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Sunday, 2 April 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls


Donne's Meditation XVII contains possibly one of the best known and most frequently misquoted passages in all of English literature. The line is usually rendered:
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
It should be:
"...and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
It's not really an earthshaking error, and I'm generally pretty relaxed about it. The highly grammatical English of past ages is always subject to truncation and simplification, this process being one of the perils and joys of using a living language. What does infuriate me, however, is the truncation of meaning.

It's typical of our solipsistic post-modern slackness that, knowing only this tiny fragment (and incorrectly at that), we so often interpret this to be entirely concerned with our own individual mortality. I remember being taught this passage in school, and being told with the firm authority of schoolteachers everywhere that it meant that death comes to us all, and nothing more.

This is egregiously, painfully, incorrect. When we consider the whole of the document from which this quote is so often cherry-picked, we find that its primary concern is not mortality, but the interconnectedness of all humanity. This is the same meditation in which we find the line:
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent; a part of the main."
Which was taught us as if it were an entirely separate thought, coming from a separate document. It is not. The meditation moves through a beautifully constructed line of argument, establishing humanity's interconnection through the church, and therefore god, and therefore in all our joys and afflictions. We are not to avoid sending for whom the bell tolls because it is we who are about to die. That's a possibility, of course, but it's not the point of the passage. The point is that the tolling of the bell should never feel like some remote occurrence - the affliction of the alien or other. When one part of humanity suffers and dies, so too does a part of ourselves. Far from being some sort of grim reflection on our own suffering, it is an exhortation to own the suffering of others - to cease the endless contemplation of our own navels and join the community of humanity by realising the depth and magnitude of our very real investment in it.

With or without god, the argument holds valid - whether we understand it or not, it is very much a corporate effort in which we are engaged. We in the west have been so successful at this effort that large groups of people are able to claim, with a straight face, that the artificial construct of individualism is, in fact, the natural state of our species, and should be legitimised through law and society. This is either profoundly stupid, or the product of a severe disconnection from reality and/or the past. Whether we directly see it or not, humans in society are like fish in a school. The least turning of one turns us all, and those who wish to scatter the school, believing in their own solitary power, are condemning each individual fish to the maw of the leviathan.

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