Closing the Door to the Continent
There is more than ample evidence, both currently and historically, that there exists a strange and unexplained resistance in human beings to change habits which are detrimental to them – to act differently in their best interests, even when it is scientifically or culturally proven this would relieve the suffering of their lot, even when it might save the descendants of their loved ones from extinction. We also know such a resistance can be further complicated by subsidiary drives such as frustration with the present and fear of the future – causing a yearning for a perceived past of greater security, autonomy, wealth and contentment; tributaries which run spiritedly to join the periodic riptides of populist fuelled nationalism. The inability, or unwillingness to read history, to reflect on and analyse events beyond their own immediate time, make people living in a state of anxiety even more prone to reimagining the past, tinkering with its facts, since they cannot discern precursors and overlaps with current happenings conjured by equitable human folly – imagining that they are the first victims to experience such an injustice. The growing sense of rage, suspicion against the powers that be and a beguiling tribal sense of resistance become all consuming. They mistakenly believe the grievance or passion they hold is unique to them and their kind when in fact they are a mere reiteration of a person and group with almost identical grievances and passions in a previous era.
Xenophobia, that hideous face, can always be made out in the crowd, no matter the era, circled like the moustached mug of a convulsively gesturing Adolf Hitler in Munich celebrating the declaration of war in 1914. At the same moment his Austrian neighbour the poet Georg Trakl penned the lines ‘All roads lead to black putrefaction’ and vanished into the bloodlands of Galicia. An innate distrust of the foreign, looking out for the perceived native blood line first, permitting the contribution from abroad only so far as it can serve the acquired yet fictionalised picture of the nation, or support its failing infrastructure, but always suspicious and sometimes vindictive like the master towards his slave, is surely a reflex action born of existential despair at one’s own impotence within the world, one lock secured in personal security. This inwardly formed yet externally endorsed resistance to, or as it might appear, resigned acceptance of the foreign characterises the British psyche, even when the latter has been proved to have immeasurably enriched and extended their culture through the arts and learning, through the transfusions of literary translation, organically shaping it over centuries. So, the national picture, whatever it might be, is only allowed to be drawn by those who claim to be its rightful descendent artists, the indigent Anglo Saxons, a breed so finely woven with filigrees of foreignness over centuries that the idea of its blood purity is merely a perverse fantasy of far-right thinking. Brexit then, the lumbering ‘Rosbif’ British digger crashing through the enclosing wall of European foam bricks, is the catastrophic aftermath of certain self-proclaimed ‘visionaries’ grabbing the crayons whilst claiming to be speaking for the ‘right thinking’ but non-visionary majority, those who must be lead to the higher fertile pastures. Whatever the work of abstraction these scoundrels have scrawled we are now led to believe is a permanent work of art, even if still ‘in the making’. But it is of course a forgery, a changeling. Long ago did we squander the chance to steer Europe as once we might when Britain acted as a balancing weight securing the neutrality of Belgium in the face of Spanish, Dutch, French and German belligerents and land grabbers. The bridge between the European mainland and the United States that Britain designed, built and maintained has been left as a mass of twisted wreckage. We have endured the national collapse of pragmatism, restraint and diplomatic articulacy. Egged on by charlatans, fanatics and opportunists, we have joined a retreat to the keep to wallow in the mouldy-edged romanticism of ‘going it alone’.
But for all the clamour for a populist change that takes us backwards to a fabled theatrical backdrop of Englishness, the real prize won by these reactionary elements of society is – once the turn has been made – a state of monolingual stasis with little infusion of the foreign at all. See the current shameful pull out of the Erasmus programme as Brexit bites… and its laughable John Bull replacement proposed by the Prime Minister. The price of real change, of adjusting to new societal constraints in a climate emergency, and even more so after the scourging of Covid, is too high a bar for most people. Powerless, people are confronted with a dangerous and unpredictable world of ballooning populations, dwindling resources, urban ultra-violence, glaciers the size of New Zealand shearing in two, the daily trudge through the blizzard of social media, the sense they are feeling their way along the corridors of a globalised insane asylum.
Enter the new historical shapeshifters, their mission to prettify or cleanse the past, to rewire events to suit the latest prejudicial upgrades. The past is no longer an invaluable repository of facts endorsed by witness testimony and painstaking research by genuine historians, a crown jewels of truth, but a smorgasbord of possibilities to suit the taste of every conspiracy theoretician and angry defender of individual rights, to bolster entrenchment in conviction rather than insightful humanistic scepticism. For the new breed of proto-demagogues and their followers the past appears as an unending buffet to which all are invited, selecting whatever looks interesting from the long table, the disparate and complex events of the past are thus constantly piling up on paper plates in a garish mish mash. The result is indigestion and a willed filtering of the truth. When the imagined past marries with the ingrained resistance to change, the charismatic opportunist appears strengthened, more exotic, like a newly attired Mr Benn stood before the shopkeeper, miraculously re-costumed. Thus the trap closes and the faithful stand before the podium ranks of glowing smart phones held aloft like votive offerings from the pious pushing into the narthex of the abbey in a time of pestilence.
Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won an international award for poetry in 2008. His subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (2011) The Sleepwalkers (2016) and The Slowing Ride (2020) are published by Shearsman Books. Will’s translations have been published by Pushkin Press, Hesperus Press, Menard Press, Dedalus Books and Arc Publications. They include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Simmel, Gérard de Nerval, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Pushkin published Poems to Night by Rilke and Encounters and Destinies – A Farewell to Europe, by Zweig in 2020. Surrender to Night – Collected Poems of Georg Trakl appeared in 2019 along with new editions of titles which first appeared with Hesperus Press. Will has contributed reviews, essays and poems to a range of publications, including The TLS, Apollo, The Spectator, RA Magazine, The White Review, Agenda, Modern Poetry in Translation and Poetry Review.
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