Originally published in the VICCA Journal, Aalto University, Finland 2016.
Today, as I write, is 31st October 2015, and the world – as ever – is full of crises.
The front page of the Guardian warns of a housing crisis in London. On the Helsinki Times, we learn that Stockmann department store is in crisis. The Telegraph alerts us to two crises: the first is the recent steel crisis, in which the last rites are being administered to Britain’s steel industry, which was, in the 19th century, a driving force behind Britain’s economic supremacy, and is now a symbol of what once was. A little lower down the page is the Telegraph’s second crisis – this time, an injury crisis at Arsenal football club.
Out in the lead, however, is the Financial Times, whose front page proclaims no less than four ongoing crises: a crisis of confidence at Valeant pharmaceuticals; a debt crisis in Greece; a digital advertising crisis for Sony studios; and, of course, the crisis du jour, what the FT terms “Europe’s migration crisis”. The terminology here is telling. For the FT, this is not a story of death, terror or loss for individual refugees or groups of migrants, forced to flee their own homes due to state oppression, religious extremism and civil war. These people are merely a “flood” – an act of God, a natural disaster that has placed an intolerable “burden” upon the societies and economies of Europe. For the FT, therefore, this is a crisis not for the migrants themselves, for they are not active agents; instead, this is a crisis for the decision-makers of Europe. The question is how to “respond” to the “surge”; how to solve the “dispute”; how to share the “burden”.
While such a perspective might seem shocking in its blinkered view of the world, it should not surprise us, for two reasons. The first reason is narrow and conditional. The FT is a newspaper aimed squarely at the decision-makers of the western world – politicians and civil servants, bankers, businessmen and CEOs. I say businessmen with some justification: according to industry statistics from 2014, 81% of the FT’s readership is male. What such men want to read about is themselves, and the importance of their own decisions.
The second reason is arguably broader. It cuts to the very heart of what we mean by crisis. What exactly is a crisis? One definition could be that a crisis is a situation – often urgent – that demands a decision, the effects of which may be significant, wide-ranging, even permanent. By this definition, therefore, a crisis requires not only a situation, but a decision-maker. Without agency, without power, there can be no crisis – only the inevitability of history or nature. Perhaps this is why FT readers – the men with the power – are the ones facing so many crises.
While we should always be wary of attributing too much to etymology, the development of the word crisis is nonetheless instructive. It stems from the Ancient Greek κρίσις, meaning both a dispute or quarrel and the resulting decision or judgment (often in a legal context). Related words in English include critic (one who passes judgement), criterion (the test upon which a decision is made), critical (important, crucial, decisive), and, less obviously, discern (to separate or distinguish, via the Latin verb cernere).
It is also worth noting that the Greek noun κρίσις comes from the verb κρίννω – which itself has a number of meanings: I separate or arrange, select or choose, discern between good and evil, express a preference, argue, dispute, decide, make a judgment, condemn. Etymologically, therefore, the critic is both investigator and accuser, judge and jury.
There is a further significance behind the verb κρίννω. According to the rules of grammar, a verb requires a subject: there must be a judge to make a judgement. Because crisis is a noun that stems from a verb, this supports the idea that a crisis must necessarily involve an active agent, deciding upon a course of action, or indeed, inaction – for even to decide to do nothing is itself to enact a decision.
In The Road Not Taken, the poet Robert Frost dramatises the moment of crisis. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” is the poem’s famous opening line. To be faced with a crisis is to be confronted by division, a divergence of options. The poem is shot through with doubt and internal debate. Nonetheless, a decision must be made. But to what effect? The poem concludes with the following stanza:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Here the narrator looks forward in order to look back upon a past moment of indecision, and the subsequent decision that has made “all the difference”. Frost himself later said that the poem was meant ironically – to poke gentle fun at the indecisiveness of his friend Edward Thomas. The narrator is simply choosing which path to take through the woods. How could this really make “all the difference”? Unless, of course, the lines are read metaphorically: many have chosen to take the poem seriously as metaphor, as a piece of advice for how we ought to live our lives. Thomas himself took it seriously. Author Matthew Hollis has read the poem in the light of World War One, and argued that it influenced Thomas’s decision to enlist in the army. He was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917.
