December 17, 2018

Against the Current

In 1980, Isaiah Berlin published a collection of essays entitled Against the Current. the book has an intro written by someone named Roger Hausheer, dated 1979. It contains the following long paragraph (italics are mine):

"Surveying the mondern world, Berlin detects at the heart of the most disparate movements, from the nationalist tide in the Third World to the radical unrest among the disaffected young in the industrial technocracies, what may be the early stirrings of a reaction destined to grow into a world-transforming movement. It is the reaction of some irreducible core of free, creative, spontaneous human nature, of some elementary sense of identity, dignity and worth, against all that patronises and diminishes men, and threatens to rob them of themselves. This is but a modern expression, taking novel but recognisable forms, of the great battle begun by Hamann and Herder against the central values of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century faith in liberal rationalism, cosmopolitanism, science, progress, and rational organisation: a battle waged throughout the nineteenth century by the great unsettling rebels, Fourier, Proudhon, Stirner, Kierkegaard, Carlyle, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Sorel; and continued in the twentieth by existentialists, anarchists and irrationalists, and all the varying strains of contemporary rebellion and revolt. For all their deep differences, these thinkers, groups and movements are brothers beneath the skin: they fight in the name of some direct inward knowledge of self and free causal agency, and an irreducible sense of specific concrete identity. Rational and benevolent colonial masters and technocratic specialists and experts, no matter how altruistic and honourable their intentions, precisely because they view men as in the first place heteronomous objects to be administered, regimented, and controlled, not free and unpredictably self-transforming causal agents, must necessarily fail to respect and understand this fundamental human craving, and often enough ignore, crush or eradicate it. Rebellion against regimentation takes the form of a demand to do and be something in the world, to be one's own master, free of external intereference--an independent self, whether individual or collective, not dictated to or organised by others. The long and heated contest, which stretches back at least to the middle of the eighteenth century, has never been more alive than it is today."

I was, am, struck by how dated this text is, at least as a portrait of Americans. Certainly it spoke to me, inasmuch as it reflects the aspirations and consciousness of those of us who came of age in the fifties and sixties. But imagine the following experiment: You come up to any random American walking down the street (especially one less than 50 years of age), and somehow manage to separate him or her from his cell fone for 2 seconds. You read him the above paragraph and ask him to tell you what he thinks; what his or her reaction is.

1. On the intellectual level: what are the chances that this poor shmuck recognizes any of the names cited, Nietzsche and Tolstoy included? Pretty small, I'm guessing.

2. On the ontological level: what do the phrases "irreducible core of free, creative, spontaneous human nature," or "fundamental human craving," mean to this guy? Can he or she make sense of them at all? For in order to have that core, that craving, you have to not only be intelligent, but also have a sense of yourself, and these are things that most contemporary Americans simply don't possess. Rather than self-awareness, they have cellfone-awareness, or screen-awareness (not that technology is the only cause of American soul-death). If they ever did have that core or craving, it was erased or co-opted years ago. It is a fair bet that your question will be met with blank incomprehension, for it's not merely that you are talking to a moron (true enough); you are actually talking to a robot. I suspect that nearly 40 years after 1979, no one on this blog would believe that the fight for an independent self "has never been more alive than it is today"--at least,as far as the US is concerned.

From a declinist point of view, of course, the fact that a nation managed, in 40 years, to snuff out what it means to be a human being in most of its population, is no mean achievement. In the Twilight book I argue that one of the key factors in civilizational decline, whether in ancient Rome or contemporary America, is spiritual death. Well, folks, this is what it looks like. Welcome to our world.