A Bright Dystopian Now

A Bright Dystopian Now May 17, 2017


Yesterday I summoned the energy to climb into the dying rhododendron to pull the weeds concealing themselves in its cool depths–muttering, in the usual way, threats and hatred against those ones that dig themselves deep into the soil, but easily break off from the root with the mere touch of a pinky finger. The thing that I love most about gardening is the murderous rage that springs up against something that can be killed without loss of integrity or freedom. We all have to hate something–because it’s better to hate things than people–and I really hate weeds and hostas.

But also, I probably also have to repent of the bitter anger I’m harboring towards the makers of the new Anne of Green Gables. Because, yes, I’ve been obsessively reading reviews of the show, and no, there’s no way I’m ever going to watch it, not even if Sheol freezes over. But the fact that this fine book, so necessary to the happiness of so many generations, should apparently be so incomprehensible to the modern mind that the director of Breaking Bad (!) should have been brought in to fix it, seems to me to stand as a brilliant neon sign of everything that’s wrong with everything.

IS NOTHING SACRED? That’s what I ask myself. I mean, I know God isn’t sacred and gender identity and sex and marriage and all food and everything–but those things all dwell in the more obvious sphere. You have to eat, and you have to live in a body, and you have to face the deep void of a godless cosmos at your death. But you don’t have to read. So why dig up books and ruin them?

The answer, I think, is twofold. One, the problem with the Anne books is that they are essentially Christian. They are a gentle antidote to the deistic be good be nice of Alcott and all the books of that age that are even much worse than Little Women. Somehow, in the great messy landscape of books written for young girls, Montgomery invented a world where grace for the frailty of the human person, kindness and forgiveness, and love of beauty breathe out of every page. Because they are so Christian in posture, it’s as if they are incomprehensible to the people trying to make a buck off them. The modern Hollywood/Netflix executive can’t even see what’s on the page.

The second reason must be this new modern tyranny of correct thought that produces historical revisionism. If we can’t cover up the past, in all it’s embarrassment, the least we can do is reinterpret it so that it doesn’t exist. Of course, I understand the desire–here I am digging up weeds so that the external appearance of my garden will bear no resemblance to what was here before. I want it perfect. I don’t want to look at the hopes and tastes of those benighted gardeners who came before and planted all these wretched hostas. But gardening doesn’t matter, not much, not in the same way that various portions of human history matter.

Reading about the removing of various civil war monuments made me want to go dig up (which I didn’t have time to do) Rebecca West’s description of Diocletian’s palace in Croatia. The palace, once so grand, crumbled gently in the Mediterranean sun after his death, but then was large enough to shelter the town. If you go now, which I hope some day to do, you have to trace out the original walls as best you can, because the town and the palace are one.

But imagine trying to explain this to ordinary church goers who’d lost family and loved ones in the bitterness of Diocletian’s calculated persecution of Christians. It’s like saying, let’s go visit the great monuments of ISIS for a fun holiday. No thanks. The palace in that day would have been a painful reminder of power and tyranny. The fact that it remains let’s the modern person continue to consider that moment in history. When it goes away, the memory of loss goes away too, forever, until we decide to do again what he did.

What I’m trying to say is, we shouldn’t rewrite everything to suit our modern ears. Some moments of the past were really vile. If we erase all memory of them we lose the chance to look at the blackness of the human person from the more reflective stance of a tourist holding a brochure, of trying to imagine from afar the suffering of others. Which will give us empathy for those suffering in our own time. Likewise, we shouldn’t rewrite all books to fit the modern ear because some of them are wiser and better than where we are now. We are not all victims. Not everything needs to be political. Sometimes the christian virtues of the past–grace, kindness, beauty, subtlety–will be a balm in this bright dystopian Now.

Or we can just keep razing it all to the ground, rewriting everything to please ourselves. And I can keep pulling weeds.

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