Four quatrains

We (and I still sometimes use this plural to indicate, “all of my personae, considered as a choir”) were asked only yesterday, by a gentleman who had previously been asking about Stefan Zweig, to describe the degree of our aloofness from current events. He (the emailer, not Herr Zweig, who has been dead these last seventy years) is, I suspect, vexed by this question himself. I know him as a man who has been somehow mixed up in high counsel to the American Republican party. And like me, he seems to realize that the Americans have a two-party system: the Democratic Statists versus the Republican Statists. (Up here in the far north we have five or more Statist parties.) That, to my mind, is what “democracy” has always been about: competitive statism.

But, ho, I am ignoring his question:

“Do you consider yourself to be in exile, imposed or self-imposed? I mean in temporal affairs, not the exile from the divine that is this life.”

The glib answer, supported by a Russian proverb (“A man can do most good where he was born”), is no, I cannot be an exile because I live in the same city wherein I was born. (It is also where one can do the most damage.) True, I was whisked away by my gypsy parents at a tender age, and several times having returned later I went off again, vowing never to come back, but here I am once again in the Greater Parkdale Area, enduring the general decline.

Yet even temporally, the question is a good one. By chance, several other correspondents (for I have a Commentariat ye know not of) have asked me recently some similar question. It must be in the air. To what extent do we even care what is going on around us? Granted, we could anyway do little about it, for if we devoted our entire lives to meddling in some way, what could we expect to achieve? I have friends of long standing who have tried this, and are only now beginning to give up; who have tilted against the proposition, “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, but forfeit his own soul?” And unlike Saint Thomas More’s interlocutor, they didn’t even get Wales.

One of my correspondents, a lady from the Canadian far east, posed or rather insinuated the question in terms of “reality” or “realism.” That is to say, look at the world as it is, and discard every illusion that might be employed in romanticizing what you see there. That still leaves plenty of room for meddling. We could, as Voltaire said, when he was playing Cicero in opposition to Leibniz, “cultivate our garden.” Some exiles are able to do that. But can one be a proper exile with such property as a garden? Or if, as Cicero, we get carried away, and add a house to shelter our library, too?

There is a paradox, which I propose to stare down. As I’ve written before, I hope without originality, almost everyone is an exile today. T.S. Eliot (in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948) observed the tendency of modern education (which includes media) to adulterate and degrade everything it touches, concluding, in a bad mood, that we were “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” And we are there now: for even those who occupy houses must be, should they wish to continue earning a living, ready to move at short notice.

The “exile” in such circumstances is more likely to be the person who refuses to move. By this refusal he makes greater and greater distance from his neighbours. But then, the modern state can expropriate anybody: we no longer enjoy the reliable protection of e.g. the Common Law; and our human rights have been, such as they were, collectivized. (This, too, is among the inevitable, barbarizing products of “democracy,” as all other kinds of totalitarianism.)

We have been re-interpreted as “human resources,” when once upon a time we were human beings. Another correspondent, in Ottawa, who actually works with computers, notes that really she works for them; and that in every working environment of which she is aware, the people are subsidiary to the machinery. We are exiled, thus, from our own nature.

And we are exiles whether we want to be or not, so the question may now be moot. Any attempt to answer it is playing with illusion. True, in a certain sense, we were always so, for at any moment any of us might involuntarily “push off” and die. But again, we were not considering the question from the transcendental angle, only in worldly terms, and those terms have been changing, “progressively” as it were. My parents, and even more my grandparents, did not consider themselves to be exiles, even when forced by external circumstances to change houses. They still felt a certain continuity within the society around them, and a quite personal belonging to it. Do I?

As we used to say in hippie days, “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” … Well, as may be discerned from my last Idlepost, some of us weren’t hippies then, have become more like hippies now. (Was gentle reader ever a hippie?) … I continue to resist medication, however.

From the towering height of sixty years, I see that “realities” have come and gone. The fair certainties of merely half a century ago have evaporated during my lifetime — reasonable certainties, for instance, about what was right and what was wrong — and there is no foreseeable prospect of restoration. Which is not to say the world was not in a fine mess a half-century ago; but the sands of atomization have become much finer and more readily shifted by every passing breeze. Who is not an exile in a “culture” which does not recognize, for instance, the sanctity of human life? Or the indissoluble nature of families? I have lived to see the terms “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” “aunt,” and so forth, methodically and retroactively stripped from all provincial legislation; and in parallel, the creation by the same “reforming” legislators of new human sexes. Who will bother warning of the cliff? We are already in the free fall of a demonstrable insanity.


Which puts me in mind of the quatrains of my youth. Friedrich Hölderlin, for instance, wrote in his madness (if gentle reader will accept translation, and tolerate my old-fashioned habit of quoting from memory):

The lines of life are various, they diverge and cease,
Like footpaths to the mountain’s utmost ends:
What here we are, elsewhere a God amends.
With harmony, eternal recompense and peace.

Good, but perhaps too fatalistic, especially in a poet who once glorified Greece. On the other hand, I have been assured that every Zen Buddhist Japanese, when travelling, carries in his heart:

Really there is no East, no West.
Where then is the North, and the South?
Illusion makes the world close in;
Enlightenment opens it on every side.

At least, I assume it is the other hand, and that the author of the Japanese quatrain was sane. I prefer the Buddhist “Enlightenment” to the French; I believe it leaves fewer corpses. It also provides the exile with a remedy against the homesickness that may sometimes afflict him. But when it comes to this, there remains a quatrain by Li Po, known, apparently, to every waiter in a Chinese restaurant:

Above my bed there is pale moonlight,
So that it seems like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I dream that I’m home.

He was a real exile, and my far eastern correspondent immediately replied with his verses on “Madly Singing in the Mountains,” written after his banishment to Hsun-yang. (It was worse for Po Chü-i: he was removed from Hsun-yang and sent to Chung-chou.) Li Po observes that his mad singing attracts the curiosity of monkeys and birds, and that by removal to a remote location he is freed of the embarrassment of becoming a laughing-stock to his fellow humans. This returns us by way of Szechuan to the West, by the open road, and to a poet I have mentioned before, Michael Roberts. It is yet another quatrain long carried in my own heart:

Coming out of the mountains of a summer evening,
Travelling alone;
Coming out of the mountains

Roberts was an earnest man who, as I explained in that old Idlepost, devoted earnest attention to the fate of worldlings in books with such titles as, The Estate of Man. He died young, alas, but as the economic, political, social, and environmental “problems” he identified from the world of the ‘thirties were exactly the same as they are today, minus the debilitating complexities we have added, I don’t see that his living longer would have been much use.

Exiles from Heaven we most certainly are, but from this terminal ward of a planet we can escape in only one way. To reply to the question as directly as I can, I would therefore quote my own motto, taken from the preamble to the Salon de 1846, by Charles Baudelaire, addressed affectionately “aux bourgeois“:

Vous pouvez vivre trois jours sans pain; — sans poésie, jamais!