Depth in the Shallows

Month: July, 2016

Use Your Illusions

Use ’em or Lose ’em

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

So we all know who this guy is. Animal Farm. 1984. Some of us may have even read the books. Many more have only used the words “Orwellian” or “Big Brother” without reading his work. But Orwell is so much more. In his novels, essays, and letters, Orwell persistently punctures language bloated with meaninglessness, the egos of the ruling classes, and the pretensions of those who demand radical change so long as it doesn’t apply to them. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell mocks the pretensions of slick sounding socialists who, not being poor themselves, esteem poverty over middle-class virtues. Especially in the character of the wealthy socialist Ravelston, Orwell demonstrates the dangers of unthinking utopian theorists. For every speech Bernie Sanders gave, there was a person waiting in a food line in the socialist hell of Venezuela. Orwell, no lover of unbridled capitalism either, reserved particular scorn for those social doctors who offer prescriptions they themselves would never take. This particular book is filled with humor and hunger, ideas and idiots, slogans and sentiment. It is a neglected work, though one that remains relevant today. Clarity only comes when we lose our illusions.

Gordon and his friends had quite an exciting time with their ‘subversive ideas’. For a whole year they ran an unofficial monthly paper called the Bolshevik, duplicated with jellygraph. It advocated Socialism, free love, the dismemberment of the British Empire, the abolition of the Army and Navy, and so on and so forth. It was great fun. Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a Socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait.

Freedom Of Thought

The Thoughtful Liberty Of A Captive Mind

The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw  Milosz, Lithuanian by birth, Polish by nationality, dissident by nature, was a poet, essayist, and Nobel Laureate. He defected from behind the Iron Curtain and over a lifetime of writing and teaching spoke to the fundamental freedom of the human spirit. In his poetry especially, Milosz captures the tension and torsion of life. In the contrast and conflict of every line, Milosz comes closest to the Truth without distorting it with ideological limitations. Having spent many years under the boot of Stalinism, he knew the danger and death of the totalitarian mind. Socialists, all the rage (literally) in our politics today, ignore the hard lessons of Soviet Russia (and Venezuela now), and disregard the experience of a captive mind like Milosz who actually lived in that hell. Milosz is worth reading for his own sake, but to understand freedom and the unceasing temptation of totalitarianism (be it the Islamic Iranian kind or the soft sell of Bernie Sanders), Milosz must fill our bookshelves and our minds.

Vulgarized knowledge characteristically gives birth to a feeling that everything is understandable and explained. It is like a system of bridges built over chasms. One can travel boldly ahead over these bridges, ignoring the chasms. It is forbidden to look down into them; but that, alas, does not alter the fact that they exist.

In Remembrance: The Somme, 1 July 1916

Of Spirit And Death

The Poetry of Alan Seeger 

In merely a hundred years since the Battle of the Somme, there has been a collective thinning of the character of our nation’s youth. Generations of adults, from the Boomers to GenX, have failed to form the character of our youth. Tiger Moms, Helicopter Parents, and My Mom Is My Best Friend parenting, have given us The Bubble Boys and Girls Club of America. Every kid gets a star, a trophy, or a diagnosis. Every kid is “amazing,” “exceptional,” and a “prodigy.” But one thing most of them are not. Resilient. The teen suicide rate has increased substantially in the last 30 years, teenage drug use and abuse is rampant, and many kids are in codependent relationships with their parents and cell phones.

During the First World War, young men went to war and young women bore the heavy burdens of home. They did what they had to do. They were grown-ups. Alan Seeger, an American poet living in France at the outbreak of the war, joined the French Foreign Legion to defend France and his beloved Paris. He found himself in the vanguard of one of the deadliest offensives of the war. The Somme is remembered for its carnage. The British alone suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, a third of those killed. In one day. For Seeger at the Somme, there was no safe space. The only trigger warnings were bullets and shells. Micro aggressions were machine gun nests. No stars or trophies for everyone, only the grim equality of Death.

He continued to write poetry during the war, and is perhaps most remembered for I Have A Rendezvous With Death. In his last letter he wrote to a friend:

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.”

Seeger was killed at the Somme on July 1, 1916.

I have a rendezvous with Death 

At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

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