Idiot Optimism – From The Province Of The Cat

The chaotic world has just got more chaotic. Russia has invaded Ukraine and everything else loses the veneer of importance. The thing that was vital to do, the thing that was vital to say – they fall away like the hill burns over the cliffs of Dunnet Head. Everything becomes confused. Everything becomes clear. The modern political dilemma emerges from the mirk of circumstance and strife – constitutional and political rights versus or in exchange for social and economic rights. Increasingly, throughout Western and emerging democracies, that seems to be the choice on offer. It may appear an unacceptable and a false dichotomy to many on the Scottish left but, as every day passes, and especially now that we are emerging from a pandemic and have a full blown war in Ukraine, that is what the Tory government are offering the Scottish people. The independenistas will spit at such a choice. The Unionists will jump at it. Beneath the platitudes, waffle disinformation and the romantic nostalgia for the status quo that is the extent of the Conservative vision of our future. You can have a referendum on independence but you can’t have a pension or a currency.

In other words what the Tories are offering the Scottish people is absolutely nothing. Nothing real. It will need a lot more than platitudes and false dichotomies to maintain their cherished status quo of the Union. In Scotland we are currently seeing our democracy thwarted by the intransigence of the British State and the UK economy taking a major hit due to Brexit and the cost of living rising, with the price of basics soaring. The Tories know this cannot go on but they will do nothing about it. Their fears and paranoia have rendered them silent, impotent, alienated. The confident promises, the hard and fast assurances given by Better Together in 2014 have all fallen by the wayside and perished in the snow of reality. No matter, the Unionists keep repeating them. Maybe the current crop of English Tories at the helm of the ship of state suffer from phantasmagorical delusions? Or maybe they actually have a cunning plan to deal with Scotland? Or is it that they are marching like a squabbling mob behind their Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, straight into a dark abyss?

There seems to be no Hobbesian imperative in play; that we need government to control the behaviour of men in order to progress and that the rule of law has more power than the individual. Instead what we witness is what Hobbes called “a war of all on all”, where rampant self-interest leads to impoverishing greed & the spreading implementation of what most surely will destroy us all: corruption and cynicism.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shot the price of a barrel of oil to over $100.00 for the first time since 2014 and yet, according to Dr Cyril Widdershoven, a long-time observer of the global energy market, writing on (28.2.22), things are not looking so bright:

“The OPEC+ cooperation is facing a possible breakdown following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s aggressive military moves towards Ukraine will have a negative impact on the oil market cooperation between OPEC and Russian-led non-OPEC members. The success formula of Riyadh-Moscow-Abu Dhabi is in serious trouble as Western powers will be putting Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and others, under severe pressure to break up their strategic cooperation with Moscow.”

War is a racket and greed by another name. The British and Americans have conspired since 1990 in the Eastern expansion of NATO. Putin, on the other hand, has been planning this black adventure since 2013, so it is no real surprise that he has commanded his army to invade: the shock is in the event and the horror will be in the inevitable human cost.

Predictably Westminster will use the invasion of Ukraine to pontificate on the rights of independent nations to retain their sovereignty and also on the rights of populations to be free to democratically choose the governments they desire. The Tories will simultaneously use the violent crisis in Ukraine as a reason for blocking a referendum on Scottish independence and will blush no shade of irony as they do so. For the Tories, like Putin, power is not to be shared. It has to be won and preserved at all costs – by force if necessary. In 7th century Baghdad the Imam Ali Bin Ali Taleb wrote,

“If God were to humiliate a human being, He would deny them knowledge.”

I am not generally certain about anything but one thing is certain: the real knowledge of what is going on in Ukraine right now will be denied to us. We will be told and shown what it is deemed by the authorities as acceptable for us to be told and shown. I will admit I was very wrong about Ukraine. I was convinced that Putin would not invade. It seemed to me, despite the media almost willing him on, that he had achieved what he wanted by just parking his tanks at the Eastern border, despite that fact that this in itself was terrifying. Now that he has invaded Putin terrifies me even more. Why should I not be terrified when the reality is, as Taras Bilous, the Ukrainian writer, reminded us all here on Bella on the 26.2.22, that “Russia, (is) a state that owns the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal.”?

Citizen journalists with mobile phones daily risk life and limb to bring us images and snatches of Ukraine under invasion and so far it has been both a revelatory and confusing mosaic. Somewhere amongst it all is the truth. In a catastrophe we cannot afford to be humiliated. Whatever I believed or did not believe about Ukraine matters little. My idiot-optimism is a liberal failing. Not quite, I would hope, the ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’, as Taras Bilous put it. But whatever it is the faint hope of conflict resolution has just gone up in flames. That is also part of this hard reality. Madmen stalk the Earth in search of quarrel.

Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher (1588 – 1679) and the author of “Leviathan”, identifies three sources of what he called “Quarrel”, or why humankind is nasty and brutal; why we are never satisfied; how our ego makes it unable for us to accept anything easily; why we fight against our peers and why we always want to have the last word. They are Competition, Diffidence and Glory. These three sources are the catalyst of waging a war.

Competition, Hobbes concludes, arises because through education and over time mankind challenges government and when government cannot structure good laws then we have the sources of quarrel, which leads to competition. Competition “makes men invade countries and use violence to make themselves masters of other men’s chattels, land and wives.”

Diffidence, as termed by Hobbes, makes people want to defend their position, sometimes for trivial reasons – for words, a reflection or opinion in their social life. I am right and you are wrong. I must have the upper hand.

Glory makes men fight to gain reputation through fair and foul means. People want to be on the winning side and not on the losing side. Putin, like every aggressor, seeks glory.

According to Hobbes, “Because the nature of man is such that he is inhibited by these principal causes of quarrel (competition, diffidence, glory), he will seek at all times to manifest himself by trying to attain supremacy over another and that condition is called War, that is a war of every man against every man. For war consists not only of battle or the act of fighting but it is the clash between the inner nature of man: to engage in a war with himself because he cannot achieve something and others are progressing and flourishing and achieving a higher position.”

On the Thursday morning after Putin’s tanks crossed the border into Ukraine I was rehearsing a new play with some young Scottish actors in a community hall in the Highlands. I told them that in light of the momentous events on-going in Ukraine that what we were engaged in might appear to some people to be irrelevant, obscure and self-indulgent. In reality nothing could be further from the truth and that in Ukraine, right now, people would be looking to their dreamers, their poets, playwrights, actors and theatre makers to give them inspiration, hope and psychological and cultural reassurance. I asked them to remember that in every society the theatre is the last place where we are truly free to express ourselves and are able to speak the truth to those who would oppress us. By making a new play we were participating in a collective and optimistic act of creativity which releases the positivity of the human imagination back into the society which gave birth to it. That by pursuing our art and honing our craft and bringing it to an audience we were saying we believe that life is good and beautiful and that peace is the natural state of humanity. That we must remember that what we do not does not relegate us to the periphery of human affairs, but places us firmly at its centre, so that we have a responsibility to our art that is the sister to the responsibility we have to our freedom and to the freedom of everyone in the world. The origin of art is in conflict but its resolution is in harmony. The theatre is a narrative performed in public before an audience who desire to know the truth behind the story.

The full story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has yet to be revealed. The longer we observe it the further is its outreach. Every war in the 21st century is a world war. The Russia owned tanker, the NS Champion, was due to on-load crude-oil at Flotta in Orkney later this last week of February, despite growing local anger. The Orkney Islands Council had said it was powerless to prevent the tanker accessing Flotta. However, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps decided that UK ports should refuse access to Russian boats. The Orkney Island Council then said the arrival had been cancelled. The UK’s attitude to Ukrainian refugees is not so clear cut, falling just short of hostile.

But the masculine world of real politics is not really interested in humanity but uses the rising and falling fortunes of finance and the security or insecurity of materials to gage the health of society, whether at peace or war. This mania to hold onto loot is at the root of Hobbesian “competition”.

Peter Beaumont, who is the foreign affairs editor of The Observer, chronicled as much last week when he wrote,

“As Moscow’s economy appears to be going into meltdown, all European airspace is closed to Russian airlines, sanctions are proliferating, and Russian oligarchs are moving their superyachts out the harm’s way, it’s worth recalling a key theory of how authoritarian leaders hold on to power. This theory – known as “coup-proofing” – was popularised by Edward Luttwak in his book Coup D’Etat: A Practical Handbook. The essence of Luttwak’s argument is that non-democratic leaders require other tools than simply coercion to coup-proof their regimes. Crucially that includes securing broader support among financial, political and security elites by sharing the spoils and prestige. In the Russian context it’s always been clear that there are enormous financial benefits to supporting Putin for a small circle. But the benefits that a lot of other individuals lower down the food chain have enjoyed are now seriously under threat.” The Guardian 28.2.22.

Is Londongrad and its cash laundromat under threat, at last? It could be that the democratic future of everyone in Europe is under threat, let alone my own idiotic optimism, if Putin is allowed to drive his tanks deep int the heart of Ukraine. That there is no government in Edinburgh that has the power to protect our native democracy is a local but none the less a profound political tragedy. Never has there been a time when the Scots have needed our independence more. I cannot hear my country speak. All I hear are foreign voices speaking on my behalf, but they do not represent me.

