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Friday, November 04, 2022

Emotional Survival in a Difficult Age

 I began writing this blog eighteen years ago at a rather dark moment in US history.  George W. Bush's re-election campaign was in full swing, and the nation was mired in his Iraq War and a mad attempt to police the entire globe to halt international terrorism.  And while I have often in subsequent years been quite pessimistic about where the country was going, I know that many posts have been written in the hope that they might improve.  Now I am not so sure. Not only are the Republicans almost certain to win control of the House of Representatives next Tuesday, they also have a 50-50 chance of regaining control of the Senate as well.  That means another round of budget fights, government shutdowns, and endless Republican investigations of Democratic wrongdoing.  And that is not all.  Today news reports announce that if the Republicans are successful, Donald Trump will immediately announce his candidacy for a second term.  He leads Ron DeSantis, his closest rival for the Republican nomination, by a 2-1 margin.  Worse yet, I doubt very much that either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, now the obvious heir apparent, could beat him.  I do not think that Trump really embodies the passions and the views of all Republicans, but it seems clear that his presence at the top of the ticket has not been, and probably will not be, enough to disrupt the normal rhythm of modern American politics, in which an unhappy electorate--and the electorate is very unhappy these days--takes out its anger on the party in power. The Democrats have in many ways staked their future on the idea that Trump's re-election would be a catastrophe. They are right, but I am not convinced that that position will ever have enough electoral appeal.

"Every epoch is immediate to God," wrote Leopold von Ranke, the founder of modern history, in the nineteenth century.  I am not religious enough to use language like that, but I agree that every epoch manifests certain aspects of human nature.  My most important political values--free speech, representative government, the idea that reason can drive policy, and most of all a concept of equal citizenship--have actually held sway for relatively small portions of modern history, in relatively restricted areas. They first emerged in the ancient world, but were overthrown in the late Roman empire by corruption and Christianity, as I discovered reading a remarkable book by Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind.  It took about 1000 years for the Renaissance to re-establish the classical values, and that began about four centuries in which they steadily gained ground in Europe and spread elsewhere. Now they are in retreat, above all in the academy, which has abandoned its responsibility to maintain them.  Literally anything could happen, I think, in the next fifty  years.

My inspiration George Orwell entertained some terrifying visions of the future, most notably in 1984, but he died, very young, in 1950, while civilization still seemed to be advancing.  I don't feel that it is now, for many reasons.  So the question arises:  without a great deal of hope about our future, how do we sustain our interest in life for how long is left us?  Both history and literature, I think, offer some answers.

I have actually spent a good deal of my life living in the more or less distant past with the help of primary and secondary sources.  I have written about some great human catastrophes, most notably those of the two world wars to which I devoted one section of Politics and War.  So far, while history sometimes goes in the wrong direction for a long time, it does eventually take a big turn for the better.  I am more and more doubtful that I will live to see the next one--but that doesn't mean that it will not take place.  And when it does, to judge from the past, the great human achievements of earlier eras will come to life again--including the first two hundred years of the history of the United States.  People may rediscover some of my favorite books.  Even my own might survive.

Meanwhile I have been thinking of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats.  Entitled Lapis Lazuli, it was written in the 1930s in the shadow of an impending war, to which the opening stanza explicitly refers.  In one respect this poem is a challenge to 21st century readers because it repeatedly uses a three-letter word that has now acquired a new meaning.  I am sure there are critics out there now who would argue that Yeats was consciously or unconsciously using the modern meaning, but trust me, he wasn't.  In a remarkably short space, Yeats draws on both history and art to express eternal hope while the world teeters on the edge of a catastrophe.  The poem also reminds me how much my own favorite works of art, literature, music and history have meant to me throughout my life, including, or especially in difficult times.  I will end by reproducing it in full.

Lapis Lazuli

(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

4 comments:

Energyflow said...

https://poemanalysis.com/william-butler-yeats/lapis-lazuli/
Wonderful Poem. He found hope at 70 writing about hope in art expression despite change. I recall Philosophy 101. The early Greek pondered putting his foot in the rivrr and pulling it out. It was a different river each time. The only permanence is change.

Unknown said...

I am not a scholar, nor am I a religious person, but it seems to me that many of the people of the United States, a Christian nation, have turned away from the principles of both the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments and the New Testament, and the US Constitution. These Christian and founding principles have never been followed exactly by many Americans, or even at times the US as a whole, but they were deeply embedded in the people, and they have been the deciding influence in the end as the people wandered and wondered their way through the challenges of the times. Now it seems these principles have been displaced by a cult whose followers believe in white superiority, in leaders who incite hate in them and in a shared belief in the lies and obscuration of those leaders. In other words, loyalty to the cause, to the cult, over the principles of a democratic, mostly Christian country. This is no more evident than in the Evangelical community of Christians and equally evident in support for Donald Trump who has unashamedly broken at least five of the Ten Commandments. A democracy is captive to the shared ethic and moral principles of its citizens, mostly in the US derived from the Bible and the Constitution. It may be that only a national catastrophe will again unite the people in a common cause. Until then, we are in for some dark times, "Until their ancient glittering eyes are gay."

Ray C Neill said...

Your entry has left me thoughtful, hopeful and speechless. Simply brilliant.

Bozon said...

Professor
Western Civilization has shown itself to be self destructive to the point that it more closely resembles the Balkan Peninsula every day or week, with migrants from all races and creeds pouring in helter skelter to crowd out the horrific but now outmoded white megro opposition there before.

Western liberal civilization has made its bed, and now must lie in it.

All the best