“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

the bloody tree, the invisible hand

LI has been having trouble with this post, and in general with our posts on the pessimists. The reason is this: though the brunt of the pessimistic attack on the liberal system was, essentially, that the system made an unjustified and unjustifiable projection of a human mood – happiness – upon intentionally constructed social circumstances (in essence, what we have labeled the hedonic fallacy), the pessimists were by nature averse to system, and prone to launch into poetic arias about mythological pasts. Yet the nostalgia of the first counter-revolutionary generation – the generation that had actually existed under the ancien regime – is… not for the conditions of that existence. Maistre seems to long for the seventeenth century – or the sixteenth. Or the Spanish inquisition. Nietzsche sometimes seems to long for an Aryan never never epoch. I want to extract from this tradition one thing – the critique of the hedonic fallacy – but, as happens when you deal with literature, theme comes wrapped in the tentacles of connotation, and those tentacles wrap around the hardy interpreter. And the hardy interpreter begins to drown.

So that’s my complaint. This is what my post looks like so far.


In the beginning of 1789, Georg Lichtenberg noted down in his sketchbook the following thought: “Writing is splendid for awakening the sleeping system that is in every man, and each person who writes thus becomes healthier, for writing always awakens something that one didn’t clearly know beforehand, even if it lay within us.”

It turned out to be a good year for the sleeping system that lay within every man. Or systems – for the systems had been awakening for some time. If we were to take a crazy, Borgesian view of history as, primarily, the carrier of images, then we could shape this post, about Maistre, to a new view of the French revolution – as a sort of complicated delivery system that gets two Enlightenment images together – the invisible hand and the bloody tree. The tree of liberty that needs, according to Jefferson, to be watered with blood – the tree of liberty that was danced around by the revolutionaries – is appropriated, in 1797, by the counterrevolution, in the form of Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre’s book. And another image, the image of the invisible hand, which is the presiding oneiric presence in Adam Smith’s work (see Emma Rothschild’s exemplary investigation of the invisible hand here as well as a number of posts at Praxis) migrates here, too. It comes together in the third chapter on the Violent Destruction of the human race (the dream we all dream of, pace Prince), the chapter, that is, on war and its place in a holy cosmos. The sleeping system that is in every man, at the time, was furnished with visions such as these:

“There is room to doubt that, besides, that violent destruction is, in general, as great an evil as is generally believed. At least, it is one of those evils that enters into the order of things where all is violent and against nature, and which produces compensations. Firstly, when the human soul has lost its ingenuity by its softness, incredulity and the gangrenous vices that follow the excess of civilization, it can only be re-tempered by blood. It is not easy, precisely, to explain why war produces different effects following different circumstances. What one sees clearly enough is that the human race can be considered like a tree that an invisible hand trims without stopping, and which often is all the better for this operation. In truth, if one touches the trunk, or chops off the head of the poplar, the tree can perish. But who knows what limits constrain the human tree?”

This image is enough to make me pause for a long time. It is easy to forget how the human tree is trimmed, so I’m going to put a picture her of one such trimming:



Maistre is such an odd and decisive writer – as Saint Breuve said, an inverse Voltaire – who seems, at time, to open himself up to a daemon of some kind. By all accounts, he was a kindly man who wrote lovingly to his daughter, and chatted to his friends, and tried to keep the King of Sardinia, who he served, from committing outrageous acts of petty tyranny. At the same time, he was penning books praising the Spanish inquisition, or praising the Pope to an extent that made even the pope uneasy enough to think Maistre might be sneaking a heresy by the Holy Seat.

The Considerations, as a whole, seems to operate on a sort of inversion principle. If Rousseau, in one of the holy texts of the revolution, said that everywhere men are born free, and yet everywhere men are in chains – Maistre begins the book by extolling the fact that men are in chains, and the end of the chain is held, at last, by the Lord. For the tree of libery, we have the tree of the human species, trimmed by an invisible hand. For the rights of man, we have Maitre claiming that man doesn’t exist – individual men exist. And yet this nominalist claim is never made to cohere with what one might call the prophetic dimension of Maistre’s work – that dimension that sees events, and not the men enmeshed in them, as the ultimate controllers of history. These events are miraculous – as Maistre says in the first chapter

That in the heart of winter, a man commands a tree, in front of a thousand witnesses, to bear fruit, and that the tree obeys – all the world will cry that this is a miracle, and bow before the magician. But the French revolution, and everything happening in Europe at this moment, is as miraculous, in its kind, as the instantaneous fructification of a tree in the month of January – yet, instead of admiring, men look away, or they engage in bad reasoning about it.”

Maistre’s theory of the miracle is tied to his theory of the event – a theory that precedes Hegel, but that forecasts some of the sheer grandeur of the Absolute spirit. Although the absolute spirit works with signs, not wonders – whereas Maistre’s divinity works with wonders and despises signs.

It is perhaps because history is a wonderworking phenomenon, outside of the scope of science, that Maistre always prefaces his most bold and bloody passages with a prognostic symbol – a decisive reference to an extra-European saying. LCC, in a comment a week ago on one of the posts in this series, pointed out that Maistre, as a Free Mason, looked partly to the Orient, or at least the Orient as it was codified in the Enlightenment, the Orient of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and William Jones’ translations from the Sanskit. To leap ahead: the most striking thing about the St. Petersberg Evenings is Maistre’s theory of the supernatural function of the executioner – the framing story to which is a long quote from William Jones translation of the Book of Manu. That Hindoo scripture had a sort of privileged place for European intellectuals before there were good translations of the Vedas or of Buddhist texts. As is well known, Nietzsche praises it – although Nietzsche, apparently, never read it. But before Nietzsche, Maistre praised it and actually read it. The conclusion he draws from it is awe inspiring and repulsive: that we live in an order of universal punishment, and any effort to overturn those punishments is an effort to overturn that order, and must be ruthlessly crushed. In the case that it isn’t ruthlessly crushed, by a supernatural law, the new, merciful order will blindly make its way back to punishments, and install even worse ones, even more arbitrary ones, before it is done.

As I’ve pointed out in previous post, the third chapter begins with a reported saying of the King of Dahomey that the world is made for war Certainly Maistre thinks that the world is eminently and transcendentally made – and in this, he senses, correctly, that he has already been surpassed by the philosophes.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You have reminded me of this passage from Blake's Jerusalem, "I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man's/ I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create" - P.M.Lawrence

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, one of the great Blakean lines!