Tuesday, 19 August 2008
We seldom admire anything that we have not wished to be able to imitate; we feel no inability to do so without feeling our weakness; we never feel this without its humbling us, and nothing humbles us that we should not strive to abandon it: hence the zeal for worthiness by great souls working up towards the admired man, and the envy by petty ones, who by diminishment draw him down to themselves. 
In our own time, envy has attained the image of a virtue. He who makes of a common vice the image of a virtue gains the gratitude of the mass. In that lies power.
.....Little shows the grip of envy and the mania for levelling better than the relief and even glee with which the man of today greets the news that some admired man was guilty of some common vice or foible. Thus, when it was revealed — or rather, re-proclaimed for the purpose of flogging a book — that Franz Kafka had some lusty etchings in his collection, one could hear sighs of relief, and even exclamations of glee:
Finally the literary stylite has fallen from his pedestal . . . we may greet him as our equal — a swine like you and I. 
The mass has no higher praise for a man than that he belongs to it. A smear of praise is anointed to a man on account of his faults; he is proclaimed more human because of them — “one of us”. When we see the man of today greet with glee a revealed foible of a superior forebear, we glimpse his perverse need to be reassured in his inferiority.
 [“Wir bewundern selten etwas, das wir nicht wünschten nachmachen zu können, wir fühlen nicht, daß wir es nicht können, ohne unsre Schwäche zu fühlen; diese fühlen wir nie, ohne daß es uns demüthigte, und nichts demüthigt uns, was wir nicht abzuwerfen streben sollten: daher bei großen Seelen der Werteifer, bei kleinen der Neid, sich zu dem bewunderten Manne durch Anstrengung hinauf zu arbeiten, bei diesen, ihn durch Verkleinerung zu sich herabzuziehen.”] Friedrich. Schulz, “Zersteuete Gedanken”, nr.17., Deutsche Monatsschrift, 3.Bd., Dezember 1790, pp.383-4, digitalised by Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld.
 [“Endlich ist der literarische Säulenheilige vom Sockel gestürzt. . . . wir dürfen ihn als unseresgleichen begrüßen - ein Schwein wie du und ich.”] Ulrich Weinzierl, “Pornosammlung von Franz Kafka gefunden”, Die Welt, 6th August 2008.
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
In speaking of the part played by anatomically modern humans in the demise of the Neanderthals, Adam Rutherford is careful not to place modern thinking in a causal role: “to invoke genocide suggests some sort of intentionality and strategic planning for which we simply have no evidence.” He is not so careful in this sentence: “It’s well established that [Neanderthals] ritually buried their dead, made tools and explored from the westernmost tip of Europe, well into Asia.”  The geographical spread of Neanderthals is no evidence for exploration, which is for the purpose of discovery. Nevertheless I should think they were capable of curiosity, and of many other attitudes besides, perhaps even of pedantry.
 Adam Rutherford, “Long-lost Cousins”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 12th August 2008.
Monday, 4 August 2008
“There’s . . . that strange phenomenon where every generation thinks that the next one’s standards are fatally declining.” 
He who talks of this strange phenomenon needn’t have given much thought to its existence; he requires only short-sightedness and pig-ignorance in the service of progressive whiggery to believe in it, helped by the democratic habit of reaffirming an opinion heard a thousand times. He cannot be accused of having surveyed the prevailing opinions of men in all generations throughout history; even if he could, he would not be bothered to extend his thoughts so far, and besides, he would be bothered thereby to find his claim falsified. Rather he observes in recent generations the opinion expressed that standards are declining, and he perhaps knows of a few examples of such an opinion uttered in the ancient world, wherefrom he comes to the conclusion that it has been the prevailing opinion in every generation of man, and that he should therefore pay it no heed.
.....It simply does not occur to him that standards of many kinds are declining; and that these standards have been declining for a long time, and that the process has been noticed. If he is himself an enthusiastic part of the decline, he will not see his own presence and that of his fellows as a decline, but rather as a progress; after all, it is his generation and its low standards with which he identifies that are triumphing. Effectively he banishes from thought any consideration of the possibility of decline, and vows not to sit in judgement upon the next generation, which he will allow to decline further.
.....Yet, in dreaming up his strange phenomenon, he was almost right: in periods of change there have been men of historical consciousness who have had the capacity to express regret for what has already passed, which is in part a recognition of the transitoriness of the world, and who have feared also the loss of whatever they themselves have inherited, urgently seeking to secure its preservation in the next generation. Modernism is the predominance of another kind of man, who is more like a machine-part in a process: a man who says good riddance to all past things, and who tolerates every kind of degradation for the future too. He is the most shallow and complacent creature ever to walk on two legs, and I include pigeons.
.....All those German pessimists were right: the dullness of progressive optimism would one day be such that so few people would be able to recognize their own degraded state, but rather would even congratulate themselves for it.
 “Labourpartysuicide”, commenting on Mark Lawson, “That golden age? It never happened, except in the minds of pessimists”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 1st August 2008.
Friday, 1 August 2008