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This is our unstable world.


This is the unstable world and
we in it unstable and our houses.

—“Chomei at Toyama” by Basil Bunting

Every now and then there is a big natural calamity — earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, volcanic eruption, flood, famine – that devastates some part of the globe, killing thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. Or, less frequently but more lethally, a pandemic wipes chunks of humanity off the globe. The Black Death is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 wiped out between 10,000 and 100,000 people. This year is the centenary of the great flu pandemic, which killed over 50 million people just after the end of the Great War.

The war itself was an example of another, more common catastrophe, that which was entirely man-made. We get quite a few of those, and even when they start to become predictable, nobody does much to stop them, as the Second World War showed. The twentieth century was a showcase of man-made catastrophes.

Sometimes I get the feeling that there are other, deeper, more subterranean forces at work, that cannot be ascribed purely to changes wrought by technology…

Sometimes I get the feeling that there are other, deeper, more subterranean forces at work, that cannot be ascribed purely to changes wrought by technology, politics or religion. The latter may just be the excrescences of those deeper forces. Without going all Spenglerian it seems obvious there is an arc to all empires and civilisations, of birth, development, achievement and then decay. The decline and fall of Rome stands as the exemplar of the idea.

In contrast, the progress of the Soviet empire posits a strange inversion of the paradigm in that it never achieved a period of supreme civilisational flowering but instead went downhill into degradation from the start before eventually falling flat on its face within a couple of years. If we followed the Harry Lime school of thinking, all that conflict and bloodshed should have produced a Renaissance. It didn’t. The only new thing it produced was the Kalashnikov, a weapon favoured by terrorists. The arc of origin to decay remained the same, nevertheless: it began, it powered ahead, it crashed.

If you want to a clue as to this shift in society all you have to do is observe how the establishment in general has embarked on a programme of the complete destruction of anything regarded as traditional, from the family to the nation state and everything between. It is a commonplace to say that Rome decayed from the inside rather than being defeated from the outside. That could be the case with many western societies at the moment given how those in charge clearly despise their own cultures and peoples. If there is there some deep-rooted death wish in successful societies, especially open, liberal democracies like our own that drives them to lacerate themselves or to follow a route into the centrally-planned wastelands of socialism it is still incumbent on those with a voice to speak against it.

On the other hand, this could all be so much post-Romantic wallowing in millennarialist doom-mongering (there must be a German word for this). Intellectuals and writers started talking about the decadence of British society before the nineteenth century had even seen itself out. A hundred years later we’re still working at it. We may still be at it in another hundred, but as I won’t be around I’ll try not to worry about it. And once I’ve picked up some wisdom from Chomei about our unstable world I’ll amuse myself with the urbane humour of Auden in his depiction of the crumbling state (“The Fall of Rome”):

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

So here we all are, unimportant clerks, scribbling on endless forms while the great tectonic plates of destiny grind and shift beneath our feet. For what empire, even in its crumbling, can do without its official damn forms?

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

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