New Hope

Without a doubt the recent March For Our Lives in Washington by an estimated crowd of 800,000 teenagers to protest the sale of automatic weapons to the clinically deranged who seem to be targeting schools brings us all hope. The protest is part of the efforts initiated by survivors of the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That movement, which seems be gathering force, is determined to take on the NRA and others who are making a fortune from selling guns to those clinically deranged shooters — and the politicians who refuse to take meaningful steps to stop the carnage.

We must all be hopeful. But at the same time, we need to keep our balance so we don’t find ourselves vacillating between hope and a despair that so often results in cynicism. Think back to the 1960s when the young took on the “establishment” only to later become Yuppies worried about their promised pay raise so they could make the payment on the Volvo. The only real result of that movement was the elimination of history from college curricula — thought to be “irrelevant.” We must remain hopeful about this latest movement, which is clearly becoming a serious player in national politics, while at the same time we maintain our perspective.

The problem with such movements is not at the start. It is in maintaining the momentum when inertia sets in. After the initial enthusiasm (and clearly many of these young people are just along for the ride, having a picnic and drawing attention to themselves) there will come the inevitable let-down. That’s when the real work begins. The fight against powerful opponents like the NRA, the corrupt politicians, and the gun manufacturers who support them will be anything but a picnic: it will take courage, hard work and determination. And, given the typical American’s short attention span, concern about the Cause will have drifted off somewhere else. Once the lights and cameras are no longer looking at these kids themselves many will have lost interest and the few will have to find within themselves the strength and determination to push on and persist.

Because their cause is most just and worthy of success, I do not mean to disparage the effort of those amazing kids, many of whom were witnesses to the terrible events at their high school. But for so many followers it is mere hear-say, stories they have read on their iPads and stories that will soon be replaced by others less compelling but more current. And, as we know, the latest is always the most attention-grabbing. Let’s hope the kids at the core of this movement can continue to hold their ground, maintain their focus and determination to bring about results that will at the very least slow down the freight train of destruction that is clearly our of control — or at least in the control of those whose only objectives are profit and power, which amounts to the same thing.

No one who urges common sense in the insane war against automatic weapons wants to take all guns out the hands of hunters and those who are in need of self-protection. Many have even read the Second Amendment and realize that it was designed to protect the rights of the militia, not the so-called “right” to bear automatic weapons. But the freight train has considerable momentum, and it is powered by seemingly limitless funding and the fear of timid politicians who worry that if they take on the freight train themselves they will lose their well-paying jobs and actually have to find honest work. So the fight will be long and difficult. But these kids certainly have the right idea and it is impossible not to wish them well and hope that their fight is a successful one.

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Still A Dangerous Game

An ex-Marine recently “liked” a post of mine from last September and in light of the recent appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor to the president (a choice Jimmy Carter called “Trump’s greatest mistake”), I thought it timely to post it again. Bolton, it will be recalled, has said publicly that the president should order a “pre-emtive strike” against North Korea. Now, bearing in mind that China has said that it would retaliate if this were to happen, though they would not become involved if North Korea were to strike first, this is insanity of the first order. Carter is right. Nuclear war is no joke. And it is certainly not a game.

The posturing between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea would be mildly amusing it weren’t for the fact that both of these men seem to lack any sense of balance and both are marginally insane — and they sit on top of powder kegs playing with matches.

Their posturing ceased to be even slightly amusing when the North Korean foreign Minister recently cried “foul” and, not knowing that things don’t work this way, insisted that Trump has “declared war” on North Korea; they now have license to shoot down any American plane that ventures close enough to set off sparks. Meantime, the United States has chosen the moment to fly bombers with fighter escorts near the Korean border in a show of strength — at a time when the posturing needs to stop and clear heads need to take command — if there are any clear heads on either side of this preposterous battle of nit-wits. A recent story in Yahoo put in mildly when it was noted that:

The increasingly heated rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is raising fears of a risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions.

Someone really needs to break Trump’s thumbs or hide his phone so he cannot tweet the absurdities he seems determined to tweet at every possible opportunity. He really doesn’t get it. He operates inside his own head and has no sense that the things he says have consequences and the consequences in this case are of monumental proportion. Add to this the fact that a number of Congressmen on the Republican side of the aisle, led by the likes of Duncan Hunter, have decided to throw their weight, such as it is, behind the cry to bring North Korea to its knees at any cost and we have the makings of a truly serious international catastrophe. This is hubris, pure and simple. Or it is simple madness. Perhaps both. At some point someone needs to put a stop to all of this. It has already gone too far.

