Reflections on Chartres Cathedral, the death of civilization and the deification of the banal
Thinking of Chartres Cathedral, I ask myself, what, if anything, have we built in the past eight centuries, that compares to this? The iPad, computers, cell phones, the internet? Are you kidding me? You must be joking. We have more ways to amuse ourselves, yes, but when has our capacity for entertainment, amusement and distraction ever been a sensible or even a sane measure of a society? And what good is an ocean of information if we have no context for it, no perspective on it, and no wisdom with which to make sense of it? It is lost on us. It may as well be the most indecipherable of hieroglyphs to us. Such an ocean of information is of no value to the deaf and the blind. It is all white noise, or dark noise, more commonly. And, to paraphrase Thoreau – and his remarks are as relevant and as piercing to our illusions today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago – what good is it that we can talk with someone on the other side of the planet if we have nothing of significance to say to one another? We are highly connected, so to speak, in digital, electronic ways, but highly alienated and divided in almost every way that matters, so even our presumed connectedness is more of a fiction than a reality.
We are hyper-connected and increasingly alienated. We are plugged in a tuned out. We are awash in an information overload – and are in fact drowning in it – yet we have lost all our wisdom, and even our common sense. We can speak to one another across the globe, in an instant, yet have nothing worth while to say, and neither any ears with which to hear. We have copious quantities of toys, and reams and volumes of data, but we have lost sight of what is most valuable, and what is most precious, and cannot see the forest for the trees. We are richer than any generation or civilization which has ever come before, yet we live as beggars, and blind beggars at that, obsessed and consumed with our mountains of dust.
We have the perspective of a gnat, and yet, we foolishly believe ourselves to be the culmination and pinnacle of human history and all evolution: as if nature delighted to reach a point where the trivial would be deified, and turned into yet another golden calf – a golden calf made of dust — as we worship at the feet of banality, and serve the idiocy of our time as smiling choir boys and giddy, unthinking, loyal servants.
No, we are not the culmination of natural evolution or of history. There is more day yet to dawn, to say the least. And if this wake up call be disturbing to some, we should remember that is is less disturbing to be awakened before the house burns down, than after. Be glad for the alarm bell. It is far better than the alternative.
We have electric light and indoor plumbing, yes, but all that says is that we can read more easily – if anyone still cared to do such an out-dated and archaic thing, which, it seems, fewer and fewer people are willing or wanting to do – and we can wipe our asses more easily and with a greater convenience. Hardly what we would call a measure of progress, by any sane or reasonable standard, I would suggest.
And that aside, are our lives really the richer and more noble because our powder rooms are more advanced in their puffery and comforts, or because we have a thousand and one electronic gadgets, with which to forget about the classics, the great works of literature, the greatest thoughts of the greatest minds and souls of all time – which require no such baubles or technological trinkets and toys, of course; that we can forget about the study of philosophy, the humanities or spirituality, the life of the larger community and the polis, the arts, or the deeper questions and realms of life and human existence? Were we not distracted enough, two thousand years ago? Few had ears to hear then. Fewer still now, or so it seems. Distraction is not progress – it is just distraction.
Yes, our personal hygiene is advanced in levels of convenience that would make our ancestors green with envy, should they ever place such a high stake on such minor concerns, or elevate them to such absurd heights; and moreover, our ability to distract ourselves from what is most important has soared, and absolutely skyrocketed. Some progress, that is, I would say. I stand in awe at the stunning sophistication and grandeur of the modern world. Let us bow down before the sublime majesty of it all.
When we measure a society or our path through history with a sense of perspective and depth, all that ultimately matters is whether we have learned to live with a greater wisdom or a greater love, or ideally, an increase in both; and from what I have seen, there is no reason to believe that we have made any great strides in either, since the Medieval era, and well before. We are lost in trivia and distractions, superfluities and superficialities, and the grand and glorious, all-pervasive worship of the mundane and the banal. Our society is obsessed with the mere surface of things: an appreciation of our depths has all but completely vanished from sight; and wisdom is a word we no longer even recognize, while the love of our fellow human beings is increasingly lost in a sea of alienation, narcissism, paranoia and fear.
This is progress? If so, you can keep it. It does not appeal to me. It is a bog, and we are lost, sunk to our knees, if not our necks, in quicksand, and sinking fast. And what or who do we reach out to in our desperate anxiety and bewilderment? Facebook and “social media?” Cell phone video games? Dial-up psychics or dial-up porn? Or Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and “reality tv,” media presstitutes and talking heads on network TV, who are almost without exception either completely corrupt or completely inane.
(I like Oprah, by the way – don’t get me wrong. She seems to have a good soul and a good heart. But I don’t think she is necessarily qualified to tell us how and where our civilization went off the rails, or what we must do to get it back on track. And the rest of the mire, which the people routinely turn to for guidance, is not remotely as sensible as Oprah.)
We know not even where to turn to get ourselves out of this quicksand into which we have blindly stumbled. We are in a bad place, to say it mildly, and the ship of our “civilization” is sinking. All is not lost, but all is most certainly in danger. And it would be both foolish and irresponsible, as well as cowardly and unconscionable, to speak about the realities we are now facing, in less than fully frank and honest terms.
