I’d like to apologize to the readers of the Belmont Club for being offline these last 72 hours as I’ve been traveling where the Internet connectivity is unreliable. My companion in those offline hours was John Garth’s “Tolkien and the Great War”. Garth argues that among the reasons why JRR Tolkien, who was a combat veteran of the Somme rejected the Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon narrative of the Great War was because it could not despite its vast scope, encompass the true problem.
While some of his friends believed that the task of the 1914 generation was to “restore righteousness and mercy … to the counsels of mankind” — the aesthetic reformulation of the political idea that the Great War was the War to End All Wars, Tolkien with his deep interest in the origins of things felt differently. The Great War — and any war — was a contest on an immeasurable battlefield between Good and Evil. There were orcs “who embodied all the evil” of men on either side. Thus, no early paradigm of conflict showing the orcs only as the Nazis, for example, would serve. That meant, in the context of the 1914 generation that their immense sacrifice bought but a temporary relief.
Because after all, if we can never completely claim the mantle of angels then there is No War To End All Wars. And even when we do fight evil, which we must, there is always the danger that the corruption will spread to us. In victory is danger. This was a very hard thing for those who had gone through the Somme to accept. It produced a dilemma in which the twin choices appeared to be Pacifism or Final Solutions. And people did in fact take diverse paths after the Great War, the one despairing and the other vaulting all the more. The combination of the two resulted in Munich, when ambition met world-weariness. That led to an even greater conflict than the Great War. The human desire for absolutes on earth often backfires.
That observation struck me in connection with the tragic events in Norway. Here was a madman who wanted a final solution of sorts. And I have a feeling that if there were truly no problems to rouse him he would invent them. The desire for complete solutions is an abyss that stares back. I think that in the context of the Continent’s politics, this desire to either look away or solve things comprehensively can lead to dangerous situations or at least in a politics in which there is a Left and a Right, both equally righteous. But what are the alternatives?
One alternative which appeals to the religious is to look for ultimate justification ‘beyond the confines of the world’. That is to say to accept that there are no Final Solutions, not even to Evil, on this earth. And it is not wholly coincidental that of the members of his generation, Tolkin most of all clung to hope on the largest scale. Not for a season do we live; nor in vain do we strive, but we are damned if we know why. So we just suck it and see. He calls mortality the Gift of Men because it allows us to escape from a world forever broken, and thus transcend it. We get to play in a bigger casino, where it all makes sense.
The other view which is not wholly incompatible with Tolkien’s is the notion that our allotted task is to clean up the historical yard and leave the world a little better than when we found it. Each generation does this in the knowledge it is all that can be done. In such a world the everyman lives like the mystic, or at least as the true mystic would. You might call this zabaleen or garbage-collector view of history. It is possible that it is also the American view in the sense of the notion that gigantic enterprises ought to be left to the common man, who will of course probably never do anything as drastic as an aristocrat; in the aversion to the giant state and totalitarian parties and in the suspicion of final solutions.
In everyman’s world is acceptable and even desirable to hold convictions, but unacceptable to be too damn sure of them so that it becomes permissible to impose that view on others at the point of the gun. The madman in Norway thought he knew the truth; and so he took bits and pieces and like Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, cobbled together a monster. That’s all I can dash out at another airport kiosk with another few minutes to add to the first scribble. See you guys later.