The Absurdity of the West

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon

Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

Recently I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with the nonsense verse of the Victorian humorist poet Edward Lear, whose preposterous fancies seem to hold up a mirror to our own deranged era. One poem in particular merits a certain bemused attention.

The Dong with the Luminous Nose is not a North Korean nuclear-tipped missile, as in today’s world some may reasonably assume, or an unintended phallic symbol, as others may knowingly contend. It is a little poetic masterpiece, depicting the wanderings of a disheveled, rather ludicrous creature over “the great Grombolian plain.” His heart broken when his “Jumbly Girl” departs, he seeks her in the night by strapping a lamp to his proboscis and roaming the plains with his “single lurid light.” But all to no avail.

For all his well-documented foibles, Edward Lear was an educated classicist who had imbibed not only “a great deal of Marsala,” as he tells us in “By Way of Preface,” but also the nobler principles of the classical world. When the Goddess of Wisdom departs, Lear seems to imply, whether she be the Jumbly Girl of the poem or the owl of Minerva, we are reduced to absurdity, no different, really, from the condition of the poor abandoned Dong. We grow ridiculous trying to illumine the darkness in which we find ourselves with the feeble, makeshift light of the Grombolian mind, ever prone to fugitive reveries and abortive dreams. As Lear writes:

But when the sun was low in the West,

The Dong arose and said, —

“What little sense I once possessed

Has quite gone out of my head!”

As I was deep in Learian territory, serendipity struck. I was asked by McGill-Queen’s University Press to peer-assess the manuscript of a novel by well-known Nietszche scholar Tom Darby, provisionally entitled Life at the Death of History, or A Global Romance. The narrative recounts the adventures of a philosophy professor, presumably gathering materials for his next book, on his travels through the Far East.

In one hilarious episode he delivers an ad hoc lecture to a group of Dong-like Nuage intellectuals and feminists at an academic conference where he dissects the beliefs and presumptions of an audience committed to the reigning follies of the day: the “end of history,” the brotherhood of man, and the idea of a feminist utopia. The universalizing of these principles, the protagonist argues, will lead to a brave new world typified by four distinctive “manifestations,” which he proceeds to enumerate.

The first manifestation of such universalizing is niceness. “At the end of history everyone will be nice, and we will know what to expect from one another: niceness.” And the world will be “domesticated and tame.” The pandemic of political correctness will have done its work, infecting the entire Western world and reducing it to a state of incurable effeminacy.

The next feature of this new mode of being is whiteness: “race, class, and culture will no longer matter,” for we will all turn into white people as the differences which once divided us die along with history. The various colors of mankind will then flow back, so to speak, into the sameness of the composite ideological prism of the enlightened, or enwhitened, West. (Of course, not every identity-politics leftist would approve, as witness courses like “Social Construction of Whiteness,” taught at the University of Arizona.)

The third aspect of the fully developed world is Americanization: “Since the most developed people in the West are Americans, all nice white people will become Americans.” The redistribution of ideological pigmentation will create an American world in which we can all live the egalitarian dream without ever having to wake up.

The fourth property of this enchanted realm is safety: since “we will all be homogeneous like the members of one big happy family … and since the danger of maleness will be eradicated,” we will have achieved safety and politics can then be replaced by entertainment. There will be no barbarians at the gates and we can spend the remainder of our lives pampering ourselves in movie theaters, amusement parks, and shopping malls.

Thus, our philosopher concludes, “the universal and homogeneous world at the end of history will be one eternal world of nice, white, American women,” idling about in absolute safety and giving themselves over to a life of pure, quiescent, unchallenging diversion.

The implicit questions posed by this tongue-in-cheek analysis of left-wing ideological thinking, which theoretically implies a lifestyle characterized by socioeconomic uniformity, the absence of idiosyncrasy, and the entrenching of the brotherhood, or sisterhood, of man -- in other words, the end of history -- are: is such a world really feasible and, if it were, who would want to live in it? But of course the answer to the first question renders the second irrelevant.

Obviously, Darby’s implied questions are rhetorical. Or, at least, they should be. The scene which Darby depicts for us is not as far-fetched as we might like to believe. As we survey the so-called advanced world in which we live, with its multitudes of doctrinaire idealists, social levelers, and ahistorical minds, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are presently living inside an Edward Lear poem, amidst a crowd of Dongs casting their lurid light in the hunt for what will always escape them. Or in a Tom Darby novel populated by Learian-type creatures, what little sense they once possessed quite gone out of their heads, and clinging to their runcible fantasies. (“Runcible,” Lear’s most famous coinage, derives from the Latin runcare, “to weed out” -- ironically appropriate in our context.)

Reading Tom Darby at the same time as Edward Lear has the bizarre effect of conflating two fictive domains into one existing world -- the one we currently inhabit in which Western leaders search vainly for solutions to menacing problems by relying on endless rounds of talks, proclamations, and conferences, and large numbers of people have come to believe in infantile fables and unworkable utopian alternatives to the uncompromising reality of things. All, as it were, dining on mince and slices of quince. Possibly the Taepodong-2 and the Shahab-3 will usher in the end of history in ways unforeseen by the denizens of the new Darboniferous Period.

The Iranian mullahs refer to America as a “sunset power.” They may be right. A nation dumbed down and fallen prey, perhaps terminally, to the Oprabama syndrome wouldn’t seem to have much of a future. And America, as Mark Steyn laments in Lights Out, is our fading last chance. One may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the sun is indeed “low in the West.”