From the remarkable Russians with Attitude podcast, whose community I am considering attaching myself to, I learnt of the Russian philosopher and diplomat, Konstanin Leontyev. In Byzantism and Slavdom he asserted the authority and fecundity of the civilizational state or empire of the Third Rome. He prophesied here and in other texts, and notably in his chose way of life, the cultural decay of the West and the spiritual oppression of the technological, consumer society. This prophet makes me wonder: perhaps we should all sail to Byzantium? And there, despite being fastened to a dying animal, we may “gather me/ into the artifice of eternity” (Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium)
When Melbourne exceeded the whole world in the length of its futile lockdown this week, I woke weary and beyond hope that the regime of health utopians will end. I turned to the Australian poet, short story writer, alcoholic, depressive, radical nationalist, and wanderer, Henry Lawson, who I last read when struggling against the magnetism of that pale prophet Manning Clark. His great poem, “Past Carin'”, spoke to the despair of the lives of Australians of the 1890s, ravaged by drought, depression, and dreamy ideas of progress. Another uncanny likeness, falling like a spring bloom.
Through Death and Trouble, turn about Through hopeless desolation Through flood and fever, fire and drought, And slavery and starvation Through childbirth, sickness, hurt, and blight And nervousness and scarin' Through bein' left alone at night I've got to be past carin' Past botherin' or carin' Past feelin' and past carin' Through city cheats and neighbours' spite I've come to be past carin"
A different poet, Hart Crane, so celebrated by Bloom but yet still not enchanting me, writes of the “Repose of Rivers” (1926):
And finally in that memory,
all things nurse.
This week I prepared a podcast on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and perhaps because of that priming took down from the shelf for one of my morning poetry readings, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. The birds were singing in my garden and the surrounding trees – magpies, currawongs, mynah birds, parrots and more – as I meditated on endurance in these times. From Tranströmer’s “Morning Birds” I note down:
Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It grows, it takes my place.
It pushes me aside.
It throws me out of the nest.
The poem is ready.
My more practical side, whose judgement and perspective keep me in this flagging career and corrupted institution I serve wanly, responded to of all things a discussion about supply chain fragility. In Europe, America and presumably in Australia too the ports are congested, prices are spiking, queues are forming, the shelves are no longer temples of cornucopia, and we consumer gods learn our fragility again. On Peter Frankopan’s I’ve been thinking podcast, the logistics expert, Ross Kennedy, set out the challenges we face, why we should not panic nor rely on decisions by politicians, and yet we should prepare for a world of fewer options and more patience.
In Russia against Napoleon: the true story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, Dominic Lieven tells the story of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, not just within its defensive borders, but across Europe, chasing the French European Empire to its defeat in Paris. Napoleon built a European Empire that was an early manifestation of an ideological empire, today perhaps the real model of an imploding America. It was this indispensable nation that invaded Russia but could not administer enough shock and awe before the winter, when the supply chains broke. It was not Britain, but Russia that defeated this Empire. It was not Wellington or Pitt, but Alexander I who caused Napoleon’s downfall, even if the Anglo-American Empires would benefit greatly from Napoleon’s strategic mistakes, including the break-up of the Portugese and Spanish Empires. Of this courageous and enigmatic monarch, forgotten in the amnesiac Anglophone world, the French ambassador in St Petersburg wrote in 1810:
“People believe him to be weak but they are wrong. Undoubtedly he can put up with many upsets and hide his discontent but that is because he has before him an ultimate goal, which is peace in Europe, and one which he hopes to achieve without a violent crisis. But his amenable personality has its limits, and he will not go beyond them: these limits are as strong as iron and will not be abandoned. His personality is by nature well-meaning, sincere and loyal, and his sentiments and principles are elevated but beneath all this there exists an acquired royal dissimulation and a dogged persistence which nothing can overcome.”Letter Caulaincourt to Champagny, 19 Sept 1810, Lieven, Russia against Napoleon (2009), p. 59.
Marina Tsvetaeva writes in “Poet and Time: “every poet is essentially an émigré, émigré from the Kingdom of Heaven and from the earthly paradise of nature.
Lastly, the Nobel Peace Prize continues its weird descent into irrelevance. The secretive committee chose to award to two newspaper editors for “defending freedom of speech” in Russia and in the Phillipines. One awardee appears to be a proxy for the discredited Russian politician, Alexei Navalny. In any case, these awards for safeguarding freedom of expression occur amidst a firestorm of cancel culture, Big Tech censorship and deplatforming, repression of opponents and dissidents in the “liberal West”, including armoured vehicles, outlawed protests and crowds fleeing rubber bullets on the streets of Melbourne, and mainstream media deceptive collaboration with political elites, leading to widespread distrust of both parties. No doubt the two successful editors deserve some recognition, but this award appears to ignore the forest for some leaves.
Image source: Henry Lawson, National Archives of Australia