Monday, June 2, 2014

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

I found this absolute gem a year or so ago. It appears to be an excellent metaphor for the cyclical nature of cultural rise and decline. Indeed, the peculiar first person singular and plural in the poem (“I” and “We”) seem best to identify the speaker as symbolic of Society. This is borne out by the second line in the second to last stanza.

As for the identification of the Gods of the Market and the Gods of the Copybook Headings, both are best understood when the word “Gods” is thus defined:
  • gods are mighty beings who create, sustain order, and rule over things (governing destiny and imposing laws). In this regard, they can be people, divine spiritual beings, or simply symbolic references to the forces that lie behind, in a causative manner, some phenomenon.
  • following that, the Gods of the Market appear to be both the micro and macro level mechanics of the economy, and prominent economists, academics and politicians. Take note that the market need not be as narrowly defined as merely monetary exchange, but the exchange of ideas and on the broadest level, the interactions of people in large groups with each other. So I take the Gods of the Market to be, on a level, the voice of a portion of mankind, those  having lofty ideas about how to order society—as the poem shows their respective failure to do.
  • the Gods of the Copybook Headings, then, are to be identified as both the laws of nature that ensure that the proverbial “common wisdom” is always proven true by history, and the outspoken ‘wise men’ who propound these truths and stand against the tide of public opinion and endeavor to teach the wisdom of history to Society.

What is a copybook heading? Remember that Kipling wrote around the turn of the 20th century. Copybooks were notebooks used in British schools, where sentences were copied by students over and over, both to drill in the knowledge of what they were writing, and to practice their script. On each page at the top or bottom, there would typically be short proverbs printed. I don’t recall if I read that these were what was copied, or if they were just included as a publisher’s design. If they were what was copied, the symbolism gets even stronger, because there is the added implication that Society has had common sense drilled into its head, again and again, only to ignore it in favor of the promises of the Gods of the Market, until finally the adage, “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” comes true. Copybook headings imbued wisdom in pithy, easily remembered ways. With that in mind, enjoy one of the most poignant poems I’ve ever read:

Rudyard Kipling:

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
*     *     *     *     *
I am amazed to consider how long ago Rudyard lived, because the poem sounds like it’s written directly for our society today. If that isn’t proof that culture abandons its learned knowledge until it’s eventually punished for it and the next generation becomes more conservative, I don’t know what is.

I don’t know what Kipling’s faith was (it would be splendid to meet him in Eternity), but as a believer with more than a bare-bones knowledge of Scripture, several verses stood out to me as referential to Bible passages.
  • The Gods of the Market place are described as “wind-borne.” This seems to echo Ephesians 4:14 "14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting"
  • “loving our neighbor” Matthew 22:36-40
  • “the wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23
  • robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a verse but it is another proverb that criticizes the foolishness of taking from one part of something to put back into another part of it. It’s a closed system, so you can never actually improve anything through this redistribution method: it’s a ‘zero sum game,’ where if one person improves, someone else is hurt. It is like digging a ditch by removing dirt from one end and filling in the hole you dug at the other end. It is transparently incompetently foolish. Peter and Paul were both apostles, on the same ultimate mission, so taking from one to support the other would fail to recognize that they are not in competition with each other, they are both serving the cause of Christ.
  • “dog returns to vomit, sow returns to mire” 2 Peter 2:22
  • “When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,”
There's a lot more I could write in analyzing this poem, but these last two lines tell the whole tale, as I see it. What is the point of the wallowing sow and the dog who eats vomit? Well, with particular emphasis on the dog for simplicity’s sake, vomit is what happens when you ate something that was bad for you. Your body rejected it. The whole notion that it is food – something to eat – ignores the fact that it damaged your insides. Dogs don’t know any better. They’ll eat what’s delicious to them even if it hurts them. This is a metaphor for Social Progress. People want what makes them feel good, even if it’s bad for them in the long run. Combined with the next line I quoted, it certainly seems to describe our present culture, doesn’t it? People want health, wealth and prosperity, but they don’t want to work for it. So our society has “returned to its vomit,” as the Roman Empire before it (and others besides, Rome is just such a spectacular example) and the government has focused more on people-pleasing than other would-be important objectives of the State, and at present we do in fact pay people just for existing. It’s called unemployment benefits, which while helpful to the job-seeker, are too tempting for many (paying 3x minimum wage, minus the 40 hours per week), who choose to just apply for work long enough to create a break in the benefits so they can begin receiving them again. And no man must pay for his sins? This same society refuses to hold people accountable for adultery (“no-fault divorce,” legalized during the Reagan administration), fornication (Roe v. Wade), lust (Miller v.California), drunkenness (the decriminalization **of marijuana), murder (mental illness is the media-imposed, get-out-of-jail excuse for every serial killer you see on television these days), and not to mention breaking the laws of the land like border-hopping, trading illegal substances and lying under oath. We are ripe for a reckoning. Our nation pays men for existing but doesn’t even want to acknowledge the existence of sins, because that would imply the existence of an absolute authority, God. Well, God is the God of all things, not just copybook headings, and He is the real reason everything ‘comes full circle,’ in the end. It’s his show, and the audacity of those who think they can slip the rules and run things any way but the way He would have it run are going to bring about that “terror and slaughter” indirectly referenced in the final line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem. What is this terror and slaughter other than invasion by enemies, or civil war, or a Reign of Terror by ideological fanatics who take power and make their mere opinion into unquestioned law? It’s coming to America.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings, you’ll notice, outlast it all.

~ Rak Chazak
Further reading:
The Wikipedia article on this poem. The poem was apparently published in 1919, and I can't help but think that it might be a social commentary on what was for the decades before WWII simply known as The Great War

** I felt compelled to add this correction: I had confused myself: No-fault divorce was not legalized in a top-down federal move during the Reagan presidency, to my understanding. It was when he was governor of California that he signed legislation making CA the first state in the country to legalize 'no-fault divorce.' Prior to that, you had to actually prove that one of the partners had violated the marriage contract, or the judge would have you remain married. Reagan presided over a seriously negative precedent, but it was when he was governor and not president. Just so I don't sow confusion.

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