|C o l l e c t i o n s|
Reprinted with permission. This is a talk delivered in April 1992 at the Rutgers University conference in Newark on intellectuals and social change in Eastern Europe. An abridged version was published in the New York Times, June 26, 1992.
Our Country, Our Culture
The Politics of Political Correctness
Edited by Edith Kurzweil and William Philips
Partisan Review Press
Unexamined Mental Attitudes
Left Behind By Communism
While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives. The very first place this is evident is in our language. It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people have not joked in their youth about concrete steps, contradictions, the interpenetration of opposites, and all the rest. The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the fifties when I read a leader in the Times and saw them in use: "The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation..." Words that had been as confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers didn't know it.
There is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see. Even five or six years ago Izvestia, Pravda, and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything - because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now, all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is still to be found in some areas of academia and particularly in some areas of sociology, psychology, and some literary criticism.
Recently, a young friend of mine from North Yemen saved up, with much sacrifice, ever bit of money he could to travel to that fount of excellence, Britain, to study the branch of sociology that teaches how to spread Western how-how and expertise to benighted nations. It cost him £8000, and that was five years ago. I asked to see his study material, and he showed me a thick tome, written so badly and in such ugly empty jargon it was hard even to follow. There were several hundred pages, and the ideas in it could easily been put into ten pages. This kind of book is written by people who were Marxists or have been taught by Marxists. Students come from "backward" and closed countries to be taught how to write in this debased language. I have seen people, in Zimbabwe this time, introduced to the English language in this pedantic, empty jargon. They will believe that this is the English language and that this is how they should write and speak it.
Yes, I do know the obfuscations of academia did not begin with Communism, as Swift, for one, tells us, but the pedantries and verbosity of Communism had their rots in German academia. And now it has become a kind of mildew blighting the whole world. One may spend a morning in the kind of bookshop that sells student textbooks and only with difficulty find books that are fresh and alive. How to stop this self-perpetuating machine for dulling thought? For sometimes I do see it as one of those mechanisms set to revolve forever inside a vacuum within a sealed glass case. How to break the glass and let in the air? Perhaps this will accomplished by the ideas themselves concealed in the dead language, for they can be useful and full of insights. As I pointed out before, work is being done in the research departments of universities that could, if we let it, transform our societies. Full of insights about how the human animal actually does behave instead of how we think it does. These are often presented for the first time in unreadable language. This is one of the paradoxes of our time.
Powerful ideas affecting our behavior can be visible in brief sentences or even a phrase. All writers get asked by interviewers this question: "Do you think a writer should ...?" This question always has to do with a political stance. Note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever that may be. There is a long history behind this. Let us go no further back than the nineteenth century in Russia, where there were great critics: Belinsky, Dobrolubov, Chernyshevsky, and the rest. They wanted writers to be concerned with social problems. All the great writers that we now describe as belonging to the golden tradition of Russian literature had to endure criticism from this point of view, some of it on a very high level. Donald Fanger has noted that the Russian novel contains in itself all areas of sociology and social criticism. But I do believe that this is because this is what the writers were like and not because of what the critics were saying. As we say in Britain, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." In all these great writers' work there is no moment when there is that dull thump that comes when writers have been writing because they felt they ought to . All these writers continued to write from a much older tradition than their critics. If a writer writes truthfully out of individual experience, then what is written inevitably speaks for other people. For thousands of years storytellers have taken for granted that their experiences must be general. It never occurred to them that it is possible to divorce oneself from life or to "live in an ivory tower." It will be seen that this view of storytelling ends the interminable debate about form and content that still bedevils literature in some provincial universities. If these writers in Russia had not claimed their right to an individual conscience rather than a collective one, we would not now be remembering and reading Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, and all the rest of that dazzling galaxy.
