Sometimes it is best to keep quiet. At least for a while. it gives one time to think.
In a period of history such as the one we are living through now, when the pressure is on to respond to political events with the immediacy of one’s feelings, it takes an effort of will - or perhaps it is a spiritual discipline – to stay silent. This should not be confused with quietism, or abdication of responsibility. But what exactly are we responsible for?
I can’t subscribe to the British playwright Edward Bond’s Dostoevskian sentiment: “you are responsible not just for your life, or for what happens on your doorstep, but for the universe. You have an extreme moral responsibility”. This seems more akin to an omnipotent fantasy than a guide to responsible moral living.
Yet the question of responsibility is real. What is my responsibility – our responsibility – in the era of Trump, in the era of Brexit, in the era of populist nationalism, in the post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’ (i.e. lies)? These questions have been pressing in on me over these last months. And keeping silent – a time to reflect – is all I have been able to manage.
And yet I can also hear that Edward Bond is right when he says, reflecting on humanity’s consistent and insistent capacity for inhumanity, “problems grow unseen, inch by inch, until it is too late to go back and what was unthinkable becomes inevitable. The impossible always occurs in history”. Indeed.
This week Trump announced details of his long-threatened intention to build his wall between the US and Mexico. Really? The border is almost 2000 miles long. That’s a lot of advertising space that’s going to become available for his businesses. (Spoiler alert: that was an alternative fact). But – if Trump’s Wall is built – it will put the Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the West Bank wall into perspective. America first!
Admittedly the Great Wall of China can’t be surpassed (13,000 miles) but Trump is an emotionally- regressed ignoramus and will be claiming his wall is the longest, the best, in the history of the world. It becomes relatively easy to predict the childlike thinking of Trump: which young boy hasn’t chanted, in narcissistic delight, while standing on a pile of stones, “I’m the king of the castle - and you’re a dirty rascal”?
Even though the tides of history have always swept away all such walls, and the need for them – Israel’s is still too young to be undermined by history – Trump’s wall will serve as a monument to his concrete thinking and (in Melanie Klein’s terminology) his paranoid-schizoid thinking. We all try to build walls – ‘defences’ – against what we find disturbing, uncomfortable, unpalatable, unacceptable, invasive of our fragile sense of well-being. Whatever thoughts enter our minds unbidden and unwanted – darker, aggressive, disruptive, greedy, lustful or hateful thoughts – need a wall to keep them out. Often these thoughts get projected onto the ‘other’ – and then we feel we have to be protected from those disowned impulses which we now believe are threatening us. Most of us only have the power to build our walls internally, unconsciously, in fantasy. But Trump can enact it. Much good will it do him.
To whom can we turn in dark times? This is what I have been reflecting on in this recent period of quiet. I have no certain answers, because I distrust the impulse in me towards certainty as a response to the certainty articulated by those whose views I abhor. I am going to try to stay true to what I know and what I value. For example, the stance described by the poet John Keats as ‘Negative Capability’: when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
This is clearly a time when we need ‘fact and reason’ in our repertoire of responses. And need to know how and when to use it. But Keats is on to something vital. We need also to be ‘capable’ of holding within ourselves all the uncertainties engendered by the new world order. So that’s how I’m beginning to see my task: am I capable of resisting the retreat into split thinking, into horrified condemnation, into a mirror image of Trump’s regressed thinking? I am trying.
And trying too to look to the poets and novelists and dramatists of the past, and the present, who are able to speak about the infinite complexity of our lives, our potential and our limitations. Poets whose work confirms Shelley's famous claim (in 1821) that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".
Sometimes it is the creative artists in our midst who have the surest finger on the pulse of the times - and sometimes a moment of prescient insight into what will unfold in the future, for good or ill. David Mamet, for example, in his 2008 play November, set in the Oval Office, created a ruthless, immoral president, Charles Smith, and penned this piece of dialogue between the President and his adviser Archer:
Archer: (checking his notes) We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants
Charles: Why not?
Archer: You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.
Jews like Mamet are well-versed in using humour to see us through dark times. It is not the only response we need. But it is a vital strand in the fabric of resistance and action and reflective thinking that I sense we will have to call up in ourselves in these next few years.