In defence of idleness

In the past — do you remember when we were “living in the past,” gentle reader? neither do I — in the past, & with our old technology, time delays in publishing & correspondence were not so much an imposition as part of the rhythm of life. A physical letter took at least some time in transit, & the time elapsed contributed to the recipient’s leisure in responding. The physical letter, when from a person loved or esteemed or even silently detested, was an artefact, an object of some value. It could be kept & returned to, over time. There are bales of such keepsakes up here in the High Doganate, to remind me that I was once living in the past, without realizing. They remind me, too, that I must now be living in the past. Handwriting provided a physical presence, & even those who used typewriters became familiar through their fonts, & peculiarities as slight as the way they indented paragraphs. The reply might be “dashed off,” or it might be carefully composed, draughted then copied nicely. In both cases, some degree of “linear thinking” was required.

From the age before “reply all,” I recall the thrill of receiving an envelope addressed in a certain handwriting, in ink of a certain purplish shade, with stamps from a certain country. The world indeed keeps shrinking & shrinking, but I have noticed it is still the same distance to walk; so that it is not the distance that is the primary illusion. It is instead the proximity. Though, distance is of course also an illusion, according to the old Buddhist quatrain that Japanese travellers once carried in their breasts:

          Really there is no East, no West;
          Where then is the North & the South?
          Illusion makes the world close in.
          Enlightenment opens it on every side.

An old lady of my acquaintance — one of those who is not my mother — was found smoking in the Parkdale snows the other day. She was clutching a letter, which she wanted to show me; not have me read, just look at it as an “objective thing.” It was the first letter she ever received from the man who became her husband, himself long gone. It was the proof to her that she had not imagined all the past. It was as tattered as an old prayer book. I think it served a similar function, for her, bringing the proximity & distance together until they met at the point of reality. And when she dies someone will throw it out. That won’t matter; it has served in its time. And everything that ever was is immutable in the Eye of God.

Today we require an act of will to appreciate these distances. Time in transit once spared us what I find today an almost excruciating effort — to appreciate distance — compounded by the demand for instantaneous response, & the electronic sense that one is writing on water. “The Internet never forgets,” one correspondent wrote, but I don’t believe this. I’ve seen all my old links go dead after a few years, & the bookmarks themselves lost with old laptops. Our technology becomes faster & faster, & with that, increasingly defective.

A fine lady in Venice has been writing to me, & sending wonderful photographs, which I had better find a way to print out. What enchants her most about that city is a quality she calls the “fittingness” of all things, including the people who have been “conditioned” by their environment. We might say that Venice is a very beautiful city (the part built long ago), but I would go farther & suggest that this Venice was built in the light of the Gloria.

It was built, incrementally, with the kind of time delays we once had by analogy to the transit of mail. An “aesthetic” point is made in the elaboration of one building, & the next after responds to it; not in antagonism, but as a new voice rising in the choir. There is leisure to consider the rhythm of this response, & for the reconciliation of apparent contradictions: the use of dissonant notes in the construction of larger harmonies. There is an etiquette which has grown up organically in statement & response, & over centuries of time what was once successive has become simultaneous: a foreshadowing of life beyond time. Nothing was built, nor removed, casually; though as we can know, things were often built & removed, in the development of this extraordinary choir — in stone, on water.

In the hope that this lady writing from the Cannaregio will forgive me for quoting what she has perfectly observed:

“Why build three huge gorgeous churches on one corner, & fill them with sculpture & painting? Certainly there were not enough people to fill them, so it seems they were built to fill the world with glory.”

Speed & efficiency, both of them narrowly & nastily defined, have been erasing a whole dimension of Reason among us, at a terrible cost. We do not have time, in our “economy,” to consider & reconsider; we must act quickly & decisively. The penalty for dawdling over the “fittingness” of our actions has been growing, till we are reduced to quick mental checklists which focus entirely on the immediate cause & effect. I think of an old architect, in a very old Spain, who in his enthusiasm for his project wrote to his patron, “We will build such & so great a Cathedral that those who look upon it in the future will think that we were mad!” (Cannot find the reference, alas, for I cannot find my old copy of John Harvey’s Cathedrals of Spain.)

We have been erasing, as it were, a dimension of Reason itself, in the name of Reason. For the madness of this architect was a form of reason. He had an image in his mind which could only be conveyed by “rational” drawings, & finally in the Nueva Catedral itself — which would come into its full being a couple of centuries after his death, & after many later modifications to improve the “fittingness” of each part to the whole, & the whole to the landscape of its city. Consider, if thou wilt, the sublime patience of this madman.

As I was just writing to this fine lady: “Now, one of the ‘problems’ as I have come to see it is that, when Reason excludes that form of contemplation in which we discover what is fitting, what is rhythmic, what is beautiful, it starts turning against itself. We have these battles to the death between exponents of Reason from different camps. There is nothing left to elide their differences. The gnit-pickers triumph in blood & gore.”

We have always had this problem. We have always had men who will stop at nothing, & would not dream of stopping to think through the prudential implications of what they are doing; & even centuries ago there were men who would tear all of Holy Church apart for the sake of simplifying fine points of doctrine, excluding one or another of the transcendentals to reduce Truth to a slogan. (And they were not all Protestants, far from it; & to be fair, it was not they who tore the Church apart — for on the larger scale, it was men with their eyes fixed beadily upon worldly power, using theological controversy for their excuse to seize both the property & authority which belonged to that Church — again, French Catholics as English Protestants.) We have always had men in a hurry, & will always have, regardless of technology. The sin in this case is quite “original”; & no machine can be original like that.

What we have not always had, however, is the modern & now post-modern condition of constant acceleration of pace. Reason is not extinguished by this, it is only narrowed: made more & more svelte to keep up with the race. We pitch sanity to keep the frame lighter.

That, in case gentle reader has wondered, will account for the peculiar eccentricities of this blog, & why I am trying to make it & keep it a kind of “anti-blog,” devoted to that spirit of Idleness in which we try, so far as God will assist, to restore the Gloria, & the beauty in things that the world has no time for.