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