Friday, 29 October 2010

Telle est la vie des hommes: the benefits of gloom and doom

I understand that workers at the twelve oil refineries on strike in France have now gone back to work. It is as I predicted a week ago. I cannot claim any credit, however. The fact is that since then the Senate voted in favour of the pension reforms that the strikers were taking action about. And, as the French says, c'est pas la peine de floguer un cheval mort' ... Okay, I made that up, but you know what I mean.

Still, their defeat, and the gloomy look that seems to accompany the Hexagon these days, only brings me back to my theme of a couple of weeks ago: one can only be disappointed by a lack of progress if you have some kind of mystical expectation or hope for its realisation. Gloom is the obverse side of the feeling that we DO indeed have here an abiding city. That at least was what Robert Hugh Benson thought, and he had a lot to be gloomy about!

Still, I want to make a distinction concerning gloom that I think is necessary here on the threshold of November. Whilst gloom can be a thoroughly worldly emotion, it can also be a thoroughly Christian mood. I'm not talking about the capacity for contrition or the necessity to practice it. I'm talking about the association of Christian feeling and compassion. One cannot be compassionate without sorrow. And that is the kind of sorrow which is neither directed simply towards God or neighbour (as is contrition) because of our failings, nor towards ourselves (as in self pity). It is rather something which helps create our solidarity with suffering humanity, and, if we are given this gift, with the suffering God-Man.

This thought goes back to a moment in class with my students this week. At the beginning of the class we had pretty much established that they had no interest at all in French politics or in what had been happening in France. Now remember these are people who have chosen to read French or take a French course during their degree. Subsequently the subject of coercion came up and whether torture could be used on prisoners. 'Right now,' I said, 'as we are sat discussing this issue, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of shivering prisoners across the globe, under one regime or another, just sat in dark cells waiting for their next beating. Is that right? Can the authorities exercise coercion in that way?'

To my distress, what I saw in my students was not the reaction I had hoped for but rather a kind of buffered indifference. Now indifference to physical suffering might seem a lot more serous than indifference to the political passions of others but they have this in common: they both denote an insensibility (which is insensitivity multiplied by wilful ignorance) to the experience which constitutes another person's concerns. Am I over egging this pudding? I don't think so. I happen to think that our culture's capacity to articulate the vicarious and to leave us meanwhile at a safe remove from danger is one of its most poisonous legacies.

Maybe this is just youthful shallowness. Maybe I'm being idealistic. But I only wonder what forces are at work these days that block the development of compassion. Maybe the students are all compassioned-out because of the charity culture. Maybe they just don't care any more after having all done A levels in Hitler Studies (because the sure don't know anything else about history).

In any case, I have decided I shall make it my business to make them all sad in November! It will be good for their souls and it will make me feel that solidarity has some chance in our cold, cold world. 'Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies suivies d'innombrables douleurs,' wrote Marcel Pagnol. 'Mais il n'est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants,' he concluded. I rather think I'm coming to the opposite view entirely.


GOR said...

”Maybe this is just youthful shallowness…”

I do think we have lost the ability to be therapeutically gloomy. On the one hand people can be overly sensitive (think of all the legislation/agitation about ‘hate’ speech) and on the other totally insensitive. Perhaps it is sensory overload. The news most often leads with the bad things that have happened that day – the accidents, murders, muggings and deaths of celebrities that appear to be daily and inevitable occurrences. Then when a real disaster occurs: Roe v. Wade, Cambodia, 9/11, the Tsunami, Darfur, Ruanda, etc. we are inured to the horror of it. It is a matter of numbers and we can’t absorb the numbers. As Stalin is supposed to have remarked: “The death of one man is a tragedy - the death of a million is a statistic”.

Secondly , I believe that unless we have been personally touched by the disaster du jour, we become dismissive. It doesn’t affect me, so why should I worry about it? It was so far away, filled with nameless, faceless people to whom I can’t relate or with whom I can’t connect.

Further there is the feeling abroad that we should always be happy, never sad. We must always be positive, never negative. The world is replete with ways to make us ‘happy’ or to distract us from thinking too much. It is a flight from reality which leads many to drugs, alcohol or whatever you think can take your mind off where you are and what life means.

And in Catholicism these recent decades we have learned the lesson well. Sin is a dirty word and we have to sugarcoat it or eliminate it entirely from the vocabulary. We’re all human. God will understand. God is Love. God is Forgiving. God is Merciful. And in all this we have forgotten that other attribute of God, an attribute which all claim to seek here, justice, which we will never have completely in this life but only in the next. Yes, in the final analysis, God is Just.

And that’s perhaps the gloomiest thought of all…

Ches said...

And yet God's justice will be part of our joy in heaven (so we must hope!).

Paulinus said...

You needs to read Roger Scruton's The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope

'though he's a little dismissive of the queen of sciences.

I have a copy if you'd like me to send it....

Ches said...

Paulinus, that would be great! You could send it to the address here: