The content of such an extensive poem as this could represent, to use one of Frost’s terms, a “momentary stay against confusion…[and one which] ends in a clarification of life.” (1) Modern day existence does indeed require a stay against the crippling social, political and economic pressures which are ranged against the individual trying to make his/her way in a global society which is finely tuned to expedite two things: the grand accumulation of power and the building of capital regardless of human cost.
Therefore the journey on which one embarks is made much more difficult when faced with Dantesque sins such as the greed and plunder of our elected officials, from lowly councillors to presidents—and the acts of piracy routinely perpetrated by the world’s bankers, those mercenaries who operate below the radar of fiscal regulation. Therefore the desire to have more than a momentary stay of such relentless pressure, to carve out a niche in life and apply oneself to such a purpose, requires the simple capacity to breathe—wholly independent of the ventilator to which one becomes attached in a capitalist society.
Paradoxically, the state remains a life support system which crushes the very life out of the common man. In one way, then, this poem may be construed as the individual’s desire to breathe, to speak, to be heard, to live out one’s dreams—as an alternative to slow asphyxiation by the state.
To live in such times does indeed mean for many an acute sense of their own isolation, the attendant apathy, and more often than not, a debilitating sense of hopelessness. One does not require a mental leap equivalent to Jiujitsu, as Christopher Hitchens put it, to recognise that a life of quiet desperation awaits many unfortunate people around the world—and is certain to be one’s lot in this universal dystopia—a global society which is trapped in an endless purgatorial cycle of boom and bust. So much for human progress, then, or to be more succinct, so much for Cameron’s “big society” and the mantra that we are “all in it together”.
Taking account of those institutions to which I allude — the banks, money lenders, venture capitalists, (see MItt Romney’s Curriculum Vitae), and the grotesque vanity of the billionaire playboy, (Trump) one is left with the indelible sense that it will always be thus for the common man—at present I include the middle classes in this critiquea as they have suffered just as much as the general labourer in the wake of the perfect economic storm which had traversed the shores of the entire globe by 2011, collapsing homes, factories, small and large businesses alike. This tsunami destroyed everything in its path– sweeping away thousands of properties and vast tracts of land—forcing millions of people into the path of bankruptcy and unemployment, and sending entire communities to the wall. It also created a universal culture of fear and anxiety which presently exists in every country around the world today.
For many who could not cope with such crippling losses, they were pushed over a financial precipice to their deaths by the hand of capitalism—literally compelling some to leap from their balconies—as we saw in Spain and other countries around Europe. As hard as these facts are to accept, this was the preferred solution for many, as opposed to the humiliation of watching their homes taken from them by the very financial institutions that precipitated the global recession in the first place. After such a harrowing experience, not even the kings men could put those victims back together again, regardless of what they chose to do — live and endure a life of debt, penury, humiliation, and ultimately, defeat — or simply be done with it and end it all.
In the wake of such greed, Davis & Monk ask “a simple but epochal question: toward what kind of future are we being led by savage, fanatical capitalism?” (2). For in the light of recent global events, one certainly does experience feelings of rage and social impotence in equal measures. One also feels an overwhelming sense of hopelessness when reflecting on how little has changed from the nineteenth century victorian model of manipulation and exploitation of the masses by that 1%.—the so-called elite—those who wield real power and, as Davis & Monk put it, seek to “coddle the wealthy at the expense of everyone else…[to create] dreamworlds of consumption and property…where the rich can walk like gods in the nightmare gardens of their deepest and most secret desires”. (3).
