January 18, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
When one is tired of London, said Dr. Johnson, one is tired of life. I spent a week in London last November, a city I have visited many times and know well having lived a year there with my family while I was growing up. The City of London remains largely intact, save for the erection of the new high-rises. But beyond the City, the borough of Westminster, and that of Kensington and Chelsea (Tory strongholds all of them), London has been greatly altered since those days by radical demographic change and the cultural revolutions it has produced.
My wife and I restrict our visits mostly to those districts, and as they form an urban world unto themselves we never feel confined there. In these three boroughs the wealth and elegance of London are concentrated; and it is hard to imagine anyone endowed with both to grow tired of their beautiful and exclusive world. So I suppose they are content with it, while doubting nevertheless how much of it they truly see and experience beyond the excellent restaurants featuring every cuisine in the world, the lavish shops filled with the most exquisite luxury goods going for a king’s ransom, the stately townhouses facing upon gated parks, squares, and “places,” and the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys the size of small yachts. The mobile telephones and earbuds do tend to detract people of all classes, high as well as low, from taking proper notice of these things, save perhaps the Rollses.
Despite globalism, the great cities of the world—New York, New Orleans, San Francisco; London and Glasgow and Edinburgh; Paris; Milan and Rome; Berlin and Munich; Vienna and Prague; Budapest, among so many others—manage to retain, in their physical aspect, their individuality and uniqueness: great spread masses and piles of stone, cobble, and masonry descending from past historical eras that appear to hold down their respective countries like marble statues preventing a silken sheet spread with somebody’s elaborate picnic lunch from blowing away on the wind. Nevertheless, I wonder how much this noble permanence means to the majority of the current inhabitants of these cities. Not a great many people become jaded to the point that they can no longer enjoy—more importantly, appreciate—a gourmet meal, an exceptional dry martini served in an elegant hotel lounge, and the very best shops (though novelists have always insisted that many of them do). Yet a walk up Whitehall from Westminster Palace past the Cenotaph between pale stone buildings behind whose façades much of the history of the British Empire reposes to Trafalgar Square and Nelson on his column surrounded four-square by his leonine guard, into the medieval warren behind St Martin-in-the-Fields and back of that Covent Garden, and thence into the East End (or, alternatively, across Hyde Park from the Albert Memorial and over the Serpentine to Kensington Palace) is sufficient to make one wonder whether the crowding and digitally wired Londoners have indeed become tired of London, without being aware of the fact.
The great European cities remain, as I say, unique; they retain their special and unrepeatable historical character, from whose circumambient reality their denizens are nevertheless being fatally distracted by the ubiquitous gadgets invented by the geniuses of Silicon Valley to lure them into the tempting undifferentiated global mush that resembles as much as anything the ubiquitous nutrient broth in which our world was submerged aeons ago. Do people in the new digital age really see or feel anything real? The spectacle of pedestrian mobs hurrying through the London thoroughfares, eight of ten of them with mobile phones clapped to their ears or held ahead of themselves like monkeys tapping at a nut with a fingernail in search of the weakest spot in the shell, does arouse the suspicion that whosoever abandons his life to its virtual successor indeed has grown weary with the original, God-given thing.
We ride the Eurostar—the TGV operating between St Pancras in London and the Gare du Nord in Paris—exactly once a year, which makes the trip, even after many repetitions, something of a novelty. The majority of the passengers are British or French business people commuting between London and Paris, or shoppers traveling from one city to the other for a day in the shops and magasins. Naturally, they have a good deal less interest in what flashes past the window at 187 mph than I do, yet one does wonder how any sentient person can remain immersed for two hours and ten minutes in an iPad or some other device propped open on the draw-down table before him while ignoring the passing countryside of northern France. The scenery is undramatic but lovely: village after village grouped about its church spire and set amid green, exquisitely cultivated fields broken by copses and small woods and backed at intervals by whale-backed mounds standing dark against the horizon—the same hills repeatedly taken and retaken by the Allied and Central Powers armies that, a century and more ago, battled each other for the possession of elevated redoubts from which to shell the enemy. The landscape comprises what once were bright poppy fields devastated by the opposing forces relentlessly annihilating themselves as well; a series of major acts in the unprecedented tragedy that inspired the memorial poppies that emerge from the button-holes of European politicians and television presenters and ride jauntily on women’s bosoms for two months every fall. The 100th commemoration of the signing of the Armistice, scheduled to take place in the Champs-Élysées by the representatives of 72 countries converging now on Paris, was only two days off, but if a single passenger aboard the train took interest in the historic countryside across which we were hurtling, I did not observe him—or her—displaying it as I walked through the carriages. All of us today are endlessly exhorted to admire and wonder at the inventiveness and ingenuity of postmodern man and his endless and increasingly incomprehensible technical inventions. We are, taken as a civilization, people who have lost the capacity for wonder at the most basic and elemental things in the world and in our own lives: the natural world (save as an object for scientific observation), human history, flesh-and-blood people as distinct from ideological abstractions and statistics, and beyond all that the supernatural world—God, His interventions in human history, and in a universe imbued by Spirit. The instinctive wonder that inspired our forebears to investigate, explore, and ponder such mysteries has brought us as a culture to the death of wonder, except as it is directed to utter trivialities; away from the ocean depths of possible human understanding toward shallows that are a mere few inches deep, agitated into insignificant ripples rather than blown up into mighty waves.
