From the Republic of Conscience

For the first day of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, one of our readings was From the Republic of Conscience by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes the possibly utopian Republic of Conscience, a communal place of thought and feeling, where “you carried your own burden and very soon / your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
I say possibly utopian because while for me the poem evokes a feeling that the Republic of Conscience is place of equality and little conflict, it also sounds like a rather dry and desolate place.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
It later goes on to explain the origin of all this salt and seawater:
all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
As beings, our solitude is endless. We’re blessed with the capacity to be self-aware, yet cursed with the understanding that ultimately we are alone – our consciousness is our own and we can never truly share that with another. So it seems we become restless, lost souls, fumbling blindly for a sense of shared experience, for even a hint that we truly understand – or are truly understood – by another.
Fortunately, this state seems to not be permanent in the Republic of Conscience. As mentioned above, “lightning spells universal good.” We may be alone most of the time. But every once and a while we there is a rare flash of understanding and insight. A shockingly brilliant moment when our connection to another becomes clear. And then it goes dark again.
There’s something about the tenor of this poem that reminds me of T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Elliot’s poem references Guy Fawkes, infamous from the Gunpowder Plot aimed at blowing up Parliament.
Regardless of how you feel about their actions, The Hollow Men evokes the endless sorrow of those who risked everything to attempt something they considered just – and failed.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
Failed and exiled, these beings are truly alone. Unable to communicate. Together, but alone.
The Republic of Conscience, on the other hand, offers hope that deeper communication and understanding is possible.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
As people, we may not share a collective conscience, but we can still work together, sharing words and looks as venues for passing thought and feeling. And we can attempt – in what little, passing way is possible – to affirm that we are all conscience and together, all alive and connected.
Unless, of course, you prefer to take a more somber look at the world, as from Elliot:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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