Decline

Thomas Buddenbrook on the beginning of the end in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks:

Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moves beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished. The last few days I’ve been thinking about a Turkish proverb I read somewhere: ‘When the house is finished, death follows.’ Now, it doesn’t have to be death exactly. But retreat, decline, the beginning of the end. […] I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already. Such external signs need time to reach us, like the light of one of those stars up there, which when it shines most brightly may well have already gone out, for all we know.

More death (and love)

And while we’re on the theme of death and the Great War, here’s Joanna Cannan in High Table:

Look on, Cynic, your dozen years, to the time when such words as these will be explained away as wartime hysteria, when such a marriage as is planned now, in this brief, pink-and-white haven, will be dissolved on the cold grounds of incompatibility – we didn’t realise what we were doing – it was a mad wartime affair. Yet can you be sure that these children of calamity, with their music and their dancing and their Cliquot and their loving, and death not screened and unlikely behind his wreathes and crosses but as everyday a thing as going out and shutting the door, did not see clearer then than now, when the curtain has rung down on their melodrama and risen on a comedy in which they never thought to play? ‘Nothing can take our love from us,’ said Lennie, and aimed his remark at honest and rude death, no need to think of time or change or satiety in those straightforward days.

Joseph Roth on dying, and living

A reflection from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March on how life – and death – has changed since 1914:

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

Self-absorption v. curiosity

Good advice from C.K. Stead on having an appetite for life:

Self-absorption is slow death by interior corrosion, and what protects us against it is curiosity, an appetite for the world in all its forms. If you enjoy the world enough to look hard at it, it will save you – but only from yourself, not from disease, war, man-eating tigers or other people, all of which are part of what you must love (or at least love to look out at) in order to live well.

Awards

This made me laugh, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife:

All of them, the novelists, the story writers, the poets, desperately long to win. If there is a prize, then there is someone somewhere on earth who desires it. Grown men pace their homes and scheme about ways to win things, and small children hyperventilate over the prospect of gold-plated trophies for penmanship, for swimming, for just being cheerful. Maybe other life-forms give out awards too, and we just don’t know it: Best All-Round Flatworm; Most Helpful Crow.

How should people of good will live in this fractured time?

Here are some bullet points to consider, some suggestions of how to survive with integrity in an environment which seems to have become inimical to good sense, tolerance and civilised values:
 
  • Listen to others, be polite and attentive, while holding firm to what you believe to be right.
  • Do not provoke, or allow yourself to be provoked, but don’t feign agreement when you disagree.
  • In general, keep quiet, until you know it is the time to speak.
  • If asked for your opinion, give it – straightforwardly and unapologetically.
  • If people do not understand you, or cannot hear what you are saying, walk away. (Do not ‘cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces’ [Matthew 7:6].)
  • Do not engage in pointless abuse.
  • Do not crow when you are proved right (this might not be until after you are dead anyway).
  • Maintain a quiet dignity. Do what is honourable, just and true.
  • Remember that, even when you are justifiably and absolutely convinced that you are more right than those on the other side, you are still a fallible human being and never entirely right about anything, never able to see the complete picture or fully understand yourself, let alone anyone else.
  • Be careful in what you read, and how you read. Keep exercising discrimination. Do not be taken in, or succumb to the temptation to believe in/accept easy answers.
  • Stay centred. If you decide to participate in ‘this twittering world’, as T.S. Eliot so presciently described our milieu in Burnt Norton, do so with care and try not to lose yourself in it.
  • Do not become desensitised. Do not become so detached, so accepting (through familiarity, tiredness, or despair) that, when the moment of individual testing arrives, you fail, or just fail to notice its arrival.
  • Stay fully alive to the moment, do not turn away from it or refuse to live in it. Be your best self, so that your truth will come into play when it needs to, whatever the personal cost.
  • Recognise the moment when we have to go to war (literally and/or figuratively).
 
Two texts to ponder, in relation to the above:
 
From T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
 
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
 
 
And J. Russell Lowell’s great hymn, best sung to the tune Ebenezer:
 
 
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight –
And the choice goes by for ever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
 

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
 

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the Cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
 

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong –
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

Thomas Cromwell’s lack of xenophobia

We could perhaps do with a Thomas Cromwell in UK politics today. This is from Tracy Borman’s biography:

Cromwell’s love of all things Italian was highly unusual for a Londoner. Andreas Franciscius had been aghast to discover on his visit to the capital that its inhabitants ‘not only despise the way in which Italians live, but actually curse them with uncontrolled hatred’. This was corroborated by another Italian visitor of the period: ‘The English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world than England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that “he looks like an Englishman” … They have a great antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island, but to make themselves master of it, and to usurp their goods.’