the end of the nineteenth century: November 8, 1998

The nineteenth century ended on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Following this supposed death blow to the state’s central management of the economy, the intellectual fashion of the nineties was to pretend that the long nineteenth century – 200 years long! – was a huge mistake. The French Revolution was immediately followed by the Gulag, Freud was a crackpot, and Rational Choice would reign as queen of the human sciences forever and forever. Thus, there was a move back to the 18th century, before the French Revolution, when, under the newly mythified ancien regime, something called the public sphere happened. Instead of dwelling on enclosures and factories, prisons and madhouses, the new fashion was to dwell on coffeehouses and newspapers. Sociability was the new phrase. The birth of sociability. Not, never, solidarity, because solidarity implies action of the masses, which leads to the French Revolution and the Gulag, of course.

LI gests. We joke. We have a little joke. Did you enjoy our little joke? But in fact this sketch is not all joking, all fun and games.

And so we come to Todorov’s Living Alone Together. This essay, published in translation in New Literary History, 1996, is not a bad intellectual history – a history, that is, of a theme transposed, consciously or unconsciously, among great thinkers. In this case, the great thinkers are Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Hegel. One can think of this essay as spadework around Hegel’s idea of recognition – what the slave demands from the master, what the master refuses the slave. Rousseau, in Todorov’s version, begins the thread with a new sense of man as a creature born with a lack that distinguishes him from all the beasts. In this story that is played over and over, all the beasts form an extensive but blurred crowd, from parrots to monkeys. Their particular habits are not pulled out – we don’t hear that the spider is distinguished from all the beasts by her thread. The only animal that is pulled out and made the equal of the beasts is, of course, man. And this moment is not questioned, of course – the equal weight accorded to man and the beast – even if the place of the weighing, nature, doesn’t support our one-to-one. If there is a founding myth of the human sciences, it is here – man vs. the beasts. Not some beasts, not man as a beast vs. some other beasts, but the equivalence so silently and sufficiently summoned up: man on one side, the beasts on the other. Man as culture on one side, nature on the other.

It has been a long, long time since Aristotle said that the contemplation of man was the contemplation of an essentially minor and ignoble figure against the more noble contemplation of the Gods the fabric of the world.

Todorov, working within the assumptions that make that versus plausible, writes that Rousseau understood, as the Greeks didn’t, and as the early pre-moderns didn’t, that man was born with a lack. Sociability, a postive extension of man in the early enlightenment, appeared, to Rousseau, rather as the response filling this lack. As Todorov says – telling the beads of French lit – Rousseau departs from the moralist tradition in distinguishing amour de soi from amour propre, whereas for a moraliste like La Rouchefocauld they are the same thing. Rather, the former is care for our survival; the latter is concern for what others think of us, or vanity. Out of this dualism, Rousseau, according to Todorov, finds a middle ground – a synthesis:

“Rousseau's merit consists precisely in having envisaged this other type of social relationship and having sighted its effects on human identity, even if the term which he uses to designate it is not comparable in generality to either amour de soi or amour-propre. This third sentiment, halfway between the two others is the "idea of consideration" ( OC, III, 169). From the moment men live in society (for Rousseau this means, in relation to historical time, always), they feel the need to attract the gaze of others. The eye is the specifically human organ: "Each one began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself" (OC, III, 169). The other no longer occupies a place comparable to mine, but a contiguous and complementary place; he is needed for my complete ness. The effects of this need resemble those of vanity: one wants to be looked at, one seeks public esteem, one tries to interest others in his fate. The difference is that we are dealing here with a constitutive need of the species, such as we know it, and not with a vice. Rousseau's innovation is not that he sees that men can be moved by the desire for fame or prestige - all the moralists know that - but to make of this desire the sole threshold setting humanity apart. The need to be looked at, the need for consideration, these human faculties Rousseau discovered have an extension perceptibly greater than our aspiration for honor.
Sociability is neither an accident nor a contingency: it is the definition of the human condition.”

What about solitude? Well, Todorov grants that solitude plays a role in Rousseau’s personal writings. But this role is exceptional – it is under that exception that Rousseau, as it were, exists outside of the society of his time.

From this interpretation of Rousseau, Todorov moves forward to Adam Smith, and the Theory of the Moral Sentiments. Todorov supposes that the need for consideration is assimilated, in Smith, to his notion of the basic motives that move mankind:

“The need to be gazed upon is not one human motivation among others; it is the truth of the other needs. The same with material riches: they are not a goal in themselves, but a means of assuring us of the other's consideration. "Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the senti ments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty" (TMS 50). The rich man is happy because he has succeeded in attracting society's attention. The same with pleasure as well: the most intense are those that we receive from a certain gaze we get from others. "Nature, when she formed man for society . . . taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard" (TMS 116). The other pleasures are negligible, next to those: "It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues" (TMS 116). It follows, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy notes in his commentary on Smith, that "the Smith subject is radically incomplete," because he cannot do without the gaze of others "he desperately needs his fellow men in order to create his identity" (Le sacrifice et l envie, 86). Smith is indeed, in this sense, a disciple of Rousseau.” A need evolves a function – and so it proves with Smith. It turns out that humans are sometimes outside of the gaze of others. But happily, that gaze has been internalized. It is the conscience. It is the impartial spectator.

The place of the third figure, Hegel, is, in a sense, lightly etched in this history already. What is needed, here, is to show that the gaze and its effects are not matters of coincidence, but matters of struggle. And this leads us to recognition – that good held – mysteriously – by the master and demanded by the slave.

I will return to this in another post.


roger said…
North - be happy. Amour de soi and amour propre, just like you wanted.

Always at your beck and call, light of my life.
Anonymous said…
Il est du véritable amour comme de l'apparition des esprits: tout le monde en parle, mais peu de gens en ont vu.

- La Rochefoucauld

roger said…
I want to reply with something more human than the cold grand seigneur au cœur gelé. Not with my own words, but with this, from Oscar Milosz - I could only find this beautiful bit from the September Symphony on the net. Incidentally, Celan translated this poem:

(Symphonie de septembre)
Solitude, ma mère, redites-moi ma vie ! Voici
Le mur, sans crucifix et la table et le livre
Fermé. Si l'impossible attendu si longtemps
Frappait à la fenêtre, comme le rouge-gorge au cœur gelé
Qui donc se lèverait ici pour lui ouvrir ? Appel
Du chasseur attardé dans les marais livides,
Le dernier cri de la jeunesse faiblit et meurt : la chute d'une seule feuille
Remplit d'effroi le cœur muet de la forêt
Qu'es-tu donc triste cœur ? Une chambre assoupie
Où, les coudes sur le livre fermé, le fils prodigue
Ecoute sonner la vieille mouche bleue de l'enfance ?
Ou un miroir qui se souvient ? ou un tombeau que le voleur à réveillé ?

Lointains heureux portés par le soupir du soir, nuages d'or,
Beaux navires chargés de manne par les anges ! est-ce vrai
Que tous, vous tous avez cessé de m'aimer, que jamais
Jamais je ne vous verrai plus à travers le cristal
De l'enfance ?….