No one is obligated to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.
Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 17
Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedgerow, which from many sides
Bars the gaze from the utmost horizon.
But sitting and looking out, endless
Spaces beyond that hedge, and superhuman
Silences, and profoundest quietude,
I in my mind forge for myself: where the heart
Is all but terrified. And as I hear
the wind rustle beneath these plants,
That infinite silence to this voice I go on
To compare: and I recall the eternal,
And the dead seasons, and the present, living one,
And the sound of her. So in this
Immensity my thought drowns:
And shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.
Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, 93
trans. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests, 192
Reading E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, a book which thoroughly underwhelmed me,1 I stumbled on a passage that struck me as illustrative of the mindset that has shaped a great deal of culture and policy in the years since the Second World War. White is writing shortly after Pearl Harbor:
The passionate love of Americans for their America will have a lot to do with winning the war. It is an odd thing though: the very patriotism on which we now rely is the thing that must eventually be in part relinquished if the world is ever to find a lasting peace and an end to these butcheries.
To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand–it has so special a meaning. Since I started writing this column snow has begun falling again; I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this stagy old phenomenon outside the window. For this picture, for this privilege, this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet all the time I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one’s native scene–I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world’s wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society.
E.B. White, One Man’s Meat, 221-2
Outwardly, the sentiment appears noble, who doesn’t want peace? Yet, it’s a monstrous and inhuman thought.
What White, et al., fail to realize (and it’s baffling to me how they could forget this2) is that love only truly exists in the particular. To destroy the particularity of love is to destroy love itself. And it is precisely this destruction of particular love that lead to the mass slaughter that has so characterized the modern world, with all its grand schemes to advance Man at the expense of men.
Dostoevsky realized the error of this sort of thinking. Indeed, its one of the major themes of his writing: the man who love Mankind hates men. From Karamazov:
I love mankind, but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, in may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this i Know from experience. As soon as someone is in there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can being to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me. On the other had, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.
Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 57
What’s there to love about the World when it is stripped of all its wonderful particulars? When we’re not allowed to cherish the New England snowfall?
This ideology has been at the root of the post-war project in the west, arguably of the liberal project in general. To achieve peace in our time. Of course, pesky human beings with their pesky love of their own little parcels of the world stand in the way, but that can all be dealt with. They can be educated out of it.3 We simply need Reason, Science, Progress, then men will stop with all this nonsense, and the lion will lay down with the lamb. Everyone will be happy. Admittedly, they won’t be able to experience the happiness of anything real. No, love and enjoyment of real things is dangerous (even claiming that there is such a thing as real things is dangerous). Instead, they’ll be happy because they have stuff, endless amounts of stuff, stuff that glimmers, stuff that peeps, and stuff that breaks, to be replaced by new stuff, all for a low, low price.
Surely then, we’ll have peace. Surely then, we’ll all find rest.
1.) I must stop pretending I enjoy reflections on solitary living. The life may attract me, other’s descriptions of it do not.↩
2.) My theory is that it’s rooted in a denial of Original Sin, at least that’s what the very next passage in White’s book points toward:
Although supernationalism often seems hopelessly distant or impractical, there is one rather encouraging sign in the sky. We have, lately, at least one large new group of people to whom the planet does come first. I mean scientists. Science, however undiscriminating it has seemed in the bestowal of its gifts, has no disturbing club affiliations. It eschews nationality. It is preoccupied with an atom, not an atoll. White, One Man’s Meat, 222
When I’m sitting in the back of class, feeling useless as a TA, I stare out the window to remind myself the world exists. It’s an oddly solitary experience in a room filled with chatter, solitary and strange. As we’re inevitably many floors up, all you can see are rooftops. The only movement is steam, curling off into the oppressive and endless blue of the midwestern sky. It’s a nameless experience, one of loneliness, yet belonging, silence and stasis.
And it’s one that W.G. Sebald also seems to have tried to capture in the opening pages of Rings of Saturn. A year after the walking tour that occupies the bulk of the book, he found himself confined to a hospital, riven with pain. His only access to the outside is through a window on the wall opposite his bed. In the haunting photo that accompanies his description, the window is inscribed with wire to prevent suicide, befitting the melancholy tone of the moment and the book as a whole. The view through the glass is, like mine, lonely and strange:
I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place. I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. At that twilit hour there were no passers-by to be seen in the immediate vicinity, but for a nurse crossing the cheerless gardens outside the hospital entrance on the way to her night shift. An ambulance with its light flashing was negotiating a number of turns on its way from the city centre to Casualty. I could not hear its siren; at that height I was cocooned in an almost complete and, as it were, artificial silence. All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears.
W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, 5
What to make of these moments, their ultimate import?
I must confess, I enjoy the solitude, though it also presents me with a sense of desolation. It need not be horrible. There’s something there, something numinous lurking in the silence. It’s only when we try to grasp it that we slip into despondency, when the solitude breaks and noise slips back in.
Alternatively, A Response to Steven Pinker.
There has never been as society that was more civilized in the humanist sense than the French society of the Enlightenment, nor one more completely convinced of the powers of reason and science to solve all the problems of life and to create a completely rational culture, based on a firm foundation of science and philosophy. Yet when this society, as represented by Condorcet and his friends, had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in the first years of the French Revolution, they failed disastrously and were themselves destroyed, almost to a man, by the eruption of the irrational forces that they had released. One of the writers of the emigration has described in a remarkable passage how he came to realize the fallacies of the rationalist ideology in a sudden flash of intuition one night as he was making the terrible march across the frozen Zuyder Zee with the defeated English army in 1796, and how all the illusions of the Enlightenment dropped away from him under the cold light of the winter stars
Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 192