Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News Review
Secret agent of restraint
Reviving the dusty virtue of meekness, honed by Ian Fleming’s 007, could help us lead leaner, greener and happier lives.
It was a high point of my summer to read my first James Bond novels. I’d seen the movies, a tad reluctantly, and regarded them as stylish but slight and disappointingly brutish. But these movies, which for most of us are Bond, no more resemble their originals than Disney’s Hunchback resembles Victor Hugo. Fleming’s novels, I was delighted to find, are not just elegantly turned but thoughtful, gently erudite and even somehow courtly.
You might be inclined to accept this difference as the loss-in-translation from page to film, except that many action novels – including The Da Vinci Code, Mystic River and The Millennium Trilogy – make this shift with near-perfect fidelity. More probably, then, the omission was deliberate, the courtly feel being judged inappropriate not just to cinema, but to modernity.
For although, up to the mid-20th century, this quality was reasonably common, it is now rare – not just in literature but in architecture, culture and life. (The King’s Speech came close, set, as it was, 70 years ago.) “Gentlemanly” might almost do it, or “chivalrous” or “modest” or even “humble”, were these terms not distorted beyond recognition by our prism of political correctness, on the one hand, and ego, on the other.
Only later, at summer’s fag end, did I find myself considering a word I have scarcely, if ever, used; a word that seems, on the face of it, startlingly inapplicable to the Bond we know and love: meek.
Meekness isn’t exactly in common parlance these days. Nor is it exactly the jack-of-hearts image of 007. Almost the opposite. Indeed that bit in the Beatitudes (“blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”) is, I imagine, many people’s sole experience of the word. Probably as many again, including many churchgoers, wouldn’t even know that.
It’s not just the word we despise, but the quality, too, seeming to imply a passivity with which we, especially we women, have dispensed. Meekness bespeaks lives shaped by duty, not desire.
Yet I’d argue that we’re wrong on both counts; that we have misunderstood the word and (therefore) undervalued the quality.
The Bond of the books, being both less assured and more fallible than Albert R. Broccoli’s action man is, if anything, more heroic. Failure and sacrifice give his heroism a pathos that only increases its stature, lifting it from the merely physical to something almost spiritual.
And it’s this that chimes with my chance discovery of the real meaning of “meek”. The “meek” of the King James Bible’s Beatitudes is a translation from the Ancient Greek hoi praeis. But – in modern English, at least – it is a mistranslation, for hoi praeis does not mean the passive or the downtrodden; far from it.
Rather, “meek” denotes those of the disciplined soul, tempered by experience and cultivated through enduring practice. This brings the sense of strength through self-control, of power disciplined into usefulness and of the deep spiritual joy that comes with sacrifice.
Such ideas are familiar enough in Buddhism, where an arhat is one who, having overcome desire, hatred and ignorance, is therefore free to pursue enlightenment. But prautes – meekness – was also one of Aristotle’s favoured ethical qualities, since it enabled humans to transcend their primate selves and act in the wider interest.
This quality of inner strength-through-discipline figures also in Christian history, casting the Knights Templar, for example, less as straightforward action men than as Christ’s ninjas, trained in a holistic mind-body muscularity.
But back to Bond. I’m conscious, even as I read, that my impression of the books is contextually influenced, flavoured by the fact that I’m slumped, slouched and at times supine on the silvered verandah-boards of a borrowed turn-of-the-century weekender on the banks of the slow-moving Wyong River. It’s a house that seems to embody the same ineffable quality of a deep strength that is voluntarily under-expressed, the same, anachronistic sense of a disciplined and cultivated humility.
For it’s not a grand house. Far from it. Lent to us by descendants of its early owners, it was built in 1907 as a four-room fisherman’s cottage and extended over the years with such tact and restraint as only enhances its dignity. Extra bunkrooms have been added for the generations of children and grandchildren, yet the house, extended along the river axis, remains an exemplar of modesty and grace.
If it were grand, it would be more likely treasured, in this city so engrossed in its race to earth-shattering ostentation. As it is, it wraps us in both sweetness and pathos, whispering constantly that such a house will almost certainly never be built again. So it occurs to me that this meekness, or prautes, is not simply a moral concept but one that, taking physical form, creates an aesthetic.
To combine ethics and aesthetics in this way is rare in Western culture. Modernity, after Calvin, tended to split goodness from elegance, separating “inner” and “outer” beauty. And although some early Moderns (like Mies “God is in the details” van der Rohe) saw form as capable of nobility, it was a form-type so anorexic, so “less is more”, as to be almost anti-form.
