Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ideas so stupid only intellectuals can believe

A book review, and a life review, neither of which is likely to appeal to our blinkered, blinded and stupefied Left, serves us well here. But only some of us. Most people are happy to live in cave-like error, doing what others do, being normally social and conservative, even if that is a radicalist behaviour in outcome.The willing suspension of disbelief is essential to social living, for otherwise we would have no society, no art, no language, no relationships of any kind but narcissistic hedonism for a moment. Seers are a menace. Plato is right in exiling them from his Republic, if there is to be a Republic. Or, perhaps, we might rather find a golden mean between revolution and hippie conformity.

Thomas F. Bertonneau "Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia: The Remarkable Case of Back from the Future," (1942) Brussels Journal. 03 March 2009

Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the, delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise. An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior. The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition. Modern people must grapple with ideology. The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.



truepeers said...

It's a good book review; but just to quibble with your title: these are ideas and existential problems that I think move beyond what we would usually consider to be "the intellectuals". I fear focusing on the intellectuals and the left isn't going to take us far enough in understanding the spiritual crisis that is at the heart of the Utopian-totalitarian vision and the widespread lack of resistance to it.

Once it arrives, yes, many who live under tyranny see the stark reality and the lies of the ideologues; still, I imagine a good number continue to believe in them for lack of anything else. This line of the review is my favorite: "In Moscow, Undset found herself overwhelmed by the pervasive aroma: “The fetid smell of cotton goods which had been washed again and again, but without soap… the smell of bedrooms closely packed with dirty beds,” and “the smell of urine and excrement from the dirty yards.” All this disturbed Undset greatly, but the local people took it for granted, so much so that they had ceased to notice it.""

Dag said...

One can grow to love the things one hates simply because the hated is familiar. So too with ideas, even ones that harm and kill. One can easily assume that the harmful, because it's what one knows, is the real and the good. Parents make the initial decisions for children, and in later years, society makes the decisions for all; but there are those who just don't get it, those who never fit in and don't care. For every question there are a multitude of answers and counter-questions. Who decides anything at all? Most people don't ask, don't question, don't care what the standard is, and they go along, even unto death. I think that's to the good for the most part. People are mostly passive. They don't explode into frenzy until they are made to by outsiders. It's always the outsiders, in Colin Wilson's sense of it, who rile people. So, which outsiders will it be?

truepeers said...

The kind of pagan world that I take it Sigrid Undset wrote about in her historical novels (but I suppose also in the book under review, dealing as it does with neopagans) suffered from regular violence performed by almost everyone, at times, in an endless cycle of feuds and revenge and sacrificial religions. In other words, the pagan relied heavily on violence to build order, such as it was. I think the general trend in history is that when societies become better at organizing their capacity for violence they must also become better at controlling it. A society that can build a nuclear bomb is also a society with a great deal of skill at deferring violence, not simply because it doesn't want to blow itself up but because you can't build the massive technical infrastructure to make a bomb unless the culture knows all kinds of ways to defer peoples' capacity for violence, that they may work together reasonably efficiently and peacefully.

Anyway, my point is that I think we all have a great capacity for violence. Today our society rightly has many ways of deferring that. But, in the right place and the right time, it could be unleashed. Being passive was probably not too common in any Viking village and if it is common in contemporary Scandinavia it is not something inherent in people as such but in the nature of history and cultural evolution.

As for outsiders, alone I don't they succeed in anything much, not even in riling the people. It is when an outsider, with a useful or dangerous vision, succeeds in building some kind of alliance with insiders that both creative and destructive potential may be realized.

truepeers said...

Rethinking that last comment a little, I don't think I quite expressed the problem: a pagan society like any will have relatively more passive and aggressive types of people. This must be a biological universal. But compared to society today, the restraint on violence, the capacity for deferral, was much less so that I imagine by our standards even the passive of old were involved in more violence than are our aggressives. To a pagan mind, justice demands vengeance and even the passive are riled by a sense of injustice.

truepeers said...

until they are made to by outsiders. It's always the outsiders

- According to mimetic theory, it's not really the outsiders; the sin of violence is original and universal (no one should play holier than thou, e.g. point the finger at outsiders); the outsiders become significant when ordinary people model their desires on those of the outsiders (or when they use the outsider as scapegoat). It's never really only the outsiders; it's always us understanding ourselves in terms of the outsiders. From a generative perspective, the normal begins with a gesture more or less from outside, but must be brought into wide exchange and revision to become fully realized for what it "really" is once institutionalized. Marx did not invent communism (as he imagined it, it could not and will never exist); no, those who struggled for power in the "communist" states, and those who remained passive, revealed what "communism" really is. The outsider can never really know what he represents, until the rest show it to him.

But yes, this is why it is the responsibility of everyone to give thought to what, from outside, can and should work in building a new normal we can live with. We all go to market to look at new things from "outside"; and yes, which outsiders will it be? who will help us redefine what is sacred?

truepeers said...

That last comment assumes a distinction between two kinds of outsiders. There is the "outsider" who is, in some sense, one of our own who just doesn't get along as normal person; and then there is the "outsider" from a different culture or society. I was talking about the first kind of outsider. An outsider of the second kind might become an outsider of the first kind, if he finds a way to join the new society. But this is a problem for individuals; it is a whole other dynamic when we are talking about the mixing of large numbers from an outside society.

Dag said...

Colin Wilson's book, The Outsider, was a huge hit when it came out, and though he's gone from the mainstream long since, his insights then still stand, as we can see in the lives and works of, for example, Th. Bertonneau or Sigrid Undset. More immediately, perhaps, we can look at Kafka to see the "outsider." some people, not criminals or revolutionaries, are outside the mainstream in important ways, pathfinders, freethinkers.

I read Bertonneau as writing of the latter. To think freely, independently of the mass of others, especially free of the norms and social/intellectual habits of conformity hippies who make up the pseudo-revolutionary intelligentsia, those are the "outsiders."

truepeers said...

My impression of Bertonneau is that he is someone who became an outsider when he learned how impossible it would be to be the kind of thinker he thought the academy should support but doesn't really. He is an outsider because, I'm guessing, he's a bit of a disappointed insider, or would-be insider. He is an outsider who, while rejecting all kinds of destructive fashions, nevertheless retains a faith and responsibility to try to find some way to bring certain perennial or classical ideas back from outside into the ethical marketplace from which he previously sought some degree of remove. He critiques the market culture and at the same time realizes he can only do this seriously if he has faith, however absurd it seems at times, that he might help to put something better into circulation. He aims to support the free market by opposing it in various aspects.

So I think it becomes a question of movements, in and out, of a larger generative cycle. In contrast to the raving lunatics we see at library square, one is never simply an outsider if one recognizes that the normal, the centre, the inside, always starts its life from the outside, as something injected into exchange as if from outside. Alternatively, one is never simply an outsider if one is concerned, while out there on the margins, with keeping certain classics of cultural history alive.