Joy and laughter
In the old days, women would say ‘she has butter and jam on her bread’ about spendthrifts. People would usually only have one at a time. Nowadays, there’s a café in an old mining town that sells triple-chocolate brownies with ice cream, fudge, salted caramel, and a small biscuit.
I doubt this will last. Modern lifestyles are too dependent on fossil fuels, fragile supply chains, and global inequality to be sustained; and there are no plausible alternatives. A bit of subtlety is called for, though. On one hand, a culture that has only imagined either endless growth or sudden apocalypse must now come to terms with gradual collapse. On the other hand, those brownies are magnificent.
Jack Leahy has recently written about the Arsenios Option, a response to the times that he summarises as ‘flee, be silent, and dwell in stillness’. He draws on long traditions of asceticism; and I think these traditions, and people like him, are more important than is generally understood. When lives organised around the pursuit of luxury stop being possible, masses of people will need new sources of significance. At that point, ascetics can provide dramatic counter-examples that help society to refocus. It happened after Rome’s collapse. It may happen again.
Ascetics are important, but they must be honest.
I don’t write this to dismiss Jack, who I believe is honest and who I suspect will agree. I write it because it is easier to find ersatz asceticism than the real thing. After all, real ascetics flee, be silent, and dwell in stillness. Ersatz ascetics don’t do any of those things. The green movement provides examples. Private jets flown to a climate change summit that aims to reduce carbon emissions are illustrative of a more general point. Often, the most vocal greens aren’t giving anything up. They are people who take pleasure in their organic vegetable patch, natural fibres, and sense of righteousness. Compared to someone who enjoys V8 engines, away games, and holidays on the Costa del Sol, they have less to lose. Similarly, some British people have an exaggerated horror of American culture: not the culture of the coastal cities, but of the heartland, the land of big cars, big churches, and big portions. Usually this horror wears vaguely political clothing. They mutter unconvincingly about guns, the death penalty, or the Christian right. This is transparent. The same horror is not expressed about Pakistan, China, or Iran. Behind the political veneer, it looks more like discomfort with the fact that Americans are more confident and direct than Brits. Even this isn’t the core, though. The core is ersatz asceticism. Americans don’t, as a rule, feel shame about enjoying big, loud, good things. Brits live in a country where many of those big, loud, good things aren’t quite as available; but some prefer to pretend that this is because we have refined palates than to admit that the USA is simply much better than us at many things.
The ersatz ascetic tells you not to have the brownie because the ingredients aren’t local, aren’t vegan, and it doesn’t taste as good as the carob and courgette one that the whole food shop sells. Then, when you aren’t looking, they have one themselves as a special treat. The real ascetic knows the brownie is magnificent, yet doesn’t eat it.
An honest asceticism must admit that this is an age of wonders. Here in England, I can eat my fill of bananas, mangoes, pineapples. I have access to richer tradition of Aristotelian thought than Aquinas and, at the same time, to more commentary on the Laozi than Wang Bi. Journeys that would have taken weeks or months just two centuries ago can be routinely done in hours. I write about Yorkshire, and within hours people on other continents tell me of similar problems where they are.
Whether they are embraced or renounced, these wonders should evoke joy. If a mind takes no joy in a ’59 Chevy Apache sitting low on chromes, it will be blind to the beauty of a Viking Karv, and it will not hear the song in the swing of an old billhook with a new handle. Humanity is born of nature and so is human ingenuity. A mind that takes no joy in the wonders of this age is as guilty of waging war on nature as the fools who cannot tell the difference between a factory and a farm. Some wonders do great harm, some should be renounced, and most are only here for a short season anyway. They are, nevertheless, wonders.
Those who would resist or avoid the Machine, the monster of coercion that slowly incorporates the whole world into itself, need this expansive joy that includes humans and the things we make. Joy helps us to see the enemy better.
Let me illustrate. Saudi Arabia is spending $500 billion on THE LINE, a city as tall as the World Trade Centre and over one hundred miles long. The desert is already being prepared and the promotional videos are already out. Citizens in THE LINE will be completely monitored. A child’s blood sugars will allow the algorithms to determine what is in his fridge. Even for Saudi Arabia, $500 billion is a lot of money. A significant proportion of the once-in-the-history-of-humanity wealth generated by oil is being spent in order to make a science fiction dystopia real. This is horrifying, but it is also funny.
THE LINE is the epitome of techno-utopianism, from the futuristic capitalisation of the name to the extra-judicial executions of anyone who stands in its way. It is trendy and inhuman, implausible and real. It is also the very latest version of a very old joke, the one about the prideful fool who thinks he is king. The money will be spent and something will be built, but it will not be the dystopian utopia of the videos. The project cannot keep staff, no-one knows the underlying geology well enough to estimate costs, and the transport plans are patently impossible. The gap between pride and reality is complete and absurd.
There is a sacred duty to laugh at these effervescences of the time. It is only laughter, not concern or righteous anger, which reveals that the king was a fool all along.
They think they are building heaven, some fear that they are building hell, but they are only building a ruin. The Machine, the great beast of progress, is the same. The ruin it brings will ruin it too. It merits derisive laughter, not trembling fear.
These old hills watched the work of countless king-fools crumble, from Severus’s forts to Oswiu’s monasteries; yet humanity’s laughter has echoed across them, uninterrupted, since the last time the ice retreated. It will do so for a while more yet.