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

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Where does a revolution happen?

-photo by Gilles Peress

One possibility is that it happens inside, in the spirits of the people. But this is a frustrating notion to the philosopher – as frustrating as it would be to a bank robber to be handed a safe with all the money in it, and no combination to open it.

As we noted with Georg Forster, the enlightenment project, which bound the governors to the governed through happiness, immediately creates a set of new problems. One of those problems is posed by the claim that the collective happiness was, indeed, achieved in the old order. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strong indication that man prefers chains. Inequality, far from leading to happiness, is central to the way homo hierarchicus views the world.

But already the answer to the puzzle, here, had made its way into the enlightened progressive consciousness. The key was in human perfectibility. The old order’s original sin was in creating a system that forever blocked human perfectibility – and in this way, crushed the possibility of the future enjoyment of all of our qualities.

If we take this position, practically, then – the revolutionary says - we should strive to blow up the impediments to future delight. And if that means establishing, for a transitory moment, a political organization in which the governors, members of a revolutionary party, are incomparably more unequal to the governed, so be it. For only by a truly sudden blow can one penetrate into the heart where the chains are forged and stop it at this business. Centuries of ingrained comformism and submission must be liquidated.

But – if we are still philosophers – this solution leaves us uneasy. Not simply because of its betrayal of democracy, but rather, for its too easy assumption about interiority. It is here that Hoffmann’s stories, with their doppelgangers, have the effect of … making the political uncanny. Once granted that man projects, and one can imagine the extension of projection into the political sphere quite easily. That snarling little changeling, Little Zaches, might have gained his powers from a fairy and lost them to a magician – but his transit through the state parallels the career of many politicians. And, in fact, many political and economic systems have so learned to manipulate and broadcast projection, used the supposedly freeing techniques of enlightenment to devise ever cleverer chains, that the philosopher can sometimes spend all his or her time dodging – retreat to a perpetual round of critique.

Herzen, witness to the brief rise and ugly fall of the revolution of 1848 and a reader of the ‘reactionary’ Hoffmann, responds to these problems by splitting his responses, allocating roles in the series of monologues and dialogues that make up a book intended as a gift to the future – a gift to his son. Who, at the time of the writing, is too young to read. But when he could read – or, as we know actually happened, when Herzen’s daughter read, for his daughter was his real executor – was he or she supposed to know which side Herzen was on? Because the dialogues don’t place the reader in the easy position of seeing through the characters to Herzen’s side – the reporter, the doctor, the exile in the beginning dialogue, all seem to carry the author’s warmth; but that warmth also extends to the romantic, the woman who admires Rousseau, and to a certain tendency in the monologues that is anything but cool and diagnostic. There is a Hoffmann-esque zigzag here – a streak of Gogol in Herzen.

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