Opposites Distract


It’s nothing original to summon the opening stanza of W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ to point up the predicament of now:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre 

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 

The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity.

But it struck me that the poem seems to speak distinctly – or, it suddenly came into my mind so speaking – of an aspect of this predicament that tugs repeatedly: the habit of polarisation, being on the inside of a civilization that, in so many aspects of its existence, seems almost hypnotically driven towards fixed extremes.

The more extreme, the more fixed and fixated upon: the widening gulf between richest and poorest, spiking inter-ethnic hostilities, markets gravitating to the far ends of instability rather than equilibrium, the intensifying polarities of weather patterns and damaged, out-of-kilter ecosystems. Cultural symptoms: scleroses of binary argument (either / or); so many compulsive, manufactured, mediated fascinations with extremity: of body shape (anorexia / obesity), of consumer comportment (decluttering / hoarding), of mood and outlook (positive / negative thinking). Any of which might, if they’re unlucky, get a sustained workout in some future post J

My interest in the Dark Mountain Project and its public reception over the past several months woke me up in fresh ways to the seemingly unconscious intransigence of polarity thinking. Though wisely sidestepping a paralysing excess of snappy self-definition, DMP always seemed to me pretty explicit  about wanting to open up a creative exploration of how to live in a profoundly uncertain and unstable future, without falling back on received cultural myths of technutopian progress or apocalyptic doom. So DMP was duly boxed and labelled with polarising words like ‘Romantic’ or ‘doomer’; often enough by people who honestly came across as smart and engaged enough to do better than that. I was troubled by how deeply these folks seemed blindly formatted with polarity; even more deeply troubled by the readiness with which my own thinking and writing would drop into a similar two-bit groove.

Hence Yeats: a dangerous line, possibly true. What seizes me in ‘The Second Coming’ is the inexorability in the way he phrases the dissolution – things ‘fall apart’ (drop away to extremes) of their own volition; nothing can hold the centre but itself, and it cannot hold. The metaphors are of untamed nature: a loosed tide and drowning; the turning falcon spun out too far in the gyre to hear the falconer (why would the wild creature even want to go on obeying a human master?) A process happening by itself. And because I don’t understand it, my dangerous, possibly true line is to want to reach for some kind of physical law – a strange attractor – governing this seemingly ungovernable ascent of polarisation. It marks us so much more deeply than our powers of rational control; it begs to differ right where common ground appears most desperately needed.

My pitch for a just-so story to explain the grip of polarity would cast it as the rapidly ageing, fast proving obsolete endgame of western binary thought. That infinite division of the world into twos, an obedient ark – heaven / earth; nature / culture; mind / body; male / female; black / white; good / evil – with always one (and you can probably guess which one) elevated as superior over the perpetually defamed other. Capital O if you prefer. Too deeply, darkly invested in over centuries to be let graciously go, the more either / or models prove inadequate to the messy dynamics of reality, the more stubbornly and inflexibly they are asserted. The opening gambit of polarisation is often simply to wield power, to shut up or down a perceived threat of opposition. Behind power, possibly fear; a lack of flexible resources of feeling, thinking, culture, psyche, instinct, space or time needed to be willing to prospect fresh territory together; perhaps be proved wrong. A treadmill of positive feedback, in which mutual misapprehensions and caricatures are continually reinforced, and insults take the place of dialogue (pick any comment thread in which, say, militant vegans and militant omnivores encounter each other.)

Next to fear, which way are we facing? I so often feel haunted by the harshest extremes in spectral, archetypal form, and suspect I’m not alone. What compels us to reach for the furthest-out cartoon-being first, the one we’re statistically least likely to encounter on the road – the morbidly obese, the joyless lentil-eater, the possessionless white-wall minimalist, the perky Pollyanna – instead of turning directly to the richer, broader, more contrary spectrum of most ordinary human lives?

Or again, which way are we facing? All this assumes that there is something inherently wrong with the pull to extremity, that it is something to lament, oppose, and where possible correct.  A different story loops back to the strange attraction of Yeats: the gyre widens, things fall apart, in accordance with laws we humans barely understand, though we scrabble frantically to apply them. Perhaps polarization itself is the messy dynamic of reality now; our moment to wheel wildly out of range of the voice of the falconer. 


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