The Illusion of Inevitable Progress

In your photography and writings I find a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress. Gordon Stewart

I received an email from a reader the other day commenting about our post on “Death in the Wood of Ephraim” from August 2012. When I went back to review the post, I saw the quote above from our colleague and friend Gordon Stewart. Now Gordon is one of those people who we never would have found if it had not been for WordPress. We have corresponded for years and he gave a sermon based on one of my other posts, which moves me every time I hear it. Gordon has a gift for words, both in using them and appreciating them. In this comment he concludes with the phrase “the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress”. Something about the use of the word “illusion” struck me as indicative of a deeper meaning.

Rending beasts, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Rending beasts, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first thing that came to mind was our fascination with the fashionable with its induced cycles of obsolescence. We replace things not because they are worn out or because they don’t work any more, but because they are no longer in style. I have known children who absolutely craved a new $300 pair of sunglasses because the ones that they owned weren’t stylish anymore. The blandishments of advertisers are so powerful that we find it hard to resist the songs of these modern-day sirens and recklessly steer into the rocks, transfixed by a song carried on the wind. For a person who spends so much of his time discovering the brilliance of medieval art, this makes me cringe.

The Wise Apes, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The Wise Apes, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next thing that came to my mind was the effect of commercialism in all forms, but personally, for me, in food. I spend a great deal of effort seeking out old diners and restaurants, both in the United States and in France, places where I can taste real food, something that nourishes the spirit as well as the body. I am so tired of foams and dabs of reconstructed food used in the modernist cuisine. Ferran Adrià, chef at elBulli says “The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner. The ideal customer doesn’t come to elBulli to eat but to have an experience.” Adrià and Heston Blumenthal advocate for the scientific understanding in cooking, but this is an elitist form of cooking. Now I say this, having experienced personally the rise of nouvelle cuisine. Derided at first for what was perceived as a preoccupation with presentation, it soon became apparent that this was cooking that stressed fresh ingredients and preparation focused on preserving the natural flavors of the food. This cuisine sought its inspiration in French regional cooking instead of the classic cuisine of Escoffier.

I remember in the mid-eighties when I lived in Los Angeles, a friend of mine, Torv Carlsen, raved about a restaurant in a shopping mall in Manhattan Beach. He ate there every chance he got, despite its rather high price tag. It did not interest me for some time, partly because there were so many trendy-but- forgettable-restaurants in the Los Angeles area at the time but also because of a certain snobbery; how could something extraordinary be found in a shopping mall? I finally took Torv’s advice and went to Saint Estèphe, the creation of executive chef John Sedlar and co-owner/sommelier Steve Garcia. What I found was astonishing; nouvelle cuisine adapted to American Southwest culinary roots. The presentation was gorgeous, of course, but more importantly, the food was bold, exciting, and delicious. Saint Estèphe closed two decades ago, but I never have forgotten the meals that I had there. The lesson I learned at its tables was that the pursuit of something authentic is more worthwhile than the pursuit of something merely fashionable.

The Contented, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
The Contented, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But we should never underestimate the power of the marketplace, where even a good idea can be run into the ground. I have drunk sparkling water since I was a boy living in France. Perriers, Badois, and the other mineral waters were cheap and I loved the tang. When I came back to the United States, it was almost never available, so I drank soda water. And suddenly, in the 80’s there was a proliferation of bottled waters. I remember that Los Angeles had a water bar where young professionals would queue up to order their favorite still or carbonated water from Sweden, Iceland, France and elsewhere, paying exorbitant prices for the privilege. And then this spread to the general population. It is no surprise that most of these waters are sold by companies like Nestle’s and Coca-Cola. Can you imagine the conversation in the boardroom of Coca-Cola when one of the executives said “You mean that we can sell a drink without any flavoring at all for more money than we can sell Coca-Cola?”

So the population was persuaded that these bottled waters were better than the tap water that they got for free in their homes and an industry was created, generating massive profits for the companies and infinite mountains of unrecyclable plastic containers in our landfills. Sometimes I think of what Steve Jobs said to Pepsi executive John Scully to recruit him to Apple.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Église Saint Martin, Temptation of Christ capital, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Église Saint Martin, Temptation of Christ capital, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

So, maybe I’m just a cranky old guy and out of step with the times, but it does not seem like progress is really what we think it is. There is no modern art that is finer and speaks more deeply to our human condition than that of our medieval forebears. True artists always realize this because true art is not cynical and market driven. There is no modern building that evokes more intense emotions than Notre Dame de Chartres and chances are that in a thousand years, not one of the modern marvels of Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry will still be standing.

And on a macro scale, what progress can we claim when we may well be destroying the only planet known to be able to support our form of life? We have presided over the extinction of thousands of species in our drive for progress and now we may have presided over our own. I can only hope that some of the wonders of nature that have existed for millennia will survive. Maybe that will be the only progress we can hope for.

The music, by the way, is “Primavera” by Ludovico Einaudi.

10 thoughts on “The Illusion of Inevitable Progress

  1. Dennis, you’ve done it again. “Done what?” you ask. You’ve expressed the feelings and thoughts of despair and hope so eloquently, quietly but firmly, in philosophical-aesthetic poetic prose that reaches the soul, concluding with a magnificent musical/visual summary.

    Thank you for honoring the earlier response to your previous post. The dream of inevitable progress is a deadly dream, an illusion that, as you say, causes the fashionable to line up to purchase water-for-profit in throw away non-biodegradable plastic bottles of water.

    You’ve done it again. “What?” You’ve taken a deep philosophical-theological question about the nature of reality and placed it before us in ways we can all understand. Thank you.

    1. Gordon, you are too kind, as always. It was like the word “illusion” in your comment tapped into something. I wrote the post in two hours this morning from 2-4am. I published it, with the usual misgivings – was I too crotchety? Glad it was okay.

  2. What a wonderful and thought provoking post concluding with the incredible starling ballet. Recalling hours spent in the field on the seat of a John Deere tractor; the simplicity of my life as I would meditate the condition of the world seemed like yesterday as I read your beautiful words.

    1. Thank you, Kalli. One thing is sure; the world is more complicated now. Perhaps not in what actually happened, but certainly in what we are aware of. The proliferation of internet media makes it difficult to concentrate because of the incredible noise in the signal. One day it is Cecil the Lion, the next day it is Sandra Bland, then Donald Trump. How much more pleasant it must have been to sit in the tractor and look at the world about you.

  3. Wow! That’s progress: viewing a murmuration of starlings flying above power
    lines, on a screen, to the accompaniment of music. No sound of starlings. No smells. Glad to see that, although
    the birds started out on the wires, apparently they ended up roosting in the trees.
    (Is that the Gretna Green of elopement fame?) I love the collective names for birds.
    Now to the carvings: The Temptation is almost balletic: Satan in a leotard of feathers! And is that the hand of God Christ is grasping to steady him? Divine dance partner?
    His right foot seems to be heading toward his evil adversary. Steady there!
    Don’t jump.

    Cecil the lion gets mentioned above. There was a time when men really feared they might be eaten. In some places they still do. Is it progress to confuse Cecil with Aslan who in turn is symbolic?

    Marvelous capitals, marvelous photos.

    Yesterday I saw Andy Goldsworthy’s installation in a former powder magazine
    in the Presidio of San Francisco and wondered why this work is relevant …

    Wish I were young enough to go to see more capitals in the Romanesque world.

    Do you know about the monastery stones that Hearst had numbered for future
    reassembly and shipped to San Francisco? They are now dispersed in various
    locations, some in a monastery in Northern California

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.