Sunday, February 10, 2008

Billy Collins on the Future

Peace movements financed by war-profiteers who are still in the bank and gun business or whose subsidy is derived from munitions' sales are unlikely to conduce to the new paideuma. Pacifists who refuse to examine all causes of war, from natural fitfulness on through the direct economic causes, are simple vermin, whatever their level of consciousness, their awareness or unawareness of their actions and motivations.

Ezra Pound (GK, p. 117)

It's going to take some time before Billy Collins arrives in the future. But when he does, he hopes, people are going to be waiting for him to tell them what it was like in our day.

He's planning to tell them about a sky he once saw, and a woman he once knew (he'll never forget the way she wore a white bathrobe), and the time he visited the site of a historic sea battle in a narrow strait.

Then he's going to get out his maps. He's going to explain to his audience that there were mountains and valleys and that we called this "geography"; he's also going to tell them that goods used to be loaded onto ships that sailed on the rivers and that we called this "commerce".

Finally, he's going to tell them about what we called "history"; that is, he going to tell them "how the people from this pink area crossed over into this light-green area and set fires and killed whoever they found".

He imagines they are going to listen to all this without raising any objections. He thinks they are going to be drawn to his account of the past "like ripples moving toward, not away from, a stone tossed into a pond".

[The above is a prose paraphrase of "The Future" by Billy Collins, which appeared in the New Yorker (February 4, 2008.) As paraphrase, however, it is oddly complete. I don't think it misses a single "poetic" effect in the original.]

Collins's poem is worth comparing to Borges's "Utopia of a Tired Man", which I discussed yesterday. When addressing the future, Collins is not, apparently, going to mention that many of us insisted on calling what he describes "war", "murder" and "attrocity" and filled public squares to denounce these activities. Or perhaps he will say that this, too, we called "history". The whole thing is presented as a kind of silly mistake.

If "the people of the future in their pale garments" have forgotten history then, let us hope, they have remembered why they have not bothered to remember. They will then not be taken in (in the very picturesquely irenic way Collins imagines) by another liberal who puzzles over why nations war with each other.

The liberal democrat imagines that national borders are not worth fighting over. They present nationhood as a quaint platonic fiction. They normally live in countries whose borders are not currently disputed.

They think war is a mistake that is glossed over with a euphemism like "history". The idea that nations are part of the methodology of war does not occur to them. (Much less what racket war, in turn, is part of.) They would not abolish nations. They would have people remain politely in their assigned "light-green" and "pink areas", which are not so silly as to do away with, but silly enough not to fight over.

In the future, they hope, people will listen to them puzzle over this silliness.

5 comments:

Presskorn said...

I like the idea hinted at here, namely, that from the point of nations: History is a euphemism for war. Or perhaps more poetic: History is a euphemism for death.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Liberal democrats (which I'm using as a kind of blanket-term for non-fascist mass government) see wars as conducted by nations in their error or madness. The view I'm proposing here (though I'm not at all convinced it is true) is that nations are actually produced by war. That is, it would be more precise to say that nations are conduits of wars that are really conducted by other interests.

Nationalism (of the standard fascist variety) can then be understood, not as an attempt to control the exercise of force by the nation, but as an attempt to control the movement of forces through the nation. Depending on the nation in question and the "foreign" forces involved, nationalism may therefore have a kind of prima facie legitimacy.

I should begin every post with Gide's dictum (and Mailer's motto) "Please don't understand me too quickly." I'm trying to think beyond my habitual, knee-jerk reaction to fascism in an attempt to understand what Pound, Lewis and Heidegger saw in it.

Kirby Olson said...

Poor Denmark: cut to the size of a postage stamp by wars, after conducting too many wars that didn't work out for them.

Now Denmark is the land of peace studies, and of the Muhammad cartoons.

It also apparently is the world's happiest place, according to a documentary that aired on public TV about a month ago.

What really concerns me about Denmark is how you are the only European nation with serious badminton players. My dad taught that sport, and wrote a book about it.

I would like Denmark to rise up as in the Viking years and take over the world with its five million people and impose Lutheran law (instead of Sharia law), and also to make sure that everyone had to use Danish postage stamps.

Then the whole world could go berserk in Danish.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Lutheran surrealism, indeed! We invented that shit.

Glad to have you along, Kirby.

Kirby Olson said...

I'd like to see Denmark take over the global post office at least. Stamps should not include cartoons of you know who, though.

At any rate, glad to be along.

Lutheran Surrealism may have been invented by the philosopher Georg Hamann, in the country of Prussia, under Frederick II, or at least that's the earliest clear influence we've been able to find.

But back then the Danes held quite a bit of the Baltic, and weren't just a postage stamp with some other religious figure upon it.

I always enjoy the refreshing nuttiness of your blog.

I wrote about the duckrabbit on my blog a few days ago if you have a minute.

Give us a post about the Muhammad cartoons (but don't go too far!).