Friday, July 28, 2006

The Death of Ulysses

As some of you may remember, I won the American Chesterton Society's Gilbert & Frances Award last year for an essay I wrote which was broadly concerned with intellectual honesty. You can read that essay here. I made a run at the contest a second time this year, but have learned from a Secret Inside Source (named Dale, but don't tell anyone) that I have not, in fact, carried it off again. It was an act of extravagant majesty that I won it even once, of course, so I am not in the least bit upset. I will not divulge the name of the gentleman who has, in fact, won it, for I have not been given permission to do so. However, if he is who I think he is, the victory is well-deserved.

In any event, now that I have been freed from this waiting game, I can do what I like with this year's submission. I worried upon submitting it that it was not as upbeat as one might expect from a Chestertonian, or perhaps that it rambled intolerably. All of this could likely be true. However, reading it now, I don't know that I would change a word. I would likely add several, for the length limits of the contest were strict, but otherwise... yeah.

Here it is, then. I hope to hear what you think of it. I'll be posting it on my own blog, too, because I can.

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The Death of Ulysses

One of the most urgent and vital lines in all of Dickens can be found in Great Expectations, and it runs something like this: “Think for a moment of the long chain of thorns or flowers that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” Such an exercise is not difficult, though it is rarely engaged. It is simply the act of tracing back a chain of influences as far as one can to see if there is some singular event upon which one might pin the responsibility for all that has followed. Without going into dreary specifics, I can tell you that I owe much of my current success to the idle purchase of a book about the battle of Thermopylae.

Now, you may question the practical value of such an exercise, and I would, in many degrees, be right there with you in doing so. The point of it is not really to improve one’s life, but rather to see how easy it is for one’s life to change. To see the monumental happenings that can spring forth from the most seemingly insignificant of seeds. The point is to get you out into the garden.

It is for this broad reason that in reading Dickens’ words today there is almost the feel of tragedy. Though modern progress is often touted as having made everything so very much easier, it is doubtful that this is really such a good thing. One of the costs of not having to do many things is that not many things get done. Certainly, various tasks are accomplished. The children are taken to school, the report is filed at work, dinner is prepared, etc. But these are only accomplishments in a most literal and charitable sense. There is in them nothing of that exalted “first link” of which Dickens spoke. We have very much an easy existence, but almost nothing of a life.

Chesterton stood mightily against such weakening of the human character, body and spirit, and in doing so he finds himself alongside some unlikely allies. The scandalous novelist D.H. Lawrence declares in his essay, “Morality and the Novel,” that the weight of cynicism is destroying life in literature. “A thing isn’t life,” he says, “just because somebody does it.” We could take up this brazen sentence as a rallying cry and be none the worse for it. Even Nietzsche, for all his failings, would stand with us. Though there is in him much of what is wrong with man, it could never be said that he discouraged action. Though we must condemn the Dionysian, there is no finer dancer living.

Chesterton’s own position can best be derived from a parable. In “Homesick at Home,” we see the curious story of a man who literally travels round the world to get to where he already is, and experiences much along the way. “Like a transmigrating soul, he lived a series of existences: a knot of vagabonds... a crew of sailors... each counted him a final fact in their lives, the great spare man with eyes like two stars, the stars of ancient purpose.” This man is not only having seeds planted within him, but is himself a seed. Who can measure what joys he brought those vagabonds, or what tales are told of him by those sailors?

And we must not forget Chesterton’s distributist sympathies, for it is the scourge of wage slavery that is most singularly responsible for the deadened state of modern man. He labours at work that does not require thought, inspire the mind, or caress the soul. In his limited leisure time, he has neither the energy nor the will to dare great things or forge links. He atrophies. And does the world help him fight against this slow death? No, it does not. It provides him with a surrogate life to keep him from the real one he is missing. It provides him with reality television to distract him from reality. It provides him with Internet worlds to keep him from the real world outside his very door. It provides him with celebrities in place of heroes, fads for traditions, and buzzwords for truths.