When it comes to poetry, both author and readers have powers to respond and to make their own decisions. We could argue, then, that poetry always exists in a moment of crisis. But when is this moment? In the past, in the present, or in the future? To borrow from The Smiths:
When you say it’s going to happen now,
Well when exactly do you mean?
The time of the poem has long been subject for debate. There is a time of writing, and a time of reading. The poem exists in both. Throughout the history of poetry, attempts have been made to elide the two: to situate the two in a single, eternal, indivisible present. This was a recurring theme in Modernism, one inherited from the Romantics. The likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to deny the division of the present, positing the poem as indivisible, immortal. Again and again, they sought to pretend that la langue and la parole were one and the same, that they were saying their lines for the first time, here, now. Hence Wordsworth’s famous lines – in the present tense – from Tintern Abbey:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild;
Wordsworth and Coleridge described their work as “Lyrical Ballads” and saw them in the oral tradition, which seems to retain the proximity between speaker and audience. Why else the mid-line qualification of his own description of the landscape? “Hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows” is the 18th century equivalent of strikethrough text. It is an illusion.
Just as the Ancient Greek verb κρίννω signifies division in the act of decision-making (to choose between one thing or another), it also signifies a structural division in the very concept of the present tense. What I mean by this is not only the fact that the present exists as an overlap between past and future, a tense that Janus-like looks both backwards and forwards simultaneously. What I mean is that the present is always already divided into, on the one hand, the irreplaceable singularity of the event and, on the other, its machine-like repeatability. The present moment is a unique occurrence, but one that may be remembered, recorded and repeated. The written word – as remaining trace of the act of writing – draws our attention to this self-division of the present. But, as technology has now shown us, this is just as true for the oral utterance too – always already divisible, recordable, archivable.
If the time of the poem is divided, then at what time does the essay take place? Today, as I’ve written, is 31st October 2015. My deadline for this article is tonight. As you can see, I’m nearly finished.
Today is also Hallowe’en: the end of one month, and the cusp of another. It is at this time of the year that Christians remember the dead – the saints and the martyrs and the legions of the faithful. It is a time for looking back, for remembrance and the repetition of old customs
Today, as I write, is 31st October 2015. My deadline looms but there is just time for one final remembrance. The Romantics’ obsession with the illusion of orality may be traced right back to the origins of western poetry: to Homer. Although the Iliad and the Odyssey are generally read as tales of heroism and warfare, love and adventure, they may also be read as extended meditations on the relationship between speech and writing, and – in this context – upon the relationship between crisis and the present.
Although they come to us as printed texts, both epic poems are products of a preceding oral tradition. If Homer ever existed as one historical person, it is doubtful whether he alone composed these works, or whether he was the one to write them down. As is characteristic of such poetry, both the Iliad and the Odyssey are packed with stock epithets, generic phrases and even whole verses – repeated again and again. Such repetitions point to the poems’ oral origins. In so doing, they alert us to the repeatability of language.
Repeated a number of times in the Iliad is an inconsequential line that has nonetheless stuck in my mind since I first encountered it as a schoolboy:
Τον δ’ απαμειβομενος προσεφή κρειων Αγαμεμνων
The line translates simply enough as: “In answer to him spoke lord Agamemnon.” Agamemnon was the commander of the Greek armies. It is he who decided to go to war, to lead his men in ships from the Greek city of Argos to Troy in modern-day Turkey. It is not the meaning of the line that has imprinted itself upon my memory, but its repetition and the beautiful regularity of its rhythm: dactyl, dactyl, dactyl, spondee, dactyl, spondee.
Following three fast-dancing dactyls, it is upon the sonorous spondee of κρειων that the emphasis of the line falls. Κρειων is one of the stock epithets applied to Agamemnon – it means king or lord and it too stems from the verb κρίννω – from which, as we have seen, the English word crisis has developed. 67% of the Iliad is direct speech: authority is therefore denoted by the power to speak and to respond. Here, Agamemnon, his name delayed for emphasis until the end of the line, has the power to speak – to accuse, to pronounce, to make decisions, to wage war. This is the sovereignty of the king: to act in a crisis, to make a difference.
What does the king decide? How will the poet tell us? How will we choose to interpret it? For those with the power to intervene in the world – in their own lives, in the lives of others – the present is, by definition, a moment of crisis. That is my current contention. It too may be repeated, and may change in time. Like Agamemnon, I too have the power to change my mind.