Appeal

Oftentimes one hears it whispered that we live in an age of appearance rather than substance. An age of what seems to be, rather than what is. An era when impression weighs heavier than content. Something catches our eye; we glimpse at it for a brief moment. Perhaps we let the thing slide through our fingers before putting it back on the stack and leaving it be. We move on, elsewhere.

To many, that is what the Postmodern era –- or rather, living within the Postmodern era –- feels like. We lack the time and clarity of mind to focus upon a thing; there is always the next thing to do, the next place to be. We have to do with snippets of information; we are too much in a hurry to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The picture of the greater whole escapes us, and we accept this because we are busy.

And sometimes we are driven by a quest for meaning to glimpse past the part of the puzzle to comprehend the greater whole. The greater whole is not formed of parts, but the relationship between those parts, and from the interaction and interconnections between them, a greater structure and order emerges. One such glimpse is a fleeting vision of the value of culture.

Cultural awareness is more valuable and important than a dismissive attitude toward other races or cultures. There is some moral difficulty in being proud of the acts of our ancestors, in the sense that there is no point in being proud of something over which one totally has no influence. It’s the same thing as being moody when a certain football team loses a match. If we feel pride over what our ancestors did, must we also be ashamed of — for example — the slave trade?

Yet, and this is more important, we need cultural awareness if we are to make sense of the country in which we live. Of the rules and customs, for example. As a student once said to me: “People laugh about an aboriginal wearing a penis-tube, but if you ask him why he’s wearing that penis tube, he will tell you a story. Western people today won’t be able to tell you anything about what they wear other than; ‘it’s fashion’ or; ‘it’s my taste’.”

We can take our ancestors and their actions as models. Of what we aspire to be, and of what we do not aspire to be. When the Roman historian Livy described the actions of Romulus, he did not intend his reader to blindly revere and imitate the founder or Rome. Instead, he wanted his reader to look at Romulus’ actions, to study the circumstances under which those actions took place, and to make his own conclusions about that conduct as a matter of learning.

Those who stumble on the value of culture feel something rumbling within their minds. They feel the weight of a dying society, and the choking futility it creates. They seek escape in an artistic muse, in an age of aristocratic elegance. An age where girls could be girls and boys could grow up to be men. And everywhere around us glimmered golden-yellow and green, everything rocked and shone, caressed by the fresh breeze of spring and accompanied by orchestrated music.

Those who resist modernity are fed up with a decadent and aimless age, so they invent new symbolism from summaries of the past. They mold together Teutonic knights, the genius inventors of the industrial age, proud castles, innocent maidens and idyllic towns. They forge a ‘utopia’ from ranks of disciplined and confident soldiers, exquisite dining rooms, majestic architecture and craftsmanship.

And this is what our leaders and representatives must do in a fractured and shattered age. In this age, cognitive learning is vastly undervalued, and as such the iron logic of facts hardly makes an impression on anyone safe a few. Our leaders and representatives must learn to speak a language of images, of painting a beautiful landscape that seduces both listener and viewer. Not until art has won the heart of the audience reason and logic can captivate its mind.

4 Comments

  1. Ted Swanson says:

    Great article, Nicholas. Yep, people don’t just need to know the facts, they need their imaginations captured.

    In regard to our ancestors: I think you’re right that they should be both models of what we aspire to be and also what we aspire not to be. But if I had to lean one way or the other, I think they should be a model of what we aspire to be.

    I almost didn’t want to make this comment because I think this article is one of those examples where nothing really needs to be added!

  2. Once, after puzzling long over the charm of Homer, I applied to a learned friend, and said to him, ‘Can you tell me why Homer is so interesting? Why can’t you and I write as he wrote? Why is it that his art is lost, and that today it is impossible for us to awaken an interest at all comparable to his?’

    …’Well,’ said my friend, ‘I have often meditated on that, but it seems to come to about this: Homer looked long at a thing. Why,’ said he, ‘do you know that if you should hold up your thumb and look at it long enough, you would find it immensely interesting?’ Homer looks a great while at his thumb. He sees precisely the thing he is dealing with. He does not confuse it with anything else. It is sharp to him; and because it is sharp to him it stands out sharply for us over thousands of years. Have you acquired this art, or do you hastily glance at insignificant objects? Do you see the thing exactly as it is? Do you strip away from it your own likings and dislikings, your own precious notions of what it ought to be? Do you come face to face with things? If you do, the hardest situation in life may well be to you a delight… Observe, observe in every direction! Keep your eyes open. Go forward, understanding that the world was made for your knowledge, that you have the right to enter into and possess it”.

    – George Herbert Palmer, “The Glory of the Imperfect”

    1. crow says:

      Almost all of that was right on the money.
      Except for the last bit:
      “Go forward, understanding that the world was made for your knowledge, that you have the right to enter into and possess it.”

      I imagine nearly everyone will misinterpret the intent of “knowledge”.
      And that misinterpretation will skew the whole thing towards nonsense.
      Replace “knowledge” with “experience” (and the harvest that comes from it), and it reads as truth.
      To “know” life is also to “experience” it. But many will not make the distinction.
      Further: the world certainly does not exist for anybody.
      But anybody may enter into its delights, and make use of them.
      As for “possessing” it: how absurd, unless one makes the distinction between becoming it, and the notion of mere ‘ownership’.
      Words are difficult things, which is one very good reason to treat them with care and respect. Lest one get it completely wrong, and go off being all judgmental on the basis of an error. Like leftists.

      Anyway: seen in this light, the passage is pure taoism. Gotta be good :)

      Pleasing article, by the way, Nick.
      It suggests some sort of transformation has occurred.
      That’s always satisfying.

  3. ferret says:

    “Our leaders and representatives must learn to speak a language of images, of painting a beautiful landscape that seduces both listener and viewer.”

    Leaders and representatives cannot paint “a beautiful landscape” without knowing what should be on the painting. They, leaders and representatives, need an elaborated ideology worked out by competent men.

    There should be a ‘utopia’ already suggested and accepted by thinking men. Where is this plan, or idea, or picture? Where is the picture of the society worth to live in?

    It would be too premature to talk about the “how” without knowing the “what”.

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