Sunday, December 07, 2008

Notes from Underground, revisited...

...both out of interest and procrastination. Nonetheless, here is the nameless anti-hero's discourse on what motivates behavior. Whether such things can be generalized is another debate, but this at least provides some food for thought.

Notes from Underground
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tell me, who was it who first declared, proclaiming it to all the world, that a man does evil only because he does not know his real interests, and if he is enlightened and has his eyes opened to his own best and normal interests, man will cease to do evil and at once become virtuous and noble, because when he is enlightened and understands what will really benefit him he will see his own best interest in virtue, and since it is well known that no man can knowingly act against his best interests, consequently he will inevitably, so to speak, begin to do good. Oh, what a baby! Oh, what a pure innocent child! To begin with, when in all these thousands of years have men acted solely in their own interests? What about all those millions of incidents testifying to the fact that men have knowingly, that is in full understanding of their own best interests, put them in the background and taken a perilous and uncertain course not because anybody or anything drove them to it, but simply and solely because they did not choose to follow the appointed road, as it were, but willfully and obstinately preferred to pursue a perverse and difficult path, almost lost in the darkness? This shows that obstinacy and self-will meant more to them than any kind of advantage... Advantage! What is advantage? Besides, can you undertake to define exactly where a man's advantage lies? What if it sometimes so happens that a man's advantage not only may but must consist in desiring in certain cases not what is good, but what is bad for him? And if so, if such cases are even possible, the whole rule is utterly destroyed. Do you think such cases occur? You laugh; laugh, then, gentlemen, but answer me this: can man's interests be correctly calculated? Are there not some which not only have not been classified, but are incapable of classification? After all, gentlemen, as far as I know you deduce the whole range of human satisfactions as averages from statistical figures and scientifico-economic formulas. You recognize things like wealth, freedom, comfort, prosperity, and so on as good, so that a man who deliberately and openly went against that tabulation would in your opinion, and of course in mine also, be an obscurantist or else completely mad, wouldn't he? But there is one very puzzling thing: how does it come about that all the statisticians and experts and lovers of humanity, when they enumerate the good things of life, always omit one particular one? They don't even take it into account as they ought, and the whole calculate depends on it. After all, it would not do much harm to accept this as a good and add it to the list. but the snag lies in this; that this strange benefit won't suit any classification or fit neatly into any list. For example, I have a friend... Oh but, gentlemen, he's a friend of yours too; indeed, who is there who doesn't have him among his friends? When he proposes to do something, this gentlemen will immediately expound to you, lucidly and polysyllabically, exactly how he must proceed, by the laws of truth and logic. Moreover, he speaks with passion and enthusiasm of the true natural interests of mankind; he condemns with a sneer those short-sighted fools who understand neither their own interests nor the real meaning of virtue, and then, a quarter of an hour afterward, without any sudden intervention from outside but at the prompting of something inside himself that is stronger than all his self-interest, he will shoot off on a new tack, acting, that is to say, in away that is obviously the opposite of all he has been saying: contrary to all the laws of reason, and all this own best interests and in short, everything... I must warn you that this friend is a generalization, and that consequently it is somewhat difficult to blame only him... The point, gentlemen, is this: doesn't there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or--not to violate logic--some best good (the one that is always omitted from the lists, of which we were speaking just now) which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity--in short against all those fine and advantageous things--only to attain that primary, best good which is dearer to him than all else?