We saw what happened when this formula, that writers must write about social injustice, took power in 1917. It became socialist realism. Anyone who had the misfortune to read through a lot of that stuff, which I did in London early in the fifties for a Communist publisher, knows that socialist realism created novels written in a language as dead as the books that are a product of academia. Why? Writers know instinctively that a recipe for writing dead boos is to write because you ought. This is because you are writing out of a different area of your mind. I shall never forget an exchange between a writer and an interviewer on television. The interviewer said, "Among the influences that shaped your work, would you say that Heidegger was the most important?"
The writer replied, "You don't understand. When you describe a scene, let's say at the breakfast table, you have to know what your hero is eating. Bacon and eggs? Pancakes? IS it a cold morning? Is the sun shining in? Is there a smell of burning leaves? Did he sleep with his wife last night? Does she love him? What color shirt does he have on? IS the dog there waiting for tidbits? You have to know all this even if you don't describe it because this is what brings the scene to life."
"Oh, I see, then you describe yourself as a realist?"
Never the twain shall meet. And they can't meet because it's two different parts of the mind speaking. One is the critical part the other one is the holistic part which is probably situated somewhere in the solar plexus. Two parallel lines: the writer is talking about "The fine delight that fathers thought," in Hopkin's wonderful phrase. The critic is talking out of the same spirit that pervaded socialist realism and before that the nineteenth-century Russian critics. I am sure the mindsets of Communism were patterned by religion, Christianity and the dialectics of Judaism. A biography of Cervantes tells us he had the Inquisition breathing down his neck all his life. The questions: "Should a writer. ... Ought writers to ...?" have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is "commitment" - so much in vogue not long ago. Is so-and-so a committed writer? Are you a committed writer? "Committed to what?" the writer might ask.
"Oh well, if you don't know, I can't tell you," comes the reproof, full of moral one-upmanship. A successor to commitment is "raising consciousness." This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. Raising consciousness, like commitment, like political correctness, is a continuation of that old bully, the Party Line.
A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is "about" something or other. I wrote a story, The Fifth Child, which was at once pigeonholed as being "about" the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism, and so on. A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she even sat down said, "Of course The Fifth Child is about AIDS." An effective conversation-stopper, I do assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, "Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem, I would have written a pamphlet," you tend to get baffled stares, such an unfamiliar thought has it become. That a work of the imagination has to be "really" about some problem, is, again, an heir of socialist realism, of the infamous Zhdanov. To write a story for the sake of storytelling will not do; it is frivolous, not to say reactionary. Whole literary departments in a thousand universities are in the grip of this way of thinking, and yet the history of storytelling, of literature, tells us that there has never been a story that does not illuminate human experience in one way or another. The demand that stories must be "about" something is Communist thinking and, further back, comes from religious thinking, with its desire for improving books as simpleminded as the messages on samplers. "Little birds in their nests agree." "Good children must, good children ought, do what they are told, do what they are taught." I found that on a wall in a hotel in Wales.
If, for example, a writer should timidly remark, "My book, Eternal Springs, is not at all about water shortage in the Middle East," the reply is that the writer has no idea at all of what he or she is "really" writing about. A great deal has been said and is being said about political correctness, but I think we might usefully note that this is yet again self-appointed vigilante committees inspired by ideology. Of course, I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the political correctors. I am suggesting that habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it. There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do. I'm putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I think it is nursery behaviour, very primitive stuff. Deep in the human mind is the need to order, control set bounds. Art, the arts in general, are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend at their best to be uncomfortable. Literature in particular has always inspired the house committees, the Zhdanovs, the vigilantes into, at best, fits of moralizing, and at worst into persecution. It troubles me that political correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me a good deal more that they may know and do not care.
Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, as with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to look carefully at our assumptions, there are twenty rabble-rousers whose real motive is a desire for power over others. The fact that they seem themselves as antiracists, or feminists, or whatever does not make them any less rabble-rousers.
Political correctness did not invent intolerance in universities, which is an evident child of Communism. If intolerance, not to say despotism, governed universities in Communist countries, then the same attitude of mind has infected areas in the West and often sets the tone in a university. WE have all seen it. For instance, a professor friend of mine describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with the students' ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and the viewing of a video that factually refuted such ideology. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while the video was shown and then, as one, walked out. The students might very well have been shocked to hear that their behaviour was a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activities.
