Liberalism Broadly Defined: Worldview and Paradigm

I’ve been meaning to read Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History, a left-wing historical critique of “liberalism”. It was recommended to me and it looks interesting, but I can’t help questioning what is this “liberalism” that is being explored. In a review of the book (An Attack on Liberal Mythology by Donald A. Planey), I left a simple comment:

Why is Obama referred to as a liberal? Obama doesn’t identify as a liberal. According to Pew data, around half of liberals are Independents, not Democrats. Also, about a two thirds of Democrats aren’t liberals, instead evenly divided between moderates and conservatives.

I always wonder what people mean or think they mean when the speak of political labels. There is a lot of confusion.

In response, Donald A. Planey wrote that, “Losurdo (and myself) do not use the narrow North American definition of “liberal.” “Liberal” here is defined according to Enlightenment philosophy.”

I didn’t intend to get into an involved analysis, but below are the comments I left to elucidate my misgivings.

As I haven’t read the book, I’m forced to respond to reviews of the book (and interviews with the author I’ve read). So, take my commentary on that level. I’m certainly not meaning to dismiss the book as having any value, just pointing out that it is a particular viewpoint constrained by the purposes and biases of the author. Nothing wrong with that. The book interests me for the very reason the author doesn’t share my own purposes and biases.

 * * * *

I would argue there is no Enlightenment definition of “liberal” as a political label. Enlightenment thinkers didn’t identify themselves or their philosophies as “liberal”. That was a later interpretation by some people, but there isn’t even agreement about that interpretation of the Enlightenment. You are, of course, free to read liberalism into the philosophies of past thinkers.

I see this same problem with discussing liberalism today. All the time, politicians, pundits, and activists get labeled as “liberal” even when they don’t identify as such. The case you want to make will determine who you include or exclude, but too often this is seeking evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. If you aren’t a liberal and want to criticize liberals, then you will try to find people who have negative qualities or moral failings and pin the “liberal” label on them and deny that same label to people with positive qualities and moral successes. And if you are a liberal seeking to defend liberalism, you will do the opposite.

The problem we have here is that we entirely lack an objective definition of liberalism. There is no agreement, oftentimes even among liberals. Liberalism can mean almost anything to anyone. To Losurdo, it seems even conservatives are liberals.

* * * *

Ed Rooksby offers one of the better criticisms:

http://edrooksby.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/review-of-domenico-losurdos-liberalism-a-counter-history/

“As Pitts remarks, Losurdo tends to `string together passages from a disparate set of thinkers in order to construct “liberal” positions’ (Pitts, 2011: p. 8) in favour of a range of brutal, racist, elitist and otherwise unpleasant practices, prejudices and beliefs. But Losurdo’s choices of passages and quotations often seem highly selective and, thus, not necessarily very representative of liberal thought generally. Losurdo’s modus operandi, quite frequently, is to present a snippet of writing from two or three theorists or essayists on a particular subject and to suggest or imply rather breezily that these are typical of liberal thought as a whole – but we are often given no very good reason to believe that they really are typical. All in all the reader is frequently left with the nagging suspicion that the narrative Losurdo presents is distorted by an over-riding intention to show liberalism in the worst possible light on any given issue. . . The clear implication is that Sieyès’ fantasy is in some way representative of broader liberal thinking at the time – but Losurdo provides no evidence that other liberals (let alone a significant number of them) would ever have countenanced such an idea.”

That is the first problem. A strong cases substantiated with evidence apparently isn’t made. Rooksby, in quoting Pitts, points out that the argument is based on cherrypicking. So, we don’t have any reason to believe that this is a representative portrayal of liberalism, much less a useful definition.

He continues with the problem of conflating liberals with conservatives:

“Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example.[2] The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well.”

This is a liberalism so broad that it subsumes conservatism. This means that conservatives simply become another variety of liberals. And the focus of this book seems to be mostly on this conservative variety of “liberals” while ignoring all other varieties of liberals. This is clarified in Rooksby’s analysis of the relationship between liberals and radicals:

“The problem we encounter in relation to Losurdo’s treatment of the relationship between liberalism and conservatism is inverted when it comes to his presentation of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism – the separateness and distinctiveness of these two traditions is exaggerated. One of the problems with Losurdo’s argument in this respect is that the radical tradition, in his schema, seems to arrive out of nowhere as a more or less fully formed and distinct political outlook at the time of the French Revolution. But where have these radical ideas suddenly come from? What were the historical conditions of their emergence? Why did they emerge precisely at this point? They cannot simply have appeared spontaneously out of nothing. Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to regard radicalism as, precisely, a radicalised form of what already existed – didn’t radicalism involve, in other words, a radicalisation of liberal ideas? One can certainly trace, for example, a clear line of continuity between the `liberal’ beginnings of the revolution in France, driven largely from above by a wealthy social elite seeking to limit the power of the monarch, and the more radical Jacobin phase. We are not dealing with two hermetically sealed revolutionary processes here – an entirely liberal one and an entirely radical one with no relation between the two even though one happened to occur immediately after the other and involved many of the same participants. Clearly the radical phase of the revolution grew directly out of the `liberal’ phase. The clear point of transition between the two phases comes, as Losurdo rightly points out, with the direct intervention of the popular masses in the revolutionary process. But this intervention is best explained in terms of the popular masses seeking directly to stake a claim in the new order of liberty and equality that had been declared earlier in the revolution. Essentially, the radical phase sought to realise the universalist principles that had been declared in the earlier period more fully and consistently. The relationship between the two phases of the French Revolution provides us, it seems to me, with a pretty good indication of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism more broadly. The two traditions are not sharply distinct from each other at all – radicalism emerges from within the liberal tradition and involves, furthermore, a radicalisation of liberal ideas and principles.”

There is a continuum between liberalism and radicalism. In fact, there are radical liberals and liberal radicals. Only the conservative variety of so-called “liberals” would likely lack radicalism to an absolute degree. And only the most right-wing of radicals would entirely lack liberal-mindedness and liberal values, principles, goals, etc. As Rooksby points out:

“This brings us to the central part of Losurdo’s argument – his view that liberalism is defined by its implicit logic of exclusion. If radicalism did emerge from liberalism then it must follow that there is something much more substantial to liberalism than a core logic of exclusion – there must be some coherent ideological and normative content over and above its tendency to exclude, to be radicalised.”

Returning to the cherrypicking, the opposite problem is what is conveniently left out:

“Another set of shortcomings in Losurdo’s book relates to absences and omissions. For one thing, several major figures in the history of liberal thought receive only minor walk on roles in the narrative or do not appear at all. Kant for example is surely a major figure in liberal philosophy. Yet he receives scant attention in this book. Perhaps the cursory attention he gets is related to the fact that Losurdo has to admit that (because of his condemnation of slavery and colonialism and his enthusiasm for the revolution in France), Kant `came close to radicalism’ (p. 178), which, given Kant’s indisputable importance within the liberal tradition, seems to throw Losurdo’s rather arbitrary distinction between radicals and liberals into confusion and also threatens to undermine the argument about the centrality within liberalism of commitment to exclusion. It is also rather strange that liberal economics is hardly mentioned at all. The history of liberal economic theory is a hugely important aspect of the history of the liberal tradition as a whole – it is surprising that it is largely ignored.

