15 November 2012

One's Own Possibilities

Yet [Walter] Benjamin’s letters are instructive also in the way in which they show how political commitments are something a bourgeoisie makes for itself, for its own good and its psychic well-being. Maimed as well as privileged, it has an interest in lifting the burdens of exploitation it, too, necessarily suffers (and not only, as at the present time, when capitalism devours its own bourgeois children). Benjamin makes the point in his arguments with Scholem. His Communism is not something chosen independently and somehow added onto his writing and intellectual life, capable, as Adorno thought, of deflecting it in wasteful or deplorable directions. The political choice is motivated by the writing itself: ‘a victorious party’ – the German Bolshevist party – ‘might make it possible for me to write differently.’ This is the crucial issue: under what conditions might a truly ‘literary’ life be lived, in what kind of situation might the vocation of the intellectual be most fully realised?

The critique of capitalism is for Benjamin first and foremost a critique of how it affects his own possibilities for writing, the commitment to socialism first and foremost a kind of class interest for the bourgeois intellectual, who suffers under the market and yearns to make fuller use of his intellectual energies. This is why classical right-wing talk about the ressentiment of intellectuals is ignorant and misplaced, and the familiar counter-revolutionary analysis of their role in revolutions and their lust for power an ingenious misconception. True intellectuals want to write, and their deeper political reflections turn on the obstacles a given social system places in the way of that vocation. Hence Benjamin’s allegiance to Brecht, whose ‘essays are the first ... that I champion as a critic without (public) reservation. This is because part of my development in the last few years came about in confrontation with them, and because they, more rigorously than any others, give an insight into the intellectual context in which the work of people like myself is conducted in this country.’

from "An Unfinished Project" by Fredric Jameson, a review essay on the correspondence of Benjamin with Adorno and Scholem.

One of Benjamin's great essays: "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936)


With no son of man do I stand upon any etiquette or ceremony, except the Christian ones of charity and honesty. I am told, my fellow-man, that there is an aristocracy of the brain. Some men have boldly advocated and asserted it. Schiller seems to have done so, though I don't know much about him. At any rate, it is true that there have been those who, while earnest in behalf of political equality, will accept the intellectual estates. And I can well perceive, I think, how a man of superior mind can, by its intense cultivation, bring himself, as it were, into a certain spontaneous aristocracy of feeling, -- exceedingly nice and fastidious, -- similar to that which, in an English Howard, conveys a torpedo-fish thrill at the slightest contact with a social plebian. So, when you see or hear of my ruthless democracy on all sides, you may possibly feel a touch of a shrink, or something of that sort. It is but nature to be shy of a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington. This is ludicrous. But Truth is the silliest thing under the sun. Try to get a living by the Truth -- and go to the Soup Societies. Heavens! Let any clergyman try to preach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his own pulpit bannister. It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers almost universally laughingstocks? Why so? Truth is ridiculous to men. Thus easily in my room here do I, conceited and garrulous, reverse the test of my Lord Shaftesbury.

It seems an inconsistency to assert unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind -- in the mass. But not so. -- But it's an endless sermon, -- no more of it. I began by saying that the reason I have not been to Lenox is this, -- in the evening I feel completely done up, as the phrase is, and incapable of the long jolting to get to your house and back. In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my "Whale" while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, -- I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, -- that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, -- I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.

Melville in a well-known and much-cited letter to Hawthorne (Juneteenth, 1851)


While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood's), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur'd Xenophon's Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm'd with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continu'd this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (written between 1771 and 1790)


I HAVE been considering (my Friend!) what your Fancy was, to express such a surprize as you did the other day, when I happen’d to speak to you in commendation of Raillery. Was it possible you shou’d suppose me so grave a Man, as to dislike all Conversation of[60] this kind? Or were you afraid I shou’d not stand the trial, if you put me to it, by making the experiment in my own Case?

I must confess, you had reason enough for your Caution; if you cou’d imagine me at the bottom so true a Zealot, as not to bear the least Raillery on my own Opinions. ’Tis the Case, I know, with many. Whatever they think grave or solemn, they suppose must never be treated out of a grave and solemn way: Tho what Another thinks so, they can be contented to treat otherwise; and are forward to try the Edge of Ridicule against any Opinions besides their own.

The Question is, Whether this be fair or no? and, Whether it be not just and reasonable, to make as free with our own Opinions, as with those of other People? For to be sparing in this case, may be look’d upon as a piece of Selfishness. We may be charg’d perhaps with wilful Ignorance and blind Idolatry, for having taken Opinions upon Trust, and consecrated in our-selves certain Idol-Notions, which we will never suffer to be unveil’d, or seen in open light. They may perhaps be Monsters, and not Divinitys, or Sacred Truths, which are kept thus choicely, in some dark Corner of our Minds: The Specters may impose on us, whilst we re[61]fuse to turn ’em every way, and view their Shapes and Complexions in every light. For that which can be shewn only in a certain Light, is questionable. Truth, ’tis suppos’d, may bear all Lights: and one of those principal Lights or natural Mediums, by which Things are to be view’d, in order to a thorow Recognition, is Ridicule it-self, or that Manner of Proof by which we discern whatever is liable to just Raillery in any Subject. So much, at least, is allow’d by All, who at any time appeal to this Criterion. The gravest Gentlemen, even in the gravest Subjects, are suppos’d to acknowledg this: and can have no Right, ’tis thought, to deny others the Freedom of this Appeal; whilst they are free to censure like other Men, and in their gravest Arguments make no scruple to ask, Is it not Ridiculous?

from Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1737), "An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour," Lord Shaftesbury.

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