There is a wonderful extended passage near the end of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head that describes the highly traditional, and yet open-to-change, practices of a small organ-making company called Taylor and Boody. “They understand the long story of organ making as their own,” says Crawford, “and find for themselves a place in it.” Here is an especially powerful passage:
Some critics will say that these craftspeople have ‘retreated from the world.’ I think nearly the opposite. We have come to accept a condition of retreat from the world as normal. The point of the organ shop example is to help us see what it would look like to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world.
This is a brilliant and vital point in itself, but I want to take a bit of a turn and show how it’s relevant to recent debates, on this site and elsewhere, about what Rod has been calling the Benedict Option.
Rod has written of the BenOp as a “strategic withdrawal.” And while I have argued that it’s better to speak of “strategic attentiveness,” in reality those are two sides of a coin: since attention is finite, one cannot increase attentiveness to one object without withdrawing it from another.
The BenOp recommends increased attentiveness to local communities, to the formation of Christians (young and old) in the traditional practices and habits (of thought and action) of the Church. Though what this might look like has yet to be clarified and codified, there are already a good many people describing it as a regrettable withdrawal from “the world.”
But the passage from Crawford encourages us to ask: What do the critics of the (nascent) BenOp mean by “the world”? And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that for them “the world” is inside the Beltway, and in the New York Times and Washington Post, and on Politico and HuffPost, and the tweetstreams of politicians and policy wonks, and on our biggest TV networks. But I would like to suggest that the building of a healthy society might depend on people who are willing to say that those vast public edifices — some made of stone, some of pixels — are not the world, that the world lies much closer to hand.
To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.” It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.
This is one of the conditions of modernity, I think. The great scholar and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky had discerned this, and portrayed, with great compassion and psychological acuity, people who (primarily because they were intellectuals) had been displaced from any kind of organic community and had to rebuild their world from scratch. Here’s a beautiful desctiption:
To create a human community in the world, to join several people together outside the framework of available social forms, is the goal of Myshkin, of Alyosha, and in a less conscious and clear-cut form of all Dostoevsky’s other heroes…. Communion has been deprived, as it were, of its real-life body and wants to create one arbitrarily, out of purely human material. All this is a most profound expression of the social disorientation of the classless intelligentsia, which feels itself dispersed throughout the world and whose members must orient themselves in the world one by one, alone and at their own risk.
The bond Alyosha forms with “the boys” in The Brothers Karamazov is the perfect example of this: an improvised bond, a fragile and local one, but one with enormous strength and comfort for those who accept it.
A genuinely conservative — i.e., conserving — counter-culture of any kind, including the Christian kind, will be similarly improvisatory, small-scale, local, fragile. It will always be aware that “to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world” is a task to be re-engaged, with more or less success, every day. Over its (imaginary) gates it will carve a motto, one taken from a late Auden poem, “The Garrison”:
Whoever rules, our duty to the City
is loyal opposition, never greening
for the big money, never neighing after
a public image.
Let us leave rebellions to the choleric
who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm
now of what a plausible Future might be
is what we’re here for.