But all conflicts and crises pass, no matter their cost in blood and their material and psychological damage. For some reason, perhaps because I am both terrified and hopeful, emotionally drained yet determined to live, the words of the crazy, brilliant poem, “Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt” (1970) by Richard Brautigan fly into mind like a skein of greylag geese:

“Rommel is dead.

His army has joined the quicksand legions

of history where the battle is always

a metal echo saluting a rusty shadow.

His tanks are gone.

How’s your ass?”

It’s a question which is daily gaining a savage importance.

©George Gunn 2022

Comments (41)

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  1. Meg says:

    I share your despair of not knowing the real truth…..different reports from different media….one truth ..innocent people dying…
    What is the truth behind reports of biological weapon labs set up with funding
    by USA across Ukraine?….
    Why is it so hard for truth to surface…at the end of this crisis ..only the people who survive will have the truth to tell to the world
    Meanwhile we stand totally helpless and heartbroken .the roots of war are deep and hidden from the ordinary people who are sent in to fight. Propaganda rules……we will look back in anger

  2. Edward Chang says:

    Yes,Im sure the people of Ukraine are currently looking to their dreamers and poets.Good grief.

    1. 220301 says:

      I did wonder about that.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    An insightful piece, Mr Gunn, which has highlighted the issues which are genuinely problematic and for which a resolution will require a mix of time, compromise, will, goodwill, respect as well as military, propaganda, and civil action, including, as you indicate, by the arts. I think you are right to be hopeful and I think we all should be. I say this not because I see ‘solutions’ but because we are complex creatures, we humans, much more nuanced than the propagandists on the various sides would like us to believe and, as you say, over the course of history these things have passed; even the ‘hundred years war’ ended. Despite my implied characterisation of ‘propaganda’ as bad, propaganda has been used and continues to be used for good social and humane purposes and this is why the internet users in various places related to the war zone need to tell their stories, too. We saw an example in the book, “We are Iran” at the time following the deposing of the Shah. And, we need the artists, the story-tellers, the poets, the actors, the musicians.

    To return to the local, as you did, and our own debate about self-determination in Scotland, I think that you have correctly described the Tory mindset and that of some ‘unionists’ who are really ‘British or English nationalists’ and, in many ways not dissimilar in world view to that of the Russians around Putin, or the Germans around Hitler or the Italians around Mussolini, etc. You did not mention it explicitly, but Labour bears a fair measure of responsibility for this crisis, not just for the actions of the Blair/Brown governments, but all, going back to Attlee. And, the current leadership under Starmer, does not seem much different in significant ways to the attitudes of the Tories, not least in its ‘patriotism’ and its vague pronouncements. Now, of course, looking back over the history of Labour governments since 1945 there have been many transformative achievements, which have been genuinely redistributive and empowering and many of us, including myself, committedly voted Labour on may occasions. There are still many in the Labour Party, both in Westminster (not too many), and in constituency parties, who have different narratives. Sadly, not many of these remain in the Scottish Labour Party, with its shrunken membership, its dwindling numbers of voters and its very few elected representatives. The Scottish Party has little influence within the Starmer leadership and Starmer, clearly, has little interest in Scotland (or Ireland or, even Wales, despite Labour actually being in power).

    It is increasingly obvious to increasing numbers of people how hobbled Holyrood is in empowering those of us who live in Scotland to run things in ways, which are appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. Increasingly, trade union leaderships in Scotland (always some way behind their membership in Scotland in support for self-determination) are distancing themselves from Scottish Labour and making funding for Labour conditional and, sometimes, withdrawing it. Scottish Labour representatives are rarely now even asked for views on BBC Scotland programmes. Mr Alex Cole-Hamilton is interviewed more often. The labour Party in Scotland is becoming an irrelevance to many people. As the impacts of Brexit, continuing ‘austerity’, the yet-to-be-seen outcomes in central Europe begin to impinge on and impoverish increasing numbers of people in Scotland, how will Scottish Labour respond? Sadly, I suspect, we will have Bodger Broon intoning ‘pooling and sharing’ ad nauseam and criticising ‘separatists’.

    The irony of OZymandias’ inscription comes to mind.