Again and again in Britain, we see in town councils and in school councils that headmistresses or headmasters or teachers are being hounded by groups and cabals of witch-hunters, using the dirtiest and often cruel tactics. They claim their victims are racist or in some way reactionary. Again and again, an appeal to higher authorities proves that the campaign tactics have been unfair. This happened to a young friend of mine in Cape Town, whom the fanatical Moslems and the hardline Communists joined forces to expel. They had done the same to her predecessor, and doubtless they are now at work on her successor. The victims are white. Were they racists? They were not. Unlikely bedfellows? Not at all. I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, perhaps without even know it, for another dogma. Some have already found a home with the fanatical Moslems.
The next point seems to have on the face of it little connection with the others, but I think it underlies them all. It is excitements, pleasure in strong sensations, a search for ever-stronger stimuli. What could be more pleasurable when in one's twenties - the age at which millions of young people have tortured or murdered others in the name of the forward march of mankind - than the excitements of being the only possessors of the truth? Revolutionary politics, the house committees, the vigilante slogans, are intoxicating drugs. In Spain not long ago I met a youth, of the same stuff as Byron, who said it was the great regret of his life that he was too young to have been in Paris in '68. I asked why, when that revolution had been a failure? He was amazed I could ask. It must have been so exciting, said he. Bliss in that dawn to be alive. Bliss being the point, being turned on, getting a buzz, a high, a thrill, a fix. This set of mind was summed up by one of our political commentators thus: he was talking about demonstrations that seem to have little point, that is, from the point of view of actually achieving something. He said: A large part of left-wing politics these days has nothing to do with ends. The ends are not the point. The means are the point.
There must be hundreds of thousands of people, now middle-aged and in positions of authority, whose most vibrant experiences were the events of '68. Like a war for soldiers, '68 was a high point of their lives. No, Communism did not invent demonstrations, riots, marches, petitions, or even revolutions. The nineteenth-century was full of them, 1848 being only part of it and before that the French Revolution, that great mother of so many of our mind-sets. We can't really blame Jean Jacques. He didn't invent sensation and excitement and bliss; he didn't invent the worship of sensibility and elation. He merely mirrored these ideas in books that are still instructive. Exciting ideas have always swept across countries, nations, the world. There have always been people high on ideas. They used to be religious emotions, a fact we might usefully keep in our minds. (They still are religious in some areas, and spreading fast.) But in all our minds are patterns which we do not examine that govern our behaviour.
It was, at least until very recently, taken absolutely for granted that revolution is a nobler thing than the ballot box. It was and often still is taken for granted that the right place for a serious young person is with the revolutionaries in Cuba or Nicaragua, with dissidents, or protesting the suffering of the underprivileged, or on a picket line anywhere at all. We have watched successive waves of young people from the West traveling to the scenes of new revolutions, to Gdansk, or Czechoslovakia, or Berlin at the fall of the Wall - anywhere at all where there is strong popular emotion. If half of a certain stratum of youth has been off seeking thrills on the road to Katmandu, then the other half has been getting high on a revolution somewhere or other. The last thing they ever think of is staying at home and working for the good of their own country - even to suggest it bores them, inspires a yawn. For one thing, their own countries are judged as being beneath contempt and not worth their attention. Thus arose the paradox that countries, like those of Western Europe, seen to people suffering under Communism as unreachable paradises of freedom and plenty, were continually being represented as unendurable by young Westerners in search elsewhere for the good and the truth. Because of this unrecognized need to experience suffering, persecution, oppression, successive political movements have invented or exaggerated the oppression in Western countries.
