"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Terry Eagleton on terror and the sublime

From Chapter Two of Terry Eagleton's Holy Terror (2005):

….The sublime is any power which is perilous, shattering, ravishing, traumatic, excessive, exhilarating, dwarfing, astonishing, uncontainable, overwhelming, boundless, obscure, terrifying, enthralling, and uplifting. As such, like so many modern aesthetic concepts, it is among other things a secularized version of God. In modern times, art has been often enough forced to stand in for the Almighty. The sublime is a glimpse of infinity which dissolves our identity and shakes us to our roots, but in an agreeable kind of way. It warps the very inner structure of the mind, tugging us loose from the slackening grasp of reason. Like the divine and the Dionysian, it is enrapturing as well as devastating—which is to say that it is not hard to detect in it the shadowy presence of the death drive.

     Like tragedy, the sublime allows us vicariously to indulge our fantasies of immortality, flouting our own finitude and playing a titillating 'can't catch me' game with death. To experience our destruction in art rather than reality is to live out a kind of virtual death, a sort of death-in-life. Confronted with the vista of raging oceans which cannot drown us because they are no more than pigment on canvas, we can know the delirious pleasures of defeating death (so that death itself comes cravenly to die), at the very moment that we can also feel free to embrace our own mortality. The sublime allows us to blend a joy in our own cartoon-like unkillability with the contrary pleasures of being decentred and dissolved. As such, it is both self-affirmative and self-destructive, and each in terms of the other. If we have passed symbolically through death yet are still breathing, death has been pressed into the service of eternal life.

     The sublime thus involves a rhythm of death and resurrection, as we suffer a radical loss of identity only to have that selfhood more richly restored to us. These fearful powers blot us out into a kind of nothingness; yet like God this is a fertile rather than barren void, since to suffer the loss of all our distinguishing features is to be granted an epiphany of pure selfhood. Feeling crushed and oppressed thus turns at its nadir into its opposite. A vulnerable object becomes an infinite subject. By identifying ourselves with the boundlessness of the sublime, we cease to be anything in particular, but thereby become potentially everything. In this dazzling emptiness, all and nothing are closely allied, since both are absolved from limits. Enraptured by a consciousness of our own creative powers, in contrast to our physical pettiness, we come to recognize that true sublimity lies inside ourselves. In fact, it is ourselves. What appeared strange and dreadful is actually as close as breathing, while what seemed nearest to us—ourselves—is also what is most outlandish. Even to know the sublime only negatively, as an awed sense of our own paltriness, is already to be on terms with it. It is for this reason that feeling utterly inconsiderable can tip over into a sense of omnipotence. This fertile abyss into which we are plunged turns out to be nothing less than the human subject, which is as far beyond representation as infinity.

     The shapeless immensity of the sublime is thus both friendly and foreign, under our skin yet a whole cosmos away. Like tragedy, it involves a rhythm of identity and difference. But there is also a manic-depressive oscillation about it, as we are pitched into abysmal ocean depths only to be snatched up triumphantly to the stars. If we can conquer our dread of the annihilating forces which seek to tear us apart, it is because they evoke an uncannily familiar echo at the very core of our subjectivity. In an ironic reversal, what was about to expunge us from existence ends up reinforcing a sense of our supreme value. It has even been suggested that this rhythm lies somewhere near the obscure origins of art and ritual. By identifying through the act of mimesis with the forces which endangered them, men and women sought to install something of that perilous power within themselves. Imitation is the sincerest form of appropriation.

     St Augustine was perhaps the first major philosopher to see the self as a kind of abyss or infinity. For him, it is sublime in its unfathomable depths, and nothing is more dizzying than the movement by which the mind tries fruitlessly to grasp hold of itself. The true terror at the heart of reality is the human subject, which for Augustine is a kind of nothingness. Fearful of this gulf in being, the fundamentalist seeks to stuff it with absolute values and unbending principles. In doing so, he risks unleashing a different kind of terror.

     If the sublime confers on us a pleasurable sense of imperishability, it also allows us to perform our own deaths vicariously, thus mastering our dread of them in that dummy run known as art. By making our destiny our decision, converting our fate into our choice, we are able to pluck life from death and freedom from necessity. If tragedy is an early example of this enjoyably masochistic art-form, a later one is the horror movie, which by 'virtualizing' distress also mixes pain and pleasure. We delight in vampires as long as they are not busy sinking their teeth into our necks. Among the real-life equivalents of this virtuality is Schadenfreude, in which we revel sadistically in the calamities of others. A character in August Strindberg's Dream Play remarks with brutal candour that people have an instinctive horror of others' good fortune, while Dostoevsky writes in Crime and Punishment of 'that strange inward glow of satisfaction which we experience when disaster strikes our neighbour, however sincere our pity and sympathy' (Part 2, ch. 7). The latter reservation is vital: as in tragedy or the sublime, we feel both pity and pleasure. Nietzsche, as usual, presses the matter a stage further: to see others suffer, he gleefully suggests in The Genealogy of Morals, is a joy inferior only to making them suffer.

