November 30, 2014

On Advent: "We Are All Lying in the Mud, but Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars"

early-morningSpace-Shuttle-Atlantis.jpg

The caption at NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" page reads: "Atlantis to Orbit."

The filename of the picture reads: nightlaunch.

And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within it all the same.

In thinking about this brief essay I could not help but think of a longer one by Doctor Bob at The Doctor Is In about a "civilized" European nation that cannot stop itself from taking the next step down into the pit; its people driven, as "reasonable" people always are, by the inexorable demands of "what is reasonable."

In the work of Goya we see how that great soul, having walked the carnage cloaked landscapes of his era, came to understand the deepest cry of the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. ["The sleep of reason breeds monsters."]

aacaprichos_43_-_sleep_of_reason.jpg

Ah well, the bones of the Enlightenment lie buried in a shallow grave somewhere along the Western Front. It had some nice ideals, but left us living rapt in the spell of Reason.

And now we are a "reasonable" society. Now we are a "scientific people" swaddled in a million theories of management -- convinced that all of creation can be, somehow, managed through the limitless employment of Reason. Many of us, as we have seen in the past month, worship "intelligence uber alles," that strange and deadly viral god of the mad mind that kills the soul long before it kills the nations that embrace it. We see the apotheosis of this worship leap up from the dazed lands of Europe. We see it arc across our own skies. We feel the sting of its acid rain on our upturned, stunned faces.

Reason. Its gifts are many. It enables us to raise "Atlantis to Orbit." The poetry of that is only exceeded by the reality of it; by all that lies behind the sheer raw ability of the smart monkey to organize itself to achieve it -- the mathematics and the metallurgy, the pulses in the silicon chips that hold and control the fire that slices up and beyond the sky. And the systems and wires and waves that bring these thoughts from my fingertips to your eyes now.

All these, and whole Alps of others, are the gifts of Reason.

But there are darker gifts of Reason; gifts revealed by the languor with which a whole people fall "half in love with easeful death." Why? Why abort this child? Because it is reasonable. Why kill this old and feeble person? Because it is reasonable. Why take from them according to ability and give to others according to need? Always because it is "reasonable." Reason commands it and Reason has, in this modern era, become a vengeful and a jealous god.

If it is true that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, can it not also be true that the constant wakefulness of Reason breeds its own peculiar hallucinations; its walking horrors?

We depend on Reason when we flip a switch, step on a brake, or seat ourselves in pressurized thin metal tubes that hover 40,000 feet above the earth and move at 500 miles an hour. This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives. And yet... and yet...

And yet, hovering outside of Reason, we still somehow sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules. We sense, no matter how many times we are told the opposite, that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

And that,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
*

And that, as we now move more deeply into Advent, we move -- in our long sweeping orbit about our home star -- closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith -- even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had -- this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle.

Our Here. Our Now. Our miracle. Impossible but actual. On this unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago from starstuff and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the far stars in our searching.

On the one hand, it is clear that Reason demands that "We shall not cease from exploration," while on the other it may well be that:
"... the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

And while nothing in our Book of Reason can tell us why, its endless banal chapters on irony would need to be excised were we to discover that all "Enlightenment," all our "Age of Reason" has wrought is but a frail and flimsy ladder to the stars where we could at last put out our feeble hands "to touch the face of God."


For Donald Sensing who put it in my mind, and for Solomonia who pointed me to the picture. First published 2006-11-27 Posted by Vanderleun at November 30, 2014 1:50 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Truly beautiful...A Shakespearean soul indeed.

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at November 27, 2006 8:30 AM

The worst mistake a man can make is to misestimate his enemy, to ascribe to him motivations and reasoning he does not ascribe to, much less use.

This includes saying that his enemy surely can't mean what he is saying, for no rational man would say such things. On the contrary, the more outrageous your enemy's statements the more likely it is he means what he says. When the tyrant says he will destroy your society is when you take him at his word.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at November 27, 2006 11:38 AM

"The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." G. K. Chesterton

Posted by: Mary B. at December 2, 2006 11:58 AM

Reason can never ascertain that we are saved not by strength and rational thinking, but by acknowledging our most profound weakness and neediness in the darkest, lonliest, most silent night of the Advent Soul. Being at the end of our rope is often a very holy place to be where Real Hope Begins in the humblest of places.

Posted by: Webutante at December 4, 2007 5:32 AM

Not to proselytize, but this post has much in common with the Pope's latest encyclical, Spe Salvi. You should check it out --it's just 30 pp.-- I think you'd enjoy it.

Spe Salvi

Posted by: RC2 at December 4, 2007 5:17 PM

We would have to "slip the surly bonds" of human nature, with its feet of clay, to be truly reasonable.

Posted by: Sissy Willis at December 5, 2007 3:38 AM

Frail ladders leading on to the rim of the world:

"I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Eveyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine." (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Posted by: stevesh at December 5, 2007 7:14 PM

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Thank you.

Peace,

Bill Gnade

Posted by: Bill Gnade at December 7, 2007 2:48 PM

Why do we find toddlers lovable, irresistible?
Their radiating love is enrapturing, rupturing the the shells around our hearts. We then blossom too, in smiles, laughter, tears of gratitude.

The reason for this is obvious --- and beyond reason.

Posted by: FamouslyUnknown at December 8, 2007 3:59 PM

This is one of your best among many greats.

>>And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within it all the same.

At the range the picture was taken of the launch, the ground shakes and the sound waves shake your innards.

