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On Advent: “We Are All Lying in the Mud, But Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars”

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 this Nightlaunch 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.”]


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 Immanence; we sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules.

We sense Immanence, no matter how many times we are told the opposite; we sense 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.
*

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 made manifest all about us in every moment if we could but pause to see the forever present revelation.

Our Here.

Our Now.

Our miracle.

Impossible but actual.

Our actual existence on this most unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago in a forgotten eternity 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 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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jaynie December 2, 2018, 4:52 AM

    So beautiful. Haunting in its indictment of the singular pursuit of reason, your reposting this essay is perfect for this time of man. I believe that is also of a piece with Andrew Klavan’s point when he speaks of the limitations the Enlightenment has wrought and on the power that Romanticism still holds for mankind.
    Thank you for the lovely and uplifting essay for Advent. You are amazing.

  • Marica December 2, 2018, 6:52 AM

    “And yet… and yet… ”

    “A child, Lewis wrote, ‘does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods,’ but ‘the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.’ ”

    [found by accident (!), & remembered from, the Weekly Standard a few days ago]

  • Howard Nelson December 2, 2018, 1:28 PM

    Reason? I thought that was a tool, a procedure, a means for arriving at a truth when tested against reality via predictability of effects by applying reasoning. What are our standards for accurate reasoning? Brother Theodore opined, ‘We seek to know what’s beyond the beyond while we still don’t know what’s behind our behind.’
    Depending on one’s objective, goal, purpose, Reason may be displaced as a tool by Yearning for something of value beyond Reason. What might that be? What creates, fuels Yearning? Is it a divine dissatisfaction?

  • Suburbanbanshee December 2, 2018, 7:34 PM

    It does not mean “sleep.” It means “dream.” Sleep would be duermo, or something like that.

  • lendie December 2, 2018, 7:42 PM

    When I view the post 2 of the graphics are not showing up:

    early-morningSpace-Shuttle-Atlantis-thumb.jpg”

    sleep_of_reason.jpg

  • Rob De Witt December 2, 2018, 8:18 PM

    I would also point out that the doctor is no longer in – the links are dead.

    This whole “assisted suicide” number is particularly unsettling at this point because I live among leftist loonies, several of whom believe themselves to be witches. The whole aging-children-playing-dressup aspect is considerably less amusing now that they are actively pushing “seminars in conscious dying” in this area. There have already been multiple “celebrations” of suicide.

    And I’m not doing well at the moment, and visions of them gloating over my demise are all too easy to summon up. And my voice is gone, hopefully only temporarily.

  • Snakepit Kansas December 3, 2018, 4:27 AM

    Prayers for you, Rob.

  • Jaynie December 3, 2018, 7:05 AM

    Yes, prayers for you here too, Rob.

  • Rob De Witt December 3, 2018, 7:19 PM

    Thank you, my friends.

  • james wilson December 4, 2018, 11:33 AM

    Well said, Howard. More monsters by far have been created by the god of reason than the lack of it.

  • Donald Sensing December 4, 2018, 3:07 PM

    Thank heavens you fixed the picture! Now I can link to it without worry. Hope you are over your cold quickly – and God bless your mom!

  • Linda Fox December 8, 2018, 12:45 PM

    I was my professors’ favorite student – insightful, with a broad knowledge of history, politics, and literature – much of it practical and mixed with life lessons.
    After picking up an Associate’s degree at the local community college, I was steered by my husband to a college at the university I was to attend. It was a Progressive college, one started in those long-ago days of Viet Nam protests.
    The college was deliberately small, governed by faculty and students, and infused with Leftist thinking. It was also project-based – for example, in one of my Poly Sci courses, The Politics of the City, we were placed in internships in local agencies and offices. I interned in a Housing Network, designed to rehab or tear down (if it was dilapidated enough) no longer livable housing. The agency would employ locals for much of the work. It was designed to save what housing could be salvaged, and turn it over to families who needed decent housing, for the cost of labor and a small house payment.
    I did learn a lot in that job, as I did in the other projects that were assigned. When we studied Illiteracy, we took on a student who wanted to learn to read, and, in the process, not only actually helped someone, but learned a lot about how complicated the problem is.
    Many of the other students were like me, generally leaning somewhat Left (at the time, I always voted Democratic), but open to more radical solutions.
    One major difference between the other students and me was my dedication to my religion. I’m a cradle Catholic, who became more committed in my early 20’s, as I learned more about the Christian faith. My faith was rock-solid, and not susceptible to doubt. God existed, Jesus died for our sins, and I was NOT open to quasi-scientific arguments.
    But, many were, and drifted away from any connection to God. Some adopted New Age beliefs, others substituted political activism for God.
    Today, I’m often surprised at the wishy-washy beliefs of many young people. Even in SC, where only a few generations ago, belief was rock-solid, over 1/3 of my high school classes had NO personal faith – in anything. Their parents said, they can decide for themselves when they are grown. That failure to pass on the faith left them adrift.
    When the hard times come, and they will, eventually – what will those kids do?