Monday, October 21, 2019

'A Sort of Hubris in This World-Worrying'

Normally, the last person you would consult for geopolitical insight would be a poet. Even more than the rest of us, poets tend to be politically naïve, historically ignorant and eager to share profundities. An unlikely exception is Stevie Smith. In a September 1937 letter to the novelist and journalist Helen Mitchison she writes:

“I don’t think we can pass the buck to forces of evil or to anything but our own humanity. We are bloody fools—but then, we are hardly out of the egg shell yet.”

According to the editors of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1982), Mitchison had written Smith “‘a gloomy letter’ about the world situation.” In September 1937, Hitler was in his ascendancy and rapidly rearming Germany, Stalin’s Great Terror was accelerating, the Second Sino-Japanese War was well under way and Spain was self-destructing. Smith, whose first and best novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, had recently been published, urges Mitchison to keep her cool:

“I think we want to keep a tight hand—each of us on our own thoughts. I think at the present moment you are in a state of mind that hungers for the disasters it fears. If there are forces of evil, you see, you are siding with them, in allowing your thoughts to panic. Your mind is your only province—the only thing that is.”

Such maturity remains pertinent. Panic is pandemic. Everything is a crisis. Looked at historically, in context, everything is proceeding as usual, but ordinary people, newly armed with social media, have grown extraordinarily fond of melodrama and cheap, unearned emotion. Eighty years ago, Smith had already diagnosed our problem:

“There is a sort of hubris in this world-worrying. For if you have achieved peace in your own mind, when the worst happens (if it does) you will have reserves of strength to meet it. And if you have not achieved peace in your own mind, how can you expect the world to do any better.”

This is realism, not quietism. A man’s got to know his limitations, as a movie star one said – another occupation not to be relied upon for world-historical wisdom. Smith goes on:

“Hungry for a nostrum, a Saviour, a Leader, anything but to face up to themselves & a suspension of belief. . .. Yes, our times are difficult but our weapon is not argument I think but silence & a sort of self-interest, observation & documentation.”

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