Meditations on Youth

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you . . . Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
Lord Henry Wotton, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Like Oscar Wilde, I’ve become sensitive to the aesthetic, caring not just for that which is good but also for that which is beautiful. Sometimes, the latter can take precedence over the former.

It’s an irrational thing. There exists no incorruptible beauty (not of this world, anyhow), and everything we know is impermanent. Take youth, for instance. A healthy outlook would embrace youth as long as it lasts, make the most of it, and whenever the time comes, accept gracefully its inevitable fading. Why, then, do we cling to that which cannot be kept?

Yet with tears do I regard the passing of youth, that which once was and will never be again. I mourn for the wilted flowers. I mourn for opportunities gone, for the loss of possibilities, for things left unsought when they were most sweet and most attainable. I mourn not only for the good things but for the bad, for the pleasures, passions and follies that give charm to our tragic existence. Woe to the righteous youth. Well would they have done to heed the words of the Teacher: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise; why should you destroy yourself?”

Indulge yourself when you are young, deny yourself when you are old—that is the natural way of things. Deny yourself when you are young, indulge yourself when you are old—that is contemptible and backwards. Indulge yourself always—that leads only to ruin. Deny yourself alwaysthat is the only path for a righteous youth, lest in addition to losing his youth, he loses his soul as well (a double loss, the loss of both worldly and spiritual things).

It would seem that youth is the time to sin beautifully. Only take heed the words of the Teacher: “Do not be overly wicked, neither be a fool; why should you die before your time?

Escape to Reality

“I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”
J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

Old Book

A few months ago, I had a curious exchange with my brother. We were playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion when we went off on a tangent where I said something like, “I’m here in the world, I’m here in my body, but my home is really in books.” “Like an escape from reality?” he asked. “No,” I said. “An escape to reality, because in many ways, I don’t think reality exists anymore.”

Admittedly, that’s a strange thing to say. You might think to yourself, “In what sense does reality not exist? Are you some kind of nut?” It’s possible that I am, in fact, a nut―like Mr. Nutt from Unseen Academicals, a harmless orc who’s very literate and never wants to be unbecoming―but even if that were true, there are worse things to be than a nut (you could be stupid or evil instead). When I say that reality doesn’t exist anymore, it’s not a denial of objective truth or external phenomena, nor is it a gnostic retreat from all that is physical. No, it’s something different. It’s the sense I get when reading The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings: that such worlds are more real than reality itself, or that reality is there, not here.

It’s a vague sense, I suppose. I don’t know what it is, this feeling of “real,” but if I had to guess, it might be a desire for life without the overlay of modernity. By modernity, I don’t mean technology (though it would include the uncritical use of technology). I don’t even mean forms of government (though I would agree with Tolstoy that governments, through the aid of science, trap us in a dehumanizing circle of violence). I mean simply this: Whatever you want to call it, there is a Tao, a Logos, a Way We Should Follow, a natural order we’ve collectively violated. To some extent, we never had a choice―it’s just the world into which we were born―yet we’re also complicit, maybe complicit against our will. At most, you can carve yourself a niche existence in some forgotten cranny, but your fate is ultimately bound in that of systems, ways of life beyond your ability to mount a defense. One way or another, you are compelled to be part of the mass (not a sacred Mass, but the world of enmassment, as Röpke said, “the total debasement of human dignity in mass existence”). Together, we have created unnatural existence, reality swallowed by unreality. That’s the idea, anyway.

If indeed modernity is a prison (and maybe it’s not; maybe the prison is something else, a more insidious soul trap), where then do I find an escape? For me, mostly in books: fairy tales, fiction, even non-fiction that says, “Things don’t have to be this way. Things could be real instead.”

Summer Observations

“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.
George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Forest Photo

I’ve had a lot of alone time this summer. So far, it’s been pleasant—entire weeks devoted to reading, drawing and sightseeing. I even cleared an old trail that hadn’t been used for years, and it’s become a getaway where I listen to LibriVox. There are also days when I stay at home and do nothing. That’s when I see the goings-on of my neighborhood.

During the day, it’s practically a ghost town. No kids in the street, no cars in most of the driveways. At most, there are yard services that come and go, but nary a resident. Not much to see but expensive homes and well-kept lawns, unoccupied until late afternoon when the cars come back, and still there are no kids except for a few of them biking. If you walk through the neighborhood after dark, you can see large, bright rectangles shining through the front door of every single house.

What does it mean? I don’t know, but here’s how I interpret it: The dads are all at work, apparently earning enough to afford homes they can’t really afford. The moms are also at work, if not socializing with other moms. They might be out having fun with their kids. Otherwise, the kids are either at summer camp or indoors playing videogames, ‘cause Lord knows they can’t go much of anywhere on their own. Aside from the big picture (that of suburban social environments that aren’t conducive to mental health, and which exist more and more to facilitate electronic entertainment), it doesn’t seem like an ideal summer situation, especially for the kids. When you’re little, it’s hard to play in the woods when the woods are choked with shrubs, and it’s hard to see your friends when they live twenty miles down the highway and you need all the parents’ permission just to set up a playdate. There’s not much room anymore for self-directed adventure unmediated by adults.