“In addition relatively recent developments within liberal political philosophy are left out of the picture altogether. There is a very brief discussion of 20th Century liberalism but Losurdo’s narrative does not extend beyond 1914 in any detail and does not extend beyond 1945 at all. This, needless to say, means that a great deal of liberal thought is ignored altogether.”

There is no correlation made to contemporary liberalism and definitions of liberalism, either in the US or Europe (or anywhere else). So, the contemporary relevance of the book is far from clear. Is it just an academic exercise and a historical analysis using an archaic and/or idiosyncratic definition? It appears Losurdo wants to imply something about liberalism today, but apparently he never makes the connection.

Jonathan Dresner, in a comment to the second part of this review, made a good point:

http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/liberalism_an_ideology_of_exclusion_part_2

“The discussion of the radical vs. liberal enlightenment here suggests to me the possibility that the enlightenment’s multitudes may well include all three of the major strains of 19th century thought: radicalism, liberalism, and conservativism. Conservativism is usually portrayed as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but there’s a line through Hobbes and Rousseau to Burke….

“Anyway, the recent work on Spinoza, and the distinction between the radical and mainstream enlightenment seems to point in this direction: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13250”

* * * *

Here is another equally good criticism:

http://www.leninology.com/2011/10/liberals-and-reactionaries.html

The reviewer makes the same point about the continuity between radicals and liberals:

“The second difficulty concerned the distinction that Losurdo wished to draw between radicals and liberals, which is not always a stable boundary – for example, William Lloyd Garrison took liberalism to its most radical conclusions in opposition to racial slavery, the colonization of Indian land, and the oppression of women, but he by no means departed from liberalism (indeed, he refused the term ‘wage slavery’, supported capitalist ‘free labour’ and tended to be suspicious of unionism).”

This goes back to the close relationship, during the early modern revolutions, between what today we’d call liberals and radicals: Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Godwin, Wallstonecraft, etc. Thomas Paine is one clear example of someone who bridged “liberalism” and “radicalism”. I would argue that Paine is the strongest ancestor of both the liberal and radical traditions in US politics. Those intertwining traditions go back to the Enlightenment era, and so I don’t know what this Englightenment definition of “liberalism” you speak of.

The other criticism made connects the issue of radicalism with the issue of conservatism:

“The third, related issue arose over the question of what, or who, counts as a liberal. Losurdo argues the case in his opening chapter for seeing the pro-slavery statesman John Calhoun as a liberal. Robin Blackburn disputed this, arguing that it involved far too expansive a definition of liberalism – Calhoun, he said, is a conservative. Blackburn’s concern was that Losurdo was risking a sectarian position, failing to acknowledge and that this wasn’t resolved by cordoning off some liberals as ‘radicals’. . . . Part of the problem here is that conservatism in its modern sense takes its cue from liberalism. Burke drew from Smith, almost all US conservatives draw from Locke, and modern conservatives are almost all influenced by classical liberalism. So, if Calhoun himself based his arguments on liberal precepts, which he certainly did, does this mean he is a liberal? There is also a deeper theoretical issue when discussing people like Calhoun. Antebellum slavery, some would argue, was a non-capitalist formation. That’s a core part of Charles Post’s argument in The American Road to Capitalism, written from a ‘political marxist’ perspective: that the US before the civil war was based on a combination of different modes of production – slavery, petty commodity production, mercantile capital, etc. The interaction between these different productive forms drove the expansionism of both north and south, eventually leading to Civil War.”

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese make a very detailed argument for a pre-capitalist South:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/southern-pre-capitalism/

These authors were both radicals, she a feminist and he a Marxist. I gained a similar insight about the South from Joe Bageant who also comes from a Marxist background.

In Rainbow Pie, Bageant wrote about his childhood town in Appalachia, pointing out how it was a moneyless society based on subsistence farming, bartering and store tabs. Bageant was born long after the Civil War. That shows that the pre-capitalist economy survived in the rural South well into the 20th century.

The fact that capitalism took so long to take hold in the South is evidence for liberalism also not taking hold quickly there. It’s not to say there weren’t elements of capitalism and liberalism that had been planted in the South, but the point is that it would take centuries for them to more fully grow. Also, consider the fact that liberalism never was a single ideology or movement at any point in history. It has many origins and took many separate paths. This is most clearly seen in the diversity of American society going back to the Enlightenment era:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

The above reviewer continues with his argument about a pre-capitalist South and further argues that it was precisely anti-capitalist, a point also made by the Genovese book:

“John Ashworth’s classic two-volume marxist history, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, makes the argument that southern political thought was largely pre-capitalist, drawing on classical republican ideologies because they happened to be conducive to the preservation of slave relations. Indeed, he maintains, the Democratic Party when it first emerged was anticapitalist – ‘Jacksonian Democracy’, based centrally on the valorisation of the white, freeholding farmer, could challenge the power of the banks and commerce in the name of agrarian interests while also being profoundly opposed to strong state intervention in the economy. So, was John Calhoun a liberal, because of his strong individualism and hostility to the over-concentration of central authority, or did liberalism merely provide part of the vocabulary for the defence of conservative interests?”

It’s obviously complex. American culture and politics is a mishmash.

He then brings up Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, specifically Robin’s view that Calhoun is a conservative. By the way, that book is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years and presents a very unique argument with a lot of explanatory power. As the reviewer says of Robin’s analysis:

“But what does being a conservative entail, then? The image of conservatism as anti-modern, traditionalist, evincing a preference for the familiar and for gradual evolution, is one that he, like Ted Honderich, C B Macpherson and others before him, disputes. The original conservatives – Hobbes, Burke, Maistre – are contemptuous of tradition, largely because of its inability to meet the challenge of revolution. What they are conserving is not a traditional order (as mentioned, Burke was already a free market capitalist), but hierarchy, dominance, unfreedom: they are reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries. To be effective counter-revolutionaries, conservatives must incorporate the ideas and tactics of the enemy. They must speak in the language of the people, “make privilege popular”, “transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses”.”

I have found this argument compelling in many ways. Otherwise, it is impossible to make sense of conservatism. Robin has the insight to look past the rhetoric of conservatives, sometimes sounding traditionalist and sometimes sounding classically liberal, and instead look to their behavior and policies. He summarizes Robin’s explanation of conservatism:

“Conservatism is thus not distinguished by its ideas which, with the enormous exception of race, it largely borrows from elsewhere, nor by its tactics, but by its praxis.”

And gives the details for why Calhoun was a conservative:

“It would follow that it is not Calhoun’s republican, pre-capitalist ‘states rights’ ideology that makes him a conservative, any more than his defence of private property makes him a liberal. It is his attempt to arouse the South in response to the abolitionist danger, his attempt to conserve hierarchy against mass democracy, that makes him a conservative.”

He then concludes with why liberalism is different than this:

“Liberals, you may say, have also been known to defend hierarchy and racial supremacy. This is true, but liberalism does not pivot on the defence of hierarchies and domination; that is precisely why it devises ‘exclusion clauses’. Indeed, it is because of liberalism’s much vaunted commitment to humanitarian and egalitarian values that ‘the liberal defence of murder’ is a hypocritical ideology, riven with tensions that aren’t usually present in the rightist equivalent.”

I’m not entirely sure if I agree with all of Robin’s theory. I could be persuaded toward the view that conservatives are just another variety of liberals in that we all live in a liberal society. I’ve pointed out that there are indeed conservative(-minded) liberals. Liberals are prone to conservatism which creates a lot of confusion,

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/conservative-minded-liberals-reactionary-xenophobic/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/liberalism-weaknesses-failures/

Distinct ideologies (and the distinct labels that go with them) only clearly exist in theory, not in human psychology and behavior.