     When terror ceases to be second-hand, however, it quickly sheds its allure, as Edmund Burke was not slow to see. 'When danger and pain press too nearly,' he observes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,'they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible.' Antigone is sublime, but a bomb in a crowded bus station is not. As that other great theorist of the sublime, Immanuel Kant, comments in his Critique of Judgement,'it is impossible to find satisfaction in terror that is seriously felt'. For Kant, sublime eruptions like the French Revolution could be admired as long as they were aestheticized, contemplated from a secure distance. There are times when the terror which the symbolic order has safely defused, sublimating it into the majesty of law and sovereignty, comes bursting through the fault lines of that order in the shape of the ineffable Real. It is this which we know among other things as terrorism, a fury which is unleashed not least when the law has fallen into disrepute. Yet it is also a built-in possibility, a disaster waiting to happen….

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….what was contained through sublimation returns to wreak its vindictive wrath on the innocent. This is not a sublimity which both appals and seduces. Instead, the responses of pity and fear are wrenched apart, as we direct the former to the victims and the latter to the perpetrators. In Aristotle's view, tragedy is a form of social therapy: by allowing us to indulge certain politically disruptive emotions, it drains off this dangerous surplus and in doing so strengthens the state. With terrorism, exactly the opposite occurs, as in a frightful process of desublimation the horrors of the tragic and the sublime invade everyday life itself.

      For Edmund Burke, the law itself is an image of sublimity, since it must blend terror and kindliness, coercion and consent, in well-calculated proportion.1 As Rene Girard remarks of such sovereign power: 'Like Oedipus, the king is at once stranger and son, the most intimate of insiders and the most bizarre of outsiders; he is an exemplar of enormous tenderness and frightful savagery.'2 If the law is terrible to look upon, it also wins our affectionate compliance. Like David Hume, who held rather surprisingly that the governed always had the upper hand in the end when it came to power, Burke is convinced that all authority rests finally on love, sympathy, and free assent. We do not revere a power which is too ferocious, nor are we impressed by the kind of law which simply tells us where we have gone wrong. We may be cowed by such a code, but we do not love it. This view has political implications. The surest way to grapple the colonies to the Crown, in Burke's view, is to secure their affections. Long before Antonio Gramsci, Burke, himself a colonial subject transplanted to the metropolis, had grasped the meaning of hegemony. It was this, in Burke's view, that had broken down so disastrously in India, Ireland, and America….

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….Burke is not averse to a touch of terror from time to time. There are occasions when the law needs to expose its phallus. Burke thinks that we need a therapeutic dose of terror every now and then, to prevent society from growing enervated and effete. Machiavelli believed much the same. The most desirable political condition, so Burke considers in his aesthetic treatise, is one of 'tranquillity tinged with terror'. Or, in an alternative coding, a mixture of the Apollinian and the Dionysian. Too pitiless a law will leave us in the state of mind which contemporary terrorists aim to create: speechless, paralytic, unable to feel or think. The survivors of terrorist assaults are images of the living dead.6 They are not the sort of deferential but resourceful citizens which Burke wants to see. Yet if we are not to become bovine and inert, we need, in Burke's own term, a judicious 'stiffening' of the sublime. Terror of a sort must live on within the 'feminine' sedateness and docility of everyday social life, as the Furies live on as honoured guests within the Athenian polis.

     The sublime, in other words, must inscribe itself within the beautiful; and one form which this takes in Burke's view is labour. Labour has the mingled pain and pleasure of the sublime. There is something about production which is both gratifying and coercive. In Euripides's phrase, it is a 'sweet toil'. What remains sublime about this social order, then, is its dynamic enterprise. A strain of virile strenuousness lingers on in polite bourgeois society in the sublimated guise of rivalry and entrepreneurship. It is to be found for Burke in all daring, heroic enterprises, which are sublime in the sense that they involve both pain and pleasure, fear and fulfilment. Sublimity is a question of climbing mountains, not just contemplating them. In Marxist terms, one might venture the formulation that for Burke the economic base is Dionysian, while the civic superstructure is Apollinian. To prevent humanity from lapsing into torpid complacency, so he argues in his aesthetic treatise, God has planted in us a sense of ambition and competition. The sublime is the antisocial condition of sociality, the lawless masculine force which violates the feminine enclosure of polite society, but which in doing so regenerates it. It plays something like the role which Dionysus wishes to perform in Pentheus's Thebes.

     The truly terrible sublime, however, is the lawless revolt which established the political order in the first place—one which is thankfully almost lost to memory in England, but which the outraged Burke can now observe taking place across the Channel. Yet the contrast between a law-abiding England and a revolutionary France is in one sense deceptive. For established political society sublimates the terror which originally went into its making; and the name of this displaced ferocity is law and order. In an unpalatable irony, then, it is sovereignty itself which is closest to the tumult of society's lawless beginnings. The law is the place where the revolutionary wrath which brought society to birth finally takes up its home. Like Oedipus, then, it is sovereign and outlaw together. The forces which overthrew a previous form of life are now dedicated to the defence of a new one. The Furies are enshrined at the heart of the city. The criminal has become the cop.

