’There’s no fighting with whole truths in this life, and all we can do is to seize fragments of truth where we can find them, and use them as best we can’
(Non Combatants and Others)
The quote comes from a short 1916 novel by Rose Macaulay. Through the lives of a small handful of characters it looks at the pervasive impact of World War One on those far from the front line. The Western Front is, in a sense, a character in its own right. It is present, in either a hidden or open way, in every thought, word, feeling and human interaction which occurs throughout the story. Although universal its impact is widely varied as it encounters the intelligent and the foolish, the educated and the ignorant, the sensitive and the exuberant, the idealists and the cynics.
Reading it in the shadow of a wave of Islamist terrorist attacks in my country, the United Kingdom, I was struck by the extent to which, by comparison with the Great War, we are profoundly unaffected by the current crisis. The anxieties and worries we have are but a shadow of those our grandparents and great grandparents would have faced in the years between 1914 and 1945. The only real point of comparison, I think, is the shock many felt and continue to feel in realising that much which they hold to be part of the ‘normal’, ‘natural’, settled part of human affairs can be deeply despised and some can seek to wholly replace them by another order of things altogether.
Such an assault on everything that is felt to be irreplaceable by something which promises to replace it sets up existential anxiety. The world Westerners inhabit is recognised to be neither as stable nor as inevitable as previously felt. This is why those who deride, say, Middle America, for its exaggerated fear of terrorism by pointing to much higher levels of fatality from other sources, notably privately owned firearms, are missing the point. It is not so much personal death that people are neurotic about; it is the death of the world they have known and which they wish to pass on to their children. People who were previously unaware of it now know that there is an abyss into which it is at least remotely possible whole societies will be pushed. Its not about numbers its about existence itself and in this it begins to resemble the psychological disturbance affecting the Home Front in the year 1916.
The quote itself is spoken by one of the more idealistic characters who is campaigning to lay foundations which will make future world wars impossible. There are, I think, two ways which we could interpret it. One, intended by the speaker herself, is that a person may possess a vision of the truth but that ‘in the real world’ such visions have no traction. Therefore wherever one can find popular assent to this or that fragment of the vision then this should be taken as a starting point to slowly build to the ideal end.
In some ways it is an optimistic recasting of Plato’s Great Beast allegory. The Platonic version sees society as the Great Beast and those who control it call the things which please it Good and those which make it angry they call Evil. Any resemblance to actual Good is purely coincidental. For Mrs Sandomir (the character who speaks the line) the existence of such fragments of real good mixed among its fraudulent companions represents a starting point from which the rest can, ultimately, come together and a New Jerusalem can be constructed.
The alternative approach begins from what might be called the true English Vice– pragmatism. Many of the educated and governing classes in England (not so much in other parts of the UK) contemptuously reject theory and insist of being practical. In this sense visions of the truth are considered to be a private matter between consenting adults which should be kept far from the realm of politics and economics. Each individual politician may grasp a fragment of such a vision as an end in itself and seek to bring it to fruition and since they have no grand universal project to bring about they can compromise on everything else and, sooner rather than later, bring about the end which they most desire to see.
As an approach pragmatism begs all sorts of questions. Essentially it is based on a vision of the truth and of good and evil. It is simply an inherited vision which people do not recognise as such. Only those who have failed to recognise the abyss for what it is, an alternative vision, can hold that they are being simply practical. Actually trying to uphold the status quo, making it a bit ‘better’ here or there, is a highly visionary enterprise. Freedom, democracy, tolerance, cooperation, the strong defending the weak, equality of respect to humans simply because they are humans are not the natural building blocks of any human society anywhere in the world at any point in history. These are values and beliefs that were consciously adopted, propagated and, indeed, enforced against opposition, at such a distant time in Western history that many have ceased to be aware that they were ever a matter for contention at all. But they were, and Islamism reminds us that they can be again.
So far as practical politics are concerned Mrs Sandomir was right, fragments of the truth are the best weapons that, practically speaking, are available. But for those of us not involved in politics the vision of human dignity and justice we have inherited from Christian Europe is more than a private matter to be meditated on at philosophy seminars or adored in chapels. The whole truth must become the property of the whole of civic society and it is not fragments we should be insisting on, it is the New Jerusalem in all its glory.
Non Combatants and Others is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg
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