Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.

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Ressentiment

The French have a word for it: ressentiment. It describes a concept that has been widely discussed by a number of philosophers including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Max Scheler even wrote an entire book about this emotion, its power and the various ways it can surface and motivate people. It has to do with the phenomenon discussed by J.D. Vance which I posted recently by way of understanding the mind-set of the followers of Donald Trump. How could so many people be taken in by a charlatan who sells them snake oil which can only make them sick?

Vance gives us a very interesting picture of the sense of ressentiment that so many people feel in our society where they are looked down upon while the good things seem to be going to others and life is passing them by. They are hungry and outside a posh restaurant; through the window they see many a fat cat sitting down to a gourmet meal while they can only look on. That they are on the outside and not inside eating their fill is not their fault. And those who are in there are so by accident or subterfuge. Resentment can easily give rise to hatred. Trump invites them into the restaurant. It matters not what he says or how many lies he tells when he says what he says. What matters is that he promises them some sense of self which is otherwise lacking. This they firmly believe: they are hungry, tired of eating grits, and they are grasping at straws. Moreover, the internet and the evening news are filled with a confusing mass of misinformation disguised as “facts” and they have no idea what is true and what is false.

To take a quick peek at the philosophical discussion of the concept of ressentiment, I give some general information, borrowed from the always reliable Wikipedia (in this case trustworthy) and then quote first Kierkegaard and then Nietzsche:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external “evil.”
According to Kierkegaard, ressentiment occurs in a “reflective, passionless age”, in which the populace stifles creativity and passion in passionate individuals. Kierkegaard argues that individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain status quo and to instill into the masses their own sense of superiority.
Ressentiment, for Nietzsche, comes from reactiveness: the weaker someone is, the less their capability to suppress reaction. According to Nietzsche, the more a person is active, strong-willed, and dynamic, the less place and time is left for contemplating all that is done to them, and their reactions (like imagining they are actually better) become less compulsive.

One of the reasons I myself have had difficulty in coming to grips with the mindset of the minions who follow Trump blindly is my own status as one inside the restaurant. I have been unable to envision a world where ressentiment reigns supreme. I am not rich by any means, but I live comfortably and I am an educated person who thinks as well as feels. I eat three square meals each day. I have my insecurities and even feel ressentiment at times, though it does not possess my soul. For many who are stepping forth these days at the urging of the Trumpet, ressentiment is all-consuming: it possesses them and drives them toward irrational behavior that is directed against those inside the restaurant. Please note that those in the restaurant are regarded as “enemies”; they are “evil” and somehow they must be dealt with. They are filling their bellies while those outside go hungry.

The minions themselves, like Trump, are totally without fault. Of course. When things go bad it cannot be their fault. The feeling of ressentiment, according to those who have studied the emotion, is very powerful indeed. Those outside the restaurant want some of the rich food; they suspect that those inside cheated their way in and are no “better” than they themselves; and they look to the man with the funny hair, the incoherent speech, and the tiny hands to take them in and pay for their meals. He has promised them that much. That promise they understand and they are becoming increasingly agitated and hopeful. Their disappointment, when it comes, will assuredly have consequences for all of those who are within the restaurant — whether they are eating filet mignon or merely hamburger.