Saturday, July 23, 2011

Birth of "the modern liberal state"

The phrase in quotes above is from the very end of Rory Muir's review (in the July 1 Times Literary Supplement) of several new publications (re)evaluating military strategy of the Napoleonic era. In his summation of the five books under review, he mentions the "diversity" of those who fought against Napoleon: the rank-and-file British soldiers under Wellington; the peasants and ordinary people, especially in Spain, who took to the hills to resist the French; the Austrian Joseph Radetzky and his polyglot army; and Clausewitz and the Prussian officer corps. Thus, the portrait here of a Cameron piper urging on the Highland Line at the Battle of Waterloo. And, Muir writes, "it was this very diversity that was at stake in a struggle to preserve local traditions and differences in the face of an intrusive modernizing government that was intervening to an unprecedented extent in areas of life and belief that had hitherto been private."

In the end, the battle was won -- Waterloo -- but the war was lost. As Muir writes, the battle was won only by copying Napoleon's methods: "Income tax, conscription and the gendarmerie became permanent fixtures of European life. The modern liberal state was here to stay."
At a glance, I can't quite see what income taxes, conscription, and the gendarmerie have to do with the "liberal state," which for most us probably rests principally on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by law. It is true, however, that modern law is "universal" and, indeed, in its application is by its very nature contemptuous of local traditions. For instance, all men (make that "humans") are "equal." The insistence on equality means that all of us must be reduced to the same common denominator, without allowance for local sentiments, traditions, and the like.

But our so-called liberal values and rights are not "universal." I agree with the postmodernists in this respect. Those values and rights have been historically achieved, the outcome of centuries of attempts by peoples all over western Europe to carve out different realms of freedom for themselves: to own businesses, to make a profit, to worship as they chose, to exchange cultural and scientific information, to pay less in taxes, to hold the powerful accountable. And it was the intercourse among all these different peoples that gradually produced, by the beginning of the 19th century, a very similar way of life among the elites and well-to-do of these different cultures and the belief among them that their way of life was "natural." And, so, though they were products of different cultures, they all ended up producing legal systems that protected this way of life.

Clearly, there is something about "Western" institutions that is attractive, especially to people from nations inimical to individual rights, but one should not think that there is anything "natural" about these institutions. As I point out in the introduction to my new book on the history of freedom of speech, our values seem natural to us, because they are "our" values. And because they are "ours," a legacy from previous generations, they should be cherished like any precious object that we inherit from our forefathers and foremothers.

When I was doing research for my introduction, I came across an interesting quote from the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. His response to the doctrine of natural rights was that it was, "from beginning to end so much flat assertion." Islam, after all, also claims universality for its doctrines, and its adherents believe these are self-evident. For instance, the women above probably believe it is natural to be fully covered at all times, even in 104 degree heat. Or maybe 120 in Afghanistan. But Islam and other world religions are also powerful traditional and institutional entities. The current "return of religion" does not necessarily indicate revanchism, as some claim; rather, it affirms the power of institutions and traditions, not just religious, but also social, political, cultural, and so on.

Thus, the modern liberal state and the values it enshrines are not merely an abstract construct, but, in a multicultural world, represent an authentic cultural product, one that is the work of generations. Knowledge of how this product was created -- and imparting that knowledge is the aim of my book -- will also help us to preserve it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Manhattan circumnavigation

The past week has been busy with reading proofs for my new book, communicating with the contributors to the volume, and, now, getting ready to prepare the index. Still, it has not been all work. Last Saturday I went on a kayak circumnavigation of Manhattan. The photo at the top shows part of our group launching from Pier 40 in Manhattan in the early a.m. That's my friend Rose in front, with whom I often kayak, and New Jersey across the Hudson River in the background. And the glorious photograph and the others below (including one of myself) is by kayaking pal David Gottlieb, who is also a photographer extraordinaire. Last year I did another circumnav, and David's photos were just as splendid. I wish I could take pictures like that myself, but I've learned my lesson. Last year, landing at South Beach on Staten Island, my kayak was caught in a rip current and turned over, drenching me and everything that was not in the hatch, which included my non-waterproof camera.

Kayaking is something I only got involved in about six years ago, and there is no way I will ever reach beyond my current BCU2 level. I simply don't have the time, and, if I had my druthers, I would really prefer to spend lazy afternoons on a lake or lazily paddling down a quiet river, as in the small figure in the painting here, which I saw in Chelsea this spring -- and, unforgivably, I don't know the name of the German painter. I will find it, however, and correct the omission, but suffice it to say at the moment that the river in question in the Fulda.