Before the nuclear age this sort of display of macho insolence would have been expected and even applauded by a great many of those among us who are convinced that “our side” (whichever side that happens to be) is always right in its perception of reality and morality and the only country fit to determine how everyone else in the world should live their lives. Chest thumping is not new. But this is the nuclear age and the fact that rhetoric can escalate out of control and bring about catastrophic consequences is a fact and a fact that needs to be taken to heart. “Massive repercussions,” indeed.

These two men remind me of two kids rattling their sabres to frighten one another. It is time they grew up, laid their sabres down and listened to the still, calm voice of reason. The problem, of course, is that neither of them would hear that voice even if it were shouting in his ear., They are both caught up in some sort of egomaniacal game of “chicken” and each wants to bring the other to his knees. It is incumbent on someone, anyone, to knock one or the other about the head and ears and make them realize that this game they are playing has incredibly high stakes: the lives of millions of people, not to mention the very planet itself.

Where are the clear heads when we need them? Or are there none either in Washington or in the whole of North Korea? I understand that most of the clear heads in that country have been silenced by a man who has total control of the political and military machines. In this country we are supposed to have checks and balances to maintain control of unfettered power gone mad. But those checks and balances seem to be tongue-tied and silent at a time when they need to speak up loudly and decisively.

I suspect that there are forces at work behind the scene, forces that are working to tone-down the rhetoric and make clear to both parties involved that they need to shut up and look for peaceful options to a resolution of the tensions between the two countries. But neither of these men seems inclined to listen to those who oppose him. We are not in a position to “take on” North Korea in a nuclear war since it has been made clear by the Chinese that if we start the war they will enter on the side of North Korea. And while North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons may be small and unreliable, that of China nearly equals our own. These weapons are  numerous enough to end the war in a few month’s time — with the casualties piled high in countless numbers and irreparable damage to the planet. Those at work behind the scene presumably are aware of this and will win the day. We can only hope.

So far this is a war of words. I used the term “game” in the title of this piece, but it is not a game at all — or if it is, it is one that no one can possibly win. As the Yahoo News Story suggests, miscalculations are likely — especially with each of the two men in charge of things determined to make the other back down. It is time for the clear heads to speak up and the nutters to tone down the rhetoric and go sit in the corner and cool off.

 

 

Are Artists Obligated?

Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.

It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?

During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to  even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.

Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.

We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.

I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.

A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”  His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.

Sansculottism

One of the abiding mysteries of this most mysterious age in which we live — to put it mildly — is the persistent popularity of our chosen Leader who seems to be totally without any qualifications whatever to hold the highest office in the land. His popularity continues despite the revelation from day-to-day of his determination to bring shame to the office which he ought to be determined to respect and venerate.

One of my favorite blog buddies recently expressed her puzzlement over this fact, the alarming fact that this man continues to amaze, fascinate, and maintain his hold over the minds of thousands of people in this country. And despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my shackles and my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggested to my friend that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentimnent,” which we loosely translate into “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to be rubbing their faces in their own privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who lord it over them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful that a revolution will be the alternative, since the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch, but there will be continued attacks on the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “hasty, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.

 

Selling Books

David Hume once said that his Treatise of Human Nature “fell stillborn from the presses,” because sales after publication were so miserable. He later wrote a couple of  shorter works titled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals and they sold quite well. Ironically, the Treatise is today regarded as his most important and best work by far. But, believe me, I know how David Hume felt: waiting to see how the book will sell that you have watched move slowly into published form, how many people will actually read the words you wrote — or buy the book and make sure it has a prominent place on the coffee table — can be a frustrating experience. To say the least.

I have been fortunate enough to publish thirteen books, but with one or possibly two exceptions they have not done well. It is to be expected, I suppose, since I write about things that don’t interest that many people — I do not write pot boilers or romances. Serious topics are not everyone’s cup of tea. However, as thrilling and exciting as it is to watch your book through the many stages of publication, the period after publication can be hard on one’s ego, one’s sense of self-confidence, if the book doesn’t move off the shelves. Because no matter how much we tell ourselves that we don’t care if no one buys it, we do care! It’s a fact. It is some sort of validation, I suppose, but there it is. Most of us need it.

