Original Sin and Utopia

Original Sin and Utopia

 it is to be regretted that the doctrine of Original Sin has become hopelessly associated with quite nasty — because self-seeking and sadistic — views denigrating women, homosexuality, all sensual pleasure and ultimately the entire physical world. The doctrine has been highjacked by egotists who use it to convince themselves that they are superior to certain social groups to which, by accidents of birth or orientation, they themselves do not belong. Regrettable above all because the dogma of Orginal Sin is not at all an abstruse intellectual doctrine invented by dry as dust theologians : quite the contrary, it is based on a deep-rooted conviction which very many thinking and feeling individuals have had throughout varied periods of history, though admittedly especially during the decline of great civilizations.

            Doubtless, a lot of people, even the majority, were not ‘happy’ during the Victorian era, or the early Roman Empire, or the Athens of Pericles, but the disadvantaged seem generally to have believed in the particular ideal held out to them at the time, i.e. seem to have believed that the ‘lucky few’ really must have been happy and that such a definition of happiness was the only one possible. This is essentially Aristotle’s position, and Aristotle, apart from being one of the world’s great thinkers, was a sensible and, in a certain sense, a very ‘ordinary’ man. In a period of social decline, such as our era, despite or because of the frantic hype, there is the undeniable feeling that the ‘happy few’ = multi-millionnaires + celebrities’ are not in fact even happy —  they are simply able to put up a better pretence than the rest of us.

            The doctrine of Original Sin is based on the feeling, or rather ineradicable  conviction, that there is ‘something wrong with this world’, and this ‘wrongness’ goes far deeper than such matters as economic inequality, corruption in high places and so forth. Someone who has, deep within him or herself, this feeling is at best sceptical about the possibility of radical change for the better in the world : the Golden Age, Paradise, the City of God, the era of ‘true Communism’, will, so he or she feels, never, strictly never, come about in this world. Why not? In contemporary language, because selfishness is too deeply implanted in our biological make-up. The inhabitants of the second and third centuries in the West would have put it otherwise : they, whether Christian or pagan, would have said that this world was an inferior place and that the true reality lay beyond the physical and human. Who is there who has not thought this from time to time?  In certain periods, such as the declining Roman Empire and our own era, such sentiments become dominant, or, at any rate, inescapable. There is the instinctive feeling that no human efforts will suffice to eradicate this wrong, and that the time has come to look elsewhere. The attraction of drugs is that drugs, especially Ecstasy, offer immediate (but unfortunately very temporary) access to a world that practically everyone would love to inhabit, a world of universal love and friendship, a world where (in Marx’s terms) “each individual would be recompensed according to his or her  needs and deserts”.   

            Theology, Judaeo-Christian theology at any rate, equates this descent into real time and space with a definite occurrence, the Fall as it is (very appropriately) called in Genesis. The trouble is that, once something has happened, it cannot be, as it were, ‘un-happened’. There are only two (non-tragic) options left : either we conclude that this ‘fall’ will give rise to a greater good, and this is the viewpoint of mainstream Christian theology, the ‘greater good’ being the felix culpa  of God’s incarnation as Christ and Christ’s eventual return (‘parousia’) when worldly  history will be wrapped up for good and the Millennium will commence. But extremely few people countenance this view today, whereas the  Early Christians were entirely convinced that this happy event was imminent — so imminent that there was no point in bothering about social and economic improvements in the society of the time.

            Contemporary ‘thinkers’ try to convince us, as they try to convince themselves, that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well” — I have even read a leading article in the  New Scientist of all places arguing that the present world can easily absorb the unprecedented world population expansion without getting into serious trouble — indeed this has become the politically correct line, not because there is much, or even any, evidence to support it, but simply because the alternatives are just too awful to contemplate.

