These are worrying times for us all, although it is good to remember that the risk of this virus to most people (even older people) is comparatively small, however, there are other, less reported consequences. Global greenhouse gas emissions are falling dramatically and the economic system, that only a few weeks ago was looking impregnable, now seems very fragile.
So perhaps some long-term good with come out of all this and we all start to live in a way less damaging to ourselves and the planet, and be content with a gentler, calmer and less materialistic lifestyle?
In ‘The Cruise of the Nona.’ (1925), Belloc contemplates the coming era and the dominance of the ‘Money Power’ and the ‘Machine’ –
” [Modern Man] begins to make a new religion and a new mythology for himself, to talk of an ‘Ascent of Man’; he thinks himself a summit and a glory – and at the same time he rids himself of morals. It will be interesting to watch the end of the process.”
Perhaps the ‘new religion’ can be seen in consumerism and the cult of celebrity; while the mythology can be found in the idea that ‘economic growth’ can go on forever and without consequences?
Then, in the County of Sussex (1936) he seems to accept the inevitability of this change, but with one possible proviso –
“There is only one consideration which may lighten somewhat the burden of what seems inevitable. It is this: that, just as we could not forsee the sudden tidal wave which has swept over us, so the future, even the immediate future, may check the ruin of our home, of our most ancient life. Some incalculable further change may stop the further process of disintegration. it is not conceivable – but often enough the inconceivable happens. Disaster and decline might destroy the machine and so save, before they had disappeared, the last stocks and found some new repose they might strike root again.”
Perhaps we should see coronavirus as a wake-up call and an opportunity to change how we all live? A world without factory farming, long haul flights, cruises (I have been guilty of this) and the general over-consumption and waste of resources.
Like Belloc, Lucy Broadwood also doubted whether humanity was necessarily marching towards enlightenment. In one essay, she pondered on the learning and knowledge she had acquired when compared with that possessed by ancient peoples ,”When I reflect upon the superior facilities for being deemed wise which men in bygone ages possessed,” she wrote, “I must confess to a feeling of envy.” For she sensed, what modern anthropologists have shown, that ‘primitive people’ had a collective and remembered wisdom, “whereas now I, having but a poor memory and a fuller head, must rank amongst the mediocre and superficial.” Great epics of Anglo-Saxon literature, such as Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, existed in the oral tradition for generations, for hundreds of years, before they were written down; as were many of the folk songs and folk tales that so excited the passion of Lucy Broadwood throughout her life.
After her death in 1929, Lucy’s friend, Mary Wakefield reflected on the deep streams of reflection and foreboding that were a characteristic of her late friend – “Her serious verses came from the depths of her nature which often appeared to be struggling against a sadness and pessimism that she seldom betrayed to any but her intimates. She dreaded the developments of modern science, abominated the sound of aeroplanes, hated to look up at them, saying that they were the outward and visible sign to her of a world that was fast becoming unendurable for its noise, rush and recklessness. Such considerations were often very present with her and then her face took on its solemn and tragic expression.”
Belloc would often take on the same countenance, when reflecting on life and the fragmentation of society. Both he and Lucy took for granted the reality of premonitions and the existence of a spiritual realm. Just as Belloc could sense how growth and renewal could arise from crisis and disaster, so Lucy perceived light emitting beyond the darkness. In one poem she wrote –
Whence are these visions? Whence, but from the Soul?
Weave thou these glories to a garment bright –
Dare to be part of the stupendous Whole
That is Eternal Life, and Love and Light.
Like Belloc, Broadwood hoped for better things, and like him, she shielded all but her closest friends from the darker side of her nature. Both of them loved good company, especially the company of young people, and delighted friends and acquaintances with their anecdotes and insights. They were known for their love of singing and the joy they took in writing verse and poetry. Yet both perplexed their contemporaries with views and opinions that seemed to be contradictory: how could such learned and educated people believe in the ‘stuff and nonsense’ of religion and the supernatural? Such a combination seemed untenable to a generation grounded in the ideas of Darwin, Marx and Freud.
Broadwood and Belloc are best understood by their quest for spiritual truth and their belief that science alone could not provide all the nourishment needed to sustain true life – spiritual life.
Perhaps today, more than ever, the clarity of their wisdom is more apparent to us than it was to their contemporaries?
The crises brought about by a tiny virus seems to have stopped modern society in its tracks – how can this be happening, people demand? One thing is sure, neither Lucy Broadwood nor Hilaire Belloc would have been surprised in the slightest: they saw this coming, long before we were born.
This YouTube clip from Italy resonates so strongly with the Belloc/ Broadwood ethos – they would have approved!
Belloc’s great friend and fellow writer, G.K.Chesterton once wrote, “When people stop believing in God they will start believing in anything.” And hasn’t that been the case? Celebrity, new cars and holidays, ‘just-choose-the-good-bits mysticism’, pretending middle age doesn’t start until you are 50, self-obsession with body image, self-obsession and focusing on the self, recreational drugs, not being able to live without our TVs, smartphones, etc. etc.
It is a scary time but a great opportunity to find our ‘new repose’ where we ‘might strike root again?’
Chris Hare, 19th March 2020
(Photo of Belloc courtesy of West Sussex Record Office)