The Idea of Refuge

23 December 2013

Monday


logansrunankhsanctuary

In the classic science fiction film Logan’s Run (about which I previously wrote in Anxieties of the Sexual Revolution) the characters seek to escape from a superficially utopian society to “sanctuary.” For them, their “sanctuary” is an actual place — the meaning of and the yearning for sanctuary has been transformed into a projection upon the actual world. Throughout the film the characters struggle with their poignant need that sanctuary be a real place, which becomes increasingly difficult to believe as they discover that the world beyond their closed utopian/dystopian world is not as they had once imagined it would be.

Lost-Horizon-1937

The novel and film Lost Horizon presents a refuge high in the Himalayas, where the characters, initially uneasy and eager to leave at the first opportunity regardless of the hardship involved, experience a full but gradual conversion as they come to understand that their being isolated from the outside world is not a disadvantage but rather the peaceful life that they had been seeking all along. In this case, the characters find refuge even though they resist it at first. Their relationship to refuge is the antithesis to that of the characters in Logan’s Run seeking sanctuary, but the idea of refuge plays a central role in both stories.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Hardy, Thomas

The need to be Far from the Madding Crowd — a passage from Thomas Gray’s Elegy, and adapted as a title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels — is not new:

Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

It could be ventured that the early Fathers of the Church, who went into the desert to become ascetics, were escaping sinful cities that were sinful at least partly due their being a vulgar place of busyness and commerce. Here the barrenness of the desert presents itself as a refuge from the disquiet of the city. In a slightly more ancient tradition, that of pastoral poetry, of which Virgil’s Eclogues are the most famous instance, the ideal bucolic landscape is an imagined landscape of the poet, half real, half fantastic. It is real insofar as actual shepherds do tend their flocks in the rural countryside, and no doubt some of them even pass the time playing the flute or pan pipe; but it is fantastic because it is everything that the desert of the Church Fathers was not — verdant, cultured, sociable, and refined.

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

One of my favorite pensées from Pascal invokes the idea of refuge:

“Would he who had possessed the friendship of the King of England, the King of Poland, and the Queen of Sweden, have believed he would lack a refuge and shelter in the world?” (No. 177 in the Dutton edition)

There is a footnote to this pensée as follows:

The three hosts.–Charles I was beheaded in 1649; Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in 1654; Jean Casimir, King of Poland, was deposed in 1656.”

Pascal is here appealing to an ancient idea, that of the changeableness of fortune — the rota fortunae — which we might today characterize as contingency. Just as Stephen J. Gould said that, “the result of a series of highly contingent events that would not happen again if we could rewind the tape,” so too if you rewind the tape of human fate the same result would not likely occur again. (I should point out, however, the the idea of the rota fortunae is often coupled with that of determinism, so that many who meditate upon the inexplicable fickleness of fate also believe that if you could rewind the tape, it would indeed produce exactly the same result. In asserting that it would not, I am adding my own naturalistic gloss to the idea of the rota fortunae.)

wheel_of_fortune_Hortus_Deliciarum.jpg

It is a natural and understandable desire — perhaps we might even wish to call it a human, all-too-human desire — to dream of a sanctuary, a refuge, a place of escape where the cares of the world can be left behind and one may pass the time “untroubling and untroubled” (as John Clare put it). We wish, in other words, to be released from the rota fortunae, with its sudden reversals of fortune and its radically contingent bearing upon our fate.

John Clare I am

What is a refuge? Who seeks refuge, and why? It is of the essence of a refuge that it should isolate one from the hurly-burly of the world. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “refuge” as “Shelter or protection from danger or trouble” and, as a former, now obsolete, meaning, “assistance sought by, or given to, a person, succour.” Definition 4a connects refuge with a particular location — “A place of safety or security; a shelter, a sanctuary, a retreat.” — while definition 4b — “A mountain hut in which climbers and walkers can shelter.” — makes this yet more concrete. It is this concrete sense of refuge that the characters in Logan’s Run are seeking, and it is this specific sense of a mountain refuge that one finds mountain huts all over the world, like the Refugio Jose Ribas, which I mentioned visiting in A Visit to Cotopaxi. The OED give no adjectival form of refuge, and certainly “refugial” would not be an attractive word. Nevertheless, I can easily think of instances in which one would want to have an adjectival form of refuge available at the tip of one’s tongue.

A plaque on the wall identifying the refugio Jose Ribas.

A plaque on the wall identifying the refugio Jose Ribas.

The idea of refuge cannot be divorced from the idea of a refugee — presumably an individual seeking refuge; refugees constitute a class of persons who seek refuge:

“…in the generally accepted meaning of the word a refugee is invariably and essentially someone who is homeless, uprooted; a helpless casualty, diminished in all his circumstances, the victim of events for which, at least as an individual, he cannot be held responsible.”

Jacques Vernant, The Refugee in the Post-War World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963, p. 3

The refugee is a figure that is almost as symbolic of the twentieth century as is the AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle is symbolic of the armed struggles that have generated so many refugees in our time:

“As the course of empire absorbed the remaining areas of the earth and built a global, universally interrelated civilization, and as the lines of sovereignty became more sharply drawn, an exclusive, rather than inclusive, attitude toward human raw material became characteristic of the nation-state. The value placed upon national and racial homogeneity inspired networks of immigration restrictions and visa requirements in areas where freedom of movement had been unimpeded for centuries, and finally led to attempted expulsions of minority groups, reaching a climax with the Nazi extermination policy toward the Jewish people. The twentieth century, which spread civilization across the globe, brought a civilization of sovereign nation-states striving for homogeneity. Hence, the stage was set for the development of a new mass phenomenon — the political refugee.”

