I’m sure everyone’s familiar with William Butler Yeats’ epic poem, “The Second Coming“. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, and the Easter Rising and subsequent Irish War of Independence, it depicts chaos, anarchy and the collapse and disintegration of the familiar.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Many (including myself) see it as a foreshadowing of our current political, social, economic and cultural condition. The excerpt above might as well be written about current reality on the streets of many American cities.
The biggest problem of such division, from our perspective as readers and writers, is that we tend to wall ourselves off from the perspectives of the other side. We may not like those perspectives, but unless we’ve bothered to read them, how will we ever understand them? We can’t bridge the divide between us if we choose to make it even worse than it already is.
I was reminded of this while doing some research over the past week for a forthcoming book. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s was, in many ways, a harbinger and foreshadowing of the Second World War. Volunteers from abroad fought on both sides of the war, and their accounts of it have survived. Many went on to fight in other armed forces during World War II.
Peter Elstob, a British citizen, fought for the Republican (i.e. Socialist/Communist) side, that of the popular government, during the Spanish Civil War. His novelized memoir of that conflict, “The Armed Rehearsal“, is a poignant, powerful book that I first read in my teens. It, and his later lightly fictionalized memoir of World War II service in the Royal Armored Corps, “Warriors for the Working Day“, have been part of my library ever since.
Peter Kemp, also British, fought for the Nationalist (i.e. Fascist) side, General Franco’s insurrection. His memoir “Mine Were of Trouble” has become one of the most famous memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, written from a very different political perspective to Elstob. He, too, served in the British armed forces during World War II as part of Special Operations Executive (SOE), memorialized in “No Colours or Crest” and “Alms for Oblivion“.
On reading both memoirs, one is struck by the common humanity of both sides. They may have fought each other, but outside the combat zone they were so alike in their British background, their wants, needs, hopes, aspirations and simple human nature, that it’s painful to read about them. Both sides in the Spanish Civil War hated and even slaughtered each other out of basic mutual incomprehension, whether civilian or military, and regarded their conduct as righteous and justified. They didn’t just fail to understand each other: they didn’t want to understand each other. It was “my way or the highway”.
Sadly, that’s what I see today in these dis-United States. Left and right don’t only misunderstand each other, they don’t want to take the time or make the effort to understand each other. The other side is damned simply because it/they won’t accept the “obvious” truth of “my” side. There’s no room for debate, for discussion, for argument, for reasoned discourse. Intolerance rules. Anyone trying to preach tolerance is regarded as a “weak sister”, a “sellout”, even a “traitor to the cause”. Cling to ideological purity in all things, or else!
Sarah Hoyt and I have both seen revolutions from the inside, she in Portugal, I in many parts of Africa. In both our lives, Communism and its hangers-on have destroyed much that was worth keeping, thanks to their insistence on ideological purity and dogmatic devotion to the cause. Both of us see precisely the same things happening now, in our adopted American society, and we’re appalled . . . yet there’s nothing much we can do about it, except use our words to try to explain, to bring a new perspective, to discuss objectively what’s going on. We’ve both lost friends as a result, because we didn’t measure up to their partisan standards; and I’m sure we both regret that very much – yet what else can we do but speak up? To fail to do so would be untrue to ourselves.
I guess that’s the writer’s curse. We can’t be silent; we have to express what’s in our minds and hearts – yet by doing so, we risk alienating the very people we’re trying to reach. It’s a very tough row to hoe, to use a Southern colloquialism.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker…
We have to use our talents; it’s a compulsion for many (perhaps most) writers. Yet, sometimes, caught up in the “widening gyre” as we do so, being a writer is no fun at all . . . We’re witnessing “things fall(ing) apart”. We’re experiencing that “the center cannot hold”. Unless we, too, adopt an extremist creed, we’re being pulled apart by readers’ passions and expectations. We can’t satisfy all of them, or even more than a few of them.
Pity the poor writer!