The return of the eternal return of the...
In yesterday's post about "The Road Not Taken," the first commenter, "anonymous," related the poem to the second-guessing of political and military decisions.
Frost's poem reminds me once again why I get so annoyed with those who demand that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for mistakes made in Iraq. How can he or we know if more troops would have made a difference, or perhaps fewer troops. How can we know if different plans would be better or worse.
I keep imagining Bush critics, when facing a major decision, running first down one road one hundred yards and then running back to go three hundred yards down the other. Finally, exhausted, they collapse at the Y with nothing accomplished.
World leaders have to make decisions; the image of being stuck at the fork in the road and collapsing, exhausted, doesn't inspire confidence. And yet, once decisions are made, we have to at least try to evaluate them in order to learn from them. But the task is complicated, not just by political partisanship (on both sides), but by the difficulty of ever knowing what the proposed alternative actions might have led to instead.
Interestingly enough, in the Kundera novel I quoted in that Frost post--The Unbearable Lightness of Being--Kundera himself relates the idea of the non-repeatability of human life to the process of political and national decision-making. He writes:
Several days later, [Tomas] was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter: Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.
And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives,
And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.
That was Tomas's version of eternal return.
Of course we are here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man's power? Can he attain it through repitition?
Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.
Or, to look at it from the perspective of a moviegoer: the optimist enjoys "Groundhog Day" (preferably, over and over); the pessimist prefers "Peggy Sue Got Married."
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (made into a movie that I, for one, considered unbearable, especially compared to the book that inspired it) was written in 1984, when Kundera's native Czechslovakia was still under Soviet domination. Kundera could not see past the curve in the road to a future that was not even so very distant; he did not imagine that a Communist collapse was imminent (of course, in that lack of foresight, he had plenty of company).
Concerning decision-making in Czech history, Kundera wrote:
There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end, as surely as Tomas's life, never to be repeated.
In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czech's country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In countrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. What should they have done?
If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to check the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses...
The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of all of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe are a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience.
We remain trapped in "mankind's fateful inexperience," I'm afraid. Human life and history contain too much complexity, too many unpredictabilities and uncertainties, for us to ever really know whether the best decision was made. We can only try to apply the lessons of the past, knowing full well that we can never learn them quite well enough.