I should like to live in a different time. Not in the sense of being corporeally present in an earlier epoch, with all its physical plant, its local color, and a bustling mise en scène, but in that metaphysical sense, akin to tempo in music, which previous epochs never neglected to set. Our own time does no such thing. It just flows at the speed of a cataract, hurtling us toward some Stygian, tone-deaf, stone-dead sea.
Not that I’d say no to the physical plant, of course. Just the other day, in our flea market in Palermo, I came across a carpenter’s brace made in England in the 1830’s, a wondrous contraption of polished ebony and brass, as shiny and workmanlike today as it was when Victoria married Albert. Just to hold it my hands, reading the maker’s mark—Hibernia: Wm Marples & Sons: Sheffield—was a privilege. It occurred to me that the carpenter who once owned and used it was at one with the time of Christ, even though some 18 centuries separated them; whereas the carpenter of our day, with his Black & Decker EPC 18, is as removed from his predecessor as an alien from outer space, even though there are merely 180 years between them.
Please don’t tell me that I’m wrong, and that every epoch sets the tempo in a way that is audible only to future generations. Every previous epoch, possibly; this present one, no. However expansive, volatile, or imaginative our soul, our body is not capable of great change. Dress Aristotle in a light silk suit with some brown loafers, put a 20-year-old blonde on his arm, lead him into Harry’s Bar at lunchtime, and I doubt that even a Mossad snoop will recognize that a Greek savant, rather than a Russian oligarch, is before him. The body rules, its imperatives organic and its hierarchies immutable.
Indeed, wool from wild Tibetan antelopes is even more pleasant to the touch than vicuña, which is superior to cashmere, which in turn is preferable to ordinary worsted. So don’t tell me that the iPhone and the iPad are this epoch’s answer to that Victorian hand drill. When a polyester scarf will cost the same as a Tibetan shahtoosh, or else, perhaps, when hell freezes over, then I’ll have a go at believing you. Twinkies are not as tasty as foie gras. Plastic is inferior to ebony, as any pianist will confirm, and touch is important when it comes to setting the tempo.
Contrary to widespread belief, man’s soul is far more sinful than his body. It is man’s soul, ever curious, ever in turmoil, which keeps trying to lead him astray, while it is his body, ever frail, ever conscious of its limitations, which insists on bringing along the long spoon when it’s time to sup with the devil. The soul is ethereal, dreamy, romantic, libertarian, even at times a Democrat, ready to sign disarmament pacts and to frequent vegan restaurants. The body is a hardheaded realist and scoffer, a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, at times a blackguard to make Chesterton shudder. Finally and most importantly, the soul is a relativist, while the body is a sworn believer in eternal values.
We pray for the salvation of the soul because it is our souls that get us into trouble, whereas our bodies do everything within their puny power to restrain and to chasten us. The natural aversions and taboos of the body are the right aversions and taboos; we do not want to dine standing up, nor to eat right after we’ve worked, run, or swum; and so it is the body that suggests we pause for prayer before we sit at table. The natural inclinations and longings of the body, likewise, are the right inclinations and longings; we do not want to sleep with our mothers—or, for that matter, to walk barefoot in a city street, to play Russian roulette, or to listen to serial music—not because our soul whispers that it’s wrong, but because our body shouts that it’s impossible.
Our soulless epoch is both incapable and unwilling to set the tempo of life because, oddly enough, it holds the soul to be paramount. This is the final phase of that process of trivialization of scriptural insight that Kierkegaard was perhaps the first to observe, contrasting it with Christianity as “Christendom.” Philosophically uncoupled from the diktats of the body, supplied with the perverse injunctions that plastic is as good as ivory and pressboard no worse than macassar, seduced into believing that polyester is better than the hair of the Tibetan antelope and John Cage more meaningful than Bach, the soul has been shamelessly used by the epoch as the alibi for all its self-destructive malfeasance.
The alibi, moreover, is hard to challenge (“What? Twinkies worse than foie gras? Says who?!”) without appearing heartless—that is to say, soulless. It is only the cacophonous protestations with which the epoch responds to the challenge—subsuming within their decibels all hope of discerning in the movement of life a tonality, a rhythm, or a tempo—that give the malfeasant away. But then, ex ungue leonem.