Paddling in an urban area like Manhattan, however, you get kind of tough and macho and push yourself to newer feats. Last year, several of us paddled to the Verrazano Bridge and beyond, hoping to land at Swinburne Island, but at a certain point past Staten Island you start to feel you are really in the ocean, and there was no way we were able to put in on the island. That's when we turned back and landed instead on South Beach, where I had my encounter with the rip current. This year, my goal is to paddle north to the Tappan Zee Bridge, about a forty-mile paddle. The trip has to be timed to catch the currents right, and what makes the trip more unpredictable in summer is that, even if you have the current on your return -- and the ebb current is really stronger in the Hudson than the flood -- you are likely to encounter south winds, which means you can face gigantic swells.

That's what happened on the circumnav on Saturday. According to Phil, another kayak buddy who keeps a track of these things by GPS, we covered 30.1 statute miles, with an average speed of 4.7 mph -- and a maximum speed of 9.6 mph. All was well through the 27-mile mark, but at 125th Street, about a mile south of the George Washington Bridge, we crashed into strong south winds that pushed three- to five-foot swells against the current. The picture below gives an idea of how rough the river was.

Before those swells set in, however, there were sights to see, and even a break at Hallets Cove in Queens. By the way, I should add that I have fond memories of Pier 40, where we launched at 7 a.m. on Saturday. Pier 40 was where, as a girl of eighteen, I caught a ship of the Holland-American Line, for my first trip to Europe. I had come to New York, where I actually stayed in a hotel by myself. I had a friend from college, with whom I had gone to see a Broadway play the night before, Oliver! The next morning, leaving my hotel, I caught a cab and told the driver, "Pier 40." It was like saying, "Grand Central Station." Everyone knew what Pier 40 meant, and I often think of that first European trip when I bike past Pier 40. The ocean liners don't berth there anymore, but it is the site of various boating activities, including the Downtown Boathouse, where I am a volunteer.

UPDATE (9/9/11): The painting above of a kayaker on the Fulda River in Germany is by Silke SchÖner, whose exhibition I visited back in May at the Dillon Gallery in Manhattan. Sometimes it helps to clean off one's desk.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea

Well, that is the official title of the book, and the publication date, according to Amazon, is September 16. No wonder I am sitting at home in this warm weather proofreading. If I say so myself, this is a great volume; I assembled a really excellent group of contributors. I am giving a talk in August at the New York Public Library on the subject, trying to tie together current anxieties concerning speech -- particularly the vexed issue of "hate speech" -- with similar anxieties among 18th-century thinkers, including the most "advanced" thinkers of the time, the philosophes. As I read proofs I keep encountering various nuggets that could have come right from the mouths of contemporary public intellectuals. Herewith some examples, with various rationales for denying the right of freedom of speech to ordinary folks:

"Enlightened monarch" Frederick the Great (below), responding to Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature (1770), argued that Holbach was wrong to want to enlighten all the people and give them freedoms and rights, which instead should be only the privilege of the educated. Frederick disagreed with Holbach that errors in thinking would be erased by a gradual advance of reason. Superstition and credulity were in any case proper to ordinary folk and helped to maintain the "moral and social order," by which we may infer he really meant the power of monarchs like himself.

I love the picture above of Holbach, one of the granddaddies of the French Revolution. (Too bad he died in January of 1789: I wondered what he would have said about its excesses.) He asserted that "the truth" should be accessible to all. But whose truth? And did one have the freedom to make mistakes? Not at all: there needed to be legislation to prevent the arts, for instance, from harming the morals of citizens and also to direct the taste of artists so that they would produce more useful works. Writers, after all, according to Holbach, must always keep in mind "what they owe to virtue, to morals, and to their fellow citizens" (Ethocratie ou le gouvernement fondé sur la morale, 1776).

The anxiety about the "feelings" of others is present in a writing by Herder. He asks who will be hurt if "blasphemous, voluptuous, and scandalous writings" are allowed. Certainly not the thinking man, but, rather, society's marginalized: "the vain milksop, the weak woman, the inexperienced youth, the innocent child." And it is the role of the state to protect these: "The state is the Mother of all its children; it must see to the health, strength, and purity of all."

Rousseau was not only an advocate of censorship (close down the theaters!) but of the suppression of public opinion and open dissent. Among the philosophes, I would venture to say that, pre-French Revolution, he was one of the few who seemed to discern the rise of democracy and of widespread difference of opinion. He did not celebrate such diversity, however; the so-called General Will would not emerge from the discussions of citizens, but from a popular assembly in which the members did not have communication among themselves. In his extremely popular novel Julie, or the New Héloise (1761), the communication between Julie and her lover, Saint Preux, is one that avoids words. As Saint Preux recalls: "How many things were said without opening the lips! How many sentiments were transmitted without the cold agency of speech!"

Such distrust of speech was common among philosophes, who feared the disagreements that speech caused. The desire for unanimity seems to be an accompaniment to the belief that something like "truth" can be discerned. As Benjamin Constant later wrote, "Truth is not just good to know; it is good to search for." It was the search that was important. And search involves error. As I write in the conclusion to this volume, despite all we owe to the philosophes for first articulating the arguments about rights, they were anchored in past intellectual traditions that valorized the pursuit of truth and, ultimately, agreement.

