Image: Zagranyasha, via Unsplash.
Of democracy it can be said
its fatal flaw lies
in an inordinate faith
in the good sense of a demos
riven by rival interests and pursuits
and a not infrequent willingness
to take the confabulations of demagogues
who would lead their followers over a cliff
for the real thing.
As for autocracy
which would seem to provide an impenetrable shield
against the slightest flicker of disloyalty or dissent
its fatal flaw may lie
in the claim of its supreme leader
to an infallibility
that even Popes no longer assert
and to mistaking the flattery of sycophants
and the passivity of the masses it has subdued
for the real thing.
Statues are coming down, one by one,
our first Prime Minister, a tippler,
but worse far worse,
a perpetrator, it is claimed,
of cultural genocide against the first dwellers of this land,
and now Samuel de Champlain,
the founder of New France,
in the dog-house with the wokish set.
South of the border,
Confederate statues have been carted away,
and the names of Presidents
erased from prestigious institutes,
as history plays catch-up with a racist past.
In the U.K.,
statues of Rhodes
and imperialists of a similar feather
have bitten the dust,
and in the post-Soviet years
statues of Vladimir Ilyich
scattered right and left.
As the Ukraine war rages on,
Catherine, the one-time great,
is about to be dethroned from her pedestal
the former Paris of Europe’s East.
Statues, it would appear,
can prove just as mortal
as the figures
they were intended to revere.
The Greek word for truth,
carrying the additional meaning,
For the medieval world
that truth could only be God,
and manifold were the cathedrals,
monuments, works of art
to celebrate his glory.
For the Enlightenment
the truth was reason,
which would tear the veil
from all that had been hidden,
rendering humanity free at last.
For the Romantics it would be feeling,
tempering the excesses of reason
by emphasizing intuition
and emotional release.
For us moderns,
it has been technology
with the prowess science could unleash
crowning us sole masters of our fate.
In the century now upon us,
nature is the bearer of unpalatable truths,
heaping disaster upon disaster
as it unmasks the dangers to a species
that fancies itself the acme of creation.
You have been spared
Mauthausen’s 186 stairs,
Birkenau’s sinister smokestacks,
Terezin’s false veneer,
unlike the multitudes who perished there.
You have been spared the virus,
its light form with cough and passing fever,
its heavy form with victims gasping for air,
its long form with brain fog and organ failure.
You have been spared
the strafing and slaughter of war
spiralling out of control
with no enduring end in sight.
And you ask yourself the question, “Why?”
The World of Yesterday
Stefan Zweig wrote nostalgically
of a world he’d once known
with its comfort, immutability, security
blown away in the debris
of two successive wars.
We of the postwar generation
experienced prosperity, security,
an ever-expanding pie,
education as the magic key,
technology ensuring a cornucopia of things
for those lucky enough
to inhabit the affluent North.
But what if that too was a mirage,
a passing station along the way
to where polycrisis becomes the norm,
the precariat the lot of the many losers in the game,
and a malaise that dares not speak its name
the grim reality of the remaining century ahead?
Men on Horseback
From the safety of our northern homes
we watch askance as military strongmen
square off in a brutal battle for control
over yet another failing state.
“Tsk, tsk,” some might be tempted to exclaim,
as though the Roman republic
had not succumbed to rivalries just as grim,
Cromwell’s Roundheads not wrestled Cavaliers to the ground,
Napoleon with his whiff of grapeshot
not ended the havoc of the revolutionary years,
or Mao, adulated by a sea of future worshippers,
not solemnly proclaimed:
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Sudanese generals have learned that lesson all too well.
Islamic rule or military rule,
emperor rule or party rule,
gang rule or big man rule,
hardball or softball market-based regimes,
civil wars or interstate wars,
state surveillance or corporate surveillance,
the alternatives boil down to little more
as avenging furies gather in the wings.
Les lieux de Mémoire*
A peek into the inner workings
of the Left Bank set,
Foucault, transgressive, charismatic,
Braudel, imperious, dictatorial,
Lévi-Strauss, touchy, magisterial,
the Gallimards, the aristocracy of publishing.
The world where Pierre Nora gravitates,
a changing weltgeist
as history becomes a reinvented craft,
the loci memoriae of a France
in search of a different past.
Lots of gossip, shifting bed-mates,
dinner parties, country homes,
and heart-ache too,
AIDS and strokes
that take their toll.
And through it all
the multi-volume testaments,
grand edifices to higher learning,
breakthroughs in the social sciences,
deadly seriousness with which adversaries
fight things out.
All this comes flooding back to me
as I recall those student years,
the electric charge that each new text,
each article in the serious press and journals,
seemed to represent,
when the world seemed to have an edge
and Paris was the stage.
*Pierre Nora, Une étrange obstination
Your childhood neighbourhood
in the Mile End
transformed into a shtetl,
black robes in beards,
side locks, and fedoras,
young women with wigs,
prams, multiple offspring,
an 18th century village cocoon
in a secular world brazenly rejected.
An urban landscape,
every second street blocked off,
voie barrée, trottoir barré,
as though the sewers,
water pipes, underlying infrastructure
were eternal supplicants for redemption.
Your friends and relatives have aged,
in the warm spring air
tulips and magnolia are in bloom,
the parks and lawns as verdant as before,
despite the retro feel the scene inspires
in a native son briefly passing through.
You visit cafés and libraries
like a pilgrim with his staff,
the cobblestoned streets of Vieux-Montréal,
the river sweeping outwards to the sea,
and memories come flooding back
of dreams and projects you pursued
in your halcyon days.
Still there’s the language mix,
so pleasing to your ear,
French intonations you all-too-seldom hear
out west where a different mindset looms,
the brassage of bilingual cities
where rival tongues intersect
and alloys are wrought
from cultures of the past.