarity without real vitality or worth or currency ? I cannot help thinking that what these people are competing for is the right to mount a dead horse. The range, the running, the references of the horse in its prime no longer exist. And it is long dead, a collection of rags and frenzied maggots.
What can a leader say that will inspire us, while sitting on the back of a dead horse full of maggots, with forests aflame in the background ?
We need to begin again, in this new, climactic world. We need to work again from first principle, from the still point at centre, where the dance is. Labour is dead. Perhaps the whole concept of Party is dead. Is even the Commons dead ?
How best to serve the truth, and make good our polity, so that we can trust it again to arrive at decisions for the truly common good, decisions properly informed ?
It may come down, if we are lucky, to a trusted Few, trusted because they are sane and sound, leading us, the Many, afflicted and wayward as we are, out of the desert, out of the valley of our shadow. To where the dance is.
How and where do we begin ? Are we capable ?
Lit. Ref. “At the still point of the turning world…there the dance is” ll 16/17, Part Two, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, by TS Eliot.