An Uneasy Calm Amid The Terror

Benjamin Kunkel reflects on a hard couple of weeks in America:

I’m more than ever grateful to be alive, for the interest and pleasure I have in the people I know, in thinking about the world, in the prospect of doing good if politically unavailing work, and in little things photolike the sight last week of some just-bloomed forsythia. (My grandmother, in her dementia, was each spring in New Hampshire surprised repeatedly by the beautiful yellow blazes.)

But whenever I raise my head from more intimate concerns there is the miscarriage of my society and civilization going on around me, robbing many people of what I still have to enjoy, and I find myself appalled enough at the gradual and sudden calamity that it seems to reveal hopes that I never knew I had, evident only in the dashing. These are hopes for this world “which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all.”

Those lines come from Wordsworth, whose 1805 version of his book-length poem The Prelude I’ve nearly finished for the first time. I wish I’d read it years ago, but at least I’ll have done it once, when no long work in English has made me gladder for my native language. …

Wordsworth, in other words, who as a child “with the breeze/ Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree/ Of my beloved country,” has come in part to hate his country, and to have impulses of vengeance toward young Englishmen much like him except for their being soldiers. And then, at this knowledge, he feels hatred for the hatred bred in him, compounded with disgust at the French revolution’s turn toward terror and disgust at the counterrevolutionary alliance arrayed against it. It comes to seem, terribly, that the stream of contemporary events doesn’t at all lead into some ocean of peace and justice but deserves a different aquatic image, as if all history were “a reservoir of guilt/ And ignorance, filled up from age to age,/ That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,/ But that burst and spread in deluge through the land.” He consoles himself with the thought that even such a “disastrous period did not want/ Such sprinklings of all human excellence/ As were a joy to hear of.” But the consolation is small. Mass violence has contaminated his joy in either of the opposed countries that he loves, and twisted some of his deepest feelings, with their inclination toward beauty, into ugliness. It must have done something for him to write about all this, and it’s done something for me to read it. But what does it do, to read or write or speak about our grief, anger, and improbable stupid hopes?

In the moment an emotion is expressed or an event reported on, I don’t quite feel the emotion or the event; the names for things partially and temporarily replace their actuality. The need for this relief may explain the desperate quality of my and perhaps your online reading, and of much that is written online or said into TV cameras. Language in the utterance is some escape from what it says. But then the world that is not bits or syllables resumes its undeflected course.

Previous Dish on American terror here and here.