Arcadia


My address this morning is entitled Arcadia. I must forewarn you that the address rambles a bit, but I hope it offers some worthwhile reflection on our relationship with nature. It all started with a visit to the website of the National Gallery of Ireland where I happened on a section entitled Mindfulness and Art. It invites you to slow down and reflect on one particular painting. Generally, when I visit a gallery I find myself exhausted after viewing merely a dozen or so paintings, as I like to look closely and think about each one. So, this thoughtfully constructed and gently informative section on Mindfulness and Art, developed a couple of months ago, was just for me I thought, and I have indeed enjoyed visiting many of the 15 paintings in this collection, one at a time.
          However, it also set me reflecting on a painting with which I was familiar from a teaching project of many years ago. Entitled Shepherds in Arcadia, it was painted in 1638 by Nicolas Poussin, the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style. It depicts a pastoral scene with idealised shepherds from classical antiquity gathered around an austere tomb.
          Arcadia generally refers to a vision of pastoralism, rural bliss, and a harmony with nature. The term is derived from the Greek province of the same name that dates to antiquity. Arcadia also speaks to a kind of Garden of Eden in all its serenity. It is also used to suggest a Utopia, an idealised Other where idyllic values prevail. Since Renaissance times, Arcadia has been an oft-used theme or trope for painters and writers.
          So how did my first mindfulness experiment with Shepherds in Arcadia work out? Well on contemplating the painting online, as it actually hangs in the Louvre, I found myself sitting in the lovely pews of First Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, a sister church of ours in Dunmurry, Co. Antrim which many of us here have visited over the years, and indeed our minister, Rev,Bridget Spain, has preached there. The congregation at Dunmurry can be traced to the 17th century, and the present church, built in 1779, has a venerable tradition in the development of non-subscribing Presbyterianism, liberal theology, and dissent from oppressive orthodoxy, creedal or otherwise, to which Unitarians subscribe.
          In my contemplation, its beautiful, simply ornate, pastoral-like architecture transported me to a similar type of church in 17th century New England, and to worshipping with a group of pilgrim settlers. This early period of American history fascinates me; these early pilgrim settlers, the American Revolutionary War, the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the achievements of the Founding Fathers. These early American colonists arrived from northwestern Europe, primarily Britain, and were almost exclusively Protestant.
          They sought opportunity and religious freedom from oppressions in Europe. They must have been awed at the land they had moved into, its vastness, its abundance, its beauty. And they were prepared to work with diligence and self-reliance in this rural idyll. This New World must have seemed an Arcadia. Indeed, there are 25 towns or cities called Arcadia in the US, primarily on the eastern side. There are 27 called Paradise. Further, there are literally hundreds of towns and cities called after Biblical names and places, again mostly in eastern part.
          Later in the early 19th century, the so-called Hudson River School of painting continued to mirror this Arcadia. Its artists, including the celebrated Thomas Cole, depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully. These landscapes are characterised by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealised portrayal of nature. The paintings often juxtaposing peaceful agriculture and the remaining wilderness that was fast disappearing from the Hudson Valley, just as it was coming to be appreciated for its qualities of ruggedness and sublimity. In general, Hudson River School painters believed that nature, in the form of the American landscape, was a reflection of God.
          Meanwhile, America’s destiny, buoyed by diverse immigrations, was characterised by a confidence, an optimism, and a sense of egalitarianism. To be born in this ‘land of the free’ was to be born boldly individual, self-sufficient, and pioneering. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began his career as a Unitarian Minister in Boston, wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, ‘Self-Reliance’: ‘Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string’.
          But let us pause for a moment and return to Poussin’s painting. It is much more widely known as Et in Arcadia ego. This Latin title is generally translated as ‘Even in Arcadia I am there’. The ‘I’ here stands for death, as illustrated by, and written on, the tomb in the painting. It is a reminder that mortality exists even in the idyllic setting of Arcadia; a reminder that there was an expulsion from the Garden of Eden; a prompting that a Utopia can end up causing suffering and death.
          There is, thus, a philosophical and spiritual contradiction and ambiguity at the heart of this painting that reflects deeply on the human condition. Following on from Poussin’s painting, there are other paintings and many books entitled Et in Arcadia ego that seek to illustrate and contextualise this contradiction.
          The great American project, this Arcadia of my celebration, had at its founding core two contradictions: slavery, and the expulsion of the Native American people from their lands. The USA today continues to live with the consequences of these two issues. I would like to offer some thoughts about the second issue.
