Nestroy, the contemporary of Schopenhauer, puts an end to this legend out of the siècle des lumières, bold and confident of the future. He goes through with the whole thing: he uses his understanding, he emerges from intellectual immaturity, he doubts. He rips apart the veils that cover the world and what does he see? The dummies win. They are the happy ones. They earn the big money. In another monolog from the wings of the stage he recounts how some have even called him a dumb lug and continues, “if only that were a prediction, then I would still have, at the end, some hope of happiness.” We doesn’t overhear the deep bitterness that hides in this nimble joke!” - Wenzeslaw Konstantinow
As Konstantinow points out in his article, ‘clown’ is a word derived from colonnus, to cultivate the soil. Clowns were originally from the country – and, as in Shakespeare, are funny because they had brought the savage’s manners – Europe’s Indians - into the court, or into the city. I want to do a couple of posts that zig zag along one of the crucial breaks in my narrative of happiness triumphant – that is, 1848. That means going from Nestroy, who hardly anybody in the English speaking world has heard of, to Alexander Herzen, who more people have, I hope, heard of. I’ve been immersing myself in Herzen lately. Luckily for all of us, the greatest introduction in English to Herzen is on-line – Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, published in the New York Review of Books, The Great Amateur. This was published in 1968 – and, as Anthony Grafton points out in a recent essay in the same mag, Berlin by this time was ready to admit that Herzen died a revolutionary socialist, which he had rather marginalized in his earlier, 50s essays on Herzen, written for the CIA’s favorite intellectual front, Encounter magazine. Grafton’s essay is not on Herzen per se, but the Herzen who appears as the hero in
Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, the Coast of Utopia”
“As Stoppard himself has made clear, he drew this interpretation of Herzen—like much of the material with which he supports it—from the writings of Isaiah Berlin. In a series of articles, four of which appeared in the journal Encounter—a magazine created in 1953, as is well known, in part for political ends, to give Western intellectuals a stage on which to dramatize the powers of the free mind—Berlin portrayed the origins of the Russian intelligentsia. His brilliant, colorful essays combined analysis of texts with dazzling sketches of characters and situations. They provide the model for Stoppard's effort to combine the portrayal of these men and women's world with an analysis of their thought.
Berlin insisted on the vitality and originality of these Russian thinkers, who, he argued, had invented a new kind of social criticism. He laid special weight on what Herzen and Turgenev had accomplished. These two, Berlin argued, had seen through what Orwell once called "the smelly little orthodoxies"; they had rejected the idea that any thinker had access to absolute truths. Herzen with his portraits of radicalism and its discontents, Turgenev with his all-seeing fictions that laid open the hearts of conservatives as ably as those of liberals, offered a powerful model of tolerant liberalism—one highly appropriate for exposition in a journal that existed to showcase the vitality of the free world.
The history that Stoppard offers here is somewhat one-sided—rather more so, I think, than Berlin's history, as it developed over time. In the mid-1950s, Berlin emphasized Herzen's moderation, his discovery that absolutes could do absolute damage. In 1968, however, when he published his introduction to the vast and protean text that is My Life and Thoughts, he acknowledged that no single formula could accurately describe the multiple changes and colors of Herzen's thought. He also made clearer than he had before that Herzen's radicalism was a deep part of his thought and being—not just a political program that he swore to as a boy and an early, deceptive passion, but a thread that appeared again and again, at the center of the fabric of his mind“
Herzen was one of those figures around whom, in the cold war era, the anti-communist liberals and social democrats wove a certain dream play. In this dream play, Lenin plays the part of the monster who destroyed the beautiful onward tendency to a worldwide U.S.A., one with a bit stronger of a New Deal – more social insurance from the government. So, in the preface to the last translation of From the Other Shore, which was, I think, done in the seventies, the translator dismisses the idea that Lenin could even have read Herzen, much less have learned anything from him. This had to be said because, in fact, Lenin wrote a preface to the reissue of Herzen’s philosophical works, and said kindly words. Anybody who reads From the Other Shore – and all should read it! will find plenty that Lenin absorbed. For instance, Lenin’s famous doctrine of encouraging the contradictions within a capitalist society so that they achieve a critical mass is certainly foreshadowed by a dialog concerning 1848, in which one of the figures (usually identified with Herzen, a totally stupid misreading of why one choses the dialogic form) says this, analyzing the reaction that was bringing an end to the 1848 revolutions:
