Will you live; will you live in the physical world? With the sun setting low and the shadows unfurled? Can you live with the way they make you look un-real?
– “The Taming of the Hands that Came Back to Life,” Sunset Rubdown
There must be a place where modernity is as nothing. A place that is not a philosophy department, say at some university, where a majority of professors think the modern project is either implausible or else exhausted. That is, the place cannot be post-modern in the usual, theory-inflected sense of that term.
It cannot even be a political structure or religious system that has merely survived the onslaught of modernity, because such a system is more properly pre-modern.
No. Contemporary pre-modernism and post-modernism are children of the modern world, they are apes on its back, and each repays its master-theory according to how intensely it either rejects or denies the same. The place where modernity is as nothing will be greater than any of these.
It must be, like Christianity and Judaism, the kind of thing that—in its most interesting claims—escapes the grasp of time and space.
To be clear, we are looking for a place that need not be entirely innocent of modernity, but must operate as though it were. Modern ideas and modes of thought, the ways of living as a creature of modernity will have no grip on the lives of the people in such a place, which is another way of saying they will live without crediting what modernity requires of them, even if some of them must—in the beginning— will themselves to live in this way. Modernity will neither shape their view of the past nor color their expectations of the future.
Certainly, the dialectical resources that were produced within and carried out of the modern project will be mostly useless. In the space where modernity is as nothing, the ways of justifying oneself, even the call to justify oneself, will be transformed.
The ambiguous modern relationship with truth, which takes in the denial of beauty and a robust skepticism about the good, will be left behind.
Just as an iconographer might justify his depiction of Christ as the face of the Savior by gesturing towards the worth of the materials he employs and their allegorical significance, those who occupy this new place sans modernity will justify themselves in some situations by calling on things that to modern minds seem crazy. Indeed, living in a space where justification does not operate as it might under the sign of modernity will also call forth silence in situations where a modern might otherwise think something serious and important is at stake.
What it takes for an entire culture to imagine such a place is a mighty conjunction of imagination, grace and will. But for any individual, a serendipitous suspicion of the project of modernity will do.
Thus, those who argue in the post-modern faculty and those who flourish according to a pre-modern or supra-modern ethic, will be arrayed—if not maximally—then at least fortuitously so as to click into the correct pattern, or assume the right posture, for the place where modernity is as nothing.
Certainly, those who adopt such ways of thinking are already mapping paths beyond the modern project. For these are the perspectives from which, for instance, the Church criticizes modern laws, social practices and ideologies.
In history writing, such an achievement might look like this passage from Malcolm Bull’s review essay ‘The Catastrophist’ in the London Review of Books (Volume 29, Number 21; 6):
“In Enlightenment’s Wake [John Gray] . . . characterised the historical moment as one in which ‘the hollowing out of Western civilisation by nihilism is virtually complete, and in which non-Occidental cultures are asserting themselves against the West.’ It is this conjunction that, for Gray, spells the failure of the idea of progress. But if we reject the equation of progress with the synoptic delusion, then the relative decline of the West, the growth of nihilism and non-Occidental assertion are all indicative of its [progress’s] successful realisation.”
It doesn’t matter what is being said here; it is enough to notice that the discussion opens out into a sort of history, or history writing, that attempts to escape the historical moment. It is no longer clear that what is being done here is history, conceived of in modernity.
Such attempts are the first steps on the path to that place where modernity does not stick. The pronouncements of the Church on culture are great leaps along the same.
And because these latter ways of thinking persist, ways that do not proceed from any specific cultural-historical urge, rather owe their genesis to Revelation and their growth to tradition, there is a chance that they will afford a tranquil vantage from which to view the great upheavals of human thought and history.
Inasmuch as these ways are founded, in the Catholic sense, on the deposit of faith, they will always have the power to recall man to the just, the true, the beautiful and the good per se and to do so anytime, anywhere, in any way that makes sense over/against any competing foundation.
It is frightening to think of this power. It is revolutionary to think of the place where modernity is as nothing. It is a sort of madness in modern times to think like this.
In the passage by Bull, it is in the interests of those Western writers (like Gray, perhaps) who stand to lose power, prestige, and other things of value (modern ideas of prosperity, authority, etc.) to equate progress with the getting on of the secular West and the positing of its irresistible, unfolding imperium. Certainly, modern movements and institutions, and those who support them, stand to lose the most if the narrative of a prosperous, secular, imperial Western world with a manifest destiny is discredited. Many of these will therefore resist the place where modernity is as nothing.
But what is, is not always what men desire. Indeed, the corollary— especially twentieth century twists on an ancient form of idealism by which some men thought to make reality by force of will— is totalitarian and heretical. Not all modern fears, simply by virtue of being held, will be justified and other complaints, justified now by the modern edifice, will lose meaning. It is even possible that the very people who rage against the place where modernity is nothing will, in fact, benefit most from the liberation it represents—simply because they started so far distant, and still found the way.
We are talking revolution, for certain, but in necessary fits and starts. Occupying the place where modernity is as nothing is dependent on and circumscribed by the weaknesses inherent in every human agent.
In the map above, for instance, a sketch of the borders T. E. Lawrence recommended for the new British, French and Arab interests in the post-Ottoman Middle East, just this kind of freethinking is demonstrated and, at the same time, defeated.
In 1918 an old world was passing away and the new world was as yet indistinct. Into this formlessness, into any void, man calls forth order; and Lawrence marked his map. However, there is of course no guarantee that the stuff of the universe will respond obediently, no reason to assume that the bidding will always be effective and, beyond effective, sublime. Lawrence’s careful annotations, based on his remarkable and probably unique understanding of Bedouin tribal and pan-Arabic customs, politics, and sensitivities, were simply ignored by the great powers.
Such seeming indifference is to be expected. As Australian poet James McAuley wrote in his poem “Retreat”:
It is not said we shall succeed,
Save as his Cross prevails;
The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if he wills it to.
And if not, then it fails.
Nor is failure our disgrace:
By ways we cannot know
He keeps the merit in his hand,
And suddenly as no one planned,
Behold the kingdom grow!
In that place then, where the modernity we know and too often slavishly serve is no more, men and women live otherwise and—we hope—better than we do now. There are those in that place who will recall our present condition and know it, for the most part, as we do now.
In the same way, we can imagine what lies beyond, and love that too.
To speak in this way is to undo the chains of history, which is another way of demonstrating that it belongs to Him.
John Heard is currently an honors student in the School of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, from which he previously graduated in Arts and Law. An advanced legal research thesis he wrote on natural law topped the year and was later awarded the Freehills Prize. He maintains a website at http://johnheard.blogspot.com.