This much I don’t know

21/04/2009 by Christopher Buxton

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach)

I have become obsessed with certainty and its acolytes.

President Ahmadenijad denounces Israel as a racist state and representatives of the civilized world walk out and express outrage. Ken Livingstone says the same thing at a recording of Any Questions and middle England responds with applause. Meanwhile liberal Jews who raise doubts about Israel’s actions are denounced as anti-Semitic self-haters.

Every day in the US, Rush Limbaugh castigates liberals and tries to educate anyone listening into his alternative truth that climate change is an anti-capitalist invention and that Obama is a thug spearheading an attempt to undermine the sacred principles of the founding fathers and bring about a socialist state in God’s chosen country. He is as convinced of the truth as President Ahmadenijad.

Recently accused of being a bleeding heart liberal in one of those polarising arguments in which a rush of blood drove me into an indefensible position, I confess to certain crusty gut instincts, formed in my youth. But I grow to regret these instincts, fear my passionate outbursts and wish I could be witty and detached.

“Only Connect” is E.M. Forster’s command at the outset of his pre-first world war novel Howards End. “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” is the super confident opening of a writer who is in total command of his fiction.

In the 1920s the writer John Buchan is less sure. One character blames the First World War for a loosening of the bolts of reason and the rupture of the barrier wall separating the conscious with all its necessary scruples from the flooding irrational subconscious. English gentlemen in the security of their private clubs express disquiet:

"Lord!" he cried, "how I loathe our new manners in foreign policy.
The old English way was to regard all foreigners as slightly
childish and rather idiotic and ourselves as the only grown-ups in
a kindergarten world.  That meant that we had a cool detached view
and did even-handed unsympathetic justice.  But now we have got
into the nursery ourselves and are bear-fighting on the floor.  We
take violent sides, and make pets, and of course if you are -phil
something or other you have got to be -phobe something else.  It is
all wrong.  We are becoming Balkanised."

Scepticism seems the correct approach but it leads us straight from the shingle of Dover Beach to Margate Sands where the super intelligent TS Eliot could “connect nothing with nothing.”

Reserve passion for the individual outrage. You cannot walk on the other side. But make no attempt to generalise from the particular lest you find yourself enrolled in one of Arnold’s ignorant armies. These no longer “clash by night” but from London to Bangkok and from Afghanistan to Gaza there is a 24 hour struggle between those who are sure they are right.

And in my fiction I remain powerless before the strange actions of my characters. In my fiction I know even less than I think I know about the real world.

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.