If liberalism is to be broadened in the sense of the Enlightenment to include conservatism, then it should also include much of the radicalism that was mixed up with and/or allied with liberalism. In a sense, all post-Enlightenment ideologies are “liberal” in that they use and define themselves according to the liberal worldview that became dominant then. But obviously this “liberalism” that spans from conservatism to radicalism has little to do with what most people, most especially most liberals, mean by liberalism.

Also, I keep wondering about proletariat liberals. The American Revolution wasn’t just pushed by the elite. It actually originated among the lower classes, and these lower classes were often more interested in liberal values than were the elites. Many of these lower class revolutionaries were fighting for democracy and more freedom in the market, two things the elites tended to be wary about. If not for this push from below, the American Revolution probably never would have happened. So, liberalism is obviously something more than a bourgeois phenomenon.

If liberalism spans from conservative to liberal and from bourgeois to proletariat, then we have a truly broad definition going on here. Basically, we are simply saying liberalism can include almost anything. According to the dictionary definition, to be liberal means to be generous; but this is an extremely generous definition. It’s interesting to think about. Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.

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Borders in Europe and the World

I’ve been reading about European history lately and came across some map videos. I thought I’d share, as they are interesting. It helps me understand what I’ve been reading.

The first one is about the past 1,000 years of European history. That is the time-frame I’ve been focusing upon, most specifically the Roman Empire.

One thing that stood out to me in my reading is how the Romans weren’t identified as Europeans in terms of culture, politics, and economics. Most of their attention was focused toward the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Near East. At the height of their power, they controlled all the land directly surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This is clearly seen as the Empire grows in the first video:

The next one also focuses on Europe with a larger time-frame. The one after that further broadens the scope to other geographical regions. I also included two other videos for the fun of it. The third one below untangles the complexity of Great Britain, United Kingdom, and England. And the last explores truly complex borders in the world.

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Master’s Tools

In speaking about violence, injustice and utopias, Ursula K. Le Guin offers an interesting metaphor. She writes that, “Audre Lord said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it” (“War Without End”, The Wave in the Mind). It is an interesting, albeit troubling, metaphor. It frames a particular way to think about our society.

This metaphor implies a number of things.

First, it portrays society as something intentionally created and actively formed. It is built by someone and for some purpose. A social order doesn’t just happen anymore than a building just happens.

Second, it claims that what has been built isn’t just any building, but the “master’s house”. It is built with the master’s tools and one assumes according to the master’s specifications. We can throw out the master’s blueprint. We can surreptitiously build something else while the master isn’t looking. Or we can try to tear it down. The master might punish us or we might get the upperhand. We could become our own builders for our own purposes. We could become masters in our own right. Even so, the tools we have are still the master’s tools with the limitations that those tools present.

This metaphor represents the view of the outsider, the person already standing back from the work being done and those attempting to undo it. It doesn’t automatically imply a particular ideological standpoint. But, in our society, this view is most often presented by the leftist and often directed at liberals most of all. I’ve increasingly been persuaded by the criticisms originating from the leftist perspective. I wonder what we have built and what or whose purpose it really serves.

Liberals attempted to dismantle the house of, in our case, the slave master for that is what our society was built upon. We dismantled slavery and other overt forms of oppression, but we weren’t able to fully dismantle the cultural structures that made oppression possible. This is, according to the metaphor, because we have continued to use the same tools.

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Whose Welfare?

I’ve come to this understanding most directly from my thoughts on welfare. I’ve speculated that, if all welfare were to end instantly, revolution would happen over night. Our entire society, both the social and economic orders, is being propped up by the welfare state. Capitalism (as we know it) most of all couldn’t operate without the welfare state, without the direct and indirect subsidies of the government supporting companies and their employees in a thousand different ways.

I gained some insight when trying to make heads or tails out of Edmund Burke’s politics. Why would a supposed conservative or reactionary have been so adamant and consistent in his pushing progressive reform? An insight gelled in mind when I read a comparison of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Burke in America by Drew Maciag). In their own words, it became clear that they promoted reform within the system in order to defend the status quo of the system. Small changes prevent big changes (i.e., revolutions).

This is why Burke took a reactionary stance when actual revolution threatened, when progressive reform became less relevant and brute oppression deemed necessary. This is also why Burke only cared about the complaints of Americans until their independence was won, and afterward it was no concern of his as they were no longer part of the British Empire which is the only social order he cared about. Burke’s concern was about the British Empire, not so much about the people who might be oppressed or otherwise affected by the British Empire. He only concerned himself about the problems of people when ignoring such problems might threaten the social order he was part of.

(My complaint against Burke here isn’t ideological. I would make the same complaint against a mainstream liberal in modern America, which is my entire point. Also, my inner libertarian wants to know where Irish Burke’s social identity and moral concern would have fallen when the British Empire violently suppressed the Irish bid for independence, a clash that caused more deaths than the French Reign of Terror he so harshly criticized.)

We focus so much on the calls for reform that we rarely stop to consider what is being reformed. And we defend what we identify with without really understanding why. We need to look beyond individual issues and parochial concerns toward a broader understanding. We need to consider what we are building as we consider how we go about that activity. We need to consider the foundation upon which our house is built.

* * * *

Tools and Blueprints

Progressive reform is one of the master’s tools, to be used or not as necessary for the master’s plans. But it’s just one of many tools, not the blueprint for what is being built.

I say this as someone whose natural impulse is to support progressive reform, slow and steady changes from within the system. I’m not a radical. It just isn’t in me to be a radical. And yet I find it impossible to deny the radical’s critique. Like it or not, I suspect leftists are at least partly correct in what they say about liberals.

The welfare state doesn’t simply or even primarily serve the interests of the poor. Rather, it serves the master(s), the ruling elite and their status quo. It is the bread part of the bread and circus equation. Does anyone genuinely think the leaders of the Roman Empire ordered bread to be thrown to the poor because of some liberal agenda to steal from the rich and spread the wealth? No, they wanted to keep the hungry masses under control by any means necessary, which sometimes meant bread and other times violence, but more often some combination of both (the carrot and the stick).

As a lifelong liberal, I feel pulled in two directions. To seek to reform the system may just continue the suffering. To seek to end the system, though, will also likely lead to more suffering. In terms of immediate options, it can feel like suffering is unavoidable. Is the only way to force change by forcing suffering to its extreme? Then what? We have no guarantee that anything good will result. Suffering isn’t a magical elixir.

A desperate people are as likely to turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism as to face up to the problems that are the cause of their desperation. The liberal’s complaint is that we might end up worse than we already are. Small steps of progress toward the public good is, as the liberal believes, much safer than risking it all on a gamble.

The vision of suffering, no matter what form it takes, too easily play into the hands of the powerful. A state of despair isn’t inspiring. It makes us feel impotent and apathetic. Isn’t there a third option, one that would offer genuine hope?

* * * *

The Problems We Create

The welfare state is just a single example among others. We could also include the minimum wage, which in a sense is another aspect of the welfare state.

If we had a society where economic (and political) inequality was less extreme and where social mobility (along with the attendant opportunities) was higher, then a minimum wage might be unnecessary. A minimum wage deals with the symptoms, rather than the disease. When you are sick, it is natural to want the doctor to make you feel better, even if it is just symptom management. You also hope, though, that the doctor is meanwhile seeking to cure the disease and will bring you back to health.

