Saturday, April 09, 2011
The Keeper of Souls (The mystery of being human 2)
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul.
I took the photo whilst passing through the churchyard at Hambleden, a tiny village that doesn’t seem to have changed since the Middle Ages, and may for all I know be still enmeshed in the feudal system, though its origins go further back. It has its own page on Wikipedia, so I’ll not trouble you with further description*.
I can’t help being lazy, if that’s the right word. Part of me urges the scribing of a closely-argued essay that holds together and appeals to reason, but the stronger impulse is to write what comes into my head. (Later: what I publish here is some sort of compromise.) My lackadaisical attitude stems from a vision of time in abundance, stretching out ahead of me like a bright landscape in Spring; or glittering like a hoard of gold coins, that I like to let run through my fingers for the sensuous thrill, rather than spend it on some meaningful cause.
Sometimes I feel I have something unique to offer, and that this is the reason I’m given this endless-seeming vista of leisure, good health and freedom from want. It never occurs to me that anything I have to offer would be delivered in a medium other than words, and yet I have no desire to be a professional writer. So I just thread pretty beads called words into sentences, paragraphs and so on, despite not knowing what tapestry of beadwork might result. At such times, ‘not knowing’ is the closest I can come to describing a ‘method’——too strong a word, methinks. But then I surround myself with certain authors——Pessoa, Dillard, John Cowper Powys, Conrad, Wittgenstein, Dostoievsky. I see that they have managed to find words for things that I still don’t know how to express. Then I think I am just biding my time, practising, limbering up, keeping mentally fit but not competing in the actual sport.
As title of my last piece hints, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mystery of being human. What is it that makes us so different from the other animals? One of the things, the one that seems to me the most significant, is how different we are from each other. I see from my study window a couple of magpies squabbling in a tree. You cannot tell one from the other. They’re like identical twins, clad in the same uniform. Contrariwise, we each have the trait of uniqueness, almost as if each one of us is a different species. Naturally, I speak in a poetic sense. Scientifically, a species is ... defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring (Wikipedia).
The differences I’m mostly thinking of are in our ways of seeing things. I’m sure I’m not the first to think of human variation as a spectrum, with ‘conformity’ at the left and ‘individuality’ at the right. We seem to be moving towards individuality more rapidly than ever before. The effect of global communication is to accelerate difference rather than produce an homogenous mixture. This seems paradoxical: you might expect a blend, as when you put disparate ingredients in a blender. Not so: the more humanity travels and mingles, loves and fights, the more diverse the resulting rainbow.
Two mysteries, then: being so different from the other animals, and being so different from each other. I suddenly had an idea. My hunch was that the diversity so characteristic of mankind originates from the incest taboo, which (I thought) probably does not exist in apes, for example. I searched via Google and found this, from an article by Phil Bartle, an emeritus professor of sociology, on his Community Empowerment Collective website:
If we look at all our primate cousins, we find that incest is practised one way or another by all of them, except us.
We suspect, therefore, that the taboo goes back to somewhere around the very origins of humankind, the origins of human culture.
We see the origin of culture as having something to do with the use of tools (sophisticated and complicated tools, as other primates use simple tools) and language (sophisticated and complicated languages, as other primates use simple forms of language).
We now suspect that the three traits, tools, language, and the incest taboo, are all related to each other and related to the origin of humanity.
The incest taboo requires that we must exchange mates between groups, and that exchange was required for us to communicate and develop our tools (increasing our likelihood to survive, thrive and reproduce).
Early ‘families,’ based upon the taboo, were part of those which developed culture, technology and co-operation, and survived while our close cousins (the Neanderthals?) did not.
I’ve been in life-long conflict between the imperative to conform, especially in childhood, and the need to express my individuality. I don’t suppose this is at all unusual, but it’s only now that I can pick up the threads in idleness, as it were, and unravel them from the tight ball of hitherto-unquestioned assumptions. Intellect is useless in telling me ‘who I really am’—as a unique individual, as opposed to a specimen of homo sapiens sapiens. For intellect is forged through language and culture, both of which pull me into their tight centre: conformity.
There’s an urge in me to be on the outside of the fold: well, not quite ‘beyond the pale’, but somewhere near its periphery. At this frontier, I look at what my species sees itself as, in what may be its collective delusion. Homo sapiens, at least in its most dominant culture, is inordinately proud of its thinking, its spirituality, its godlike nature. (Atheists have have more godlike pretensions than devout worshippers!) But gazing from the edge of the community of thinkers, I wonder if mankind is in some way monstrous, neurotic, Nature’s worst mistake. Nature has its balance, its equilibrium, but from Gaia’s point of view (I refer to James Lovelock’s conception of Nature as a single complex organism) man is the biggest catastrophe it has yet had to face.
And so my analysis comes full circle back to the Book of Genesis:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth over the earth.
So far so good, for that was just the initial setup, after which it went wrong, as the Hebrew authors of Genesis could clearly see and poetically described, in Adam and Eve’s forced exile from Eden. Man was the renegade animal, the inventor of evil: this was apparent, and required to be explained in a myth. In the Psalms we see that man, this monstrous deviation from normal healthy animalhood, needs God as his comforter: God the Smiter of Enemies and Keeper of Souls.
What foolishness to replace the Comforter with the cold facts of science, and the arrogance of militant atheism! We are not perfectible, but (in Biblical terms) ‘fallen’. For all our science and philosophy and the mixed blessings they offer, we strut on this stage but a short time. It doesn’t mean anything to know if there ‘really is’ a Lord who shall preserve me from evil, and be the keeper of my soul. In faith is comfort; and comfort is real. I feel as if I have solved a mystery.
*Here’s a photo of Hambleden village.
PS Map specially for Ashok (see second comment):
Posted by Vincent at 12:50 pm