The world of August

The news comes to our island by post, often a day late. The delay is not serious; it is rather pleasant to reflect upon the fact that if portents of doom appear in what one reads, the world has at least continued to wag on for another twenty-four hours. Yesterday's truth is still true after a day's lapse. The false or malicious report has not become any the worse. What is striking, it seems to me, is less this tardiness than the air of unreality which in midsummer hangs over public events.

Barbara Tuchman entitled one of her books The Guns of August. The words had a fine ring, and they suggested at the same time the incongruity of death and violence in the midst of the year's most productive season. John Masefield, too, wrote about that terrible August of 1914, evoking unforgettably the image of young men leaving the fields they and their forbears had ploughed for centuries, to turn to the grim business of war. So it is that today, when one reads of fighting in far-off places, the news strikes us as tragically close to the absurd. The dramas of the time, played out against the small chores and the pleasures of our private lives, are like peep-shows which run on interminably, with the audience losing interest while it wanders in and out of the half-vacant hall.

The summer of 1982 has been like other summers in some of its sillier manifestations, in its bizarre incidents and its underlying tensions; but unless I am mistaken - and it's easy to be mistaken when one assumes the role of prophet - it contains elements more disquieting than in the past. I get the impression of statesmen immobilized by events deeper than they understand or can control. I see ineffectual actions against remorseless tides and halting responses to grave challenges of the national and international scene. Leaders in all the western countries, and chiefs of parties both of the right and of the left, seem equally incoherent in the face of ominous and destructive forces.

Almost forgotten now are the brave protests of spring against nuclear arms. Muted are the hopes for building more solid ties among the nations which bear a chief responsibility for the world's peace and its economic prosperity. If there are voices summoning us to the hard duties of an imperilled civilization, I have not read of them in my newspapers. Neither early nor late do men remind us that an autumn of danger lies before us - and another winter, perhaps of unusual discontent.

In my own small community men and women whose knowledge I respect, whose understanding puts me in their debt, are saying that this country has lost something once precious to it. What it has lost, they say, is the forward impulse, the active faith which long was thought of as peculiarly our own. With factories idling at a fraction of their capacity, with millions forced into unemployment and other millions not working or working half-heartedly and inefficiently, the elan once so conspicuous in the American character is dimmed. Even a few years ago it would have seemed inconceivable that leadership in a basic industry like that of automobile-making could be snatched from us, or that our preeminence in electronics had been successfully threatened.

We are making things without conviction of their usefulness or quality, and we are consuming them without appetite. We are building like a desultory or half-witted race of children, and from what we have built we derive neither enjoyment nor profit. This uncertainty, pervading the basic processes of our life, translates itself at the highest levels into the uncertainty of statesmen and leaders.

These thoughts, the substance of many quiet conversations, sound very gloomy. And yet I suppose that most of us have managed to have good summers. Despite what we half know and unwittingly observe, the bright days come; they are followed by rains just when rain is needed. Hot noons are followed by cool nights. Families gather and disperse, expeditions begun with pleasant anticipations are pleasantly concluded. The sweet corn, and the blueberries and the raspberries, appear abundantly in their season. If these pleasures make public events seem unreal, there is an opposite effect, and it provides us with at least a temporary antidote to gloom. We draw closer together, and we savor more keenly the sweetness of things, in a time when storm clouds have gathered.

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