Life Amidst the Ashes of the Winnowing Fan

Stray thoughts while I avoid the massive pile of drafts that, you know, are my good writings … (1)

Orphans used to more or less promptly die. Widows, too. Up to perhaps 200 years ago everywhere, and in some places even now, being a parentless child or a woman who’d lost her husband meant that their was no one to help you get enough food to survive, let alone protect you from violence. The scriptural admonitions to care for widows and orphans is in part a recognition of these cold facts.

This grim fate is part and parcel of the historian’s grim euphemism ‘harvest sensitive’: When there’s plenty of food around, even the widow and orphan may get fed; when the harvest is bad, the weakest – that would be widows and orphans – get to starve first. Sure, we’d like to imagine, in our plenty, that the extended families of the widows and orphans  would take them in, and that probably did happen sometimes. We underestimate the difficulty and sacrifice that generosity might entail: the food supply doesn’t magically expand to accommodate more mouths. As a peasant (about 90% of people across all but the most recent history) I couldn’t just put another acre under cultivation and simply catch more fish. Those scriptural admonitions are a call to real sacrifice, more often than not.

Once read about Charlemagne that he, as is appropriate for an emperor, tended to take a dim view of any attitude or behavior that might threaten his reign. Unlike his ancestors and contemporaries, he is remembered for his mercy – he didn’t just automatically kill people, but would use less bloody ways to remove them. For example, he would banish anyone who offended against the Frankish empire to distant monasteries, where they were to reevaluate their decision making paradigms.  Such reevaluation might take the rest of their lives – oh well. (2)

The thing about Charlemagne is that this practice of his is no different in concept from the practices of any vigorous king or, for that matter, any vigorous culture. What defines a culture as vigorous is its ability to promote that which strengthens it and suppress that which destroys it. Mostly, this action of suppression and promotion has not been controversial: murder and theft must be suppressed, and family and commerce must be promoted.

Until now.

Those who refused to support the efforts of the people of a culture to sustain and propagate that culture found themselves, at the very least, outside the bounds of polite society. Thieves and murderers were most often executed. But other acts of defiance to the cultural norms were also punished. Homewreckers – think Don Juan for an extreme literary example – were dragged to Hell by the Stone Guest, often not too figuratively. The shotgun wedding is a delicate refinement of merely being shotgunned.

And so on – if you violated the expectations of the people you lived among enough, you weren’t going to get a job or a spouse or a place to live. At best. (3) Then, without family and position, your fate would stand to be determined by that same harvest sensitivity mentioned above.

These two thing – the need to support or at least not tear down the culture, and the often fatal results of not being tied in to a family – tended strongly to winnow out certain behaviors that were destructive to a culture. This didn’t really start to change anywhere until the middle of the 19th century, (4) when food production and storage finally started to ease the threat of starvation from the most civilized countries. Not coincidentally, that’s also when Marx published Wage Labour and Capital (1847) and Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx attacks the culture that produced him just at the moment when it was just becoming possible for a common man to live the sort of dissolute and irresponsible personal life Marx lived and still stand a decent chance of survival. That train has kept rolling on, so that, today, a person with no family ties to speak of and who lives in constant defiance of all traditional social norms not only does not die, but lives to reproduce and, sometimes, vote.

The winnowing fan is in ashes. This is not entirely a bad thing – we really don’t want widows and orphans to starve. But what has happened is that our current desiccated and anemic culture has absorbed all sorts of bad ideas, ideas that do not support this or any other culture. (5)

And so we run a grand experiment upon the ashes. What if no man must raise and care for his children? No woman need be married to be a mother? No child need even know who his father is? No recognition that society, and especially political society, is a result of families, not a cause ot definition of families? Heck, what if we punish any who claim otherwise?

Already the non-controversial actions of the culture – suppressing theft and murder, for a pertinent example – have been made controversial. We ask who is doing the stealing and killing and from or of whom before we are allowed to disapprove, and judgement is to be based on the group, not the individual actors. Whipping up hatred of one group for another is not loathsome and despicable, but just good politics. And those who would only keep their culture alive are persecuted from the high places of government.

