Incurable beautifully preserves a few of Johnson’s letters, going a long ways in helping us to get a sense of the man himself. In one of these, written to his close American friend Louise Imogen Guiney, we get Johnson’s sense of what entering the church meant to an artist like himself, in his defense of Aubrey Beardsley’s conversion to Catholicism. Johnson could well have been writing about himself:
His consciousness of imminent death—the certainty that whatever he might do in art, in thought, in life at all, must be done very soon or never—forced him to face the ultimate questions. I do not for an instant mean that his conversion was a kind of feverish snatching at comfort and peace, a sort of anodyne or opiate for his restless mind: I only mean that, being under sentence of death, in the shadow of it, he was brought swiftly face to face with the values and purposes of life and human activity, and that he ‘co-operated with grace’, as theology puts it, by a more immediate and vivid vision of faith, than is granted to most converts. All that was best in his art, its often intense idealism, its longing to express the ultimate truths of beauty in line and form, its profound imaginativeness, helped to lead him straight to that faith which embraces and explains all human apprehensions of, and cravings for, the last and highest excellences.
Johnson also died young, at thirty-five, from alcohol abuse. Being who he was, he left behind no children but his body of work, which lived on—not only through its influence on Yeats, though especially that—into the twentieth century, presaging as it does much in Modernism generally. Johnson had a fascination of and gift for crafting the arresting image, but what separates him from his Imagist progeny is how the objects Johnson depicts always seem to flash for an instant before dissolving into an ethereal mist. If Imagists followed the notion that the world is all that is the case, Johnson’s prose was struck through with the ephemerality of life itself. In Johnson’s poetry, as a fellow mystic said sixty years later, life is a dream already over.
I have been to Abilene
The spirit world rising
I have seen in Abilene
The Devil has Texas
If the last presidential election taught me anything, it’s that journalists based in New York need to pay attention to life outside cities. And I was further intrigued by La Puente. The group runs one of the country’s oldest rural homeless shelters. Cheslock told me that more and more people who show up at the shelter, especially in winter, have been trying to live out on the prairie. In good weather, the large area between the mountain ranges has many appeals: incredible views, eagles and other wildlife, and land you can buy for a song. Five-acre lots on the prairie are typically priced at $3,000 to $5,000. (Land costs a lot more around the mountainous edges or in towns, where more people live.) But only the hardy can make it here year-round. The cheap land is almost all treeless and miles from anywhere, and the valley is famously windy. Settlers will typically have a few solar panels hooked up to batteries for basics such as lights and a refrigerator, but beyond that you need money for gasoline, you need water, and, when it gets cold, you need a reliable source of heat.
We often assume, I believe, that the most perennial battle in human history is that which occurs between faith and reason; that always and everywhere, people of faith have been at war with the philosophers and scientists. And it is certainly true that wherever you look in human history, you will find something analogous to our modern struggles, such as the execution of Socrates for being an “atheist.” However, I think this rather overstates the case. Socrates was executed for atheism because he denied the Pantheon, the great hall of the tribal gods of the Greeks. But this rejection of a particular constellation of gods was not a rejection of the divine in itself; for Socrates, the universe was suffused with divine purpose and meaning.
What does happen, in most times and places, is that faith and reason are held together in tension with each other, rather than being in a war to the death. That is to say that most of our contemporary battles over this issue would simply be unintelligible to the men of other times and places. For what is asserted by the modern world is that everything will be science, and hence there will be (given enough time and funding) no further need of faith, a claim which leads to the counter-claims of fideism. We think of this fight as characteristically modern but in fact the battle has its origins with the scholastics of the high Middle Ages, and specifically with the assertion of Thomas Aquinas that “the same thing cannot be both seen and believed.” He continues, “Hence it is equally impossible for one and the same thing to be an object of science and of belief.” Hence, science and faith are directly opposed to each other so that the more of the one must mean the less of the other. Thomas of course comes down on the side of faith, but only as a stopgap. As we expand our knowledge, more things will pass from the shadowy realms of faith to the clear light of science until eventually, perhaps at the Beatific Vision, everything will be knowledge while faith, like the communist state, will simply wither away, having no further function to perform. This is indeed a grand vision and no one can be faulted if they wish to speed up the process a bit and bring all things or nearly all under the domain of science as quickly as possible. But this leads to the fundamental error of the modern world.
And what is this fundamental error? It is the belief that there exists a purely secular space, divorced from the moral order. Now, this makes a certain degree of sense if one confines one’s gaze to the physical parts of the cosmos. One need not, indeed cannot, allow moral considerations to color a computation of the orbit of Venus or the refraction of light. And this “non-moral” view has proved powerful; few of us would be willing to abandon the marvels of the modern age. However, I think this piecemeal vision fails when we turn our attention from the parts to the whole. When we look at the cosmos as a whole, we see order and beauty, and can only understand them through an aesthetic view. While the parts are governed by a strictly deterministic rationality and can be understood through knowledge of the causes, the whole is governed by order and beauty, and one that cannot be rationalized. The cosmos is cosmetic and like all things cosmetic, it escapes the purely rational in favor of pure contemplation. What it does not invite is some reduction of cosmic order to the four causes, the endpoint of all rational analysis. That is, the cosmos escapes rationalism.
For twenty-first century visitors, ghost towns are exciting because of this sanitized fantasy—of an unknown or unguarded territory, a frontier all of one’s own. The thrill of the “undiscovered” finds new life in the aesthetics of abandonment and the illusion (or reality, depending on the price point) of exclusivity that attractions like Cerro Gordo and Nipton court. Ultimately, authenticity is less important than the mere suggestion of it. To take just one example, what looks like an aged, decrepit church in Cerro Gordo is actually a structure built in the 1990s, designed to blend in with its surroundings.
However ahistorical the visions of these new prospectors might be, it’s true that the Gold and Silver Rushes made California’s economy what it is today, enabling a deepening wealth disparity centered on land ownership where real estate moguls prioritize luxury developments while hundreds of thousands remain homeless or downwardly mobile. The new Gold Rush might not be about precious metals, but in the end it’s more of the same. Rather than natural resources, today’s desert moguls extract images, for the benefit of a clientele seeking a distinctly modern kind of fortune: social cachet, free swag, and an increased follower count. Rebranding a ghost town won’t vacate its ghosts, but if you’re an off-season Burner seeking Spirit in a sound bath lead by a dude in a man bun—well, you’ve come to the right place.