          When European settlers first came to North America, it is reckoned there were some 5 million Native Indians in over 500 tribes, each with its distinctive indigenous language. This is a conservative estimate and other anthropologists double this estimate at the least. George Catlin, a 19th century painter, revered and painted Native Indians in the 1830s, suggested that prior to Columbus’ arrival in North America ‘they were 16 million in number, and sent that number of daily prayers to the Almighty.’ Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Sioux, Apache, Blackfoot, names that seem to resonate magically when translated into English. This pre-Columbian era seems indeed also a kind of Arcadia with its reverence for, and harmony with, the natural environment, innate religion, its wise customs, nomadic beauty, and its intergenerational bonding. Native Indians were not Savages, the necessary description that the new colonists needed to dehumanise and subjugate them.
          But expulsion from their Arcadia came quickly, mostly in the devastation of the Native American population through western diseases of smallpox, measles and so on. ‘Population decay was catastrophic,’ concludes historian William McNeill in his 1976 book, Plagues and Peoples. Finally, the White Man’s push west in the 19th century to multiply himself and develop agriculture, mining, industry was the final humiliation. Custer’s wilful trespass into a territory, the sacred Black Hills of Dakota, promised by treaty to the Sioux, set the stage for the last violent encounters between New World and what remained of a vibrant Native American people and culture.
          However, it can be argued that we still have much to learn from Native American people and culture, in particular, from their respect for and harmony with nature. I would argue this very much in the context of the scientist and environmentalist, James Lovelock’s theory of Mother Gaia. Gaia was a contrarian, easily irritated, and revengeful god of Greek mythology. But she had responsibility for the Cosmos the universe as seen as a well ordered whole. Some environmentalists now consider Gaia, more than merely metaphorically, as a real presence, similar to a universal spirit, a ‘world soul’, or weltgeist.
          Our reckless overuse of natural resources, emitting vast amounts of CO2 in the process, is annoying her. She is responding with this global warming, indeed, global ‘weirding’, to warn us to mend our ways or she will simply ‘cancel’ us as a human species. She is not prepared to stand by and allow the carefully fostered ecological balance that has been achieved on this planet over so many millions of years to be overthrown by the needlessly expansive and unbalanced behaviour of one species that she has bought into being. John Dillon, retired professor of Greek at Trinity College Dublin, spoke recently, ‘The message from Mother Gaia is: Slow down. Take time to appreciate your immediate environment, and what you can derive from it. Smell the roses! Listen to the birds! This is a sentiment that Sitting Bull of the Sioux nation would very much endorse. (recent Supreme Court decision; Choctaw ‘March of Tears’ and donation to Famine; Choctaw address in our church; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Cherokee)
          Is there an Irish Arcadia? One of the founding fathers of this State did envisage one. ‘On language and the Irish nation’ was the title of a radio address made by Éamon de-Valera , then Taoiseach of Ireland, on Radió Éireann on St.Patrick’s Day (17th March) 1943. His radio speech is often called ‘The Ireland that we dreamed of.’ I quote the first 100 words.
          ‘The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, a land whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.’
          If a narrow literalist meaning is taken from de-Valera’s full speech, it possible to understand the derision with which it has been usually viewed in my lifetime. But taking a more nuanced metaphorical view, which we Unitarians love to do with the Bible, the words speak to a sufficiency rather than to an overabundance of consumption, to a harmony with nature, to a sense of communal identity, language and shared ideals.
          But alas in de-Valera’s Arcadian vision, there also lurked Et in Arcadia ego, a mortal flaw. His isolationist and nationalist economic policies meant that hundreds of thousands of young Irish men and women had to emigrate to find work over many generations. Yet, I can see, again metaphorically, many in a Green Political Party, seeing in his dream for Ireland, some support for their ideas about ‘degrowth’ and of slowing the juggernaut of an all-consuming modernity. Such ideas call for replacing our obsession with unfettered GNP growth with a more prudent use of limited natural resources, greater respect for our natural environment, and the use of other indicators for the quality of life, all in a less individualistic, more communal society. Indeed, if any of the children present took meaning from my story about the fisherman, you might read Éamon de-Valera’s speech. It is an important part of your history.
          In conclusion, I ask you to reflect. Do we need an Arcadia? Is its notion of an idealised pastoral otherworld simply childish? Is the Garden of Eden simply a redundant religious concept? Is striving to build a Utopia a foolish pursuit?
          An answer could be to say that the human condition is imperfect, but that there is a need for ideas, visions, even dreams, to uplift and give hope. A new world, the starting point of my mindfulness ramble, might be possible. A new, and more inclusive, order could be conceived. A new harmony with Mother Gaia could be pursued. To imagine and re-imagine are key. Not to so strive, is to stumble about, to crawl about. And ‘crawling about’ does not dignify an adult, justice-seeking citizenry.

Aiden O’Driscoll
Dublin Unitarian Church                             12 July 2020




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