In our society, the metaphorical doctors are technocrats who have little concern, much less understanding, about fundamental causes. Their purpose is the purpose of the master, which is the building and maintaining of the master’s house: the status quo of the established social order. It would be as if doctors were more concerned about the hospital and their place within it than they were for their own patients’ care; the patients being seen as serving the purpose of the hospital, instead of the other way around. Such dystopian doctors would be mainly concerned about symptom management in the way technocrats are mainly concerned about human resource management and population control (along with economic manipulations and military coercion).

We look for solutions to the problems we create. But, as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

* * * *

Building Something New?

The system precedes any individual person, and so the individual person by intention or default serves the system. But whose system is it?

It is first and foremost a system for the minority, a system of wealth and power. It is the master’s house. As always, the majority are the builders who build what the master(s) tell them to build. We are born into this society without choice, the house already under construction, the foundation and walls already in place. We reach adulthood and someone places the master’s tools into our hands. What can and should we do? Throw away these tools and starve? Throw the monkey wrench into the works and see what happens? Or use these tools to try to build something new? If so, how? One could argue that many have tried and failed.

We have seen the near continuous implementation of progressive reforms since the revolutionary era. Have our social problems been solved? Of course not. Even with the ending of slavery in the Western world, there are still more slaves in the world today than there were in the past and there are more African-Americans in US prisons now than there ever were in slavery. It is hard to see this as evidence of progress. Some have benefited while many have suffered.

Progressive reform, sadly, doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It can feel like a band-aid on a gaping wound. And a band-aid won’t stop the blood gushing out. Even if the wound stops gushing on its own, the band-aid won’t prevent infections and gangrene, won’t prevent scar tissue from forming. The wound needs to be opened and cleansed. It needs stitches and salves. It needs regular care until it is healed. And, if the injuries turn out to be deeper still, bones may need to be set or invasive surgery may be necessary.

* * * *

An Arsenal of Metaphors

We need to use every metaphor in our arsenal. Metaphors are how we make the abstract concrete, make the unconsidered real.

I particularly like the bodily metaphors of disease, of wounds and trauma, and of health and healing. We often use these metaphors to describe the experiences and behaviors of individuals. We speak of otherwise healthy veterans and rape victims as having been traumatized. No physical trauma may literally be detected, but it is as if there is an unhealed injury and a process of healing that can be assisted or thwarted. One of the greatest leaps of insight comes from seeing how this applies on the larger scales of entire communities and societies.

This has become clear to me in studying history. There is a reason we collectively are obsessed with past wars and conflicts. It is because they aren’t merely in the past. We keep reliving them as someone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder keeps reliving the original trauma. Some describe this as a victimization cycle, but that doesn’t do justice to the lived reality. It’s not just a cycle, a pattern repeating. It’s as if the suffering of the dead still haunt us. Borders aren’t mere lines on a map. They are still tender wounds, not just in the minds of individuals, but in the societies on both sides.

Like the welfare state, borders aren’t there for the good of the common people. They exist for the purposes of power, of enforcing social order. But the powerful are as afflicted as the rest of us. It is a psychological complex of fear, around which all sorts of rationalizations accrue. The desire for power and control is most often driven by fear. This isn’t to say that fear is never warranted, but it is to say we too often perpetuate the conditions of fear like a battered woman returning to her abusive spouse or else marrying another man who is just as abusive.

Once we realize the metaphors we are living, we are in a position to consider different metaphors and with them new understandings, new possibilities, new choices.

* * * *

Unnatural Boundaries

International aid relates as well. It is a globalized welfare system. It serves to numb the worst pain caused by the wounds of borders.

Modern nation-states are largely the result of colonialism. The borders in many parts of the world were created by the former colonizers who had very little concern for the native populations. They divied up land based on geographical conveniences, natural resources, and historical claims of power. It didn’t matter if such imagined boundaries divided tribes and ethnic groups or if they mixed together tribes and ethnic groups that were in conflict. These boundaries weren’t natural, are never natural.

The former colonizers have supported oppressive regimes for their own purposes. It is still the master’s house, even when the master isn’t living there for the time being. Local tyrants may sleep in the master’s bed while he is away, but such tyrants only maintain their position as long as they serve the master, as long as they act as caretakers in his absence.

Before modern nation-states with their borders, people traveled and migrated rather freely compared today. It is hard for us to understand that. Borders used to be much more vague and malleable human realities. They had more to do with cultural differences than political power and military force. In the past, before modern militaries, a border that was anything besides cultural didn’t tend to last very long.

A border isn’t a physical thing, permanently etched upon the landscape. It is at best a temporary truce among people who often don’t even remember what created it in the first place. It is simply where two violent forces stopped fighting, until eventually conflict breaks out once again. This is why borders throughout history have constantly shifted, each new designated border being a new wounding, scar tissue upon scar tissue forming in the shared soul of a people.

* * * *

The House of the Nation; Or a Mansion of Many Rooms

Welfare, minimum wage, international aid, borders, etc. All these are forms of social control. This what is found in the master’s toolbox.

These are various ways of mollifying the masses and dividing them into manageable chunks. When transnational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many small countries, how can local workers even begin to unite across these boundaries that instead pit workers against one another. Foreigners and immigrants get scapegoated for taking ‘our’ jobs. Meanwhile, people in other countries scapegoat us in return for the problems they also face.

These problems aren’t national problems. They are international problems, shared problems. But the systems of control don’t let us see that. And our language doesn’t allow us to understand it.

If these systems of control were ended, it would suddenly force us all to deal with our shared problems. No longer could costs be externalized onto particular groups of people while not affecting those who do the externalizing. If people weren’t limited and oppressed by borders and governments, if people could freely choose to live where and associate with whom they wanted, we could no longer ignore the glaring problems and injustices we face. Besides, whether we like it or not, externalized costs and and projected problems always blow back, whether as illegal immigration or terrorism or worse.

The process of uniting people has happened within nations. What historically were seen as regional populations with regional problems have come to be correctly understood in a larger understanding of cross-regional challenges. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and many Irish are now all Britains (along with many British citizens from present and former British colonies). The First Nations tribes, French Accadians, and British are now all Canadians. The same process has happened in Mexico and the US. To extend this past pattern into the future, it is more than likely that one day there will be a single socio-political identify of “North Americans”.

This is what we now face with national borders all over the world. Borders, as they relate to geography, are one type of metaphor used for social identity and one of the most powerful metaphors at that for they are so easily conflated with concrete reality. That metaphor is what inspired early Americans to imperial aspirations. They saw themselves as a people of a continent, not a mere island as was the case with the English. They identified themselves with all of North America. And if they had had the power to do it, they might have gladly taken over all of Canada and Mexico. But their metaphorical imagination outran their military force. We the citizens of the US still call ourselves Americans despite our political boundaries only occupying a small part of the Americas, our imagined continental aspirations remaining unfulfilled, a minor detail that makes nervous other people in the Americas.

The problems within and between the US and Mexico have never been and never will be merely national problems. Most of the US once was part of the Spanish Empire and after that part of Mexico. There are populations of Hispanics who descend from families that have been in the US longer than when English colonizers first set foot here. There are parts of the US that have always been Hispanic majority with a majority of Spanish speakers. These people have family members living on both sides of the border. The border cuts through a historical population like a knife, divides a people and their communities, creates a culture of fear and conflict.