'Well, but then it is still a good,' you interrupt. By your leave, we will explain further, and the point is not in a play on words, but in the fact that this good is distinguished precisely by upsetting all our classifications and always destroying the systems established by lovers of humanity for the happiness of mankind. In short, it interferes with everything. But before I name this good, I want to compromise myself personally, and so I roundly declare that all these beautiful systems--these theories of explaining his best interests to man with the idea that in his inevitable striving to attain those interests he will immediately become virtuous and noble--are, in my opinion, nothing but sophistry! Really, to maintain the theory of the regeneration of the whole of mankind by means of a tabulation of his own best interests is in my opinion the same as...well, as to affirm with Buckle that civilization renders man milder and so less bloodthirsty and addicted to warfare. Logically, it appears that that ought to be the result. But man is so partial to systems and abstract deduction that in order to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally. That is why I take this example, because it is an extremely striking one. Look around you: everywhere blood flows in torrents, and what's more, as merrily as if it was champagne. There's our nineteenth century--and it was Buckle's century too. There's your Napoleon--both the great Napoleon and the present-day one. There's your North America--the everlasting Union. There is finally your grotesque Schleswig-Holstein...And what softening effect has civilization had on us? Civilization develops in man only a man-sided sensitivity to sensations, and...definitely nothing more. And through the development of that many-sidedness man may perhaps progress to the point where he finds pleasure in blood. In fact, it has already happened. Have you ever noticed that he most refined shedders of blood have been almost always the most highly civilized gentlemen, to whom all the various Attilas and Stenka Razins could not have held a candle? --and if they are not so outstanding as Attila and Stenka Razin, it is because they are too often met with, too ordinary, too familiar. At least, if civilization has not made man more bloodthirsty, it has certainly made him viler in his thirst for blood than he was before. Before, he saw justice in bloodshed and massacred, if he had to, with quiet conscience; now, although we consider bloodshed an abomination, we engage in it more than ever. Which is worse? Decide for yourselves. They say that Cleopatra (excuse my taking an example from Roman history) liked to stick golden pins into the breasts of her slaves, and took pleasure in their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in barbarous times, comparatively speaking; that even today the times are barbarous because (again speaking comparatively) pins are still being thrust into people; and that even now man, although he has learnt to see more clearly than in the days of barbarism, is still far from having grown accustomed to acting as reason and science direct. but all the same you are quite sure that he will inevitably acquire the habit, when certain bad old habits have altogether passed away, and common sense and science have completely re-educated and normally direct human nature. You are convinced that then men will of their own accord cease to make mistakes and refuse, in spite of themselves, as it were, to make a difference between their volition and their normal interests. Furthermore, you say, science will teach men (although in my opinion a superfluity) that they have not, in fact, and never have had, either will or fancy, and are no more than a sort of piano keyboard or barrel-organ cylinder; and that the laws of nature still exist on the earth, so that whatever man does he does not of his own volition but, as really goes without saying, by the laws of nature. Consequently, these laws of nature have only to be discovered, and man will no longer be responsible for his actions, and it will become extremely easy for him to live his life. All human actions, of course, will then have to be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world.

'Then,' (this is all of you speaking, 'a new political economy will come into existence, all complete, and also calculated with mathematical accuracy, so that all problems will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because all possible answers to them will have been supplied. Then the Palace of Crystal will arise. Then...' Well, in short, the golden age will come again. of course it is quite impossible (here I am speaking myself) to guarantee that it won't be terribly boring then (because what can one do if everything has been plotted out and tabulated?), but on the other hand everything will be eminently sensible. Of course, boredom leads to every possible kind of ingenuity. After all, it is out of boredom that golden pins get stuck into people, but all this would not matter. What is bad (again this is me speaking) is that for all I know people may then find pleasure even in golden pins. Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the lease stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him. Really I shall not be in the least surprised if, for example, in the midst of the future universal good sense, some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a derisive and reactionary air, springs up suddenly out of nowhere, puts his arms akimbo and says to all of us, 'Come on, gentlemen, why shouldn't we get rid of all this calm reasonableness with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?' That wouldn't' matter either, but what is really mortifying is that he would certainly find followers: that's the way men are made. And all this for the most frivolous of reasons, hardly worth mentioning, one would think: namely that a man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative (in my view), to act directly contrary to one's own best interests. One's own free and unfettered volition, one's own caprice, however wild, one's own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness--that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the omission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil. Where did all the sages get the idea that a man's desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. Well, but the devil only knows what volition...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch

The Sleepwalkers:
Part Three, The Realist (1918)
Chapter XII: Disintegration of Values (1)
by Hermann Broch

Published 1932

Is this distorted life of ours still real? is this cancerous reality still alive? the melodramatic gesture of our mass movement towards death ends in a shrug of shoulders,--men die and do not know why; without a hold on reality they fall into nothingness; yet they are surrounded and slain by a reality that is their own, since they comprehend its causality.

