Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dead Leaves

Why must the past be remembered to be understood, let alone loved? Probably because man is a creature of the ages, of eternity, as Koheleth teaches (3:14-15). It is why Finkelkraut attempted to summon up the ghost of Benda, for instance. It is interesting that man cannot dismiss the past. Even when it is dismissed, it looms. Modern man is defensive about the past. Criminally so.

The past comes floating up to my still, green pool, unfettered by the death of ages. The refuse of our glittering age, such dead leaves speak to me still, of what was, and is, and might have been. One such volume which pick through is a commentary on Tennyson picked up for $2 at a library book sale. It is pre-World War I, and its author was mocked by the new teachers at Oxford like FR Leavis (who would ever study under someone named Leavis?). After Leavis came the Interregnum, and then women, and then those who hate England, such as Achebe, with his xenotic-racist and uncomprehending lectures on Conrad. Death comes not with Death, but with those who would cheat it. Those mocked by the new scholars will endure, and the scraps of faded leaves from the past will (one day) overturn the tower of Babel. Even such a tiny link in the chain as Bradley.

Santayana is worth quoting:

Imaginative Reconstruction

George Santayana, "Moral Symbols in the Bible," in The Idler and his Works, and Other Essays, ed. Daniel Cory (1957; rpt. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), pp. 152-178 (at 153-154):
If you open any ancient book, even the oldest in existence, you are at once confronted by a finished language, a multitude of assumed persons and things, a full-fledged pantheon, and a current morality. Thus history begins by plunging, like the approved epic, in medias res. We have no means of going further back; and in order to understand the background of the earliest records our one resource is to read on. Gradually the uses of words will reveal their acceptation: the persons named, by their attributions and conduct, will disclose their character; and we shall come to know the world we read of as we have in a measure unraveled the world in which we live, by gradual acquaintance and shrewd hypothesis. Every feature in an ancient document and in the life it describes is a symbol which we must endeavor to interpret. It is an expression the significance of which we have to reconstruct, a result the causes and meaning of which we have to discover.

In the Bible we find many such symbols standing for things easily recognized and familiar to every age: words for sun, moon, horse, bread, water. Yet even here much imaginative reconstruction is needed if we wish to render back to those names the full resonance they had in antiquity. Who but a poet could ever say what the moon was to the shepherds of Asia, or the horse or the well to men who lived in the desert?
Unless all the poets are dead forever, we shall know what they meant in the ancient books.

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