"I repeat, desire and love of mankind are not enough to take an active part in the world that surrounds us. These are merely vague will-o'-the-wisps. What is love of mankind? What is mankind itself? To me, this smacks of the old Christian virtues rehashed in a philosophical oven-. People love their country, men. This is natural. But the love which embraces everything that has ceased to be a monkey, from Eskimo and Hottentot to Dalai Lama and the Pope, is something I cannot understand, it is too broad. If it is the love with which we love nature, the
planets and the universe, I do not believe it can be especially active. It is either the instinct or an understanding of the environment which leads to activity. You have lost your instinct. Now lose your abstract knowledge and manfully face the truth. Understand it, and you will see what sort of activity is needed and what sort is not. Do you desire political activity in the present scheme of society? Then become a Marrast or an Odilon Barrot and you will have it. You do not want this? You feel that every decent man should be a complete stranger to all
political issues -and must not seriously worry as to whether the republic needs a president or not, or whether the Assembly may or may not sentence people to hard labour without trial; or, better still should he vote for Cavaignac or for Louis Bonaparte. Which of the two is the better? You may think for a month, for -a year: and you will not be able to decide because, as children are fond of answering: "both are worse." All that is left to a man who respects himself is not to vote at all. Have a good look at the other questions a I'ordre du jour they are
quite the same: they are ready to give up the ghost and past praying for. What does a priest do when summoned to the bed of a dying man? He neither cures him nor attempts to cope with his ravings, but gives absolution. Grant absolution, pronounce the death sentence which must be carried out not in a matter of days but of hours. Convince yourself once and for all that not
a single one of the doomed will escape the hangman: neither the autocracy of the Tsar in St. Petersburg nor the freedom of the philistine republic; and pity neither the one nor the other. Better try to convince the superficial, light-minded people who applaud the fall of the Austrian Empire and pale over the destiny of the semi-republic, that the fall of the latter is as great a step towards the liberation of the people and of thought as the fall of the Austrian dynasty, that no exception and no mercy is needed, that the time of compassion has not yet come. Say
it in the words of the reactionary liberals: "'amnesty belongs to the future." And instead of love of mankind demand hatred for everything that impedes its progress. It is time to bind all enemies of freedom and progress with one rope, as they bind their convicts, and to lead them through the streets for everyone
to see that the French Code and the Russian Ukase, Radetzky and Cavaignac, are equally responsible. That would be a great lesson. He who will not be sobered after these shattering world events, never will be, and will die a Knight Toggenburg of liberalism, like Lafayette. The terror beheaded the
people but our task is easier: we are called upon to execute institutions, to destroy beliefs, to deprive the people of old hopes, to break down prejudices, to lay hands upon everything sacred, without mercy or reservations. We should smile upon and welcome only that which is rising, the dawn alone. And if we are unable to hasten its hour, we at least can indicate its nearness to those
who cannot see."
"Just like the old man on the Place de Vendome, who in the
evenings offers his telescope to the passers-by so that they can
admire the stars?"
"Your comparison is apt; that's just what you must do: show every man who passes how the rising waves of retribution are approaching nearer and nearer. Show him, too, the white sail of the ark barely visible on the horizon. Here is your work. When everything has gone down, when all that is superfluous has been dissolved in the brine, when the tide subsides and the ark of salvation comes safely to earth, then people will have something else to do, a great deal to do. But not now!"
LI can't resist the temptation to connect this to the news of the last week – the smash of the financial swindle that is such a perfect reflection of the neo-liberal regime is going on quite independent of any demonstration, any hand lifted against it, and as the machine eats itself it sucks in billions and billions that the hyperaggressive hyperpower can ill afford. One couldn’t have planned a ruin this immense from the outside. But, of course, unlike in the days of Lenin, or even Herzen, there is no party to take advantage of the opportune moment – the parties have long ago been absorbed in various third way isms, or have turned their ‘leftist critiques’ to high and mightily fighting each other through thickets of theory, or have reproduced Madison Avenue, shilling and thrilling to each bump and grind of the entertainment industry. There is no left left. And liberals like myself, the New Clowns, are on the very outskirts of the commentariat, in the slum. So we can just watch the disaster as a disaster. No creative destruction here.