Dirty Hands

The sign of being prepared to compromise high-flown principle in the interests of encountering a complex system, engaging with the detail and being capable of acknowledging awkward conclusions. A person willing to get his hands dirty is sufficiently secure not to need to make an icon of himself and his own high moral standing, or to join the intellectuals’ desertion of local culture and narrative; he gets to grips with the story.

This requires you to make the nuanced judgments of fuzzy logic, to get down into the detail, and perhaps to take a famously inconvenient route: it goes through the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, passing Doubting Castle, maybe even encountering the giant Despair and the foul fiend Apollyon along the way.D35 And at the end of all that you can find yourself in a hole—which can be a good place for making judgments on the basis of encounter with inconvenient detail, but it is not quite enough, for you need also to see the matter in perspective, to refer critically to wider principles, and to do something about it—in short, you need eventually to get out of the hole. And for that, it would be very helpful to have a ladder. Oh, but can you get hold of a ladder when you need one? W.B. Yeats couldn’t. He found himself down there with:

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

W. B. Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 1939.D36

But then, it was only a story: in the imagination, you can take immense risks. Anyone with the narrative skills to imagine himself down there at the heart of the matter and the judgment to make sense of it can imagine and judge his way back again—or else he would never have dared to begin. The real risk is not being left without a ladder, but being left without a narrative, without a frame of reference which makes judgment possible and gives it meaning. That is not to be thought of: try it and you will simply be left behind in the City of Destruction.D37


Related entries:

Harmless Lunatic, Harmonic Order, Grope, Expertise, Place, Practice.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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