The ABYSS Project: Howard’s ‘Chance or the Dance?’

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What lies behind the things we observe in day-to-day living? Anything?

When poets liken life ‘now to a prosperous sea voyage, now to the sear and yellow leaf,’ along with innumerable other such comparisons and correspondences, are they saying something merely fanciful and illusory – a trick of the neurons – or are they drawing out some sort of truth that is bound up in the nature of things?

When we ‘dress up’ everything from daily meals to dying and death with ceremony – ritual – even liturgy of a sort – are we simply carrying on traditions, quaint vestigial and sentimental remnants of a time in which our ancestors saw the world very differently? Or is there something fundamentally human underneath these patterns that begs to be recognized and observed, whether or not we formally deny with our words that we are, after all, anything more than meat and wetware?

These are the sort of questions that Thomas Howard addresses in Chance or the Dance?, a conversational and eloquently composed book that explores the contrast between the medieval and the modern mind. Considering the themes addressed, the book is quite short (my copy from Ignatius Press weighs in at 150 small pages), but despite its brevity Howard manages to cover an astonishing breadth of subject matter. It was published in 1969, and if one ignores a couple of political and cultural references (to things like the hippie movement), one might think it had been written yesterday. Howard, like one of his heroes, C.S. Lewis, was an English professor. He is now retired after forty years of teaching – first at Gordon College, and then at St. John’s Seminary.

NOTE: For the purposes of this brief review I am not going to get into Howard’s controversial personal spiritual journey, which involved a gradual conversion from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. This has comparatively little impact on the insight to be gained from the book I am reviewing.

Chance or the Dance? walks the reader through a whirlwind tour of the medieval and modern mental landscapes, contrasting what Howard sees as the two primary ‘myths’ that govern our understanding of ourselves and of Creation. The principal difference between the two, according to Howard, is that the the medieval mind ‘read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex – these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. . . . This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things.’ The way we apprehend these correspondences, Howard claims, is through the imagination, which the ‘new myth’ (beginning with the Enlightenment) sees as a flight into fancy or illusion. The ‘old myth’, on the other hand, saw imagination – metaphor – correspondence – ‘as a flight toward actuality.’ And one of Howard’s main points is that this way of looking at the world did not die when Christianity lost its grip on western society. He argues that we find it impossible to live without looking at the world (and ourselves) in this imaginative way, which ought to suggest something to us about the way things really are.

In the book’s eight chapters, the reader encounters not only a bit of cultural history, but majestic dogs, the dinner table, funerals, poetry and visual art, politics, human sexuality, and mundane everyday tasks. Throughout, Howard reflects on how we can’t seem to help seeing things as images of other things – defaulting to an associative rather than a scientific method – for example, in the way we speak. To say that a man had ‘a visage like a thundercloud’, a common sort of metaphor like those we use without even thinking in typical conversation, is to appeal to a realm where ‘frowns and thunderclouds appear as exhibitions of the same thing, and it is not a realm which can ever be discovered with charts and telescopes and syllogisms.’

He also looks at how this associative ‘habit’ leads us to ritualize, formalize, and otherwise ‘dress up’ our common experience, in everything from shaking hands to enjoying meals to burying our dead, even when the ceremony we surround such occasions with seems to have little to do with the function of the occasion itself. This ritualizing activity ‘arises from the same inclination in us that we saw in the image-making faculty – the inclination, that is, to get some sort of detachment from experience so that we grasp it and articulate it, and not just undergo it. . . It is the signal of our awareness that things are worth something – that they are significant.’

Howard’s reflections on art and the question of exactly what the business of life is are perceptive and compelling. He argues gently but convincingly to establish the indissolubility of form and content (not only in art, but in life), the inevitability of image-making and analogy at the most basic levels of human thought and speech, the impossibility of true freedom without real limitations, and the ironic likelihood that the mundane elements and responsibilities of life from which we are so often trying to escape – escaping, we think, into what life is really about – will, upon examination, turn out to be the real stuff of life after all; the pointers, in so many guises and images, to what is truly underneath everything we observe through our senses.

Some who read this review may not be as immediately inclined toward Howard’s book as I was when I heard about it for the first time. I will let the author himself clear the air, and hopefully help any who are on the fence decide whether they are truly interested or not. Here is an excerpt from the third chapter, where Howard is talking about the way we generally handle meals:

But back to eating. Take a simple meal, where things are not so dazzling as they are at the state banquet. Except in the most harried situations, there is more occurring than the mere swallowing of food. We mark this thrice-daily event with certain formalities, no matter how small. We put place mats down, or a cloth. We put the fork on the left, even though the chances are that we will pick it up with our right hand. We put the napkin by the fork and not by the knife, even though this serves very little clear functional purpose. If we have a drink, we may raise our glasses briefly. We wait until the others have been served before we tuck in. We prefer the food to be arranged neatly on the plate, and not jumbled together in a stew (unless of course it is a stew). We like a bit of color – carrots or tomatoes – in with the green. We like a slice of beef rather than a heap of scraps. We would just as soon that the bread not be torn and battered. We put the gravy into a boat and the jam into a pot, even though this means dirtying more dishes. The chances are that even when we are alone, we do not stand at the stove and fork our food out of the saucepan directly into our mouth.

The objection to this line of thought will come, of course, from someone who will say, “Oh, but I do do it that way. I do leave milk cartons about, and I love stand-up meals. We waste years of our lives going through all this mumbo jumbo when we could be just as happy and twice as productive doing things more simply.”

The only answer to this objection is: very well, you may be the busy career girl or board chairman who has a glass of Metrecal or a pastrami sandwich at your desk. But whatever else it is that overrides, in your mind, the usual pattern of pause and formality with which we mark this business of eating, I’ll bet you don’t see this as the ideal meal. Even though you may be the brisk type who thrives on the sixteen-hour workday, I doubt if you will argue that we must rid ourselves of the panoply that complicates the transfer of food from the stove to our stomachs. If you do, of course, and await the day when mealtime will mean a quick stop by the coin machine for an intravenous shot of some elixir from a syringe, then your paradise is my hell and you will have to write your own book.

As I can think of no conclusion more satisfying than the previous sentence, I shall at this point leave it to the judgment of the reader.

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