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We must call deaths, deaths

November 17, 2014

Consider David Jones, “Art in Relation to War”, The Dying Gaul, p. 153-55:

There is nearly always an attempt made in the minds of most of us to pretend that the loss of some admitted ‘good’ in any epoch is ‘worth it’ because of some quite other ‘good’ in the following epoch, and thus a legend of general progress is maintained, to the detriment of a true understanding of the situation. This is particularly noticeable where excellences of art and morals are confused and set off against each other–like a sort of profit and loss account. Again the people who ‘believe in progress’ and the people who look back wistfully are almost equally unreal, for both tend to ‘pool’ the perfections which all men desire, and both tend to hide the skeletons in their respective dream-cupboards. And when I say this, I mean we all do it to a large degree. I think we must make a conscious effort towards refusing to be fobbed off by talk of sublimation. We must call deaths, deaths, and admit a real loss. If we inherit advantages from such deaths–that’s all to the good, but the gain makes the loss no less real. This sounds trite enough, but there is in the matter of art and morals and the development of civilization a pretty rooted conviction that this transference of values can be effected and that there is a sort of accumulating credit to which we are heirs. I do not think this is true, although it no doubt contains a half-truth, or a truth on another plane. World’s history is more of a rake’s progress than the conservation of ‘goods’. It is a criminal dissipation of noble things.

When, to take an example from so very many, any civilized imperium is extended over a savage culture, it is the worst of delusion to suppose that a real death has not been inflicted and all the subsequent ‘goods’ accruing to the ‘civilizing’ of the people of that culture do not alter by one iota the reality of the thing done and no future development, development ‘in time’, can compensate. Incidentally this is why the word ‘justice’ in any profound sense has no meaning unless we pre-suppose a ‘divine order’, a supernatural economy, by which such words as ‘compensation’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘sublime-ation’ can have meaning–but that is another matter, we are speaking here of this world.

In our world, the loss of a thing as artistically formidable as say the culture of the Incas to two dozen Renaissance fire-locks and a few cavaliers is something which strikes a note of questioning and of despair in our hearts, which the comfortable arguments do no more than aggravate. We have no conception of the arithmetic by which such accounts are audited. It is ‘of faith’ that they are audited. That is the most we can say. I chose this outstanding and tragic example, not because it is unique, but because on the contrary it is a glaring example of something which is ubiquitous and universal and which is happening all the time in many millions of lesser ways–to lesser perfections of all kinds; it is, in fact, history, your history and my history no less than world history.

It is a kind of cowardice to look on history and not to despair if we confine ourselves to the natural order. Strictly within that order, ‘optimism’ is all right as an indulgent aid to a certain kind of morale, it can be objectively ‘all right’ only if we presuppose an ‘other-world’ order–‘call it what you like’, as the Cheshire cat said. Conceive it in what terms you like, it has to be conceded. Even if Utopia began tomorrow, even if the state were visibly ‘withering away’ (instead of which ‘So Jupiter me succour, it flourisheth more and more’), even if that quarrelsome pair, Liberty and Equality, could be finally got to set up home and Fraternity  be brought forth, the New Man would be a Sub-Man if he forgot to weep for the past: there is no decent escape from the lacrimarum vale, the lament for the makers is a world lament, like the weeping for Thamuz.

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