So we will see. This should be interesting. (6)

  1. Chesterton says something like this about a book he hadn’t gotten around to writing: like everything I haven’t written, it was the best thing I ever wrote. Beautiful potentiality is always the theoretical winner when compared to any brute actuality. Sigh.
  2. One hopes flatterers would get this treatment.
  3. It is odd to contemplate that a medieval village was in most ways more tolerant of oddball behaviours than we are. See Don Quixote, for examples.
  4. In the early 19th century, the rules still seemed to hold. I’m thinking of Mary Shelly and her crowd and how much death and misery resulted from their free thinking. That part tends to get glossed over, or, worse and more dishonest, blamed on the society and not on the idiotic adolescent fantasies of the perps.
  5. Marx wastes no ink describing how the new paradise is to arise in any practical sense – it just does, once you’ve killed enough Capitalists. That it hasn’t yet is not seen as proof that it’s a dumb idea, but merely as evidence you’ve not yet killed enough capitalists. The solution is to increase your efforts and broaden the definition of Capitalist until it includes, say, kulak farmers or, today, anyone who makes more money than you and fails to get in line.
  6. There are some potentially funny developments – funny, unless you’re a woman who has spent a lifetime training for the Olympics only to lose to some mediocre guy who says he’s a woman and takes steps for 12 months to suppress his testosterone levels. My prediction: in 4 years, there will be few world record in women’s Olympic sports held by women. There are enough unstable guys who are decent athletes who will ‘become women’ just long enough to snag a gold medal or two.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

15 thoughts on “Life Amidst the Ashes of the Winnowing Fan”

  1. It is odd to contemplate that a medieval village was in most ways more tolerant of oddball behaviours than we are. See Don Quixote, for examples.

    More odd because the flat moral world of today has to assume that the past was a giant monolith of conservative stereotypes. But perspective is a wonderful thing and when everybody had a fairly acute awareness of just what could get you killed, then the nutters (says the nutter) are much easier to tolerate. (Maybe also something to do with after the effort to survive, tolerance arose out of exhaustion.)

    In the early 19th century, the rules still seemed to hold. I’m thinking of Mary Shelly and her crowd and how much death and misery resulted from their free thinking. That part tends to get glossed over, or, worse and more dishonest, blamed on the society and not on the idiotic adolescent fantasies of the perps.

    Hm, I had not heard much about Mary Shelly “and her crowd” or the consequences. You have more info on this?

    1. There’s a bit in St. Gregory’s ‘History of the Franks’ illustrating the oddball behaviors – in the trial of a rebel nun accused (rightly) of leading an armed assault of bandits (!!!) against her superior, her accusations of intimate misconduct aimed at her superior fall flat in court, because one guy had his testicles removed (for medical reasons) a long time ago, and another was known by everyone to regularly dress in women’s clothing, and not be terribly interested in women. This was mentioned only in the context of the trial, and no comment was given otherwise.

      (I can’t recommend the book enough.)

      1. That is wonderful. I’ve heard of but not read that book. It comes up in discussions of the Franks about whom I’ve read a little. Will have to track it down.

        In some commentary on Don Quixote I ran across years ago, the writer pointed out that the Don straddled a point in history where, on the old side, even crazy people got tolerated quite a bit, as one was never quite sure their behavior wasn’t some spiritual ecstasy or something. The example he gave was a woman from around that time and place who seemed to be having orgasms during Mass – people were not ready to immediately throw here out of the building because, who knows? But right around Cervantes’ time, things were getting more scientific – people started to think that such obvious crazies needed to be locked up. That’s one of the background tensions in his book.

