Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
The vernal equinox, when day and night are of equal duration, rolls round – a moment of balance. Yet spring this year arrives with an acute sense of disequilibrium; things seem out of whack. It’s a time of fraying nerves and reckless energy abroad. Perhaps the fog of war, seeping out of the east, has charged the air.
I register the signs of the season: changes of light (the softening of winter’s icy palette) and of color (the first flush of the red-tipped buds), but the consolations of spring falter. Rather, it’s the radical disparities of the world that strike me – while the first flocks of robins are alighting on the lawns of Divine Corners, images of unremitting bleakness and cruelty stream out of Ukraine. The mind tries to grasp how it is that these things are happening in the same world, at the same time.
When World War I broke out, Thomas Hardy wrote a poem, “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’,” that locates solace in the ongoingness of daily life – a man harrows his field; a couple go a-courting: the eternal verities. The war is only alluded to; the date, 1915, is all the context needed. But the consolations of 1915 are not the consolations of 2022. We no longer have the privilege of seeing nature as a sanctuary, a realm apart. There is no more “apart.” And the future, into which Hardy’s lad and lass are walking, is no longer so serenely assured.
More credible consolation, to my mind, comes from the words of Simone Weil, written during the first year of World War II. She doesn’t mention the war, nor does she mention Hitler. Her essay is titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (Google it. It’s available for free on the Internet. No summary does the piece justice.) Weil casts her keen eye on the play of force on the battlefield, how unpredictably it moves from one side to the other – “a continual game of seesaw” – first the Greeks, then the Trojans, then the Greeks again, each side temporarily the possessor of force it wields triumphantly over the other, only to have it turn against them in the next phase of battle.
The force she is talking about is not the force of the physicists; it is something lodged totally within the human sphere, within the human tendency to reduce other humans to the status of objects and to treat them accordingly. “It turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” In the extreme theater of war, that reduction is literal – war makes corpses. In the more decorous theater of social relations, force produces all the varieties of abjection humans are subject to, whether by means of fear, shame, coercion, or, in the extreme instance, enslavement.
From her reading of “The Iliad,” Weil concludes: “Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate come to count on it too much and are destroyed.” The date, 1940, is all the context needed. It could as well be 2022. Her description of the warrior intoxicated by force is as apt for the invasion of Ukraine as it was for the fall of France: “The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection. Where there is no room for reflection, there is none either for justice or prudence.”
In that “tiny interval” resides Weil’s faintly etched and unmistakable hope. “The Iliad” would present “a monotonous desolation… were it not for those few luminous moments… those brief, celestial moments in which man possesses his soul” and escapes the dominion of force, when “friendship floods the hearts of mortal enemies.” This luminosity is glimpsed in the friendship of comrades-at-arms, in the poem’s depiction of conjugal and brotherly love. Such moments interpose between reckless impulse and impulsive act, and allow prudence, justice, and love to “bathe the poem in their light.” They put a stop to the seesaw momentum of force and create an equilibrium, a moment of balance. Just as Weil sees in the battle for Troy a paradigm of wars to come, so in “The Iliad’s” luminous moments she sees the potential for a type of transcendence over the sway of force in human affairs.
In that state of balance, it’s possible to pause, catch one’s breath, and attend to spring. The first flock of robins arrived a week before the equinox. My neighbor spotted, among them, a lone albino robin, a rare enough sighting – not exactly a white dove with an olive branch, but a harbinger of peace, we hope, all the same.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com.]