In any event, my most recent book, shamelessly promoted on this blog, has also fallen “stillborn from the press.” I never thought it would be a best-seller, but I did think some (many?) of my blogging friends would want to have the book. After all, it contains several hundred of the best posts I have written and it is dedicated to my Fellow Bloggers. But as someone asked, why would anyone buy the book if it’s available on the internet for free? The answer, I suppose is that it is a BOOK! It is something that one can hold in one’s hand and return to from time to time. One never knows when the words on the internet might disappear into cyberspace, or WordPress goes belly up and all would be lost forever. So I thought: why not preserve some of the posts that are worth preserving? I have written over a thousand blog posts, most of them not worth the time of day. In the case of this book, however, I carefully selected the ones I thought were worth preserving, those with the broadest possible appeal. And I have arranged them into chapters and placed an index at the end of the book to help readers find what they might be looking for.

As noted, the book was dedicated to my fellow bloggers who inspired me to keep writing and delighted me with astute comments from time to time. I named three specially who have “been there” for most of the blogging trip. But as of this writing only two bloggers have ordered the book and I must confess I am a bit dismayed. But then I recall that these are busy people who have lives of their own and who are also writing their own blogs and they may well have better things to do or they simply forgot. So I am writing this gentle reminder that the book is available at http://ellispress.com It will never do well, I am certain of that. But my hope is that it will do better than it has so far. Pity poor David Hume. It can be a frustrating experience.

 

Note To Readers:

Lisa suggested that I indicate how the Ellis Press web page works.  Go to the site and click on “Order Info.” Click on “Printable Order Form.” Print off the document and look for “Hugh Curtler.” Indicate how many copies you want (!), include your check (or a 20 pound note if you are in England and you dare) and send it off to Ellis Press in Granite Falls, Minnesota. They will let me know of the order and I will write an inscription and send the book to you directly. Ellis Press will pay for postage and handling.

If you prefer to use a credit card, the book is available on Amazon, though it may take a few days for them to process the information Ellis Press sent them. Note that books sold by Amazon will not bear my inscription.

I hope this helps. I am really not good at this sort of thing — as you can probably tell.

 

 

 

 

Once More With Feeling!

In an age that places a premium on feeling, that even tends to wallow in feeling and seeks everywhere the expression of “honest” feelings, it is refreshing indeed to read in a short story by Thomas Mann a passage that leads us in another direction entirely. In art, surely, the premium placed on feelings and raw emotion would seem to be entirely appropriate. Mann thinks otherwise. His hero, Tonio Kröger, is a poet and he is holding forth about the nature of art in the company of a close friend who is a painter. Both of these people should know what they are talking about and both agree that art is a matter not of feeling, per se, but of feelings under control. And it is precisely the issue of control that we seem to have lost somewhere in the discussion of the value of raw emotion as the only honest expression humans are capable of. Kröger makes his position clear:

“Nobody but a beginner imagines that he who creates must feel. Every real and genuine artist smiles at such naïve blunders as that. A melancholy enough smile, perhaps, but still a smile. For what an artist feels is never the main point; it is the raw material, in and for itself indifferent, out of which, with bland and serene mastery, he creates the work of art. If you care too much about what you have to say, if your heart os too much in it, you can be pretty sure of making a mess. You get pathetic, you wax sentimental; something dull and doddering, without roots or outlines, with no sense of humor — something tiresome and banal grows under your hand, and you get nothing out of it but apathy in your audience and disappointment and misery in yourself. For so it is. . . feeling, warm, heartfelt feeling, is always banal and futile, only the irritations and icy ecstasies of the artist’s corrupted nervous system are artistic.”

Flaubert put it simply: “Discipline makes art of impulse.” The notion that the artist simply sits down and “let’s it all hang out,” or that she creates her best work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is a fiction. The artist’s mind, her intellect, is never disengaged. Our tiresome devotion to raw emotion, the face of the crying athlete after a loss, the histrionics of the player on the football field after a routine tackle, the pumping of the fist after a three-foot putt falls in — all of these are regarded by so many of us as the only totally honest expressions that humans are capable of. And this is also a fiction. It is not emotion or feeling in and of itself that are valuable, that delight us or create works of art that can make us weep; it is what the artist does with those raw feelings, how she works them into a poem or a story or a painting, that makes us marvel and weep.