    1. florian albert says:

      The Russian invasion of Ukraine may well prove to be a more significant event than 9/11 or the American invasion of Iraq, Leaving aside the fighting, it has already led to a seismic change in German foreign policy.
      Your response is to view it as another opportunity to voice your antipathy to the Labour Party. ‘Labour bears a fair measure of responsibility for this crisis.’
      I can’t avoid wondering why the rest of the world has not noticed and commented on this.
      The Labour Party in Scotland may well be an irrelevance. If so, it is only a part of the wider irrelevance of the Scottish left.

  4. 220301 says:

    As Hobbes would have said, we need the tyranny of a world government to keep our brutish natures in check; otherwise, we’ll continue to live our ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ sovereign lives in competition with one another for power, hegemony, and glory.

    Although, as Rousseau would have said, the problem is that it’s the competition among nations and gangs or ‘alignments’ of nations to establish such a tyranny that brutalises us and feeds the need for tyranny in the first place.

    Power politics is a bit of a b*gg*r in that respect, a ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’. Maybe the most prudent course for an independent Scotland to steer would be to remain aloof from the whole competition as best it can, playing the world powers off against each other, without taking sides in their quarrels.

  5. MBC says:

    In Buddhist thinking this is the age of Kali. Kali yuga. The age of destruction. Kali yuga brings about the end of the world in the following way. It is prophesised that there will be an age when The Word is broadcast and replicated around the world so many times and in so many ways that people will no longer believe The Word. They will become confused and the world will then collapse into chaos and destruction.

    Confronted with such a situation I can only offer the following. Follow your heart. Love life. Love each other. Give thanks. Help one another. Be kind. These things remain true if nothing else does.

    Today is a beautiful spring day and as I think about Ukraine and it’s madness and confusion I am giving praise and thanks that I can enjoy it.

    1. MBC says:

      I meant enjoy the day.

      1. George Gunn says:

        You are right. The day is beautiful. The future is beautiful. Thank you,

    2. 220301 says:

      ‘The End is Nigh’ has been prophesied off and on for thousands of years. I suspect it’s fake news.

  6. DonDon says:

    “But all conflicts and crisis pass, ”

    I always enjoy your writing, George, but it should be “crises”.

    1. George Gunn says:

      Ok. I’m a shit speller. And so Is Mike Small. So wis Gud.

      1. 220302 says:

        In the land of the Dutch, schietspelers shoot from the hip.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Hobbes was no empiricist of anthropology, although his writings were influenced by civil war and noble savage myths. His contemporary, Shakespeare, used the character of Rumour (Pheme? Fama?) in Henry IV Part 2 to illustrate the likely inaccuracies (aka poetic licence) in fresh-from-the-front war reporting which characterise rolling 24-hour news today. Shakespeare, with some qualification to do so, frequently pokes fun at the feigning nature of poetry in the plays, particularly in romantic employment. The perpetration of the great lie that poets are truth-tellers by the poets’ union has horrific modern consequences:
    “Scammers often use poetry, flowers and other gifts to charm their victims, while keeping them concerned with stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, death and injuries.”
    Shakespeare would not have been surprised. Poets are liars, swindlers, propagandists, suck-ups, and sometimes no doubt horrible people. I am pretty sure President Putin is a poetry fan too.

    1. George Gunn says:

      I’d be surprised. I think his copy of Burns is a bit unthumbed, no?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @George Gunn, Pushkin, duh:
        “Several critics have made the charge that Poltava is an apology for Russian Imperialism. J.P. Pauls (1962) accuses Pushkin of ‘propagating the Russian imperialistic cause’ and ‘distorting’ historical truth.”
        Anyway, I’m not sure why you’re plugging Burns especially; Bella has recently featured some poets who called him out for (amongst other faults) writing rape fantasy (I confess I mistook the poem for a victim impact statement/perpetrator shaming, maybe I don’t know what a rape fantasy looks like). Or are those poets not telling the truth?

    2. 220302 says:

      Hobbes’ anthropology certainly wasn’t experimental (his knowledge of human nature was based in part on his observation of its behaviour during the Civil War; that is, on his experience of human beings and the ways in which they interact.), though it did combine with the materialism and nominalism of his metaphysics to produce an extreme empiricism in relation to his epistemology. He held that all knowledge is conceptual (his nominalism) and derives mathematically by a process of ‘reckoning’ from concepts that are themselves nothing but the outcome of material impacts on the bodily senses (his materialism).

      However, he certainly didn’t assume any laissez-faire notion of ‘the noble savage’. From his observations of human nature throughout his lifetime, man would revert to a bestial state if left to his own devices and needed to submit through a social contract to an all-powerful central authority to avoid discord and civil war. Man in a state of nature, without the discipline and repression of an authoritarian society, would be far from ‘noble’.

