Mayday

“Civilization begins,” according to the poet Ezra Pound, “when people start preferring a little done right to a great deal done wrong.”

Like the capacities for speech, art, music, & sanctity, this is written somewhere in our DNA, deep down where it can be forgotten. As Pound decried, that “great deal” comes out in the popular star system, & every other way of pandering to the masses; in the replacement of what is local & specific with what is general & plugged in. Whereas, a concert of music by Dufay, for instance, or the filling of a niche with an item of carved stone, would be a little deal.

To my mind, as a religious nutjob, tyranny begins with the abuse of talents, with turning God’s gifts (or Nature’s, if you wish) to purely personal account, as the means to wealth & power. The modest, who may also have talents but perhaps not for making big fortunes or winning national elections, must nevertheless try to get by. They become enslaved on many different levels. For they must agree to accept certain terms of employment. They agree to serve: not God, except privately, nor their neighbour, except abstractly. Tangibly, the modest must serve these “men of vision,” these “nation builders” & other wilful cranks — whose talents are for plausible rhetoric; for moral & material posturing; for nerveless appropriation & the ruthless seizure of the main chance. These great become our paymasters. Money talks, & we are paid to obey.

Which is not to say tyranny is a modern invention. But I do think the technology for it has been vastly improved.

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The late George Grant once explained to me that the Volvo in his driveway was “a modern irony.” It was in fact a mode of conveyance, which he could afford on the salary of a “philosophy professor”; mostly the wife drove it. But we spent a pleasant morning in Halifax once, thirty years ago, discussing the amount of human art & science, focused skill & moral discipline, subtracted from Civilization & added to The Economy by the invention of such things.

It was, we agreed, a superior car, a marvel of engineering. (A Volvo, well kept, might last almost half as long as a passenger airliner.) But one was like another, & ten-thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, lived out their lives for the sake of Volvos — starting from the poor wretches digging the iron out of the ground, or drilling for the oil; & ending with the slick advertising agents & the showroom salesmen. And then there are the other car manufacturers.

Indeed, the late Ivan Illich — half mad to be sure, but no one could tell which half — demonstrated that if we take the total of man-hours devoted to making, fuelling, fixing, insuring, & otherwise accommodating cars (highways, garages, traffic cops, &c), then divide by the grand total of passenger miles driven, for any fixed period, the average actual speed of a car may be calculated. It works out to just over three miles per hour. Which is to say, the same as walking, but considerably slower than a horse. To put this another way, the entire monstrous effort produces a null result.

Really, it is much less than a zero, as we see when we look at the matter more in the round. Let us tackle, for instance, the crowding issue.

The world, since I was born, has more than doubled in population. The human race, according to the environmentalcases, takes up too much space. We have a “problem” today, of “overpopulation.” Yet even they, no friends of big industry (at least in their own distorting imaginations) seem to have overlooked a simple fact. We, humans, have increased by a modest two or three times (since anno 1953). But those, cars, have increased by twenty times or more, over the same period. And each one of them leaves a bigger carbon footprint; especially when you remember that the newly arriving humans are just little ones.

Why this emphasis on getting rid of us?

Why, while we still can, don’t we get rid of them?

For consider, the average car is nearly defenceless. But the cars of the future might not be. (Unfortunately, the little humans are also defenceless.)

Now, cars give the appearance of moving very fast, to those who do not think analytically, & for the sake of having nice shiny cars in loud solid colours, the masses are happy to exchange not only the direct cost in human labour, but such “intangible” costs as may be associated with making our cities ugly, filling the air with pollutants, constraining souls within metal boxes, & turning the streets where children once played into killing zones.

Include this, too, in what we mean by “a modern irony” — that cars have made our cities spread, until one needs a car to get around them. Owning one has ceased to be a luxury, & become a necessity instead. One can hardly keep a job without one.  And one needs that job in order to pay for things, such as cars.

Cars are not everything, of course. There is so much more on the same basic scheme: the sound & fury of modern industry, signifying the nothing it all works out to. Yet let me not suggest that the lives lived, minding all the machines, are wasted. The work is wasted, goes into the black hole. But there is something irreducible in the experience, even of industrial desolation.

In one of my many pre-deleted posts, I considered instead the real estate industry. In another ramble, a couple of years ago, I reviewed a study by some Californian, linking cars & real estate together. The thesis, easily proved, is that the allocation of automobile parking spaces had, by the 1920s, determined the shape of every North American town & city, & the disposition of all human habitation within. The little Stalins, called “city planners,” have since that time been using this allocation of parking spaces as their basic “planning tool,” to micromanage the Kulaks.

Movement along the actual roads & highways is only their reserve tool.

That, in turn, leads to a larger observation about the way of our world: people constantly moving, houses constantly changing hands. We have become nomads again, high-tech nomads, while eviscerating local & regional culture, & eliminating almost every prospect of what Illich touted as “conviviality.”

But that is just where I stand confuted. One can hardly conceive of an evil that does not add a few dollars to the GDP. Say what I like about the collapse of Western Civ, the truth is it was good for the economy. And this can be easily proved, by the numbers, for they get bigger every day.

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It will soon be nine hundred years since the White Ship went down in the English Channel (November 25th, 1120), drowning, among several hundred mostly drunken passengers, the only legitimate heir to King Henry, thus setting the stage for “The Anarchy” & everything that has fallen out since. It is barely one century since the Titanic went down (April 15th, 1912), also with huge casualties including many quite respectable, well-dressed people.

Bernard Berenson somewhere contrasted the different public responses to these two events. The first occasioned not the slightest indignation, but a great cry of woe & contrition. The second triggered a series of public inquiries, as the politicians sought to identify those responsible for the disaster, on the assumption that something contractual had failed. (The iceberg, curiously enough, was never called to testify.)

So it goes, or so it has gone, for Western society. The awe that is commanded by a great disaster, is frittered away. The large fact is quickly absorbed by many small. Moreover, so far as the awe persists, it tends to be expressed with maudlin sentimentality — with grief poured over the individual victims — unctuously, as it were. This is another way in which the large is absorbed by the many small. We find ourselves weeping for individuals whom, in the course of our natural lives, we would never have met, nor heard of. One might almost call these “virtual” tears.

Today is of course “May Day,” itself somewhat transformed from mediaeval antecedents. By modern European tradition, it is the day on which we celebrate international organized labour, or in a word, Communism — in both its socialist & capitalist forms. Indeed, everywhere I look about me, in the Greater Parkdale Area, I see new condominiums being raised, to extraordinary heights, to provide comfortable dovecotes for the New Soviet Man (capitalist version). For this New Soviet Man demands to live in a “condom”; demands not only to pay his mortgage, but a kind of rent on top of that; in addition to his demand for ever higher taxes, “daycare,” & so forth.

Alas, apart from being human, I find little in common with this New Soviet Man. He does not seem to be, in the least, animated by my classical & mediaeval enthusiasms. And I, for my part, do not long for a Volvo. Yet we celebrate so many of the same events, knowingly or unknowingly. He, with his demands for fresh public inquiries. I, with awe & contrition — for I am so impressed with the scale of the disaster.