Thursday, 29 May 2008

Fewtril no.246

The popular success of liberalism is owed perhaps to its securing the right of every man to be indifferent and shamelessly vulgar — such of whom it has had the good sense of flattery to call tolerant and free.

A Thousand and One

“The chattiness of women has been a thousand times besmirked, jested, and even derided; may it not also be defended? One must be able to find grounds for its defence, for it is a gift of nature, and therefore cannot be pointless” [1] — wherefrom is inspired a handy little argument for everyone: If whatever I do is a gift of nature, and if no gift of nature is without point or justification, then whatever I do is not without point or justification. Perhaps I shall use it next time my wife takes offence at my telling her to shut up and watch the bloody film.

[1] [“Die Gesprächigkeit der Frauen ist tausendmal belächelt, bewitzelt, auch wol verspottet worden: darf sie nicht auch einmal vertheidigt werden? Man muß sie mit Grund vertheidigen können, denn sie ist eine Gabe der Natur, und kann mithin nicht zwecklos seyn”.] Adele, “Die Gespächigkeit der Frauen”, Journal für Deutsche Frauen, 1.Jg., 2.Bd., 8.H; 1805, p.97, digitalised by Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld.

Fewtril no.245

Any scheme for the improvement of society that does not reckon upon the occurrence of stupidity is a scheme that singularly fails to take itself into account.

Fewtril no.244

Even incredulity becomes a creed.

Rusticus Expectat

“[A]n Absolute Government founded on Corruption, without an Appearance of Liberty, is better than such a Government, where some outward Appearance of Liberty is preserved. . . . [O]f all Sorts of Oppressive Governments this is the most difficult to get rid of, . . . because the People are always in Expectation of being able to redress their Grievances constitutionally without a Civil War; but
rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis; at ille labitur et labetur in omne volubilis ævum
[the bumpkin waits for the river to drain away; but it flows on and will flow on for ever]
whereas in all other Sorts of Slavish Governments, the People, having no Legal or Constitutional Remedy to expect, they generally fly to Arms, as soon as their Oppression becomes grievous; this their Governors know, this they expect, and this keeps them under a continual Fear . . .

Extract of a Letter [published in Fog’s Journal, no. 387, 3rd April 1736] which Fog says, he found in George’s Coffee-House, Temple Bar, from Tommy Osborne to her Mother Madam Frances Osborne, in answer to her Remarks on a Pamphlet intitled, The Fatal Consequences of Ministerial Influence, &c”, extracted in Gentleman's Magazine, Vol.VI, April 1736, p.186, online at Internet Library of Early Journals. (Latin quotation from Horace Epistles, I., ll.42-3)

Friday, 16 May 2008

A Reattributed Aphorism

The now largely forgotten J.C. Friedrich Schulz was a prolific and popular writer of the late Enlightenment in Germany. In December 1790, he published thirty aphorisms — or “Zerstreuete Gedanken” — in the Deutsche Monatsschrift. One of them struck me as familiar:
Hardly any teachers of a faith defend their dogmas because they are convinced of their truth, but rather because they have maintained their truth.
[Die wenigsten Glaubenslehrer vertheidigen ihre Dogmen, weil sie von ihrer Wahrheit überzeugt sind, sondern, weil sie ihre Wahrheit behauptet haben.] [1]
This is remarkably similar to an aphorism that appeared in G.C. Lichtenberg’s private notebooks between 1789 and 1793:
Most teachers of a faith defend their propositions, not because they are convinced of their truth, but rather because they have once maintained their truth.
[Die meisten Glaubens-Lehrer verteidigen ihre Sätze, nicht weil sie von der Wahrheit derselben überzeugt sind, sondern weil sie die Wahrheit derselben einmal behauptet haben.] [2]
As well as philosophical sketches and aphorisms, Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher contain observational fragments, literary references, and quotations that struck him as worthy of note. So far as I know, it has not been previously observed that this particular aphorism is a close paraphrase of Schulz’s published one.
[1] F. Schulz, “Zerstreuete Gedanken”, nr.12, Deutsche Monatsschrift, 3.Bd., Dezember 1790, p.382, digitalised by Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld. (A further thirty aphorisms were published in Ibid., 1.Bd, Februar 1791.)
[2] G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), J.502 from Sudelbuch J (1789-1793), p. 387.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Charmed Life of Communism