This phenomenon has been analyzed, but I wonder what are the psychological mechanisms underlying the need to denigrate one's own country and seek eternally for paradises somewhere else? I think one reason is that few people on the left - and far beyond the left have not been soaked in tales of persecution from other countries. Many have spent happy years fantasizing about being in prison and enduring it all with fortitude and heroism, being tortured by interrogators and outwitting them - being clever enough to immediately identify the good and the bad interrogators. Yet these are people who will never be in prison for political reasons, unless they work really hard at it. The secret minds of these Walter Mittys of revolution are landscapes of disaster, tyranny, torture, prison, car bombs, Semtex, and heroic suffering. I personally believe that these hidden landscapes have and do contribute to the continuation of torture and oppression; that they are the reason why ordinary social or political efforts in peaceful and democratic countries have proved so uninviting to so many young people. They year for the madder music and for the stronger wine of revolution.
My next point is a development of the last. It is that a great many people love violence and killing. Of course they have always existed and always will, but I think, under ideal conditions, only as a minority. One result of our history of two centuries of revolution, that is, of violence sanctified by high motive, is that there are many people you would not expect to identify with killing and torture who do. In Europe that type of person classified by the sociologists as "tender-hearted" - who hates capital punishment, flogging, bad prison sentences, and sufferings of the underprivileged and who continues to agitate against these things = often accepts terrorism for good causes. The romance of violence, which bean in our time in the French Revolution, was enhanced by the Russian Revolution and then the Chinese Revolution. The result is that the left wing and liberals - millions of people - have schizophrenia. You can see it easily in the tolerance, not to say worship, of the IR.A. murderers or the Red Brigades in Italy. Few people of a certain age group in Italy have not had friends in the Red Brigades. It was the chic thing to do. Hundreds of young people with the highest possible motives supported murder for political reasons. Most in the Red Brigades were not deprived people. What they all had in common, of course, was the war just behind them. Granted it was a bad and ugly war in Italy, though we tend to forget that, and war brutalizes all of us. But these were "the tender-hearted," dreaming of gentle, fruitful and noncorrupt futures. Those that remained in the organization became merciless and brutal killers, even if most have now had reverse conversions and become good citizens. They were and are still sometimes admired precisely for their brutality. There are people on the left who still defend them. Why? I think the reason is, again, revolutionary romanticism.
And now my last point, but I am leaving out a dozen other ways, of which we are hardly aware, by which I think our minds have been set by Communism. I think that the left-wing, the social, even liberal movements of Europe have been terminally damaged because the progressive imagination was captured by the Soviet experience. The Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union, was a paradigm, whether seen as a success or as a failed experiment which we could better. For decades, for half a century, for three-quarters of a century, all the "tender-hearted" people longing for better things were preoccupied with the Soviet Union. With its history of assassination, mass murder, show trials. A history, and this I'm sure is the important thing in the long run, of failure. The entire "progressive" movement of Europe has had its imagination in thrall to the Soviet experience, an experience in fact irrelevant to Europe.
It would easily be possible to make an alternative reality, a history of a Europe that had made a decision to develop socialism, or even a just society, without any reference at all to the Soviet Union. We must remember, I think, that because of the Soviet Union it has been impossible even to consider creating a just society that is not either socialist or Communist. We did not have to identify with the Soviet Union, with its seventy-odd years of logic-chopping, of idiotic rhetoric, brutality, concentration camps, pogroms against the Jews. Again and again, failure. And, from our point of view, most important, the thousand mind-wriggling ways of defending failure. I think the history of Europe would have been very different. Socialism would not now be so discredited, and above all, our minds would not automatically fall into the habit of "capitalism or socialism."
The story of the Soviet Union in the last eighty years has been a tragedy, for the Russians and the other Communist nations now free. It has also been a tragedy, on a somewhat smaller scale of course, for Europe. Europe has been corrupted by it in obvious and not so obvious ways, to what an extent it is too early to say. It has been corrupted because we've allowed our imaginations to be totally preoccupied with other peoples' experience and not with our own, for one reason or another. I think that it has been suggested many times that there are reasons that have not yet been examined. My conclusion is that until we know the patterns that dominate our thinking and can recognize them in the various forms they emerge in, we shall be helpless and without real choice. We need to learn to watch our minds, our behaviour. We need to do some rethinking. It is a time, I think, for definitions.
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