Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/01/2011

“. . . that incoherent wilderness of rage and terror”

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I thought I had avoided the wedding. Then Friday evening, needing to stay awake past my bedtime for a phone call, I sat in front of the TV and fell asleep. I woke up hearing one of those tunes that, once heard, I cannot dislodge from my mind for days. I don’t sing the words:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills? 

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
          —William Blake, circa 1804

Most Americans who know the tune remember it from the score for Chariots of Fire (1981) for obvious reasons. I learned it from the Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, which was being introduced at that time. When the prep-school men in my Massachusetts Episcopal church discovered it in the new hymnal, they jumped for joy. They’d learned it in school. It was also a favorite of PBS/BBC Masterpiece Theater productions about English “public school” boys, often the hymn future leaders of Britain sang in chapel at Eton. One assumes George W. Bush and Tony Blair could sing it together.

The Episcopal Church in America baptized the tune and took away its imperialist words with a new text by Carl P. Daw, an American Episcopal priest.

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes,
May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

My suspicion is the only reason it’s in the Episcopal Hymnal is that so many prep-school types were on the committee of the Episcopal Church that put the hymnal together. Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 –1918) wrote the tune, ironically, in celebration of English women winning suffrage in 1916. It’s one of the favorite hymn tunes of the British—and of prep schoolers of a certain age in America.

As I woke up to the tune on TV, the camera focused on Her Majesty in one of her ghastly yellow get-ups singing away, Prince Philip beside her. The tune embodies everything that makes me shudder at imperialism and elitism (not that I’m not an imperialist American of the “intellectual” elite).

W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden

In W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being, King Herod asks

And what, after all, is the whole Empire, with its few thousand square miles on which it is possible to lead the Rational Life, but a tiny patch of light compared with those immense areas of barbaric night that surround it on all sides, that incoherent wilderness of rage and terror, where Mongolian idiots are regarded as sacred . . . where it is firmly believed that the world was created by a giant with three heads or that the motions of stars are controlled from the liver of a rogue elephant (1).

I first knew of For the Time Being from participating in a dramatic reading at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, circa 1970. I love Auden’s Herod. A simpering, terrified, liberal, educated elitist doing his best to run a backward colony on the edge of empire/civilization.

American hegemony is about the same, I’d say, as the Roman or the British empires except that we have atomic weapons and a public convinced (by men who know the Parry hymntune) to be terrified out of its wits by “terrorists,”—Oh, and also by Muslims.

This belief that the “barbaric” surround us on every side also plays itself out as racism, sexism, and the other “—isms” born from fear of the Other. The fear of terrorists and racial hatred go hand in hand. Many Americans are openly racist and xenophobic toward anyone they think might be a “terrorist,” that is, a Muslim, in a way they would never be openly racist toward other groups.

And so other racisms can operate covertly. First the birthers, and now Donald Trump’s racial attack on Barak Obama in the guise of questioning his academic qualifications. Trump says he “heard” the President was a “terrible student” who should never have been admitted to Ivy League schools. “By charging that Obama was not admitted based on merit, Trump is suggesting that Obama was admitted because he is black” (2).

Donald Trump’s racism is unconscionable; he’s playing on the belief in the “areas of barbaric night that surround [us] on every side.” But he also knows that in a time

of political terror, the ‘terrorist’ becomes the most dangerous Other, and is recognized by certain subhuman qualities and vague characteristics. . . The ‘terrorist Other’ is presented to the white public as an uncivilized savage who has richly merited our hatred and must be destroyed to ensure our safety and the preservation of the ‘American Way of Life’ (3).

Trump and others can get away with their vile racism because the “dangerous Other” has been most often cast as “terrorist” so no one will notice. The “dangerous Other” is, however  . . . well, the Other. The New-Right argues we are living in a post-racist society. However, what they fail to acknowledge is

the structural character of racism and sexism, including [their] own. Most important, these “post”-narratives allow contemporary conservatives to continually (re)create an “Other” as “Enemy.” Although the paradigms of . . . racial-cum-civilizational hierarchy . . . predate the 9/11 terrorist attacks, [they] remained readily available when the Bush administration needed to mobilize support for its “War on Terror” (4).

The “War on Terror” is part of the structure of racism and sexism which our politics perpetuate. Legislatures across the country, for example, consider laws they think will lessen the “danger” of an Islamic “take-over” of our legal system, while they systematically cut budgets for Medicaid and education, and other components of our social network. Nancy Love asserts we can ill afford to ignore the “links conservatives have forged between capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy . . .  in order to sustain their concept of social hierarchy” (5).

And Manning Marabel warns that

We can end the threat of terrorism only by addressing constructively the routine violence of poverty, hunger, and exploitation that characterizes the daily existence of several billion people on the planet. Racism is, in the final analysis, only another form of violence (6).

Waking up to a tune I can’t get out of my head is a trivial inconvenience compared with the barrage of daily verbiage from politicians who seem absolutely to believe that the countenance divine Shine[s] forth upon our clouded hills.

To the exclusion of the “other,” and contrary to the Episcopal Church’s “day of peace that dimly shines.”

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(1) Auden, W.H. Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1991. Quoted in: Mutter, Matthew. “‘The Power to Enchant That Comes from Disillusion’ W.H. Auden’s Criticism of Magical Poetics.” Joumal of Modem Literature 34.1 (2010).
(2) Melber, Ari. “Confronting the Coded Racism of Donald Trump.” The Notion: The Nation’s Group Blog. April 27, 2011. Web. Abril 30, 2011.
(3) Marable, Manning. “9/11, Racism in a Time of Terror,” in Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney (eds), Implicating Empire, Globalization & Resistance in the 21st Century World Order. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Quoted in: Love, Nancy S. “Anti-, Neo-, Post-, and Proto-: Conservative Hybrids, Ironic Reversals, and Global Terror(ism).” New Political Science 31.4 (2009): 443-459.
(4) Love, ibid.
(5) Love, ibid.
(6) Marabel, quoted in Love, ibid.

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