I’ve said often that I consider Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, written in 1936, to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. I’ve been reminded a number of times recently of this little exchange between Lord Peter Wimsey and the woman he loves, Harriet Vane. Peter had fought in World War I and been badly traumatized by his role as an officer, having to send men off into battle.
Now he has been on a mission somewhere in Europe trying to smooth some diplomatic waters because of his role, as he puts it, of “the professional funny man of the Foreign Office.” Sayers didn’t know for sure, of course, that World War II would begin in 1939, but it’s obvious that she could see that something was afoot at this point in history when Hitler had been in power for three years:
“I thought—at one point we all thought—something might be going to happen. All the old, filthy uproar. I got as far as saying to Bunter one night: ‘It’s coming; it’s here, back to the Army again, sergeant.’ . . . But in the end, you know, it made a noise like a hoop and rolled away—for the moment.”
“Thanks to the comic cross-talk?”
“Oh, no. Great Scott, no. Mine was a very trivial affair. Slight frontier skirmish. Don’t get it into your head that I’m the man who saved the Empire.”
“Then who did?”
“Dunno. Nobody knows. Nobody ever does know, for certain. The old bus wobbles one way, and you think, ‘That’s done it!’ and then it wobbles the other way and you think, ‘All serene;’ and then, one day, it wobbles over too far and you’re in the soup and can’t remember how you got there.”
Boy, if that isn’t a scary thought! It was reinforced for me yesterday as I listened to the excellent podcast “Need to Know,” with two of the most civilized, literate, thoughtful people you could ever hope to meet, Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger, as they discuss the current state of American politics and the world at large. If you decide to listen you may want to skip to about minute 53, as there are some rather slow parts earlier on. But in the last 10 minutes or so they get into a discussion of how fragile civilization really is, and how little it can take to tip society over into violence. Jay is in Salzburg, Vienna, following the music scene there, and he makes the point of how unimaginable it is to look at that beautiful city and think of the horrors that the Nazis brought upon it—and how many people bought into its doctrines.
Well, perhaps not a terribly happy post today, but there’s nothing to be gained by hiding one’s head in the sand or saying, as I often do, “Oh, maybe it won’t be so bad. We’ve weathered worse.” Hurricane Harvey, more North Korean missiles, chaos in the White House—on and on. Is the bus tipping irretrievably? Who knows? All one can do is to do what one can. Sitting on the sidelines and wringing one’s hands isn’t an option.
I am reminded again of the Stephen Covey’s “circle of concern vs. circle of control” principle. What’s my circle of control, and what am I doing to improve it? How about you?