People have always felt the world was going down the tubes — from “hey, look at her!” to “ubi sunt,” indeed long before anybody ever thought to make it new!
One of the cultures I most admire is that of the indigenous people of Australia. What culture has ever produced greater artists, richer myths, or more healing images? Yet when they lost their past, all 30,000 years of it, it took just a few decades to bankrupt them entirely, economically, culturally, emotionally and spiritually. On the other hand, the tragedy was caused as much by our culture’s inability to cope with change as it was with theirs. They couldn’t deal with us any more than we could deal with them, a heart-breaking impasse for everybody involved right to the end, and still with us.
Two observations on “Make It New” with regard to the gifts of these extraordinary people. The Australian aborigines were always in a sense “contemporary” — they were “cartoon” artists, after all, and every image and artifact they made was “pop” in the sense that everybody was a fan, everybody loved it, read it and danced to it. Secondly, their culture didn’t change — for whatever reason they were locked in a time-warp, as we might say looking out into space, and as a result nothing ever became “dated” what is more “old fashioned” for them. “Make it new?” Why everything was new already!
I make these observations very much without blame — Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel confirmed what I had always suspected, that the Australian aborigines’ lack of ‘development’ had nothing whatever to do with inferior genes, hands or minds. On the other hand, they didn’t “change” at all in our sense — but that’s not quite the same as I have come to understand the word in Buddhist terms. The Buddha insisted over and over again that denying change was as self-destructive as any form of greed, control or domination. Anicca, or “impermanence” as it’s usually translated when the sutras are rendered in English, is the only certainty in life, says the Buddha, and holding on to things as if they weren’t going to change is the root of all suffering. That’s the fundamental Buddhist teaching, in fact, that Change and the inevitable Suffering that arises out of it are the fundamental truths of all being.
What’s really different about our times, it seems to me, is what is happening to time itself — the speed of change, as if we were already strapped in the rocket that will deliver us from our dwindling planet into the arms of space. Try this to put our own sense of time in perspective: I never even heard of television until I was 8 and didn’t live with a set until I was 42! Even more astonishing, I learned all my maths and physics without a calculator, sailed all over the world without a GPS or other electronic aid, and didn’t touch a computer keyboard until I was 52, the same age at which I published my first poem. And if that last one doesn’t put the word “dated” into perspective for a poet in America, what does?
But we’ll come back to that.
I just want to add that I’m not a Buddhist, whatever that might mean, and feel very strongly that in the light of eternity there are other “universal truths” beside Change and Suffering. Indeed, one of the reasons the aborigines are so important to me is that they tell me more than any other people I have ever encountered about who I really am — particularly as I look in the mirror on my birthday, not a pretty sight at all at 74. But then the old wizened aborigine that looks back at me over my shoulder tells me that nothing that really matters is ever outdated. Change is nothing in the light of eternity, he tells me — and I don’t mean by that Heaven or Eternal Life, God forbid, or indeed anything my new-age friends in white call ‘Spiritual.’ I mean eternity in the sense that I believe Einstein imagined it, or Stephen Hawking in his space-age body, our own little naked good-fella in Cambridge, grappling with the dreaming that’s Cern.
Do you think when the first white man arrived in Australia an aboriginal would have had a problem showing him a God-particle? Had the white man been able to ask, that is? Had he had the intelligence or expertise to navigate that sort of thinking?
And of course, had the good-fella been willing to betray such truths by sharing them with such a big, crude, ignorant stranger?
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