Time for more from the department of interesting crossovers and coincidences in reading. I find that this is one of the best parts of reading widely and voraciously... you start to see all kinds of serendipitous and productive new connections between different genres, groups of ideas, historical eras, and so on and so forth. The more you read and learn, the more your further reading and learning is enriched, and the more sense it all starts to make, at least internally, and at times externally as well. This is why reference and allusion, when done well, is so great. It's more than just being able to feel really smart whenever you "get" a reference. It goes two ways... modern writers invest their works with meaning through allusion and reference, and this in turn can make musty-seeming older works take on a new, modernized significance and applicability of their own.
This is much of why I tend to defend at least some sort of loose form of the literary canon. There are certain things that you just have to read, or at least certain concepts and ideas that you have to be familiar with, to be able to fully understand and get the most out of just about anything else you read, and vice-versa. Most "important" books are that way for a reason... because many people who came afterward saw fit to write about them. Even if you don't greatly enjoy, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey on their own merits, slogging through them will truly enrich your experience with an innumerable number of later books and authors.
Anyhow, this week, it's been the confluence of TH White's The Once and Future King, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an article lamenting the possible demise of internationalism, in the latest Mother Jones. These at first don't seem like a terribly likely combination; an Arthurian fantasy novel, a terse historical document, and a despairing commentary on current events, but, they dovetail quite nicely, at least in my addled brain.
King, besides being a delightful and poignant modern update on the Arthurian legend, is also sort of a tradegian look at the ongoing experiments of liberalism, human rights, and civil society. It casts the forming of the Round Table by Arthur as an attempt at replacing the Medieval idea of Might as Right with one of the use of controlled Might to defend Right, with the eventual goal of establishing equality before civil law, and abolishment for the need of violent, warlike power at all. He brings the knights, the most powerful and invulnerable weapons of his time, under his central control, and uses them to prevent the various feudal lords and barons from using them to promote tyranny and anarchy for personal gain.
The United Nations was formed with similar goals in mind. Horrified by the carnage and chaos that typified the first half of the 20th century, the internationalist founders of the UN tried to restrain the use of Might by nations for selfish means, by attempting to set up a global version of concentrated power enforcing civil law. They neglected to attempt in earnest to concentrate true Might behind it(perhaps a mistake in retrospect, perhaps not), relying more on consensus and mutual benefit, but the main idea was the same, to replace the idea of kill or be killed with that of cooperation and the concentration of power for mutual safety and benefit.
There is a dual tragedy operating in White's book, that of Arthur's own personal life, fatal error, and eventual unfulfilled death, paralleled by that of the demise of his grand project. He harnesses Might productively at first, subjugating the warring barons and bringing peace and prosperity to the kingdom. However, with nothing else to occupy and direct it, the controlled violence of the Table soon begins to turn on itself and others. He then tries to direct Might on a cleansing spiritual quest, in the form of the Holy Grail, in the hopes of both occupying and taming it. This also succeeds for a time, and the knights who succeed are indeed cleansed of violence or killed, but this sadly leaves only the more mercenary among them in place with no countervailing force to restrain them. The end of the book documents the slow unravelling of Arthur's dream in internecine warfare and chaos, both in the case of his kingdom and of the fate of himself and the people he loves.
Reading the utopian vision of universal rights that is the Universal Declaration, the defining document and hope of the UN, I couldn't help but think of what I had just read about the failure of Arthur's beautiful dream. Both were incredibly worthy ideas, which society and human nature in the real world are sadly just not ready to practically allow. The UN and internationalism are currently threatened with irrelevance by the same uncontainable forces and human failings that destroyed Arthur's vision, the same streak of irrational violence, fear, hatred, and selfishness that runs through the heart of us all, and by extension all of our aggregations together as nations or societies in greater or lesser degrees. The same failings that have destroyed every attempt at ending war and providing liberty, equality, and justice for all. The eternal bane of all Utopias.
So, does this mean that we should come to our senses already and just stop trying? I'm not so sure. White ends his book on a more hopeful note, having Arthur call in a youthful page named TomFootnote
Sir Thomas Malory, of course. See what I was saying about allusion and references above?, and ask him to stay out of the coming (and fatal) battle, and instead to make sure that the ideas for which it was being fought would live on.
"Thomas, my idea for those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it with me for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle... you won't let it out?"
I think that Arthur finally realized, right there at the edge of death's door, that there would be no winning of a decisive ultimate battle, no magic bullet that would fix everything and lead us to a Utopian world. What matters is slow progress over time, and what allows that is ideas that survive and pervade, that change individual minds, the sentiments and choices of which filter upward to form what we call societies, nations, and the global community. Arthur would die in a futile and foregone battle the next day, but he would not be a failure, because his dream would live on, and others would work towards bringing the world closer to approximating his vision.
Even if the UN meets a similar fate and eventually fails politically, and this incarnation of internationalism goes by the wayside, there's no reason to despair or quit. The world is a better place now than it was looking backward from 1948 by almost every measure. The ideas that the UN and the UDHR made legitimate and important on a global scale are here to stay, enduring in the hearts and minds and actions of millions of people and many governments around the world. The candle may gutter at times, and the ideas may come to manifest themselves in a different form in the future, but I don't think there is any way that particular flame is going to go out anytime soon. Like Arthur, the Once and Future King, they too will return to lead us one day, if we are willing to fight on their side.