One-hundred years old today. Happy Birthday!
Below the stars
Before I went to live below the stars,
I was be-taught the task-of-life that did await
Completion at my hand. Then loomed the gate
That led to lands so full of strife and wars.
And, as I passed where none may dare refuse,
A cloud of deep unknowing shrouded me.
I lay as in the arms of that which hews
The finest features from the clay and dews.
Of dust now was I fashioned ; lacking sense ;
No pains beset me yet, as I was warned.
Of warmth and shadow was I made in dense
Awareness. Sounds, a part of me intense.
Was this the tenor of life enjoyed below?
Alas no more than this was I allowed to know.
© Jamie MacNab 2013
What do we know, we creatures bound to soil,
Of heaven’s glory? Have we looked within,
Below the tangled log of daily broil,
To depths profound, where memories begin?
Recall genetic thirst, my anxious heart !
Regret your waywardness at Lethe’s shore ;
Where lost was all that you did know to start
Your worldly life anew. So speaks the lore.
My mind, recall the sorrowing mother, Eve,
Who likewise feasted, disadvised, on fruit
That wiped her mem’ry, leaving her to grieve
On that which might have been, had she stayed mute.
What do we know, we creatures, bent by toil?
We from amnesia’s folly must recoil.
© Jamie MacNab 2013
How odd it is that the paradoxical creature called Man ever acts to destroy himself at the very point when one would expect him to burst into a bloom of a sublime civilisation. Wherever we look, advanced civilisations bring themselves down. China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium, Rome. It is as if we can take only so much civilised life ; then, if we take just one more step, we are overwhelmed by the desire to destroy ourselves – as if the goodness is just too good to be true ; too good to be allowed to live.
Of course, the details of the fall of each of those great civilisations differ ; but that leads us to conclude that there must be some general principle at work. Perhaps a close inspection of each of them is needed ; and also a close inspection of our own rise and fall. And we would be wise to assume that we shall indeed fall.
Are there signs that our civilisation is falling? Do we see writings and deeds that indicate it? Do our own thoughts show it?
The rise of Christendom, especially in Northern Europe was spectacular. Just eighteen-hundred years ago we were brutal. Within four-hundred years we were on the path to civilisation. We may see that by examining the writings and the arts of those times. The rise continued, with many fits, starts and relapses, right up until the early nineteenth century. Then we peaked. The best – in science, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and singing – was all but over. We had ceased to produce inspired architecture. The aristocracy had ceased to be of the best. The age of the industrialist had arrived, and these men copied the achievements of their predecessors and cheapened them, making unimagineable fortunes in the process.
By the late twentieth century, almost all art was banal (at very best) and otherwise utterly vulgar. Science consisted of footnotes to the great, and was, itself, subordinated to manufacturing. All was done in the name of money and profit. Today, you cannot see a reference to a work of art without its price being highlighted. Even our great historic buildings have their value reckoned only in terms of cash and, perhaps, utility.
Possibly the last straw for our civilisation was burned in this late period. For now, such is our love of cash, that we have exported the most profitable of our business – because foreign labour is cheaper. And we are left with the sterile occupation of simply managing other people’s money as our most edifying industry – but without the energy and art of Florence. It is a travesty of all that our ancestors struggled to achieve.
Is our civilisation in decline? I doubt if this generation knows how to answer such a question.
Surely, Man is the most paradoxical of creatures, given both to sublime love and kindness but also to the basest hatred and cruelty. And devious, too, so that even his religion may be pressed into service to justify his sins. But his conscience ever troubles him ; and, for that, we must thank God.
It may take centuries to tame his nature even a little ; but the taming is real, even if fragile. Fragile especially in the presence of fear.
In contemplation of unmissing fate
My mind and heart so often disagree.
A thought begins, refusing to abate;
A pulse arises, longing to be free.
But what of freedom if it leads to chains?
And what of love if not of trials and truth?
Your patient soul discerned the fateful lie
That falsely tells of joy (and smiles agley)
While leading would-be blameless lives awry.
In tides and races, conjured far to stray
From that which first had drawn them, souls are lost.
So what, braveheart, do promises of bliss
Amount to in the scheme of love’s true cost?
To anguished souls – to this and only this.