Poised on the Perilous Point
The strategic is more urgent than the urgent
by Nicholas Dungan
Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.
Lay on thy whips, O Love, that we upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
In Gaudy Night, the exquisite novel by Dorothy L. Sayers published in 1935, Harriet Vane, a mystery writer and the book’s protagonist, returns to Oxford, where she writes the first eight-line stanza of this sonnet, a description of the peacefulness of her alma mater but equally a billet doux to Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s aristocratic detective hero. Discovering the opening octet, Wimsey pens the subsequent sestet and so completes the sonnet, but in contrapuntal mode, rejecting the ‘still centre’ in favour of an upright, manly, activist position: ‘poised on the perilous point’.
There is a widespread conviction in the world today that we are poised on the perilous point — an eerie feeling across the globe that humanity is somehow at a tipping point, an inflection point, poised on the perilous point between success and failure — faced with an opportunity, by adopting radically different behaviours towards each other and towards our habitat, to thrive as a united species, lest, through ignorance or division, ‘Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead’.
Questioning the peril of the current era seems almost a heresy. The world is still reeling from the imbalances created by the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, especially the gross inequalities which resulted from governments throwing good money after bad, which contributed not to productivity but to asset price inflation that made the richest even more undeservedly richer. The United States has not recovered from the populist surge of Donald Trump’s election and bitterness on the part of his supporters at his failure to win re-election; the same violent scenario is set to return at the time of the US mid-term elections in November 2022 and the next US presidential election in November 2024. The United Kingdom has most certainly not recovered from the throes of Brexit and all the divisions it created. The Covid 19 pandemic took the world by surprise and the global system was for many months shaken as lockdowns, closed borders, divisions between nations and, again, inequalities among peoples were accentuated. In the aftermath of the pandemic and with the addition of the destabilising effects of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine on global supply chains, transnational flows of energy and foodstuffs, uncertainty and fragility seem to have become the norm. Add to that the sense of an impending energy crisis, labour shortages arising from people’s desire not to do menial jobs from which they were exempt during the pandemic and price inflation fuelled by energy and food costs which the US Federal Reserve and other central banks are slamming on the interest-rate brakes to try to reduce. Climate change remains seriously under-addressed and agreed climate targets are being violated all the time.
There are, on the other hand, perfectly sound arguments to be made, as Steven Pinker does serially, that the world and humankind within it are vastly better off than at many previous stages in history. It can be cogently posited that we enjoy more peace, more safety, more prosperity, better health, better education, longer and more fulfilling life spans and a greater sense of shared humanity and shared humanistic values than at any earlier time. Many of the elements that we blame for our current disquiet — technology and telecommunications first among them — have actually provided massive improvements in the human condition. Moreover, the other side of the coin of crisis is not so grim: the fact that nations have acted in some sort of harmony against the financial crisis, against the Covid crisis, even against the Ukraine crisis is no small feat.
So why do we feel that the sky is falling? What is it about all these phenomena that makes us so uneasy? One reason arises from the fact that virtually none of these events was foreseen. As Queen Elizabeth said of the global financial crisis, ‘If this was so big, why did nobody see it coming?’ The answer to that is a strange and sinister combination of two factors: an over-confidence in stability and an addiction to the short term day-to-day over the long term big picture. These behavioural distortions reveal themselves to be mutually reinforcing: if you think everything is pretty robust, then you can afford not to pay attention to anything except the here-and-now.
A further reason is in fact due to technology, whether the twenty-four-hour news cycle or Twitter or messaging via WhatsApp or Telegram. The present is constantly intruding upon our present. Leaders, who should know better (and many do), have great difficulty in taking their eye off their Likes on a LinkedIn post, or the next week’s or next month’s agenda of meetings and commitments. They have essentially lost control of their time. They have no time left to think.
What is to be done? The answer is devastatingly simple and devilishly difficult. Priority must be given to the strategic over the urgent. None of the critical events which have led to desperate crisis management was impossible to foresee, indeed to predict. Several of them were repeatedly predicted. But the combination of wishful thinking, of denial of reality, of an inability to escape the immediate, of an ingrained habit to give priority to doing rather than to thinking led to — and will lead again to — a sense of events controlling us rather than us being able to control events.
The way for us to steer away from the perilous point is in the first stanza of the sonnet: we must move ‘To that still centre where the spinning world / Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest’.