The Music of Narcissus

by Patrick Noble

A fiddle and a cello weave in counterpoint. The fiddle sings of a redemptive future, while the cello evokes a scenic past. The song of the present is obscured by headphones.

Both voices speak of the future – the one calling and the other restraining. There will be a better future in which the finest scenery of the past is preserved. The dissonant present recalls only what’s nasty, brutish and short.

The sea of the future (fiddle) laps gently on beaches of the past (cello). Our cleverly-educated children will achieve what’s impossible today. Meanwhile, landscapes will be realised without a Claude glass – forever Crome, Cotman and Constable.

Natural physics – evidence of the dissonant senses – says that the sea is rising; soils are degrading and that only empty holes in the ground remain where economic resources once lay. But if we look to the future, then ideas will replace those resources. Looking to the present is Luddite and without hope.

We are living through a cargo cult. We will be redeemed not by our behaviour, but by flotsam of the tide. In short, we’ve lost our minds.

Many green thinkers are devotees. The God of Cargo washes peer review after peer review to the shore – of the scientific evidence that is not quite complete. The definitive answer will come. True visionaries stand on the shingle to be first to receive what the tide may bring.

Here’s the madness – that ideas will replace resources; that future ingenuity will remove present consequence; that historical landscapes are natural ecologies.

Of course, the truth is that ideas create nothing; that present action creates the future; that historical landscapes are far from natural ecologies, and also that living contemporary economies are utterly dependent on living contemporary ecologies.

What’s more, deferring personal and political moral decisions to the consideration of imaginary children, is (I’d have thought) the extreme of depravity.

No action can escape its moral.

Every footstep has consequence and so has a moral. The cargo cult proposes that if we know of a better future and a better past, then we can forget present actions and present morals, because a better world will come to wash all that away… Meanwhile we listen (through headphones) to the rising and falling polyphony of the fiddle’s shafts of sunlight illuminating the rustic hills and river valleys of the cello.

The cargo cult provides the central doctrine of all our popular newspapers, including of late, the Guardian and is the guiding light of the BBC – just listen.

This writer pursues a perennial theme and its variations – that culture is what we do, not the state to which we’ve grown accustomed. In other words, civilisation is a complexity of methods, not a state. I think we create cultures one by one as we apply ingenuity and dexterity to the resources we’ve been given. Culture stops, when we stop culturing.

My history depicts that from at least the late Bronze Age (about 1500BC) and until the 19th Century, idle elites sat back and enjoyed the fruits of the skills of the trades. Working people created the culture – growing food, cooking it, building ships, sailing them, building and designing houses, palaces, churches, temples, mosques and cathedral, painting pictures, making music, plays, novels and verses, … All the while the powerful enticed, coerced, taxed, bullied, made wars, extracted rent and so on, but played no part at all in creating the culture. Nabob, Prince, Laird, Lord, Squire… all knew that they were dependent on the trades and remained happy to be so.

Once upon a time, a great change came – the arrival of fossil fuels. I say that event provoked a very brief, but extreme perversity of cultural behaviour. The perversity is this – Idle and incompetent elites removed tools from the hands of the skilled and began to wield tools themselves – albeit at a distance from country estate, boardroom, parliament – and even throne.
The massive powers of those many millions of years of sequestered photo synthesis proved irresistible. Once gold-torqued Achilles sought status by bronze sword and chariot, while his needs were provided by the ingenuity and dexterity of the trades. His cattle raids were sung, by the tradesmen we call bards, as epic adventures. In truth (by sweet lies) the whole of history, until the 19th Century records only those adventures. How cultures were composed remains invisible. We have some archaeological evidence to help a distant and flawed retelling of cultural history, but (apart from what can be gleaned from Manorial rolls) we have no written evidence from the times.

Anyway, elites began to wield oil tools with the same carelessness with which they’d once drawn their swords.

Oil tools have no cultural traditions to restrain them, because they are managed from within enclosed monopolies. Land enclosure had bled the skills of the trades, first by dispossession and secondly by rent. However, although elites grew richer and the skilled became poorer by enclosure, nevertheless those land- enclosing elites had continued their helpless dependency on the skills of the trades.

The trades had codes of practice – of family and guild traditions – of responsibility for passing on commons for the future of trades. They were connected to the physics of nature by natural reaction to the actions of their tools.

Enclosure turns moral commons into amoral property. It asserts (by law) the right to shed responsibility.

When elites enclosed fossil resources and fossil- powered tools they asserted that same property right and also claimed that same right to irresponsibility.

The trades vanished through the factory gate and with regards to farming to reading instructions on the sides of pesticide and herbicide drums and fertiliser sacks. The farmer has no idea what’s in the drums and sacks – in any case information is hidden behind the walls of another enclosure – intellectual property, which like all property holds right to irresponsibility.
Yes. Culture stops, when we stop culturing. Now fossil- fuelled tools are culturing from behind the black glass of irresponsive and irresponsible monopolies.

