The Ambivalence of Advent

Advent is a season of half-light. The days are short, the night encroaches, twilight seems to start just after noon. It’s a season when many of us reach the seeming end of our capacities — too much to do and buy, too many memories and obligations, and this year, especially, too much illness. (I’m writing this on the 10th day of the flu’s infestation of our home.) It’s a season that looks forward to light, revelation and redemption. But there are so many uncertainties. Will the revelation come? Will it satisfy us? Will it save us? Will we somehow miss it? Will it be what we expected, or otherwise? Will it be birth, or death, or both?

The “Advent” section of W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” captures something essential about the season’s fears:

Then so does the ending of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” when the wise men find their way through the dark, find goodness waiting for them underneath the star — but also find a shattered feeling waiting for them at their pilgrimage’s end:

In Advent we can be caught between these two anxieties. On one hand, the fear that the world will not be redeemed, that it will just go on sinking into twilight, that winter is coming for us all, the cold and frost and the skull beneath the skin. (“Nothing can save us that is possible,” Auden finishes. “We who must die demand a miracle.”) On the other, the fear that any great change or revelation will be an apocalypse for our comforts and expectations and existing way of life — that it will require too much, cost too much, change too much, unmake too much.

You don’t know, after all, what will be asked of you if the stakes suddenly go up, if a new phase of history is knocking at the door. Maybe you’re the rejoicing shepherds, but maybe you’re Herod or his soldiers. Maybe you’ll be shown a baby in a manger; maybe you’ll be asked to bear a cross. Safer, maybe, to remain with the twilight instead — if only you could be sure it wouldn’t turn to dark.

Do we want to live to see the new world, the revelation? To say yes and understand what you’re saying, you also have to understand why people might say no.

I’ve written before about Alan Jacobs’s analysis of the fantasy genre as a way of retelling, revising and sometimes reversing the origin stories of the modern world — the transition from the dispensation of magic to the rule of science, the passage from myth into history, from old gods to newer ones. Something these retellings do well is to capture what you might call the ambivalence of Advent: the resistance and denial and grief that accompany any great transition, even when what’s happening is restorative, salvific and necessary.

Do you want the age of magic to go away? Do you want it to come back? Neither question has a simple answer.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” for instance, it isn’t just the general regret over the disappearance of magic, the elves going west and leaving Middle-earth, that shadows the hope of a final victory over Sauron. There’s also a figure like the steward, Denethor II, the regent of Gondor (a character turned into a parody in Peter Jackson’s movie version, alas). Ruling in the name of a vanished line of kings, he fights nobly to defend the kingdom, but he can’t bring himself to imagine a future for Gondor that isn’t just a continuation of what he remembers of its past.

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” Denethor tells the wizard Gandalf, “and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

Thus, the return of the king, the true king, is for Denethor a version of Eliot’s “hard and bitter agony,” a revelation or restoration that he would rather remain in the twilight than accept.

There’s a critique of a certain kind of conservatism here, from a writer, Tolkien, more conservative than most.

But then conservatism finds itself particularly exposed by the Advent season’s hopes and fears, and at special risk of failure should it prefer the old dispensation over the new, the half-light over the angelic brightness, the sword and the palace over the stable and the child.

Speaking of fantasy novels, I’ve written one. (Probably not where you thought this newsletter would take you.) It doesn’t have a publisher yet, and perhaps it doesn’t deserve one; it may be destined for the somber twilight of my hard drive. But to ring out 2022, I thought I’d share a portion with an assist from the kindly internet — a little light reading for anyone whose pile of presents doesn’t include quite as many thick books as they’d hoped. You can find the prologue and first chapter in pdf form over on my Substack. Never let it be said that I’m not generous at Christmas.

That’s all. No further quotes this time, and no decadence allowed in the 12 Days of Christmas. This newsletter will return in the new year.

Until then, Merry Christmas to all my readers, and to all the ships at sea.

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