A recent documentary programme on the isolated communities at the Arctic end of Norway’s magnificent, desolate coastal wilderness touched an inquisitive nerve in my consciousness. The camera stroked delicate nuances of colour from almost monochrome, fiercely jagged fjords, and reverently wove its way through the aching streets of boarded-up villages, where only ghosts appreciate the view. I followed the lens as it drifted into a churchyard—yes, such is the power of Christendom that even here, where reindeer fear to tread, there is always a church—and out into an expansive field of hoary graves where a few hopeful flowers remember spring. The tombstones are lichen-covered monuments to memories that themselves have gone cold. The camera quietly records the defunct generations of a millennium or more, now forgotten and left to lie in wait for the occasional sentimental visit by distant relatives or even the Blue Moon intrusion of a cameraman such as he.
I am poignantly reminded of Thomas Gray’s epic Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
I thought of those Rude Forefathers, these really no different from mine, and wondered if the nostalgic scene could bring me closer to the purpose of life. Untouched by all but the most rudimentary of technological remedies and social grace, they lived their lives organically and without pretence. They passed their time in simple, untouched peace, enduring the harshness of nature and unforeseen misfortune without the panacea of analgesics and anaesthetics. They raised their children and their livestock, tilled soil no more than a stone’s throw from their homes, and after all that toil and unwelcome pillaging by Vikings on their way to Iceland, their gift to the future was little more than their progeny and a mouldy tombstone.
That they did not invent vaccines or build pyramids or wage famous wars means they are anonymous in history, and for what they were in life, are now so completely forgotten that they might just as well not have existed at all.
Except for one almost invisible thing: Their seed.
What was the purpose of their lives? We cannot give a measured answer to that question by considering only what they experienced while they lived. We must step back and consider the species without factoring individual peons in the tribe. The satisfactions of life, and indeed life itself, pass in a smoky flash in the eye of eternity. Whatever their allotted span, whatever hardship, pain, or brief pleasure came their way, now it is gone and crumbled to dust. Their personalities and their physiques are not even shadows to be glimpsed by whirring video as we amble through history’s cemetery with more mystery upon our laden brows than before we came. Stripped of all the glamour and badges of showbiz achievement, lives such as these seem utterly meaningless. Except for one thing.
The survival of the species.
That’s it. A ghastly, macabre game of survival against preset environmental obstacles in a Universe that does not feel our pain. Actually, it’s absurd. The yoke of life weighs heavily upon our shoulders, and we have to hypnotise ourselves with temporary escape to find reward and satisfaction. No wonder people have in their quiver of arrows the instinct of belief and irrational awe of the idols of superstition.
Why else would we bother?