      Hobbes would probably have taken the present conflict between nations as confirmation of his pessimism. Without the discipline of an authoritarian world government, man in his global ‘state of nature’ will be constantly prone to bellum omnium contra omnes.

      Žižek comes pretty close to this Hobbesian view when he argues that the current and ongoing deconstruction of capitalism is eliciting in global society both a fear of extinction and a lack of both the things necessary to what Hobbes called ‘commodious living’ and the hope of being able to obtain them, and that this fear and want will eventually lead us to escape for the sake of survival into the totalitarianism of ‘world communism’.

    3. Niemand says:

      You’ve really got it in for poets! By definition poetry is ambiguous so I’m not sure ‘truth’ as a precise portraying of reality is that relevant. Surely poetry is about trying to express the ineffable as much as anything but in a way that is far from factual or necessarily precise: ‘man hands on misery on man, it deepens like a coastal shelf’, or describing the sun as ‘Coined there among, Lonely horizontals, You exist openly’, (both Larkin, both revealing) or his poem on death, ‘Aubade’ which is the most honest and brilliant appraisal I have ever read on the subject which despite its bleakness I find uplifting because it is so unflinching and describes, I think, what many of us feel about it. So I’m not getting what you really mean by ‘poetry’.


      I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
      Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
      In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
      Till then I see what’s really always there:
      Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
      Making all thought impossible but how
      And where and when I shall myself die.
      Arid interrogation: yet the dread
      Of dying, and being dead,
      Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

      The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
      —The good not done, the love not given, time
      Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
      An only life can take so long to climb
      Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
      But at the total emptiness for ever,
      The sure extinction that we travel to
      And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
      Not to be anywhere,
      And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

      This is a special way of being afraid
      No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
      That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
      Created to pretend we never die,
      And specious stuff that says No rational being
      Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
      That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
      No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
      Nothing to love or link with,
      The anaesthetic from which none come round.

      And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
      A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
      That slows each impulse down to indecision.
      Most things may never happen: this one will,
      And realisation of it rages out
      In furnace-fear when we are caught without
      People or drink. Courage is no good:
      It means not scaring others. Being brave
      Lets no one off the grave.
      Death is no different whined at than withstood.

      Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
      It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
      Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
      Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
      Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
      In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
      Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
      The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
      Work has to be done.
      Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

      1. 220302 says:

        Depends what you mean by ‘truth’.

        If you mean ‘truth’ in the prosaic sense of ‘correspondence between what’s said to be the case and what’s in fact the case’, then poetry can never be true for the simple reason that poetry is not prose. If you mean ‘truth’ in the alethaic sense of ‘cultivating or imagining or releasing new meaning’ (‘poesis’), then poetry is the very business of truth.

        What SleepingDog fails appreciate is that there are a plurality of ways of being true. He criticises poets for claiming that their poetry is ‘true’ in the prosaic sense, but no poet actually claims this.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, you know I am never going to read that much poetry, right? I think I made my point very clear that poets criticise other poets for lying (feigning, deceiving, posturing etc) in poetry. As I said, many examples in the Shakespeare plays. Poets are sometimes guilty of maintaining their own mystiques (the cult of the poet), and of working for coin or ideology or under coercion (Stephen Spender worked for the CIA, for example). But given subject of the article is war (much glorified and distorted by poets), there are poetic genres which, by supposedly bearing witness, directly accuse those other poets of lying:
        And then you have all the empire poets. And the Instapoets.

        If I was not so lazy, I would put together a video skit or fake website which used AI to faithfully translate and transcribe a representative selection of each day’s published poetry in a rolling 24-hour news format. I’d call the channel ARTY. And let the viewers sift the dross for fragments of truth that they may simply be projecting upon the mess. Of course, when AI writes better poetry than humans it might lose a bit of status.

        Of course, there is probably some very good reason why witness testimony is not demanded in verse. But why cause so much offence to non-poets by insisting on poets (somehow, in unexplained fashion) have access to, and are exceptionally bold in telling, the truth? When empirical evidence suggests that autistic people or engineers or even philosophers might be inclined to truthfulness, but poets lie, lie, lie, lie, lie…(and also copy each other and contradict each other and don’t publish corrections and retractions)?

        1. Niemand says:

          I genuinely don’t understand SD – poetry is an artform not a source of news. It will express things that some feel are ‘true’ and others reject. So what? I posted the Larkin poem (which really, is worth a read) because it says something I think many can relate to about how we feel about death and in a way I have never read before. It does not lie to those people at all. Others (especially religious people) would call it false and reject its message. But it doesn’t matter any more than saying The Stones tell the truth and The Beatles lie, or vice versa. What matters is, if it does chime, your life is enriched and given solace by it. To me, this is the point of art.

