“"…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." —John Maynard Keynes, THE GENERAL THEORY, p. 383.”—
—John Maynard Keynes
Thanks totragos, who sent me through his blog to find even more of the quotation. tragos then added this: “In addition to defunct economists, I’d also add essayists, artists, philosophers and stonemasons.” I concur.
The sea is calm to-night. The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits; on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand; Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, Listen! you hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
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.
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This poem never fails to move me. Rhythmically it’s a marvel, and there are lines of great, classic beauty: “the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling”—“Begin, and cease, and then again begin”—“like the folds of a bright girdle furled”—“down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.” This stately, melancholy eloquence, the elegiac mode that is at once intelligent and earnest—this is what first drew me to poetry, and convinced of its supreme value as a mode of feeling, embodied thought. The cynical 21st-century eye might regard the tone and sentiment of this poem as passe, as simply naive or maudlin, but that’s because so many of us, now, never had any faith to lose, and (when it comes to the poem’s ending) because we basically regard Eros as a myth, supplanted by a kind of pop image of “love,” like the Robert Indiana sculpture in Philly: love as something to accompany skateboarding: a game of crushes, interchangeable thrills, a source of periodic emotional and physical frisson, and, at root, just a biological imperative.
But I don’t think any one expressed better that Arnold, in this poem, what a whole century of smart, caring people in the west were feeling: a reluctant agnosticism, a nostalgia for certainty, a sensitivity to the music of “misery,” now made truly tragic by the loss of faith: “and bring / The eternal note of sadness in.” Its ethical and aesthetic value lay in its eternal recurrence (not to coin a phrase); if the sea of faith has retreated, what remains is the ocean of human suffering, recurring like the waves and the tides, creating its own rhythm, a rhythm not without beauty, and therefore not without its own, imperfect—never again perfect!—consolations.
I’m always reminded of this poem when I read that scene in The Plague where Tarrou and Rieux, after a long, rooftop conversation about both the futility and the importance of their fight against the plague, go swimming together in the ocean, not saying a word. If the sea is no longer the “sea of faith,” a reminder of God’s loving embrace of the world, of divine guarantees and eternal life, then it becomes merely a terrifying reminder of human finitude in the midst of the uncaring universe, at once dangerously chaotic and oddly banal. Unless, that is, it can be transformed, by imagination and sympathy—if only for a time—into a kind of cradle for human solidarity, or else just be seen as the background of infinity against which that solidarity achieves its tragic meaningfulness. Camus’ restraint is what makes the passage so powerful—he notes the rhythmic rising and sinking of the sea, and the infinite night stretching out over the water (“Devant eux, la nuit etait sans limites”)—but he resists the urge to take easy comfort in the mythical heritage of the setting. He doesn’t personify the sea, doesn’t wax eloquent about its symbolism, but leaves it to his characters and his readers to recognize that symbolism, or to recognize it as defunct. It is precisely the fact that these men are swimming in a sea that they know is just a sea, the fact that they must return to the fight (“recommencer”) in the morning, that is so moving. The bitter sweetness of the moment is derived from this paradox, from its setting in the context of the sea, with all its artifactual resonance, indeed by placing these men in the void left behind by the receding of religious consolation. (This is a very muddled way of putting it, I realize, and I mean to write more and better about it someday.)
For Camus, happiness comes from what he called, in his journals somewhere, “comprehension,” and I think he meant to suggest by that word first “understanding,” but also, failing that—and to be modern is to experience that failure—, “inclusion,” the encompassing regard and acceptance of all that is. This is the amor fati and the refusal of resentment that was Nietzsche at his most noble, or the “tragic joy” of Yeats in his (doubtless Nietzsche-inspired) “Dialogue of Self and Soul”: “I am content to live it all again / And yet again, if it be life to pitch / Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch, / A blind man battering blind men.” Has there ever been a more brutal, unflinching description of human life as ignorance and violence—and yet Yeats accepts it all, comprehensively:
I am content to follow to its source Every event in action or in thought; Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot! When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness flows into the breast We must laugh and we must sing, We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.
I think Yeats is using this archaic spelling of “blessed” to draw attention to its etymology, which has to do with wounding, with blood. This is the duality of comprehension—to affirm both pain and joy, even to merge the two, to recognize our bloodying as our blessing. At its worst and most simplistic, this is wishful thinking, fatalism, quietism, mysticism or masochism—but at its most thoughtful and nuanced, this philosophy of acceptance is one of profound wisdom and maturity, a kind of earned OK-ness with our mortality and our humble place in the world, a modest, grown-up ethos of letting being be, as Heidegger put it. Camus himself struggled to find the balance between stubborn, futile defiance and a fatalistic, defeated “giving up”; he insisted on revolting until the end, but his concept of revolt became so sophisticated as to include an embrace of life as it is, mortality being what it is.
Here is the rest of that passage in ThePlague, right before Rieux and Tarrou dive into the ocean (forgive my own imperfect translation, but Stuart Gilbert’s rendering here just isn’t complete; see La peste (Gallimard, 1947), 231):
Stretched out before them, the night was limitless. Rieux, who could feel under his fingers the pitted faces of the rocks, was filled with a strange happiness. Turning towards Tarrou, he perceived, on the calm, grave face of his friend, the same happiness that left nothing out, not even murder.