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Friday, January 18, 2008

smash goes the clown

“Doubt everything at least once”, as Lichtenberg once encouraged himself , “even if it concerns the proposition two times two equals four.” The doubt, according to Lichtenberg’s belief, set autonomous thought in motion, and autonomous thought sets aside the veils that cover the world. Once these have finally disappeared for good, the true will prevail over the false everywhere, and the world will at last become better. Thought produces clever people. In a better world, however, humans are happier, and who says that the clever people won’t finally win their share in this happiness?

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.[4] 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.


Roger Gathmann said...

PS - continuing the thought of the last paragraph - the meltdown of the financials will do wind down the U.S. occupation of Iraq than any demo, any election, anything said against that vast, vain, bloody boondoggle. Voting in a Democratic congress that was practically mandated to set a time table and get out of Iraq did nothing. A recession that hurts the wealthy and inspires a 'stimulus package that is still onlyh 3/4ths the size of spending on the war - projected, that is - is going to pull the curtain on this part of the Iraq war. Who knows, maybe the Iranian backed DAWA government will learn to rule - although with the refugee situation as it is, and the Sunni militias armed up, that is a doubtful bet.

Roger Gathmann said...

ps - oh, and for a rare criticism of the culture of Wall Street, go to, of all people, this clip of Jim Cramer!

traxus4420 said...

"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."

does this include writing novels?

speaking of Utopia, and novels, looking through your happiness posts i was wondering if you were going to get into utopian fiction in any major way. if so, i and some friends are going through several and posting here:

while reading through william morris's 'news from nowhere' i ran into the famous 'lack of incentive to labour' chapter and thought of your last few posts, particularly the bit about 'the strange contempt of the utilitarians for mere pleasure.'

"Now, this is what I want to ask you about - to wit, how you get people to work when there is no reward of labour, and especially how you get them to work strenuously?"

"But no reward of labour?" said Hammond, gravely. "The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?"

"But no reward for especially good work," quoth I.

"Plenty of reward," said he - "the reward of creation. The wages which God gets, as people might have said time agone. If you are going to be paid for the pleasure of creation, which is what excellence in work means, the next thing we shall hear of will be a bill sent in for the begetting of children."

"Well, but," said I, "the man of the nineteenth century would say there is a natural desire towards the procreation of children, and a natural desire not to work."

"Yes, yes," said he, "I know the ancient platitude, - wholly untrue; indeed, to us quite meaningless. Fourier, whom all men laughed at, understood the matter better."

"Why is it meaningless to you?" said I.

He said: "Because it implies that all work is suffering, and we are so far from thinking that, that, as you may have noticed, whereas we are not short of wealth, there is a kind of fear growing up amongst us that we shall one day be short of work. It is a pleasure which we are afraid of losing, not a pain."

"Yes," said I, "I have noticed that, and I was going to ask you about that also. But in the meantime, what do you positively mean to assert about the pleasurableness of work amongst you?"

"This, that all work is now pleasureable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists."


What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy? What! shall we expect peace and stability from unhappiness? The gathering of grapes from thorns and figs from thistles is a reasonable expectation compared with that! And happiness without happy daily work is impossible."

"Most obviously true," said I: for I thought the old boy was preaching a little. "But answer my question, as to how you gained this happiness."

"Briefly," said he, "by the absence of artificial coercion, and the freedom for every man to do what he can do best, joined to the knowledge of what productions of labour we really want. I must admit that this knowledge we reached slowly and painfully."

"Go on," said I, "give me more detail; explain more fully. For this subject interests me intensely."

"Yes, I will," said he; "but in order to do so I must weary you by talking a little about the past. Contrast is necessary for this explanation. Do you mind?"

"No, no," said I.

Said he, settling himself in his chair again for a long talk: "It is clear from all that we hear and read, that in the last age of civilisation men had got into a vicious circle in the matter of production of wares. They had reached a wonderful facility of production, and in order to make the most of that facility they had gradually created (or allowed to grow, rather) a most elaborate system of buying and selling, which has been called the World-Market; and that World Market, once set a-going, forced them to go on making more and more of these wares, whether they needed them or not. So that while (of course) they could not free themselves from the toil of making real necessities, they created in a never-ending series sham or artificial necessaries, which became, under the iron rule of the aforesaid World-Market, of equal importance to them with the real necessaries which supported life. By all this they burdened themselves with a prodigious mass of work merely for the sake of keeping their wretched system going."

"Yes - and then?. said I.

"Why, then, once they had forced themselves to stagger along under this horrible burden of unnecessary production, it became impossible for them to look upon labour and its results from any other point of view than one - to wit, the ceaseless endeavour to expend the least possible amount of labour on any article made and yet at the same time to make as many articles as possible. To this `cheapening of production,' as it was called, everything was sacrificed: the happiness of the workman at his work, nay, his most elementary comfort and bare health, his food, his clothes, his dwelling, his leisure, his amusement, his education" - his life, in short - did not weigh a grain of sand in the balance against this dire necessity of `cheap production' of things, a great part of which were not worth producing at all. Nay, we are told, and we must believe it, so overwhelming is the evidence, though many of our people scarcely can believe it, that even rich and powerful men, the masters of the poor devils aforesaid, submitted to live amidst sights and sounds and smells which it is in the very nature of man to abhor and flee from, in order that their riches might bolster up this supreme folly. The whole community, in fact, was cast into the jaws of this ravening monster, `the cheap production' forced on it by the World-Market."