          Art that has a primary political motive and purpose (including poetry) is compromised from the start for reasons you talk about which is why I have little l interest in such stuff because as art, it is impoverished.

          1. Meg Macleod says:

            Not sure who is saying that poetry is impoverished?????did I pick that up wrong??????

            Poetry…in the eye of the beholder as the old saying goes….can be life-enhancing..but you will know that when/if it happens to you

          2. 220303 says:

            SleepingDog is saying that poetry isn’t worth the candle because it doesn’t ‘tell the truth’; that is, because it isn’t prose.

            Niemand is saying that poetry is impoverished when it compromises its [non-prosaic] truthfulness for commercial or political ends.

            I’m saying that poetry that compromises its non-prosaic truthfulness for any end isn’t poetry.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, poetry ranks with the literary artform of public toilet graffiti: it has a really, really low entry bar. I accept that most poets (not robot ones, obviously) will be authorities in the fluff content of their navels, but no further. There may be many really terrible novels, but because of the effort it takes humans to produce, novels cannot possibly hope to compete with poetry when a poem can be knocked off (cribbed, cranked out, copied lazily) in seconds. So much poetry is so inherently trivial, banal, trite, opaque, ambiguous that it does not really matter if any of it can be considered true anyway: it just does not matter.

            I think there was some research from Harvard that creative people lie more. I guess poets writing about subjects they have no qualification in is also typically affected by Dunning–Kruger Syndrome. There is a kind of pathological lying in those poets on Bella insisting that poets are (the premier) truthtellers. Where, in our world beset by real and urgent problems, does the cry go out “listen to the poets!”?

            Poetry can be a retreat from reality, a glamour, as those poor victims of romance scams found to their cost, choosing to believe in flattering poetry and disbelieving their concerned friends and family. When we choose to listen to poets, we choose not to listen to those voices that might make us uncomfortable, the platform-less poor, the wretched and inarticulate, traumatised children. I found the most honest people in the underclass. We need whistleblowers, and ordinary people bearing witness. We need scientists to make sense of the world, and philosophers to make sense of sense. But we need most poets like we need a Vogon constructor fleet.

          4. 220303 says:

            Grafitti can be poetic or not. Writing that is ‘inherently trivial, banal, trite, opaque, ambiguous’ isn’t poetry. Writing that is confessional (i.e. takes as its occasion the fluff content of the writer’s navel) can be poetry, but hardly ever is.

            Many people who experience hardship and disadvantage have written exquisite poetry that doesn’t ‘tell the truth’, in the sense of giving a verisimilar description or documentary account of that hardship and its causes, but rather expresses that experience ‘truly’, as they have lived it, in ways that resonate with its audience and enable that audience to share that experience of poverty, mental illness, dying, or whatever, empathetically. Yes, those poets aren’t ‘telling the truth’ in the way you’d like them to, but that doesn’t make them ‘liars’.

            Perhaps you’d like to visit the poets of the Changing Lives project at Royal Edinburgh Hospital, who poeticise their lived experience of acute and chronic mental ill-health, and explain to them how their poetry is lies.

          5. Niemand says:

            I am beginning to think SD that you have no interest in artistic creative endeavour at all as far as I can see – you mention scientists and philosophers but not poets. But the logic of what you say is we don’t need musicians or novelists or painters any of them since the amount of effort that goes into making art is always of secondary importance (and to assume Larkin could knock out ‘Aubade’ in seconds is just plain wrong – it probably took months to write) and at its heart, its functional uselessness is its strength, its reason to be.

            All I can say really is man cannot live by bread alone (though maybe you can) and since mankind has been producing art of some kind since forever then I think you are out on a bit of a limb with this one. I also have no real desire to be made to suffer by anyone, let alone an artist and it would certainly not help those others who are suffering one bit. Enjoying the attack though even though I am a creative artist myself ha ha (not a poet I might add)!

          6. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, I am not saying art has no value or function; I am objecting to and disagreeing with the idea promoted by George Gunn and others that poets can reasonably or usefully be cast as truth-tellers. I also pointed out that imperialists and warmongers have been inspired by imperialistic and warmongering poetry. Further, I pointed out that past poets had made similar statements that poetry was more likely to be feigning than truthing, and that some poets had called out others for lying (Owen on Horace, say) or being rather bad sorts.

