Act Three of this play, in which bombast and braggadocio came face to face with dignity and decency, was a long time coming, but come it did, amidst tears of relief and spontaneous displays of unrestrained joy. Glued to its radios and television sets, the world watched in awe.
Suddenly, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote over a century ago, “everyone... burst out singing”. Or, to turn Auden’s line on its head, “one irrational voice was dumb”.
Pundits worked overtime to explain what had happened. There were various explanations for the overthrow, but one featured in list after list: sheer weariness. People in the United States, it was said, were simply fed up with being bombarded with tweeted insults, with daily news of fresh attacks on established norms, and with vitriol and anger. They wanted quiet. They wanted the volume turned down. They wanted less to be happening.
As a result, many who may have had their reservations about the Democratic Party, and who would normally have voted for the Republicans, chose nonetheless to vote Democrat. It was a vote of the weary, the exhausted.
Hard to find shouty headlines
On this side of the Atlantic – indeed anywhere – there are plenty of people who will understand that weariness. We, too, have had far too many events, with crises both man-made and natural. The man-made crises have come in on the coat-tails of political and constitutional uncertainty.
Confrontation and divisiveness have had a field day and see plenty of attractive prospects ahead. The elements have visited us with storm after storm, as climate change wreaks its long-predicted havoc. Then, to add strychnine-laced icing to the metaphorical cake, the current pandemic changed the lives of virtually everybody, everywhere, bringing all the sorrow and suffering that illness brings to humanity.
In these circumstances, most of us have a single wish. We talk about a “return to normality” which most interpret as a wish for the pandemic to end. That specific wish is there, of course, but our yearning is wider than that. What we really want is for less to happen. Indeed, most of us want nothing very much to happen.
We want the return of what we might call benign nothingness – a state in which calm prevails, in which the newspapers struggle to find a shouty headline, in which conversations among friends return to the topics of a less stressful and more innocent time.
No longer do we want to talk about the problems that these successive waves of events have brought – we want to talk about very local, quotidian matters – about small incidents, about small things that happen in our daily lives, about matters of very little importance at all. We want to get our ordinary lives back. We want to go to work in the way in which we have always gone to work, we want to be able to spend time on our innocent pursuits, we want to do what Voltaire in his wisdom advised us to do – to cultivate our garden.
Relief of want and suffering
The vast majority of us eschews radical upheaval. We want to deal with unfairness and injustice, but we want agreement on that rather than impasse. We want to have some certainty as to the shape of our futures. And that desire lies at the heart of the wish for nothing much to happen. This year has provided us with a gold standard of what a bad year might be. A good year will be one in which there is little to report, other, one hopes, than steady progress in the achievement of the thing most of want to sign up to – in particular the relief of the various forms of suffering and want that make life hard or unhappy for so many.
Governments might take note of this weariness with posturing. The nothingness movement is not against programmes designed to make things better, but it would counsel persuasion, gradualism and tact in the pursuit of these goals. It would argue, I suspect, against strident culture wars in favour of tolerance, understanding, and concomitant sharing. It would discourage steps that would set one part of society against another. It would emphasise healing, co-operation and concord rather than the assertion of any identity that excludes others.
Quiet is what we need. We don’t want megaphone politicians, particularly those who relish the insulting of others. We don’t want rhetoric that will inflame and humiliate. We want quiet, thoughtful debate. We want manners restored to public life and practised down at the level of ordinary human interactions. We want to start opening doors for one another. We want kindness in the way we view the plight of those who are excluded or homeless in one way or another, including having no country. We want people to channel their energy into celebrating our common humanity rather than our differences.
And the soundtrack to all this? Not a thumping aggressive sound, but Mozart’s sublime trio from Così: Soave sia il vento, the words of which say it all to those who feel bruised and weary. Soave sia il vento – may the breeze that takes you on your voyage be a gentle one. Tranquilla sia l’onda – may the waves be calm. To which one might add a new line, and may nothing much happen on the journey. Try it. Go to Youtube and listen to Soave sia il vento. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Repeat as necessary.