Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Decline and fall

I have lately been wondering whether I should stop following US politics altogether. This largely for the same reason as I don't any more much follow contemporary Russian politics: the truth will not emerge, or change anything, just causes will not be rewarded and the whole political discourse is absurdly skewed and unreal, vile things are said, celebrated and rewarded. Where is now the American Revolution with its enlightenment values, where is the proud and selfconfident Republic that once took seriously the idea that there are inalienable rights and an absolute equality before the law?

I am not saying that those principles were ever perfectly implemented but they were taken seriously and there was a sincere, widespread faith in progress and rational political discourse. Now we have a staggering 30% of the electorate obsessively, even voluntarily divorced from the empirical reality. We have amazing concentrations of wealth that cannot but corrupt the political process. We have an alliance of primitive fundamentalist religion and cynical corporate elites that has created a very permanent seeming corrupt populist logic to the political process. Yes, there might be a polite, housetrained Democrat elected to the presidency in 2008, the majorities of polite, housetrained Democrats in the Congress might increase. There might be some temporary, marginal tinkering of the system before the orchestrated media onslaught and the unavoidable burdens of office will create a new, hysterical and irrational backlash.

We would desperately need a fundamental shift of the political constellation everywhere in the West but it is very hard to see any such transformation happening with the current distribution of power. There is an irrational and atavistic lock on political power that seems in many ways organic and natural concequence of the structures of the modern Western society. I'm no longer that sure that the system works anywhere: the wheels are slowing down and once coherent political traditions are gradually disintegrating into corruption and meaninglessness. History has always followed power and the highest form of power are increasingly in the stupendous concentrations of capital that we now have in the modern world economy. Once capitalism was best protected by a (limited) selection of enlightenment values and protestant Christianity but now it does quite well with just the entertainment industry combined with the increasing demands of "work place efficiency" and painkilling doses of primitive religion purged of any genuine thought.

I really wonder what permanent improvement any progressive movement can accomplish in these hostile circumstances (certainly at their most hostile and most powerful in the USA but in existence everywhere in the West). The deep currents of social and economic change seem mostly to be against any serious reform and return to enlightenment values and to the discourse of progess and reason. Perhaps this is a too pessimistic and in any case unhelpful, impractical contribution. Still, I would think that the modern left is quite in need of the broad perspectives and coherent, holistic approaches to the political process. These chaotic skirmishes and daily battles with the irrational and atavistic opponents are invaluable, a civilizational defence indeed, but on this ground, with this balance of forces, can they be anything more than holding actions? Inch by inch we seem to lose real ground even when having scattered local successes and apparent reversals of fortune. Can we turn the tide?

(A cross post from DK.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Homines maxime homines

I have never found any classical control or proportion in the ancients. They have seemed untame, reckless, uncouth - dare one say - barbaric. Certainly there is much nobility in that wild leap forward, but such narrow nobility: no universal themes of redemption and compassion that our civilization was only infused with by Christianity (and then liberalism). But this said, with the burst of Athens into the world history a theme of emancipation was introduced that has not ever been since silenced. Yes, originally it was interpreted very narrowly, very harshly indeed, in a way almost contradicting itself, but that theme was of nature to rupture any arbitrary boundaries.

So, even with the softening influence Christianity, we are fundamentally still in the same position: recklessly exposed to fate as free individuals, as individuals striving for freedom. That has led in history to similar bloody and cruel dominions and cul-de-sacs as Athens experienced, but our human experience has in any case been dominated by those issues: what is radically new is this note, this promise and hope of emancipation, of reason and self-control. It is dangerous to exalt those barbarian times (remembering poor Friedrich, for example) but they nevertheless constituted a majestic beginning of a great experiment.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Joseph, my little man

In 1923 the Catholic Bulletin bitterly berated Yeats for his failure to write more like this:

"Una, my little one, be a nun.
Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can."

But the call went unheeded - instead Yeats kept stubbornly producing this kind of language:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The contrast is humiliating: this is Christianity shrunk and enfeebled by modernity, once universal, universally serious world view is shrivelled to a set of narrow rules, blindly and unquestioningly to be followed against all dictates of reason, esthetics and humanity. Today the equivalents of this parochiality of dogmatic religion can be seen in the clumsy, pseudo-scientific formulations of intelligent design and creationism. These forms of religion cannot any longer operate without denying reason and empirical observation - there was a time when Christianity self-confidently saw no reason to doubt that reason and empirical observation would be in any conflict with its teachings. If Christianity as a force in culture cannot any more reach to the complexity, the majesty and tragedy of our being in the world, it will have lost its meaning. It might remain popular as an easy pain killer, a handy blindfold, but it would not have any moral significance or value. I know from my native Finnish Pietism that there are approaches that can still easily escape any blunt Dawkinsian instruments - but outside such occasional oases of universal visions directly connected to the original revelation, we seem to have increasingly only a choice between bland, convictionless official churches or then shallow and escapist fundamentalist interpretations. Not really encouraging thinking of the gift, the vision once so memorably received.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Once out of nature

I have again immersed myself in the excellent biography of Yeats by R.F.Foster. Foster’s text does need several readings, a subtle and beautiful study. Surely that personality, those poems are one of the miracles of the Western world. Yeats must have been such a maddening person abounding with self-centred childishness, half-baked philosophies. In some ways craving for art, for otherness, must be a sign of immaturity, a sign of not having come to terms with the world, as it has dictated those terms. In that sense full maturity, full satiety is a kind of surrender: how could we not want more, strive for more than this? Yes, Yeats was childish, self-centred, maddening, but under what aesthetic control those forces were kept, what amazing, haunting poetry was written about our condition in the world. Perhaps real maturity is actually based on part on reckless folly, on not fully accepting this world, its harsh limits. “The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows open to the south”…

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Well wadded

Today was saved early by coming accross two George Eliot quotes by A.S.Byatt in the Guardian:

"When the commonplace 'We must all die' transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness 'I must die - and soon', then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first."

"That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."


What a wise, serious voice we have here, so acutely concerned with our human experience. We surely have lost something when we have lost this scope, this aim. Perhaps it has made the situation easier to bear: the pace has quickened indeed, well wadded we pass through the moments, constantly entertained, amused, shielded.