Three long-dead writ­ers who will de­fine our year

The New European - - Agenda - Bon­nie Greer

Three writ­ers come to mind at the be­gin­ning of this mo­men­tous year: two who seem to echo the po­ten­tial feel­ings and cri­sis of 2019 – W. B. Yeats and F.

Scott Fitzger­ald; and one who may have a kind of rem­edy – Voltaire.

One hun­dred years ago, Yeats – mys­tic, poet and son of Ire­land – wrote his ground-break­ing mas­ter­piece The Sec­ond Com­ing, con­tain­ing the oft-quoted line:

Things fall apart; the cen­tre can­not hold;

Mere anar­chy is loosed upon the world.

The ‘world’ Yeats de­scribes is the post­war one of 1919, a year in which the de­struc­tion of an old world be­came vis­i­ble. Real. That hege­mony of a kind of rea­son and san­ity; of ‘place’; even of God; was slowly be­com­ing un­rav­elled. Per­haps it never re­ally ex­isted.

For those un­der the colo­nial yolk, for women, for artists, it was the be­gin­ning of a long process of lib­er­a­tion that is still on­go­ing. But some­thing was dis­in­te­grat­ing too, even as the new was be­ing born.

Yeats felt, as only great artists can, what was in the wind. It was not nec­es­sary to name it, but part of what was to come is hinted at in the line: The cer­e­mony of in­no­cence is drowned.

As he wrote, his coun­try was claim­ing it­self back: the Dáil Éire­ann met for the first time in 1919. It as­sem­bled in Dublin and in­cluded Sinn Féin rep­re­sen­ta­tives, elected in the 1918 gen­eral elec­tion.

As stated in their man­i­festo, they re­fused to take their seats at West­min­ster and in­stead de­clared an in­de­pen­dent Ire­land. The Ir­ish War of In­de­pen­dence stepped up with Sinn Féin’s elec­tion and who can say that this war of in­de­pen­dence has ever stopped? That so few of us un­der­stand Ire­land or care about it, can­not see its in­te­gral link with Europe, its need and pas­sion for that con­nec­tion – and Europe with it – is a tragedy of ig­no­rance and some­thing worse: dis­missal and dis­dain. “Brexit: la re­vanche de l’ir­lande”, the dis­tin­guished jour­nal L’his­toire head­lines on its cur­rent cover.

As the poet con­tem­plated the post-war world in 1919, he found the words to ask the ques­tion:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches to­wards Beth­le­hem to be born? In 1919 the ‘beast’ came to be. And an evil ab­sur­dity, too. Ben­ito Mus­solini founded the Fasci Ital­iani di Com­bat­ti­mento. The Fas­cists. He also be­gan for­mu­lat­ing a for­eign pol­icy which he called spazio vi­tale (‘vi­tal space’), later copied by Hitler.

Mus­solini be­lieved that Italy had to, for its sur­vival, con­tain the en­tire Mediter­ranean re­gion. The Italy he wanted to ‘cleanse’ was full of un­clean, vi­o­lent and alien peo­ples. He later in­vaded and colonised Ethiopia in a vi­o­lent and ridicu­lous show of recre­at­ing Im­pe­rial Rome. He saw Italy over­pow­ered by a plu­to­cratic, over­bear­ing en­tity that stymied his coun­try’s growth. That en­tity was Britain.

This no­tion of an over­bear­ing en­tity, of a mon­ster out of con­trol and un­ac­count­able, is roughly the same ar­gu­ment that Mat­teo Salvini, Il Duce fan­boy and the cur­rent deputy prime min­is­ter of Italy, makes against the Euro­pean Union and against im­mi­gra­tion in gen­eral.

There are fears that he and his ruling party could stage its own ver­sion of Mus­solini’s Mar­cia su Roma, or March On Rome. Salvini has even used the name it­self, know­ing full well that it is a na­tional dog whis­tle meant to be a threat to the es­tab­lish­ment. That Salvini him­self is the es­tab­lish­ment seems to be over­looked. Above all, by him­self.