Yet still the borders aren’t secure and never will be. Metaphors, although powerful, remain as fictions and so can only be enforced imperfectly. They aren’t real and can’t be made real, however real they are treated. Only the violence that enforces them is real and it is only real as long as it continues, but even the most violent of societies eventually tire of pointless bloodshed and oppression or else runs out of money to support it. As human lives bleed, so does the wealth of a people. Lives are destroyed, communities are crippled, and social capital is lost.

The drug problem in the US is partly caused by the drug problem in Mexico; and, in turn, the drug problem in Mexico has grown because of the US War on Drugs which simply made it an even more profitable business by driving it into the black market. Likewise, the gun problem in Mexico is almost entirely caused by the gun problem in the US. Americans complain about the violence coming from Mexico or the ‘illegal’ immigrants. But why do so few ask what caused these problems in the first place?

NAFTA hasn’t helped small farmers in Mexico. The long history of the US government and business leaders undermining democracy in Mexico hasn’t helped the average Mexican.

After all that, do we really want to scapegoat the terrified Mexicans fleeing the horror we have helped inflict upon them, upon their families and communities, upon their entire society? We should be better than that and we could better than that, if we only were able to comprehend our own failings, the harm we mindlessly cause onto others, the endless cycle of violence and victimization. Empathy requires awareness and understanding.

* * * *

Change, the Only Inevitability

Like it or not, as Le Guin points out, “Societies change with and without violence.” Change can be beneficial for all or not so much, but change will happen. Progress, whether through reform or revolution, will likely continue to happen, however imperfectly and unequally, that is until society collapses. With a sense of hope, she reminds us that, “Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws—education, learning to think, learning skills?”

Le Guin then poses a set of questions, “Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

In speaking of the master’s house and the master’s tools, she acknowledges that, “The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.” As with many other metaphors, this one is dangerous because it is powerful in how it forces us to think differently. It’s power isn’t in offering simple solutions, but in opening the mind to new ways of thinking, new possibilities. Societies are built. Nations are built. Governments are built. Borders are built. Once we become aware that we are building, we can begin to ask what we are building and why. And we can look more carefully at the tools we are using.

Is it enough that the master let’s us live in his house? Should we grovel out of fear that we might be evicted out among the masses who live in shacks and on the streets? Should we build more walls and reinforce them in order to keep people out? Or should we build a larger house to hold all people? What tools would be required? Do we have those tools? How would go about building better tools in order to build a better society?

Anything we build for the master to keep others out and to control the masses can and will just as easily be used against us. When a border is built and enforced, it doesn’t just keep foreigners out, but also keeps us in (something that may concern us one day). The worst borders, though, are those built in our own minds. These internal divisions create dissociation between different parts of our experience. It is because of dissociation that we go on building oppressive systems and why individuals can do horrible things in the service of those systems. Trauma lives within each of us and within our every relationship. We live through the trauma and then relive it endlessly.

We can go on doing the same thing over and over, continually rebuilding the walls of fear and oppression, continually picking at the scabs of our collective suffering and trauma. Or we can build shelters for those afflicted, places of healing and restoration. We can rebuild our communities as we rebuild society.

But first, as the metaphor suggests, we must consider the tools we are building with.

* * * *

Imagination: Storytelling and Truthtelling

Le Guin does make a suggestion. “To me,” she writes, “the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The tool she offers here is that of imagination, the mother lode of all metaphors. To wield imagination is to wield the power to create and destroy entire systems of thought, entire ways of understanding. And we are only as free to the extent our minds are liberated.

“The exercise of imagination,” she states a few paragraphs on, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.”

It isn’t just metaphors that matter, but metaphors given life through story, through fully imagined possibilities. It is the act of imagining that matters, the freedom to imagine. It is the tool of imagination that matters. That is the one tool that can help us build something genuinely new.

We should be careful of the stories we tell. Continuing in this vein, Le Guin laments that, “It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility. The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. . . —the impulse to make change imaginable.”

She brings this line of thought to conclusion with a clear assertion of what is at stake: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The first radical act is to imagine, and that requires we create the conditions that make this possible. Imagination isn’t just a tool for building anew, but also a tool for creating entirely new blueprints. Even an imperfect imagined alternative has the power to open us up to possibilities yet unimagined. Imagination isn’t a destination, but a doorway.

* * * *

Revolution of the Mind

“What is a manifesto? A manifesto is a galaxy. What is man? Man is a star.”
~ Jude Edze Davids

It is hard for us to grasp the fundamental issue at hand. It goes to the heart of our sense of reality. To imagine something completely new isn’t just radical. It has the potential and power to incite revolution. Not just ideologies, but entire worlds are being contested.

This touches upon the theological. Our beliefs about reality form a hidden dogma, the bedrock of our identity and perception. The metaphorical house we reside in is our, to use a modern phrase, reality tunnel. A tunnel is yet another metaphorical structure of the mind, reminding us of the ancient metaphor of Plato’s cave and quite similar to Gnostic writings, neoplatonism having influenced (via the Alexandrian Jews) early Gnostics and Christians alike.

Religion and mythology forms the earliest reservoir of imagination, of metaphor and storytelling. It was natural for a Deist like Thomas Paine to turn to Christian language in order to express his message. He wasn’t, in doing so, promoting a Christian nation. He was simply drawing upon a shared lexicon of metaphors, stories, symbols, and imagery.

The religious language resonated with Paine’s audience. And today a metaphor such as the master’s house retains its former religious significance.

The “master” theologically refers to who rules over us or what dominates our world. The demiurge is the false god who is the “god of this world”. He is the builder of our world. He doesn’t create anything ex nihilo, but builds out of what is already present. In political terms, the demiurgic forces of power represent the human archons, the rulers of our society. They simply rearrange the pieces on the board, reform the system as they find it. They have their positions in the hierarchy and so their agenda is to maintain the status quo… or, in reaction to changing times, to build a better and stronger status quo.

The metaphor of the master’s house refers to a master. But which master? An important question. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters.” The master builder, the the greatest of masons, is still just a tinkerer, a manipulator. Jesus, on the other hand, threatened to “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was using metaphor with charismatic force.

To understand Jesus’ metaphorical temple, you must put it into context of his preaching about the “Kingdom”. This Kingdom, as both Christians and Gnostics agreed, is near you and all around you. But, the Gnostics pushed it one step further, when it was written in The Gospel of Thomas that,

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the heavens!” Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you . . . is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

To clarify this, it is declared in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” It does not dwell in the house of the master builder.

So, where does it dwell? What is both within and outside? I would suggest, in line with Le Guin’s view, that what is being spoken of here is imagination in its purest and most extreme form, not just imagination but visionary imagination, the territory of radical possibility. The source of real power doesn’t reside within distant heavens or governments. Rather, it resides within us, around us, among us.

* * * *

Metaphors Unleashed

How do the teachings of Jesus apply today? He was distinguishing between various kingdoms and those who rule them. The lesser kingdoms are built on brute force and false beliefs, rather than on wisdom and vision. What presently are the lesser kingdoms that attempt to rule our lives and minds?

Philip K. Dick (PKD), a friend of Le Guin, gave a speech that offered a typically unique perspective, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. He said that, “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.” The artificial worlds created for us are more intrusive and pervasive than ever. They dominate in a way no lesser kingdom could have in the past. “And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

Taking a slightly cynical turn, PKD then argues, “So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.” Modern American society is Disneyland, an imagined world enforced onto reality, but hardly a radical vision to offer hope, just mindless entertainment and bright colorful facades. And, as globalization proceeds, Disneyland not democracy conquers the world. It is a fake kingdom of fake things, of fake experiences.

As always, PKD pushes this notion as far as it will go:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

What if the master’s house were transformed, renovated into something unexpected, made use for something not in the original plan? What if we reimagined the space we find ourselves in?

“Disneyland are never going to be the same again. . . [T]he birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

If we were to love democracy enough, could the simulations of democracy’s rhetoric be made real like the love-worn Velveteen Rabbit hopping in the grass?

* * * *

Normally, the envisioning of radical possibility is described as thinking outside the box. But what if we were to radically think within the box? The shape of a box, like that of a square, is an ancient sacred symbol. This symbol represents the world. It contains. It can be filled, but it also can be emptied. We need to seek that state of emptiness so as, like the Zen tea cup, to receive new visions and understandings.

It’s not just what is within us, the power of mind, of imagination, of vision. It is the possibility that is within all things — to return to The Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Imagination isn’t an abstraction. We exist in the world and our imagination takes shape through the world.

Imagination is the one tool we can all claim. It isn’t a special talent reserved for the few. It is our natural right, our normal way of being in the world… if we have eyes to see, if we have the courage to take this tool in hand.

I’ll Be Back Soon . . .

I have bad news. I might not be posting for a while. No tears, my little ones. I will return one day.

I’m in the middle of a half dozen posts I’ve been working on. And I still have that long project about race/racism to move forward. Jeez! Cut me some slack. I’ll get around to it all when I can. I’m a mere mortal and a working man at that. My time is sadly limited.

What causes me to make a public announcement is that I temporarily need to refocus elsewhere.

I’ve been ignoring my long-term genealogy project. My parents and I will be visiting Kentucky soon in order to visit my family’s ancient homeland. I need to make preparations. Most importantly, I just need to get my mind back into the complicated genealogical material. I need to remind myself of what I already know and what I need to find out.

Carry on without me for a bit.

(I might post some stuff here and there, but I make no promises. Maybe I’ll post about my Kentucky trip and my genealogical research. We’ll see.)

 

Kafka On Parables And Metaphors, Writing And Language

I was contemplating the difficulties of communication and the attendant frustrations of the media and methods through which we seek to express. Or, to put it simply, I was annoyed at goddamn words, the slippery little devils that won’t say what I want them to say. And so I was reminded of Franz Kafka.

Instead of offering an analysis and personal reflection (which would be boring), I’ll just let Kafka speak in his many voices.

* * * *

PARABLE:

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Parables and paradoxes by Franz Kafka, tr. by Clement Greenberg and als., Schocken Books, 1961, p. 11. Available online.

* * * *

FRAGMENT:

How many words there are in the book! They are meant to be reminders! As though words could ever be reminders!

For words are poor mountaineers and miners. They collect treasures neither from the mountain heights nor from the mountain depths.

But there is a living remembrance that gently brushed across everything memorable as if with a coaxing hand. And when the blaze arises from these ashes, glowing and hot, massive and strong, and you stare into it as though under a magic spell, then–

But into this chaste remembrance, one cannot inscribe oneself with a clumsy hand and blunt implement; one can do it only in these white, unassuming pages.

Kafka, Franz (2013-09-11). Abandoned Fragments: Unedited Works 1897-1917 (Kindle Locations 36-41). . Kindle Edition.

* * * *

DIARIES:

Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing . Writing’s lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat warming itself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair.

Kafka, Franz (2009-01-16). Diaries, 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics Series) (Kindle Locations 6607-6610). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, December 6, 1921

Have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes , I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength. But then what kind of surplus is it?

Kafka, Franz (2009-01-16). Diaries, 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics Series) (p. 384). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, September 19, 1920(?)

I don’t even have the desire to keep a diary, perhaps because there is already too much lacking in it, perhaps because I should perpetually have to describe incomplete— by all appearances necessarily incomplete— actions, perhaps because writing itself adds to my sadness.

I would gladly write fairy tales (why do I hate the word so?) that could please W. and that she might sometimes keep under the table at meals, read between courses and blush fearfully when she noticed that the sanatorium doctor has been standing behind her for a little while now and watching her. Her excitement sometimes— or really all of the time— when she hears stories.

I notice that I am afraid of the almost physical strain of the effort to remember, afraid of the pain beneath which the floor of the thoughtless vacuum of the mind slowly opens up, or even merely heaves up a little in preparation. All things resist being written down.

Brod, Max (2013-04-16). The Diaries Of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (Kindle Locations 3829-3836). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, October 20, 1913(?)

If one patiently submits to a book of letters or memoirs, no matter by whom, in this case it is Karl Stauffer-Bern, one doesn’t make him one’s own by main strength, for to do this one has to employ art, and art is its own reward; but rather one suffers oneself to be drawn away— this is easily done, if one doesn’t resist— by the concentrated otherness of the person writing and lets oneself be made into his counterpart. Thus it is no longer remarkable, when one is brought back to one’s self by the closing of the book, that one feels the better for this excursion and this recreation, and, with a clearer head, remains behind in one’s own being, which has been newly discovered, newly shaken up and seen for a moment from the distance. Only later are we surprised that these experiences of another person’s life, in spite of their vividness, are faithfully described in the book—our own experience inclines us to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience (sorrow over the death of a friend, for instance) than its description. But what is right for us is not right for the other person. If our letters cannot match our own feelings— naturally, there are varying degrees of this, passing imperceptibly into one another in both directions—if even at our best, expressions like “indescribable,”“inexpressible,” or “so sad,” or “so beautiful,” followed by a rapidly collapsing “that”-clause, must perpetually come to our assistance , then as if in compensation we have been given the ability to comprehend what another person has written with at least the same degree of calm exactitude which we lack when we confront our own letter-writing. Our ignorance of those feelings which alternately make us crumple up and pull open again the letter in front of us, this very ignorance becomes knowledge the moment we are compelled to limit ourselves to this letter, to believe only what it says, and thus to find it perfectly expressed and perfect in expression, as is only right, if we are to see a clear road into what is most human. So Karl Stauffer’s letters contain only an account of the short life of an artist——

Brod, Max (2013-04-16). The Diaries Of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (Kindle Locations 2171-2186). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, December 9, (?)

* * * *

LETTERS:

But it’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge. I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for ? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (Kindle Locations 380-385). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904

Despite all this, writing really is a good thing; I am now calmer than I was 2 hours ago outside on the balcony with your letter. While I was lying there a beetle had fallen on its back one step away and was desperately trying to right itself; I would have gladly helped —it was so easy, so obvious, all that was required was a step and a small shove— but I forgot about it because of your letter; I was just as incapable of getting up. Only a lizard again made me aware of the life around me, its path led over the beetle, which was already so completely still that I said to myself, this was not an accident but death throes, the rarely witnessed drama of an animal’s natural death; but when the lizard slid off the beetle, the beetle was righted although it did lie there a little longer as if dead, but then ran up the wall of the house as if nothing had happened. Somehow this probably gave me, too, a little courage; I got up, drank some milk and wrote to you.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Milena (Works) (Kindle Locations 333-340). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Milena, Meran, 1920

Now I have expanded my life to accommodate my thoughts about you, and there is hardly a quarter of an hour of my waking time when I haven’t thought about you, and many quarter-hours when I do nothing else . But even this is related to my writing, my life is determined by nothing but the ups and downs of writing, and certainly during a barren period I should never have had the courage to turn to you. This is just as true as it is true that since that evening I have felt as though I had an opening in my chest through which there was an unrestrained drawing-in and drawing-out until one evening in bed, when, by calling to mind a story from the Bible, the necessity of this sensation, as well as the truth of the Bible story, were simultaneously confirmed.