"Dear me!" said I. "But what happened? Did not their cleverness and facility in production master this chaos of misery at last? Couldn't they catch up with the World-Market, and then set to work to devise means for relieving themselves from this fearful task of extra labour?"

He smiled bitterly. "Did they even try to?" said he. "I am not sure. You know that according to the old saw the beetle gets used to living in dung; and these people whether they found the dung sweet or not, certainly lived in it."

northanger said...

hidey ho there Trax.


"However, the personality of the author presupposes a series of exterior determinations. Thus, we come to the problem of intertextuality. A first intertext would be offered by 'the first literary influence or the vast cultural influence'. Going back to Eminescu,the poem has a folk influence and besides the theme of 'Zburatorul', the poem exploits the popular belief in the guiding star, the lucky star which everybody owns. This theme is also exploited by the previous literary generation, the generation of 1848 (the year of the Bourgeois Revolution) or by the german Neohumanism. The temptation to the liberate imagination, 'to get out of the established universe and enter into potential structures of the world' has a romantic character. On the other hand, the simple language without useless rethorical agglomerations aspiring to the purity of the primordial Word, belongs to the classical component of Eminescu's spirit acquired through study."

AZ 96 = THE GENERATION OF 1848 = LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA (Land :: Tap to add one colorless mana to your mana pool or draw a card from your library; you may use the card-drawing ability only if you have exactly seven cards in hand § Official Rulings: 10/4/2004 You may tap multiples of these in response to each other because the requirement for 7 cards is checked only at the time the ability is announced and not again when it resolves; Set: Arabian Nights; Number: None; P/T: None; Color: None; Cost: None; Artist: Mark Poole)...

Roger Gathmann said...

Hi North, Traxus.
I love the Morris quotes! Vaguely I've had in mind doing something about Brave New World, but you've convinced me I should look at William Morris. The comments on the pleasure of the work that you want to do lines up, I think, with my notion of how a single, univocal orientation to 'staying young' has stripped different ages of the distinctions and definitions that once structured them, one of which, of course, was the joy of being a master of some craft. Not that one should nostalgically think some pre-capitalist system was perfect, far from it, but it did express a human fact - that we fucking grow older - which is only expressed, in contemporary society, as far as I can see, by turning tv into a perpetual mill for selling vaguely purposed pills to the watchers. Otherwise, we only grow younger, apparently. I'll look at the Morris and at your link. Thanks!

traxus4420 said...

well, in the rest of the book, youth is still very much the marker of pleasure and happiness -- the pleasure in work keeps morris's utopians young, whereas premature aging is associated with the alienated labor of the bad old days (there are several remarks about how much more attractive everyone is in morris's 20th century compared with london's 19th century). the utopian culture is repeatedly described in terms of a 'second childhood.' really the only function of age i can ascertain from the novel is keeping the general culture aware of the mistakes of the past (its supposed fruits: book learning, technology, etc., are not much valued), and some whippersnapper remarks that even this function of memory shouldn't be left completely to the old.

the preference for youth coincides here with a cyclical view of time based on the seasons (naturally), that works to reduce fear of death -- anything reeking of 'development' and its linear timeframe is removed -- no punishment, not even for murder, and no formal education. youth -- health and buoyancy -- represents the 'permaculture' of the utopia, old age the miserliness of 19th century industrial capitalism, which is no longer permitted to govern the world.

“But you must know that we of these generations are strong and healthy of body, and live easily; we pass our lives in reasonable strife with nature, exercising not one side of ourselves only, but all sides, taking the keenest pleasure in all the life of the world. So it is a point of honour with us not to be self-centred; not to suppose that the world must cease because one man is sorry; therefore we should think it foolish, or if you will, criminal, to exaggerate these matters of sentiment and sensibility: we are no more inclined to eke out our sentimental sorrows than to cherish our bodily pains; and we recognise that there are other pleasures besides love-making. You must remember, also, that we are long-lived, and that therefore beauty both in man and woman is not so fleeting as it was in the days when we were burdened so heavily by self-inflicted diseases. So we shake off these griefs in a way which perhaps the sentimentalists of other times would think contemptible and unheroic, but which we think necessary and manlike. As on the other hand, therefore, we have ceased to be commercial in our love-matters, so also we have ceased to be artificially foolish. The folly which comes by nature, the unwisdom of the immature man, or the older man caught in a trap, we must put up with that, nor are we much ashamed of it; but to be conventionally sensitive or sentimental—my friend, I am old and perhaps disappointed, but at least I think we have cast off some of the follies of the older world.”

traxus4420 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traxus4420 said...

so youth is 'overproduced,' no longer a rarity or exploitable commodity --

of course there's also the 'nowhere' trope of inexistent dream states common to many utopian narratives to be dealt with; taken together with morris's cheering for the middle ages there's a reason why the book has often been dismissed by both right and left as 'romantic fancy.'

north, hi -- in the myopic, 'magic'-playing days of my youth i always thought there was something offensive -- obscene even -- about a tabletop filled with endlessly productive libraries of alexandria.