Essex, Brexit, Art and Fear

nicola_tesla_artificial_lightningI normally write about environmental science and technology but I can’t help but notice when governments and economies behave like damaged environmental systems or unstable high voltage oscillators. Global economies have taxed future generations via inflationary policies and amplified the gap between wealth and poverty. The hot smell of ozone should warn us that a fuse is about to blow.

Donald Trump, the cults of violence, the treatment of refugees, unnecessary wars and Thursday’s Brexit vote demonstrate that even the wealthiest, most stable, well-educated and sensible countries can choose a self-destructive path as described in W.B. Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming”, written in the grim aftermath of World War I:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
 Are full of passionate intensity…

Charts, reports and spreadsheets can illuminate the logical side of our brain but they don’t burn at the core of our soul in the way that art, poetry and music can. The Brexit vote painted British artists into a corner along with other residents of the UK.  But as free-willed thinkers, artists can counter-balance the madness of crowds and reconnect citizens of the world to one another and to a brighter future.

Anne Frank and Studio Syria defy our one-dimensional stereotypes of refugees. Picasso illustrates the horrors of war in Guernica. Kubric and Kusterica show us its madness. In his Trois couleurs trilogy, director Krzysztof Kieślowski explores the three pillars of democracy. Composer Zbigniew Preisner gives us a powerful vision of hope, love and peace in his Song for the Unification of Europe, crucial dimensions of the European Union that many seem to have forgotten.

Artists can help us re-balance our stories of hope and fear. In the tragedy that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a whale sunk The Essex. The captain and crew considered sailing their lifeboats to nearby Tahiti, but rumors of cannibals grew into a large and well-defined fear in their minds. They ignored the more abstract fear of starvation and sailed thousands of miles to the coast of South America, and they themselves resorted to cannibalism, eight survivors having consumed seven of their mates.

This is much like the way our fear of terrorism trumps the more likely but hard to imagine risks of climate change, pollution and environmental destruction.

In a reflection of the tale of the Essex castaways, the English county of Essex had one of the highest Brexit leave votes. The imagined fear of immigrants and refugees made for a better story than the undefined fear of what happens when the UK sets itself adrift.

Photo of Nicola Telsa via Wikipedia. Tesla expressed no fear of high voltage electricity. But he was deathly afraid of pearls.

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