Friday, September 25, 2009

Meandering Manifesto, Part 1: Tintinnabulation

I've been thinking a lot about society's relationship with bendy people. Well, I say "thinking". The process resembles nothing so much as stars winking unpredictably into view through the gaps in the clouds sweeping across a night sky. A science fiction novel from 1928 and an LGBT advocacy blog article posted this morning seem equally likely to illuminate the social struggle that this blog presumes to support. My thoughts are still an inchoate constellation, so I'm not even going to try to coalesce them into a single entry. I'm going to work through just one piece at a time, and at the end I expect I'll be better able to tie them all together. Please bear with me.

The following is my favorite passage from The Nine Tailors, a mystery novel by Dorothy Sayers published in 1934.
    The time wore on towards midnight. The Rector, advancing to the chancel steps, delivered, in his mild and scholarly voice, a simple and moving little address, in which he spoke of praising God, not only upon the strings and pipe, but upon the beautiful bells of their beloved church, and alluded, in his gently pious way, to the presence of the passing stranger--"please do not turn round to stare at him ; that would be neither courteous nor reverent"--who had been sent "by what men call chance" to assist in this work of devotion. Lord Peter blushed, the Rector pronounced the Benediction, the organ played the opening bars of a hymn and Hezekiah Lavender exclaimed sonorously: "Now, lads!" The ringers, with much subdued shuffling, extricated themselves from their chairs and wound their way up the belfry stair. Coats were pulled off and hung on nails in the ringing-chamber, and Wimsey, observing on a bench near the door an enormous brown jug and nine pewter tankards, understood, with pleasure, that the landlord of the Red Cow had, indeed, provided "the usual" for the refreshment of the ringers.
    The eight men advanced to their stations, and Hezekiah consulted his watch.
    "Time!" he said.
    He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance.
    Toll-toll-toll ; and a pause ; toll-toll-toll ; and a pause ; toll-toll-toll ; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead ; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month. Then silence. Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes.
    "Go!"
    The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom--tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo--tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom--tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom--every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells--little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul.
    Wimsey, his eye upon the ropes and his ear pricked for the treble's shrill tongue speaking at lead, had little attention to give to anything but his task. He was dimly conscious of old Hezekiah, moving with the smooth rhythm of a machine, bowing his ancient back very slightly at each pull to bring Tailor Paul's great weight over, and of Wally Pratt, his face anxiously contorted and his lips moving in the effort to keep his intricate course in mind. Wally's bell was moving down now towards his own, dodging Number Six and passing her, dodging Number Seven and passing her, passing Number Five, striking her two blows at lead, working up again, while the treble came down to take her place and make her last snapping lead with Sabaoth. One blow in seconds place and one at lead, and Sabaoth, released from the monotony of the slow hunt, ran out merrily into her plain hunting course. High in the air above them the cock upon the weathervane stared out over the snow and watched the pinnacles of the tower swing to and fro with a slowly widening sweep as the tall stalk of stone gathered momentum and rocked like a windblown tree beneath his golden feet.
I adore this passage. The skill I treasure most in an author is her ability to transport me in time and space: to pull me past the black marks on the page and into the story. I feel the old wood and the rough hemp of the rope sallies; I see the ponderous swinging of the bells; I hear the ringing, and feel the sound resonating in my rib cage. And I feel the sway of the bell tower as my mind's eye lifts off from it, swoops around it for one breathtaking view, and finally settles in and, alongside the cock upon the weathervane, presides over it all.

I also love this passage for how it evokes a people's love for their traditions. And here's the thing that makes it relevant to this blog: those traditions are arbitrary. The type of bell-ringing that Wimsey was participating in is called Change ringing, and it follows a set of mathematical rules without regard for melody. Some folks back in the seventeenth century got it in their heads that following a mathematical sequence with bells was a Good Idea, and here we have a hallowed tradition followed by townsfolk who know bugger all about math. But those people would probably fight tooth and nail if you tried to take those well-tested ropes out of their hands, or suggested changing the style of ringing. They love it because, from time immemorial, they have done it.

Except, well... they haven't.

That's the thing about time immemorial, isn't it? It is one of our most profound fictions. People have a way of convincing themselves that what's been done for as long as their family remembers it is the way it's always been. And the truth of our collective cognitive space is built on that lie. We mold a plastic reality every day out of demonstratively false assertions, the greatest of which is the immutability of that reality.

The Parish of Fenchurch St. Paul is a fiction that Dorothy Sayers wove from her own fond memories of growing up as the daughter of the rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. So while neither it nor its inhabitants are real, they evoke real human truths. People love their traditions, which to them are every bit as solid as the stone stairs of a bell tower and the generations of feet that wore depressions into them. To you and me, those traditions may be constructs. They may be arbitrary. They may be vapor. But we cannot diminish their subjective solidity one whit by ignoring or dismissing them, nor do we have any business doing so.

And if an arbitrary system of yanking on a bunch of ropes to ring a bunch of bells can so grasp our affections and screw them to a social sticking place, how much more does a system of sexual morays bind a people? Sex is our greatest compulsion. What the hell do you expect? Stop acting surprised when people act like people.

I'm not saying that we have to accept another person's tradition. I'm not even saying that we have to respect them. But we should bloody well stop acting so surprised. I know you know how it feels to grin as you enthusiastically heft that bushel basket of umbrage at that which violates your sense of propriety; after all, you're human, just like me. Just like them.

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