The “Great Idea” of the American Bard

There’s something uncomfortable about the word “postbellum” – not like its more lucid antonym. Speaking of the “antebellum” is fundamentally nostalgic, premillennialist even. And in a sense we should never forget that for many war is indeed apocalyptic. Not just for the glory-hunting “desperadoes” it feeds but for the civilians it starves. It won’t do to be flippant about “casualties” – a term which, although murmuring with slightly more moral illusion than “collateral damage”, hinges upon the notion that victims are just violence’s inevitable residual. But the English language beggars for better terms. “Postbellum” is of course another. It conjures images of irreparable societies. It suggests that there is time beyond war that may or may not be hell.

There’s not much more we can say about the Iraq war, ten years later. All that we really saw in a recent debate was that for some reflection comes a little too easily. Owen Jones stood staring down at his audience without a trace of humility, Mehdi Hassan smiling gleefully and shrugging of counterarguments as “neoconservative”, “imperialistic”. It’s the modern terminology of heresy. The people were clapping unreflectively, come to have their predetermined moral vanities confirmed, and this is manifested rather bleakly in the debate title that Hassan picked: whether the war was “worth” it. The dead are weighed up next to the lives of the living and we’re told rather glibly that the result is in favour of those anti-war visionaries, those content with the the status quo of sanctions without end. Emotion becomes the easy whitewash over all the philosophies of war that have evolved steadily with human history. And it is in how the “just war” is played out that human progress is most vividly tested.

I wasn’t politically aware in 2003; I was 9, and all I remember was being happy about it. It was a war between good and evil and the evil would quickly fall. I wish I had asked my granddad what he thought about it. Not long after, I won a competition in which I had interviewed him on his experiences in the Second World War – the parade in Berlin, the fall of Hitler. So did he share my idealism? Was a war against “fascism” enough a psychology?

David Aaronovitch tweeted:

My fellow debaters have been very good, but it feels to me as though the oomph has gone out of this discussion. It’s moving into history.

— David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) February 7, 2013

Some said that this had “deeply” offended them (then something about dead babies). But that’s not strictly relevant to the point; history doesn’t have to be emptied of emotion.

Nonetheless, whatever the interlude between pre and post, war ends. I’m in no position to declare an Iraqi postbellum – which some have already tried, several times – but most of the characteristics are generally present: Saddam is replaced, the country is largely at peace and the invading forces have been removed. And it is certainly true that small bands are trying to murder civilians; it started not long after the invasion when the Baath Party made its alliance with Al-Qaeda. But most are finding, I suspect, that daily life is moving on again.

One way of avoiding this rather bleak time-stop, this binary distinction between peace and war, is to treat postbellum as a time of reflection. A sort of introspective hangover in which there is regret and resignation but also recovery. Moments of happiness remembered. If postbellum was the rape-child of the antebellum then yes, let’s cry about the conception but still, we should grab the life with full throttle, move on.

And this is why we must never forget Walt Whitman. Never did the English-speaking world produce a more lovely poet; but never did his calming humanism fail to rouse him. In him is blended romanticism with action. With his lover George Doyle they took walks in the park and discussed the rights of abolitionism, the horrors of alcohol. He was deeply political, never retreating into the ivory tower of poetic narcissism (or, thank God, the naval-gazing of angsty teenagers). This was a man whose life was spent hopping across unsuccessful editorial positions like a pebble skipping over a seemingly impenetrable lake. And it was the American Civil War (1861-5) that consumed his humanist vision.

In his poem As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shore, which is fucking long, he celebrates one of the most important principles ever to have walked out of America.

The end of the 10th section:

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.
Without extinction is Liberty, without retrograde is Equality,
They live in the feelings of young men and the best women,
(Not for nothing have the indomitable heads of the earth been always
ready to fall for Liberty.)

But who is this bard? He’s man who preaches on the battlefield. It’s romantic and mental revolution mingled with a call to bring freedom to foreign peoples. The individual, in “the feelings of young men”, is married to “the great Idea”; and it unites “the best” who are pitched without remorse against “despots”. I suspect Whitman intended them to be “foreign” not just to America but to the good conscience of “the Idea”, too.

But As I Sat Alone was published in 1867, after the war and with it slavery had ended. It’s the result of a series of revisions to his much earlier Poem of Many in One, his thoughts from the antebellum. Over the war we find a rather incredible transition from the confidence that “we are powerful and tremendous in ourselves” to a subtle jibe at the naivety of his earlier self: rather stoically, Whitman rises to say that “not for nothing” does evil slip away. In spite of the 600,000 deaths of the war in which his brother nearly died, he refuses to get lost in the past. He aspires for a new day. When Lady Liberty is not leading the people she must apply her makeup in the dark.

It’s reminiscent of Shelley’s dictum of 1821 that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. It’s easy to make a mockery of this and dismiss it as petty idealism, but he meant it more literally than readers tend to think. He admired real revolutionaries – Tom Paine a particular favourite. Whitman’s “bard” becomes a moral inspiration but not for “unacknowledged” introspection. He must convert the world.

And so it is in the bearded American poet, father of his form’s free and lucid style, that we find not an unhealthily nostalgic obsession with the antebellum but an optimism for the postbellum. I, for one, don’t think being “right” about the Iraq war is possible anymore, not from hindsight. But nor do I care. How can we make Iraq better, and what can we learn from its mistakes? Can these be applied to the problems of today? Crying over our losses certainly will not. Aaronovitch closed his speech with a drearily accurate comment that I fear, but do not hope, will become true. 10 years from now we may well be asking ourselves:

“Syria: not intervening. Was it worth it?”

(And for the record, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen that beard before.)


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