There are no beginnings, not really, and even the days that seem to change the world overnight are just black flowers blossoming on branches that stretch infinitely forwards and backwards. Fear and hate are the insidious dark matter of the human universe, they creep slowly and assuredly, and the falling planes, the smoking towers, the president’s wife scrabbling to gather her husband’s brain matter off the bonnet – these are mere sputterings into flame, bright suns flaring briefly to distract us from the invisible architecture on all sides.
I’m sitting in a café on Streatham Hill, and a hard rain is falling out the window. In one corner, a muted television relays footage of American voters both euphoric and defeated, their new president looming like one of his skyscrapers, infinitely more solid and shadow casting than the caricatures of recent months would have us believe. Ostensibly I’m here to prepare a class on the Old English poem Beowulf, a chivalric tale of knights and flesh eating fenland zombies that I’m introducing to my year sevens this week. I’m planning on asking them what elements of this thousand-year-old poem resonate with them as modern Brits, and I want to sketch some ideas of my own in advance. As I watch the orange ogre mugging for the cameras, the flags fluttering and the ticker tape falling, I know the answer: that which resonates across the millennia is hatred and fear, the spectre of the unknown clawing its way out of foreign lands to ransack the halls of civilisation, and the men of pure blood willing to wade into battle to tear it limb from limb, to reinforce the walls that keep bad things at bay.
I’m reminded of the spoken word lyrics to a song called Have You Passed Through This Night? by Explosions In The Sky:
This great evil – where’s it come from?
How’d it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from?
Who’s doing this?
Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might of known?
The Beowulf poet had a Biblical answer to that question: the monster desecrating the royal hall is the offspring of Cain, who doomed his line to darkness by murdering his brother. While there’s something satisfying about the symbolism, it seems more likely that fear and hate are rooted in evolution: in fight-or-flight mechanisms struggling to find uses in modern society; in the residual hold of superstitious beliefs that once allowed our embryonic conscious minds to rationalise the void; in the mess of the world we’ve built for ourselves, founded on difference rather than unity, on the plunder of resources and repression of the spirit.
All of which would be easier to bear if things were unrelentingly awful, but there is so much to inspire hope and suggest that we’re dragging ourselves slowly into the light. We’ve managed to connect the people of the planet in a digital network that could surely serve as the foundation for a future based on unity; we’ve made staggering discoveries about the nature of the universe and our place in it, and each year seems to bring us closer to a unified theory of existence. We produce feats of engineering that seem capable of eradicating the problems that plague the developing world – vertical farming, snap together housing, devices for turning river water into drinking water – and we continue to create art that helps us reflect the sublime beauty of existence.
Yet it’s hard not to feel on a day like today that such moments are the exception to the rule, small flowers creeping between cracks in the car park. If unity is the future, then the election result in America – like the UK’s vote to withdraw from the EU earlier this year – is a huge step backwards, a refusal to acknowledge that the world’s problems are global problems, that any solutions must be global solutions. All around us borders are being strengthened and walls are being built, and the inevitable result will be a world at war – not a war like that in Beowulf, with its long ships and its swords inscribed with runes, but one in which the technology capable of saving us is used instead to target and destroy us.
‘Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might of known?’ For all the seeming inevitability of our current situation, it’s impossible not to imagine a different world, one in which we live in harmony, free from fear and superstition, uniting to make life bearable for each and every child of earth. Maybe that’s another part of history repeating: the songs of peaceful protest drowned out by the roar of warplanes and hate speeches. Or maybe that’s what love is – not something true or totalising, but a force that exists only in opposition to a great evil. Wherever it comes from, this great love, however it steals into the world, whatever seed, whatever root it grows from: we need it now more than ever.