The unreal is the illogical. And this age seems to have a capacity for surpassing even the acme of illogicality, of anti-logicality: it is as if the monstrous reality of the war had blotted out the reality of the world. Fantasy has become logical reality, but reality evolves the most a-logical phantasmagoria. An age that is softer and more cowardly than any preceding age suffocates in waves of blood and poison-gas; nations of bank clerks and profiteers hurl themselves upon barbed wire; a well-organized humanitarianism avails to hinder nothing, but calls itself the Red Cross and prepares artificial limbs for the victims; towns starve and coin money out of their own hunger; spectacled school-teachers lead storm-troops; city dwellers live in caves; factory hands and other civilians crawl out on their artificial limbs once more to the making of profits. Amid a blurring of all forms, in a twilight of apathetic uncertainty brooding over a ghostly world, man like a lost child gropes his way by the help of a small frail thread of logic through a dream landscape that he calls reality and that is nothing but a nightmare to him.

The melodramatic revulsion which characterizes this age as insane, the melodramatic enthusiasm which calls it great, are both justified by the swollen incomprehensibility and illogicality of the events that apparently make up its reality. Apparently! For insane or great are terms that can never be applied to an age, but only to an individual destiny. Our individual destinies, however, are as normal as they ever were. Our common destiny is the sum of our single lives, and each of these single lives is developing quite normally, in accordance, as it were, with its private logicality. We feel the totality to be insane, but for each single life we can easily discover logical guiding motives. Are we, then, insane because we have not gone mad?

The great question remains: how can an individual whose ideas have been genuinely directed towards other aims understand and accommodate himself to the implications and the reality of dying? One may answer that the mass of mankind have done nothing of the sort, and were merely forced towards death--an answer that is perhaps valid in these days of war-weariness; yet there undoubtedly was and still is, even to-day, a genuine enthusiasm for war and slaughter! One may answer that the average man, whose life moves between his table and his bed, has no ideas whatever, and therefore falls an easy prey to the ideology of hatred--which is in any case the most obviously intelligible of all, whether it concerns class hatred or national hatred--and that such narrow lives were bound to be subsumed in the service of any superpersonal idea, even a destructive one, provided that it could masquerade as socially valuable: yet even allowing for all that, this age was not devoid of other and higher superpersonal values in which the individual, despite his narrow mediocrity, was already a participant. This age harboured somewhere a disinterested striving for truth, a disinterested will towards art, and had after all a very definite social feeling; how could the men who created these values and shared in them "comprehend" the ideology of war, unresistingly accept and approve it? How could a man take a gun in his hand, how could he march into the trenches, either to die in them or to come out again and take up his work as usual, without going insane? How is such adaptability possible? How could the ideology of war find any kind of response in these men, how could they ever come even to understand such an ideology and its field of reality, not to speak of enthusiastically welcoming it, as was not at all impossible? Are they insane because they did not go insane?

Is it to be referred to a mere indifference to others' sufferings? to the indifference that lets a citizen sleep soundly next door to the prison yard in which someone is being hanged by the neck or guillotined? the indifference that needs only to be multiplied to produce public indifference to the fact that thousands of men are being impaled on barbed wire? Of course it is that same indifference, but it goes further than that; for here we have no longer merely two mutually exclusive fields of reality, that of the slayer on one side and the slain on the other; we find them co-existing in one and the same individual, implying that one single field can combine the most heterogeneous elements, among which, however, the individual apparently moves with the utmost naturalness and assurance. The contradiction is not one between supporters and opponents of war, nor is it a horizontal split in the life of the individual, on the supposition that after four years' semi-starvation he "changes" into another type and stands in complete contrast to his former self: it is a split in the totality of life and experience, a split that goes much deeper than a mere opposition of individuals, a split that cuts right into the individual himself and into his integral reality.

We know too well that we are ourselves split and riven, and yet we cannot account for it; if we try to cast the responsibility for it on the age in which we live, the age is too much for our comprehension, and so we fall back on calling it insane or great. We ourselves think that we are normal, because, in spite of the split in our souls, our inner machinery seems to run on logical principles. But if there were a man in whom all the events of our time took significant shape, a man whose native logic accounted for the events of our age, then and then only would this age cease to be insane. Presumably that is why we long for a "leader," so that he may provide us with the motivation for events that in his absence we can characterize only as insane.

Currently listening to: "Babe I'm on Fire" by Nick Cave
Previous activity: Health and human behavior class
Next thing on the agenda: A lot of medical microbiology reading