April 18, 2004

The polemical mind

Posted by Curt at 06:21 PM in Language | TrackBack

I remember that Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his The Proper Study of Mankind, as a means of trying to explain the basic change in intellectual temperament wrought by Romanticism, contrasts the personalities of Voltaire and Percy Bysshe Shelley via a hypothetical meeting between them. He claims that, while Shelley would undoubtedly be duly contemptuous of the limited range of Voltaire’s preoccupations and the pettiness of his aesthetic pleasures, Voltaire for his part would be appalled by the coarseness and undifferentiated simplicity of Shelley’s world-view. Regardless of the truth of this contrast as a general description, the choice of Voltaire as an embodiment of pre-Romantic bounded, orderly aesthetic sophistication seems ill-chosen in my opinion, because as monotonic polemicist and revolutionary he was at times unsurpassed in his epoch. Did he not end every letter that he wrote during the last 15 years of his life with “Écrasez l’infâme” (“Eradicate the infamy [the Catholic Church])? Granted this was but one phase of his life, but at all points Voltaire proved himself perhaps the most talented writer among the Englightenment philosophers but also undoubtedly the shallowest. In short, while he was indeed a satirist and stylist of genius, in the latter part of his life his intellectual simplism combined with a bizarrely late-flowering radicalism to divert the entirety of his creative activity into a single sustained monotonous and largely humorless broadside against organized religion and sectarian fanaticism.

All well and good, but what is the relevance of any of this? Of course, on one level I have in mind certain contemporary Voltaires like Noam Chomsky (Bertrand Russell was another). Both Russell and Chomsky, very much like Voltaire, became (Chomsky is still becoming) more radical in their old age, which is very much the opposite of the trajectory of most people. Old radicals have none of the charm of young radicals: generally their anarchism has little idealism and is instead characterized by bitterness and ennui. The fact that they were not so radical when young proves yet further that their radicalism is primarily a product of the bitterness of age rather than the idealism of youth. Voltaire’s insistent cry of “Écrasez l’infâme” has no wit or humor in it, as his younger works did: it is simply pure destruction intellectually manifested. And all of these men seemed to virtually forget their earlier intellectual concerns: do an amazon.com search on Noam Chomsky, and one will find perhaps two of his remarkable early tracts on linguistics among the first 20 results; the rest are all political pamphlets on capitalism, terrorism, etc. that look to have been churned out on a weekly basis during the last three years.

But even these contemporary parallels still only get at my real point very indirectly. I think that to a large extent one’s thoughts and works are defined by one’s preoccupations. When Voltaire became utterly obsessed with destroying the institutions of religion, it signalled his death as an artist: all of his work became constricted down to that single repeated cry “Écrasez l’infâme.” In the same way, Noam Chomsky, for his all his pose as martyr of truth and opponent of propoganda, in his total absorption in the cause of opposition to the capitalistic-imperialistic mechanism which he sees as exploiting the entire world has shown himself to be entirely dominated by that idea (or myth), and in the service of that idea to have reduced himself to a pure propogandist as well. This is the substance of the reason behind Stefan Zweig’s refusal to speak out against the Nazis, which I explored a couple of months ago. Quite simply, although Zweig loathed the Nazis, he felt that if he became an advocate against them, even in opposition to them he would have allowed them to dictate his activities to him, would have in fact have allowed them to take over his mind, even if in hatred rather than obedience. His aloofness, then, was not the mark of passivity but rather of intellectual independence and freedom from totalitarianism.

I think there is some truth in that. I think that any idea which excessively preoccupies our minds will eventually cause our minds to more and more resemble it, no matter what our feelings are towards it. For example, though I know that this example will likely be offensive to many, I find a perfect example of the specific effect which Zweig feared in Holocaust memorials and art, which in my opinion have adopted many of propoganda tactics from the Nazis, for example in their excessive use of symbols, preoccupation with numbers and size, implicit diminishment of the individual in favor of the group, emphasis on group solidarity and ties, visceral emotional manipulation, and and implicit or explicit imputation of guilt on those who do not have the reaction or emotional response that the work intends to evoke. In both cases it is emotional thuggery, in that docility and submission to the work’s purpose, rather than individual critical evaluation, are encouraged as the appropriate responses on the part of the audience. I certainly do not at all mean to imply that Holocaust art is as reprehensible as Nazi art, simply that fixation with one particular subject has caused its creators to, in my view, become unduly influenced, even corrupted, by their subject. This is the sort of emulation born out of antagonism which Nietzsche had in mind, I believe, when he claimed that the greatest exemplifiers of “Jewish” ressentiment in his own era were anti-Semites. Of course I am aware that as an example I have picked a topic which it is virtually impossible to think calmly and rationally, but for that I think we have to thank in part that intellectual totalitarianism which has seeped, like a creeping disease, from one barbaric movement into the minds of its opponents. And this, I think, is the danger when one allows one’s conscious opposition to something to become an obsession and then a defining component of one’s own identity.