By Warwick McFadyen
I picked six daffodils from the garden this week. They bloomed earlier than usual, which makes their appearance all the more welcome in this midwinter. Their colour is that of the sun. The wind had knocked them around; they were bedraggled and slumped towards the wet earth. To save them I had to cut them free from their roots. Now they stand erect and sunshiney in a vase on the kitchen table. It’s not quite seeing a heaven in a wild flower when I look upon them, but it is a natural, innocent insentient thing from which to draw quiet joy and warmth.
Yes, they will die. But their passing is in nature’s order of things. The cycle of life turns, the seasons, they change.
People, though they die, too, are not so grounded.
There’s winter in the bare-limbed trees and there’s winter in the bones. The chill light has seeped into the marrow. It’s hard to keep warm among these days of bad news on the doorstep, rushing into the inbox; the news is breaking, it’s breaking the heart and the bough. It’s breaking on the fatal shore. It can carry you far out to sea, beyond land, beyond sight of hope.
To what then do you cling? Where do you look for the centre of things – the core that will hold, despite everything. Despite everything human.
Where do the 84 dead of Nice look? Death is nothingness. There is cause and effect writ in blood and steel and then, laughingly, there is effect without cause.
Life is precious to us because we can count the days, and yet here’s the greatest cruellest cosmic joke, life doesn’t believe it to be so. Life doesn’t believe anything. People do, and that’s their tragedy, and their greatness, their pillar of aspirations and dreams, despite everything. Despite everything human.
What did the truck-wielding mass murderer Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel see as he zigged here and then zagged there, on the Promenade des Anglais on the night of Bastille Day? No one will know. For he is now nothingness as well. It’s an equation of death merciless and cold and unfair.
There are dark spaces on the promenade where the flowers have been left to mark the spot where each person, man, woman and child was mown down. To what do people cling as they approach them, as they stand next to a life that is not there and here?
They could cling to the belief that the dead were now in heaven. With their god, they would be blissful eternally, whatever shape they were in. They could believe that to bring them succour. It’s a pass-out from the theatre of misery and despair and incomprehension. It’s the defence against hatred, the ramparts of consolation.
They could cling to the fact that the murderer was dead, too. Thus, he can kill no more. This is, truly, the solace of altruism. It is the end of a small world within one world.
They could believe that whatever the deed, in the end, love would conquer all; that love would win because in love, receiving love, giving love was the ideal state of being. This is the long view. No one lives that long. From Nice to Munich to Paris to Florida to Manhattan to Norway to Port Arthur; from one madman’s war against the world to many madmen’s wars against the world, terror lives not among the extraordinary but among the ordinary. It is the child of hatred.
The great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature 10 years ago, wrote of hatred that “it gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life’’.
See how efficient it still is,
How it keeps itself in shape –
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.
You could cling to that. But know that poetry changes nothing.
These past weeks have seen commemorations for the centenary of the Battle of Fromelles. The attack was the first large engagement by Australian troops on the Western Front. From the Australian War Memorial account: “When the troops of the 5th Australian and 61st British Divisions attacked at 6 pm on 19 July 1916, they suffered heavily at the hands of German machine-gunners. Small parts of the German trenches were captured by the 8th and 14th Australian Brigades, but, devoid of flanking support and subjected to fierce counter-attacks, they were forced to withdraw. By 8am on 20 July 1916, the battle was over. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5533 casualties, rendering it incapable of offensive action for many months.”
Futility bloomed in half a day. There were so many days like that in the First World War. Fromelles is only about 100 kilometres from the woods of Mametz, where poet Siegfried Sassoon earned a Military Cross for bravery under fire. He later threw it away and publicly denounced his government’s war aims. A generation of young men were sent to their deaths or, if they survived, isolated in a prison of trauma and self-imposed silence.
What chance do the vulnerable have against the powerful? And the powerful do not have to be individuals; it can be a system, a chain of seemingly ordinary links that together shackle and torture a human being. It can be a collective attitude that comes from one voice – “I’ll pulverise the little fucker’’ – and is condoned, laughed with, accepted as the norm, as the way things are done round here.
And we as a nation can say:
It’s not me.
It’s not you.
It’s not us.
Australians all let us rejoice.
It’s not me.
It’s not you.
It’s not us.
For we are young and free.
It is an aberration. The bad acts are just the bad apples in the orchard. Perhaps that is true. No, it is true. Otherwise the vista is too terrible to contemplate. Otherwise, the cruelty we impose on others as a government, the pain we inflict on the powerless, the disdain we throw at the less fortunate, the hopelessness we say is a refugee’s future, is really, truly, us.
Then, to what do we cling?
A vase of flowers on a kitchen table, a love among family and friends, a concord of brotherhood. All these are in their closeness and, in their yearning, the heart of things, our mooring.
Warwick McFadyen is an Australian freelance writer and editor