Drawing in a mirror – Merlyn’s torment

TH White’s story of King Arthur is unconstrained by the traditional myths. He reinvents the world of round tables completely, influenced by the horrors and futility of war.

His Merlyn, and the way in which he experiences time, is a mind-bending concept that has fascinated me since childhood. Scholars of the work debate aspects, but roughly, he began his existence at the end of time, and moves backwards to the beginning. Thus he knows outcomes but has little power to change them:

… one gets confused with time… gets muddled… if you know what’s going to happen to people, but not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening… Like drawing in a mirror. (The Sword and the Stone, 1938)

It is a very difficult plot device to wrap one’s head around, and in the end it is not clear it works coherently. The theme remains unblemished: you can know the outcomes, perhaps not by supernatural means but say forecasting and the opinions of experts; you can tell people what this means for them, what is going to happen; but you cannot hope to persuade them if you do not know what has happened to them.

We are a party that has a clear diversity problem. I have no figures, but responses to these posts them to be from the same class of people. People like me. I have some experience of what I thereafter called the real world, but am under no illusions that, although I may have lived amongst men with less privilege, I did not become one of them. How can we hope to change minds when we do not properly understand how those minds form? How those deep divisions entrenched? We have our own trenches to dismantle, if we are to have any hope of affecting positive change in power (presumably by sharing it). Assumptions about Brexiteers and their beliefs, their capabilities and education, their backgrounds and true grievances, have made it impossible for us to spell out what we clearly see to be impending doom.

Thinking of Merlyn’s tormented journey backwards through time, led me to question our approach to winning the argument. I find wisdom in his words, but he offers no solution. I believe the point is to recognise that we cannot hope to control the actions of others. Applied to our political situation, we cannot hope to control the setting within which we try to win the argument. Views are entrenched, and we must investigate how they became so in an impartial manner, if we ever hope to alter them. We must learn what happened, before we can figure out what we should propose is going to happen.

That may involve facing up to some hard truths about ourselves, the EU and liberal democracy’s failings in the neo-liberal age. It will test our party. It also involves accepting a troubling notion: we do not have the second sight. We have relied on forecasts and experts, but we do not know for certain what the future holds. In many areas, we will have to admit where we have been wrong. This will build trust. It is only by persuading people to trust us, that we might have any hope of convincing them of our beliefs, or even having a discussion.

We must end the impossible attempt to draw in the mirror, trying to reshape our opponents in our image, but only tracing ourselves and curating echo chambers on social media. They are behind the mirror we have for too long gazed into, indulging our own reflection. We must smash it if we are ever to engage. If we do not, I fear, in an ominous, Merlyn–Brooker way, that mirror will calcify… and turn black.

* Johnny McDermott is a Glasgow University Law graduate who is studying for his Masters with a focus on moral and political philosophy.

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  • John Roffey 19th Mar '20 - 6:40pm

    Although I have not read the book and so cannot comment directly on your article – what is true is that unlike earlier and the earliest times we have become a secular society. Whereas previously some greater power would be evoked for salvation in times like these – in the West usually God.

    The Coronavirus outbreak at its root creates fear – the fear of death. The hard nosed realists will disagree – but true hope and freedom from anxiety in these circumstances can probably only be experienced by those with a deep and fundamental belief in an existence in the Beyond.

    Such belief seems fairly rare now in most non-immigrant UK citizens.

  • I find this interesting because anyone has the power to change the future then it ceases to be the future and of course all the past has changed. So from the point of view of the person changing things the future would be changed and thus he would not need to change the present because the future would have changed so there would be a different present.
    In the meanwhile we have the same problem as he would have in reality. We know the future but we do not know how to change it, because we cannot change the future.
    If we are ever to have the ability to change things we must learn to manage our planet. And the “we” must be everyone on the planet.
    My conclusion is that it isn’t going to happen.

  • While understanding where other people come from is crucial to engaging, negotiating or debating with them, it is equally important to have a clear idea about what you want to say, and what a good outcome would look like. At present the term liberal is bandied about by many, even BoJo using liberalism as a reason to have delayed taking any action over Coronavirus for goodness sake. But few have tried to articulate it, and in particular what it means with a capital “L”, in terms that the literate public, let alone the general public, can readily understand. There is a space that LDs can occupy, which may be mid-way between Labour and Conservatives or may be a “third way”, that is where a (small L) liberal democratic society should be. To define that (back to the theme of the blog) you also need to understand the positions of both conservative and labour, not just to “other” them. With so much identity politics and populism around, it is surely time for a blockbuster academic work on what western liberal democracy really means (not volunteering!)

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