Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
— William Butler Yeats
A month ago, COVID-19 was a dark cloud on the horizon, a low muttering of thunder, an ill wind. With disorienting speed, we have been plunged into a raging tempest, our sails tattered, our rigging shredded in a howling wind, the rudder jammed.
The world can change profoundly in sudden moments, turning on seemingly random contingencies. Chaos theory in operation.
In the wet markets of Wuhan, China, a man eats a bat-infected pangolin and within months, thousands are dead and the world has plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Austria’s Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand is shot on the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. By August, the nations of Europe have tumbled seemingly without volition into a cataclysm of war that will remake the world.
Neither event was inevitable, yet the march of catastrophe was inexorable.
I am fascinated by such pivotal moments. On Sunday evening, I watched a BBC documentary on Amazon Prime titled Charles I: Downfall of a King. It traces a period of 50 days from November 1641 to January 1642 when Charles Stuart of England fell from the pinnacle of divinely ordained monarchy to becoming a refugee in his own land. His fall inaugurated nine years of brutal civil war, a conflict that would cost Charles his realm — and his head.
It is a fascinating account of a clash between a thin-skinned monarch, jealous of his prerogatives, and a parliamentary faction of religious zealots and political radicals. The 50 days of confrontation between Charles and his Parliament is a litany of missed opportunities, misjudgments and miscalculations (mostly on Charles’ part) wherein previously unthinkable measures suddenly and inexorably came to pass.
I imagine that Englishmen in January 1642 had a hard time remembering November 1641, just as it’s hard now to cast ourselves back to February.
As historian Lisa Hilton muses at the conclusion of the three-part doco, the 50 days of Charles’ downfall may well be the most important days in the political history of the Western world. The fall of the Stuart monarchy, though it was briefly restored, destroyed the credibility of the Divine Right of Kings and threw open the Overton Window — expanding in an instant what was possible in the world.
Because of those 50 days, Americans a century and more on could conceive of cutting ties with their king, and the French could readily conceive of dropping their king’s head into a wicker basket. The template set in France would be traced in even greater gouts of blood in Russia and so on…
It remains to be seen what the world historical consequences of our present moment will be — but they are certain to be profound. And we will look back on a period of weeks in early 2020 as the hinge of fate.