     This is not to suggest that the law is simply a form of terrorism, in some naive libertarian wisdom. It is infantile ultra-leftism which imagines that all law is oppressive, all authority obnoxious. Only those with no need of the law's protection can afford to be so cavalier. They forget that the law can be a shield for the powerless as well as a weapon of the privileged. Those for whom power is always a negative term are generally those who have no pressing need for it.7 It is the dispossessed who need power to change their situation, and the well-heeled liberal who can afford to be contemptuous of the stuff. Power's attempts to subjugate the world should surely win our applause as well as provoke our condemnation. It is necessary for us to pull rank over Nature by building sea defences and irrigating deserts. The problem is not that power is repugnant, but that there is an excessive, gratuitous strain within it which can always get out of hand, some built-in perversity which delights in dominion for its own sake. This is the unreason implicit in even reasonable forms of power. There is madness in its method. Besides, insanity can be a surfeit of reason, not just a shortage of it. It was Freud who commented that the nearest thing to philosophy was paranoia. When reason is pressed beyond all rational bounds, it flips over into madness; and one name for this lunacy for Burke was the Jacobin Terror. The unreason at the core of reason is now on the loose in the streets of Paris, and nobody can look on this unfathomable fury and live.

     Middle-class society, then, requires a salutary stiffening of the sublime. Capitalism, for example, needs the sublime phenomena of risk and danger in order to operate, however much it might strive to copper-bottom its enterprises. It is a daredevil, free-booting form of life, but one perpetually at peril of being stifled by its own sedate manners and civil society, which is what Burke calls 'beauty'. It is by being threatened by competition that the entrepreneur springs most vigorously into life, and this for Burke is a minor image of sublimity. Whole technologies of knowledge are harnessed to the business of rendering capitalism's profits as safe and predictable as possible; yet if the system could really calculate its outcomes with absolute precision, we would no longer be speaking of freedom, and the whole operation would prove to be self-cancelling. This is why in the film Minority Report, the temptation to pre-calculate the future must finally be relinquished as a threat to the very freedom it seeks to secure. Freedom is by definition open-ended, and so must submit to being fearful, perilous, and half-blind.

     Danger, as Burke sees, is an integral part of this social order (indeed, it is dangerous to be without it), which is why it can never entirely purge itself of the sublime. Death is a condition of life. Politically speaking, the consummation of this in modern times is fascism, for which the ideal social order is one which combines both conditions. Fascism dreams of a capitalism which is both infinitely dynamic and absolutely regulated—one whose energies are vital and spontaneous, yet which is at the same time as eternal and immutable as death itself. It is a reminder that only Romantics and business executives use the word 'dynamic' as unequivocally positive.

     Too much serenity, then, can sink society without trace. When modern states have lived down their disorderly origins and settled into civic respectability, this very tranquillity may trigger such disorder once again. One of the many causes of political terrorism lies in the bland gentrification of conventional politics. The less the orthodox political sphere seems responsive to the demands of those it excludes, the more those demands can assume a pathological form, blowing apart the very public arena in which they had previously sought a hearing. Terrorism is among other things a reaction to a politics which has grown vacuously managerial. This non-political species of politics, emptied as it is of so many momentous questions, then finds itself confronted by a brand of politics which is equally disdainful of the conventionally political. The defusing of politics is countered by the denial of it, as too little passion yields ground to a monstrous excess of it.

     Both conventional and terrorist kinds of politics are in their different ways politics of the gesture. In the case of political terror, this gesture takes the form of a disruptive Surrealist 'happening', one which outdoes the Surrealists in aiming to shatter bodies as well as minds. At the root of your so-called reason, so terror proclaims to orthodox political society, lies the ravenous unreason of greed, power, and exploitation, none of which can be rationally justified. Reason is founded in what outflanks it. And this so-called rationality deploys an ungovernable violence in its defence. In rejecting a rational politics altogether, we shall expose the violence at the root of your supposed civility. All that is missing here is the recognition that to pile innocent bodies knee-deep around your enemy is not to refute him.

     Burke's thoughts about the sublime touch on a contradiction endemic to the middle-class social order. It is a community wedded to peace and legality, hierarchy and civility, as the necessary conditions for its strenuous enterprise. An individualist society needs an especially well-founded state if it is not to fragment and fall apart. A barbarous, swashbuckling aristocracy thus gives way to a dull yet decent bourgeoisie. Yet the Apollinian and the Dionysian are not so easily reconciled, as the anarchic energies of market society threaten to burst through the stable frames of legality and morality which support them. Peace makes for war: the more settled conditions allow market forces to flourish, the more instability at home and antagonism abroad they are likely to breed. In this sense, bourgeois societies are continually at risk of undermining the very values which legitimate them. The stout burgher is simply the lawless entrepreneur at home or at prayer. The angelic and the demonic are facets of the same social world.

     This is no doubt one reason why English literature, offspring of the longest-established middle-class nation in history, returns again and again to the secret complicity between the criminal and the capitalist. If the honest bourgeois detests the bohemian and the iconoclast, it is partly because he has more in common with them than he cares to admit. The reverse is also true. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders may be a thief and a whore, but she plies her trade as hard-headedly as any banker. If business types can be brigands, outlaws can be tediously suburban. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera introduces us to pimps and con-men conducting a well-organized business. Mr Merdle, the master financier of Dickens's Little Dorrit, turns out to be a cheap crook. Pip, the socially aspiring hero of Great Expectations, is living unknown to himself on the proceeds of violent crime. Mr Verloc of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent is both a small shopkeeper and an underground political provocateur responsible for the slaughter of his mentally defective stepson. As Bertolt Brecht once enquired: what's robbing a bank compared to founding one? Balzac's flamboyant Vautrin in fact manages to combine both roles, as a master criminal who also acts as the trusted banker of his underworld colleagues.

     It is no wonder, then, that a Jekyll-and-Hyde or Holmes-and-Moriarty doubleness persists through the literature of modernity. In England, this paradox of an illicit or revolutionary order is apparent as early as John Milton's Satan, pompous princeling and fiery rebel. The middle class tend to project their own dangerous or disruptive qualities on to some monstrous other, who shadows them as Mephistopheles shadows Faust; but the trouble with this solution from a literary viewpoint is that it leaves the devil with all the best tunes. By disavowing one's more diabolical aspects and projecting them elsewhere, virtue is in danger of becoming tedious and insipid. Like some quaint Edwardian bicycle, it is admirable to behold, but it will not get you anywhere. It is when the good appear bland and bloodless that the bad take on a beguiling panache. 'Wicked' becomes a term of commendation.

     The situation is made more acute by the fact that middle-class civilization tends to define virtue not in Aristoteleian or Thomist terms of vital capacity and pleasurable self-fulfilment, but in terms of moral habits which are a good deal harder to make dramatically appealing: thrift, prudence, chastity, meekness, abstinence, frugality, obedience, dutifulness, self-discipline, and the like. Bourgeois morality spells the death of the imagination, which is one reason why art in this epoch comes to seem inherently transgressive. The whole point of the imagination is to range beyond the given, so that novels like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which affirm the more decorous, acquiescent virtues, seem curiously self-undoing. Austen in particular is ironically aware of how unavoidably unglamorous moral goodness is. If Richardson were really at one with his saintly heroine Clarissa, he could not have written the novel, a project which involves feeling his way imaginatively into the libertine Lovelace as well. Yet unless evil is made compellingly real, the virtue which resists it is drained of value.

     What we find in modern writing, then, is a series of coupled characters who are both strangers and kinsfolk; and this coupling is a sign of the rivalry-cum-affinity between burgher and bohemian, citizen and criminal, law and trespass. Each term conjures up the other: a static, lifeless moral code breeds its lawless opposite as surely as Oliver Twist gives rise to Fagin, or Little Nell to the malignant Quilp. One thinks of Othello and Iago, the God and Satan of Paradise Lost, Clarissa and Lovelace, Blake's Urizen and Los, Goethe's Faust and Mephistopheles, Nelly Dean and Heathcliff, Ahab and Moby-Dick, Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Zeitblom and Leverkuhn of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. In several of these twinnings, it is impossible to decide whether the partners are allies or adversaries, as Franco Moretti remarks of Faust and Mephistopheles.8

     Or if not impossible, then at least instructively difficult. In most of these cases, a principle which is virtuous but imaginatively restricted confronts a destructive yet life-giving force with which it betrays a covert affinity. Other instances weave more complex variants on this opposition. Milton's Satan is a fallen angel, Iago is perversely fascinated by Othello, Clarissa and her seducer Lovelace are probably in love. The restlessly kinetic Dedalus glimpses a surrogate father in the spiritually static Bloom. The stolidly bourgeois Zeitblom enjoys the kind of horrified intimacy with the diabolical Leverkuhn that liberal capitalism has with fascism. A parallel ambiguity marks some of the protagonists of the later Henry James, who may be read as either angelic or demonic, saints or schemers.

     If the lawgiver is also in a sense the wrongdoer, it is among other things because most law-abiding regimes were first established by conquest, revolution, invasion, or usurpation. As the Irish dramatist Denis Johnston remarks: 'No nation is an immaculate conception.' The transgression was there from the beginning. The snake was curled up in Eden from the outset. How, indeed, could there be law without it? And how can God's mercy be made manifest unless we are intent on sinning against him? Perhaps it was when we realized that the Creator was furtively egging the serpent on (since without the Fall, no redemption) that we needed to reach for our fig leaves. Most social orders have contaminated origins, but this is a particular embarrassment to those which, like middle-class ones, cling to the virtues of a quiet life. The middle class wants not revolutionary turmoil but perpetual peace, so that it can shake down to the sober, unglamorous business of money-making and family-building. Like the child of Freud's family romance syndrome, it seeks to disavow its discreditable origins and dream up a more prestigious provenance.

