Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Vacating sense

That the “personal is the political” was a piece of leftwing bafflegab that was first presented to my ears in High School — now more than half a century ago. It is what I would call, awkwardly no doubt, “a revision.” The word will be generally misunderstood, and might be taken as a revision itself. To revise something sounds like a harmless activity, and carries an implication of improvement. To tamper with the meanings of words and common phrases is to be “progressive” in some way.

Yet what one is doing is not. One is not replacing one definition with another, that has for better or worse a new meaning or nuance. (This may be necessary when circumstances change, and what one is describing has itself changed, however subtly.) In such cases, the old meaning survives, as a kind of ghost within the new machinery. Rather, one is negating the old meaning; sabotaging, or cancelling it.

Let it not be replaced. The word itself comes to mean anything. Slowly it is transformed not only into the opposite of its “narrow” previous meaning, by linguistic habit with a memory of what it meant, but a neurotic compulsion to turn it over. But eventually it assumes the opposite of meaning, altogether. It now means “whatever.”

By linguistic habit, the “personal” was previously the opposite of the “political.” This could be easily grasped, by the sane. The opposition of the two terms created a barrier between them; it was an invisible wall or border. Tear it down, and you don’t have a wall in a different place. You have no wall.

Most of our modern innovations are like this, even in manufacturing. Where once we, more or less, universally subscribed to contrasts and oppositions between things, reinforced “by nature,” we are now just as universally at sea.

Consider “male” and “female.”

These two categories are still accepted by most people who understand English, or other languages; but they are accepted as meaningless or (another word that has been “revised”) “controversial.” The distinction is being actually suppressed. But it isn’t being revised to something — new and strange — but instead erased. Girls, for instance, continue to be girls, but aren’t, simultaneously. They have become “whatevers” — something else. But nothing specific. The same sort of thing happened to boys. For that matter it goes for mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, daughters, sons, and so forth — distinctions now formally taken out of laws.

Feminism is often blamed for this. But while I would not endorse feminists in any way, I don’t think they can be held responsible. After all, feminists were ideologues who favoured women; but this is a movement that erases women.

I wouldn’t speak with confidence about intentions. If the definitions were being replaced, even systematically, I would suspect a “revolutionary” movement. But it is easier to have a revolution — which is after all something purposeful — without tampering with such phrases. It leaves everyone confused about what you are demanding.

The intention of “revision,” in my limited sense, is deeper. It goes towards the bottom of human experience — indeed, beneath the bottom — and touches on the insane.

The visitors

My mother visited me in the hospital. I was delighted to see her, but not what you would call surprised. This was soon after my by-pass operation, when the anaesthetic had not worn off. Mama had died eight years before, as I was vaguely aware. She was with my aunt, Mildred, who died thirty-two years ago.

The nurse, Harvey, came to say they were here to see me. He would clean me up first, for I was rather a mess. In fact, I seemed to be in a giant wheelchair, with bedding, my hands pinned; and I was at the edge of a steep tunnel. All the people below me — doctors and nurses and “support staff” — were moving about busily, but walking sideways as if the walls were floors, or upside-down as if the ceilings were. Those in my vicinity were correctly oriented, however.

Eventually I was wheeled to my mother and aunt. They were chatting cheerfully with each other; almost ignoring me. But then mama turned to me, with words of advice. These didn’t make sense to me, for I’d asked to have my hands released, and perhaps for a sip of water; not for what sounded like passages from Origen and Augustine. Could mama get me out of here? Apparently not.

There were so many questions I would have liked to ask, but I could not think of them. For instance, how did they get in?

The episode was made the more plausible because the staff were all wearing the muzzles, headbands, and plastic face covers of hospital gear in the Batflu regime. My mother wasn’t, nor was my aunt. Yet, they were not self-conscious. Upon leaving, they seemed familiar with hospital corridors that puzzled me.

Age of Revision

Reading Jacob Burckhardt at my leisure (enforced by physical and mental decline), together with other idle writers of history. I seem to have drifted to the view that we live in an Age of Revision. Not an Age of Revolution, as previously advertised, or at the forefront of Progress, as optimists continue to aver. Indeed, Burckhardt could be said to have partially predicted it.

Of course, it is difficult to know any history, and impossible to grasp universal history, for we would have to know where it begins and ends to say anything intelligent about it. As we depend on “outmoded” religious conceptions of why we are here, “theories of history” are the best we can do. These are uniformly silly, and more so as they become sophisticated. They are woven into the Age of Revision: the constant fluctuation of meaning. We can be “freed” of this only by accelerating the change of which we have an unwanted surplus.

Burckhardt pioneered the conception of our collective life, as consisting of three principal entities: the State, Religion, and Culture. (“Science” is a cultural thing, like pop or Gregorian music.) The more lively and recent historical sages (I think of Christopher Dawson) have largely worked within this scheme. It is serviceable, for it includes almost everything, and these are independent strata. None is permanently dominant.

In our Age of Revision, all three are in flux. Nothing can be relied upon. The task of making even transient sense of events, or facts, is sabotaged when even these become “relative,” or a matter of opinion. I have or had a general idea of what was going on in the world, but my scepticism even towards trusted sources has been growing, as I learn more about them.

For a fortnight or so I had the experience, in hospital under powerful drugs, of an Age of Revision in myself. I had dreams such as I had never had, including some which were frankly paranoid (though most contained comic reverses, which were fairly entertaining). Little fragments of real events and persons were worked into the narratives, often rather cleverly by my plot-composing mind. These dreams were different in kind from most, that are forgotten after waking. I still remember them, vividly, including those so plausible that I am still at pains to dismiss details and anecdotes.

This seems to me analogous to our present social (political, religious, and cultural) situation.