Friday, 18 March 2011

Beyond realpolitik

Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849)

How complicated nation-states are. I was in Cambridge yesterday, talking to my fine translator Gabriele yesterday, having taken delivery of some copies of my Italian selected poems in his translation, and we got to talking about the divisions of Italy - the Northern League and the South - and he remarked how most Italians regard themselves as of their particular region rather than as Italians. And when you look at Britain too, or rather just England, you can see the north-south divide and also be aware of the West Country, as to some extent of the East of England too.

The Kingdom of Libya was founded as late as 1951 and it was only in 1969 that Gaddafi ousted King Idris. Gaddafi's history is terrible, though as my correspondent to the last post says, the citizens of Libya have, thanks to oil, been relatively affluent. Nevertheless it has been an absolute fiefdom, merciless in hunting down whoever it saw as its enemies inside and out.

Down with the Tyrant! is one of the essential revolutionary cries. Down with Tyrants! (plural) was the cry of 1848. The Hungarian Sándor Petőfi's Föltámadt a tenger (The Whole Sea Has Revolted or The Sea has Risen) articulates the revolutionary cry:

Föltámadt a tenger
The whole sea has revolted

The whole sea has revolted,
The nation in full spate
Has earth and heaven assaulted
And over sea-walls vaulted
With terror in its wake.

See how she treads her measure?
You hear her, as she peals?
If you’ve not had the pleasure
Then watch her sons at leisure
Kicking up their heels.

At nineteen to the dozen.
Great vessels roll about,
And fall where she has risen
To hell with mainmast, mizzen,
And sails turned inside out.

Pound on, exhaust your passion
Batter at passion’s drum,
Expose your depths, the riven
Furies. and fling to heaven
The filthy tidal scum.

Eternal heaven bear witness
Before all heaven’s fools:
Though ships bob on the surface
And oceans run beneath us
It is the water rules.

(My translation)

'The water rules' is rarely the case, but there is something deeply tidal about human affairs. I am immediately tempted to think of the great tsunami that swept away towns and over 10,000 people in Japan a few days ago. The Romantic notion of the terrible Sublime as an ennobling force extorts a very high price. We want to avoid the Sublime when we can. And then it happens. As my correspondent suggests, people are swept up by the emotion of the moment, and that doesn't necessarily work out well.

The cause of the nation state is not the one that thrills me. My sense of the ambiguities and hypocrisies of realpolitik is a hunch about the human world and how it actually works. I don't expect nations to be embodiments of virtue. On the other hand there remains considerable force in the idea of liberty. Back to Petőfi, another poem, titled Egy gondolat (One Thought). The following lines from it:

O let me be a tree by lightning blasted,
Twisted by hurricanes, by wild winds wasted;
Or let me be a cliff the loud storms batter
And hurl into the vale below to shatter...–
Once  every nation now in chains,
Grown weary of its yoke, regains
Its self-respect, cheeks flushed and banners red,
One undefiled word fluttering overhead,
That word LIBERTY
Chanted incessantly,
Chanted across the globe from east to west,
There, where the tyrant, dares to raise his crest,
There, where guns resound,
Let my corpse be found

His corpse was never actually found, but he is assumed to have died in battle defending the liberty of his people, by which people he meant, in one sense, his putative nation-state, but in another, something larger and more general as the above excerpt makes clear.

Ideals, ideals... The no-fly zone and control of air-space are not there to put down the tyrant, though the tyrant clearly is a tyrant. It is what global realpolitik can manage. It is intended to prevent a massacre. It might do that. That is why I am for it. But if the tyrant should fall as a result of it I will feel the sense of release that human beings do generally feel at such times, and are right to feel, however long liberty lasts, before it is absorbed back into the world of tensions, checks and balances we normally live in.

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