Friday, June 02, 2023

The Forseeable third: Albert Thibaudet and the Sybilline Prophecies


Albert Thibaudet was a ferociously learned man, which was both his glory and his great fault. When he would travel from the towns in which he taught – Abbeville, Amiens – or from the town in which he was born – Tornus, a wine town midway between Dijon and Lyon – to Paris, he’s carry one valise with his clothes and toiletry, and a heavier valise with his books.  He was the type of man to whom nothing exactly happened: born to a wealthy landowner, he went through the university system in the late 19th century, became enamored of Mallarme’s writing and wrote a book about it, was published by the thick magazines and ended up at the NRF under Gide, and wrote more books, articles, letters to the mandarins (Valery, Gide, Maurras, Barres, etc.), all of whom he knew.

This life of nothing happening was interrupted by World War I. He was in his forties, but he enlisted and was put in a company that built roads and structures for the soldiers – and even buried a few. These were happy years for Thibaudet. He stayed, even though he could have pulled strings to get out, all the way from 1914 to demobilisation, in 1919. He discovered the “people”, and this was a wonderful discovery for him – it kept him from the natural arc towards the right. He was always suspicious of xenophobia, and the Action Francaise attacks on romanticism, the Germans and the Jews.

About the latter: Thibaudet seems to have had the tepid anti-semitism of his upbringing, but in general he was opposed to anti-semitism. This opposition took a strange form: he believed that anti-semitism was a media thing that peaked during the Dreyfus affair (during which he took no sides, barely noticing it). Thus, after the war, when he did his greatest work, and even wrote some still readable books about the history of French politics, he didn’t see what was happening before his eyes. He died in 1936, in Switzerland, and thus missed the events that crawled out of his blind spot.

Like Ford Maddox Ford’s character Christopher Tienjens, Thibaudet was a humanist – albeit not of the martyring Tory type. He marched off to war with three books in his backpack – Montaigne, Virgil and Thucydides. After demobilization, he collected the notes he made on Thucydides into a book: Campaigning with Thucydides. Thibaudet definitely had the Greek for it – in some ways, he is like Leo Strauss with his sense that the classical writers had, in a sense, foreshadowed the modern era. I like the book for its beginning.

“One knows the story. One day the Sibyl brought nine books to Tarquin; in them was contined the future and Rome. She demanded a considerable sum for the books. Tarquin, a careful man, refused. The following year she returned, told the king that she had burned three of the nine books, and offered him the others for the same price. Tarquin took her for a crazy woman and chased her away. A year later, he saw her again. She had burned three more books, and she wanted the same sum. Then Tarquin, be it that he was given good advice, be it that his own inspiration,  recognized her for a sage, counted out the money to her and conserved the three books in the Capitol: the Sibylline  books.”

It is a story like one of Jesus’s parables in the Bible, and like the great parables, it is the story of a deal.  Thibaudet approaches the story as a symbol of the intersection of history and politics.

Historians, thinking of “six lost books, can reflect that the proportion of a third in our possible knowledge of the future was nearly normal, and proportioned to human intelligence.

“The study of history might also lead us to conclude that there are laws and there is what will be. It can thus lead us to think that the historic duree is as unforeseeable as the psychological duree, and that history represents an incessant import of the irreducible and the new. These two arguments are equally true and face each other like Kant’s antinomies. But given a long experience, we receive the impression that in reality, the two orders is mixed together indiscernibly, and that what is reasonably foreseeable exists, penetrated at all points by what is not, by what is, in its essence, inexistant, and that human intelligence, applied to the practical, must ceaselessly find the mean between the two tableaux, and that that proportion of the foreseeable third constitutes a healthy pragmatic belief…

“This foreseeable third, founded on the regularity of the laws of the universe, suffices, when we know to exploit it, for our action and the almost reasonable enchainment of our individual and social life. Without it we could not live. But without the unforeseeable two thirds we couldn’t live either, or rather, we would live as machines. The Sibyl could have sold even more dearly a premonition of the three nineth than of the nine nineth to the King of Rome. A complete foreseeing of the future would take from our action all its human, living, tragic character.”

Underneath Thibaudet’s rather brilliant exposition of this fragment of Roman history, one sees one of the questions of Jesus, known in the homiletic literature as the “foolish exchange”: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The Roman notion of virtue fled from the touch of the absolute, and bargained for the foreseeable third. It was not by some vote, some consciousness, that we – we humans, all of us rock n rollers – decided on the nukes, on the hole in the ozone layer, on the heat waves and acidification of the oceans, on the inequality and the squalor. These things happened as man writ large decided to go for curtain number one, the World.

Two traditions. It is a funny thing how little we remember, we who lived through it, the 00s. I do remember them. I remember how, in the invasion of Iraq and its occupation, the magical thought, cheered on by journalist and politician, was that there was no “then” there – that by magic, by some spontaneous generation, democracy and peace would descend on what was a cold blooded act of aggression and violence – since of course the responsible parties could never be held responsible for their cold bloodedness, their ignorance, their aggression, their violence. And so it has actually been – those acts were knotted, so to speak, into what came after. All was forgiven, the torture tapes were burnt, our attention spans were invited to other venues, and a culture that deserved, by any measure of justice or simply practicality, to be cancelled, wasn’t. In the aftermath, it was so tender about cancelling that even a comedian masturbating before his workstaff was considered to be martyred if he didn’t make his next 100 million.

Cancellation, though, has been the fate of maybe a million Iraqis. And will be the fate of millions in the heat and the floodwater to come. The cancellation is coming like God’s own planet sized hammer.

There are many stories in the books that the Sybil burnt. This is one of them.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

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