Lately I have found to my amazement how intimately you have now become associated with my writing, although until recently I believed that the only time I did not think about you at all was while I was writing. In one short paragraph I had written, there were, among others, the following references to you and your letters : Someone was given a bar of chocolate. There was talk of small diversions someone had during working hours. Then there was a telephone call. And finally somebody urged someone to go to bed, and threatened to take him straight to his room if he did not obey, which was certainly prompted by the recollection of your mother’s annoyance when you stayed so late at the office. 26 —Such passages are especially dear to me; in them I take hold of you , without your feeling it, and therefore without your having to resist. And even if you were to read some of my writings, these little details would surely escape you. But believe me, probably nowhere in the world could you let yourself be caught with greater unconcern than here.

My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror , the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 800-817). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Fraulein Felice, November 1, 1912

Poor, poor dearest, may you never feel compelled to read this miserable novel I keep writing away at so dismally. It is terrible how it can change its appearance; once the load (the ardor I write with! How the inkspots fly!) is on the cart, I am all right; I delight in cracking the whip and am a man of importance; but once it falls off the cart (which cannot be foreseen, prevented, or concealed), as it did yesterday and today, then it feels excessively heavy for my pitiful shoulders; all I want to do then is abandon everything and dig my grave on the spot. After all, there can be no more beautiful spot to die in , no spot more worthy of total despair, than one’s own novel.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 3346-3351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, January 5 to 6, 1913

How is it possible to write at all if one has so much to say and knows that the pen can only trace an uncertain and random trail through the mass of what has to be said?

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 3398-3399). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, January 6 to 7, 1913

Help me, dearest, I beg you, to put right the damage I have done in the last few days. Perhaps in fact nothing whatever has happened, and you wouldn’t have noticed anything if I hadn’t shouted about it, but I am driven by this feeling of anxiety in the midst of my lethargy, and I write, or fear I may at any moment write, irresponsible things. The wrong sentences lie in wait about my pen, twine themselves around its point, and are dragged along into the letters. I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious. The infinite feeling continues to be as infinite in words as it was in the heart. What is clear within is bound to become so in words as well. This is why one need never worry about language, but at sight of words may often worry about oneself. 57 After all, who knows within himself how things really are with him? This tempestuous or floundering or morasslike inner self is what we really are, but by the secret process by which words are forced out of us, our self-knowledge is brought to light, and though it may still be veiled, yet it is there before us, wonderful or terrible to behold.

So protect me, dearest, from these horrible words of which I have recently been delivering myself. Tell me that you understand it all, and yet go on loving me. The other day I wrote some offensive things about Lasker -Schüler and Schnitzler. How very right I was! And yet they both soar like angels over the abyss in which I lie prostrate. And Max’s praise! He doesn’t actually praise my book; after all, the book exists, and his judgment could be examined, should anyone feel so inclined; but it is me he praises, and this is the most ridiculous of all. For where am I? Who can examine me? I wish I had a strong hand for the sole purpose of thrusting it into this incoherent construction that I am. And yet what I am saying here is not even precisely my opinion , not even precisely my opinion at this moment. When I look into myself I see so much that is obscure and still in flux that I cannot even properly explain or fully accept the dislike I feel for myself.

Dearest, what do you say when you come face to face with such chaos? Is it not sadder and more repellent for the observer than for him who experiences it? Certainly, incomparably sadder and more repellent. I can imagine the strength it must take not to run away from it. While I, as I freely admit, write it all down quite calmly.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 4524-4542). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Felice, February 18 to 19, 1913

You are right, Felice; recently I have sometimes had to force myself to write to you ; but writing to you and living have drawn very near to each other, and I also have to force myself to live. Shouldn’t I?

Moreover, hardly a word comes to me from the fundamental source, but is seized upon fortuitously and with great difficulty somewhere along the way. When I was in the swing of writing and living, I once wrote to you that no true feeling need search for corresponding words, but is confronted or even impelled by them. Perhaps this is not quite true, after all. 68

But how could my writing to you, however firm my hand, achieve everything I want to achieve: To convince you that my two requests are equally serious: “Go on loving me” and “Hate me!”

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 5080-5086). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, March 17 to 18, 1913

Writing does make things clearer, yet at the same time worse.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Location 6214). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Felice, June 27, 1913

I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 6458-6459). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, July [presumably August] 1, 1913

Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing. That’s why the only way I can keep going, if at all , is by writing, not through rest and sleep. I am far more likely to achieve peace of mind through writing than the capacity to write through peace.

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 9113-9115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Grete Bloch, June 6, 1914

Last night as I lay sleepless and let everything continually veer back and forth between my aching temples, what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me: namely, on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and, heedless of my stammering, destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? By this I don’t mean, of course, that my life is better when I don’t write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness. But that, granted, only follows from the postulate that I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness. But what about being a writer itself? Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers , this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and sensuality which continually buzz about one’s own or even another’s form— and feast on him. The movement multiplies itself— it is a regular solar system of vanity. Sometimes a naïve person will wish, “I would like to be dead and see how everyone mourns me.” Such a writer is continually staging such a scene: He dies (or rather he does not live ) and continually mourns himself. From this springs a terrible fear of death, which need not reveal itself as fear of death but may also appear as fear of change, as fear of Georgental. The reasons for this fear of death may be divided into two main categories. First he has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived . By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. What is essential to life is only to forgo complacency, to move into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. In reply to this, one might say that this is a matter of fate and is not given into anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of repining, this repining that never ceases? To make oneself finer and more savory? That is a part of it. But why do such nights leave one always with the refrain: I could live and I do not live . The second reason— perhaps it is all really one, the two do not want to stay apart for me now— is the belief: “What I have playacted is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other peoples’ and my death will be more terrible by the same degree. Of course the writer in me will die right away, since such a figure has no base, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of sensuality. That is your writer for you. But I myself cannot go on living because I have not lived , I have remained clay, I have not blown the spark into fire, but only used it to light up my corpse .” It will be a strange burial: the writer, insubstantial as he is, consigning the old corpse, the longtime corpse, to the grave. I am enough of a writer to appreciate the scene with all my senses, or— and it is the same thing— to want to describe it with total self-forgetfulness— not alertness, but self-forgetfulness is the writer’s first prerequisite. But there will be no more of such describing. But why am I talking of actual dying? It is just the same in life. I sit here in the comfortable posture of the writer, ready for all sorts of fine things, and must idly look on—for what can I do but write?— as my true ego, this wretched, defenseless ego, is nipped by the devil’s pincers, cudgeled, and almost ground to pieces on a random pretext—a little trip to Georgental. […] The existence of a writer is an argument against the existence of the soul, for the soul has obviously taken flight from the real ego, but not improved itself, only become a writer .

Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Friends, Family and Editors . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

* * * *

ARTICLE:

Franz Kafka on Writing – Whistling Shade
By Bob Blaisdell

The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.

