The Aesthetics of Aged Things

“And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.” – H. P. Lovecraft, The White Ship

Staring out the window of the house this morning, I admired the raised beds I’d built ten years ago when we moved in. I had used eight foot scaffolding boards – they were going for a song after the crash, and the building trade was in the tank. Three high, two wide and two deep, these were large beds, with now semi mature trees, nestled into a yard paved with moulded concrete slabs and elsewhere dotted with containers and pots with all sorts of flowers and herbs. The boards were rotting now, but the heavy soil behind had long since settled and posed no direct-pressure threat to the integrity of the walls; they were threatened more from within, as the process of decay meant that they would pretty soon begin to crumble. Autumn is settling in now. I sipped my tea and exhaled; it was a comforting view.

Just as there is something to be admired about the straight lines and shiny surfaces of new construction, so there is a sense of awe in the presence of old construction that has begun to meld with the natural environment. Old cottages are quaint, and wooden structures deliberately designed to ‘blend in’ (as they would put it on Grand Designs) are less jarring than brutalist skyscrapers or the chrome and steel of industrial builds. It is a sense of awe because it is both a function of time – we are in a way considering the past – memory, and the passage of time (being) at once – and it is a function of consistency: this raised bed is now in the same shape as I built it ten years ago. It is in a sense therefore also about what is yet to come – that with a consistent past, our expectations about the future can be stable.

Progression – from birth, through to the establishment of mortal memory, through death and perhaps beyond – defines our being. Time, that intangible thing, is everything. And yet, underneath all of our constancy, and existentialism, and our essential present, there is a deep nausea building, a horror, an unsettling truth about the base inconstancy of things. This is a Heraclitian world, it is always in flux. Those people and places and things that we love are always changing. We ourselves are always changing. This violence is central to us, as we spin around the axis of the world, arc around the sun, and thrust forth in space and time from the big bang towards some kind of oblivion. Even our metaphors are progressive.

Night has fallen only for those who have let themselves fall into the night. For those who are living, [says Heraclitus], helios neos eph’hemerei estin – the sun is new each day.

Cornelius Castoriadis, The “End of Philosophy”?

And so we suppress it. Werner Herzog once said that civilisation is a thin film across an ocean of chaos, or words to that effect. It is true for each of us individually too: that our calm exteriors, the extent to which we are at least outwardly well-adjusted, social, alert, hide extraordinary emotions, urges and desires that we attempt to control. Looking around us, we find beauty in consistency, in structure, in order, and we find calm where that order is naturalised. Things become at some level predictable. Most things, at least, so long as we don’t talk about death!

The mysteries persist, of course, buried deep within nature and within ourselves. We mythologise, and tell ourselves stories about the world. Deleuze might say we go so far as to construct ontologies in order to impose meaning, and significance on our lives. That process is crucial for our self-actualization, our confidence in ourselves. That, in essence, is the process that social networking technologies empower us to accelerate, at a grand scale; we can almost abandon who we are (if such a tether exists) and instead construct a new identity based upon who we would like to be. However, one of the challenges is that of relativism: it is difficult to articulate coherently, and positively, who we are, but it is much easier to define oppositions, and define who we are not. Grounded then in a lack of confidence in positivism, the technologically accelerated binary realism brings us to the polarization we see emerging in western democratic politics. Like Lovecraft, as the philosopher John Gray said of him in a 2014 review, we have ‘fashioned a make-believe realm of dark forces as a shelter from the deadly light of universal indifference.’

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