Books: Even As We Speak — Introduction |
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Even As We Speak : Introduction

‘A man either has a picture of the world, or he lives in a world of pictures. In the first case, he has only to report the facts, and his report will have style. In the second case, he may strive for a style all he likes, but he will never have one.’

— Anton Kuh, Luftlinien

Finally, it is a writer’s way of putting things that gives unity to his work. There is no other unity that the fugitive pieces in this book can claim, but I don’t need telling that it is a large claim to make. It is like saying that fragments can add up to an edifice. None of the pieces here collected, however, felt like a fragment at the time. They all felt like something to which I was giving everything I had, even when the subject seemed trivial. And some of the subjects, alas, didn’t seem trivial at all.

They never have. Six decades after I was born into its years of triumph, the Nazi era is still here, still at the centre of intellectual discussion, still demanding, insatiably, to be dealt with. The same applies to the Soviet Union, which is gone but not forgotten — a lot less forgotten, in fact, than it was when it was still in business. In the year of my birth, Stalin’s terror was at its frenzied height: in the year I turn sixty, scholars are still trying to find out exactly what went on. The scholars who finally figure it all out will almost certainly have come into the world long after those particular horrors happened. My only claim to expertise is that I was there, when all those innocent people were being obliterated. It was clever of me to be less than four feet tall and to have chosen Australia as my birthplace, a good way away from the nearest mass graves, but I still got a solid dose of the insecurity that radiates from historical disaster and works its most arresting mental distortions on minds of a tender age. (Nor, indeed, were the nearest mass graves all that far away: while I was running in baggy shorts around the back garden, blasting the sugar-ants with my wooden machine-gun, the Imperial Japanese Army was still busy reminding the Asian and Pacific countries it had promised to liberate from colonialism that they had been wrong to suppose there could be nothing worse than European arrogance.) When you grow up in an epoch seemingly dedicated to extermination, it influences your world view for life. Opinions can change — they are on the surface of the mind — but a world view is part of the soul, as fundamental as your sense of what is fair or funny. When we shy from a man who tells tasteless jokes, it isn’t his wit that we don’t like, it’s his Weltanschauung. Hitler, after all, could be quite a card.

Throughout my six collections of non-fiction, it is thus no mystery that there is a consistency of outlook: nobody else would be unable to say the same. The only mystery is why I should have bothered to express it. I could say that for anyone who earns his living by being unrelentingly allegro it is hard to resist the temptation of proving himself penseroso as well: we all like to be thought deep. But there has always been more to it than that, or anyway it has always felt to me as if there has. If I had wanted to be thought deep, I would have spent the last thirty years proposing something a lot less scrutable than the elementary proposition that democracy is even more important for what it prevents than for what it provides. Some quite complicated issues grow out of that proposition — the most troublesome being that a free nation is bound to provide opportunities for incitement to the very kind of suffocating orthodoxies whose hegemony it exists to prevent — but there is nothing complicated about the proposition itself, beyond the consideration that historic circumstances drilled it into my head almost before I could spell the words in which it is written. The best justification for plugging away at the self-evident, it seems to me, arises from the lurking fear that for too many people who should know better it doesn’t seem to be self-evident at all. My first book of essays, The Metropolitan Critic, was assembled in 1974 in the immediate aftermath of the counterculture, which some of its illuminati fancied as the Cultural Revolution of the West. (Their notions of what the Cultural Revolution of the East had really been like, it must be said in mitigation, were of the haziest.) Many of the pieces in the book had been written when the idea was still in vogue that youthful values represented some kind of political vision all by themselves. Still feeling quite youthful myself at the time, I thought there was something to it, and said so: there was a new generosity in the air, and American foreign policy, with the disaster in Vietnam as its stellar achievement, did need opposing — the patent decency of some of its American opponents was sufficient evidence of that.

