Tom P. Abeles
(S)hould the multinational imperatives of the Second World War take
precedence over the nationalisms that fueled the First?
— Darras, 56.
"Man is a time creature, living in time and by time"
- Wordsworth quoted by Darras, 88.
No longer do we thirst for novelty at any cost, but rather we are beginning
to develop a new sense of our own duration and of how to deal with it.
- Darras, 89.
Beyond the Tunnel of History is a metaphor which uses the very existence and inevitability of the "chunnel" between Britain and France to explore the ebb and flow of Darras' feelings regarding the integration and disintegration of national cultures in Europe over time. As the first French thinker to be given the honor, by the BBC, to deliver the Reith lectures, Darras uses this podium as a vehicle to expose his own uncertainty as to the significance of this latest attempt to build connections between disparate value systems as physically represented by the Tunnel and as manifest through the development of the political bridges in the form of the European Common Market.
This slim volume of prose has the melancholy feel of the blank verse of T S Eliot. It wavers on the brink of optimism, yet, in the end, yields, not believing that the elegance and quiet sophistication of the past, melding politics, religion and commerce, can ever manifest itself in the present, much less the future.
Like his country, France, Darras is confronted with the novelty and desire for change as originally declared in the tenets of the French Revolution, and now, amplified by the import of cultural imperialism and materialism from the United States, perhaps as seen in Euro-Disney. He hopes, but not with great conviction, that Europe in general and France, in particular, like China, in the past, might absorb these intrusions as a micro event in its larger history. And, while we can not turn back the hands of time, that which is noble will absorb the novelty.
Unlike Umberto Ecco, who embraces the melding of the past, present and future and yet maintains a high degree of optimism, Darras is an antiquarian seeking solace in a past that never was. As a critic, he sees the world through the eyes of others, the architects and planners, the scholars, and, particularly, poets.
Seen from this side of the Atlantic, France is an enigma. On one hand it represents the heights of cosmopolitanism coupling the elegance of the past with the sophistication of the present. Yet segments of French society both embrace and recoil at the mercantilism and commercialism rolling across the borders with the swiftness of the Wehrmacht. The intensity of these emotional confrontations and the vibrancy of this cultural debate seem to break ineffectively against the romanticism of Darras, the antithesis of an iconoclast.
Thus, the strength of this volume may, at the same time be its short coming. Can this solid, tortoise-like, scholarship win against the agility and transformational nature of the evolutionary hare? Can the quiet patience of noblesse oblige, the European cultural heritage, maintain itself when faced with post modern dynamics and the global brain?
It has been pointed out that he who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past controls the future. Husserl and others have pointed out that the past is changed by the present, as is the future. Complex dynamics, or chaos theory cogently points out that not only are our maps of reality evolving, but the underlying grid on which we map this reality is also dynamic.
Much of the mathematics was developed by PoincarŽ at the end of the 1800's, where the early origins of the postmodern paradigm are found (Toynbee has subsequently moved the post modern origins into the early 1900's). And this transformation, which did not become highly visible until the mid 1900's represents a paradigm shift.
Yet the strength that Darras draws on lies in this past, on the other side, like the looking glass world of Lewis Carroll. Darras is suspended in this romantic universe like Poe's M. Valdemar. He seems almost willing to accept visionary handicaps, like the characters in Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, to avoid the snap of the finger that will wake him from his hypnotic trance, transforming him into the 20th century.
With the rise of the postmodern and, particularly, complex dynamics, logical positivism died. The idea that the observer was separate from the observed no longer was a tenable position. In the area of news reporting, the BBC still likes to maintain this fiction. Darras, the poet, critic and translator is a fitting choice for one of this venerable institutions most prestigious programs. Darras' presentations and dispassionate style fits the British preference for quiet under statements.
Thus, the volume, edited by the BBC's Daniel Snowman, works at many levels. Let the French citizen, the admirer of Wordsworth, carry the conservative flag forward. Academics rarely raise McLuhanesque questions when given such a prestigious platform. Perhaps the Battle of Hastings may not be over.
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of Splendor in the grass;
of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind;
Time Present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
- T. S. Eliot