John George Stoessinger, The Refugee and the World Community, Minneapolis: THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS, 1956, p. 6

It is at least arguable that we are more in need of refuge today than ever before, with the increasing pace and rapidity of change that typifies industrial-technological civilization — but refuge is more difficult to find. The crowd has become more madding and frenzied, stoked by the mechanisms of telecommunications and mass media, and the availability cascade that they drive. In the “global, universally interrelated civilization” referenced in the quote above, it is more difficult than ever to find a refuge, though we may need a refuge more than ever.

kosovo-refugees

We are all refugees in the same sense that the Scholastic philosophers held that we are all wayfarers in this world — and as a refugees, we seek a refuge. In a crowded world, however, there is little refuge to be found. As long as we think of a refuge in concretely spatial terms, any refuge we find is likely to be soon encroached. If we think instead of a refuge in time, we might be more successful in finding refuge for ourselves, though here, too, we are likely to be under assault. Many people think of the holiday season as a kind of refuge in time — and many people are repaid for this conception with a bleak sense of a holiday that does not measure up to its ideal of social harmony and familial intimacy.

In an exposition of the prospect-refuge theory of Jay Appleton, which touches on themes of evolutionary psychology and biophilia without making these fully explicit, Grant Hildebrand writes:

“…the selection of juxtaposed conditions of prospect and refuge confers a vital advantage in species survival. Species, Homo sapiens included, that intuitively choose settings which allow seeing without being seen are thereby enabled to hunt successfully without being successfully hunted, and so survive and flourish. But, again, the intuitive pleasure motive that drives such a choice must logically precede any grasp of its functional value. The choosing of such settings, then, must be driven by an intuitive, immediate pleasure that is felt in the command of prospect and the containment of refuge. Such a pleasure, genetic to our species, is therefore independent of the functional utility of the setting and persists quite independently of our need to call on that utility.”

Grant Hildebrand, The Wright Space: Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997, p. 31

Perhaps this is the special sense of refuge that we need to seek in time — a refuge that is at the same time a prospect. And this is why we seek to know the past and to understand the future, however imperfectly. It is an understanding of our place within history that gives us a “prospect” on time; with both a refuge in time and a prospect of time, we might experience the sanctuary that we seek.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Advertisements

4 Responses to “The Idea of Refuge”

  1. Peter Rudd said

    Wonderful post – thanks! This – “in areas where freedom of movement had been unimpeded for centuries” – seems like a state worth trying to recapture?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, exactly. This is a theme that I have written about many times, though I have perhaps not made it fully explicit.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. Is refuge an admission of defeat? This longing for a sanctuary surely comes about through a rejection of habitation in a culture or circumstance that does not reflect one’s inner valuations. In a world of denial does all happiness rest upon our ability to dream? Perhaps pure Forms lie beyond any physical representation but does the affirmation of our values rest there as well? What are we expecting this sanctuary to grant? Well-being? Legitimacy? Silence? And what price are we willing to pay to get there? Isolation from the civilisation that has produced us? I always think that people want it both ways. Take for instance the task of reading Aristotle. First someone has to create a common written language so that it is possible to preserve ideas. Secondly this Greek language needs to be translated into English. Then it needs to be printed. Then it needs to be distributed. The very act of transporting ideas is the cornerstone of civilisation. In my opinion, man rides on the crest of civilisation. Simply wishing to hand it back when you’re done doesn’t sound like a feasible solution. I always think there is more to see. And a longing to return to what was once abandoned.

    All the best,
    Luke

    • geopolicraticus said

      Is refuge an admission of defeat?

      If a refuge becomes a pretext for no longer striving, it is a defeat of the human spirit, but considering that refuge is sought because the human spirit has fallen prey to baser forces, a refuge is preferable to the triumph of these baser forces that we seek to subordinate all else to a lust for domination.

      This longing for a sanctuary surely comes about through a rejection of habitation in a culture or circumstance that does not reflect one’s inner valuations. In a world of denial does all happiness rest upon our ability to dream?

      Dreams, aspirations, and ambitions are central to striving after the human optimum, but the greatest test of the human spirit is the ability to retain one’s good humor in the face of reversal. This is a capacity that goes beyond the ability to dream, and is no less necessary to happiness.

      Perhaps pure Forms lie beyond any physical representation but does the affirmation of our values rest there as well?

      The affirmation of our values lies in the life of each individual that seeks to embody them, however imperfectly.

      What are we expecting this sanctuary to grant? Well-being? Legitimacy? Silence?

      Is it not the nature of an ideal sanctuary to be all things to all men, as in Paul’s advice to the Apostles? But, as in Logan’s Run, the real test comes when we find our “Sanctuary” and it is not what we had hoped.

      And what price are we willing to pay to get there?

      Certainly some are willing to pay far too much — giving up freedom, autonomy, and personal integrity for the promise of untroubled peace — while others expect to receive far too much for the little they are willing to pay.

      Isolation from the civilisation that has produced us?

      This would be a profound defeat, but we find in both literature and film sympathetic portrayals of those who choose to start over from nothing, casting away the entirety of their tradition. Obviously, some look upon this as a legitimate price to pay.

      I always think that people want it both ways.

      Indeed they do. People want to keep their cake and eat it too. That is the human condition.

      Take for instance the task of reading Aristotle. First someone has to create a common written language so that it is possible to preserve ideas. Secondly this Greek language needs to be translated into English. Then it needs to be printed. Then it needs to be distributed. The very act of transporting ideas is the cornerstone of civilisation. In my opinion, man rides on the crest of civilisation. Simply wishing to hand it back when you’re done doesn’t sound like a feasible solution. I always think there is more to see. And a longing to return to what was once abandoned.

      I like your image of riding the crest of civilization. At our best, this is exactly what we do.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful questions!

      Best wishes,

      Nick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: