Sunday, August 2, 2009

the society that didn't know how to fear

In Bruno Snell’s Discovery of the Mind: studies on the emergence of European thought by the Greeks, one of the chapters begins with a reference to one of the great Grimm’s tales:

“In a German fairy tale someone sets out to learn how to shudder. He is so dumb that he doesn’t know how to on his own; his father can’t do anything with him and sendS him out into the world, where, if he feels like it, he can learn to shudder. The fairy tale assumes that the normal person knows the experience of fright before the uncanny from the start and doesn’t have to learn it on his own. He would much rather wander widely around the world in order to unlearn shuddering. Fright before the uncanny has a large place in the mind of the child, before it is comfortable with the order of the surrounding world, and it governs a wide field in the notions of the primitive peoples, where it leaves its impress in religious notions. Actually he is not so dumb, this one who doesn’t know how to shudder. And that’s the opinion of the fairy tale too: the fool wins the kinng’s daughter and the enchanted treasure, because he doesn’t know how to shudder. This dumb clever boy, a cousin of Hans in Luck and the little Klaus, shows that he has his wits about him, since he does not learn to shudder by haunts and ghosts, but only when the maid pours a bucketful of fish on him in the princely bed: that is the only tactile and real thing that befell him among all the things to make one shudder – in what way does man, do people, learn to distinguish the tactile from the ghostly, where do they learn, to take nature as natural?”

Ah, the dark cunning of the Grimm’s tales! In a way, they play a role in German history similar to the role of the witch’s in Macbeth – they comment on the mindset they helped create. Snell’s book came out in 1946. Snell was one of the leading inner emigrants who, after the overthrow of Hitler, reached out to Germany’s intellectual diaspora and tried to get them to return.

In these circumstances, the boy who set out to learn fear, as it is called in English, seems all too zeitgemaesse. It is easy to see that trembling at spooks was not enough to frighten the clever stupid Hitler, who knew what Macbeth did not: that blood spilled elsewhere does not stick to your hands. One can’t even imagine Hitler in his bunker, surrounded by his ghosts, or even one ghost, one Banquo. He had truly learned not to shudder – shuddering is simply physiology, the tactile [handgreifliche] reaction, for instance, to being drenched by small fish – minnows in the story, taken from a stream by the serving maid. And so power learned to shudder to its hearts content, and separate that shuddering from fear.

But what of us who remain outside the charmed bunker, the undisclosed location?

For us, it is a more complicated story, this of the tactile and the spooky. During the cold war, one learned to fear the end of everything, for everything could be at an end at the press of a button. Of course, at the same time, the end of everything was expensive – but gladly paid for. Paid for by sums that would overwhelm the boy in the Grimm’s tale, whose sense of treasure was formed by a peasant world: it consisted of bags of gold.

But release came, and the fear was gone where fear goes to. Or so it seemed – it turned out, after 9/11, that the fear of the tactile could still easily be magnified by the fear of the spooky. And that meant that the cure for that fear was to exorcise the spooky – luckily, with distant bloodshed. Not a drop is on my hands! And not a drop is on your hands either, dear reader. Of course, drops of blood as numerous as drops of dew sprinkle Iraq, our exorcism, our way of unlearning shuddering.

But I have lingered longer than I planned to on this aspect of the way res publica learned to shudder. There is a deeper, lifestyle fear out there in the Zona at the moment. Although not just at the moment, it has been a-building since the fall of the wall. And that, of course, is fear of the future.

This is indeed a spooky fear. Because we know just what the spook in this case is – it is an entire lifestyle. It was built under Gravity’s Rainbow itself, the never to be sent up missiles; it was dedicated to total security, which, by the usual dialectical process, was the child of total vulnerability. And once the missile props were towed away, it seemed to the great and good middle class that their lifestyles, far from vulnerable, were actually natural. It seems that they had been earned. And yet, in the back of everyone’s mind was a sound. It was like one of those sounds the boy who didn’t know fear heard in the haunted castle – it was a supernatural sound. It was the sound of water draining. Infinitely draining away. For though we built up and up, and houses in suburbs arose, and boutiques in cities arose, and cars arose that were bigger than any carriage had ever been, so that we had become a force on the planet like unto a volcano, sending up our tremendous exhausts in defiance of heaven and sending seaward our tremendous plastic wastes, our fertilizers, to acidify those vasty pools in defiance of the last hundred million years of ocean ecology – we still trembled. This time the trembling was not for what the future would bring, but that there was a future at all. This, of course, has left its impress on our politics – on the one hand, small marginal groups dream of utopias that are either of universal communism or universal libertarianism, and that exclude, with disdain, the whole question of means. The question of means is, of course, the question of the future, and though these utopias are meant to broaden our imagination, to help us cast off the shackles of our ideologies, they actually function as a means of scaring off the future – they are scarecrow futures. They exist in the place of denial. On the other hand, large central groups in the developed economies will watch themselves be robbed on a titanic scale, and will watch their children, or some selected group of them, be marched off to slaughter and be slaughtered for no reason, and they will think only that they want to live another day. These central groups are not inmates of a concentration camp, or starving peasants on decimated lands – they are secretaries, firemen, academics, middle managers. They are proud that they have traveled far and wide and unlearned trembling – but, in fact, unwilling to sacrifice a crumb, unwilling to learn their own histories – which they hastily attribute to their dear selves, self made all of them, my the work they have put in, the work! they close their eyes to the fact that their properties inevitably transubstantiate into so much fear as the future is closed off. Since, of course, the future isn’t ever closed off. Not ever. They traffic in fear, they eat fear, they raise their children with a blind eye to what their children will have to live in – the future.