Nothing Is Inevitable

What is the relationship between who we used to be and who we became, who we might have been and who we might yet become? What defines who we are as a whole? Is there an essence to our identity, a center to our being? If so, is our ‘character’ destiny, does that center hold? After it is all over, who ultimately judges a life and what it means?

I’ve often contemplated these questions. It seems strange how I ended up where I now find myself, a path that I followed because other ways were blocked or hidden, difficult or treacherous. I really have no clue why I am the way I am, this self that is built on all that came before.

From moment to moment, I’ve acted according to what has made sense or seemed necessary in each given situation. This isn’t to imply there weren’t choices made, but it can feel as if life only offers forced choices. Certainly, I didn’t choose the larger context into which I was born, all the apparently random and incomprehensible variables, the typically unseen constraints upon every thought and action. Nor did I even choose the person I am who does the choosing.

I simply am who I am.

It’s hard for me to imagine myself as being different, but it isn’t entirely beyond my capacity. I sense, even if only in a haze, other possibilities and directions. I try to grasp that sense of unlived lives, potentials that on some level remain in the lived present. It is important not to forget all the choices made and that are continually made. Life is a set of endless choices, even if we don’t like the choices perceived or understand their implications. But choices once made tend to lose their sense of having been chosen.

We look at our personal and collective pasts with bias, most especially the bias of knowing what resulted. The telling of history, our own and that of others, has the air of inevitability. We read the ending into the beginning.

Historians don’t usually talk about what didn’t happen and might have happened, the flukes of circumstance that pushed events one direction rather than another. The same is true for all of us in making sense of the past. We comfort ourselves with the narrative of history as if it offers us an answer for why events happened that way, why people did what they did, why success or failure followed. We judge the individuals and societies of the past with 20/20 hindsight. But as the narrators of their story, we aren’t always reliable.

Before I go further about history, let me return to the present. I was involved in a debate that became slightly heated. The fundamental difference of opinion had to do with how society and human nature is defined and perceived, the specific topic having been victimization.

I mentioned the author Derrick Jensen as he offers the best commentary on victimization that I’ve ever come across. But one person responded that, “Lastly I just can’t have a serious conversation about Derrick Jensen. I’m sorry.” Though they never explained their dismissive comment, I suspect I know what they meant.

The thing about Jensen is that there is a distinction between his earliest writings and his more recent writings. He began as an ordinary guy asking questions and looking at the world with a sense of wonder, considering the panorama of data with a voraciousness that is rare. Then he found an answer and it was all downhill from there. The answer he found was a cynical view of society, in which he hoped for the collapse of civilization. The answer was anarcho-primitivism.

Jensen’s answer is less than satisfying. It is sad he went down that road. He wasn’t always like that. In his early writings, there is a profound sense of beauty and love of humanity, all of humanity. Yes, there was more than a hint of darkness in his first couple of books, but it was only a shadow of doubt, a potential that had not yet fully manifested, that had not yet become untethered from hope. His younger self didn’t dream of destruction.

I knew Jensen’s early writings years before he began his cynical phase. Nothing he could write would negate the worthiness of what he wrote before. But if all you knew were his later writings, it is perfectly understandable that your criticisms might be harsh.

I had the opposite experience in my discovery of George Orwell.

I mostly knew him as a name, having never read his works for myself. I had seen the movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four and I’ve come across quotes of his writings in various places. But I knew nothing about Orwell as a man and a writer. He was just another famous dead white guy who said some interesting stuff.

Recently, I decided to lessen my ignorance and read something by him. I randomly chose Homage to Catalonia which had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. At the same time, I did web searches about Orwell, about that particular book, and about Trilling’s intro. This led me to info about Orwell having colluded with the British government when he became an informant. He informed on people in his own social circle and, having been a critic of the British Empire, he had to have known the consequences could have destroyed lives.

That marred any respect I might have had for Orwell, maybe permanently.

So, why could I be so critical of Orwell while being so forgiving of Jensen? Well, for one, Jensen never has colluded with an oppressive government against those who voiced dissent. Plus, it might be the basic reason of my having no personal connection to Orwell’s writings. Jensen’s writings, on the other hand, helped shape my mind at a still tender age when I was looking for answers. I have a sense of knowing Jensen’s experience and worldview, and hence a sense of knowing why he turned to cynicism. But maybe I should also be more forgiving of Orwell and more accepting of his all too human weaknesses, or at least more willing to separate his early writings from his later actions.

My basic sense is that nothing in life is inevitable. As such, it wasn’t inevitable that lives of Jensen and Orwell happened as they did. Almost anything could have intervened at any moment along the way and redirected their lives, forced different choices upon them, allowed them to see new possibilities. And, in the case of Jensen, that is still possible for he remains alive.

Now, for the historical aspect, let me continue on the level of individuals and then shift to a broader perspective.

I’ll use my two favorite examples: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. They are long dead and so that air of inevitability hangs heavy over their respective histories. Whatever they might have become, it would be hard for either to surprise us at this point, unless previously unknown documents were to be found.

Both Burke and Paine began as progressive reformers. There was nothing in their childhoods or even their young adulthoods that would have portended the pathways of their lives, that would have predicted Burke becoming what some have deemed a reactionary conservative, an anti-revolutionary defender of the status quo, and that would have predicted Paine becoming a revolutionary, a radical rabblerouser, and one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Before all of that, they were friends and allies. They wrote letters to one another. Paine even visited Burke at his home. If events hadn’t intervened, they both might have remained partners in seeking progressive reform in Britain and her colonies.

What drove them apart began with the American Revolution and came to its head in the French Revolution. They came to opposite views of the historical forces that were playing out before them. Burke responded in fear and Paine in hope. But these responses were dependent on so many circumstantial factors. Change any single thing and a chain of events would have shifted into a new pattern, a new context.

Like Paine, Burke at one point considered going to America, and yet unlike Paine he never got around to it. His early life didn’t hit any major bumps as Paine’s did. There is no evidence that Paine had seriously considered going to America until all of his other options had been denied. There is nothing inevitable at all about these two lives. It was a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that sent Paine toward his seeming destiny. And it was the lack of such a similar chance meeting that kept Burke in Britain.

Along these lines, it was a complex web of events and factors that led the two revolutions down divergent paths. The French Revolution wasn’t fated to transform into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s empire. Likewise, the American Revolution wasn’t fated to end in the further institutionalization of slavery that would lead to a bloody civil war, wasn’t fated to lead to imperial expansion, Indian removal and genocide.

There is no shared character that predetermines a people’s fate. The potential of individual members of a nation are magnified by all of their potential combined, the choices and actions of each affecting those of others, millions of paths intertwining like a flock of birds shifting along unseen currents in the wind. History is a thing of luck and chance, infinite possibilities bounded by necessity and circumstance, an interplay of forces that can’t be controlled or predicted. People act never knowing for sure what may or may not come of it.

People and nations are filled with near infinite potential. None of us knows what might have been or what yet might become. Nothing is inevitable.

The path we seem to be on may change in an instant, may change in ways we can’t even imagine. But, no matter what changes, it will never alter all that came before. The many facets of our lives, individual and shared, offer diverse windows onto the world we see. Even as the past doesn’t change, our relationship to the past does and along with it our understanding, along with it the memories we recollect and the stories we tell. And from understanding, one hopes, comes empathy and compassion.

We are who we are, all the many selves we hold within, all the many identities we have taken. The past and the future, the potential and the manifest meets in the world in which we live. No story is completely told while the actors remain.