Ancient societies brought us Socrates, Plato, Jesus, the Buddha, Shankara and Lao Tzu, agriculture, the calendar, mathematics and written language, tools and aqueducts, sanitation, beautiful architecture, art and literature, the idea of democracy and freedom, great cities and hanging gardens, as well as wisdom. The medieval world brought us Da Vinci, Michelangelo, the Renaissance, flourishing democratic city-states, and the glory of the Alhambra, Mont St. Michel, Chartres Cathedral and the Magna Charta. Modern society has brought us prozac, porn, iPads and “social networking,” Donald Trump, Exxon, Monsanto, Walmart and Goldman Sachs – along with alienation, voyeurism, vicarious living, the cult of celebrity worship and reality TV. As E.F. Schumacher said, “We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and are impressed by our yardage.” We have arguably regressed more than we have advanced, or have regressed at least as much as we have advanced. Our smugness is misplaced – and more to the point, it is simply dangerous.
We could speak of the glories and the triumphs of modern industrial civilization, and there are, and have been many, and there is a time and a place for such mutual congratulations – but that is not what we need most right now. What we need is a wake-up call. We have hit the snooze button too many times. Our world is burning, and the people remain asleep to the peril. We need a bucket of icy water over the head, or a stiff slap in the face, to bring us to our senses. Whatever it takes, humanity must be roused from what has become, by now, extremely perilous slumber. There is no time remaining for the mincing of words, or for pleasant euphemisms and niceties. Frankness is now a matter of survival.
Our progress has spotty and highly questionable at best, to say the least – not to mention the fact that we have not yet found the wisdom or the common sense, to refrain from systematically destroying ourselves and the planet on which we live. In such a context, reflections on the significance of Chartres, may be of some small help. Maybe it can bring some much needed perspective: it is certain that we are in a dread dearth and poverty of that most precious commodity, even while we are up to the gills in consumer goods and trinkets and other assorted trivia and trash – and so much so, that it covers over our eyes and obstructs our sight, so that we cannot even see what is before our very nose.
Joseph Campbell, one of history’s greatest scholars of mythology, world religions and human culture, speaks of his experience of Chartres:
“I’m back in the Middle Ages. I’m back in the world that I was brought up in as a child, the Roman Catholic spiritual-image world, and it is magnificent … That cathedral talks to me about the spiritual information of the world. It’s a place for meditation, just walking around, just sitting, just looking at those beautiful things.”
Orson Wells speaks of Chartres:
“Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.”
When this present civilization is no more, when it has been buried under the rubble and ashes of its own short-sighted vanity, hubris and illusions, when our cities are abandoned and fall to dust and ruin, certain works of literature, certain pieces of music, art and architecture, certain memories and stories and timeless truths, will be what we hold dear – the rest, will be forgotten, and will disappear like a puff of smoke on the wind, and will vanish like a passing dream.
(And yes, that means your X-Box, your PlayStation, your smart phone, your American Express card and your MTV as well, of course – and all of the corporate dinosaurs and juggernauts and behemoths who provide these trifles and feed upon our addiction to them, as they feed upon us.)
It would seem to make sense for us to re-evaluate our habits, our assumptions and our priorities now, before nature forces us to do so – as she soon will, we can be assured. Making changes freely and in relative peace, is always preferable to making changes in haste and under duress, to put it in the mildest and most understated terms possible. We need to make changes now. It is in our interest not to delay.
Let those who have ears hear.
(Ronald Wright’s, A Brief History of Progress, Jared Diamond’s, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, and Mathew Stein’s, When Technology Fails, should be required reading for every thoughtful person over the age of twelve – along with Shelly’s Ozymandias, Yeats’, The Second Coming, and T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men. Let those who have ears hear.)
Civilizations have fallen and collapsed many times before: the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Roman and the Mayan, to name but a few. We are not immune to such a fate, and we are desperately racing ahead with all haste, and are on track and on schedule, for just such a fall. If our civilization does collapse, it will be because we have allowed ourselves to create an ecological cataclysm of our own making; because we stubbornly refused to question our unquestionable, long-standing assumptions and cherished beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence; because we refused to adapt or to make the changes necessary to survive – and above all, it will be because the people did not embrace their power soon enough to throw the money changers to the street, and to reclaim their future. We cannot let this happen. The people must stand now.
We do not have to go out with either a bang or a whimper. The future is ours to create. Stand now.
There are times for shouting from the rooftops. There are times for sounding the trumpets or sounding the alarm. And there are times for a quiet determination. Choose your mood, choose your tone, choose your approach, but whatever you do, choose to act, and act now. The hour is late, and there is no more time for delay, or for floundering in hesitation. Act now, and stand.
The world, as with our lives, is what we make of it. We can live in paradise, or the nearest thing to it – at the least, we can live in a just, free and peaceful world, a beautiful world reigned by ecological sanity and love of one’s neighbour. Or we can live in a hell of our own making, and race feverishly towards our own self-annihilation and early demise, and into a dark age which has no exit, save for the tomb. The choice is entirely in our hands, and there is no use in our whimpering about our wish that someone would come along and fix things for us, and make everything nice. It is our future to create, or to destroy. The power is in our hands.
It is our choice what we make of our world and our future. Let us choose wisely, and choose now. Act now, and stand. It is within our power to heal this troubled world, and to restore a bright future for all human beings, and all living creatures on this Earth. It is within our power to create the world anew.
The hour of our choosing is here. The fork in the road has arrived. We must have bold action now, or human beings will simply perish from the Earth.
Stand now. We need you now. Not in fifty years, or ten years, or five, but now. Stand, and let us heal this troubled, beautiful world which is our home.
Stand now. It is time.
J. Todd Ring,
March 26, 2014
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