This is not to say that the artist, in particular, does not feel. On the contrary, artists are among the most sensitive of humans and we are lucky to live among them. But the good ones know that it is not enough simply to feel. It is also necessary, for their art, to take those feelings and blend them into something beautiful, something that reveals to us features of our common world we would otherwise miss. Otherwise they simply “make a mess.”

It has always struck me as a feature of our culture that we err on the side of what we call “honesty” in prizing emotion and we pay little attention to the self-discipline that is required not only in good or great art, but also in the conduct of ordinary human interaction, the formation of what was once called “character.” The Greeks prized self-control. We prize selves that are out of control. This may explain a lot — not only why so much of what passes for art is mere sentimentality, dull and doddering, as Mann would have it, but also why the quiet ones who go about their business and do the right thing by others and for their art are so often ignored or dismissed as somehow insignificant. In fact, they may be the ones we should pay closest attention to in our tizzy to hold up the model of raw emotion we see on the field or in the gallery as the highest expression of human beings.

Good People Doing Good Things —

remarkable people doing remarkable things. They are out there folks and they give us all hope!

Filosofa's Word

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give — Winston Churchill

I apologize for missing the Good People post last week, but I hope that this week’s selections will make up for my temporary lapse.  As you all know, every Wednesday, I dedicate my morning post to good people who are doing good things either for humanitarian causes, the environment or the animal kingdom.  Sometimes they are people or organizations that are making huge differences, such as Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation.  Other times, they are ordinary people like you and I who have simply found ways to make a difference, to leave the world just a little better for their having been in it.  Today’s selections are all people who care about others enough to give of themselves.  Read on …

Biblioburro

Luis Soriano Bohorquez is known as the…

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Genius!

I invoke a word which aptly describes those rare minds that have been the very source of our precious Western Civilization. I use it to describe such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle to whom I have referred from time to time; and I ask the reader to recall my plea, expressed many times, that we ask our young people to walk, albeit briefly, in the company of genius. It cannot but help them grow and develop perspective on the day’s comings and goings. In this case I will quote several passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History — a book of some 775 pages —  in the expectation that few of my readers have time to read a book of this length. But these selections will give a taste of what they are missing. I will add only that the original manuscript of this monumental work was burned by mistake while in the possession of Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle than rewrote the entire thing from memory!

Carlyle, toward the end of the history, is reflecting on the terribly bloody revolution and its many horrors. Speaking of revolutions generally:

‘”This is the way of Revolutions, which spring up as the French one has done; when the social bonds of Society snap asunder; and all Laws that are not Laws of Nature become naught but empty Formulas.”

Of the possible source of wars:

“So, however, are men made. Creatures who live in confusion; who, once thrown together can readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ! Men’s words are a poor exponent of their thought; nay, their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another, but distorted phantasms which they call one another; which they hate and go to battle with: for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding.”

And toward the end of this remarkable book, as Carlyle reflects on the carnage he has written about:

“Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism [power of the people] makes, as it were, a free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity has ever been in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness have, on the spur of the instant, to devise a way of satisfying it . . . . .”

And of the fanaticism that we see around us even today:

“For a man, once committed headlong to [a cause] and fighting and fanaticizing amid a Nation of his like, becomes as it were enveloped in an ambient atmosphere of  . . . Delirium: his individual self is lost in something that is not himself, but foreign though inseparable from him. Strange to think of, the man’s cloak still seems to hold the same man: and yet the man is not there, his volition is not there; nor the source of what he will do and devise; instead of the man and his volition there is a piece of Fanaticism incarnated in the shape of him. He, the hapless incarnated Fanaticism, goes his road; no man can help him, he himself least of all. It is a wonderful, tragical predicament — such as human language, unused to deal with such things, being contrived for the uses of common life, struggles to shadow out in figures. The ambient element of material fire is not wilder than is fanaticism; nor, though visible to the eye, is it more real. Volition bursts forth involuntary-voluntary; rapt along; the movement of free human minds becomes a raging tornado. . .”

Finally, drawing his study to a close he worries about what men will commit themselves to in the future:

“The Heavens cease not their bounty; they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to Moneybags is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of the known Gods, even the known Devils. In him what glory is there that ye should worship him?”

Truly, a remarkable mind and one it is a privilege to visit from time to time.

 

 

A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.