Heights, Depths

There is an edifice near to where I live that is also a landmark: at the very top is a pinnacle the birds aspire towards and on which each attempts to alight. It takes a lot of wing flapping, seemingly against elevated winds, for them to prepare their narrow and concentrated descent. It reminds me of the landing upon the Hong Kong tarmac when it was still called Kai Tak, at the North of Victoria Harbour, and involved a breathtakingly dramatic final approach. But here it is the birds, not planes, that circle, a few taking their turn to perch on that toweringly precarious point.
So it may be that to reach the high point is that uncertain. One lacks experience as one expands one's protective leaves, flowering. Perhaps that laurel is only there for the courageous.
But how are we to deal with 'courage' today when an entire nation may at once become ambivalent to those whose lives were lost to it? How convenient to write off the Great War and all of the debts to countries that ought to be, if the motive behind this Empire/'Leftist' onslaught were fair, honoured. Except I am trying not moralise as I come to learn and observe the difficult truth behind the proverb: veritas vos liberabit; the truth shall set you free.
The sign of the good historian is his or her willingness to face, without damning, the less flattering aspects of their subject; for it is the candid portrait that may save the man from repeating the same errors, just as to deny a personal past is to cripple the individual emotionally. To despise one's forebears does not make it possible for one to have come into being without them.
Courage is needed, but it is courage that is now under fire (i.e. the courage that motivated soldiers in a war no longer deemed great is reviled). It is also courage, raw, abstract, that lets the kite unreel from the tether, the kind of painted silk, with a bamboo frame. It is courage that lets the colourful creature of a life into the sky, if you have ever seen such things, where it dances with the elements, tempered by experience.
It is true that much is not up to the kite; like so much of a surfer's success may depend on the quality of the wave. To be generous with the string despite the failure that may be out of our control; this is life, not the unschooled judge's office, ready to erect walls and cast aspersions on outmoded mores. What is it that we once said, hominem unius libri temeo. May this not be extended to the student of one 'school' of history, for is the historian not meant to be schooled in several 'schools'?




It was partly due to the cultural historical narrowness of students of literature that Karl Kroeber wrote, "The principles of narration operating in history and in novels are identical - one reason some of the most valuable analyses of narrative have been made by historians rather than literary critics." It is not until we have stepped outside ourselves that we have hope to reach the "unfamiliarity that may alert us to the parochialism of our supposedly 'universal' critical principles, which often merely express the historical idiosyncrasy of those fears and needs we would sooner not acknowledge," he continues.
In this age, we profess to aspire to the pinnacle of the universal. Yet in this age, walls against the Other are erected. In this age, numbskulls willing to overwhelm posts with uninformed comments are easily rallied together. So it is difficult to know today whether the supposedly educated in fact are unable to demonstrate passable reading comprehension skills or whether one is dealing with the rabble, famously distinguished from the folk by Johann Gottfried Herder.
One is reminded of the importance of δόξα in ancient Greek texts: opinion always pitted against truth - truth, that tapered pinnacle, circled by many, alighted on by so few.
What if the truth, too, were only revealed when one stands by less popular 'friends'? It is courageous to tether against caprice, to be tied into a dance with friends - never cutting them loose, never capitulating to them, either. This was once a necessary lesson in 'character building' - the remnants of which may be found in children's literature. One wonders if one is to renounce such higher goals as loyalty in the interest of the current trend, easily adhered to because it does not offend prudishness - prudishness having been inherited from the relics of the Victorian Empire, treated no longer as an antique but as a disposable of today, which is precisely what the philistine Mummius was accused of (Velleius Curtius 1.13.4). Mummius is partly excused despite the acknowledgement of these difficult points, however, from the vantage point of the historian. Ah, one might muse, loyalty is a string but denial is bondage.
So it is that the birds circled the pinnacle of the landmark, circling, yes, but not all of them landing. "Oh voyagers, oh seamen, you who come to port and you whose bodies will suffer the trials and judgment of the sea ... on the field of battle, not farewell, but fare forward voyagers," writes T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, with the warning, "consider the future and the past with equal mind".



2 comments:

  1. "In this age, numbskulls willing to overwhelm posts with uninformed comments are easily rallied together. So it is difficult to know today whether the supposedly educated in fact are unable to demonstrate passable reading comprehension skills or whether one is dealing with the rabble, famously distinguished from the folk by Johann Gottfried Herder."

    Numbskulls with uninformed comments are quite aplenty in various social networking sites. You know, commenting just for the sake of commenting. It is quite annoying. It makes me wonder where the rest of the thinking population are.

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    Replies
    1. Agreed! Not audible enough. I wonder if this is because the unpleasant by its nature seems louder than the beautiful, which is quiet and unassuming.

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