CULTURE: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Remembering the quality of mercy
, May 10, 2014
Easter is a time for celebration and reflection. And so, I have been reflecting on the grand human comedy that we find ourselves in. I say comedy, and not drama or tragedy, because I believe in happy endings and happy lives.
This is not to say that everyone’s life is cheerful; but it is a reminder of the classical idea, also found in the contemplative traditions of the East and West, that our appreciation of life has more to do with our attitude to it, than external circumstances themselves. After all, there is so much that we do not and cannot control, whereas we can have some measure of control over our response to how things happen.
This idea is, in many ways, the exact opposite of that pushed by the modern world, be it left-leaning or right-leaning, progressive or conservative. There is a commonly expressed belief that society, or the economy, or the human being, can be engineered to fit a certain mould, to behave in a certain way, to be a particular thing. Whereas reality and nature show time and again that there are many more factors to take in to consideration than can be reduced to a particular ideology.
Biologically, psychologically and spiritually, we are the same beings who wandered the grasslands, built the pyramids, and sacrificed children to atrocious “gods”. If we were not, we could not appreciate such things as the Bible, or Greek tragedy or Hindu sculpture. We are all human.
And yet we are highly responsive to our environments, our educations and our formations. Studies that show the impact of pornography on the brain reveal more than that, when put in context. They show that human beings are shaped by any and every stimuli, be it heard or seen or felt. Aspects of our identity are shaped by the things that happen to us throughout our lives. This is an obvious truth, but one that we can forget when we try to re-engineer ourselves.
Due to the intricacy of our existence and the vast multitude of things that impact upon us, we cannot identify all the things that change our minds, and yet we try. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, making a change for the better is no bad thing. But we cannot be certain that such a change by itself will change everything. Instead we may discover that it is something else, something hidden, that is the real obstacle to our efforts to improve.
When writing on Sherlock Holmes I referenced Ross Macdonald’s fictitious private detective, Lew Archer, with his “secret passion for mercy”. Such a passion is one that is of greater use, I think, than one for justice or order. For mercy forces us, like a detective, to keep digging for causes and correlations and meanings. It means we don’t get caught in sound-bite solutions that sound good, but cause more trauma. Mercy requires both truth and justice to exist, but goes beyond them.
It brings us to the question that Nikolai Chernyshevsky, V.I. Lenin and B.A. “Bob” Santamaria asked: “What is to be done?” How ought we respond to the world in which we find ourselves?
It is not uncommon to just react. This is what the critics of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah did. They reacted to the unfamiliar and the different on the basis of what they already knew. But what they already knew did not encompass the whole story, and so their judgement was lacking, although still worthy of engagement.
It is much like the police in Sherlock Holmes acting on the basis of what they know, which seems eminently reasonable, until Holmes points out what they’ve missed and how it changes the case so utterly.
I am partial to the thought of the Authentic Reactionary, Don Colacho (Nicolás Gómez Dávila). He points out that the structures of our world are broken, and that they are broken in such a way that our attempts to fix them so often rely upon the flawed methods that broke them in the first place.
He thus encourages us to accept the nature of things and work to change what we can in ourselves before going on to grander projects.
This is not to say that we ought not challenge the darkness when we encounter it. I am, after all, also a follower of Don Quixote and a great believer in tilting at windmills. I simply want to assert that we must maintain a certain lightness of touch, a lightness of heart and a contemplative attitude to the business of the culture wars. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it is not about left versus right, but humanity versus inhumanity.
We are human and we must remember to remain human. We must maintain our passion for mercy, for with such a passion we delve deeper into the truth of things and do that good which is more lasting and effective.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).