Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.
Listening (had there been any one to listen) from the upper rooms of the empty house only gigantic chaos streaked with lightning could have been heard tumbling and tossing, as the winds and waves disported themselves like the amorphous bulks of leviathans whose brows are pierced by no light of reason, and mounted one on top of another, and lunged and plunged in the darkness or daylight (for night and day, month and year ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
As representatives of national governments were meeting in Paris earlier this month, and deciding that yes, indeed, something should be done to slow the warming of the Earth—though no real structures were put in place to achieve this slowing, and of course the economic system and its technology—the engines of the warming and many other degradations of the planet and of human beings—these cannot be called into question . . .
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Those lines are from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” but during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, I was not reading Eliot, but his contemporary and colleague’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Reading, in any case, is a wonderful escape.
As Woolf’s many fans know well, the novel is broken in the middle by a ten-year stretch which includes the First World War, the death of the female protagonist, Mrs Ramsay, and the death of a way of life to which she held fast (and whose beauty, like her own, was overestimated). The ten-year stretch is covered by a beautifully written section entitled Time Passes. Its protagonist is the Ramsay’s old, seaside summer house, left to the dust and drafts, rats, spiders, and mushrooms. Time is passing; it has not ceased. And a human presence remains, particularly in the form of the lighthouse, with the unceasing sweep of its beam, and of Mrs McNab, attempting to stay “the corruption and the rot.”
Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, . . . ; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-laced waters.
To the Lighthouse was published in 1927; “The Hollow Men” in 1925. The latter’s famous conclusion:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
In this Christmas season, I find myself recalling, as I often do, an Easter message that the liberal minister William Sloane Coffin once delivered at the Riverside Church in New York. The Web has come to identify Coffin with this line, “Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible.” His point on Easter morning (c. 1980) was that, to Christ’s followers, the crucifixion may have seemed a relief. It allowed people to give in to despair, to a cynical view of a world in which Roman power seemed absolute and there was no room for idealism or change. From this perspective, then, the resurrection was a demand: recommit. Despair is ever the easy conclusion, but now God is calling upon you to keep the faith, spread the word, to continue to do Christ’s work on Earth. (A nice detail: Riverside Church was conceived and financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the co-founder of the Standard Oil company, itself one of the standard bearers of the very same monopoly capitalism that once again dominates American life. Coffin, for his part, began his professional life working for the CIA.)
I am not a Christian, nor attached to any other form of organized religion, nor a believer in gods or God. Except for in these two, hardly insignificant regards. First, as I have written elsewhere, I believe “God” is a convenient placeholder for the unknowable, for the rather stark limits of human understanding, and thus “God” is a call to humility as well. And secondly, several times a day I find myself saying to myself something like, “Thank God for small favors.” (It could be just a minor thing—the electronic lock on the door to the bike storage room in fact responding to my electronic pass; something that does not always happen.) With my whispering I am making room for the rather large role that luck (or the inexplicable, if you prefer) plays in life. And I am daily thankful for the good fortune of having been born with a little money and the possibility of enjoying rather good physical health.
How might this apply to global warming, Eliot, or Woolf? Eliot readers may recall that the next line after “Falls the Shadow” is “For Thine is the Kingdom,” a fragment of the Lord’s prayer, itself an appeal to an outside force—the outside force—to lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. A recognition that, by ourselves, we cannot save ourselves from ourselves.
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
Can the Paris Agreement of 12 December 2015—and either from a Biblical perspective or after reading the negotiated text—be thought of as a rolling away of the stone, as an opportunity for resurrection and recommitment? My sense is no.
As I said, I am not a Christian. And I do not believe that empires—be they of Romans or of global capitalism—last forever. But nor do I believe that they are brought down or controlled by human reason, nor that global capitalism is quite ready to crumble under its own leviathan weight, its own uncontrollability.
Again, reading is a great escape, and I appreciate Eliot’s biting lines, and I find reasons for hope both in the beauty of Woolf’s prose and in her vision of what may await this Earth:
The place was gone to rack and ruin. Only the Lighthouse beam entered the room for a moment, sent its sudden stare over the bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.
— Wm. Eaton
Credits & Links
Images are of paintings made by René Magritte during the same period as To the Lighthouse and “The Hollow Men”. From top to bottom: L’Oasis (The Oasis), 1925-1927; Découverte (Discovery), 1928; Les Muscles célestes (The Muscles of the Sky), 1927; Le parc du vautour (The Vulture’s Park), 1926; Paysage (Landscape), 1926.
This is my letter to the future (that cannot write to me).
In the lead up to the Paris conference, Letters to the Future collected letters from authors, artists, scientists, and others, written to future generations of their own families. The project was envisioned by Melinda Welsh of the Sacramento News & Review and her spouse Dave Webb. It was a collaborative effort between the Association of Alternative Newsmedia newspapers and the Media Consortium, an international network of Left-leaning journalism organizations. The project was orchestrated by Deborah Redmond. “This is my letter to the future” was a contribution from Emily Dickinson and me.
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