            As an aside, not specifically about poets but then you brought up creative arts in general, the BBC documentary Jobfished (whatever the facts of the case) brings up some really interesting questions about how close con-artistry is to creative media, and the psychologies of the people involved.
            I have heard a theory that, despite their familiarity with the lies and ruses of their trade, salespeople are often suckers for the pitches of other salespeople. True or not, I wonder if that applies to many creative people, who like those poor romance-scam victims, are sometimes complicit in their own deception. Just a note on the countermeasures brought up by Jobfished: reverse image web searches to detect false personal profile photographs will not work with AI-generated faces, which in the more advanced applications have already exceeded people’s ability to detect them. This in turn leads on to the possibly wicked problem of web provenance (PROV), and back to poetic attribution. Did those romance scammers make up their own poetry, adapt it, generate it, or simply copy it outright? Does the provenance of poems matter (yes, if they contain biographical details, statements of intent, appeals on grounds of need, proposals etc)? “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (look it up).

            Of course, there is no absolute distinction between poetry and prose, or even poetry and computer games, and my comments here may be ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek if not ironic, but it would be interesting to see some response to the particular charges against poetry I have here laid. Talking of computer games, a quote used by Civilization VI (“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” GK Chesterton) raises the issue of poetic omission.

            There was an extended fad for writing scientific papers in verse (the Euterpe Project has some fascinating research) but for some reason or other the genre faded into obscurity, although I did enjoy Roger McGough’s poetry for the Elements on Channel 4. I would also note that we are seeking the truth of the matter by dialogue, quite the Socrates we are, not in verse (not even verse with definitions, hyperlinks and footnotes, if such chimerical monsters exist).

          7. Meg Macleod says:

            ..condemning the poets vision is your conclusion…you are the man whose heart has not discovered the joy of a poem that cuts to the quick
            Poetry ……..sees … is an elixir……not all Poetry of course..there are always the good and the not so good as with everything…..
            I hope one day you might read a poem that changes your mind.I assume your mind is open to that possibility.
            Truth……well…now…the can of worms we guddle around in….poets search for it……

          8. 220304 says:

            ‘…it would be interesting to see some response to the particular charges against poetry I have here laid.’

            How about the foregoing responses:

            1. To claim that poetry tells or does not tell the truth in the prosaic sense is to mistake poetry for prose; poetry is not in the business of telling the truth in the prosaic sense.

            2. To argue that ‘Some poets have lied, therefore all poets are liars.’, is to commit an inductive fallacy.

            3. To ascribe the fact, that some poets have lied in the service of some noble or ignoble end to their being poets, is no less erroneous than ascribing the fact, that some philosophers, scientists, or engineers have likewise so lied, to their being philosophers, scientists, or engineers.

          9. 220304 says:

            And is George lying when he speaks in his article of the affirmatory function of art in times of denial, in ‘remaining true to’ or affirming the values that actions like those of the Russian state in Ukraine currently deny?

            How d’you like that response?

          10. Meg Macleod says:

            All I know .
            ,as a poet,I look for something I call truth when I write…simple.

          11. SleepingDog says:

            @Meg Macleod, unfortunately I do not have a questionnaire prepared, but I wonder how simple the task of transcribing truth can be. I gather it is a truism that when middle-aged people reread the poetry of their youth, they tend to flinch at its pretentiousness. One’s subjective viewpoint may fluctuate and flicker more quickly than that, of course.

            Not that I wish to deter anyone from writing poetry, surely the best way to demystify it. Someone once told me they wrote poetry to “get the shit out of their system” (therapy), then made me read it (gee, thanks) and then asked my opinion of it (awkward). Are poets in it for the likes? That is a bad algorithm for truth. Or to influence others? Ditto. Or to get paid/laid? Ditto-ditto.

            Or perhaps you feel strongly that your poetic truth should be heard because other poets are insufficiently truthful? But do what extent to poets call each other out on such a basis? Do bard battles settle the veracity of any accounts, the logical robustness of arguments, the revelation of heretofore uncovered pertinent material?

          12. Meg Macleod says:

            Unusual questions which suggest an underlying antagonism.. ?…..its just really much simpler than you imagine
            Like breathing……..

          13. Niemand says:

            SD – well sure , truth tellers is overplayed and sort of arrogant. Poets may reveal truths or they may not. But I am not seeing much difference between these poet ‘liars’ and a painter who paints to glorify war, or a nationalist song that is full of shit or even some cheesy, fake pop icon for that matter. Maybe it is the lauding of poetry you object to rather then simply the form itself? It would be more logical. I am a musician and I also find the sycophantic reverence and overstatement musicians can get from the media annoying. In fact I long to hear an interview where the interviewer actually engages with the work in a critical fashion and the artist is prepared to engage in that way (you used to get this but almost never now). Music is largely a craft with some important bits of inspiration but at the end of the day it deserves no more reverence than a competent plumber does.

