Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Quote of the Day (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on the Perilous ‘Dreamful Ease’ of Languishing)

“Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.” —English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832)
This poem, inspired by an episode from Homer’s Odyssey, came to my attention through an article last year by The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim. The piece likened the situation of Odysseus and his men to the phenomenon of “languishing” experienced by so many during COVID-19.
The metaphor may have seemed appealing at first glance, with its sense of losing a purpose-driven life. But the strange creatures that Odysseus encounters were slothful and blissed-out from consuming narcotic-like fruits and flowers—more like the hippies of the ancient world—rather than the anxious people working at their computers over the past two years.
Moreover, Odysseus’ purpose was to get home, to Ithaca; the purpose of the COVID-anxious population since the start of the pandemic has been to stay home, until the danger abates.
One year after Swaim’s article, the United States is at a different stage of the pandemic, with many having returned to offices. But the life many of us remembered no longer exists, any more than Odysseus' circumstances did after 20 years away from Ithaca.

Last year, psychologists and economists hoped that, with the development of vaccines, Americans could progress from “languishing” to “flourishing.” But that has not quite come to pass.
And who knows? Despite the protests of politicians like New York Mayor Eric Adams, some restrictions from the first year and a half of COVID-19 might be put in place again, if the current surge continues. 

In that case, a different poetic metaphor for our time will need to be found—one that takes full account of the “dreadful past” that Tennyson, at this early stage of his career, so marvelously evoked.

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