But these are the usual run-of-the-mill occurrences out of time immemorial, aren't they? Herodotus and Gibbon catalogued them for us long ago. What separates our era from others is its noisome combination of political utopianism, credulous faith in science, and instantaneous media hysteria. (All products of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, by the way.)
Of course, each of us believes that our own soul (however one wishes to define that term) is not subject to manipulation or theft by this seductive triumvirate. I delude myself in this fashion on a daily basis, and the next morning I have to begin my soul-preservation project all over again.
(Yikes! What set me off on that bout of pontificating? Turning on the TV, naturally.)
Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)
I am the echoing rock that sends you back
Your own voice grown so bold that with surprise
You murmur, 'Ah, how sensible I am --
The plain bluff man, the enemy of sham --
How sane, how wise!'
I am the mirror where your image moves,
Neat and obedient twin, until one day
It moves before you move, and it is you
Who have to ape its moods and motions, who
Must now obey.
A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).
Algernon Newton, "Birmingham with the Hall of Memory" (1929)
The way we live now is expertly diagnosed in the following poem, which was first published in 1951. Imagine what has transpired in the ensuing 60-odd years.
Absence of heart -- as in public buildings --
Absence of mind -- as in public speeches --
Absence of worth -- as in goods intended for the public,
Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
Not a scrap is left, not even his name.
Indescribable -- being neither this nor that --
Uncountable -- being any number --
Unreal -- being anything but what they are,
And ugly customers for someone to encounter,
It is our fault entirely if we do:
They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.
Curious from wantonness -- to see what they are like --
Cruel from fear -- to put a stop to them --
Incredulous from conceit -- to prove they cannot be --
We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
It is our strength with which they gobble us up.
If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
Get by them safely, he is still in danger,
With pity remembering what once they were,
Of turning back to help them. Don't.
What they were once was what they would not be;
Not liking what they are not is what now they are.
No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
And do not let your goodness self-deceive you:
It is good that they are but not that they are thus.
W. H. Auden, Nones (1951).
Remember: it is "our fault entirely" if we encounter these "ugly customers," and we must never forget that "they cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them." But here's the rub: we must be "chaste, brave, humble" in order to "get by them safely" -- a tall order when we have been schooled in "wantonness," "fear," and "conceit." How prescient Auden was in that choice of words! Have a look at the (non-natural) World out there today: a non-stop carnival of wantonness, fear, and conceit.
Is Auden over-simplifying? Perhaps. But the heart of what he says rings true. "Walk on, keep on walking."
Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)