In fact, one must question the very nature of society and, in particular, its neoliberal programmes of privatisation—or Corporatism—as many would describe neoliberal policy. Take America, for example, and as Davis & Monk point out,
…”the truly extraordinary statistics, like the recent disclosure that the richest 1% of Americans spend as much as the poorest 60 Million; or that 22 million factory jobs in the twenty major economies were sacrificed to the gods of globalisation between 1995 and 2002; or that rich individuals currently shelter a staggering $11.5 trillion (ten times the annual GDP of the UK) in offshore tax havens…or the naked application of state power to raise the rate of profit for crony groups, billionaire gangsters, and the rich in general… [fuels a] dynamic, ever-growing social inequality (4)
Yet the status quo remains and after centuries of mass exploitation of the African and South American continents by all the European powers, and numerous coups d’état by the United States itself — we now see “the most dramatic neoliberal development schemes — private archipelagos in Dubai, gated communities in Hong Kong, the Mall of America in Minnesota — [which] can even be said to resemble capitalist utopias, free of the chaotic diversity of city life and immune from the concern for the welfare of the broader public [and] serving the interests of an increasingly international bourgeois class…[indeed] Hell and the Mall are never more than a freeway drive apart”. (Davis & Bertrand Monk. 5)
The very instinct of the elites to enrich themselves beyond the point of gluttony, frequently by way of oil and gas, while rejecting any responsibility to the natural world, is a dreadful indictment of modern culture—its selfishness and greed. As as I speak numerous companies of this elite 1% are contaminating the rivers, soil, air and seas of the natural world with absolute impunity. Those individuals and there companies are responsible for deforestation, mass pollution, over exploitation of the world’s resources, and irreversible damage to the seas.
In an article by AFP, titled, ‘UN Fears Irreversible Damage to Natural Environment’ the UN has warned that “coral reefs are collapsing due to the combined blow of more acid and warming oceans, as well as overfishing… [arguing] that biodiversity [is] a core concern for society that would help tackle poverty… meriting as much attention as the economic crisis for only a fraction of the cost of recent financial bailouts”. (6) However, this is the “fraction” that those in power are unwilling to pay—unless the banks come calling with hat in hand. Looking at this wanton destruction from the vantage point of the elite, these banking institutions view themselves as exceptions to the rule.
In the anthology, ‘Feather Fall’, Jean-Marc Pottiez has pulled together a collection of prose excerpts of Laurens van der Post’s writings and distils the reverence this great philosopher, activist and visionary had for the natural world. Pottiez takes a passage from ‘Man the Destroyer’, in which van der Post speaks of mankind’s predilection for destruction and his woeful attitude to the the natural world. In a prescient warning he appeals to our sense of time, and reason, when he says:
“On the horizons where the great empires, …Thebeses and Babylon’s, have gone down in the dust and rubble which is all that is left of themselves and the abundant world of nature which nourished them, there is a terrifying statement of its danger to man, beast and flower. There were for instance, the great forests of central Asia which stretched from Isfahan eastwards to the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, and north to the seas of the Caspian, and west to the wine-dark ocean of the Mediterranean. They have all gone. Humble woodcutters and charcoal burners feeding the needs and greeds of cities have left hardly a tree between Tehran and the Caspian… “(7)
“Where are the hanging gardens of Babylon? And what would not have been done sooner with the bulldozers and mechanical saws of today?… No one who has read his Homer, Thucydides and Virgil can be anything but terrified by what is left and in comparison looks like a scorched earth today… The battle must be fought on every level”.(8)
Pottiez then follows up with another stinging rebuke by van der Post declaring how man’s absence from the natural world would be received by any intelligent life which may survive him: “Should the last man vanish from earth tomorrow, there is not a plant, bird or animal who would not breathe a sigh of relief”. (9)
This poem’s defining purpose is, therefore, driven by the desire to experience a “momentary stay of confusion” or to put it more succinctly— a stay against the horrors of modern culture: environmental destruction, social and political elitism, perpetual warfare—and cold, narcissistic obsession with status and money which now holds sway in countries like America and Britain. It is an attempt to hew a “clarification of life” out of this modern chaos, to hew an existence which is substantial and one that is true to the human spirit.
Numerous changes precipitated this social and cultural sterilisation of Britain: one was a result of Thatcher’s brutal programme of privatisation in the eighties which gave birth to a Jekyll and Hyde society of rich and poor, entitlement and greed. Then there was the egomaniacal pursuit of power by Scargill, who foolishly considered his union strong enough to tackle a political giant like Thatcher, who would quickly bring down the full might of the state against him and the NUM in order to end the reign of socialism. Social and cultural change also came about partly as a result of the Americanisation of British and European cultures. Should we wonder, then, why the French (demonstrating a trait which I admire) are most radical when defending their culture against the worst excesses of Americana and determined to protect their own art, film, and literary industries from such a corrosive culture— a culture (if that is what it could be called) programmed to equate success with self-aggrandisement, public status, and the abhorrent worship of the sacred dollar.