An alternative is offered by the Japanese ethos of Wabi-sabi, which consciously combines the aesthetic and the spiritual in a single code. Emerging out of 16th-century tea-ceremony tradition, Wabi-sabi values the rough over the shiny, the flawed over the perfect, the modest over the showy and the ageing over the new; it sees the inconspicuous, the impermanent, the porous and the overlooked as vessels of truth and beauty. (The Romantic poets of 19th-century England had a similar intuition, but Modernism quickly put paid to that.)
So our lovely bare-boards, tin-roofed riverbank house is one whose beauty I fancy both tea-master Sen no Rikyu and poet John Keats would have appreciated. The question is, would anyone else? Is it possible that mass humanity – the mass being what the planet lives or dies by – could see this way?
Can we, as a species, learn to appreciate the humble, to delight in what is good for us and for the planet? Can we follow our heads with our hearts, rather than vice versa? Is it even conceivable that dusty virtues like modesty and grace could become fashionable again?
Much evidence argues no. If pandemic obesity is, as I fear, a metaphor for our lives, then no. We cannot control our appetites. Even when we can see the long-term, more abstract view, we cannot act on it, and mostly we don’t see it.
Abstraction is a maturity thing, but most signs point the other way, to increasing infantilism. Decreasing attention spans, demand for constant sensory input, cosmetics designed to envelop you in edible aromas, even the petulance of road rage, all suggest that, species-wide, our mental age is dropping, not rising.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, Oxford professor of synaptic pharmacology, blames generalised screen-culture. In London recently she argued that the “mind of the future” will show higher IQ, improved short-term memory and more sensory emphasis along with a reduced sense of personal identity (and responsibility), shorter attention span and an emphasis on icons over ideas, evincing a failure of abstraction. It will also show reduced risk aversion; greater tendency to gamble when the stakes are high.
Further, screen culture – to wit Facebook’s redefinition of “friend” – also encourages an addictive solipsism, a sense-absorbed “bubble” that mimics perpetual childhood.
Either way governments, too, seem to play to this childishness, playing bad parent to our spoiled brat. When they say “density” or “carbon tax” we stamp our feet and hold our breath until they tell us what we would rather hear. It won’t cost you anything. Yes, of course you can have your cake and eat it, always. There there. Go to sleep.
So, if we’re stuck with being infantile, could fashion be the answer? Could lean, green lives be made fashionable, just as small cars and not smoking became fashionable? Could fashion’s sensual appeal, and the collective solipsism of herd instinct, offer the levers for behavioural change?
A recent paper in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues this, saying: “Activating status motives can make people choose the green option over the merely extravagant.” The authors call this “competitive altruism”, reminding me of how a personal charitable trust is said to have become the latest must-have among billionaires.
Personally, I’m dubious. As regards fat, fashion has dictated a less-is-more approach for decades – at least since Wallis Simpson and Audrey Hepburn – the exact same period over which obesity has become pandemic.
Now, for the first time, more people eat too much than too little, making you wish we could lipo-suck the calories from one half of humanity and send them to the rest.
But our response to obesity is also indicative. Rather than incentivising weight loss by carrot-and-stick methods (like social stigma, financial penalty or compulsory waist-measurements as in Japan) we assume self-discipline to be impossible, and award public funding to lap-banding. This is like handing out corsets to people with weak abs, exacerbating the problem even as you hide it.
So although fashion surely has a role in leading us to greener pastures (giving design increased significance as a leader of this “green seduction”) we cannot rely wholly on externalities. Which is where meekness comes in.
Meekness captures the paradoxical, almost yogic idea of a self-restraining power, a secret weapon, if you like, for use only when essential and only for good. This is almost the definition of the hero; of Fleming’s Bond (but not Broccoli’s) and, to my mind, of many Clint Eastwood characters. (My secret admiration for Eastwood bewildered me until I learned recently that he is a lifelong practitioner of TM.)
The same paradoxical message emerges separately from ancient theology and modern hedonics; that true happiness requires us to eschew its pursuit and lose ourselves instead in service of some greater goal.
I recall US teacher Anne Thomas’s account of sleeping rough in Sendai after the tsunami. “I see no signs of fear. Somehow I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked if I felt small … I don’t. Rather I feel part of something … much larger than myself.”
Interestingly, this is also the essence of urbanism; the idea that the whole matters more than the part, that good citizenship requires decency, tact and a degree of self-abnegation.
For humanity to mature enough to survive may mean rediscovering the real meaning of meekness. I can see it on Facebook already. Meek Geeks. Join now.
CARTOON: SIMON LETCH