Friday, 23 April 2010

Skrifenn Pymp - Writing Five

I am settling back into the rhythms of life at uni. I have done a fair amount of work this week, despite the distraction of having relations visiting all week. I am coming closer to being able to reliably measure the metallicity of various populations of stars in M33, and from that hope to write up my research into a paper. Beyond this, a comparison to models of the galaxy concerned may prove fruitful.

I have a memorial service to go to today. This is for the recently deceased former vicar of the church I am a member of. He had been suffering from cancer for 18 months or so. Even with today's medical care, nothing can stop death. I have always assumed I will live into my 80s or 90s. My vicar was 62. There are no guarantees of long life in this world. And as an astronomer I know that even 100 years is the merest blink of an eye in cosmic terms. Some people take comfort from the fact that they will live on in the legacy of their achievements. Even this is a vain hope. We know nothing of most of the individual people who lived 1000 years ago. So what hope is there, humanly speaking if we are honest with ourselves in the fact of death. And is the heaven that Christians believe in mere wishful thinking?

As a Christian, I look to God for answers. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, Jesus' resurrection is the template for the resurrection of all those in Christ. My vicar lived this hope in his life, and held it out to others. To answer the question of whether heaven is wishful thinking, the truth is that the Bible contains warnings of judgement for those who reject Jesus as well as the promise of eternal life for those who trust in him. This if I am honest I find troubling, and I think any Christian who doesn't find this troubling probably hasn't thought about it much. Wishful thinking would be to believe the Bible selectively, keeping those aspects we find comforting and disbeliving or at least downplaying those that we find troubling.

Changing tack, I wonder about cultural death of nations and civilisations. In one sense it is arguable in what sense ancient cultures have died, or whether they have simply changed and evolved. The Roman Empire, although it fell, its legacy lived on in the later European civilisations that were shaped by it and languages descended from Latin continue to be spoken to this day.
Another culture the Cornish, shows great changes over the 2000 years it has been known to exist. From the Cornovii tribe that existed perhaps as a subgroup of the Dumnonii in Roman times, to modern times there is a degree of continuity. But there are great cultural shifts: the transition from paganism to Christianity, then later from Celtic Christianity to the Roman sort as Anglo-Saxon influence grew in the 9th-10th centuries, the slow retreat of the Cornish language from 1000AD onwards, the conflicts in Tudor times resulting in the destruction of Glasney College and the imposition of the English prayer book and the following more rapid decline of the Cornish language, the extinction of the language in the late 18th century, the rise of mining industry, the rise of Methodism, the coming of railways, decline of mining resulting in emigration, the effect of world wars, the dawn of the mass media age, the age of mass motoring, the decline of Christianity, counterurbanisation (Londoners moving down for lifestyle reasons or keeping second homes), the loss of jobs in farming and fishing and mining.

In terms of cultural death, in the sense that the Cornish ethnos is threatened with dissolution into a more homogeneous English or British culture, what promotes it and what may inhibit it? To what extent is a small culture inevitably lost once mass media and mass travel exist?
Cornwall sits uneasily between a regional culture such as Geordie or Yorkshire and a national one such as Welsh, Slovenian or Lithuanian.

The situation of the Cornish is not unique, for example just to pick an example from across Europe the Sorbian people, a small Slavic people whose homeland is in Eastern Germany. They do have an extant language but one that is not spoken by the majority of Sorbians. I don't know to what extent they think of themselves as Sorbian or German and how the identities are in conflict.

The Cornish culture could have disappeared by now, if we had not defended and promoted it. The English language had taken over from Celtic throughout England by 1000AD with the possible exception of Cumbria where a form of Celtic survived for a few more centuries. This had taken about 400 years from the initial Germanic settlement in what is now England. Yet it took another800 to drive the Cornish language from the Tamar to the sea. An accident of geography perhaps? Difficult communication by land versus contact with Brittany by sea. A deliberate movement to preserve Cornish folk culture has existed in various forms from antiquarians who recorded the old language, folklorists in the 19th century, the Old Cornwall Society founded in 1920 and the modern Cornish language revival.

I suspect that without all this, the process of culture death would be complete by now. Even so, there is no room for complacency since the "Cornish culture" is arguably really a subculture since the number of fluent Cornish speakers is under 1000 in a population of half a million and those involved with the revival of Cornish folk music and folk dance are a similarly small minority. The majority are still assimilated to mainstream British or even English culture, whatever that is since the folk cultures of England itself have been greatly eroded by industrialism and its effects.
If industrialism proves to be a temporary state of affairs prompted by easily accessible fossil fuels, many of the trends that threatened Cornish cultural survival in the 19th-early 21st centuries could begin to wane. The task ahead is to continue the Cornish culture that has survived, and pass it on to the post industrial world where it may well flourish.
The predicament of many moderate and large industrial nations, where local folk cultures have been more completely eroded than in Cornwall, may well be worse. Without viable local cultures, what will fill the cultural vacuum once the mass media age draws to a close? Where the indigenous local culture has been destroyed, the new local cultures that eventually emerge may well be derived in large part from the cultures of immigrant communities or subcultures.
Even where cultural death of some sort occurs, there is usually (with the exception of cultures destroyed through genocide) some continuity between one culture and the next. The degree of continuity is variable, and it is difficult to say when a culture is truly dead. For example, when did Cornish culture cease to be and an English regional culture replace it? Some would say that a culture is identical with language and that the Cornish culture died out with it in the 18th century. But that is an oversimplification, culture is about a set of practices, music, art, economic factors like the kinds of employment, a set of attitudes forming a distinct outlook on the world more than whether you speak a Germanic or Celtic language.

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