The social perversity may be brief, but the god-like power of oil-powered Achilles has emptied trades and tradespeople from villages and town centres; has evacuated harbour towns; has utterly sacked the integrated and long-evolved complexity of the culture we must return to when the oil perversity ends. That culture has meant that work and pleasure have always been only a short walk (or cycle ride) from anyone’s door.

Industrial estate, retail park, ring road, suburbia – all demand the family car – and money to buy/insure/maintain the car – and nearly all wages now come from behind the black glass of those monopolies.

Ordinary history had an idle elite dependent on the rest. The brief oil perversity has the rest dependent on an idle elite.

The mistake is to think we can improve the provision of that elite by our market signals (consumerism) and by political lobbying. But by doing so, we give perversity credence and further longevity.

I think that what little history we have, teaches that those who depose elites always end by taking their place.

I propose a return to ordinary history. To mitigate the worst of climate change, resource depletion, social injustice… we must take tools back to our own small, ordinary, but responsible hands. We must evacuate ring road and retail park and re-occupy fields, towns harbours and villages. We can place small elites on pedestals to keep them sweet, while removing tools from their incompetent hands. We’ll make the culture and they can enjoy it.
That’s a very tall order – but in truth, it’s the only order. Early Neolithic and some pastoral societies may have lived more beautifully, sustainably and equally by the advice of elders, but that is a tale too tall for the populations of today.

We can use a democratic process to elect least-worst options, but we must create the culture for ourselves. Too tall? But there’s much that many of us can do instantly and without effort. We can shop in village and town centres, while abandoning all super markets. We can ditch the holiday and business flight. We can farm and garden without pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and bagged fertilisers. We can evacuate most of what the oil enclosure provides and begin step by step to make things and grow things without oil. There is no law to prevent us creating a culture, contrary to the direction of corporation and state. After the extra-ordinary oil decades, we simply become ordinary again. Many are trapped by work-ties and poverty. Many have nothing but a super market nearby, but time will change that.

With regards to the futuristic cargo cult which is the status quo – living in the present will provide very many unexpected delights. Take off the headphones. The future will not provide for us. We provide for the future. The latest scientific paper is neither here, nor there – we have all we need to know.


Consensus, pre-packed party politics is another form of consumerism. We choose a branded party just as we choose a brand of pot noodles. We may, or may not improve the political system, though we may as well try to do so. But nothing is more important than simply taking tools from the incompetent hands of state and corporate power. With luck, because we face ecological and so economic collapse, the powers may be resigned to our rebuilding of an ordinary, easily recognised, but much shrunken economy – particularly because we’ll provide them with that lovely long oak table for the council chamber; with fine food and wine and some elegant roofs over their helpless, but still dignified heads. That shrunken economy may provide many delights – repopulated fields, thriving villages and towns, low rents and cheap housing, sounds of music from pub doorways, many and various curiosities – proper shops and trades…

If we leave the powerful in power, but with their powers restrained, then we escape the bloodshed.

But fiddle and cello play on and many are drawn to the delusive music. Beautiful Narcissus leans over the musical pool. His marvellous ingenuity (He is Everyman) will find an alchemy of something from nothing – such as a replacement for the irreplaceable powers of fossil fuels. Those many millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis will be replicated in the human ingenuity of a single summer. Trees are like solar panels, says a mother to her child, nearly as clever as people. Incidentally Everyman is a sexless term.

We’ve seen how the fiddle player of the Cargo Cult removes ethics from actions. Present transgression (such as over-consumption) will be washed clean by future technological redemption.
And there is another, rather similar delusion to escape. That is the misnaming of technology as science.

Technologies must always have a moral, because technologies always have consequence. On the other hand, the cultivated scepticism of science is a learnt process by which we remove moral perception in order to free our thinking. Science is a lovely and essential creature but has no application. It is a pleasure.

When we take a new perception from scientific thinking to illuminate, let’s say medicine, or agricultural techniques, then we have moved back into the moral world of technology.

However today, many technologists call themselves scientists. Some have white coats to prove it. Nearly everyone accepts the deception. Here’s the thing – by that transformation we can remove ethics from actions. The deception is made doubly easy by intellectual property enclosure. Plant breeder, drug researcher, pesticide manufacturer, gene splicer… all hide behind both enclosure and the amorality of science. Poor science. Poor tragedy of the enclosures.

So, as we take tools into our own hands, we must escape both the delusive music of progress (the Cargo Cult) and the fraudulent claim of technology to be science.

Because we are returning to the ordinary flows of history – or at least to a history, which began in the Late Bronze Age – events may unfold with a far greater ease than we’ve a right to expect, given the man-made chaos we’ve had a hand in causing.

Neolithic and Early Bronze Age societies and the hunter-gatherers before them, probably lived more happily than is likely for us. Anyway, if we can escape the delusive music in large enough numbers, then I reckon the song of the living physics of the Earth will be delightful enough for Everyman’s dancing feet.

Featured image: Beach. Author: Hsichen Hsieh. Source: