I was a pacifist when I was young, then in my late teens and early twenties I dabbled with the notion of revolution, having first read socialist, then revolutionary communist tracts and writings. I imagined most young people sought out such works, eager to see justice brought into the world. Yeats himself followed a similar trajectory, being first the dreaming poet, who then grew into a believer in, if not revolution, certainly revolt and rebellion, and ultimately the overthrow of the English in Ireland.
Recently I had the rare opportunity of seeing the inner workings of the political elite in this country. I spent an afternoon with one of the people that couch and advise the upper apparatchiks of the Tory party (names dropped included Ruth Davidson leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Sajid Javid Secretary of State for Business and Trade). Having listened to him explain a little of his PR work for the government, I then asked him what the naval photos on the wall of his office where all about. He proudly explained that he’d sort of been ‘given’ a battleship, (I think it was a P45 Destroyer) or least the honorary role of representing the ship at certain military functions and events. This was reward for work done for the MOD and is just the kind of sinecure (though unpaid I think in this case) that elites like to give one another. For a simple boy with a working class background and ‘Comp’ education, who knows this is how things work, it was still an eye-opener. But what really struck me was how this gentlemen’s son came in at one point to show off a naval calendar. This boy of seven was full of pride at having learnt the names and details of the various weaponry and instruments of death that his father was involved with. This young boy will soon be off to boarding school in Oxfordshire and I was of course struck by the notion that he is quite unlikely to grown into his teens reading Trotsky or feeling the need to go on demonstrations.
Nonetheless, whilst this boy was not being brought up in anything like my social background, I still found, or could see, his youthful sweetness mixed in with his exuberance and the usual childish extremes of love and aggression. All this reminded me of thoughts I’d had earlier that day, that we are born pacifists but through socialisation learnt to be war-like. I don’t deny there is an innate aggression within us and naturally we have moments or days when we are argumentative and ornery. The Native American would fight his neighbour when necessary but mostly aggression was expressed and released by traditional rites of passage which actually weren’t primarily about war. It was the more technologically developed ‘civilised’ European invader that introduced the gun to the Americas and went on to commit genocide. Indeed how could one fight war (war of great, devastating consequence at least) without civilisation?
This is not to condemn civil society, it brings great positives along with its nuclear weapons. My point is that to talk of ‘nature’ with relation to war has always seemed to me the opposite of the truth. The young are inclined to seek out excitement (and risk to life and limb can be part of that) but whether one joins the Navy to engage in warfare or climbs mountains instead, is surely about the values one is taught and the goals one sets oneself. Does one release more aggression on a rugby field, than on the fields of Flanders? Which is the more humane, sane, imaginative, enjoyable, useful?
Yeats gradually moved from his youthful, pacific, dreams of peace, to the angers and aggressions of civil strife. Which I wonder brought him more happiness, peace and contentment? Its true, anger is a response to injustice, and the dream of peace can only exist if one is surrounded by a just society or one seeks out a quiet corner away from it all. One’s heart and mind and passions swing between the two. How can it be otherwise? Those who fight hardest for social justice are often those who have been damaged most by the unjust; those most willing to guide and direct others to war are usually an elite who have been taught for a long time that somehow it is impossible not to do so, it is inevitable, natural and necessary.
War is a betrayal of humanity, it utilises our natural aggression but civilises and socialises and transmutes this emotional and physical state into the cold anger of killing and the disinterestedness in empathy and compassion required in battle. The speed and rapidity of killing today takes our breath away, it doesn’t allow for the rendering of justice, it destroys too quickly for that. It contains no consideration, it is the final judgement, a judgement that allows no argument, no debate. I have lived my life on the isle of dreams mostly, dipped my toe into the troubled waters of human society and politics only infrequently, but I still believe in judgement and justice, as long as it’s entwined with the notion that there is a great need in this world not to harm or hurt others. ‘Others’ are after all essentially and certainly genetically much like oneself. I will engage in both realms (politics and poetry) but live, I hope, mostly on my isle of dreams, because as Yeats wrote, ‘I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,/Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the crickets sings.’
We are naturally aggressive and naturally full of love but love is the deeper, more complex element within us and ultimately moves society to greater, gentler and more sublime heights.