            It seems to me far more sensible, even rational, to take the opposite line, namely that there is something inherently not only flawed but actually wrong about life as it is in the universe as it is — which is precisely the Gnostic position. We are told (by scientists) that it is impossible that  the universe can be radically changed for the better, since it is governed by ‘natural laws’ which have been set for all time and which cannot, so we are assured, be disobeyed,  nor can we, who are simply special cases of natural  laws, change ourselves  for the better. According to the most celebrated opponent of theological thinking, Richard Dawkins, ‘natural law’ means selfishness, and not only that, ought to mean selfishness. Since selfishness is certainly not a good thing (pace Ayn Rand) , there is no hope for us, worse still, there should be no hope for us — for this would be unscientific. I was myself told this at an exposé I gave on Rimbaud and his central concern with ‘changing the world’ : a member of the audience remarked that “People who want to change the world for the better always end up by making  things worse” — an extremely convenient doctrine for people who have decided to do nothing, certainly nothing that puts them at a material or psychological disadvantage .          

          All this may seem very far away from the subject of this article/post, Original Sin, but it is not. Ultimately, either one accepts the world as it is, or one does not. Most societies in the past have, in their practice (laws, economy, social hierarchy) accepted the world as it is, but nonetheless with a certain reluctance — because the advocates of the status accompli were sensible enough to realize that what they were advocating was manifestly unsatisfactory, profoundly so. Traditional thinkers resolved their moral scruples by holding out the distant possibility of a quite different, and far superior, order of things which they were obliged to situate either in another plane of reality altogether, or in a distant, and, for the immediate, completely unrealisable future. The Neo-Platonists, Early Christians, Gnostics and other thinkers of the declining Roman Empire opted for the first possibility, while the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century had no choice but to opt for the second  — and we would have to include within their ranks the early Marx, even in a sense the later one.

            During the nineteenth century, an epoch of extravagant hopes and delusions bolstered by undeniable scientific and technological triumphs, there were many people who thought that, just as knowledge of the material world via Newton’s Laws and discoveries such as electricity had undoubtedly changed the physical landscape, discovery of some ‘secret formula’ about human beings would pave the way for a future Golden Age. Arthur Rimbaud, in one of the poems of Illuminations, speaks of wandering frantically about the countryside, in the company of another searcher whom we usually identify as Verlaine, searching for  “le lieu et la formule” — the place and the formula [for changing the world]. And, although I did not know this until this very day when I read it in the Introduction to Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace, the body of one of the most earthbound and ‘realistic’ of nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, 


“[is] interred at the top of  small ravine at Yasnaya, where as a small boy he [Leo Tolstoy]  had searched for a little green stick on which was supposedly inscribed a secret formula guaranteeing permanent happiness and brotherly love.”

                                 (Introduction  War and Peace  Penguin p. xvii)



            What is this secret formula and do we need it any more?


Song : The Love for what is Far Away


Because I love what’s far away
My heart is sad yet filled with joy,
All pastimes else appear a toy,
Figures of mist the winds destroy,
Or  hopes and fears that last a day,
Beside this love that comes from oh so far away!

I hear a voice from far away,
An angel voice that speaks my name,
And calls to me, always the same,
Burning me like a heatless flame,
Then in this land I cannot stay
But must depart for what is oh so far away!

 I see a face from far away,
No mortal face its likeness is,
Its eyes foretell eternal bliss,
All earth’s delights are nought to this,
Then I must leave without delay
And seek this face that is so very far away!

Because I sought what’s far away
My life was sad yet filled with joy,
All pastimes else appeared a toy,
Figures of mist the winds destroy,
But now beside me, come what may,
A presence stands that once was oh so far away!


                                                      Sebastian Hayes


The starting point for this song was this vida, or brief biography, of the twelfth century troubadour Jaufre Rudel de Blaia  :

             Jaufre Rudel de Blaia was of gentle birth, and was Prince of Blaia. And he fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli without ever having seen her, simply because of the good things he had heard pilgrims returning from Antioch tell of her, and for her he wrote many fine poems, rich in melody and poor in words. But wishing to see her, he took the Cross and went to sea. In the boat he became ill, and when he arrived at Tripoli, he was taken to an inn, for he was near death. The Countess was told about this and she came to him, to his bedside, and took him in her arms. He realized it was the Countess, and all at once recovered his sense of sight and smell, and praised God for having sustained his life until he had seen her. And then he died in her arms. And she had him buried with great ceremony in the  house of the Knights Templars. And then, on that same day, she took the veil for the grief she felt at his death.  

            One verse of his most famous song particularly struck me :

I shall take no more joy in love
If I have none from far away,
For I know none fairer or nobler
Anywhere, near or far away.
I hold it in such esteem
That, for her, I’d be proclaimed
A captive among the Saracens.