Perhaps I extrapolate too much from these observations. I don’t know. At any rate, I intend to enjoy the rest of my summer reading Oscar Wilde (and maybe Søren Kierkegaard).

On Cinder-Biters

“Norwegians at that time lived in long communal houses, not unlike the houses of the West Coast Indians . . . It turned out that young men would sometimes lie down in that space between the fire and the ash pile, and stay there two or three years . . . They were called Cinder-Biters.
Robert Bly, Iron John

Fire Pit

If you ever read the Icelandic sagas, you’ll find many coming-of-age stories. One of my favorites is near the beginning of The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal. Thorstein, a youth, sets off on his own to make a name for himself after being taunted thus by his father:

The behavior of young men today is not what it was when I was young. In those days men hankered after deeds of derring-do, either by raiding or by winning wealth and honour through dangerous exploits. But nowadays young men want to be stay-at-homes, and sit by the fire, and stuff their stomachs with mead and ale; and so it is that manliness and bravery are on the wane.

Other sagas tell of Starkad, the legendary hero who was once a Cinder-Biter: a young man come-of-age who, rather than employ himself in anything useful, dropped out of life to lay in ashes as a form of ritual lethargy, sometimes eating the cinders of charred wood. Robert Bly says that Starkad remained in the ashes several years, until his foster father invited him to go on an expedition . . . [at which point] he stood up, shaved, and dressed and became one of the best warriors on the expedition, and later became a distinguished poet as well.

I look at these tales with amusement. The complaints of old men are still the same (Kids these days, th’ain’t what they used to be, all they do is sit around and play vidya-games”). Meanwhile, young men long to find their place in the world. Some go straight to work and carry out the normal enactments of life. Others travel. Others pass the time in relative idleness—which not everyone needs, but some do, though it’s not a need we tend to recognize.

In our day, we don’t have a concept analogous to Cinder-Biters. We just assume that young men are always supposed to be doing something—doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they’re not doing nothing—but what if they need to drop out of school, or drop out of life, for a few years because they’re unfit for the days ahead and need to reorient themselves? We don’t consider that an acceptable mode of being. We have no words for it other than lazy.” A shame, because if we did, we might be better equipped to help them sort through their ashes: hopes, dreams, old beliefs turned to dust, structures of meaning no longer sufficient. We could grant them ways to safely broadcast grief or weariness, encourage them in their quest for strength, and finally, when the time comes, call them out of their ashes to stand among men.

I doubt we’ll recover those kinds of practices anytime soon. For now, the best we have are men like Robert Bly and Sam Keen, whose work may illumine other paths to mature manhood (and expand our understanding of masculinity beyond the modern rites of work, war and sex). At least with what we have, young men can begin to seek for themselves a saner way of life, one that sees the necessity of ashes.

A Haughty Prince

Lloyd sat down with some parchment and began to write: “I need you to play fetch for me, slave. You know what it is I require, but in case you’ve forgotten, I’ve drawn you a helpful diagram.” He drew some unhelpful scribbles down below. “Now, make haste! To the market with thee!”

He called for his messenger, a small griffin-like bird, and sent him away with the note. Standing by the window, the prince cracked a haughty grin and said, “Time to dance for me, Brad…”

Lloyd Square Grunge

For Jocelyn. One of her old characters.

Of Relative Unimportance

For someone who spent a lot of time hashing out his political beliefs, I’m coming to believe more and more in the relative unimportance of political beliefs. I don’t have much to say on this yet, but it’s a theme I want to explore more deeply. These are just my initial thoughts.

In a sense, your political beliefs matter because they concern your moral reasoning and that of society. In another sense, they don’t matter because you—yes, you—are powerless to change society. (Don’t believe me? Read Neil Postman, and come back when you’re thoroughly disillusioned.)

Granted, you can’t simply ignore this stuff. If you’re at all a thinking person who wants to have an informed political conscience, you have to know what you believe, and you must be ready to act according to principle (and to pay the price, if necessary). Yet in another sense, it almost doesn’t matter what you believe. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, it doesn’t matter if you’re right, and it doesn’t matter if you win fights on the Internet. You have bigger things to worry about, like that pile of clothes on the floor or that friend in the grip of despair.

By all means, read your Kirk, read your Rawls, read your Mises, but don’t neglect the things in your power to do. Instead of looking to change society (a Titanic of three-hundred fifty million people living on half a continent), work to change yourself and your immediate surroundings, and if that proves impossible where you are, set sail for sunnier waters.