A verbose political literary editorial. Be forewarned and forearmed with caffeine and an aspirin or two . . .
Time travel stories aside, paradox is counterintuitivity. It is two things that can’t mutually be true, but appear to be, based on our presumptions or our mind’s inability to understand or describe the world around us, or realize the difference between generalization and specificity.
Life is like that. We see things one way, and can’t imagine another viewpoint, until something changes in us - an experience, a relationship, the passage of time – and what could not be true or important or desired suddenly is true, is important, is what you desire. “That can never happen to me” becomes “it already has”. Youth cannot conceive of its own mortality until it has tasted fear and pain and loss in a very personal way. Throughout the ages, governments have taken advantage of the simple fact that youth cannot even imagine its own ignorance, let alone its mortality. This is what makes War possible in the first place – the perception of invincibility, when in fact we are very fragile creatures. A paradox.
Tragedy, by its nature is paradoxical. It is about transformation between opposing situations – life and death, fame and infamy, happiness and grief, having the luck of the Irish and being on the receiving end of a gypsy curse. Sometimes what befalls us is a creature of our own making - and sometimes it is ‘fate’ – in the Greek sense – your thread has reached its end. And, as Mark Twain might have said, sometimes it is just the pure cussed randomness of life.
In literature, tragedies are stories in which the great are humbled – because of their prideful arrogance (hubris) or ignorance, or simply because the Fates decided that it would be so – choose your preferred side of the nature/nurture argument. (By the way, literature dislikes the concept of randomness, despite empirical evidence of the Gaussian nature of life).
Tragedy in modern times has a far more journalistic tinge. Every newscaster thinks they’re Aeschylus. We have a more generalized view of our heroes (small ‘h’) and tragedy has a broader use in the language. Things are tragic because of their suddenness, their irony, or their impact. We collectively mourn the loss of a potential hero - a parent, a spouse, a leader, or simply someone who loved and was loved and depended upon by others. Tragedy makes you look, makes you listen. It’s the hook that will make you stick around and watch the evening news to see the who /what /where /when /why that make the How tragic.
This idea of lost potential, of a life unfinished is one that is emotionally gripping for many people. We abhor an unfinished story, a task left undone – a hope unfulfilled – a wrong un-righted. This emotion is, in fact, a dangerous vulnerability, and throughout history it has been used - with considerable effectiveness - by people in positions of influence as leverage to achieve some very self-serving goals. It is a string (a thread?) to be pulled, a tool to be used, to manipulate people.
Before you begin to write me off as a conspiracy theorist, consider what I refer to as the Poppy Paradox, after a very well-known piece by Canadian army officer, doctor, and War Poet, John McCrae, who wrote this memorial upon the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer in May, 1915, during the early part of the Great War:
In Flanders Fields
IN FLANDERS fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae wrote this as a personal piece – he did not originally mean for it to be published, yet it became an anthem for those remembering the thousands of soldiers who died in the trench warfare of World War I. Like many military memorials, it was also an effective propaganda and recruiting piece. McCrae says, in the last stanza, that the torch has been passed to you and that you must take up the fight, because if you don’t, you “break faith” with the dead – and they will haunt you (“We shall not sleep”). He also uses the image of poppy flowers (usually a vibrant blood-red) amongst the white crosses – blood on the cross – as a Biblical allusion - to reinforce the sacrifices of the dead and add another layer of meaning to “breaking faith”.
So what is the Poppy Paradox? Simply that the dead are not speaking – they can’t – they’re dead. It’s only a poetic device. People are always putting words into their mouths as a way to manipulate the living. . McCrae’s writing was probably cathartic – a way for him to give his friend’s death some meaning. Historically, however, many who use this technique (the invocation of what the dead would say if they were able to speak) do it to suit their own ends – whether those ends are to get elected, to sell more newspapers, to extract revenge, or simply gain more wealth and power.
If the dead could talk, they would probably be saying that they didn’t expect to end up dead at age 18 or 19; they thought they were immortal until reality came crashing down upon them in the form of a bullet, a bomb, a cloud of poison gas, or an unseen microbe. If they knew before death what they ‘know‘ post-mortem, they wouldn’t be encouraging others to join them in fertilizing the (blood-red) Flanders poppies. McCrae actually threw away the paper this poem was written on – perhaps he realized that he had written something both powerful and dangerous – it was retrieved by a fellow soldier.
McCrae’s poem was published in Punch in 1915. He lived to see about three more years of the war before dying of pneumonia, perhaps one more victim of the flu pandemic that swept through Europe and elsewhere. He was buried in Wimereux, France, not far from Flanders, where he, too, became food for poppies.
If you have a particularly strong stomach, you might consider reading a piece by Wilfred Owen, another War poet from World War I. His Poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/owen/owen.html#sweetoems/books/owen/owen.html#sweet , gives a far more graphic and harrowing view of the war and its dead, and a much different opinion on the message their death should give.
So the lesson here is to honor the dead (soldiers and non-combatants), but don’t let anyone get away with claiming that ‘the dead’ want you to take care of some unfinished business on their behalf – that you dishonor their memory by not becoming another casualty yourself. The dead can not talk anymore than they can vote (thanks to Thurgood Marshall for that one). Remember too that art can be a powerful form of expression, and that any art form (poetry, music, sculpture) can be designed (or co-opted) to influence you. So, to paraphrase a recent anti-drug campaign, endeavor to “live above the influence.”
I have had this editorial post in the works for a while, so it is just coincidental that our American president was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday morning – and like Mikhail Gorbachev – received it more for what he is expected to do than what he has already done. We’ll have to see if he, too, can find a way to “live above the influence”, and to live up to the high standard of accomplishment set by some of the past recipients.