Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
“Under Ben Bulben” — William Butler Yeats
They call me “Dr. Doom.” The first few times it happened, I was upset. When you are teaching a course on ethics and sustainability, the last response you expect is hopelessness and despair.
Yet, there it was. I tried to make jokes about the nickname, but whether the audience laughed or not, I didn’t find it funny.
The problem with making choices toward a sustainable future is that you need to begin by recognizing an unsustainable present.
I have grown accustomed to the litany of impending disasters on so many fronts, from the implications of global warming on polar ice caps, the threats posed by the loss of fresh water, desertification and declining food production, over-population, resource depletion, and the implications of wildly uneven consumption for social and political stability, to the various ways humans manage to make a mess of their lives together.
It’s a grim list, and my students can be forgiven for imagining the Grim Reaper standing next to me, nodding his black-cowled head with satisfaction as I go through it. But the last thing I want is for them to stop at that point.
I first read the words William Butler Yeats intended for his tombstone many years ago in an Irish literature class, as together we debated in abstraction what he meant. A year later, as I stood next to his grave in Sligo, with dark Ben Bulben lowring on the sky-line on a grey August day and storm clouds forming and unforming overhead, the abstraction was gone.
Poetry, at its best, expresses something fundamental about life without needing to make the same concessions to form and expectation as a story requires. Yeats had spent his life as a poet, and as a writer, casting a cold eye – an objective eye – on many aspects of life in his time, as well as on life outside of time.
His “cold eye,” however, was not dispassionate. Objectivity does not entail the absence of passion. Nor is it possible to cast that cold eye on life without also contemplating death. Objectivity requires us to see the world as it is, life and death together.
Years earlier, as a teenager, I first found some other words from a different poem on a tombstone in a rural Prince Edward Island graveyard, words that I was unable to trace to a source until Google made it possible: “He shall paint the things as he sees them/For the God of the things as they are.”
It turns out to be a misquotation (“paint” instead of “draw”) from a Rudyard Kipling poem, “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted.”
Putting the two together, when we “cast a cold eye” on our unsustainable present, we see many things we wish were not there, but are. Yet too many people fly blind through life, not seeing what is there, or unwilling to recognize it for fear of being unable to cope with what it means.
This attitude just compounds the problems they face – the problems we all face, as citizens together of the one Earth.
We need to start by seeing ourselves, our world, each other, objectively. But that is not where things should stop. That “cold eye” is not emotionally cold or distant – it is active, vibrant, and bursting with the life passion that drives ee cumming’s “green fuse” through the flower, that embraces the day with the enthusiasm of a child and that flings itself into the future with the heady abandon of new love.
That “cold eye” sees the dismal reality of the moment for what it is, but in the context of the hope humans have always found in themselves and the possibilities that life presents.
Expand that vision to include the Earth itself, and the Earth story gives an entirely different context for the problems of individual humans, however overwhelming they might seem to us right now.
When challenged about the naiveté of her responses to some serious global problems, a friend of mine observed she was both a pragmatist and an idealist at the same time. She is pragmatic about what is there and what needs to be done, but tries to be idealistic about what is possible.
To be a pragmatic idealist (if we can coin the term) is thus not to claim an oxymoronic identity. After all, pragmatists these days are dreary people. Their pragmata – their reasons for doing things – are drawn from the grey, utilitarian principles of a post-industrial materialism that is bereft of relation to life, the universe and everything.
That kind of pragmatism is also bereft of passion. Pragmatic idealism within the universe of relations, however, takes on a very different tone – and vibrant colours. Humans prefer to live in this world, if they have the choice, for it is a world in which passion, beauty and hope are both present and real – and entirely pragmatic.
A pragmatic idealist not only sees the world for what it is, but for what it could be. A pragmatic idealist sees people not only for who they are, but for who they could become. There is a huge difference between a universe of conclusions and a universe of possibilities, after all. Both have the dangers inherent in making choices about life and death, but – for the pragmatic idealist – hope for the future mitigates some of the realities of any current despair.
So, when I catalogue the woes of an unsustainable present, it is only as preliminary to the expressing the hope that I see in our situation, a hope grounded in the very humanity that has caused our problems.
We need to step back and see our world as it is, to see ourselves for who we are, to cast that “cold eye” on everything from how we live, to our political and economic institutions, to the values that are embedded in the unsustainable choices we make together. And, once we have done this, we need to make different choices toward a future that is sustainable.
Idealism without this “cold eye” is mere fantasy, ungrounded and therefore unanchored. It becomes escapism that has no claim on us or on our responsibility to do things differently – on our responsibility to make better choices.
Pragmatism has to come first, but we should never stop there. I am often puzzled – and too frequently irritated – by the punditry that exclaims the bleakness of our predicament without offering antidote or alternative.
“We’re all going to die” merely expresses the inevitable reality of the human condition. It is not a helpful guide to how to live or how to choose toward a sustainable future in the mean time.
As an historian, everywhere I look I find evidence of people in impossible situations making choices that change those impossibilities into something better. Perhaps they will never see the result of their courage and idealism, but others do.
Pragmatism lays the foundation and creates the structure of our life together, but idealism gives us the design, the colour and the reason for doing the work in the first place.
So, if you need to start by calling me “Dr. Doom,” go ahead. But, as I have learned to promise my students, it’s not the place where we start that matters, but the end toward which we are travelling.
I’m a pragmatic idealist, too. I would rather be ridiculed for the naiveté of my answers than praised for the bleak precision of my analysis. Our current systems, our ways of living together, are unsustainable. They are not working. We need to do things differently. We need alternatives.
In a universe of relations, I have faith in what people can think, and do, and be together. But this is only possible if we can find ways to overcome everything that divides us, whether gender, age, ethnicity, culture, class, religion, opportunity, or whatever else is an excuse for our indifference to the situations of other people.
If you know the poem by Yeats, you will be wondering why I have left off the last line of his epitaph: “Horseman, pass by.”
There is no consensus among scholars as to what it means, so I will offer my own idea:
Having cast his “cold eye/On life, on death,” one that was full of passion and engagement, Yeats had little use for the elites that pound by on horseback, intent on getting to somewhere else that better suits their own trivial self-importance. The path to truth, to wisdom and to understanding, was not one you could reach on horseback, because it lies within each of us.
In an unsustainable world, there are many who consider themselves members of some elite, thundering around on horseback in furious clouds of dust, full of their own self-importance – getting nowhere but doing it in style.
Instead of all that drama, we need the average, ordinary citizen to see the world as it is. We need a person who looks at what needs to be done and just does it, who considers the choices he or she has to make in a normal day, and makes better ones today than yesterday.
In that attitude, and in those choices, there is both pragmatism and idealism. There is also hope.
People are amazingly resilient – that’s why we are still around to have this conversation, after thousands of years of upheaval and change.
Once again, and this time in our own generation, we need to turn the impossible into the improbable … and then make it happen.