     Yet the profit motive and military aggression are in fact closely allied; and constructing a peaceable middle-class order in the first place usually involves upheaval and illegality. The coming of law and order was neither lawful nor orderly. There is not much that the founders of nations need to be told about original sin. How then can the middle class square its moral idealism with its bloodstained beginnings? The problem, in fact, is that the violence of middle-class society is not simply a question of its origins: it lives on within it in the form of competition, exploitation, military conquest, and disruptive individualism. Revolution is still with us, and its name is the status quo. This social order must square its drive for stability with the fact that, uniquely among historical regimes, its revolution never ends—that capitalism, as Marx reminds us, is an inherently transgressive force, perpetually agitating, unmasking, disrupting, and dissolving. As far as dynamism and stasis are concerned, then, the bourgeoisie land themselves with the worst of both worlds: an unending revolution linked to a uniquely pressing need for stability.

     In some tribal communities, so the anthropologists tell us, the chief-elect must commit a number of real or symbolic trespasses before he is confirmed in office. Today's fast-living heirs to thrones have no problem with this requirement. Middle-class governance has its initial trespasses too; but this traumatic convulsion at the source of the social order has then to be lived down, if society is to persuade itself that a staid but secure existence is preferable to an exciting but volatile one. It must also be lived down if it is not to serve as a reminder to the middle class's political opponents that revolutionary change is always on the agenda. If they did it, so can their antagonists. One of the more minor perils of making revolutions is that you draw the attention of your adversaries to the inherent plasticity of the world, which was not quite what you intended.

     For Hegel, as we shall see later, this built-in contradiction between order and anarchy can be resolved by being cast in narrative form. First there was the wild liberty of the middle class's insurrectionary phase; but later on society sobers up, recovers from its revolutionary hangover, and exercises its freedom more responsibly. Yet Hegel, as we shall see, is aware that we are speaking here of two permanent dimensions of bourgeois freedom, not just of two historical phases. The traumatic effects of repressing an original revolutionary violence will never be entirely erased; instead, they will break out again from time to time in the form of social neurosis or political terror.

     The middle classes, then, must make the transition from bandits to bankers—a precarious shift, to be sure, since there is something inherently anti-social about the kind of freedom they promote. Where they were once heroes, they are now accountants. Epic drama gives way to sober realism. A swashbuckling cast of warriors yields to a colourless battalion of clerks. As Marx enquired, what becomes of heroic mythology in the age of railways, locomotives, and electric telegraphs?9 In France, the high revolutionary politics of Stendhal yield to the mundane realism of Balzac and Flaubert. In England, the radical Blake, Byron, and Shelley are shouldered aside by Tennyson and Trollope. Like a hippie applying to law school, the new bourgeois order must draw a veil of oblivion over its ignominious beginnings. When Marxists admiringly draw attention to these revolutionary origins, the middle classes themselves tend to squirm with the mortification of those whose naughty antics as children are fondly recalled by their doting parents. Beginnings are an embarrassment to those in the grip of exotic fantasies of self-invention—which is to say, the hard-boiled pragmatists who persuade themselves that they have no parentage, since the way things are now is essentially how they have always been.

     It is not hard to find the traces of this shift from epic to realism in literature. Indeed, one name for it is the novel.10 Walter Scott's historical fiction actually takes this transition as a central part of its subject-matter, combining the romance of a dying clan culture in the Jacobite Highlands with the progressive yet prosaic social order of the Hanoverian Lowlands. In Scott, the conflict-cum-alliance between bandits and bankers assumes an arrestingly literal form, as romance and realism are interwoven to create a new, formidably influential literary genre. Romance trades in the marvellous and trangressive, and realism in the mundane; so that by forging a complex unity out of these two literary modes, Scott can fashion a form of writing which is true at once to the revolutionary origins and the quotidian life of the early bourgeois epoch. It was his good fortune as an author to be born into a society in which these two formations coexisted spatially, as Highlands and Lowlands, rather than simply as distinct historical phases.

     It is such distinct phases, however, that we find in Stendhal, for whose high-minded heroes what matters is the conflict between the revolutionary idealism of the Napoleonic past and the degraded power-politics of the present. For Scott, the loss of an epic past is ambiguously welcome, whereas for Stendhal it is unequivocally tragic. Battles and executions, Stendhal laments, had given way to a world of taxes and statistics.11 Power and idealism are no longer compatible. Even so, his fiction marks one of the last points at which politics, with its courtly intrigues, scheming Jesuits, glamorous secret agents, and military valour, can still furnish the stuff of romance. By the time of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, political revolution and everyday life intersect only contingently, in ways which devalue them both.

     If Stendhal finds heroism in politics, Balzac unearths it in economics—in the protean, larger-than-life creatures of post-revolutionary society, with their bottomless rapacity, prodigious vitality, unslakeable ambitions, exorbitant appetites, and tragic capacity for self-destruction. High drama can still be wrought from a world of bankers and charlatans, louche entrepreneurs and scheming social upstarts. These monstrous personalities are still close enough to the wellsprings of bourgeois revolution to stand forth as epic creations. In an astonishing irony, the traditional stuff of melodrama, mythology, and romance can now be extracted from that lowly, unpromising material known as finance and commerce. The aristocratic warriors of Homer and Virgil have yielded ground to the mega-stars of the moneyed classes, with their predatory instincts and death-dealing obsessions.

