Imagining Peace

I have referred to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey and I do recommend it. Trilling writes well and has something important to say. That is unusual. Indeed. In the eighth chapter of that novel his central character is reflecting, as is his habit:

“. . . he thought how weak the human imagination is because it so dully represents peace and brotherhood. A careful, shabby Hindu student and a skinny Methodist student shake hands and agree that there are no real differences between people that cannot be overcome by mutual understanding and education and the cider and doughnuts they will presently be offered by the religious director. The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive. It allowed men their force and their selfhood as well as their evil. Yet in actual fact . . . the true emotion of reconciliation is an heroic one. Hamlet never appears in fuller virility than when he offers Laertes his hand, and nothing he says rings with a sweeter and graver note of masculinity than his ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.'”

There are so many things to delight in this brief passage, but I will start with the weak imagination that “so dully represents peace and brotherhood.” It raises the deep question why we seem to relish the violent and hateful and hear so little about the true heroism that goes on all around us every day. The news media, which ought to be called the “entertainment” industry to be accurate, glories in all the mayhem and animosity in the world and says little, if anything, about the beauty and goodness that is easily as common. So many of our fellow bloggers — including myself, though with the exception of our good friend Jill Dennison — tend to dwell on the bad and nasty and ignore the good and the magnificent. But our weekly posts from “Filosofa” remind us that there are good people doing good things each and every day. It just takes more of an effort of imagination to represent the good than it does to represent the evil in the world.

It has been said that when Dante wrote his Comedy he sailed through the Inferno, slowed down when writing about Purgatory and swam upstream slowly when writing about Paradise. Even Dante, he of the most extraordinary imagination, working with an impossible rhyme-scheme and burdened down with the immensely complex theological/cosmological baggage of the Middle Ages he had to carry with him as the made his way, even Dante struggled to describe peace and brotherhood. They are hard to imagine, much less write about.

But Trilling also speaks of true heroism, which consists in humbling oneself to the realities of a harsh world and swallowing one’s pride to admit that he or she was wrong. We see the antithesis of this every day in the media which cannot look away from the absurdities of a president who is unwilling or unable to admit he is ever wrong and who shows a singular lack of heroism with each and every tweet he compulsively sends forth into the world, unable to exhibit the “true emotion of reconciliation.” True heroism is simply less spectacular, and less easy to imagine. Perhaps also less common. So we don’t hear about it and confuse it with athletics or military endeavors that are sensational and take no imagination whatever to relish. But we need to remind ourselves that it is out there, the real thing and not the cheap imitation.

Trilling wrote his novel in 1945, soon after the Second World War. He would despair to see how much more diminished the human imagination has become in the meantime with the rise of the entertainment industry, the electronic toys, and the sensationalism of the cinema that glory in violence and mayhem and shy away from, or are in fact unaware of, the true heroism of those who suffer quietly, admit their mistakes, and forge ahead with their difficult lives.

“The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive.” Indeed.


8 thoughts on “Imagining Peace

  1. Hugh, this is timely and impactful. Two comments. Relationships are hard work. We have to work at peace. This President sees most things as transactions, not relationships. To him, a relationship is someone who compliments him.

    Quiet heroism is what matters most. True heroes, like true leaders, don’t draw attention to themselves. A comment from The Vietnam War documentary from one of those quiet soldiers is people who have fought realize there are no winners in war. It is only those who have not fought glorify it. If you close your eyes, you could hear Trump yesterday echoing Nikita Khrushchev at the UN saying “we will bury you.” Keith

  2. Thank you so much for the mention, my friend! It always brings a warm glow to feel that I am on the right track and appreciated.

    Yes, the human imagination is even duller now than in 1945. To a large extent, I think, because people are glued to their electronic toys every spare minute and really never just sit and think. Think about things that matter, imagine a different world, a different outcome. And they don’t read nearly as much. It dulls the mind after a while.

    The media certainly do carry their share of the blame for us being inundated with bad news, bad people, tragic events, but having to go digging for the good people. BUT … the reality is that they espouse what we have shown them we are most interested in, for they are, after all, in the business of making money. So it comes back on our shoulders … we as a whole seem to prefer blood and guts to kindness and generosity. Doesn’t say much about us, does it? Or rather, it says a lot about us.

    Thanks again, Hugh!

    • It does say a lot about us and you are spot on: we get what we deserve. We insist on being entertained rather than educated and that’s what sells, so that’s what we get.

  3. Dear Hugh Cutler,

    What you say hits home for me. Too often folks from the right and the left clamor about the bias of the press. But I what I see is the media’s bias towards negative news.

    I was just talking to my son in another state. Everything is so structured for my granddaughter who is only 31/2.

    I was telling him that there is plenty to be learned by free play time among children. I remember playing for hours where we kids came up with our own games, plays, plans and where we had to use our imaginations. This is missing today.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Hugs, Gronda

  4. Ah, Hugh, that quote from Hamlet. Only this week I was wondering if I could, again, do a post about ‘sorry’. Elton John’s song, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ sprang immediately to mind. I have decided against a post (I’m concentrating on heartwarming, optimistic fictional tales at the moment you’ll be pleased to hear!) and fortunately you have gone at least one – possibly two – better! The incident that made me think was a very simple one. I was out for a walk, climbing a muddy hill, in a wood near a river. I was wearing newly washed pale grey jeans. A woman walked towards me with a dog, which was not on a lead. The dog ran straight for me as I stood, both hand occupied taking a picture of a huge beech tree. She shouted at it not to jump. It jumped. again and again, both at the front and back of my palely clad legs. She rebuked the ‘naughty girl’ – but did she say sorry? Not a word. I even said, ‘I just washed these jeans’ something I would not have said had she apologised. Still no apology, no eye contact. And we were in a friendly location where people normally stop and chat. This is a trivial story, but emblematic of a world where I feel that hardly anyone can admit to being wrong, can say those hardest words, ‘I am sorry’. So, to come to the nub of your thoughts on heroism, it is surely often the simplest things that are the hardest, because they lay open our true inner essence. ‘Sorry’ is a real acceptance we have done wrong. And that’s often hard, even painful, to admit, not just because it shows we are fallible, but shows we know we have hurt, upset, angered or otherwise ‘injured’ someone else. .

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