What goes up...

is often a lot of hot air. In my mind I soar like an eagle, but my friends say I waddle like a duck.

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Location: No Man's Land, Disputed Ground

Flights of Fancy on the Winds of Whimsy

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Veni, Vidi, Circunambulati

It has been a strange tour of service, these past three years, showing the ghosts of the Camel and Pilot around the world for which they fought and died. Originally, I had planned to let them see, in both the present and the past which would have been their future, what had been the results of all those deaths. I wondered if they would judge the sacrifice acceptable.

Their war was a peculiar one, for, apart from the destruction to farms, villages and towns; citizens, objectors and non-combatants, were generally not the target. In fact, non-combatants did serve and did get wounded or even killed, but they did so of their own free will, not as the victims of a set of rules and regulations which decreed who should be quickly dead and who should be slow-walking dead. Those latter people did not have the choice of neutrality or non-hostility.

An ancestor of mine, I learned when I was young, was wounded by a bayonet thrust to the thigh in a charge. I had assumed he was a soldier, carrying a rifle. But, I learned, he was a conscientious objector, on religious grounds. He would not kill, but served as a stretcher-bearer. This only puzzled me further until I learned that the stretcher-bearers ran forward in company with their armed and non-non-combatant friends. And if one of them should get lost in the smoke and confusion and blunder into a small group of the enemy desperately hiding in a crater while the charge swept past them, the long shape of the furled stretcher might be mistaken for a rifle or two.

There was a small amount of action against the innocents in the Great war; bombings of cities, shellings of coastal towns, sinking of shipping, but, with the exception of the Armenian genocide, the war was fought between the uniforms and machines. As I steered the camel and pilot on towards the place we are today, we crossed the dirty smoking landscape that was Poland, and briefly visited the camps.

We leaped forwards as the throttle was opened fully, banking sharply round from our intended course and diving into today, to topical news, to satisfy their curiousity as to whether the crimes in Poland and the other occupied lands had been resolved. And found that, even now, some suspected war-criminals were never found, others found but cunningly smuggled into the victors' services, and still more, today, are not to be brought to book because they are too old, or it would cost too much.

As we circled over this ugly story, we passed across another land where yet another strange set of rules permitted decimation; Cambodia. And today, so many years after the piles of skulls were made in the centres of little villages, no war-criminals have ever had a sentence passed. They have had paragraphs written on them, that they are too old to be tried, that the stability of the country could be threatened, that the cost might outweight the benefits.

What price a life? What price a million lives? At what point does one move from saying "here is a murder, that is to be expected" to "This is a serial murderer, we should try to stop him or at least write a book about him" to "This is genocide, we should set up whole institutions to debate upon them" ? (That is so clumsy, having to put the question mark there after the closing quote, but I do not see any other way that I would do it. I didn't say could, some of you might notice.)

So what is the point of our circling flight? The title has aroused curiousity in other places. The camel and pilot were very understanding when I told them that I would not tell them. I would try to show them how they could tell themselves what it meant. Years ago, when I first read Gurdjieff, I was puzzled at his dictum that "one must strive to bury the dog as deeply as possible". What was the point of writing a book about one man's view of the truth if it never said what that truth was? I kept his books, and other writings by people like Crowley, because I hoped that one day I would have time to go back and read them all again, and maybe I could find that elusive truth. In fact, I very nearly opened "Yoga for Yahoos" the other day, but saw that someone was destroying my playground and had to rush to intercede.

But I have recently found out for myself why a truth, any truth, is best buried deeply in the soil and not beneath a marker stone either. Take Veni, Vidi, Circunambulati; which someone the other day asked me the meaning of. Suppose I had said, "well, it means dah de dah de dah de dah de dah." What would I have given that person? They would have had in their mind two linked sets of information, one saying Veni, Vidi, Circunambulati, the other saying "dah de dah de dah de dah de dah". It would have been very much the same as any of a dozen of hundred religious tenets, just resting quietly in the mind like languid lilies on a lake. Pretty, but inedible. Useless, except to perhaps amuse someone at the dinner table.

I did take pity on one inquirer because it was obvious that their English was recently acquired, and so I explained that when a Roman conquered Britain, he said "Veni, Vidi, Vici", taken to mean "I came, I saw, I conquered". And since that person did not understand circunambulate, I told them that it meant to go around the edge of, to skirt a thorny thicket, to wander obstinately in a different route to that which others had intended. To circle around. And they then asked me, now they knew what it meant, what did it mean? And I knew then that to tell them what it meant would spoil the joke, not only for me, but for them too, because it was such a silly trifling thing.

And so it is with truths. Most truths, when you finally wrest them from the friendly soil, are really quite trivial and insignificant. In fact, when you look back at them a few days later on, it seems to you that there was no mystery there at all, the truth was obvious. Our minds are full of obvious truths now floating languidly on the surface, or more often lurking in the deep of what Jung called the collective unconscious. And there they wait, sometimes nudging us, sometimes calming us, but usually ignored by us.

For a seeker after truth, the act of seeking is the aim, I now realise, not the discovery. The discovery is usually something you already knew and is therefore rarely new, but the transformation from the journey is the gift of life. I know now what Gurdjieff's secret was, and why the dog must be buried so deeply, no matter what the size of it might be.

And so back to the truth of the Sopwith Camel and his pilot, was their end worthwhile? If they had not died, if they and many others had refused to fight, would the world have gone a different way, would millions still be alive today? Well, just as with any truth, I shall bury it, and I think I should bury it back where it started.

Veni, Vidi, Circunambulati.

Curious clouds and wandering winds have made the flight path circle strangely round, and underneath us is the pock-marked scabrous face between the lines, and, not by bullet but by chance, a structural failure has sent us spinning round and round into a dance that will not stop. This mission ends in mud and blood and wreckage, just like many other missions. War is a list of casualties and decorations, and for this pair, there are no suitable medals for what they did, just a sudden plunge over the edge of the cliff where one world ends and another one begins. The terminal velocity and the soft soil will ensure the camel and pilot go deeply into that dark Jungian hiding place where secrets lie in peace.

This flight is ended. There will be no headstone, no eulogy, no flowers, and no comments.

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