     Stendhal laments the fading of heroic glory from the middle-class domain; but Balzac, by turning his attention to capitalist rather than bourgeois society, to the sublime rather than the beautiful, recognizes that this heroism has simply changed address. All those epic conflicts and rumbustious energies are now to be discovered exactly where earlier writers would never have been able to look for them—in the melodrama of property and inheritance, the thrills and spills of the marriage market and stock exchange, in wolfish competitors and rapscallion opportunists. The dynamism of this social order lies in its material base, not in its social or political superstructure. Sublimity lives on in men whose wealth beggars the imagination. Tragedy suvives in the fate of the swindled and exploited. As the narrator of Lost Illusions comments, 'the anguish caused by poverty is no less worthy of attention than the crises which turn life upside-down for the mighty and privileged persons of this earth' (Part 2, ch. 1). It is a new democracy of destitution.

     By the time of Joyce's Ulysses, bourgeois epic will have become mock-epic—though in the meanwhile Emile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames manages to pluck a final piece of heroic mythology from nineteenth-century capitalism. It does so by turning from the dull compulsion of the world of production, of Germinal and La Terre, to the emergent sphere of large-scale consumerism, with its eroticized, palatial department stores and carnival of sensual delights. This is a necessary displacement, since in the wake of Balzac and Dickens, the literature of middle-class modernity finds it hard to represent the very material forces to which it owes its existence. This is largely because these forces now seem too sordid and ignoble for imaginative portrayal. There are notable exceptions such as Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks; but this is the narrative of a cultivated, haut-bourgeois mercantile class rather than one of jobbers and brokers.

     In general, it seems that the literature of modernity can depict an entrepreneur only by painting him as something else: as desert-island castaway (Robinson Crusoe), philosopher-mage (Goethe's Faust), dashing aristocrat (Disraeli), Amazonian heroine (Charlotte Bronte's Shirley), self-tormenting tragic protagonist (Melville's Ahab), or stage villain (Dickens's Dombey or Bounderby). There is also the industrialist as intellectual: Charles Gould of Conrad's Nostromo, Arnheim of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, or Gerald Crich of D. H. Lawence's Women in Love. In none of these cases is the character observed doing any work. It is now, ironically, the realm of production which seems to have been privatized. We do not see inside these men's mines and factories in any detail, any more than we see anyone at work on Jane Austen's landed estates.

     In Henry James's The Ambassadors, we are carefully not told what it is that the Newsome family manufactures. A handful of Virginia Woolf's characters may be something in the City, but exactly what is as much a mystery to the reader as it appears to be to the author. The material powers which give birth to modernity slip into its fiction only in cloaked and muffled form. Literature is the kind of commerce which is ignorant of itself. To represent merchants and manufacturers, it often enough finds itself reaching back to more traditional forms (myth, pastoral, melodrama, romance), or transplanting the protagonist from his office or factory to some more exotic, elemental setting such as Conrad's jungle or Melville's ocean.

     We may return, after this literary diversion, to the need to live down one's disreputable origins. Can it be that social harmony is simply a forgetfulness of an unruly past? Are law and order ultimately a question of amnesia? These are no wild leftist proposals, but the common currency of a conservative style of thought. David Hume, perhaps the greatest of British philosophers, cautions that if we investigate the origins of nations, we shall find there rebellion and usurpation. 'Time alone,' he declares, 'gives solidity to (the rulers') right; and operating gradually on the minds of men, reconciles them to any authority, and makes it seem just and reasonable.'12 The older you are as a nation, the more respectable you become, as long-buried crimes come to grow on you like old cronies. Political power is founded on fading memory. Oblivion, as Dionysus knew, is the performance-enhancing drug which allows civilizations to work effectively. In Schiller's drama Wallenstein, the hero observes that 'The march of years has power to sanctify; | Whatever's grey with age, men will call holy. | Once in possession, you are in the right' (Act 1, Scene 4). 'Time,' writes Burke, 'has, by degrees . . . blended and coalited the conquered with the conquerors.'13 As an Irishman, this champion of the English constitution was well aware of just how little this was true of his own exploited nation. This was one reason why he adopted another, in which the tainted springs of power were old enough to be shrouded in mystery.

     Blaise Pascal is quite as candid as Hume on the need to obliterate one's genesis. 'The truth about the (original) usurpation,' he writes conspiratorially, 'must not be made apparent: it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.'14 It is a far cry from the pious doctrine that the social order is the upshot of God's will—a doctrine designed for the masses rather than the intelligentsia. The law for Pascal is not revered because it is sacred, but sacred because it is revered. The populace, he comments, think that laws exist because they are just, whereas the truth is the other way round: it is force which creates opinion and determines what is right. Coercion gives birth to consent.

