Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The horror of recalling long-lost thoughts

It came over me again yesterday as I sat in my office, the horror at all those lost thoughts and arguments. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, inducing a kind of vertigo.  I’m starting to recover, but the experience still lurks in the back of my mind, mocking the attempt to set down anything like a coherent argument.

It started innocently enough. I wanted to check something for a book I am writing about the theologian Paul Tillich, and went to my bookshelves. Pulling down a well-worn compilation of essays on his thought, produced back in the 1960s, I came across some really good and relevant material. But, in scanning it, I could not ignore my earlier underlinings, exclamation marks and comments in the margin. Fifty years ago I had been enthused by this stuff, inspired even. But then it was lost to me, overlaid by other arguments, ideas, articles, books. Suddenly it seemed to me as though the ideas were receding away into a void.

Then the horror really struck. For these were wonderful arguments, unpacking important issues. They showed a richness of thought, and yet – like leafmould – they had been lost beneath the surface of my consciousness. Here was an appreciation of religious ideas that was subtle, nuanced, not taking sides as in combat, but exploring them to get a rounded view.  And what had I done with it? Simplification, summary, the making accessible, the delivery of exactly the right number of words in the all-too-short timeframe of a publishing schedule; the frustration of trying to explain, whilst subtleties slip by unexplored. 

And then I thought of the cascades of tweets I attempt to scan briefly each day, tweets which often link to articles of real value or significant book reviews.  I dip for a moment into that stream and am often lucky. But in the brief moments while I explore one link, a host of other tweets passes me by, each one of which might (if I were to be naively optimistic) hold things of equal value.

And all this material, all these ideas, flee across our screens into the void. And our own brief words, however deeply felt, might hope to get no more than a quick ‘like’ in passing before they expire. Oh the horror of all that lost thought.  And there's always pressure to produce more, academics are under pressure to publish, educational writers try to keep pace with changing exam specifications, authors are expected to be active on social media, to hone their profiles, to keep up an interesting stream of material to build a readership. And it flows and flows... but mostly into a void. Time seals it off from its readers. Books go out of print and those on library shelves eventually become tattered and are sold off. And yet... all those wonderful ideas going to waste, lost to new readers.

I’d love to start again, to return to my bookshelves and appreciate again the arguments and insights massed in those long-since-closed books; but there is no time in this short life to return over the decades to re-read or use all that stuff.

And this has come fresh to my mind now as I sit before the heaped piles of notes and early draft material for my new book about two theologians who faced one another across the mud and barbed wire of Verdun in 1916.  A couple of years ago, sorting out copies of the ‘Teilhard Journal’, I came across an article of mine from the early 1970s entitled ‘Through Mud and Barbed Wire: notes for an unwritten book.’  And it had remained unwritten and forgotten for 40 years.  A simple coincidence, two great thinkers describing life on either side of the same battlefield – and yet here I sit surrounded by endless notes on the huge impact of the Great War on the 20th century and the development – for good or ill – of religious ideas over the century.

The horror of battle – particularly at Verdun – is the way in which rank upon rank of men hurl themselves forward into destruction, into a hell of mud and exploding shells, deprived even of a semblance of glory at engaging the enemy as they encounter only the incoming scream of shells and the showers of mud.  Hundreds of thousands of men were killed on those slopes, French and German together in the mud, inseparable in death, their bones now lying together in the great ossuary at Douaumont. The horror of lost lives.

And why write of it? Perhaps to do homage to two great thinkers who inspired me and whose lives and thoughts were shaped a century ago on that battlefield. Perhaps because, by chance, I have a new angle on things already written about so many times.

And yet, ‘vanity of vanities,’ all this hurtles towards the void of lost thought, that body of past writing in which only the greatest works make their permanent mark, and even then are at the mercy of later commentators and the mangling of over-simplification.  And yet we still do it; still add to the layers of thought, still over-simplify in our attempts to sum up and explain; still launch words towards the void; still tweet feebly into the howling gale.  It's a compulsion to spin the logical yarn, to make sense of things, to share things seen, to get it off our chests.  Live for the moment, live for the words on the paper and the work of trying to hone sentences into shape, live for the moments - however few - when ideas and words flow.