Monday, July 28, 2014

History's cunning passages and contrived corridors

The greats are the greats because, well, they're great.

In spite of the torture he inflicted on so many youth indirectly through the force feeding of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (I actually like it in spite of what my high school teachers did to it, but Mrs. Salamander does not allow poetry in the house, so I don't speak of it often), one has to accept that T.S. Eliot has his way with words.

From Prufrock ... just as an example; what Sailor cannot relate or have a memory-spark from this?
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
I'm not sure if that best defines liberty in Souda Bay, Crete - or what one does after the official party at Broward Navy Days. There is a timeless to the mood of the poem, but I think it takes a well seasoned soul to really get its meaning. Not a concept a 17-yr old male can quite grasp, but with life's experience - it comes clearer ... but I digress.


If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed with the steady stream of unravelling from Ukraine, Gaza, our southern border, Afghanistan, Libya, and other vacation spots ... and find yourself pondering in general themes why and where all this is going in the centenary of the start of WWI, you are not alone.

In Canada's National Post, Rex Murphy manages to fold in history, WWI, today's goings on, and ... Eliot.
History, said T.S. Eliot, has many “cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues.” He continues rather bleakly that what history might or could teach us emerges with “subtle confusions” offered only when our “attention is distracted.” Eliot’s is a necessary caution against seeking specific lessons from history; despite the maxim, it never “repeats itself.” Rather it is like the ancient oracles, speaking always in riddles, hiding its truths in ambiguities and perplexity. The only lessons we may draw are general ones. It will never speak to a single or particular event, but it has its maxims and morals which we cannot safely ignore.
We may start with the axioms that human affairs are always riddled with error, confusion, misjudgement and carelessness, and that all of those fallibilities and failings have had, and will have again, massively turbulent consequences. The example of a century ago is ominous and necessary. History “deceives with whispering ambitions, guides us by vanities.” Eliot again.
If anyone really knows where this history's path going, or that they can in some way control it - they are fools. One can hope, aspire, and try to steer ... but control? No, only in the micro; in the macro, all you can do is react.

All you can do is prepare yourself to be as strong as possible, as flexible as you can, and to try to ensure that you have the best leaders possible. Even if you follow the "Big Man" theory of history, you cannot discount the small players.
We draw too from the reckless drift into the First World War how small and underscale the actors of that day were, how little the rulers, whether czars, monarchs, presidents or revolutionaries, truly understood of the events they thought they were managing. The leaders then were tragically unequal to the times, but of course, as leaders unfailingly do, thought otherwise.
The West has had some peace since the last great war, almost 70 years of it now. And we have had with that peace an astounding march of technological and material progress. Both tend to make people forgetful of worse times. It renders them careless of the foundations upon which peace is first secured and then maintained, and nourishes the delusion they are exempt from the horrors and perils that have been a constant in human affairs.

So it seems now to some, as it seemed to some a century ago, that there is a menacing scattering of events and conflicts, where a disturbance, an accident or misadventure (such as the shooting down of the passenger jet) in one arena could unwind into a chain of unforeseen events, a haphazard flow of unpredictable cause and effect. And here, despite Eliot’s cautions, we can draw another clear and unconfused message from history: Whenever full-scale war comes. it is always worse than the previous one.
Read it all.

What does Prufrock's love song and global war have in common? Easy my friend - easy. What is, and what will be has always been and will be.

See? Simple.

Wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony will always be a driver of human action. Human intitutions also are run by imperfect beings in a fallen world. Sometimes nations put a leader in place who has the character and talent to rise to the occasion - some times they do not.

There is one constant here; you cannot control for history's drive. You can prepare for it - you can have history's inconsiderate narcissism as one of your planning assumptions - or you can ignore it. You can try to mitigate the chaos, or you can let it run free and multiply.

One thing we know from what was - those who ignore history do not enjoy the results of their indecision, and sometimes cease to be part of what will be.

Endnote: Yes URR, feel free to bring up the Gods of the Copybook Headings; Eliot was a big fan of Kipling.

UPDATE: Victor Davis Hanson seems to be getting the same vibe. I highly recommend his latest;
The U.S. looks at the current global violence and then looks away, after a call for a “pivot” or a flash card calling for Boko Haram to give back the girls it has enslaved. Our generation’s version of the bad memories of the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive is Iraq and Afghanistan. Like our grandparents of the 1930s, we feel that the dead lost abroad in the most recent wars were not worth it — and so ignore the gathering war clouds on the present horizon, as if ignoring them means they must disappear.

Glance about — Central America, Venezuela, China, Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Turkey, etc. — and the world outside the West is mostly a nasty place. The three common denominators in all these catastrophes are the usual demagogic leaders blaming someone else for their people’s own self-inflicted miseries, a comfortable West that shrugs that somehow all these depressing things and mean people will just go away — and a tired global enforcer whose community organizer leader went into retirement and offers “make no mistake about it” warnings between swings on the golf course.

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