     This was not a view shared by Immanuel Kant. But he, too, considered speculations on the sources of political power to be a menace to the state.15 The plain-minded Montaigne likewise scoffed at such abstruse enquiries. The modern French philosopher Joseph de Maistre agreed with Pascal that the violence at the foundation of the state must at all costs be concealed; he, too, held that political power survived only as long as its origins were cloaked in mystery. Ernest Renan observed that a nation is defined as much by what it forgets as by what it remembers. Friedrich Nietzsche writes in a similar vein: 'Cheerfulness, the good conscience, the joyful deed, confidence in the future—all of them depend, in the case of an individual as of a nation, on the existence of a dark line dividing the bright and discernible from the unilluminable and dark; on one's being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time . . .'16

     How successful middle-class society is in living down its disreputable past varies from place to place. In England, owing to the mediated, protracted process by which the middle classes came to power, it was possible to claim that there had been no decisive rupture. There could not be an outfit known as the Daughters of the English Revolution, as there is an unsavoury such equivalent in the United States, since the English revolution is deemed not to have taken place. It would be as absurd an institution as the Sons of Saudi Democracy. The English had managed to pull off the most successful revolution of all—the kind which nobody remembered ever having taken place. Yet the price which they paid for this apparent continuity was a high one. If American capitalism was too frenetic, the English version was too hidebound. The one suffered from a surplus of energy, and the other from an excess of order.

     In the United States, bourgeois revolution took an honourably anti-colonial form, one to be celebrated rather than disavowed. The brash explicitness of American capitalism remains true in spirit to the revolutionary cataclysm which brought it to birth— one which is anyway too recent to live down. Insurrection lives on in the form of restless innovation and robust enterprise. The pioneer spirit was displaced rather than dissolved. The epic rapacity which subdued the land in the first place carried on as regular business. Probably no other people on earth use the word 'aggressive' in such a positive fashion, and no group outside psychoanalytic circles is so fond of the word 'dream'. Having no aristocracy to co-opt or decapitate, the United States had to hand no ready-made heritage of hierarchy and stability, which is one of several reasons why its brand of capitalism was more visibly lawless. Unlike its former proprietors, it could not swathe the unlovely aggression of the marketplace in the decorous garments of gentility. Perhaps this is one of several reasons why the Supreme Being has bulked so large there—why one of the most materialist societies on earth is also one of the most portentously metaphysical. If there is little of Burke's tradition and time-hallowed custom to provide a basis for social stability, the Almighty can be drafted in instead. Law and order come to take up their abode within each citizen, in the shape of a high puritan conscience.

     States which find it hard to live down their tumultuous beginnings because they are too raw and recent are likely to rank among the most unstable. Israel and Northern Ireland may serve as examples. It is hard to pass off your sovereignty as natural when everyone remembers their grandparents being pitched off their land. What is vital here, as Burke argues in his celebrated doctrine of prescription, is the sheer passage of time, which is enough to convert rebels into real estate agents. Legitimacy is really longevity. After a while, the revolutionaries who laid the basis of social order come to be seen as the enemies of it, as has happened in Ireland among other places, and history is revised accordingly. When society's conditions of possibility become its potential undoing, the gentrification of the revolution is complete.

     The sublime, like the tragic or the Dionysian, is an attempt to think through a series of paradoxes—of victory and failure, infinity and mortality, order and anarchy, self-affirmation and self-dispossession—which lie at the heart of Western thought….

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Four strange stories by John Galsworthy (1867-1933)

....He pinched himself — his thoughts were becoming so queer! He remembered that once, when his liver was out of order, trees had seemed to him like solid, tall diseases — bulbous, scarred, cavernous, witch-armed, fungoid emanations of the earth. Well, so they were! And he was among them, on a snowy pitch-black night, engaged in this death-struggle! 

-- "Timber" (1920)

The Black Godmother (1912)

"The Black Godmother" is a second-hand anecdote by the narrator's friend. It begins:

     Sitting out on the lawn at tea with our friend and his retriever, we had been discussing those massacres of the helpless which had of late occurred, and wondering that they should have been committed by the soldiery of so civilised a State, when, in a momentary pause of our astonishment, our friend, who had been listening in silence, crumpling the drooping soft ear of his dog, looked up and said, "The cause of atrocities is generally the violence of Fear. Panic's at the back of most crimes and follies."

The friend has a theory about sources of human violence. He describes an attack he and another man carried out on a dog they worried might be rabid. He concludes: "Fear! It's the black godmother of all damnable things!"

The Voice of ...! (1912)

Frâulein Tizi's music hall debut concludes to thunderous applause. Then, from the balcony, an unnatural light transfixes her. A commanding voice booms out:

     "Woman! Blasphemous creature! You have profaned Beauty!"

     There stood the beautiful creature, motionless, staring up into the lime-light. And the voice from the gallery was heard again.

     "The blind applaud you; it is natural. But you — unnatural! Go!" The beautiful creature threw up her head, as though struck below the jaw, and with hands flung out, rushed from the stage. Then, amidst the babel of a thousand cries—"Chuck the brute out!"

     "Throw him over!"

     "Where's the manager?"

     "Encore, encore!" — the manager himself came out from the wings. He stood gazing up into the stream of lime-light, and there was instant silence.

