Sitting recently by my autumnal fireside, looking back over a summer that was passed, I found myself in the temper of mind Wordsworth so uniquely evokes -
In that sweet mood where pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind. . . .
Yet the thoughts of that evening were not merely sad; they were funny in a way, and dreadful, too. It had been, I recalled, a late afternoon in August when we gathered on a country club lawn where a certain High Official was coming to talk upon Matters of State. He was, after a fashion, a home-town boy, and the audience was relaxed and genial.
They sat upon the grass, the ladies in bright colors and the men in open shirts and comfortable blazers. At the outskirts of the gathering, young children played as they waited for the speech to begin, occasionally threading their laughing way through the clustered chairs and benches. The sea framed the little promontory where the country club is situated, its western coves touched in that hour with a million points of light. The sun, holding just enough warmth to abate the evening's first chill, went slowly down in a golden blaze.
The High Official began his remarks. There were a few jokes and some appropriate acknowledgments of the pleasure a busy man finds in being able to return among neighbors. He did not change his tone of voice, he did not even take on a grimmer countenance, as he moved from these agreeable banalities to the theme and substance of his address. The men and women who had just been sipping tea and gossiping idly about the summer scene, the children who had been busy at their own games, all listened in a kind of smiling silence. It was as if they were hearing things recounted to tease or beguile them. I felt the acquiescence of the bemused or the slightly bored descending over that gathering; it wasn't at all the stillness of doom.
Yet what was the High Official saying? He was telling those good people, as he had no doubt in the same words been telling audiences across the land, of the urgent need to increase the country's atomic stockpile and to multiply at the cost of billions its capacity to deliver; of the immediate dangers that lay upon us, from attack by stealth or under the duress of threats; and of the need, above all, to survive a first blow, in however mangled and diminished a condition, that we might retaliate by the same means. The message was somewhat masked by technicalities and obscured by bureaucratic circumlocutions. Yet it could not avoid seeping through. Brains dulled by the late afternoon euphoria caught the drift, and even the children could not have been wholly insensible to its import.
Afterward there was the kind of applause one might expect when a speaker has brought news of some approaching good turn in our fortunes; there were the polite questions that are asked by an audience not wanting to impose upon a guest or to make him feel ill at ease. A middle-aged gentleman did venture to inquire why it was that when the warheads on the missiles of a single atomic submarine were sufficient to exterminate a good portion of the population of any presumed enemy, it was considered necessary to have so many additional ones. The question was glossed over by the High Official, who drew around himself the mantle of authority, the cloak of superior knowledge. The audience appeared to be slightly embarrassed.
This was the image and recollection playing upon my mind as I sat recently before the hearth. Was it all a dream? Could such incongruities as the summer twilight and the twilight of the gods coexist within a single hour, upon one small piece of green turf? Yes, it had happened precisely that way. Such is the trouble with our present world, I thought: we move through the commonplace occurrences of life while High Officials tell us in bland phrases that all is not as it seems. Where is the philosopher in the midst of all this? Where are the theologians and the poets? Surely it cannot be that they are silenced, like the members of the country club audience, by ignorance, or sleepiness, or fear. Yet I do not hear them speaking out, and I wonder, if they did, whether they would be listened to as intently as the man of power.