steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

For various reasons I’ve been looking back at Four British Fantasists over the last couple of days, and I found myself reading the discussion of James Lovelock’s defence of hedgerows in Ages of Gaia. Lovelock describes the appearance of the English countryside, with its small enclosed fields, as “as much as a sacrament as the cathedrals, music and poetry.” In my book I take issue with this for a number of reasons, but today one particular objection gave me pause. This is what I wrote:

“It is difficult to privilege a particular and historically very specific form of man-made landscape without also implicitly defending the social system for whose purposes that landscape was created and maintained.” (134)

Well, I can see what I meant here. Many of those hedgerows, eco-friendly mouse and vole condominia as they may be today, were built not for wildlife or aesthetics but to enable landgrabbers to deprive the poor of their historic right to common land. They are not a sacrament, but evidence of a historic class crime – and a crime for which redress has never been made.

But should that stop us finding them beautiful? And if so, what are the implications? To take another, perhaps still starker example, can we admire the pyramids without at some level endorsing slave labour? (This is assuming for the sake of argument that slaves were used in their building.) In a very basic and abstract way we might admire their triangularity; we might get a vulgar thrill from thinking that “These Things are Very Old”; but if we’re the kind of people for whom the human history and purpose of such objects is an important part of our response, then how are we meant to reconcile ourselves to that admiration? How can we even be impressed by their size without also quailing a little at the thought of the power that decreed it and what that meant in human terms? Should we, in short, wish that the pyramids had never been made? And is that wish compatible with admiring them now, or does present admiration make us retrospectively complicit?

Am I worrying too much?
Tags: maunderings, my writing
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