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112. Youthful folly (II)

We live in the world Descartes pulled apart. The core of his error can be found in his views on town planning: Descartes held that a brand new town, laid out geometrically, would be much more pleasing than a town that had grown all higgledy-piggledy over time. We know, of course, that however superficially pleasing a neatly laid out new town can be to the eye, towns built from scratch on supposedly rational principles never work; and they are deeply oppressive to us.

Descartes’s project was analysis. To analyse a thing means to break it into its constituent parts, the etymological roots of the word lie in “ana-lysis”, literally “to loosen again”. Even today, his mathematical methods are taught in schools: students break mathematical problems down into the simplest parts in order to reach a solution. We are a society of analysis; even psychoanalysis, the breaking down of a soul into its constituent parts, interests us. Analysis can be contrasted to symbolism; the symbolic literally means “with throw”, to throw together. Our world seems particularly dead because we have, with quiet determination, dissolved all our symbols.

When I walk in the fields behind my house, I am not walking in nature as such. I am walking on a factory floor: the fields have been divided, sown, and harvested with Cartesian precision, even the tractors are guided by GPS. The people who work the fields today could be Englishmen or Poles, it does not matter; it is a question of efficiency. I cannot even apprehend nature as nature: I experience the natural world through my boots and clothes, my technology—quite different from that of a peasant centuries before—changes the land as I interact with it. Our technology creates nature; the discoveries of technology are formalised into science, and then these findings alter technology—we live in many such circles. The field is just potential energy: I take a photo of it with my phone, literally enframing it; but it was already enframed decades before by analytical approaches to guarantee crop efficiency—and in my mind it was enframed when my biology teacher told me about nitrogen cycles and had me dissect—analyse—a fox.

Yet sometimes, as I walk, I have a small revelation. There is a path through the field—through the waving crops—and the path is not straight and efficient. It has been trod for centuries; just as humans find the best path through a shrubbery at a shopping centre; they ignore the rational path and beat down the plants to reveal the true path, right through the bushes.

The Cartesian world is an oil tanker; it is very fast at getting about the place and brings us many luxuries; but if her engines should fail—as engines often do, being mechanical—the whole cargo is smashed on the cliffs. There are many men like this oil tanker, men like Jordan Peterson, imposing their analytical psychology on social questions—and, like oil tankers, so successful at first, coming to grief on rocks when their engines fail. The oil tanker imposes the masculine principle, just as science rapes nature; but the sailboat, by contrast, uses the feminine chaos of the sea to move in conjunction with the masculine wind: this is not an imposition, it is harmony. The sailboat is slower, but, like the ship of state, she proceeds by small adjustments; she is in an organic feedback loop with nature. She can sink, as all ships can; but when she sinks at least her debris floats—she is her own life raft, and no birds die when she falls.

We in the West live in a vast oil tanker; and, I think, with the Coronavirus, her engines have failed and we are washing towards the rocks: our perfect analysis has destroyed the very sensibilities that could save us; as with the tortoise and the hare, we will soon find that the race, in the end, goes to the slow, not the swift.


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