Monday, October 6, 2008

modern baron

The gift of the One to Men.
-- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The wind is meager, so we motor rather than sail past the island. Isolated by shallow waters and swift currents stands the burnt shell of a Scottish castle designed by Frank Bannerman VI, who bought up the surplus of the Spanish-American War. One might say, flinching at the joke, that he made a killing with it. Bannerman’s Castle was his arsenal. A ruined residence in the same style commands the island’s crest.

I’m also thinking of William Randolph Hearst, who built another self-designed hotchpotch castle on his private mountain, overlooking the other coast. And of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The destroyed castle mocks Bannerman, and the preserved one mocks Hearst. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” says the severed stone head.

“If you’re rich enough,” I say, “you can realize your fantasy.”

Fantasy of isolation. A castle is weirdly ambivalent between defense and offense. You shall not be moved from your keep; but because you are immovable, you can always “sally forth.” So you rule the terrain. Kings hated it when their barons built castles. It threatened their fragile authority.

A baron in your castle keep, no one can sneak up on you. The mountain, or the river and its currents, impede approach. Whoever wants to touch you, you can see them coming. From your battlement you can repel them – particularly if you are self-sufficient, with a store of food and armament within the walls.

The wealth of a modern baron comes not from isolation but from commerce; there are people he wants to touch, and to touch him. But he can afford the private planes or skilled river transport that take him out into the world, and that bring his chosen guests into the keep. The modern baron is so rich, he can even pay the cost of his dysfunction.

“Thank God we all die,” says my host.

My friend, who invited me on his boat, has longer experience than I to look back on. We were talking of a futurist who says that science is about to cure us of age. We may see lifespans of patriarchal length, a thousand years or more. “What’s really strange,” says my friend, “is that he thinks this is a good thing.”

If we live to a thousand years, where will we put the children? What shall we do with those misguided beings who engender and give birth to them? Perhaps we shall have no children. If I have nine more centuries to live, I may not want a squirming grandchild on my lap. If I am immortal, my descendents cannot make me so. Perhaps we’ll keep the children on a reservation, lest they change things. However old they grow, they won’t know what we know. They’ll lack the true perspective. Perfecting, rubbing smooth our pleasures, we may never give way. Some dying churches are like this.

But of course we must give way, and unmade, we must make our immortality. Every thing I do now is a hundred other things that now I’ll never do. We cannot keep to ourselves. If I do not learn the strange new pleasures of my children, and if they do not know my joys, if I do not love and am not loved, then my relic castle, burnt out or preserved, will mock me in my death. It is not that we must love in spite of death; it is because of death that we can love. I work in a cockpit of love and death. Death shows his colors here, and the trumpet calls us to change and to declare our loyalties. If I had forever to love you I’d never bother, and you’d never care.

Our mortality is therefore our gift and the ground of our joy. Tolkien imagined two kinds of sentient creature, one immortal and one mortal. The immortal elves poisoned the world in self-regard, greed and lust for power. In boundless grief they have left Middle-Earth to Humankind, who came later and who, dying the individual “death of weariness” that elves never knew, must save the moments of their lives in loyalty and love. The transitory survives where the eternal does not. Our castle walls dissolve, and we must meet each other in the open air. Thank God we all die.

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