Furthermore, in terms of naked, imperialist aggression, America has always had “the will to expand…to be pre-eminent…and [this] has meant conflict, wars of many kinds: hot, cold, internecine, savage wars, frontier wars and brush wars—and has made war a motif deeply woven into the social consciousness of national life, the ideal metaphor for a ‘can do’ people.” (American Dream, Global Nightmare (10)
Therefore, not only is this poem about the physical and psychological journey of two men arriving in America to pursue the Dream and better their lives, it also alludes to the obese entity that is the USA—a striped carnivore with an insatiable appetite—one which feeds on new markets and consumes enormous quantities of energy—a nation which presents itself as the world’s policeman and protector but is in fact a wolf prowling at our doors.
Indeed the poem could be said to have two distinct trajectories: the story of two working class brothers trying to survive in the urban metropolis; second, the imperialist narrative of America and its voracious appetite for global control and influence through its military and industrial complex. As in real life and real time, then, the existential journey of the individual is experienced in microcosm — dwarfed by a giant state which gradually expands the narrative, literally consuming the white space behind the words on the page and themes of the poem itself — the imperialist narratives in macrocosm. Here is the modern state—indifferent to one’s suffering, “a dark, Dionysian world which may be defined as a monster of energy, without beginning and without end…that knows no satiety.” (11). And for the individuals who, by virtue of life’s trial, finds themselves unmoored and drifting further out on the current, to whom, or to what, do they gravitate for help—for aid in these times of hardship—in these times when rampant right wing ideologies are taking root like destructive knot-weeds in every crevice of society
From which point of the compass does one navigate in order to survive the random chaos of a global society seemingly gone mad? More often than not, it is in the company of one’s fellow man—one who endures the same indiscriminate trial of life, a Kafka-like figure in whom he finds someone to confide and express his sorrows—and wail at the incomprehensible nature of the system—its appetite for human sacrifice—and demonstrable acts of power for power’s sake. In a crowded barroom he may well find himself marooned, but in such a place he is within easy reach of human contact. And in such a place he may raise much more than a simple glass, he may hoist the sail of his dreams—and find a reason to hope in spite of the awful road that was taken. Here he can lament the injuries suffered along the way and most importantly, remember the fatalities—but above all, in this place of respite—he or she may dream; may affirm.
Over and above the texts to which the bibliography refers, there is one particular scene in this poem which conveys the words (verbatim) of the native plains indians documented before, during or at the end, of the American Indian Wars. There are two reasons for employing the actual words and sentiments of those tribes: first and foremost, when one considers the content of the poem and its central thematic concerns—the destructive nature of capitalism, of economic boom and bust—inevitably followed by a long painful period of social hardship and general hopelessness, it was particularly important for me to to set a reminder to demonstrate how the same terrible mistakes of the past are again being repeated in the present moment—that all of those geo-political transgressions are taking place in the name of profit. I also reiterate the case of the indigenous tribes of North America, for their experience of oppression at the hands of imperialist America is similar in many ways to what other cultures experience today: the native Americans were demonised, (not unlike the Muslims in global societies at present) ‘ethnically cleansed’ for political and commercial purposes—and gradually exterminated during the economic boom which began at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California in 1848 and precipitated the rush of the forty-niners.
It appears to me that the dreadful persecution of the Palestinian people since the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917 up until the present day runs on parallel but similar lines. Only as recently as June 2015 it was reported the real reason for evicting, by gunpoint, many more Palestinians from their homes was to smooth the way for the opening of recently discovered and lucrative gas fields offshore in Gaza. The hard right Zionist government under Netanyahu has been relentless in extending its long term (racist) plan to create a Palestine in which no Palestinians will exist—leaving these lands open for further Jewish occupation and ‘settlements’. The Zionist persecution of the Palestinian people, the mass shootings in Gaza, the raising of each Palestinian home by tanks, the detainment and torture of children, the rewriting of history (for few are aware today of the anti-semitic intentions of the ‘Balfour Declaration’) — all of the above will resonate uncomfortably and resentfully with many races, such as the Native Americans still alive today. For just as American imperialism wrote its own palimpsest while its military and industrial complex expanded westward from 1812 to 1860—Zionist policy (albeit on a smaller geographical scale) today reflects similar motivations and preferred outcomes: the complete destruction of the Palestinian people, and the exploitation of the land for commercial profit.