And so we come, perhaps belatedly, to the title of this monograph. In Tennyson’s marvelous “Ulysses,” we see a perfect emblem of this striving against mediocrity. In the poem’s closing lines, there is an echo of Dr. Bull’s thundering sentiments about the character of the average man in The Man Who Was Thursday, to the effect that, jaded though he may be by cynicism and skepticism, he is still above the barbarism of anarchy. That he says this as an apparently anarchist mob pursues him is significant, as it sets the stage for our own reading of Tennyson’s glorious finale:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

There was a time - and it was not long ago - when reading these words sent a golden thrill up my spine. Now, however, I can only look upon them and worry.

9 comments:

Eric said...

Man, you were robbed. I hear that Dale guy is a crook (or maybe it was "crock; or maybe that he had croaked).

No matter. Very nice piece.

(For readers unacquainted with the players here: I consider Dale a friend (or at least a friendly acquaintance; or maybe an acquaintance that's friendly), so take the above with a smile.)

Anonymous said...

Lovely article furor.

This quote: "Think for a moment of the long chain of thorns or flowers that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day" caught my attention as I was just reading Chesterton's essay "A Defence of Rash Vows" where he states:
"The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place."
The taking of the vow is like the chain of either thorns or flowers ...if you vow for love you chain with flowers....
the vow going back to one "memorable day" (wedding) throws you into a meeting with yourself in the future as a faithful spouse of a fruitful life. I thought of this as I greeted my husband of 20 years with a smile this morning.

I can't wait to read the winning article because I can't imagine what would top this. :>
Lily

Chestertonian said...

Nick, you know a case of pinot noir and some cigars -- surreptitiously placed by my front door -- would have helped get you your second win in a row. As no bribe was forthcoming, neither was the nod from the judges. ;-)

Nick Milne said...

Well, sorry! Maybe next time you should mention the bribes in the application release. You can't expect the average citizen of the virgin, unsullied Internet to have such a dirty and lucre-driven mind, you know.

In any event, such is life.

Alan said...

The words, "Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.", once you reach my age, will again thrill your spin. It is a line that still gives me courage - not to yield. not to yield.

Trubador said...

He labours at work that does not require thought, inspire the mind, or caress the soul...

One thing to keep in mind is that it is not possible to have only utopian-like jobs. There will always be the need to till the soil and reap the harvest, to clean the toilets and dust the furniture, to delivery an item long distances and file paperwork to make sure it doesn't get lost in the process, to assemble the widgets and inspect the dadoodles. Granted, there is waaaaay too much bureaucracy and unnecessary menial tasks, but it's something that to a certain degree will always be with us.

... In his limited leisure time, he has neither the energy nor the will to dare great things or forge links. He atrophies. And does the world help him fight against this slow death? No, it does not. It provides him with a surrogate life to keep him from the real one he is missing. It provides him with reality television to distract him from reality. It provides him with Internet worlds to keep him from the real world outside his very door. It provides him with celebrities in place of heroes, fads for traditions, and buzzwords for truths.

This is a powerful point, and I would suggest expounding on it!

Denny said...

Nick,

A very fine essay -- provocative and with insight that belies your young age. Good job. I also followed the link over to your piece on intellectual honesty. That too was an illuminating article with important applications for a life well lived. I've printed it off to share with a few friends. Thanks.

Denny Hartford
Director, Vital Signs Ministries
Omaha, Nebraska
(Vital Signs Blog)
(The Book Den blog)

Nick Milne said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words. If there were any way to make a living off this sort of thing, as Gilbert did, you can rest assured I'd look into it.

For now, though, it's just a fun hobby.

Maolsheachlann, Ireland said...

I loved your essay, Nick! It raises a question I think must face all Chestertonians....to what extent should we denounce the dehumanising and alienating effects of modern society, and to what extent should we revel in the world as it is, since its the only world we have? I ask this because reading Chesterton actually cured me of a surly disdain for modern life, funnily enough. What innovations since Chesterton's time might he have embraced? Has the working life of the average man and woman has become rather less of a drudge since his day? There may be more people self-employed and working for small companies which might give them more opportunity to be involved in decisions. But which is more life-enhancing; a relatively straightforward job like that of a shop assistant (which could be very tough, but at least you can step out of every day) or a more demanding one that makes inroads onto your soul, without being in any way rewarding? Ulysses is one of my favourite poems but I wonder if Chesterton would have found its note of pagan fatalism rather joyless and unChristian? Hope you have better luck next year, Nick!