A passionately cool political/theological meditation on Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”

Source: LA Times
This week it has proved impossible for me not to look at the images of the huge wild-fires burning up and down the American West (see here) and to wonder if this is a vision of the way the world will end? Together the pictures of the inferno and the question brought to my mind Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) well-known poem, “Fire and Ice” first published in 1920:

Some say the world will end in fire,
  Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
  But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
  To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
  And would suffice.

In an oft quoted anecdote, the astronomer, Harlow Shapley (1885-1972), tells how, sometime in 1918/19, he had met the poet at a Harvard faculty get-together during which Frost had asked him a version of the same question I asked above: “How will the world end?”. After some further chat and mingling with other guests Shapley was eventually able to answer Frost directly, saying: “either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth.” This led Shapley (and many others) later to claim that the poem “illustrates one of the many ways in which scientific knowledge can influence the creation of a work of art and also elucidate the meaning of that work of art.”

Now I don’t want to deny that this influence is sometimes felt and acted upon by some artists — indeed, two of my favourite poets, the first-century Roman poet Lucretius and the mid twentieth-century poet A. R. Ammons were powerfully influenced by empirically derived knowledge — however, in the case of this poem by Frost, this doesn’t seem correct, not least of all because it is clearly not about the future, physical end of the world (whenever that may turn out to be, and whether in fire or ice) but about an existential moment of realisation potentially experienceable in the here and now of any person’s life. Fire and ice are, in this poem anyway, to be understood as symbols and not as scientific propositions (though in other contexts they may be that too).

It seems to me the most one can say is that Harlow Shapley’s striking (scientifically derived) juxtaposition of a world ending in either fire or ice triggered in Frost’s mind a strong recollection of Dante’s still extraordinary fourteenth-century religious poem, “The Inferno”, which forms the first part of his much larger epic entitled “The Divine Comedy.” Indeed, the literary critic, John N. Serio, feels that “in structure, style, and theme ‘Fire and Ice’ is a brilliant, gemlike compression of Dante’s Inferno.”

Satan devours Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot
Thanks to Serio’s work, there are a great many interesting insights that I might bring before you about the connections between the two poems but, here, I only want to concentrate on that which is born out of Dante’s basic idea that the sins of reason are worse than sins of passion. Serio reminds us that Dante the Christian believed “reason is God’s greatest gift to humankind and, therefore, its perversion or misuse constitutes the worst possible sin: ‘But since fraud / Is the vice of which man alone is capable, / God loathes it most’ (Ciardi 11.24-26)” (ibid.). It is for this reason that Dante thinks these latter kind of people (epitomised by Dante as Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot) are entombed in the three mouths of icebound Satan in the ninth and lowest level of hell.

Now why do I tell you all this? Well, it’s because at the same time as the fires continue burning and we are all begin to realise (à la “Game of Thrones”) that “winter is coming”, I find myself looking at the current British and international news and seeing everywhere all kinds of disturbing, highly destructive and increasingly violent behaviours and power struggles breaking out that are clearly rooted either in fire (i.e. in passionate, but wholly unreflective and uncritical commitment to certain wholly unproven beliefs/prejudices) or ice (i.e. in the use of cold reason knowingly to encourage, in oneself or in others, fraudulent practices of deception for the purposes of gaining unrestricted political and financial power).

Whether I like it or not, and not withstanding Jesus’ injunction to “judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), these kinds of behaviours are beginning to force someone like me, who most assuredly prefers to operate in a more temperate (political and religious) climate, to make some kind of judgement about how best to evaluate and then to begin to tackle those people who are increasingly in the thrall of either fire or ice. But, to return to Jesus’ teaching on this point, if I am to be forced into making some kind of judgement and a related practical attempt to remove the speck in my neighbour’s (or enemy’s) eye, I must firstly do my level best to remove the many logs that are undoubtedly lodged in my own eyes (Matthew 7:5).

One of the major logs that must be removed from my own eye is the idea that as a creature who through education and upbringing has come to prefer a climate neither too hot nor too cold, I am, therefore, somehow free of the extremes of fire and ice myself. That seems to me to be a dangerous delusion. Echoing Frost, I need frankly to acknowledge that I have, at times, been significantly (mis)shaped by both. In love, religion and politics I have at times found myself being driven along by an intense fire at one moment and then by cold, cold ice at another. I need to see clearly that I am not some merely innocent bystander but fully implicated in the human condition with all its heats and coolnesses. Like Frost, over my lifetime so far, these experiences have inclined me to believe that from what I’ve tasted of desire I, too, hold with those who favour fire as that which is most likely to bring about the end of the world. However, again like Frost, I also know enough of hate to say that for destruction, ice is also great and would suffice.

Knowing this, as a species of (Christian-)atheist and performative new-materialist, I find myself (unusually) compelled to echo here the conclusion of Dante the Christian, namely, that it is the behaviours of those deeply embedded in ice in the lowest level of hell who are the most culpable, the most sinful and the most deserving of our critiques, exposure, censure and, where necessary, appropriate punishment. Through their continual (and increasing) deceptions and lies (whether made in relation to matters financial or connected with ideologies around religion, racism, white supremacy, nationalism, climate change denial, etc.) it is the ice-bound who are deliberately and knowingly choosing to fan the fiery hearts of those who, for the most part, and for many complex and understandable reasons, do not have (nor have any genuine, regular access to) a broad and informed picture of what is actually going in our world nor any hope of realising how their destructive and angry fire is consciously being (mis)directed by others.

Seeing the physical fires burning in the US (and, of course, those in the arctic circle and the Amazon), alongside the political/economic/social/nationalist fires we can see beginning dangerously to flare up across the globe, I cannot escape the conclusion that the ice-bound, through the conscious manipulation of the fiery, are seizing a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape the world in favour of their own ninth-level-of-hell-ice-bound-values.

Frost realised that both fire and ice, whether alone or together, really do have the power to end the world — and whether the word “world” is understood to mean the complex, intra-acting eco-system that is our planet Earth and/or the associated complex, intra-acting human cultural and political international rules-based world that has (only) been in existence since the end of the Second World War.

In a world the human inhabitants of which are currently being polarised into either the fiery or the ice-bound there often seems no longer to be any point in adopting a more temperate approach. After all, at the moment, those of us who do try to make temperate points in the public space often quickly find their arguments (and nearly always themselves) simultaneously attacked by the fiery from one side and the ice-bound from the other. It can be — indeed, it often is — highly dispiriting. So, what on earth are those of us with a more temperate spirit to do?

Drawing on certain insights borrowed from the twentieth-century English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, most of the time I feel I can only answer by offering through this blog/address (and when we are able to meet in person in the Cambridge Unitarian Church community through the spoken version of the same) only those poetic, philosophical, religious and political tools/strategies which tend, not towards inflaming passion by giving it new objects to feed upon but, instead, those which inject into the activities of already too passionate men and women an ingredient of moderation; those which offer ways which deliberately restrain, deflate, pacify and reconcile and which do not stoke the fires of desire, but damp them down.

In doing this I am acutely aware that I am erring decidedly more towards the realms of ice than to those dominated by fire. I also realise that I can, therefore, be accused of consciously using my icy reason to manipulate the fiery in the hope that (just like those whom I distrust the most) the world might be reshaped more or less in favour of my own preferred values — even as I do this in an attempt to suppress the fire rather than deliberately fanning it. Lastly, and far from leastly, I am also painfully aware that, recalling Dante’s warning, should I go too far in this direction then I will be a greater sinner and far more culpable and worthy of punishment than any of those who were driven purely by fire, and certainly as great a sinner as Dante thought were Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot.

But what else is there I can do especially if, knowing what I’ve tasted of desire, I’ve truly come to think that it is fire that will most likely bring about the end of the world? Given this, I find that I simply cannot, will not, join the ranks of the unreflectively fiery (whether religious or political) who have become wholly and uncritically committed to this or that belief, ideology, or simple prejudice. Consequently, I feel I have no choice but to continue to find ways to pour very cold water on all examples of this fire and, by so doing, attempt to direct its real energy to significantly less destructive ends. But with this there comes a considerable moral hazard — namely that of going too far towards the icy, ninth level of hell and of thinking I am absolutely right, or have the absolute right, always and everywhere to use my reason to persuade/bend others towards only my own preferred (and generally somewhat cool) ends.

But in the end I think that this way of being in the world should be risked because, without buying into the kind of deist metaphysics that Thomas Jefferson held, I find that, in their general spirit, I concur with these words he wrote to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: 

“Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision”. 

In short, I suppose all I am really saying here is that I feel the need to remain fierily passionate about the icy use of reason to dampen a too-dangerous arising of that self-same passion, and whether it arises in me, or in others. In a knowingly paradoxical way I feel passionately compelled to promote only very, very cool, and very, very skeptical, forms of religion, philosophy and politics.

In all cases, of course, it is important for me to remember, as (the aptly named) Frost observed, that although fire is likely to finish us off, ice, too, can always suffice.