Prospero’s Castle

Amongst the bereft and marginalised in our society, a group I feel particularly sorry for are those who have had an incomplete education.  I think particularly of those who have had the misfortune to attend a private school.  (In England, for reasons that escape me, a private school is called a “public” school.)  You might call such an institution an “exclusive” school.  Membership of an exclusive club of any sort is generally much sought after, but is there not something distasteful about wishing to be exclusive?  The first duty of any exclusive club is to retain its exclusivity; this is achieved by the act of excluding people who are undesirable.

The trouble with attending a private and exclusive school is that you are liable to acquire a skewed notion of life, and of how life is, for most people.  This is particularly harmful to those who have been groomed (and I use “groomed” advisedly – it is after all a kind of abuse) for positions of political leadership.  Reared in a world of exclusivity, you are liable to come out with that political sound bite that I have come to distrust most of all – “We have had to make some tough decisions.”

Nothing could cast a more lurid and macabre light on the election immigration debate than the news that 700 souls have been lost in the Mediterranean this weekend.  Can you conceive of any utterance more crass than that voiced by many European nations, including the United Kingdom, that Mediterranean search and rescue should be abandoned because it only encourages others to attempt the journey?  Perhaps we said to the people in the water, not waving but drowning, “We have had to make some tough decisions.”

When I heard about all this I reread Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Have you read it?  Do.  I should think it’s less than 2,500 words long – a fifteen minute read.  It is one of these pieces of literature that will change you, irreversibly.  But it is not a comfortable experience.  It’s like one of these news items that comes with a health warning: some viewers might find these images disturbing.  It is very hard to believe that it was written in the first half of the nineteenth century, because it is of our time.  If I were to choose a piece of literature that reflects our zeitgeist, redolent of the predicament of our time, it would be The Masque of the Red Death.

When his dominions become devastated and depopulated by a virulent infection characterised by a haemorrhagic eruption and rapid decompensation, Prince Prospero retires, with a thousand of his knights and dames, into the deep security and seclusion of his castellated abbey, where he gives himself over to pleasure.  There are seven chambers in the abbey, irregularly placed but running more or less east to west, each more grotesque than the last.  On the west wall, there is an ebony clock with a pendulum, and, on the hour, a doom-fraught chime.   “There were buffoons, there were improvisatori.”  (How could Poe have known about television, and how it was going to evolve?)  I won’t describe much more, but it will hardly surprise you that the plague gets in, and everybody has a bad end.  It’s an archetypal story.  It has the same horrific quality as the story of Belshazzar’s feast, so vividly re-enacted in William Walton’s oratorio.  The great panegyric to all the false gods of precious metals, suddenly cut short by the writing on the wall.  Mene mene tekel upharzin.  Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

I wonder if Fortress Europe, or more generally, “The West”, is Prospero’s Castle.  Read The Masque and see what you think.   Imagine you stand on the shore of a country that has become so hellish that it seems a good option to get into a rickety boat, with hundreds of others, and risk drowning.  This is like being trapped on the 80th floor of a towering inferno; you elect to jump – it’s the better option.  Almost none of the Great Issues of our time – War, Famine, Pestilence, Injustice, climate change, and – the elephant in the room – overpopulation, figure in the current election debate.  How are we all going to get on together, without destroying one another, and the planet?  There isn’t even an academic discipline devoted to this question.  Our best young minds are encouraged to do something else.

Meantime, should we pull up the drawbridge and deploy the portcullis?  And renew Trident?  When we finally get round to deploying Trident I know exactly what will be said at the ensuing press conference.

“We have had to make some tough decisions.”

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