This poem seemed impossible to complete without giving a belated voice to the many indigenous Americans whose voices were either airbrushed from the history books—or, all the more appallingly, denied by some so-called historical revisionists — establishment academics who viewed, and still consider, the wanton murders of the plains’ Indians by the US army as only “a little matter of genocide”(12) In short, it is a social, historical, anthropological, imperative that the North American Holocaust is acknowledged, continues to be remembered, and not denied by those who claim that no holocaust took place on American soil — by Americans —against their fellow Americans. This contention may not sit well with certain groups, however I believe it is time to attach equal merit to all of the holocausts in human history—and not only the one which took place against Jewish people during the Second World War, for as Pierre Papazian is right to point out:
To claim that the [Jewish] Holocaust was unique can only imply that attempts to annihilate other national or cultural groups are not to be considered genocide, thus diminishing the gravity and moral implications of any genocide anywhere, any time. It also implies that the Jews have a monopoly on genocide, that no matter what misfortune befalls another people, it cannot be as serious or even in the same category as the Holocaust. 13
Second, the reason the original, verbatim statements by the indigenous tribes of North America are used is because of their spiritual and universal vision during the Gold Rush—their reverence for the natural environment, (which speaks directly to the destruction of our planet in 2015) and their outright condemnation of the way in which the white man raped and exploited the land on which he lived in the name of progress—or Manifest Destiny— as many liked to describe it at that time—essentially a euphemism to justify the plundering and murder of the indigenous people of North America— and to raise another euphemism—used to accelerate ‘ethnic cleansing’ of these same tribes.
However, the respect the Plains Indians had for Mother Earth is a sobering reminder for many people today of how we should treat the natural environment—considering the dreadful examples of large scale poisoning presently taking place by sea, air, land and river. But, as the phrase goes, “money talks”, and invariably it is always the loudest voice in the room.
In conclusion, the dual narratives which run a parallel course in ‘A History of Feeling: Dreams and Nightmares’, unify the poem in tying together two disparate elements of the text and reminding one that human existence operates on two levels: in microcosm there is the individual’s journey through life, the story of two brothers arriving with renewed hope to the shores of America. Also operating simultaneously, (almost invisibly, for most people), runs the universal human story in macrocosm: class conflict, global commerce, banking fraud, western imperialism, (personified by the tragic figure of the Vietnam veteran) coup d’état, warfare, greed and corruption.
Then there is the willful destruction of the natural environment by governments intent on enriching themselves and consolidating their power bases by producing excessive levels of greenhouse gasses while entire shelves of the Arctic melt and disappear into the ocean. This highlights the nature of unfettered capitalism and the global culture of narcissistic obsession with personal betterment at the expense of our fellow men.
These social themes have never been more pertinent than they are today in this latest recurring period of economic hardship and mass suffering around the world brought about directly by the insatiable greed of the world’s bankers and the financial elites—and while large regions of the globe are still engaged by civil war and international conflicts.
Therefore, the imperative remains— that the solitary voice of the individual is heard above the babble of parliaments and congresses, above the voices of bankers and billionaires, above the wail of a factory horn. It is imperative, if we are to survive this Orwellian nightmare, that the voice of true democracy is heard—the individual voice acknowledged for what it is: the cry for peace, social justice, hope for the future—in the face of gluttony, self-aggrandisement and the inexorable pursuit of power. It is the individual and collective cry of every man and woman seeking a purpose to their lives. This is the poem’s raison d’être. To channel the cry of the human heart.
Churchill, Ward, ‘A Little Matter of Genocide’ City Books 2001
City books 2001 (12)
Davies, Merryl Wyn, & Sardar, Ziauddin. ‘American Dream, Global Nightmare’. Icon Books LTD. 2004
Davis, Mike & Monk, Bertrand. ‘Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism’ —Evil Paradises. The New Press, New York, 2007. (2,3,4,5,)
Frost, Robert. ‘Collected Poems, Prose & Plays’. New York, NY. Literary Classics Of The United States, 1995.
Nietzsch, Frederick, ‘The Will To Power’. Barnes and Noble Library Of Essential Reading.
Poittiez, Jean-Marc, ‘UN Fears ‘Irreversible’ Damage to Natural Environment’.
Agence France Press 10 May 2010.
Papazian Pierre – “‘A Unique Uniqueness'” — sourced from text above: ‘A Little Matter of Genocide’ (13)
van der Post, Laurens, ‘Feather Fall’ Chatto & Windus 1994. (7, 8, 9,)