            As the editor writes, “He [Jaufre Rudel] moves in a world close to that of the mystics, where the sensual and the divine become fused. So close is this fusion that some critics have taken his ‘distant love’ as being an allegory for the Virgin Mary or the Holy Land” (Bonner, Songs of the Troubadours).

             For all that, my song is based on personal experience and does not really have a ‘double meaning’ as in Jaufre Rudel, since my song expresses the love for, and desire to be united with, a reality ‘that is far away’, conceived as a vaguely feminine presence which is habitual in troubadour lyrics.

I wrote the words first and intended to get a composer friend of mine to compose the melody. But, although I cannot read music and have never written a song in my life, the melody came to me one afternoon and I subsequently sung it to John Baird who wrote it down and played the piano accompaniment in the CD (for which many thanks).

Download and listen to the first verse of The Love for what is Far Away.

Mortality: Be Prepared

I, sebastian hayes, being of sound mind do hereby on this day August 16 2006 commence this blog not knowing what I shall put on it nor who will read it.

K.W. came over mid-morning to go through with me parts of my book on Rimbaud (translation of A Season in Hell with Notes and extended Commentary).

Got onto talking of death, or rather preparing for it. I mentioned that often during the Middle Ages people who lived long enough (and perhaps could afford it) would retire from active life to a monastery to ‘prepare themselves for the next world’, as apparently some people still do in India (husband and wife may go to neighbouring ashrams). There is apparently a medieval book called The Art of Dying. It is, I believe, about hedging your bets so you manage to get into Paradise or at least Purgatory. “But for the modern society,” I said, “there’s just a brick wall. No one wants to talk about it”.

The idea of preparing yourself is not at all stupid or morbid necessarily and indeed I am starting to do this now, even though as far as I know I am in good health mental and physical. Feel strong urge to ‘leave everything in order’ as much as possible and this means getting my ideas in order, sifting through twenty or thirty years of odd writings. Also, putting right some of the bad things I did in my youth inasmuch as it is possible, like sending this cheque (for £500) to the man in the bookshop in Paris who lent me money when I was down and out there years and years ago. Maybe he’s forgotten who I am, and I don’t think he needs the money particularly but that’s not the point. This is not done in any spirit of acquiring merit, but sort of in a spirit of cleaning up, housekeeping, putting things in order.

It is not a question of fearing what happens next, punishment &c. but simply beginning to look at death, or what is after death, the Great Unknown (which yet in some sense we know). Sex has something regressive in it – I speak as a male heterosexual – it is concerned with where we came from (the womb), not where we are going although ultimately the two are the same, I suppose. Camille Paglia rightly pointed out that there is something “infantile about contemporary male sexuality”. Whatever is on the other side there will not be any sex because no physical body.

I’ve done a few interesting things but, basically, I reckon I’ve spent my life thinking about the meaning of life and in the end I’ve not come to any great conclusions….”

But five minutes later I contradicted myself and said,

S.H. “Actually, I do feel I’ve reached some conclusions.”

K.W. “Like what?”

S.H. “Oh what the whole thing is. Mixture of theism and pantheism. There is no creator God, no personal deity in the usual sense. But there is not simply ‘Nature’ – Nature is a thing of the past. There is just one entity which has always existed and always will and everything physical, and intellectual as well for that matter, is just passing patterns on this backdrop.”

K.W. “Like ripples?”

S.H. “Froth, more precisely. Because froth doesn’t last long and disappears without a trace. Surprisingly, there was an article on quantum gravity in the New Scientist last week which read exactly like a mystic tract. The cover title was “You are made of Spacetime, Our Ultimate Origins Revealed”. [Yes, it really said this, 12 August 2006]. Inside, the title of the article was “Out of the Void”. It was basically arguing that what we call matter, elementary particles, are not ‘things’ but ‘braids’ or tangles of empty space. These tangles will disappear one day. Where do they go to? Nowhere. Back to the origin. But you’re not particularly into this sort of stuff.”

K.W. “No, but maybe you should keep on with this. Write about it.”