Yet this is a Zona truth: between the spooky and the tactile, they will be torn apart if they don’t make the future now.


Anonymous said...

Roger, I hope you will forgive me if this comes of as facile praise but I have to say that even by your amazing standards this is a truly remarkable post.
And I do have a comment that might be wandering off on a tangent, but at least it relates to your recent posts on LI re Rousseau. To the question of man and nature, or to the (self)representations of that old tandem. To what happens when their limits are exposed or touched - tangibly or spookily. When they start to tremble and shake. When the "mirror" or "frame" that would stabilize them starts to glaze or crack open and you begin to hear something stirring beneath or within, something new. A sound within the castle as you say, a sound within the house of the so called self-made self, a sound at once tangible and spooky.

Two quotes from Rousseau. The first is from The Essay on the Origin of Language, a text which might well be read as a fairy tale or as a fable. It's a famous passage about primitive man - un homme sauvage - encountering an other, let's not too quickly call it an other man. The passage touches on fear or fright.

"A primitive man, on meeting other men, will first have experienced fright. His fear will make him see these men as larger and stronger than himself; he will give them the name giants. After many experiences, he will discover that the supposed giants are neither larger nor stronger than himself, and that their stature did not correspond to the idea he had originally linked to the word giant. He will then invent another name that he has in common with them, such as, for example, the word man, and will retain the word giant for the false object that impressed him while he was being deluded."

Straightforward enough, n'est-ce pas. Besides this is only the primitive savage man. We, the educated self-made men surely know what we mean or name when we use the word men or giants. Or "such as, for example" woman. Or nature. Or savage.

The second passage is from Julie. From the "second preface" to Julie, also known as "dialogue on the novel". Of course, everyone - or at least everyone educated - knows what the words dialogue and novel mean and name, in the first place, even if this second preface is riven with seconds and doubles. It is a "dialogue" between two interlocutors referred to as N. and R., and at one point N. gets pretty ticked off at R.

N. protests that "in the fictions [tableaux] of humanity everyone must be able to recognize Man." And that if there is no universal, in the absence of the universal:

"unheard of monsters, giants, pygmies, chimeras of all sorts, anything could specifically be admitted within nature; everything would be disfigured, we would no longer have a common model..."

Well, I'll leave it at that. Except for a song.

"Same as it always was", so why the shaking and trembling.


Anonymous said...

Amie, thank you! Even though you, mindreader deluxe and giantess, once again read my mind, since I am writing a LI post about that very dialog!

I hope I purified this of the dross of particular ... reactions to particular blogs. I wanted to draw a more general picture. Which will sound obscure to anyone but you.

Anyway, I love that bit about giants, and I am reminded so much of the little tailor - who, like Rousseau, sets out on the roads to find his fortune. Except of course the tailor has killed seven flies at one blow. And his farcical tests of skill with the giants.

But this is a first reaction, I'd like to mull over that idea of the giant demystified.

Anonymous said...

That's quite the connection to the little tailor who kills the seven flies with one blow.
If only the "flies" had understood German!

"Ei, wer hat euch eingeladen?" sprach das Schneiderlein und jagte die ungebetenen Gäste fort. Die Fliegen aber, die kein Deutsch verstanden, ließen sich nicht abweisen, sondern kamen in immer größerer Gesellschaft wieder. Da lief dem Schneiderlein endlich, wie man sagt, die Laus über die Leber, es langte aus seiner Hölle nach einem Tuchlappen, und "Wart, ich will es euch geben!" schlug es unbarmherzig drauf. Als es abzog und zählte, so lagen nicht weniger als sieben vor ihm tot und streckten die Beine.


Roger Gathmann said...

When I was a kid, and would see this in a school play, I would laugh - and you know, I still think it is funny.

Anonymous said...

I did it, Amie, I put up a post on LI concerning the preface.