But here already the difference between mere opinions and a world view showed up with awkward clarity. The undoubted fact that democracy was currently making a murderous fool of itself couldn’t make me forget that totalitarianism was still the enduring and implacable antagonist. I had opinions about what a democratic state should do in the circumstances — pull out of Vietnam, decommission the CIA, put Henry Kissinger on trial for sedition, stop subsidizing the kind of dictators who exported their own economies to Switzerland — but it was part of my world view that a totalitarian state was unjustifiable in any circumstances. The boat people hadn’t yet set sail, but I was already with them in spirit. It bothered me that there were so many of our bright young people eager to buy the whole radical package, up to and including the potentially lethal notion that if the representative political structure could be reduced to a state of nature, paradise would ensue. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. The universities, in particular, were stiff with young enthusiasts who plainly had no idea of what could be lying in wait for them at the bottom of the garden, especially at night. Even worse, some of the loudest enthusiasts were on the faculty, actually teaching that the tenure they themselves had safely attained was not worth having, that the modern democratic state was the repressive mechanism of late Capitalism, that — but there was no end to it.

There never would be an end to it. Such was the realization that completed my battle with the eggshell. To find ourselves, we all have to fight our way out of isolation, because it is only in the community outside that individuality is to be had. The role of the freelance man of letters (the personage on whom I so blithely conferred the title of Metropolitan Critic) is to accept — and to act on the acceptance — that he is engaged in a perpetual discussion, an interminable exchange of views in which he cannot, and should not, prevail. If he could prevail, and the discussion did terminate, he would have become his enemy, the dogmatist whose only answer to opposition is annihilation — a response which, for a mercy, he is usually allowed only to dream of, but which he would put into practice if he could.

Not even Orwell ever dared to suggest that the reason why so many professional intellectuals sympathized with totalitarian regimes was that they themselves were born totalitarians, but looking back from the end of the century there seems reason to think that the state of mind all too often goes with the territory. In 1936 Stefan Zweig, characteristically employing his wide cultural range to focus an acute political perception, traced the tendency back to sixteenth-century Geneva. In his book Castellio gegen Calvin, oder Ein Gewissen gegen die Gewalt (‘Castellio against Calvin, or A Conscience against Power’) he convincingly demonstrated why Calvin’s natural mode of argument against a preacher of religious tolerance was to burn him. Clearly Zweig had aimed his book at Hitler, although it would also have fitted Stalin, whose own mode of assertive philosophical discourse was already well in train, with the death toll running far into the millions. More disturbing, in the long term — more disturbing because less immediately obvious — is the way it fits generations of modern thinkers. Comfortably domiciled in academic institutions or on the heights of literary prestige, they never actually killed anyone but didn’t seem to mind much when other people did. It is perhaps not my place to make too much of this (there is always a chance that my view of twentieth-century history is not only dark, it is neurotically so), but I do sometimes wonder why, in the continuing discussion about, say, Heidegger, the possibility is not more often entertained that he actually liked the idea of helpless people being kicked in the mouth. As I go on reading deeper into our era’s mental background, more and more often I find myself needled by the unsettling suspicion that there is an intellectuals’ version of ‘If only the Führer knew’ and ‘Someone must tell Stalin’. It is the consoling assumption that if Sartre, for example, could have been brought to imagine what the Gulag system was really like, he would never have granted the Soviet Union the prestige of his loftily withheld condemnation. But what (whisper it) if he did imagine it?