Truth, however, is not the standard of liberal democracies, which function not by imposing a few grand ideas handed down from on high, but by encouraging a marketplace of diverse, competing, rapidly changing, and unrestrained opinions. The marketplace of ideas was already a fact on the ground, before freedom of speech was legislated in the U.S. and France in the late 18th century, in the veritable tide of scientific and technical knowledge that traveled freely across Europe. The unfettered proliferation of theories and opinions, even of crackpot ideas -- and there were certainly many -- unleashed individual risk-taking, ingenuity, invention, and the historically unprecedented wealth that created "the West."

Picture credit: Coach Ben;

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Discontents of Intellectuals

I just read a book over the Fourth of July weekend that was appropriate to the holiday, Crane Brinton's The Anatomy of Revolution. The American Revolution is one of his four cases, along with the 17th-century "Glorious Revolution" in England and the French and Russian revolutions. Brinton's initial thesis is that the financial/economic inefficiency of the government hinders the economic activity of citizens (high taxes and other onerous financial impositions) in societies that are themselves growing economically. As he writes, the four cases do not reveal a picture of "the old regime as an unregenerate tyranny, sweeping to its end in a climax of despotic indifference to the clamor of its abused subjects." In all cases, the bankrupt governments were actually working to "modernize," but the attempts at reform were part of the process that issued in revolution.

What interested me was the role of intellectuals, who, in the modern world, are a particularly disaffected lot, but whose disaffection (think Victorian England) does not always rise to the level of demands for a total transformation of society. In 18th-century France, however, the "roll" of intellectuals convinced that the world, and especially France, needed making over, "from the tiniest and more insignificant details to the most general moral and legal principles," was quite long. As Brinton writes, "Literature in late 18th-century France is overwhelmingly sociological." But, as he adds, throughout "Enlightenment Europe" there are few "active literary conservatives like Samuel Johnson or Sir Walter Scott, or even literary neutrals, men pursuing in letters a beauty or an understanding quite outside politics."

This is the case even with Joseph Addison and Johann Jacob Bodmer, on whom I have posted much lately. Both men used "letters" in the cause of social transformation. Addison's Spectator essays and Bodmer and Breitinger's Discourses of the Painters had the aim of improving people's conduct by being "entertaining." I think that after the 1720s Bodmer became more "actively literary," if one considers the critical treatises of the early 1740s, but certainly his later dramas and epics were explicitly in the service of social and moral transformation.

Where does Goethe fit in? Certainly in the Sturm und Drang period there is much criticism of existing social arrangements. The Sorrows of Young Werther, aside from its literary charms, makes the case that bright young men of merit have little chance of social ascent because they are excluded by the hidebound aristocratic class. Moreover, the institution of government itself, as portrayed in Werther, seems equally sclerotic. Of course, one might say that Werther finds pushing papers beneath him, that he is a pathological case unwilling to adapt himself to the demands of reality, for instance, working and thereby having an income to marry and raise a family. "Pathology," however, is exactly what Brinton is describing in the case of pre-revolutionary France. The hatred of government and of the ruling class was intense.

There is another characteristic of the such intellectuals that Brinton mentions, namely, "the deliberate espousal of the cause of discontented or repressed classes -- upperdogs voluntarily siding with underdogs. ... Such upper-class mavericks must be relatively numerous as well as conspicuous in a society in disequilibrium." Again, one sees signs of this "decadence" in the Sturm und Drang writings, for instance, in the dramas of Lenz and Klinger. Goethe, of course, introduces the "repressed" classes, most notably in the figure of Gretchen. (Drawing above by Peter Cornelius.)

Germany (insofar as one can speak of "Germany" in this period) was of course different from France. One thing that distinguishes Goethe from the French intellectuals is that he actually went to work in government. He was also pretty dedicated. At close hand, however, dealing with the governed, he must have recognized the limits of what government is able to do. His literary work after his move to Weimar certainly becomes less "sociological," even more so after Rome. Schiller, it must be said, did want to transform society, and his literary works and writings on aesthetics were in that service. (But even Schiller became skeptical of the French Revolution.) Goethe, in his relationship with Schiller in the 1790s, was coopted in this effort, but after Schiller's death Goethe seems to have become even more a man "pursuing in letters a beauty or an understanding quite outside politics." Think The East-West Divan. Which is not to assert that political conditions are not reflected in his later writings. Even the Divan is an attempt to escape the pervasive demands of contemporary politics. This pervasiveness is a curse of modern intellectuals.