It should come as a surprise to no one by now to learn that one of the greatest storms of barbarism the world has ever seen, in which much of the cultural heritage of China was destroyed, was met with enthusiasm in the West by young radicals whose own barbarism, one might suspect, was too often frustrated by the slow progress of their own great works of self-expression.
.....One of those youngsters was Peter Tatchell, who today reminisces about the good old days of nineteen sixty-eight:
In response to the Australian media’s deranged and often racist anti-Chinese propaganda, a few of us organised a ‘Be Kind to Mao Month’, where we promoted the ‘good’ aspects of the red guards’ rebellion against what we saw as the privileged, arrogant and authoritarian communist elite in Beijing. [1]
Having rejected Soviet-style communism as “an inhuman betrayal of the communist ideal of a compassionate, classless society”, [2] and having taken care to note the compassion of Chairman Mao during the Great Leap Forward, the young Mr Tatchell proselytised in favour of the more fashionable Maoist-style, which by then had already surpassed the Soviet-style in the production of emaciated corpses. So attuned were Mr Tatchell’s “libertarian communist” instincts, and so profound was his compassion for the people of China — peasants, recalcitrant workers, liberal bourgeois, and sundry political undesirables not included — that Mr Tatchell chose to favour the “good” aspects [3] of the most fanatical force in the history of Chinese communism: the red guards of the Cultural Revolution, steered by the Great Helmsman himself.
.....Now, I have little interest in what Mr Tatchell’s youthful sympathies were, or in what they are now, still less in what claims he might make for the purity of his intentions. [4] Another political fantasist to add to the pile makes little difference. What interests me is how the ideal of communism has enjoyed so charmed a life in the West, eking out a fanciful existence in the heads of such men, wherein it has remained unsullied by the reality of its application or even of its theoretical expression.
.....Before communism got its name in the 1840s, it was already linked to the ideal — sorry, the unfortunate “necessity” — of revolutionary terrorism, most notably in Babouvism; that is to say, even before Marx and Engels added to its legacy, and long before Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot perfected its theory and practice, it already had its terrible cast. Even if one traces communism back to the puritan Diggers, or to Thomas More, or to millennialist Christianity, or even further back, one can hardly observe in earnest the character of communism as it has come to exist in various regimes without noticing that it bears the unmistakably grim features of Babouvism and Marxism. Gracchus Babeuf, the forefather of much misery, is mostly forgotten, as is most of the output of Marx and Engels, and today there are those who profess to see communistic regimes as if they were the wayward scions of a noble lineage — as betrayals rather than consequences of the ideal. But how is it that anyone can be so brazen as to claim compassion as the very basis of his politics, and yet not bother to find out whether those politics might actually be good for others? To advocate a scheme for the whole of society, and to have made little effort to find out what effects it might have, other than that it makes one feel warm inside, is not to show compassion for others, but rather to show passion for oneself. Here, ignorance may be a defence, though not of any claim to compassion.
.....It would have been much more interesting today if some old lady had written in another newspaper a favourable reminiscence of how in nineteen thirty-three she ran a charity tombola- and lemonade-stall in support of the Deutsche Studentenschaft as it set about its task of clearing university libraries of politically undesirable books and of burning them. It would have been interesting for a comparison of reactions, for indicating biases, and in particular for showing what little part conscionable morality, as opposed to political moralism, has to play in decrying Nazi barbarism; for the destructiveness of that student body, instigated at a time when Nazism had hardly got started, was tiny as compared to that of the red guards, instigated at a time when the victims of communism were already in the tens of millions, and yet can anyone seriously doubt that the reminiscences of our old Nazi would provoke far more outrage than the reminiscences of our old commie? Now, of course, old Nazis don’t get to write for the newspapers, except perhaps by apologising at length, whereas old commies do, no apologies required — not that I think tomorrow’s newspapers should be full of old commies apologising; expedient liberal contrition is rarely interesting. No, it is more interesting to observe that, with regard to barbarism, it matters more about which tribe you are in than about the degree of it. And, as I say, communism enjoys a charmed life.
[1] Peter Tatchell, “The Black Panthers and me”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 14th May 2008.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Even he cannot use the word “good” in this regard without enclosing it in quotation marks, which leads me to wonder.
[4] The degree of wishful thinking or downright dishonesty is incalculable, though we can perhaps count at least three sops to conscience: the defence from ignorance (“we didn’t really know either its present form or its pedigree”); the defence from good intentions (“it meant well”); and the defence from imposture (“it wasn’t really communism or socialism”). The latter two are often aspects of the first.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Shigalyov's Conclusion

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”
Shigalyov, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, Part 2, Chapter 7: “With Our People”, tr. R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky (London: Everyman, 2000), p.402.