The following evening we met for drinks with M. Olivier Nora, the publisher for Grasset, at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. He took us around afterward to his offices next door and gave me three of the firm’s new titles to carry away. Among these was Demeure: Pour échapper à l’ère du mouvement perpétuel (Rest: To Escape From the Era of Perpetual Movement), by François-Xavier Bellamy. True literature by definition reflects life, but not often so coincidentally with personal thought and immediate experience as this book did for me. Demeure is a beautiful work that lays a heavy finger on our times and that I hope and expect will be soon translated into English: a meditation on the concept of change in Western thought, from Heraclitus to Aristotle in classical Greece down to the 21st century when change itself has become the dominating conceit and obsession of the modern world. And not just change, but change for its own sake, practically and philosophically, intellectually and emotionally. Today, ceaseless change is the motive principle of economies, technology, arts, fashion, of living itself—and of course politics, though paradoxically the blind belief in change and the inevitable superiority of the future to the present and the past, Bellamy thinks, makes politics logically unnecessary, since a golden future is certain to arrive without assistance from us so long as we keep on thinking exactly what we are thinking and doing exactly what we are doing. (On this point, his argument may be in arrears by failing to account for the recent rise of the supposed monster called populism across the West.) Heraclitus believed in perpetual motion, the perpetual flow of everything. Parmenides, before him, had argued the opposite: Everything that exists is, despite appearances, static and immoveable, change merely an illusion. Aristotle resolved both the argument and the apparent philosophical deadlock it seemed to create by proposing that all things are indeed endowed with motion toward their own fixed ends and the final rest that is their self-fulfillment. The Aristotelian formulation was broadly accepted in Western thought down to the Renaissance, when it was challenged by early modern physics. Today, Bellamy says, the characteristic and universal urge of modern life is
To be faster. To change. To adapt oneself. Always faster and faster. The end of change is less important than the fact of self-change. The destination is less important than the voyage. To live supposes movement. Novelty is a good in itself. What counts is to be “disruptive,” no matter what the object of disruption. . . . In a world of constant mutation, what does not change condemns itself; not to change with what has come before is to choose to belong to the past, and finally to find oneself aligned with death.
Nothing has its proper end, because nothing is proper to itself. What exists is meaningless, since existence has no meaning of itself, and no quality of its own beyond movement. Thus for moderns, the past, besides being dead, is also valueless. The present, which will be replaced on the instant by the future, is worthless, too, as it must necessarily be inferior to what will supersede it. So the present is properly ignorable, and happiness can be found only in the anticipation of the future. This logic, like the attitude it both reflects and engenders, is precisely what Bellamy calls it. It is nihilism. And it is the reigning philosophy of progressivism, the program (political and otherwise) of modernism.
We left Paris by taxi early on the wet gray morning of November 11 as the crowds were beginning to assemble in the Champs-Élysées. To the west, the police barriers were up, but our African driver avoided them by keeping east on the drive to Charles De Gaulle through the dreary Muslim banlieues on the northern edge of the city, and I hardly gave the commemoration a thought before the plane landed hours later in Reykjavik, where we transferred to a flight to New York. On our previous trip, the process had been a simple one. This time the two of us were handed small numbered cards and ordered into separate rooms. I was instructed to remove my shoes, raise my pants-legs, and remove the plastic case from my iPad, while in the next cubicle over Maureen was told to lift her sweater to allow the female official to powder her bare stomach. A full half-hour later the thought struck me that, Reykjavik being Iceland Air’s central hub and a major shifting yard for flights to and from Europe, its airport must be among the most heavily secured in the world that day: a certain sign of the authorities’ fear of terrorists hijacking a jet and crashing it into the Champs-Élysées at the height of the international ceremony.
Back in the 50’s and early 60’s, when the owning companies of the great transatlantic passenger liners recognized the signs of their impending peril and ultimate demise in the imminent age of mass air travel, the oldest of them all—Samuel Cunard’s, founded in 1840 as the British and North American Mail Steam Packet Company and reorganized in 1879 as the Cunard Steamship Company—adopted as its advertising slogan the legend Getting There Is Half the Fun. It was a cry of defiance against the dying of the light, of course. Yet today Cunard has three major ships in service, while a fourth is scheduled for her maiden voyage in 2021. The flagship is Queen Mary 2, the only true ocean liner (as defined by her ability to handle the worst the North Atlantic Ocean can throw at her in winter, owing to the thickness of her steel plating) at sea today, in which my wife and I have now made seven crossings. On this most recent one, which began in New York last October 25 and ended in Southampton on the morning of November 1, the ship was carrying her full complement of 2,695 passengers. Nevertheless, I know few people who are enthused by the idea of a transatlantic voyage, as distinct from a cruise in the balmy Caribbean or the warm Mediterranean. “What do you do all day at sea?” . . . “I couldn’t stand being cooped up in a ship for seven or eight days.” . . . “I’m the sort of person who wants to get where he’s going, and see and do things.”
The era of perpetual motion, certainly. Yet the sea itself is perpetual motion, and the sky, too, with its wind-driven clouds. So is the parting bow wave (“the bone in her teeth”) and the foaming waves hurled aside along the hull’s length, port and starboard, to converge in the churning ice-blue wake subsiding astern. So are the porpoises glimpsed from the deck, and the thin vaporous spouts from the pods of passing whales. And the seabirds that are never out of sight as they follow the ship, hundreds of miles from land and taking their rest only on the heaving swells. Finally, for the humans aboard, there is the boat deck: 3.1 turns equate with a land mile.
Getting there is, absolutely, half the fun. And at the end of the voyage there is London, which, as the great man said, is, indeed, life itself. Still.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture – December 7, 2018