In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon, writing about the reign of Titus Pius, commented in passing that history was “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” That judgment seems true. The recent merciless slaughter of civilians in the Syrian Civil War is just one more example of man’s ferocious inhumanity to man.
The bloodlust never seems to lessen in the world. There seems to be some murderous fascination about war and killing. It makes one think of the “kill sprees” of the old Norse sagas whose grim and ancient texts even speak with fervor about the best light and colours for battle, as in the following description: “The hour before daybreak is all right because it lends to the crimson of liquid blood a nice admixture of an azure sky and the silvery grey of a fading moon.”
It is enough to make one despair. We certainly need to grow a very thick skin. And with Donald J Trump in power, as it is written, the Apocalypse now needs only one Horseman.
There is a poem by Philip Larkin, with a verse in it which reflects the mood of grim despair all too prevalent in the world. Listen to Larkin’s few lines of raw and utter pessimism:
Man hands on misery to man:
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
The desolation of those lines are understandable, given the history, and more than probable future, of the world. Repulsive cruelty grows everywhere and feeds upon itself – not at all excepting Guyana where it seems the blood tide of domestic killing and public violence rises in the land.
Confronted by cold and indiscriminate cruelty the God-men are likely to recommend prayer. But the best they can do is tell us not to enquire too deeply into such mysteries.
These mysteries, we are warned, “are not to be chewed by reason, but to be swallowed by faith.” That does not seem very satisfactory to me, though I must admit that in the face of some of the mysteries and horrors of life, like blindness or deformity in a newborn child or the agony of cancer or the slaughter of innocents, reason falls back defeated and only faith stands up.
What is one to believe amidst all the coldness and the cruelty? Should we, despite so much horrific evidence to the contrary, keep hold on one’s confidence in man and see the world as a place of timeless wonder as Thomas Traherne did in his 17th century Meditations.
The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, which never
should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it
had stood from everlasting to everlasting, The Dust
and Stones of the Street were precious as Gold…
Or is one, more realistically, to share the dark and baleful view of another 17th century man of religion, the poet and divine, John Donne, who saw man as sinful through and through, even from the first moment of his birth.
“There in the wombe,” he wrote, “we are fitted for works of darkness, all the while deprived of light. And there in the wombe we are taught cruelty, by being fed with blood…”
These are grim, depressing words indeed. But three centuries later – with the horrors in Syria and a dozen other places before our eyes – they ring remarkably true. John Donne’s world becomes one where the Orient and Immortal Wheat is disease-infested, stunted, and completely insufficient to feed the starving millions, a world where pleasure in food and drink, however refined and elegant, amounts simply to an expensive process for producing “precious dung, and curious excrements,” a world where even the sweetest honey is merely “bee’s vomit”, a world where men are “boxes of poison” and “All our life is but a going out to the place of execution, death.”
That will appear altogether too gloomy, too unbalanced on the side of doom and desolation. Perhaps there is something indomitable in man that will rise up again and again, even in the most cruel shambles.
In the end all existence is a struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct – Eros in combat with Thanatos. The poets, more than anyone, are familiar with this strife between the two – Goethe saw it when he wrote in his lovely, melancholy ‘Wanderer’s Song at Night’ the lines:
I am weary of it all.
Where is the sense in all this pain and joy?
At this moment in history the pain, and those who inflict it, seem to be winning. Watching the never-ending horrors around the world and seeing the hand-wringing, cynical manoeuvering of the pampered guardians of the world, a despair takes hold which is hard to shake. The tragic, whispered words of Oedipus, written by Sophocles 2500 years ago, come down across the ages only too loud and clear: “Not to be born is best.”