Monday 22 January 2018

The Crack in Everything

Notes from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, ch 2: 'The Crack in Everything'

p24 On the problem of trying to use biblical words when “our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling”:

p25 Sin for example, now “always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something”

“The other universal is that ‘sin’ always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation: but a distant memory, just enough of a memory to add a zing of conscious naughtiness to whatever the pleasure in question is.”

Hence, p26, if I use the word sin “you will diagnose me as a Christian body-hater. You’ll corral me among the enemies of ordinary joy. You’ll class me with the life-haters... [p27] so I won’t do that. Because that isn’t at all what I mean. What I and most believers understand by the word I’m saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*@% up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*@% things up [HPtFtU] because what we’re really talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other peoples, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. Now, I hope, we’re on common ground. In the end, almost everyone recognises this as one of the truths about themselves.”

p29 “the HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature... we would, on the whole, very much like this not to be true, and our culture conspires to help us avoid and defer and ignore the sting as much as possible. The purveyors of flattering images do their damnedest to keep us feeling that we can be as we wish ourselves to be. It would not be very cool or aspirational if we had to imagine our biographies being sculpted out of some awkward substance over which we had limited control... the [culture’s] advice amounts to a suggestion, really, that you should distract yourself. Keep yourself busy with stuff. Don’t look inside. Shop. Rent a DVD. Kill some zombies on your Xbox. Let the net’s unending flutter of opinions tickle you and keep you tickled.”

p32 “We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once.”

p33 cf. Bill Hamilton’s “wonderful description of the human animal as ‘an ambassador sent forth by an unstable coalition.’”

“And this is a state of affairs in the face of which we are, for the most part, currently clueless, toolless, committed to alarmed denial rather than to any more useful or hopeful response.”

Witness for example to proliferation of serial killer novels and films; p34: “The rather severe limitation on the way the serial killer story does evil, though, is that it always offers it to us as, exactly, something out there, something far distant from us, which by bad luck descends growling and licking its lips in ordinary mole, innocent old us, who live in the nice normal middle of the normal curve. It is the predator, we are the prey. It is the doer or harm. We are the done unto. Which is superficially scary, and then very, very cosy.

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night - you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there - then the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off flu by waving a toy lightsaber... if you don’t give the weight in your chest it’s true name you can’t even begin.”

p36 “‘Guilt’ though, gets a terrible press now: much worse than frothy, frivolous ‘sin.’ Our culture does take seriously but as a cause of unhappiness in itself, a wanton anxiety-generator. It’s as if the word ‘groundless’ always slid invisibly into place in our sentences next to it. As if it were always a false signal, a fuss being made about nothing... our usage assumes a world where we never do anything it would be appropriate to feel bad about.”

p42 But “no-one is incapable of wrongdoing, and we have to be allowed our capacity for HPtFtU if we are to have our full stature. Taking the things people do wrong seriously is part of taking them seriously. It’s part of letting their actions have weight. It’s part of letting their actions be actions rather than just indifferent shopping choices; of letting their lives tell a life-story, with consequences, and losses, and gains, rather than [p43] just being a flurry of events.”

p50 the essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting”

p51 “I want to give chaos it’s due here, unmodified, unconsoled, not yet smoothed into a new status quo... because it is in that chaos, that true realisation of a true formlessness in yourself, that the need can begin which is one of the strong motives for belief...”