Picture credits: Cardillowiki; Goethezeitportal

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Novelty" and Romanticism

To return again to F.L. Lucas and to The Decline and Fall of Romantic Poetry, this time to his comments on "novelty" in poetry. "The goddess Novelty," he writes, "is one of the immortals. Her handiwork is everywhere." As an example he notes finding, "in a remote part of Cornwall," a new kind of tea cup, with a square base instead of a round one, fitting into a square depression in the saucer. Later he writes that "novelties may tickle the conscious curiosity; but deeper levels are stirred by older impulses -- things whose echoes go back to the childhood of the individual and the race. Modernity may bring new awakenings; but one wine and old memories bring dreams."

One has to keep in mind that Lucas was writing in 1936 and also that he was one of the few English academics (R.G. Collingwood was another), who were warning against the Germans. In a footnote he mentions receiving an "ungrammatical" and "unprintable" letter from Ezra Pound, who is "a total stranger to me," threatening violence, "because I had written to the press on behalf of the unfortunate Abyssinians."

Thus, though Lucas loved Romantic poetry, especially its wealth of images and its ability to express "less conscious levels of the mind," he deplored what he saw as the excesses of this liberation as they were manifest in the politics, society, and culture of the early 20th century. It strikes me that he might have gone a step further and linked Romanticism and Novelty. Let us see how Addison and Bodmer treated this subject of "Romanticism avant la lettre."

You may recall that Addison had written that "every thing that is Great, New, or Beautiful, is apt to affect the Imagination with Pleasure." Of the new or uncommon he wrote that "it fills the Soul with an agreeable Surprise, gratifies its Curiosity, and gives it an Idea of which it was not before possest. We are indeed so often conversant with one Sett of Objects and tired out with so many repeated Shows of the same things, that whatever is new or uncommon contributes a little to vary human Life, and to divert our Minds, for a while, with the strangeness of its Appearance" (Spectator, 412).

Bodmer follows Addison closely in respect to the Great and the Beautiful. For instance, he imputes the effect of beauty to the human desire for reproduction. Thus, the sight of a country house surrounded by woods, meadows, and so on arouses desire for possession. Likewise, the the effect on the imagination of grand natural phenomena, which fill the soul with amazement. Our response to these phenomena are grounded in our nature as humans.

Novelty, however, Bodmer rejects precisely because it is not grounded in human nature, but in the sentiments. Bodmer uses the term "Gemüthe," which is a notoriously difficult term to translate, but let me say that "Gemüthe" is characterized by its fickleness. It is culture-dependent, responding to passing things, a product of changing fashions, unlike the beautiful and the great, which affect people equally, at all times, no matter their different cultural interpretation of those categories. Think East and West, Tahiti and the France of Louis XIV. Thus, in place of novelty, Bodmer introduced the concept of the turbulent (das Ungestüme), which include such violent phenomena as shipwrecks, tsunamis, the Flood, plagues, and, of course wars. All affect humans equally.

Lucas writes in a similar vein of "universals": "There are ... certain qualities that we have learned spontaneously to value because life has proved them valuable. This instinctive admiration is like the instinctive pleasure we taken in other wholesome things; but more distinterested, more aesthetic. Vitality, strength, courage, devotion, pity, grace -- these move us, as directly as beauty moves us." For Bodmer and Addison, those values were incorporated in great literature, representing "the very Spirit and Soul of fine Writing " (Spectator, 409). As Lucas recognized, no one in 1936 could agree on such values, but he was certain that "the qualities by which men have survived are hardly irrelevant to the survival of literature. One may doubt if it is to 'hollow men' that the future world belongs." (Did I mention that Lucas was also a critic of T.S. Eliot?)

Let me tie all this together by returning to Alexander McQueen, on whom I posted earlier, wondering how to classify his "creations." One cannot doubt the excellence of his craftsmanship, and certainly craftsmanship is something to admire, especially if one has visited the galleries in Chelsea lately. However, as Addison might have written: "our Thoughts [are] a little agitated and relieved at the Sight of such Objects as are ever in Motion, and sliding away from beneath the Eye of the Beholder." Thus, despite the fact that many of McQueen's "dresses" are cringe-inducing, one cannot deny that they are exceedingly and successfully novel. Otherwise, why would there be lines snaking all the way across the second floor of the Metropolitan and crowds inside the exhibit? People are curious. As Addison writes, novelty "serves us for a kind of Refreshment, and takes off from that Satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual and ordinary entertainments."

I hope the above does not suggest that I am retreating for my earlier approval of "Spiel" in art, on which I posted several times, including in connection with McQueen. However, I think that Lucas brings up an important point about excellence in craftsmanship, writing of the neoclassical aesthetics of the 18th century: "if it had become easy to say what was good in poetry, it had become strangely rare to write it."

(As can be seen from the pictures above from our recent outing to visit our friends Steven and Martina, we are also in favor of "Spiel," even while discussing such weighty matters.)