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.

Orwell’s Homage to Socialism

George Orwell has been mostly a name to me. I’ve seen adaptations of his works, but I don’t recall ever having read anything by him. I found a cheap copy of Homage to Catalonia which more than intrigued me. I didn’t know anything about his life, but maybe that book is a good way to learn of one of the most important experiences of his life and how he sought to make sense of it.

Homage to Catalonia is about his time spent fighting fascists in Spain. Like many others, Orwell got caught up in the rhetoric of communism. He wanted to fight with the communists, but for various reasons he ended up fighting with the communist-allied anarchists and social trade unionists in Catalonia. The communists eventually took over and eventually wiped out their former allies (imprisoning, torturing and killing them) which, to say the least, was a self-defeating maneuver and cost them the war. For Orwell, this meant he was now perceived as an enemy by the communists and so he escaped across the border.

This disillusioned him about the communists which made his support of socialism all that more stronger, having remained a socialist for the rest of his life. Maybe he was taught a lesson by those he fought with, those who suffered at the hands of the communists. Most right-wingers and maybe most people in general think communism (in its form as authoritarian statism) is the same as socialism, but it would be hard to convince those anarchists and trade unionists who were perceived as a greater threat to communism than even their supposedly shared enemy of the fascists.

Orwell was no friend of any kind of absolutist ideology and he understood how it led to ruthless oppression. He realized this was as true for British imperialism as for communism. This put him in an odd position when, during the Cold War, he became an informant for the British government:

“In The New York Review of Books of September 25, 2003, Garton Ash published an article called ‘Orwell’s List’. In this article, Garton Ash gives an account of his research concerning an astonishing list of thirty-eight names of journalists, politicians, and others compiled by Orwell. In some cases, Orwell appended com-ments, some being anti-Semitic or homophobic, as well as vocational information. Those on the list were generally labeled as “crypto-communists” or “fellow travelers”. Others were said to be merely “appeasers” (of the U.S.S.R.), “reliably pro-Russian” or “sympathizers only”. Quite a few on the list are well known to those in Russell studies, for they include such figures as E.H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher, Kingsley Martin and J.B. Priestley.”

It’s rather sad that he let himself be used that way. The very people who were critical of British oppression became potential targets of that oppression because of Orwell’s collusion:

“But what Garton Ash does not mention is that in case of need, this list was also to be used to ferret out suspicious intel-lectuals and others, perhaps in a political crisis, though there is no indication Orwell himself knew this. Accordingly, in a telephone interview conducted by Francis Stonor Saunders, Adam Watson, a senior IRD veteran and Celia Kirwan’s supervisor, would not cat-egorically deny that the list was to be used against those on it. He would only say in an artfully qualified way that “Its immediate usefulness was that these were not people who should write for us,” but went on to add that “[their] connection with Soviet-backed organizations might have to be exposed at some later date”.[1] It thus seems to have been intended that the list could be concomitantly used as a tool of ideological suppression or even political control under certain unspecified untoward circumstances.”

The only explanation I can think of is that he saw the British government as the lesser of two evils and, besides, his loyalty was to his native country. Orwell was no Thomas Paine who would fight a revolution against his own country, despite his criticisms of it. I’m sure he reasoned that the British government might be reformed from within whereas he saw communism as unamenable to any reform. Rationalizations aside, my respect for him is tarnished by his collusion with power.

This Cold War angle made a lot of sense of Lionel Trilling’s introduction to Homage to Catalonia. Trilling wrote it in 1952, two years after Orwell’s death. The book had been some combination of ignored and suppressed prior to that. When it first was published, not many copies were printed and they didn’t sell. His criticisms of communism at that time were unpopular. Then during WWII, his criticisms of “Uncle Joe” were politically inconvenient. Only when his work became useful for Cold War propaganda did it see the light of day.

Reading Trilling’s introduction, I kept getting this sense that Trilling was projecting his own beliefs and opinions onto Orwell. It is a very strange introduction that offers little in the way of in-depth analysis or evidence supporting it. Trilling just uses Orwell as a way to make claims that have little to do with Orwell. Discussing Trilling’s introduction, Noam Chomsky bluntly stated, “Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it.”

I’m not sure what Orwell would have thought of how his name would be used as a propaganda tool. I doubt it would have made him happy. If he had lived longer to have seen the Thatcher-Reagan Era, I’m sure his criticism of the Cold War would have matched his criticism of the communists. The Cold War was ultimately used by Western state governments to attack socialists like Orwell.

