Reading those figures from the past, even when he disagreed strongly with them, gave him some perspective on his own moment, and, because they left this vale of tears, some tranquility as well. After all, the dead don’t talk back to us—unless we invite them to. We control the encounter. We decide whether to pay our ancestors attention.
When we make that payment, when we turn aside from the “dire hose” and take a few deep breaths and enter into the world of the past, we can calm our pulse a bit, take time to think. No one demands anything of us. Those figures from the past are willing to speak to us when we are willing to listen. They may sometimes speak words of offense, but they may also speak words of wisdom that we either never know or have forgotten.
What’s uncanny about this, to me, is how much it echoes a model of distributed action imagined a few years ago by Adam Roberts in a novel called New Model Army — a novel I wrote about here. Roberts imagines a near-future world in which New Model Armies (NMAs) — collectivized and non-hierarchical organizations of mercenaries — have become major players on the European political scene. The novel’s protagonist associates himself with one of those NMAs, called Pantagral.
An explanation of these contradictions may come from the other end of the world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that France produces, from time to time, a peculiar kind of figure whom he calls the “consecrated heretic.” Voltaire is one example; Rousseau another; Sartre a third. The consecrated heretic is an artist or intellectual who plants his feet firmly in the riverbed and faces the social current upstream, refusing to be carried along by it. He mocks conventional wisdom; he scandalizes ordinary people by what he believes, what he says, how he acts. Of course, many people do this, but only a tiny handful are celebrated for it, are seen as indispensable threads in the social fabric. The passionate earnestness of these few is acknowledged; they are clearly dedicated in their own perverse way to the common good. Eventually the nation’s major institutions seek to bestow high honors on such heretics, who of course turn aside disdainfully, which makes them treasured all the more. Les Murray is the chief consecrated heretic of Australia.
Hello everyone, and the happiest of New Years to you all. We’ve all overdue for a good year, so with fingers liturgically crossed and prayers uplifted…….