Brussels is the latest western city to feel the agony of loss following Paris, London, Madrid and New York. Refugees from failing states flee intractable civil wars in huge numbers, leaving behind many more in terrible suffering. The world’s leaders appear divided and bewildered in the face of multiplying problems: economic, political, ideological, sociological, environmental, ecological. The words of WB Yeats, written almost a century ago, have an uncomfortable resonance today:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I thought I knew this poem but one phrase has just struck me for the first time.
‘The ceremony of innocence.’ Could something like this, I wonder, be a way of rescuing our beautiful but fragile world from the twin and perhaps conjoined threats of life-killing consumerism and death-wish fundamentalism?
To answer this question, I’ll take a short digression.
I’ve been reading the travel writings of the Japanese Zen poet Matsuo Basho. Over 300 years ago he set out on a series of journeys designed to strip away the trappings of the material world and bring spiritual enlightenment. Old and unwell, he travels in all weathers, visiting shrines to historical figures and beauty spots mentioned in old poems. The sense of an ancient culture still surviving in Basho’s day is astonishing. Of one Samurai warrior, already 500 years dead, he writes:
His life is certain evidence that, if one performs one’s duty and maintains one’s loyalty, fame comes naturally in the wake, for there is hardly anyone now who does not honour him as the flower of chivalry.
Speaking as a would-be pacifist, I understand that this refers to an ancient code of conduct far broader than crude militarism. People 1000 years gone are described as vividly as if they still lived. Everywhere he goes, Basho sits down to write chains of haikus with local people, each person contributing a poem in response to the previous one:
I was told at Oishida on the River Mogami that the old seed of linked verse once strewn here by the wind had taken root, still bearing its own flowers each year and thus softening the minds of the rough villagers like the clear note of a reedpipe.
This reminds me about the Songlines of the indigenous Australians, those epic linked verses describing natural landmarks that guided young men on Walkabout all over the continent. Children had mentors in neighbouring tribes, a powerful force for peace. Like the indigenous American tribes, the first Australians had a sense of their wider nation as one people. All three peoples worshipped their ancestors and revered nature, which I take as proof that evolutionary awareness is instinctive.
Basho’s travelling companion Sora writes with almost Darwinian curiosity about ‘a pair of faithful osprey nesting on a rock’ at Kisagata lagoon:
What divine instinct Has taught these birds No waves swell so high As to swamp their home?
They visit the lagoon to see an aged cherry tree which featured in the following haiku written by Saigyo, an ex-Samurai turned itinerant poet, 500 years before they get there:
Buried in the waves So that it seems Fishermen's boats are sailing Over the waves of blossoms - A cherry tree at Kisagata.
Basho idolised Saigyo and modelled himself on him. He was particularly impressed with this poem:
My sincere hope is To leave the world in Spring Under the blooming cherry - In February, if possible, On the eve of the full moon.
Saigyo died on 16 February 1190. Somehow I am reminded of the indigenous American idea of choosing the place where you will go to perform a last dance at the moment of your death. To live life to the full, we should embrace death as teacher and friend – in other words, an equal. We are life and we dance with death. Accept that with good grace and the dance will be elegant, joyous, serene.
Perhaps this might allow us to find a fresh way of looking at the world, happy just to be here. This is hard to envisage but I’m encouraged by Nietzsche’s curious statement, ‘Everything is permitted because nothing is true.’ After all, kids play Pretend quite naturally.
Some people say that the hippy vision embodied in the following Steve Miller song was just a game of Pretend but I am inspired by the accompanying pictures which our ancestors, bless them, would find astonishing and like something out of a dream. We should renew our capacity for everyday wonder. What else could have drawn us outdoors when we were young or Basho when he was old? And as we reflect on Brussels and consider the bumpy road ahead, it’s worth remembering that others have travelled this way before. In the words of the song:
think love you’re surrounded
we are one you and I