    2. Mary Shelley’s mom was a 18th century radical feminist; her father wrote a very influential book which advocated for seizing land and redistributing it. When she was still a teenager, She ran off with a married man – Shelley – and hid out in Italy because of the entirely justified disapproval they would face back in England. She conceived a child with Shelly, two I think, both of which died in child hood or infancy. Finally, Shelly’s wife commits suicide, allowing him to make an honest woman cough cough out of Mary. When they got back to England, some of the various families involved would have nothing to do with them. Mr. Shelley eventually dies in a boating accident; things do not get better. This is just a little bit of the story.

    3. Hm, I had not heard much about Mary Shelly “and her crowd” or the consequences.

      You escaped the “teenage girl took time off from having threesomes with Lord Byron to write the first scifi novel” meme-alanch from a month or two back?

      Lucky you…..

      1. It was memes, that was the details; it was just phrased four or five different ways. (The “teenage girl” thing was misleading, and I don’t agree with the classification for the novel….)

        C4c is “Commenting for comments.” The stuff that follows is people being silly and having fun with “me, too.”

  2. History of the Franks
    abridged edition

    complete but in Latin

    sundry editions for downloading

    His opening is especially poignant.
    With bookish culture on the wane, or rather perishing in the Gallic cities there were many deeds being done both good and evil: the heathen were raging fiercely; kings were growing more cruel; the church. attacked by heretics, was defended by Catholics; while the Christian faith was in general devoutly cherished, among some it was growing cold; the churches also were enriched by the faithful or plundered by traitors-and no grammarian skilled in the dialectic art could be found to describe these matters either in prose or verse; and many were lamenting and saying: “Woe to our day, since the pursuit of letters has perished from among us and no one can be found among the people who can set forth the deeds of the present on the written page.” Hearing continually these complaints and others like them I [have undertaken] to commemorate the past, order that it may come to the knowledge of the future; and although my speech is rude, I have been unable to be silent as to the struggles between the wicked and the upright; and I have been especially ­ encouraged because, to my surprise, it has often been said by men of our day, that few understand the learned words of the rhetorician but many the rude language of the common people.

    And his description of the siege of Orleans by the Huns, when the people on the city walls spy in the rear of the Hunnish horde the banners of the last Roman army on earth, will remind one irresistibly of the siege in The Two Towers when Gandalf arrives with the Riders of Rohim.

    And Attila king of the Huns went forth from Metz and when he had crushed many cities of the Gauls he attacked Orleans and strove to take it by the mighty hammering of battering rams. Now at that time the most blessed Annianus was bishop in the city just mentioned, a man of unequaled wisdom and praiseworthy holiness, whose miracles are faithfully remembered among us. And when the people, on being shut in, cried to their bishop, and asked what they were to do, trusting in God he advised all to prostrate themselves in prayer, and with tears to implore the ever present aid of God in their necessities. Then when they prayed as he had directed, the bishop said: “Look from the wall of the city to see whether God’s mercy yet comes to your aid.” For he hoped that by God’s mercy Ætius was coming, to whom he had recourse before at Arles when he was anxious about the future. But when they looked from the wall, they saw no one. And he said: “Pray faithfully, for God will free you this day.” When they had prayed he said: “Look again.” And when they looked they saw no one to bring aid. He said to them a third time: “If you pray faithfully, God comes swiftly.” And they besought God’s mercy with weeping and loud cries. When this prayer also was finished they looked from the wall a third time at the old man’s command, and saw afar off a cloud as it were arising from the earth. When they reported this the bishop said: “It is the aid of the Lord.” Meanwhile, when the walls were now trembling from the hammering of the rams and were just about to fall, behold, Ætius came, and Theodore, king of the Goths and Thorismodus his son hastened to the city with their armies, and drove the enemy forth and defeated him. And so the city was freed by the intercession of the blessed bishop, and they put Attila to flight.

    1. Thanks, sounds right up my alley. I do remember reading that section on the siege of Orleans somewhere before (your blog?). It says something about our modern mindset that despite our (my) wailing about doom and gloom (just look at those candidates! Eeewe!) nobody is seriously worried that Huns will besiege our homes. Yet.

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