Keats, Machiavelli and Truth
How our humanity (or our future) is distressingly contingent on context
âTo betray philosophy is the gentle treason / of poets,â says Derek Walcott, the St. Lucian-born Nobel Laureate in Literature, in his poem, âXII.â His infinitive possesses a subtlety, for âbetrayâ can mean to double-cross, yes, or it can mean to âinadvertently reveal.â So the actual âgentle treasonâ of poets is to pen a discreet philosophy.
Poets do suggest philosophical ideas. Thus, the English Romantic poet John Keats opines, famously, âBeauty is truth, truth beauty.â That line from his âOde on a Grecian Urnâ is multifaceted enough to justify a thousand schools of aesthetics, from catwalk Gothicism to architectural minimalism, from Jackie Kennedyâs wardrobe and White House to JFKâs promotion of the Green Berets and co-design of the livery of the jet-age Air Force One.
For that matter, aesthetics can inform sadism as much as it informs bodybuilding. Recall the photographs of Iraqis abused and tortured at Abu Ghraib prison a decade ago, and the ways in which their American captors posed them, like male Barbies, for âironic,â but gruesome effect. âBaconesque,â one might say.
Then again, the staging of crime scenes has been a staple of modern crime since Jack the Ripper conducted his Whitechapel of London outrages. A grisly Cubism gets enacted.
In practice, then, âBeauty is truth, [and] truth beauty,â is an insight that can back almost any policy or programme, or call to action or call to arms (if a leader can argue that desecration or dishonour âthreatensâ the nation).
Campaigns for national âredemptionâ and/or âhygieneâ can rely on the same verse. Thus, Martin Luther King could make colour-blind civil rights a moral crusade and use ânon-violenceâ to bear witness to the virtue of his cause. But so could the government of Alberta, between 1928 and 1972, pursue compulsory sterilization of targeted citizens in the name of eugenics.
Still, we cannot hold Keats âaccountableâ (a favourite word of todayâs global political and economic classes) for the misapplication or misinterpretation of a brilliant aphorism that also combines two abstract nouns of inexhaustible meaning.
To say âBeauty is truthâ is about as definable as to say âWar on Terror.â And if one can be invoked to explicate the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the other descriptor is in fact employed to support wet-job assassinations and worldwide surveillance.
(Come to think of it, in our time, the pseudo-Russian citizen Edward Snowden has demonstrated the force of Keatsâ thought â âBeauty is truthâ â by alerting all that Uncle Sam had morphed into a digital Big Brother.)
As compelling as is Keatsâ accidentally Machiavellian aesthetic, his English Romantic comrade Lord Byron provides a definition of history that is consummate: it is âthe Devilâs scripture.â
Jotted down in his âVision of Judgment,â an acidic, satirical rejoinder to the poet Robert Southeyâs sycophantic paean to the dead George III, Byronâs phrase is less abstract than Keatsâ line, for it does allow for the symbolic â âDevilâs scriptureâ â to tease our imaginations.
Indeed, given the several millennia of written records that we may research, Byronâs supposition is arguably more verifiable than is that of Keats. No matter what our choice of clime or culture or chronicle, we are certain to find the Devil at work (or play); if not literally, then almost always âin the detailsâ of an event or in âthe fine printâ and footnotes of historians themselves.
For tutoring in these truths, one can consult Oliver Thomsonâs A History of Sin. Thomson seems to canvass every sort of human society â theocracy and republic, commune and kingdom â only to determine that âsinâ is very much in the eyes of its beholders, and that we tend to swing from repression to license and back again once we have had either too many orgies or too many executions.
Yet, even the most self-consciously sophisticated and civil polities can lapse into barbarism, which is the likely point of the popular zombie films and âWalking Deadâ TV series: that our humanity is distressingly contingent on context.
In this sense, the oft-cited âlessons of historyâ are not necessarily convincing, for they depend too much on too-fallible âteachers.â Thus, when âwe the peopleâ of the planet are lectured that one government is âevilâ and that another must be âpunished,â it is prudent to question the âteachersâ about their own ability to make moral judgments that are not hypocritical or cynical.
For instance, the historical âlessonâ of dealing with a dictatorâs stockpiles of noxious weapons is not only that Chamberlain-style âappeasementâ fails, but also that governments sometimes seize on spurious casus belli that okay even worse bloodshed and greater grief. The real lesson is not that âdoing nothingâ is wrong, but that reckless decisions can misfire.
The American historian James Joll said it best: âThe tragedy of all political action is that some problems have no solution; none of the alternatives are intellectually consistent or morally uncompromising; and whatever decision is taken will harm somebody.â
History is the Devil that we must know well.
George Elliott Clarke is the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Chair in Canadian Studies, Harvard University, and the Poet Laureate of Toronto. His newest book of poetry is Illicit Sonnets London: Eyewear, 2013.