            That doc looks really interesting though I do not find it that surprising in general – advertising and promotion relies on fakery all the time and the fact the fakers stop being able to tell the difference between fake and real tells us what we need to know about self-delusion. I have a deep interest in Films of Scotland stuff from the 60s which is blatant industrial promotional material and they use really good camerawork and music, cutting edge, experimental even, to get their messages across and the films are couched as documentaries. They are in a way but not how they thought as they are now documentaries on a way of making documentaries as promotion and a window on a time and style rather than on the subject matters covered (and they are still artistically great, despite the compromises, omissions and flaws).

          14. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, fair enough, broadly agree; some interesting points about how those documentaries were made. Yes, I am contesting the special claim of some poets to poetic truth. What makes poetry special? Not its truthfulness, and I would contend somewhat the reverse.

            In Chapter 2: Poetics, in Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction, Germaine Greer describes the works as stimulating understanding rather than taking a position, leaving the audience to make their conclusion. Aristotle’s Poetics laid down some constraints for poetic works. Such constraints can generate meaning (not to be confused with truth), but that also depends on context and audience literacy. So perhaps the poet is (at best) giving their reading something for their mind to work against, and directions to work in. However, since there are umpteen schools of poetic interpretation, this is in practice a very pluralistic and often misfiring response-generator.

            Where (concise) poetry can be very effective (in a similar way to political cartoons, like William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane) is in juxtaposition, which can excel in nailing hypocrisy, the kinds of double-standards evident in war reporting on official allies and official enemies:
            For comparison, I looked back in time to see what poets made of the British–French–Israeli conspiracy-invasion of Egypt in 1956 (aka the Suez Crisis) and found one poem in a web search, ‘Remember Suez?’ by Adrian Mitchell, in a blog post which makes clear the blogger did not understand the significance of the poem, until they had followed a footnote to a historical summary of what they described as a forgotten event. I find the comparisons with today suggestive. What role has poetry played in shaping and responding to events? Belated/anonymous publishing (Masque of Anarchy) aside. Verso’s Book of Dissent indeed contains poetry, but it is highly superselective with some biases more avoidable than others. Sure, some poetry had to adopt protective disguises under politically censorious regimes, perhaps the ‘gold and wax’ style of Ethiopia which I have heard of through Afua Hirsch is one example. But political poetry, such as that nation-building genre, is inherently contentious. The national poet of Persia would presumably find opposition from national poets advocating Kurdistan. How are culture wars conducted in poetry? By appeals to what truth?

          15. 220304 says:

            ‘What makes poetry special?’

            What distinguishes poetry is that, unlike other language games, it uses all the qualities of language (its physical and aural shape, rhythms, sounds, metre, kinesthetics, etc.), and not just its prosaic ostensible meaning, to create objects that are aesthetically pleasing. Its (primary) purpose isn’t to communicate propositional content (the stuff of sentences that can be true or false), but to produce sensuous linguistic artefacts (that is, objects that are attractive or gratifying to the senses rather than to the intellect).

            ‘What role has poetry played in shaping and responding to events?’

            Who cares? All that matters is that poetry makes us smile.

            ‘How are culture wars conducted in poetry? By appeals to what truth?’

            Not very well. Poetry is about as much use to a culture warrior as a bicycle is to a fish. And in any case: in culture wars, there’s no overarching truth to which those conducting them can appeal.

          16. Meg Macleod says:

            And I believe is a thread that is not to be underestimated it joins one to another …creates connections like an electric current ..poetry …

          17. 220305 says:

            Indeed, Meg; the ‘showing-rather-than-telling’ of poetry facilitates intersubjectivity or ’empathy’, which is yet another sort of non-representational truth or ‘faithfulness’.

        2. 220303 says:

          And yet… What lies does Larkin tell? Is his response to death not true (authentic and meaningful; of good faith)? And does his wordsmithing (the poem itself) not cultivate a sense of death’s – and life’s – bleak beauty?

          But you’re right all the same: Larkin’s poem doesn’t ‘tell the truth’ in the sense that a pathologist’s post-mortem report would ‘tell the truth’; it isn’t prose.

  8. Daniel Raphael says:

    Fine article. Indeed, the truth is always a fugitive during war; in some places such as the corporate-media-dominated USA, truth is an outlaw. Ask Julian Assange.

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