Fewtril no.243

The man who dismisses intuition as a pre-scientific folk-myth is just the sort of stout, deliberative, no-nonsense chap to have by one’s side in times of sitting down and drinking tea.

Fewtril no.242

The conceit of some journalists is so rich, and their conceptions so poor, that when they advocate a meritocracy, they imagine a state of affairs in which their meager talents would still be employed.

Fewtril no.241

It is a lazy if not imperious habit of mind to declare irrational those who do not work towards one’s own ends.

Fewtril no.240

Many call it the exercise of the intellect; but in ear-shot and sight of all their high-flown talk, of their verbosity that goes nowhere, of their ceaseless rearrangement of things, of their profound alienation and insecurity, even of their self-loathing that becomes at times a shameless self-regarding that is yet never so penetrating as to reveal to them how much they regard themselves — looking at it all, one might find for it another name: madness.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, last of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, has died. [1] To Ernst Jünger, writing in his diary at the time, the aristocratic conspiracy against Hitler seemed to have the true character of tragedy:
The great game is playing out between the plebiscitarian Demos and the remnants of the aristocracy. If Kniébolo [Hitler] falls, so the hydra will fashion a new head. [2]
From the edges of the conspiracy, it seemed to Jünger that, whatever happened, the old aristocracy was doomed: the future lay with the demotic mass and its technicians. As it was, the plot of July 1944 failed, whereupon the conspiracy effectively came to a swift and deadly end.
What victims here fall, in the small circles of the last chivalric men, of free spirits, of men feeling and thinking beyond the dull passions of the masses. [3]
Philipp von Boeselager was one of the few to escape the reprisals.

[1] Obituary, The Telegraph, 2nd May 2008.
[2] [“Die große Partie spielt zwischen dem plebiszitären Demos und den Resten der Aristokratis. Wenn Kniébolo fällt, so wird die Hydra einen neuen Kopf bilden.”] Ernst Jünger, 27. März 1944, Strahlungen (Tübingen: Heliopolis-Verlag, 1949), p.497.
[3] [“Welche Opfer hier wieden fallen, und gerade in den kleinen Kreisen der letzten ritterlichen Menschen, der freien Geister, der jenseits der dumpfen Massenleidenschaften Fühlenden und Denkenden.”] Ernst Jünger, 22. Juli 1944, Strahlungen (Tübingen: Heliopolis-Verlag, 1949), p.541.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Drinking Song to Sleep

Great god of sleep, since it must be,
That we must give some hours to thee,
Invade me not while the free bowl
Glows in my cheeks, and warms my soul;
That be my only time to snore,
When I can laugh, and drink no more;
Short, very short be then thy reign,
For I’m in haste to laugh and drink again.

Lord Lansdowne, “Drinking Song to Sleep”, in The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper, Vol. XI., ed., S. Johnson, (London: 1810), p.33, online at Google Books.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Zen Philosophasty

It has always been a maxim of strategy — not to say, of commonsense — to have a good understanding of what the enemy is thinking, and, most fundamental, to have an understanding of his aims and motives. Still, in some cases, as in the following example from one of Slavoj Žižek’s neophytes, such an understanding, even an inkling, might appear hopeless to attain:
If enacting the revolutionary potential of the anti-synthetic transcendental imagination involves choosing the impossible, then this immediately begs the question: What is the ontological basis for imagining the possibility of an impossible choice? [1]
It may be that, in regarding this kind of radical-revolutionary discourse as primarily an intellectual undertaking, albeit a pretentious or frustrated one, we come to a misunderstanding of it. Rather it may be better that we regard it as having Zen-nonsensical qualities, formulated to empty the revolutionist’s mind of all intelligible thoughts, though leaving his intellectual pretentions intact, such that he might remain unperturbed in the contemplation of the visceral purity of his revolutionary deeds.
.....Well, however it may be, it is true that we all need to suspend our intellects every once in a while so as to rejuvenate our spiritual nerves, and so, to that end, the reader might like to contemplate the sound of one hand slapping Slavoj Žižek’s face.

[1] Charles Wells, “Acts of Freedom: Revolution and Responsibility”, International Journal of Žižek Studies, Vol. 2:1, 2008, p.7

Fewtril no.239

To have had all the advantages of a wealthy upbringing but to have repudiated them in order to appear authentic — well, for the man who has proceeded in this way, success in some regard was bound to be easy: he was authentically contemptible from the beginning.