I have been reading Northrop Frye’s The Double Vision, a book about — as its subtitle indicates — language and meaning in religion. I’m not finished it yet, but one of things Frye brings up near the beginning is a distinction between the primary and secondary concerns of human beings. Primary concerns, he says, are food and sex, and the less obvious property (which is to say, all things that pertain to us) and freedom of movement. Secondary concerns are ideologies, whether political, religious, or similar. Secondary concerns have historically taken precedence over the primary ones, but this, he argues, has led to many problems.
As Robespierre wrote in the context of the French Revolution, virtue is terror; as Lord Peter Wimsey says in one of the Dorothy L. Sayers books (if I remember correctly, it’s Gaudy Night; he may of course be quoting someone else, in which case, my apologies), the first thing a principle does is kill someone. The ideologies win out, and someone dies. “We want to live and love, but we go to war,” Frye writes; “we want freedom, but depend on the exploiting of other peoples, of the natural environment, even of ourselves” (p. 6).
Frye then goes on to say that while we share the primary concerns with the other animals, who also want their territory (property), their food, sex, and freedom of movement, nevertheless for human beings there is an additional layer to them, a spiritual dimension, which is found in myth and literature.
Now, I haven’t finished the book, and I’m not entirely sure where he’s going with these thoughts — somewhere interesting, I suspect; he’s brought in different forms of society as well as different forms of taking things literally, which I look forward to thinking about more — but my thoughts are held by this way of looking at things. It is, I think, what I meant in my clumsy attempts to explain what I think of living with breadth and depth and height, of being magnanimous, of living in the city.
There is the Sun that lights our planet, and there is the sun that illuminates even Plato’s cave; there is the bread, and the god who dies and comes to life again; the wine, that somehow transforms the spirit as the spirits of the wine transform the body. And there is cheese, which is a metaphor of change and triumph over change all by itself, and the effect of human art on the processes of nature. A spiritual dimension to the primary concerns.
These are just a few thoughts. As you’ve probably already noticed, I tend to revisit the same ideas. This is a place for doing so, for setting out the plate of bread and cheese, taking a glass of wine — poetry in your hand — tossing ideas out into the world, trying to work out what we really think. I dislike the ideologies that become cults, but I love the myths that root them. Well. It’s a place to start, the beginning concern.