It’s a dreadful thought, and I wouldn’t want to try erecting it into a principle. For one thing, as Raymond Aron suggested in his calling-card booklet Le Spectateur engagé, it is always a mistake to underestimate the role of sheer obtuseness in human affairs. You don’t need to have malice aforethought to make a travesty of the history happening around you. Benevolence aforethought can work the same trick. The mountainous accumulation of progressive theorizing that we nowadays characterize as gauchiste grew out of the most generous side of the human character. Even Karl Popper, the great deconstructor of Karl Marx’s scientific pretensions, took care to acknowledge his stature as an inspirational visionary. For a hundred and fifty years, left-wing analysis retained the impetus of Christian revelation. Even after the Soviet Union, its holy land, showed clear signs of coming to pieces, the Marxist heritage retained its prestige. In the Soviet bloc nobody with any sense believed any of it — direct experience had done its work — but in the West there was still a reputation for frivolity to be earned by not paying it sufficient respect. By 1979, when I published my second collection of critical pieces, At the Pillars of Hercules, the dissident movement in the USSR had built up an impressive body of achievement, but it is possible to guess, by the tone of what I wrote on the subject, that I thought there were intelligent readers in the West who might still need persuading that some of their dearest beliefs were in the process of being not just questioned peripherally but discredited utterly. The same was still true in 1982, when I published From the Land of Shadows. In retrospect, 1982 was the year when the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union became inevitable. The tanks of the Red Army should have come to Poland: when they didn’t it was a sign that they would never come again. But in a piece about Osip Mandelstam, I can still be found speaking as if the historical forces that did for him might yet do for us.

A paranoid reflex? Possibly. A reactionary view, certainly: but the question remains of what I was reacting against. I wish it had been a figment of my imagination, but all the evidence that has accumulated since suggests that I was right to start asking myself a new question. In cancer research, it was the asking of a new question that revolutionized the field. The old question, which had had the merit of seeming reasonable but the drawback of being unanswerable, was: why do some people get cancer? The new question was: why doesn’t everyone get it? The answer turned out to be that everyone does, all the time, but a mechanism called apoptosis ensures that in most people the disease makes no progress. In politics and culture, my old question, prompted by the seemingly anachronistic savagery of the times I had been born into, had been about totalitarianism: why does it sometimes happen, what starts it? My new question was: what if it always happens, and it takes something to stop it? The implications of this line of thought were unsettling, but they had the merit of opening up to interpretation a vast array of phenomena that I had previously found baffling. The most immediately alarming of these was constituted by the successive waves of pseudo-scientific dogma that had taken over humane studies in the universities, most damagingly in the English faculty. Most of this busy but essentially vacuous theorizing could be traced back to the obscurantism of the French left, an obscurantism whose origins could in turn be traced back to the period of the Occupation, when there had been shamefully good reasons for intellectuals to hatch an impersonal language by which history would take responsibility for what they said. What was startling, however, was the way that these Laputan doctrines, all dedicated to the dismantling of humane culture rather than its protection, continued to flourish as belief in the prospect of an egalitarian utopia declined. Indeed they burgeoned, with constantly self-renewing supplies of virulent energy.

Capped by its masterpiece, political correctness, the irrationality in the universities clearly had its provenance in the classic Left. Other rampaging viruses just as clearly had their provenance in the classic Right: specialization, atomization, niche-marketing, the transformation of tabloid journalism into a sort of plain-clothes police state — they all worked the sadly recognizable trick of erecting opportunism to the status of a principle. Whatever their origins, it seemed more realistic to treat these developments as malignant strains bursting with their own vitality, rather than as mere symptoms of a benign system grown weary. As a corollary, the main discussion from now on would have to be about what values would prevail in bourgeois democracy, and not about how bourgeois democracy would be replaced. But by now everyone was acting that way, even if they could not yet bring themselves to declare it. The tendency was well established by the time I published Snakecharmers in Texas in 1989. The Soviet Union was on its last legs and the End of History was already being proclaimed. (For the quarter of the world’s population who were still up to their necks in history, this was one more insult than they needed, but by some trick of the mind the Chinese as individuals have never mattered much more to us than they did to Mao.) It was at last being generally accepted that the only struggle for power that counted would take place within the society we already had. In the eye of eternity, such an acceptance had only ever been a matter of time. What Lassalle tried to tell Marx was always going to be true: the free-market economy, as an economic system, had a much greater potential for development than Marx ascribed to it, whereas the command economy had much less. Despite the perennial suspicion of the totalitarian Left that the totalitarian Right was capitalism’s logical offshoot and natural ally, the bourgeois democracy so despised by both extremes inexorably proved, by its power to defend itself, that it was capitalism’s natural host; and, by its power to go on developing a supervening structure of liberal institutions, that it was the only political system with a plausible claim to the future, because it alone could accommodate the unexpected. Bourgeois democracy has never been susceptible to exhaustive analysis: it has always grown beyond the limitations ascribed to it by its critics because it is capable of listening to them. It doesn’t always listen, and scarcely ever at the right time: but the possibility of listening is not ruled out, and that’s enough.

