“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

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Freedom vs. Happiness in the world series of Love

On March 13, 1848, this is how the revolution came to Vienna:

“On this day – recounted an eyewitness – already rather early, I observed in Herrenstrasse, on which there were State office buildings, individual workers were standing around, and a giant man, with a jacket, which was covered with patches, that was obviously neither his size nor made for him, moved in the direction of the buildings, with his dirty cap pressed boldly down over his eyes, with balled up fists, flashing glances and a backwards bent posture, all ready for blows, as if going into battle, with giant steps, whilst keeping suspiciously to the middle of the street. In his rear pockets he must have carried a mass of stones as ammunition, because his jacket was stiff on his back, and visibly he had to force himself not to be pulled backwards by the weight of his pockets. At his side hurriedly humped along, in order to keep up with his steps, a small, weighed down, dirty and rather aged man with a long open coat with long arms. He was loaded, each pocket stood out, and the hind coat pockets almost hit his calves…” (Ernest Victor Zenker, 112).

As the riot commenced in Herrenstrasse, the factories went up in Mariahilf (a linen factory in which a financial agent – presumably an accountant – was tossed into the flames); in Sechshaus, the police station and government building, plus a cotton factory, was stormed; by evening smoke was drifting into Vienna from the suburbs.

And this is how the revolution came to Krähwinkel:

Krähwinkler citizens, among whom are the Night watchman, Pemperl and Schabenfellner sit around a big table and drink)

“Klaus(coming to the middle of the stage). Good evening, my fellow citizens.

Nightwatchman (whispers to Pemperl). And here comes my very point!

Pemperl (to the nightwatchman). He’s a little round to be a point.

Klaus. I want just a little drinky, but you all don’t mind me – drink up!

Night watchman. Well, we are free to do so.

Klaus. Free? You should not use such brutal expressions. I am from the state office, and we don’t like it, that men are free.

Pemperl(to the group), Let’s go out in the garden – it is pleasanter in the free air.

Klaus. If only it wasn’t so free, that air – I’m staying here.

Pemperl. Primo, then we won’t have you breathing down our necks. (To the Night watchman) Come on, Mister!”

Nestroy plays with ‘freedom’ and its galvanic effect on the state officials who compose the respectable strata of Krähwinkel throughout the play. Freedom has the same horrifying sense for the respectable state employees as the invisible power of St. Petersburg has for the respectable strata of Russian officials in Gogol’s The Inspector General.

Which brings me to an issue that I haven’t even mentioned, in all of my posts so far. The liberal opposition – the protest against the hedonistic tendency of bourgeois society made by bourgeois intellectuals – was made, time and time again, in the name of freedom. That opposition informed, say, the cold war liberalism of Isaiah Berlin. Here’s a typical passage from his 1955 essay, Herzen and Bakunin on Liberty:

“It is a singular irony of history that Herzen, who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency, or justice, who denounced organized planning, economic centralization, governmental authority, because it might curtail the individual’s capacity for the free play of fantasy, for unlimited depth and variety of personal life within a wide, rich, ‘open’ social milieu, who hated the Germans (and in particular the ‘Russian’ Germans and German Russians0 of St. Petersburg because their slavery was not (as in Russia or Italy) arithmetical, that is, reluctant submission to the numerically superior forces of reaction, but algebraical, that is, part of their ‘inner formula’ – the essence of their being – that Herzen, in virtue of a casual phrase patronizingly dropped by Lenin, should today find himself in the holy of holies of the Soviet pantheon, placed there by a government the genesis of which he understood better and feared more deeply than Dostoevsky, and whose words and acts are a continuous insult to all that he believed and was.” (Russian Thinkers, 104)

This paragraph stands out in Berlin’s essay for its overwhelming flow – the commas, here, that barely organize the sentence, signal that the rush of something – some feeling? some oratorical impulse? – has overwhelmed the analysis of 'Herzen on Liberty'. And that flood of feeling is directed towards a capture, or an envoûtement – one justified by a previous envoûtement, the capture of Herzen by the Soviets, who have put him in an (imaginary) pantheon. Although the motives of the Soviets become a little hazy – is it really because of some ‘casual’ word dropped by Lenin? In any case, the reason this is a kidnapping rather than an alignment of the interests of Herzen’s ghosts with the ghastly Soviets is because Herzen was defending the individual’s liberty. Interestingly, that liberty is connected to a decentralized economy – although Herzen was clearly a socialist throughout his life, and towards the end of it was recommending peasant communes, which, although decentralized in one way, surely bear upon the economic liberty of its members in ways quite other than that one would expect from Berlin’s Hayek-Popper language.

But whether Berlin is right or wrong about Herzen, surely his instinct – that liberty is opposed to schemes for social happiness – picks up on the tradition LI has been examining. Our question is about whether some further kidnapping hasn’t shaped this history – whether it is the socialist leaning working class or the bourgeois intellectual protecting liberty, proclaiming the worth of freedom, in 1848. This is not only a question of what Herzen believed – it is a question of what was being said by, say, the workers in Herrenstrasse. And this is where Nestroy’s play, written in 1848 (astonishingly, I can’t seem to find an English translation. Hard to believe this play hasn’t been translated) becomes really interesting. Nestroy was, like Moliere, an actor, and he did not exactly rank high among his socially snobby Austrian fellow writers of the time – Hebbel compared Nestroy to some poisonous flower whose stink corrupted the smeller.

As always, one must correct for the astonishingly persistent and stupid idea that the Masses were silent, that the writers were all mirrors of the bourgeoisie, and that we had to wait around until a buncha nervous intellectuals, Marxists all, gave ‘voice’ to the working class. One of the sources I am using to understand the 1848 effect is, for instance, a journalist whose writings were highly respected by Karl Kraus and a sentence from whom serves as the epigraph to, I believe, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – Ferdinand Kürnberger. Kürnberger was the son of a lamplighter, and his enthusiasm for freedom, his exile from Austria, his return and his success as a journalist – as, indeed, the greatest journalistic essayist of the later half of the 19th century in Vienna – are all of a piece with being of the people. If one looks around at where the writers come from, the journalists, the pamphleteers, you will soon enough dispel the idea that all the writers came from out of the perfumed pocket of a furlined overcoat in some salon. Nor did their origins predict their predilections – aesthetes came from coal heavers. LI is playing around with the notion that one of the themes that emerges in the investigation of happiness triumphant is the third life – how it was constructed, how it operated, how it collided with the happiness culture in which it recognized something of its own, a sort of child to which it had given birth, but which it could no longer control.

1 comment:

P.M.Lawrence said...

Again proceeding in order of the points in the post:-

Here is a story of how the troubles came to a certain small village in Ireland. Pat's brother Mike had emigrated to the USA (clearly an economic and not a political emigrant, unlike my mother's family which went to France). He sent home - by post - a souvenir, a loaded revolver. Mike and certain others gathered to discuss it. Clearly its function required its use, otherwise why have it? But what or whom to shoot? There was no suitable target to hand. At length someone suggested that they might as well shoot the postman, so they did.