Society and Dysfunction

on anxiety & modernity by isthmus nekoi

I still think about trauma these days, although I tend to think more about the anxiety spectrum. There is afterall, something very fetishized or at least, detached about anxiety. Anxiety is not an emotion oriented towards something present, but rather, is future oriented. Anxiety is our fear of the future. It is a ghost fear, a fetish fear, it is at once less present yet more pervasive than fear itself. It is fear intellectualized, no, grotesquely magnified beyond reason by a reason derailed.

Modern society has no roots, no history, no grounding. We drift in a perpetual freefall, this strange sensation of exhilaration, panic, and numbed boredom, that tight feeling in our chests, the wind in our faces. The dream and the nightmare of the modern man, his most deepest desire and most fervent fear, that which lies below our perverse fusion of lust, anxiety and reason, is the belief that he might actually be falling into something…

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atomic-bomb

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Nice article!

It makes me think of certain people: Arnold Mindell, Paul Shepard, Derrick Jensen, etc.  I’m also reminded of someone like Carl Jung.

Both Jung and Reich were students of Freud and also both were interested in the significance of UFOs in terms of society.  Jung saw UFOs as a symbol of change, of potential.  UFOs became popular during a very traumatic era of world history.

I mention all of those people because they either have an alternative view on trauma or they see the problems of modern life as being part of a larger context.  Paul Shepard would trace the problems of society back to the beginning of civilization.  Along with Derrick Jensen, Shepard would say our traumatized state isn’t merely personal nor merely an issue of our human condition but instead about our relationship to the larger world.

That is where I see the ideas of Jung and Mindell fitting in as they present humans as being essentially interconnected.  The problems of society can be seen in the individual, and vice versa.

I would add that, similar to Shepard’s view, the Axial Age was a particularly traumatic shift in society.  That was the historical period when cultures were clashing and urbanization was developing.

The foundation of the modern self was being set at that time.  For example, religious practitioners of the time were attracted to a rootless lifestyle with ascetic monks and preachers who would travel from town to town.  Also, this is when people started idealizing a perfect world that was located elsewhere.  This world and human nature was flawed.

It seems to me that the industrial age and the 20th century international conflicts are the delayed effects of the Axial Age.  The ideals of that time (equality, freedom, etc.) took a couple of millennia to fully take hold.  But humans have never really adapted to this social change in a healthy way and maybe it isn’t even possible.  The human animal simply isn’t designed for modern civilization.

Of course, people are traumatized.  All of human society is traumatized.

Related to the above article, here are some additional thoughts from another blog and from a forum thread:

The Mad Liberation Front from the Red Star Cafe blog

R.D. LaingWith the exception of Freud’s eccentric disciple Wilhelm Reich, it was not until after WW II that a school of  psychology appeared that was willing to take Freud’s hypothesis of collective insanity seriously and to launch out along a different route. R.D. Laing, whose background was as much Existentialist-Marxist as it was Freudian, was among the first to assume an adversarial position on the issue of insanity.

Convinced that the mad, or at least some portion of those designated schizophrenic, may be a rare and endangered species desperately in need of protection, Laing argued that psychological breakdown could be the first step toward enlightened breakthrough. It might be an incipient assertion of true sanity by those who were still at least resilient enough to feel the pain of society’s oppression. It is therefore the psychiatrist’s responsibility to take the side of the mad against wrong-headed social authority.

“We live”, said Laing, in the midst of  “socially shared hallucinations…our collusive madness is what we call sanity”.

orwell’s 1984 and the early theories of wilhelm reich (starting post by peebo in a thread on the Wrong Planet forum)

it appears to me that one of the main premises of george orwell’s 1984 is the idea of sexual repression rendering the population open to oppression by the party. the repression of freely expressed sexuality by the party is clearly an overt theme in the novel. junior anti-sex league, winston and julia’s “subversive” affair, etc. this idea is very similar to the ideas put forward by wilhelm reich in his “the mass psychology of fascism”.

http://www.whale.to/b/reich.pdf

reich’s main point in this book is that oppressive fascist regimes are manifest only in situations where sexual repression is endemic in a society. he covers more than this, but this is the main thrust. i wonder whether orwell had been exposed to reich’s ideas, or whether they just came to a similar conclusion independently?