Time Drops in Decay

Whatever is destroyed, the act of destruction does not vary much. Beauty if vapour from the pit of death.

–J.A. Baker

 

In the first case, let us be quite plain: regardless of how this present crisis plays out, we should not mourn the death of the old world.  The death of one world is simply the birth of another. Of course, we shall mourn for the suffering of those we love. But we will not mourn the end of this world. In fact, it would take a callous heart to wish preserve the world that is now shaken to its foundations.

We stand now upon the threshold of a new hierophany. The cyclical nature of all things, flux and change, is the revelation. The seemingly unbreakable logic of the modern world, that time and progress fly straight as an arrow ever upward to the sun, long faltering, now collapses utterly. Growth without decay. We begin to see now that we cannot control, we cannot prepare. We are, and have ever been, as so much driftwood upon a vast ocean, tossed and thrown by forces beyond our understanding. It was always going to be this way. In confronting these force we find ourselves uniquely ill-equipped. Our entire sense of the world becomes paradoxical in the face of reality. The pernicious narrative of modernity, which denies the presence of the divine spark within us, deprives us of all strength and resilience. Traditional communities, on the other hand, are empowered by the stories they tell, just as we are weakened by our own.

 

Time drops in decay
Like a candle burnt out.
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day

— W.B. Yeats

 

The cosmological vision of all traditional people accounts for the ending of worlds. From ragnarok and kali yuga and the stories of the Old Testament to the simple ritual of baptism, we find an understanding that there will come a time when all forms will decay and collapse. The world and humanity grows and becomes strong, it weakens and becomes corrupt, it shatter apart in fire and blood, and it is reborn again. It is understood, in these stories, that the movements of time and history are unalterable. Only from within an utterly corrupted modern perspective could we believe that we have the power to change such things, that we determine our course. Of course, modernity has been denying the agency of the non-human world for several hundred years.

Amitav Ghosh has recently pointed out that the stories of pre-modern traditional people can help us to become emotionally and spiritually prepared for catastrophic climate change. This is certainly true of our present crisis, as well. In a culture whose stories describe storms, floods, and earthquakes as wrathful spirits and gods who must be appeased, catastrophe is seen as inevitable, part of the fabric of the universe. This does not mean that such upheavals do not evoke terror but it does mean that terror is accompanied by a greater sense of acceptance. It does not mean that suffering and death are not mourned but it does mean that this sense of mourning is given greater cosmological significance. After all, to paraphrase Mircea Eliade, there can be no regeneration without destruction.

 

Fear releases power. Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear. I do not mean fear of the intangible, the suffocation of the introvert, but physical fear, cold sweating fear for one’s life, fear of the unseen menacing beast, imminent, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.

— J.A. Baker

The narrative of modernity has told us that we need not pay for what we have taken. The offerings and sacrifices of the traditional world are nothing but superstition. We may grow and build and progress without limit and without cost, for we are the only power in the cosmos and answerable to none. The wild bloody glorious gods of the world will have what they are owed and we shall pay a more dreadful price by having refused it for so long. It was never going to be otherwise than this. But just as Lif and Lífþrasir emerged from the forest of Hoddmimis Holt following the twilight of the gods, so inevitably will we find the verdant earth ready to welcome us when we emerge.


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