S.H. “Yes, I think you’re right. That’s what I’m most concerned about. Of course, the difference between these people writing about quantum loop gravity and my position is that they don’t believe — or don’t say so if they do — that one can have knowledge of this underlying substratum, call it God, the Tao, Brahman, Ain Soph, the Void, K. But the testimony of the mystics across the world, and they say very much the same thing, is that you can have knowledge of K inasmuch as this is possible for physical beings. It is a truth of experience, almost but not quite a physical experience. Actually, about two months or so ago I got a very strong sense of this, but it’s very fragile, elusive…. It’s gone already, although maybe it’s coming back a little bit. I do actually start the day with a sort of hymn or invocation I’ve had to write myself [“Hymn to Aoulllnnia”].”

K.W. “Carry on.”

S.H. “Only thing is we must be quite clear about what this theory/experience does not do. It does not, and cannot, justify the details of any organised religion though it is maybe the substratum of all religions and why people still go back to religion in this scientific age. More particuarly, it doesn’t have any morality attached to it, doesn’t tell you what to do. In the past I may have thought that an advantage but I don’t now, we need some sort of rules of behaviour. Of course, this is the criticism that was levelled at Taoism : that it relied entirely on spontaneity, didn’t give rules of what to do in life. Yes, I do want to get this stuff across, but how?”

K.W. “You should maybe mix in the ideas with autobiographical passages, that would make better reading.”

There is the general point though that as you get older you find everyone around you is dying — and you don’t expect this. Almost you’re indignant!

K.W. had on another occasion mentioned a record from the sixties with the line,  “I want to die before I’m 30”.  And he went on, “We sat there saying, Yea, great, man, great. Who the hell would want to be that old?” And most of the singers who sang such songs  and the blokes who listened to them, saying, “Great!” are still around.

On this note I sign off S.H.


Blogger Myra said…
i have been very much aware of my own mortality from a very young age. Convent educated from the age of 4 it was very much impressed upon us that we must try and live in a “state of grace” in case we should suddenly die and be condemmed to eons in Purgatory or even worse an eternity in Hell. Consequently I lived my life in a state of vicarious anxiety enjoying the sinful bits but also experiencing the terror of the possibility being deprived of life whilst luxuriating in my state of sin.
From the age of 7 I grew to recognise the face of The Angel Of Death I grew to know his soft footfall by the time I was twentysix I faced up to and became comfortable with the fragility of my own Mortality. I am no longer fearful of Azrael’s soft footfall because it is an inevitability that I cannot escape from – and would not wish to do so. In my job I tread in his foot steps on a daily basis. We none of know when the moment will come that we will look into his eyes but being prepared – either by orhaving organised our earthly affairs or girding our spiritual self is certainly something that we should all do.
 Blogger Mary Murphy said…
Hello to my friend RM. Since turning 50, I have had some of the same thoughts about my mortality — that I should get organized, clean up my home office and not leave a mess behind for my loved ones to have to deal with. Some times I panic about doing everything I want to in the dwindling time left to me.
I just attended a funeral today, so it seems ironic to read this blog today. I alternate between panic and a peaceful calm belief that death is very natural and we should embrace it as some kind of forward momentum. I love your idea about some kind of substratum or continuum. I find that energizing and hopeful.
Look forward to reading more.
Blogger Josefine said…
When young, people tend think of sex a lot; and when getting older it is natural for them to think a lot about death. Preparing for dying is a healthy thing to do, to think about it, discuss it with close family and friends. Where would you want to die? How would you like to ideally die? How do you want to be cared for when you are dying? What kind of funeral would you want for yourself? All these questions are good material for discussion and sharing. Apart from the obvious practical benefit, to know what your loved one wishes are in the event of their death and to making your own wishes known, it is a great way to bring into focus that our time here is terminal and we need to make the most of it whilst we are still here.
If you are interested in learning more about this, about how to prepare for dying, how to organise an environmentally friendly funeral with or without a funeral director, find out what the choices are, get inspired by other people’s stories and look through a huge directory of useful contacts and advice, etc. I recommend you read the latest edition of the Natural Death Handbook, available directly, with update sheets, from the Natural Death Centre 02073598391. Or you can call the NDC helpline for free advice over the phone 0871 288 2098. You can also look up the NDC website for upcoming workshops and events: http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk or email me: josefine.speyer@googlemail.com