02 April 2010


An Irish Airman Foresees His Death


I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

-- W.B.Yeats

There is a deep existential core to this poem, a commentary on the manner in which one makes choices about life and an implied claim that such choices are, by their very nature, few and simple. For example, if I choose to join the army then I can make subsequent choices within that social setting, to the extent they are permitted, but they all occur as derivatives of the original decision.

What determines the direction of that original decision is what I might term the "original sentiment," an affective impulse expressive of the basic character or moral inclination of the person. The "moral" aspect I refer to here is used in the broadest sense as an expression of a person's primitive perceptions of the world and their responsiveness to it.

The same physical decision (to become an airman) may reflect different moral expressions reflecting different "original sentiments".Thus, if I, unconsciously and primitively, perceive the world as untrustworthy and hostile to me then I may choose to be an airman to avoid conscription, trench warfare and physical discomfort. If I perceive the world as a process of social identification then I may choose to be an airman to identify with my nation against its enemies. If I perceive the world as pre-eminently a social hierarchy then I may choose to be an airman to identify with soldiers having a glamorous or "hero" status in the eyes of the public. And, as many argue in the case of the Irish Airman, I may eschew all social considerations, a world gone mad with war, even the inevitability of death, and take delight in the joy of the skies.

This has a lot of appeal as an explanation but I think Yeats goes further here. I am reminded of Socrates and Jesus who accepted death sentences from what they fully recognized to be unjust societies acting in bad faith. In a sense they affirm their moral commitment to those corrupt societies, with all their failings, even unto death, while still holding true to their moral principles as supreme expressions of their "original sentiment". It's like a partner who stays with an undeserving spouse out of love.

Humans are affective creatures driven by simple impulses and we often gather supporting explanations for basic decisions at an unconscious level after the fact of those decisions. We may even believe that such decisions are "rational", but as modern scientists find when they examine brain scans, decision making takes place before it enters the conscious realm. Thus the primitive generator of existential decisions is neither reason nor even emotions but a basic character disposition of the person that tends to persist through life and determines many derivative choices. I see the Irish Airman as a man who acknowledges to himself and the world that he has a core which is free from whatever is around him. He chooses to let the world in on his little secret: that he is a person who believes in joy without reason, unrestrained joy untrammelled by society, that he has kept it alive and now presents it to the world so that they can see who he really is and do what they will with him.

It is a similar sentiment to that of Paul Baumer from Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front:

"I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they'll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and so devoid of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through all these years, in still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not."

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