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How to live in an uncertain universe

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How easily the ripe grain 

Leaves the husk 

At the simple turning of the planet

There is no season 

That requires us 

–         W S Merwin, The Widow

MATTHEW Zapruder concludes his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of W S Merwin’s visceral response to the horrors of the Vietnam War, The Lice, as follows: ‘The poems in The Lice remain a sad clarion and ghostly rebuke in a time of destruction, global environmental threat, hatred, disruption and war. They are an assertion of the particular thinking only possible in poetry, and of its necessity.’ I think Merwin’s rebuke can also be read as a repudiation of the war that is being waged on what it means to be human. This is a war on meaning, on individuality, on purpose, beauty and the essential concept of freedom. The Lice becomes more relevant as each year passes. 

At time of writing the US is just pulling out of the $2.4trillion boondoggle in Afghanistan. 

The poems in The Lice feel equally applicable to Afghanistan, Iraq or any of the myriad misguided interventions of the last 55 years:

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly 

The dead will think the living are worth it and we will know

Who we are

And we will enlist again

Merwin’s withering sarcasm in When the War is Over exposes not just the futility of intervention but our inability to learn from our mistakes. There is beauty in these poems and poetry does need to be spoken. If we say this line aloud ‘And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly’ and take a moment to contemplate, we find it also bears repeating. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Something that exists with or without us. In The Widow he confirms ‘Everything that does not need you is real’. In many ways The Lice is a tutorial in humility and a warning as to the terminal cost of hubris.

The very same group of people who lied and cheated us into the war in Afghanistan have discovered it is even more profitable to wage war on your own people (h/t to Michael Kreiger for inspiring that observation). The latest confidence trick will provide a multigenerational annuity to the billionaire class. I’m referring to the so-called vaccination program. The ultimate pinnacle, the cardinal sin, of hubristic intervention. The overwhelming arrogance required repeatedly to intervene on a genus-wide basis in a complex system which ensures the very survival of our species and that has evolved over millions of years comes only with unimaginable wealth. 

Merwin, in the quotation at the start of this piece, is asserting that nature can get on very well without us. One way to read Merwin is that he is the most non-interventionist of poets whether that be in pointless conflicts, ecologies or perhaps evolved immune systems. 

Borges thought that ‘poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it’. It might be easier to consider the effect of poetry and how we might use that to help us live in this uncertain world. 

Chad Harbach finds the zen in his novel The Art of Fielding with this quote: ‘There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.’ I like to think of poetry as a bridge between stages two and three. This is significant if one considers the problem we face in today’s society is that we are firmly stuck at stage two.

Iain McGilchrist considers how the way in which we attend to the world is changing in what I believe to be the most significant book of my generation (I’m 53), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

I’d like to précis a rather long quote from Jonathon Rowson here as it is the best summary of Iain’s ideas I have heard. It is the first question from his seminal interview with Iain for the RSA in Jan 2013: 

‘You seem to be saying that the left hemisphere of the brain is gradually colonising our experience. While the brain hemispheres are connected by the corpus callosum, and both are involved in everything we do, if we cease to ask what the hemispheres do eg language, reasoning, creativity, forecasting, and instead ask how they do it, we find very significant differences in the two hemispheres. For instance the left hemisphere tends to decontextualise issues while the right contextualises, the left tends to abstract while the right makes vivid and concrete, the left seeks instrumental feedback while the right prefers affectively nuanced responses, and the right hemisphere appears to be much more receptive to evidence that challenges its own position. Both of these “hows” are important and necessary, and the evidence for these differences is meticulously unpacked in your book in a cautious but extensive inductive argument . . . You are clear that there is insufficient evolutionary time in Western cultural history for left or right hemisphere dominance to manifest at the structural level of the brain . . . The point is that the left hemisphere’s “way of being” is more culturally contagious than the “way of being” of the right hemisphere. The suggestion is that, slowly but surely, the left hemisphere’s perspective shapes our culture in such a way that the culture begins to respond to it as the dominant one. Your thesis matters because there is a very real danger that we may reach what you call “a hall of mirrors” in which the explicit, instrumental, defined, confident, abstract voice . . . becomes the only one we appreciate, while the relatively implicit, intrinsic, fluid, visceral perspective of the right hemisphere begins to sound diminished and irrelevant.’

Attempting to summarise the ideas in The Master and his Emissary is another way to invoke humility and certainly a challenge to this enthusiastic amateur’s capabilities. However I would like to pick up on what Iain says about the left hemisphere and hubris:

‘The left hemisphere’s problems are those of hubris: believing itself to be the Master, believing that it understands and can control everything, whereas in fact it is ignorant of what the right hemisphere knows. Thus the problem of the Enlightenment was its faith that, as long as we continue to think purely rationally, and prioritise utility, we can understand, and thereby come to control, everything.’

Humans evolved instinct and humility to survive in an uncertain world. If Iain is right, and I believe the evidence is mounting that he is, these qualities have been usurped in many people by a hubristic force hell bent in the pursuit of the delusion of control. I tend to push this book like a demented wedding guest; however if you buy it only to read the section entitled What Would the Left Hemisphere’s World Look Like I suspect you will not be disappointed.

