Over the last several weeks, reading news of disorder and upheaval from Venezuela to the Levant to Ukraine to Iraq to Afghanistan, I have thought often of a poem written almost a century ago. Thomas Hardy composed "The Convergence of the Twain" in memory of the sinking of the Titanic. It was published in 1915, three years after the great ship made contact with the deadly iceberg, but reading it today one cannot help experiencing its timelessness, cannot help sharing in its tragic sense of fate.
Hardy’s theme is the vanity and fragility of progress, of technological achievement, of wealth and human power when compared with the immensity and amorality of nature. When I read the poem today however I am drawn to its final stanzas, where Hardy writes of the limits of human foresight, of sudden and unexpected changes in fortune, of the horrible things that can result from the collision of disparate elements. What seems disconnected, separate, foreign, distant, estranged can suddenly cohere in terrible and revelatory events: a Titanic, a Pearl Harbor, a 9/11, a Boston Marathon bombing. I worry that one of those events approaches us now.
Hardy’s poem begins with the image of the Titanic "in a solitude of the sea / Deep from human vanity." It is a ruin. Frigid waters flow through the "steel chambers" of the engine room, which once "late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires." Beasts of the sea—"grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent"—crawl "Over the mirrors meant / To glass the opulent." The ornamentation of the cruise liner is dimmed, "bleared and black and blind." Where human beings once walked, "Dim moon-eyed" fish swim instead. Hardy anthropomorphizes them, has the fish ask, "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" What caused the wreckage?
Hardy’s answer is "The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything." As the engineers, mechanics, and builders fashioned the Titanic in Belfast Harbor, they had no awareness of that "Immanent Will," which unbeknownst to them "prepared a sinister mate / For her—so gaily great— / A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate." The ship and her nemesis were intimately connected: "And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." In retrospect the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the christening of the Titanic was pitiable. The iceberg was always out there. It was always waiting.
Watching the strange mix of clumsiness and insouciance with which Barack Obama and John Kerry approach the world, the abstract and aloof manner in which they comment and posture on foreign affairs, it is hard not to recall Hardy’s metaphor of growing dangers distant from the center of civilization. The recent news of a possible terrorist plot against airliners flying to the United States, and of a threat against the U.S. embassy in Uganda, remind us of the durability of the ideology and menace of Islamic terrorism. The ability of non-monarchical Arab governments to control their populations has collapsed, creating an arc of stateless space that begins in Libya and Egypt, is briefly interrupted by the tiny, embattled, belittled, and bullied Jewish State, and extends through Lebanon into Syria and western Iraq.
This is our iceberg. Within its confines murderers and barbarians roam, butchering each other and anyone else who is caught in the crossfire. Within its confines followers of al Qaeda gather and plot. They will not remain within its confines for long, though. Anyone who pays the least attention to the articles inside the New York Times will have noticed leaks by officers of our intelligence agencies, leaks desperately warning that the jihadists have turned their eyes to Europe and to the United States. It is no secret. At the end of last month the Director of National Intelligence told Congress that al Qaeda is no less of a threat than it was when it attacked in 2001.
Our response? The United States has no influence in Egypt, it has left the Syrian dictator more secure, it has left him with his stash of WMD, and it has no pull over Lebanon, no pull over Iraq. The United States is gutting its military, it is pursuing negotiations with Iran whose only point is, in the words of one former Obama official, to "buy time." It is withdrawing from Afghanistan and leaving it in the hands of the former hosts of al Qaeda, and it is lifting asylum restrictions to make it easier for Syrians with "loose ties" to terrorism to migrate here.
The United States is about to lose strategically important drone bases in Afghanistan, it has found itself out-maneuvered by Vladimir Putin at every turn, its policies toward hotspots in Venezuela and Ukraine seem nonexistent. The policy is to talk above all, to keep talking in Geneva with the Syrians, to keep talking in Vienna with the Iranians, to keep talking in Jerusalem with the Israelis and the Palestinians, no matter that the talk accomplishes nothing, no matter that it drains resources, energy, and personnel that could be put to more constructive use elsewhere. His policy in Syria in tatters, his negotiations with Iran a charade, the secretary of State flew to Indonesia last week to rally the world against the amorphous force of climate change. Why do something about 130,000 dead Syrians, about proliferating weapons of mass destruction, when you can poke fun of those who dissent from the scientific consensus?
The territory over which al Qaeda claims sovereignty is growing, our influence in the Middle East is shrinking, and serious contenders for the American presidency want to make it more difficult for the government to survey the enemy. Our president and his administration interpret these developments, if they interpret them at all, in isolation, as discrete situations, as the inevitable consequences of the post-American world they are so diligently helping to bring into being. "Alien they seemed to be," Hardy writes. "No mortal eye could see / The intimate welding of their later history."
The fecklessness of our government and the dangers in the Middle East are the "twin halves of one august event." We do not know when that event will occur. We know only that it will occur, and that there will be no sign of the crash until the "Spinner of Years" says,
"Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.