Sunday, January 21, 2018

Plurality by Louis Macneice

This poem is copyright of Louis Macneice's literary estate....therefore I am taking a bit of a risk reproducing it here. But I can't believe I'm taking the bread from anybody's mouth, especially as it is freely available elsewhere on the internet. Of course, I'll take it down if anyone from the Macneice estate asks me to do so.

Before I came to believe in God, my view of the world was very similar to Macneice's warm but fatalistic humanism. Although I believed humanity was an accidental by-product of meaningless cosmic forces, I still believed the human race was noble and admirable. Life was absurd, but in facing up to that absurdity and asserting our humanity in spite of it, we could find meaning. Macneice's image of the bird in flight, as a symbol of the "eternal" (so to speak) in the momentary, was the closest I could come to a belief in eternity.

Now that I'm a religious believer, I still identity with Macneice's worldview in many ways. I've never ceased to consider myself a humanist. I've never accepted that we should cede that word to the atheists.

Parmenides (as you may well know already) was a pre-Socratic philosopher who believed that time and change were illusory, and that only the Absolute really existed. In this he was the opposite of Heraclitus, who believed that only the flux existed.

(Heraclitus and Parmenides were talking about metaphysics. Admittedly, when we draw on those metaphysics for social and cultural analogies, we're departing from the realm of philosophy, and we may be taking their names in vain. I'm going to do this, anyway, as I feel it's in the spirit of the poem.)

Heraclitus's philosophy is quite at home in our modern world, where the denial of any essence (be it nation, gender or personhood itself) is common. One of the reasons the symbol of a snow globe is so important to me is because it symbolizes permanence and essence.

Parmenides would seem to be much less relevant to our time. And yet I find myself coming back to this poem (which might as well have been called "Against Parmenides") again and again, and cherishing its defence of change, seasonality, and the particular. It's easy to identify the Heracliteans of our age. It's a lot harder to identify the Parmenidesians..There's Eastern religion, of course-- presumably everybody now knows the joke about the Buddhist monk who asks the hot dog vendor to "Make me one with everything". Buddhists and Hindus, as far as I understand them, both want to escape from the illusion of personal identity and merge with the Absolute. That sounds like death to me.

But I don't think the Parmenidesians in our midst are quite so philosophical or high-flown. I think the reference to the "dead-white universal" is significant here. A drab universalism is typical of our age. Nothing is special or to be loved in itself....everything is equal...everything is ultimately the same. Even something like the Good Friday licensing laws in Ireland must be torn down, because one day of the year cannot have a special and women cannot have distinct privileges or responsibilities...and so on.

Ultimately, don't Heraclitus and Parmenides leave us in the same limbo? There is only the flux, or there is only the Absolute. Change is everything, or change is illusory. But, in both cases, anything separate or discrete or special loses its reality.

I've put my favourite passages in bold. I can't read the closing lines of this poem without breaking into tears. "A species grown rich by seeing things as wrong and patching them, to which I am proud that I belong". Indeed!

It is patent to the eye that cannot face the sun
The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one;
World is other and other, world is here and there,
Parmenides would smother life for lack of air
Precluding birth and death; his crystal never breaks—
No movement and no breath, no progress nor mistakes,
Nothing begins or ends, no one loves or fights,
All your foes are friends and all your days are nights
And all the roads lead round and are not roads at all
And the soul is muscle-bound, the world a wooden ball.

The modern monist too castrates, negates our lives
And nothing that we do, make or become survives,
His terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream
Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme
Completeness means be chokes each orifice with tight
Plaster as he evokes a dead ideal of white
All-white Universal, refusing to allow
Division or dispersal—Eternity is now
And Now is therefore numb, a fact he does not see
Postulating a dumb static identity
Of Essence and Existence which could not fuse without
Banishing to a distance belief along with doubt,
Action along with error, growth along with gaps;
If man is a mere mirror of God, the gods collapse.
No, the formula fails that fails to make it clear
That only change prevails, that the seasons make the year,
That a thing, a beast, a man is what it is because
It is something that began and is not what it was,
Yet is itself throughout, fluttering and unfurled,
Not to be cancelled out, not to be merged in world,

Its entity a denial of all that is not it,
Its every move a trial through chaos and the Pit,
An absolute and so defiant of the One
Absolute, the row of noughts where time is done,
Where nothing goes or comes and Is is one with Ought
And all the possible sums alike resolve to nought.
World is not like that, world is full of blind
Gulfs across the flat, jags against the mind,
Swollen or diminished according to the dice,
Foaming, never finished, never the same twice.

You talk of Ultimate Value, Universal Form—
Visions, let me tell you, that ride upon the storm
And must be made and sought but cannot be maintained,
Lost as soon as caught, always to be regained,
Mainspring of our striving towards perfection, yet
Would not be worth achieving if the world were set
Fair, if error and choice did not exist, if dumb
World should find its voice for good and God become
Incarnate once for all. No, perfection means
Something but must fall unless there intervenes
Between that meaning and the matter it should fill
Time’s revolving hand that never can be still.
Which being so and life a ferment, you and I
Can only live by strife in that the living die,
And, if we use the word Eternal, stake a claim
Only to what a bird can find within the frame
Of momentary flight (the value will persist
But as event the night sweeps it away in mist).
Man is man because he might have been a beast
And is not what he was and feels himself increased,
Man is man in as much as he is not god and yet
Hankers to see and touch the pantheon and forget
The means within the end and man is truly man
In that he would transcend and flout the human span:
A species become rich by seeing things as wrong
And patching them, to which I am proud that I belong.
Man is surely mad with discontent, he is hurled
By lovely hopes or bad dreams against the world,
Raising a frail scaffold in never-ending flux,
Stubbornly when baffled fumbling the stubborn crux
And so he must continue, raiding the abyss
With aching bone and sinew, conscious of things amiss,
Conscious of guilt and vast inadequacy and the sick
Ego and the broken past and the clock that goes too quick,
Conscious of waste of labour, conscious of spite and hate,
Of dissension with his neighbour, of beggars at the gate,
But conscious also of love and the joy of things and the power
Of going beyond and above the limits of the lagging hour,
Conscious of sunlight, conscious of death’s inveigling touch,
Not completely conscious but partly—and that is much.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm glad you like it! I always feel I'm going out on a limb with my poetry-related posts.

  2. Never seen so much philosophical content in poetry before! From your comments I get inclined to ask a Hindu friend what she would respond to your (and to be sure many others me included) sense of fuzziness towards their kind of universals: "Buddhists and Hindus, as far as I understand them, both want to escape from the illusion of personal identity and merge with the Absolute. That sounds like death to me."

    1. That would be interesting, to hear what your Hindu friend would have to say! Macneice was certainly one of the most intellectual and cultured of poets, and put his learning into his poetry.

  3. I am really drawn to the first line, can you elaborate what you believe it to mean? "It is patent to the eye that cannot face the sun The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one;"

    1. I think he is comparing the experience to looking into the sun with the concept of monism-- that distinctions are unreal-- it's overwhelming and dazzling in a bad way. Just my interpretation.