Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Mystery in broad daylight" -- Part 4

At the end of yesterday's post I posed the question: Do we choose to live completely and exuberantly in the commonplace, as the Romantics urge, or do we seek to strip away nature's veil, revealing by force (as it were) her hidden secrets?

The former course offers the ravishments of immediate sensation -- sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch -- the soul embodied in flesh. What was it Mary Oliver said in a poem? "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

The latter course is an endless quest for that one, perfect transcendent thing -- the Beatific Vision, the sorcerer's all-powerful incantation (Mickey, beware!), the fundamental laws of nature -- the age-old dream of sharing the knowledge and power of the gods, albeit at mortal risk.

Science began its uninterrupted advance when it found a way through experimentation and mathematical reasoning to harness a hidden source of power that had eluded religion and magic. There is no turning back or stopping that advance -- Romantic protests notwithstanding.

Still, each of us individually makes a choice: lift the goddess's veil, or leave her chastely cloaked. Esoteric knowledge with its attendant risks, or conservation and stasis. Technotopia, or the prelapsarian Garden of Eden.

In his essay The Conservative, Emerson wrote: "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry." If any institution -- state or church -- is to prosper, it must find a way to balance conservatism and reform, past and future, wisdom and wit. "Each is a good half, but an impossible whole," says Emerson.

A balance of innovation and conservation is at the heart of organic evolution -- that much we have learned by lifting nature's veil. The genes conserve; mutation and selection drive life to ever greater diversity and complexity. Perhaps we can do no better than adopt the creative dynamic of evolution as our own sustaining myth.