It would have gone beyond conceit, and far into megalomania, to suppose that it was my business to speak in a way which would ensure that bourgeois democracy would listen to me. In The Dreaming Swimmer (1992), my last book of collected pieces before this one, the only section of the Establishment I specifically targeted as an audience was the television executives, whom I took every opportunity to lecture on their duty to sustain public service broadcasting. They greeted my passionate sentiments with deafening applause and altered their conduct not one iota. I would have been surprised had it been otherwise. Really, in all these books, I have had no other audience in mind except people like myself: generalists repelled by an age of increasing specialization, misfits caught between the active and the contemplative life, hustlers too hard at work to examine at leisure the way the world is going yet incurably athirst for the totality of knowledge — the true, the eternal students. If I am right, and all the forces which made life an out-and-out nightmare in the totalitarian societies are likely, albeit in less toxic form, to go on spoiling the daydream of the democratic ones, then such non-utilitarian concepts as humanity and individuality will always have to be fought for. They will be best fought for by those of us who know something about what life is like when they are absent, and by those young people to whom we succeed in passing on our historic memories. It is all talk, but this is a job that can be done only by people talking. Even as we speak, so shall our children live. For someone who gives his time and effort to this kind of writing, a proud view is always handy to give him courage: he can think of himself as the people’s champion. For the humble view that he needs to stay sane, he can always console himself with the realization that to be ignored by the state is his proper destiny. Were things otherwise, the state would be in a worse condition than he is. Anton Kuh, from whose writings I took the epigraph at the head of this introduction, was one of the Viennese coffee-house wits whose mastery of the brief critical essay reached its apotheosis in the last nervous years before the Anschluss. He did bits and pieces: a parody here, a feuilleton there, a cabaret act around the next corner. Among his little triumphs was a prosodic analysis of Hitler’s oratorical style that would have earned him the reward of death by torture if the Nazis had ever caught him.

If I had the audacity and the sparkling talent of Anton Kuh, I would call him my kind of writer. Yet along with his moral and verbal gifts went a gift which among writers is even rarer — a sure sense of the complex, mutually sustaining relationship between society and the arts, between politics and civilization. Even as disaster loomed, Kuh, like so many of his fellow Jewish men of letters, found himself desperately conjuring up bright ideas about how it might be staved off. Kuh’s brightest notion was for the government to attract a last-minute majority among the people by springing one of the most popular Socialist leaders from gaol. Kuh shared this idea with Mahler’s widow, the famous and famously influential Alma. To Kuh’s astonishment and gratification, Alma arranged a meeting between Kuh and a top-echelon government official. The official listened to Kuh’s proposal in detail, promised to do something about it, and left for his ministry. Kuh left for the railway station, where he caught the last train for Prague that was not boarded by Stormtroopers at the frontier. With the solid realism that lay at the foundation of his brilliant facility, he had correctly deduced that any administration with time to consider his ideas was doomed.

Anton Kuh died forgotten in New York in 1940, from one of those heart attacks which among his generation were the polite way of saying heartbreak. But like his acidly lyrical voice, the message of his precisely calculated getaway is still transparent across time: if we would speak to each other, we must speak first of all for ourselves, with no other end in view save to speak well. My usual thanks go to the editors who helped me try to do this: they had a lot to put up with, but I like to think it was mainly because I was trying to get a lot said.

(London, 2001)