I work in this field and every spacecraft and aircraft is the product of unreasonable desires propelled by reason: it takes a lot of arguing and hurt feelings to get to orbit successfully.

Everytime something is launched, half the guys working on it say: "Oh, God don't let me be right." and half are saying "By God, I knew I was right."

God built us well; the things we build beggar Reason, but Reason is temporal....
(M'eh--you said it better.)

Posted by: Gray at November 29, 2008 10:29 PM

Gray - Strange, is it not, that the same species that can shake the ground, create the thunder and make night turn to day in the service of Reason and the truth that makes men free - that same species can make the destroying light, the thunder like (to quote) the slamming of a vast door in the depths of Hell and the heat like Hell's door opening. Which we choose to do, within the next fifty years or so, will also be the choice between life and death for our species. And the choice cannot be unmade.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at November 30, 2008 2:50 AM

Gerard, thank you for the dedication! I wish I remembered what post of mine prodded you, way back when. But I always enjoy re-reading this post of yours. Have a blessed Advent season!

Posted by: Donald Sensing at November 29, 2009 8:45 AM

Another wonderful piece, Gerard. Halfway through, I thought of the comment by Ishi when asked what he thought about white men: "They are very clever but not wise."

Posted by: LT at November 29, 2009 12:03 PM

Heh! Back in 2004, when you first posted this, I didn't know then how I inspired it. But thanks again.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at November 29, 2009 2:19 PM

I was recently teetering on the edge of hillside porch watching the sun rise through a distant line of bare November trees.

I had to remind myself that the laws of gravity still apply when we're soaring.

This essay did the same for me.

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Posted by: Cathy at November 30, 2009 7:17 AM

This, and the post that precedes it, reminded me of a poem:

Diagram, by Robinson Jeffers

Look, there are two curves in the air: the air
That man's fate breathes: there is the rise and fall of the Christian culture-complex, that broke
its dawn-cloud
Fifteen centuries ago, and now past noon
Drifts to decline; and there's the yet vaster curve, but mostly in the future, of the age that began at Kittyhawk
Within one's lifetime.—The first of these curves passing its noon and the second orient
All in one's little lifetime make it seem pivotal.
Truly the time is marked by insane splendors and agonies.
But watch when the two curves cross: you children
Not far away down the hawk's-nightmare future: you will see monsters.

Posted by: Aquila at November 29, 2010 8:46 PM

"Our Here. Our Now. Our miracle. Impossible but actual. On this unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago from starstuff and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the far stars in our searching." ... This is beautiful. The essay is too rich for me to digest in one sitting, I will have to sleep on these words, but I know just this one paragraph alone ... This one little bite will nourish my night. And ... I already can't wait to see the entire piece again. So glad you re-ran this today.

Posted by: DeAnn at November 26, 2011 9:04 PM

Bravo to you Alan Kellog, well said.

The picture would be even more beautiful if rather than showing Atlantis' launch it showed the first of hundreds of ICBM launches destined for Iran and Pakistan. Nuke Iran Now!

Posted by: Scott M at November 27, 2011 2:12 AM

"God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason."
Dag Hammarskjold, "Markings"

Posted by: Howard at December 2, 2012 12:19 PM

We did not raise Reason to rule us,
rather to serve us.
Unable to predict all the consequences of our "reasonable" actions, we take on the burden of destructive means and dead-ends.
On the other hand, Love's consequences are: less stuff, more contentment, and more love.
Buddha and Christ and that kind person you meet, have the key, doorway, door, and room for you.
Welcome.

Posted by: Howard at December 2, 2012 12:42 PM


Equality of conditions persuades men to conceive an instinctive disbelief in the supernatural and a very lofty, often exaggerated, conception of human reason. Human opinions form only a sort of intellectual dust which swirls in every direction, unable to settle or find stability-
Tocqueville

Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for revealing truth. It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our heart, or to our mind, is learned not by reasoning but through other agencies. Then it is that intellect, observing their supremacy, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator-
Proust

Reason’s last step is that recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond it-
Pascal


Posted by: james wilson at December 2, 2012 8:24 PM

A fine Advent meditation, Gerard. Thanks.

The preparations begin!

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at December 1, 2013 3:58 AM

The bones of the Enlightenment were in the bodies of the victims who died as sacrifices to scientific socialism in the Gulag.

Posted by: ErisGuu at December 2, 2013 6:39 AM

The bones of the Enlightenment were in the bodies of the victims who died as sacrifices to scientific socialism in the Gulag.

Posted by: ErisGuu at December 2, 2013 6:40 AM

Read this today too, similarly beautiful:
http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-first-sunday-in-advent-forgetting.html#more

Posted by: Guest at November 30, 2014 12:23 PM

One correction to your translation of Goya: the statement reads 'the dreams of reason produce monsters.' It is not that when reason let's itself rest that the monsters come, but that when reason dreams of what it can accomplish, monsters are sure to follow.

I believe the message that Goya wished to send was that to fully embrace Reason and allow it to flourish, the monsters of myth would be replaced by the type of monsters we saw flourish in the 20th century and continue to creatively destruct law, order, society, and civilization today.

This was also seen by Ben Franklin, who said 'All actions may be justified through reasoning.' Robespierre proved that within his lifetime.

That all said, beautiful essay, enjoyed reading it yet again. You are slowly teaching this nearly middle aged man the joy in revisiting works to gain new insight.

Posted by: dan at November 30, 2014 6:07 PM