This is the final entry in a week of blog entries responding to various readings discussed at the UMF Summer experience. Today I consider “The Answer,” by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962).
When I first taught at Summer Experience, I was researching Robinson Jeffers and found a quote from him that I really liked: “Long live freedom and damn the ideologies!” In The Answer, one gets the sense that Jeffers could see the gathering storm. He wrote it in 1937. Perhaps he was thinking of Germany when he wrote “To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.” Perhaps as we deal with the possibility of our society in crisis due to terrorism, oil price increases and potential economic collapse we can remember his advice: “When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least uglyl faction; these evils are essential. To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted, and not wish for evil, and not get duped by dreams of universal justice or happiness.”
There is so much in that section! First, concepts such as integrity, mercy and remaining uncorrupted are outside any particular ideology or faction. They are human values that almost everyone cherishes, whatever ones’ views or perspectives. Perhaps we should focus there first. And in 1937 he no doubt saw many being duped by dreams of universal justice and happiness. Ideology provides a world view that tries to diagnose what is wrong with our society, and then offer a solution. The solution sounds wonderful — universal justice, happiness, and a better world. But it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work, these ideologies find villains, people whose action or ideas are blamed with preventing the attainment of that perfect society. These villains must be eliminated, their selfish interests prevent achievement of the greater good. That sounds seductively logical, but leads to horrific evil, evil seen far too often in the 20th century.
Jeffers was criticized for opposing US involvement in WWII. We’ll never know what would have happened had the US not gotten involved; the winners write the history books and it’s unquestioned conventional wisdom that WWII was a ‘good war.’ I’m not sure; perhaps if the US had not embraced going to war we could have been in a position to prevent the holocaust, perhaps neither Communism nor Fascism would have survived. But it’s a sad testament to political correctness that standing on ones’ principles can lead one to be ostracized, after his opposition to the war he was never as popular again.
He goes on: “To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful.” This shows another problem with ideological and utopian thought. Instead of seeing the whole and recognizing a fundamental beauty (or as Aldo Leopold says in his piece, to “think like a mountain,”) we see bits and pieces of ugliness and try to figure out a way to remedy it, often ignoring the unintended consequences of such action.
“A severed hand is an ugly thing, and man disservered from the earth and stars and his history…for coontemplation or in fact…often appears atrociouusly ugly.” I’ve thought a lot about this line. We humans often like to see ourselves as completely independent and autonomous. We are not part of the earth, we dominate it. History is not a part of us, it is something that happened before us. Thus we ignore that we are a product of both nature and our past, and when we disconnect and try to simply analyze reality and come up with our answer of what to do to make things better, the result can be extremely ugly. Ideology, religious fundamentalism, dogmatism of any sort, abstract thought which dehumanizes others and sees nature as merely an object to control, all yield ugliness of the worst sort.
“Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions or drown in despair when his days darken.” Such an appropriate statement during the depression and just before World War II! Living in times or places of injustice, poverty and despair can suck the soul out of someone. It’s easy to get depressed, or grab on to an ideology that promises some kind of salvation from these conditions. But if that salvation separates humans from other people and from nature, denies the ‘wholeness of life and things,’ and replaces the divine beauty of the universe with the faux beauty of how people imagine the universe should be, it leads to “man’s pitiful confusions,” which to me means ideology, dogmatism and extremism.
Now we are in a time of crisis and transition. It’s unclear from where the challenge will come. As the stock market continues to drop, oil prices rise, and pessimistic predictions increase, people will be tempted to embrace answers that blame others and push an extremist agenda. Leaders will demand loyalty, excuses will be made for fighting wars, imprisoning innocents, and turning people against each other. Others will look at increasing difficulties in life and despair. What kind of world are we leaving our children?! Will our jobs be here ten years from now? Twenty? Will we be able to travel and enjoy the kind of lifestyle we’ve gotten used to?
To Jeffers there is one way not to drown in either despair or delusion: keep integrity, remember that the whole is beautiful, and that reality unfolds the way it will, the ugliness is necessary, even if we can’t understand why or how at any given point in time. We need to cling to our integrity, honor and mercy, and avoid as much as possible the violence and anger that consumes so many.
Remembering that, we can consider the genocide in Rwanda, the horrors of the 20th century, the poverty we see today in the third world, and the potential disasters of the future without losing our optimism, idealism and love for life and nature. Because, after all, a life without optimism and joy is a wasted life.