From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the Islamist

When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?

Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.

This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.

Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.

John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.

This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:

On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.

At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.

Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.

If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.

It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.

Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.

There’s my test. Take it.


Another Tragic Moment: Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath as Teenager

Sylvia Plath, aged 15. From here.

Take a look at this photo of the young Sylvia Plath: who knew that the author of The Bell Jar could ever have seemed so happy? Photos can be terribly deceptive, but still. The contrast with the writer is astonishingly tragic:

I Am Vertical

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam a new leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them —
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

It’s not even a binary decision to die; despite Plath’s worryingly glamorous suicide, the poem here expresses psychological trauma, collapse. Plath would “rather” be dead. It’s a matter of preference, of taste, rather than of despair. It’s never simple, is it?

I love the Bronte poem! A great insight into Whitman’s personality (as though his poems weren’t enough).


“Samples of My Common-place Book” — Walt Whitman (from Specimen Days)

I ought not to offer a record of these days, interests, recuperations, without including a certain old, well-thumb’d common-place book,[18] filled with favorite excerpts, I carried in my pocket for three summers, and absorb’d over and over again, when the mood invited. I find so much in having a poem or fine suggestion sink into me (a little then goes a great ways) prepar’d by these vacant-sane and natural influences.

 Samples of my common-place book down at the creek:

I have—says old Pindar—many swift arrows in my quiver which speak to the wise, though they need an interpreter to the thoughtless. Such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand. H. D. Thoreau.

If you hate a man, don’t kill him, but let him live.—Buddhistic.
Famous swords are made of refuse scraps…

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The Importance of Elsewhere

The Troubles – Larkin in Ireland.

Last night’s post on the BBC’s Red Nose Day (Comic Relief) reminded me of this Philip Larkin poem, The Importance of Elsewhere:

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

It’s mainly about the liberating feelings of being abroad – the brief caesura of upholding standards and conventions and the like. The Irish accent’s harsh “salt rebuff” reminded Larkin of the country’s non-negotiable differences with English culture. And yet, underlying separation is the implicit current of familiarity, mutual understanding. Much like those white celebrities watching the stoicism of the mother in a children’s hospital, a situation as alien as it is real.

Annus Mirabilis, by Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Whenever I moan about the tedious bureaucratic monstrosities that seem to have overwhelmed student radicalism, deep-down I feel a little self-indulgent and self-righteous. But this poem vindicates my beliefs a little: Larkin’s early life missed the sexual revolution, his forming years spent living the comparatively idle post-war existence. He reminds us of the cool irony that nostalgia can kindle in us; it’s not always about warming memories. I suppose that’s why it’s to be avoided (a la Midnight in Paris). We’re all guilty of it, we would-be radicals; although I’m slightly jealous for those who grabbed hold of the changing outlooks of the swinging sixties’, at the same time there are a pseudo-lefties in the SWP or the Respect Party who still think we’re living in the Cold War era.

The message, then, is: dream about the future, not the past.

The Voice of the Rain, by Walt Whitman

And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed, and
yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck’d or unreck’d, duly with love returns.)

I think this is a rather wonderful representation of Whitman’s, or indeed the ideal, humanism. To the chaos of conflict and the discord of psychology there is a kind of fellowship, the spirit of which does not need to be driven by divine forces; people can create and sustain one another like the earth upon which we live. I’d be tempted to say that the poem is powerful in a very literal sense too; the largest populations gather where the land can grow food, and so regions with decent rainfall, more than areas dry and arid. But as soon as the archetype of the African drinking toxic water out of thirst steps into view, that all falls apart.

Nevertheless, there’s a small amount of internationalism here: wrought from nature we’ve a duty to share in it equally. Relevant, I think, to my last post.

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.)