In the United States, F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s es­say The Crack-up, a con­tem­pla­tion of the wasted prom­ise of his youth and writ­ten in the 1930s, seems to be one of the es­says of the mo­ment now. It con­tains the phrase: “The test of a first-rate in­tel­li­gence is the abil­ity to hold two op­posed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still re­tain the abil­ity to func­tion. One should, for ex­am­ple, be able to see that things are hope­less and yet be de­ter­mined to make them oth­er­wise.”

An­other line is: “Life was some­thing you dom­i­nated if you were any good. Life yielded eas­ily to in­tel­li­gence and effort, or to what pro­por­tion could be mus­tered of both.”

These are very Amer­i­can no­tions, nat­u­ral ideas that now seem to many in the USA to be the state­ments of a by­gone, op­ti­mistic age, of a kind of ju­ve­nile time.

In 1919, Fitzger­ald’s first novel, This Side Of Paradise, was ac­cepted for pub­li­ca­tion and pub­lished the fol­low­ing year. He was al­most 24 years old – young, like his na­tion, and full of power and prom­ise, like his na­tion, too. But Fitzger­ald lived in an Amer­ica at war with its pres­i­dent. Woodrow Wil­son faced a dilemma: the USA wanted to turn its back on the world.

Re­fus­ing uni­tary com­mand un­der the French dur­ing the war, the na­tion’s elites now de­manded that Amer­ica not join the nascent League of Na­tions. Amer­ica was in re­treat; afraid of for­eign­ers and im­mi­grants. 1919 was a year of race ri­ots; of the in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion of African Amer­i­cans from the ru­ral south to the in­dus­trial north. Evan­gel­i­cals and some suf­fragettes came to­gether to cre­ate a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to ban al­co­hol. In their at­tempt to do ‘the right thing’, they prac­ti­cally crim­i­nalised al­most ev­ery adult in the coun­try.

The golf-lov­ing War­ren Hard­ing was elected pres­i­dent in 1920. His slo­gan en­com­passed the idea of what he called: a re­turn to ‘nor­malcy’, a math­e­mat­i­cal term which can be in­ter­preted as the 1920s ver­sion of ‘Make Amer­ica Great Again’. He re­jected the ‘coastal elites’ of the day in favour of hold­ing what he called ‘front porch’ ral­lies in the Mid­west. There he vowed to re­turn the US to great­ness. Af­ter Hard­ing dropped dead of a heart at­tack, the cor­rup­tion of his ad­min­is­tra­tion was dis­cov­ered. The pop­ulist had played the peo­ple.

One of the an­swers to our time, to this grow­ing dam­age to pub­lic life, to ra­tio­nal­ity it­self, is ridicule. Not

‘ridicule’ in the An­glo­phone sense, but in the French sense of the word: a deep and pro­found ex­po­si­tion of the ab­sur­dity of tyrants, ‘strong men’ and those in charge of our des­tiny who at­tempt to re­ar­range com­mon sense, even re­al­ity it­self.

Ridicule, in this sense, ex­poses Ja­cob Rees-mogg, Nigel Farage and John Red­wood, for ex­am­ple, as men of priv­i­lege mas­querad­ing as cham­pi­ons of the peo­ple. It ex­poses the dan­ger­ous ab­sur­dity of a bil­lion­aire who emerged on an es­ca­la­tor from a gilded tower to an­nounce his can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent of the United States, pro­fess­ing to have the in­ter­est of an Ohio steel­worker up­per­most in his mind.

The man who used ridicule, who changed opin­ion in his time, who helped usher in an­other way of look­ing at the world and those in power was Voltaire.

He was a pil­lar of the es­tab­lish­ment, but a rebel against it, too. He saw the ab­sur­dity of many in pub­lic life. And of those who would die in the ditch for a po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. Whether it made sense or not. “Ridicule is a pow­er­ful barrier against the ex­trav­a­gances of all sec­tar­i­ans,” he wrote.

It is clar­i­fy­ing, too. Voltaire chal­lenges us to tell it like it is. Which is what true ridicule does. And what 2019 needs – to be the Year of Ridicule.

Pho­tos: Getty im­ages

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