A near-riot ensues, with management and staff unable to find the source of the strange light or the voice.

Galsworthy nicely wraps this uncanny conundrum in the everyday backstage trials of the proprietor of "The Paradise" theater and his lieutenants..

A Simple Tale (1914)

The narrator recounts a nighttime encounter with a stranger on the streets of London.

     "And, if you think of it, monsieur, it is well like that. Provided, there exists always that good man of a Wandering Jew, he will certainly have become as Christ, in all these centuries of being refused from door to door. Yes, yes, he must well have acquired charity the most profound that this world has ever seen, in watching the crushing virtue of others. All those gentry, of whom he asks night by night to let him rest in their doorways, they tell him where to go, how to ménager his life, even offer him money, as I had seen; but, to let him rest, to trust him in their houses — this strange old man — as a fellow, a brother voyager — that they will not; it is hardly in the character of good citizens in a Christian country. And, as I have indicated to you, this Old of mine, cracked as he was, thinking himself that Jew who refused rest to the good Christ, had become, in being refused for ever, the most Christ-like man I have ever encountered on this earth, which, according to me, is composed almost entirely of those who have themselves the character of the Wandering Jew.".

"A Simple Tale" is a very short story recounting an experience the reader might interpret as strange, uncanny, or just odd.

Timber (1920)

A spectacularly good piece of strange fiction. I am not a regular reader of Galsworthy, but I am impressed by the great skill he shows here. The sylvan sublimity he achieves makes "Timber" a story to treasure.

....He had never before been amongst his timber in the dusk, and he found the shapes of the confounded trees more weird, and as if menacing, that he had ever dreamed of. He stumbled quickly on in and out of them among the undergrowth, without coming to a ride.

Landowner Sir Arthur Hirries, Baronet, takes a late afternoon winter walk through ancestral woodland on his property. He has just sold it for a very high price to the British government, then waging the Great War. Perhaps Sir Arthur got a "patrio-profiteering" price? Does this fact cause him to get lost in the thick spread of timber?

Galsworthy handles gathering darkness and growing  cold with expert craftsmanship. Sir Arthur's complacency and confidence are expertly stripped away.

     The path was a regular will o' the wisp. He must make a bee line of it through the undergrowth into another ride! He had never before been amongst his timber in the dusk, and he found the shapes of the confounded trees more weird, and as if menacing, that he had ever dreamed of. He stumbled quickly on in and out of them among the undergrowth, without coming to a ride.

     'Here I am stuck in this damned wood!' he thought. To call these formidably encircling shapes 'a wood' gave him relief. After all, it was his wood, and nothing very untoward could happen to a man in his own wood, however dark it might get; he could not be more than a mile and a half at the outside from his dining-room! He looked at his watch, whose hands he could just see—nearly half-past seven! The sleet had become snow, but it hardly fell on him, so thick was the timber just here. But he had no overcoat, and suddenly he felt that first sickening little drop in his chest which presages alarm. Nobody knew he was in this damned wood! And in a quarter of an hour it would be black as your hat! He must get on and out! The trees amongst which he was stumbling produced quite a sick feeling now in one who hitherto had never taken trees seriously. What monstrous growths they were! The thought that seeds, tiny seeds or saplings, planted by his ancestors, could attain such huge impending and imprisoning bulk—the ghostly great growths, mounting up to heaven and shutting off this world, exasperated and unnerved him. He began to run, caught his foot in a root, and fell flat on his face. The cursed trees seemed to have a down on him! Rubbing elbows and forehead with his snow-wetted hands, he leaned against a trunk to get his breath, and summon the sense of direction to his brain. Once as a young man he had been 'bushed' at night in Vancouver Island; quite a scary business! But he had come out all right, though his camp had been the only civilised spot within a radius of twenty miles. And here he was, on his own estate, within a mile or two of home, getting into a funk. It was childish! And he laughed. The wind answered, sighing and threshing in the tree tops. There must be a regular blizzard blowing now, and, to judge by the cold, from the north—but whether north-east or north-west was the question. Besides, how keep definite direction without a compass in the dark? The timber, too, with its thick trunks, diverted the wind into keen, directionless draughts. He looked up, but could make nothing of the two or three stars that he could see. It was a mess! And he lighted a second cigar with some difficulty, for he had begun to shiver. The wind in this blasted wood cut through his Norfolk jacket and crawled about his body, which had become hot from his exertions, and now felt clammy and half-frozen. This would mean pneumonia, if he didn't look out! And, half feeling his way from trunk to trunk, he started on again, but for all he could tell he might be going round in a circle, might even be crossing rides without realising, and again that sickening drop occurred in his chest. He stood still and shouted. He had the feeling of shouting into walls of timber, dark and heavy, which threw the sound back at him.

     'Curse you!' he thought. 'Wish I'd sold you six months ago!' The wind fleered and mowed in the tree tops; and he started off again at a run in that dark wilderness; till, hitting his head against a low branch, he fell, stunned. He lay several minutes unconscious, came to himself deadly cold, and struggled up on to his feet.


25 September 2021