I don’t want to leave the work of Iain McGilchrist without finishing this section on a positive note. Iain is an incredibly positive character. One of the joys of being allowed to write for TCW Defending Freedom is the breadth of new friends that opens up. Now these are difficult times and many people are finding it hard to find the positive. I have maintained in many of these exchanges, to some scepticism, that ‘the universe bends towards the light’. I think Iain crystallises that sentiment with this quote from his new book, The Matter with Things, to be published in November: ‘To me, a universe with tendencies towards beauty, complexity, and the rich unfolding of uniqueness is already teleological. It is a verb with many adverbs, not just a matter of nouns chasing nouns.’

(I think Iain is saying we are going to win.)

Life is indeterminate. Every day we awake to a world of infinite possibility. This should be cause for celebration, not a basis for fear. This is the luminosity of creation, if it were less, if it were able to be determined it would become dull and lifeless. 

Children are taught to be afraid of uncertainty; we need to encourage them to embrace it.

Humility in the face of an uncertain universe is not based in fear, it is brave, clear-eyed and open-hearted. Hubris is the resort of the fearful. Unable to accept what they cannot see, they seek ever greater control. Fear drives a desire to control outcomes. I believe the hubristic need to be defeated. I believe the universe will turn towards those that embrace the unpredictable, unimaginable realm of possibility. It will not reward those who fearfully attempt control the uncontrollable and to impose their will on the rest of humanity. Optimistically one might wait for the inevitable collapse of that designed from the top down. The problem of course is this may take a generation or two.

Returning to Chad Harbach and the idea that we are stuck at stage two: thought. Stage two (or the left hemisphere as Iain maintains) is where an ‘artificial’ intelligence has taken hold. It breeds models and forecasting, it is reductionism, it loves numbers, it categorises and atomises. It promotes something called ‘The Science’ which seems politically defined rather than the ever-changing evolution of true scientific thought. It values nature in money and it plans to separate us from our very souls via something it calls transhumanism. Opposed to a reintegration with nature, it reifies rather than reverberates, everything is mediated rather than experienced, re-presented, shorn of context. Merwin captures this magically as The Widow continues:

You confide 

In images in things that can be 

Represented which is their dimension you 

Require them you say This 

Is real and you do not fall down and moan

Merwin also predicts our screen-habituated culture:

Masters of forgetting 

Threading the eyeless rocks with 

A narrow light

In which ciphers wake and evil 

Gets itself the face of the norm 

And contrives cities

We are now ‘masters of forgetting’, the relentless news cycle delivered through screen-based media destroys our memories. Who was Matt Hancock? I forget. ‘Threading the eyeless rocks with narrow light’ describes the limitations on thinking mediated by the narrow light of your phone. Prescience indeed. I’ll leave you to consider whether ‘evil gets itself the face of the norm’.

Merwin’s best-known poem, written when he was in his mid-30s, is For the Anniversary of My Death. 

At first reading it appears almost incongruous in this volume. I often wondered if the conceit of the first two lines was just too good to leave out or whether, with the desolation of the rest of this poetry, he considered whether he would continue to write at all and just couldn’t leave it in the notebook. I now realise the last line is a paean to humility: 

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day 

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveller

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what

This final line is another that bears repetition ‘And bowing not knowing to what’. The truth is we don’t need to know what it is that we bow to if we recognise there’s so much that is bigger than ourselves. So much beyond our understanding. This is a lesson we can all absorb in how we live our lives, to pay respect to the great sea of uncertainty that unfolds in front of us. Utterly resistant to models or numbers. I finally got around to finishing Moby Dick and realise I’m echoing Melville’s last line, ‘the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. It is worth pausing to consider Melville’s novel. It is a novel written against fanaticism. In favour of democracy. A novel that was published to mixed reviews and made him no money. A novel championed by the working class, the self-taught, the instinctual. The greatest American novel emerged unvalidated by experts.

Returning to William Merwin. The Widow is of course nature/the earth/Gaia; Merwin is saying that by attacking nature we are destroying ourselves. It is our hubris that suggests we can do otherwise. The universe remains indifferent. It will not grieve at our passing, moreover it is us who will cry ‘The Widow does not/ Hear you and your cry is numberless’. The most profound lines for me are in the middle stanzas

You grieve 

Not that heaven does not exist but 

That it exists without us

Heaven is half a step away. A look up at the evening sky. It is just an adjustment in the way we attend to the world. An engagement of the right hemisphere. A heaven that exists with or without us. A choice.

I hope the scientists among you don’t read this piece as anti-science. It is the primacy of ‘The Science’ that needs to be resisted. Of course science can add to the wonder of the universe. Astrophysics tells us when we look up at the stars we are looking back millions or billions of light years toward the start of time. This means that only 56 light years away a cultured alien with a powerful enough telescope may just have observed W S Merwin write ‘like the beam of a lightless star’. Keep travelling away from the earth and the whole of history is laid out. It makes you wonder what imprint you want to leave on this universe. From a great enough distance this is all still happening.

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Michael Driver
Michael Driver is CEO of boutique investment bank Convex Capital. He is based in Manchester.

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