Thursday, 27 February 2014

Necessary attrition

One of the indelible effects the First World War had on our collective psyche is that it completely crushed the illusion of progress the Enlightenment had promised. Man proved to be animalistic, war-mongering and insatiably evil. This, among other things, led to the 'lost generation' of writers. The war proved to man that attrition, the diminution of our hopes and dreams, is inescapable.

Of course, the halycon of 'utopia' is still a perennial attraction to this day. As thinker John Gray points out, when we collectively vie for unattainable impossible goals, this can lead to war, destruction, genocide. The rampant, unregulated free market capitalism that resulted in the market crash was the result of overly optimistic thinking. It proved that the booming period of prosperity in the 90s was something ephemeral, not ever-lasting. Wars are also often a result of delusional optimism. The foreign interventions mounted in the 90s/00s proved to their crude strategists that building democracy abroad is not a plausible task. This still did not prevent a gaggle of neo-cons and liberal interventionists - embodied perhaps by the belligerence of Cristopher Hitchens - from saying that, even though the invasion resulted in countless deaths and in the destruction of Iraq, it was a worth pursuit because it was a noble idea to begin with.

I am reminded of a quote from José Donoso I ran into recently: 'Nada queda. Todo se disuelve. Los proyectos fracasan.' ('Nothing remains. Everything dissolves. Projects fail.') Donoso, perhaps the most apolitical writer of the Latin American boom period, wrote this following the failures of socialism in Cuba and Chile. Writers like Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes continued to fraternise with Fidel Castro despite his heinous record of repression. As it happens, the novels by many of these writers turned more sombre once it became clearer that their youthful radicalism was misjudged.

The greatest literature is when there is some sort of conflict. We love plays Hamlet or Macbeth because they depict the vicissitudes of characters with lofty ambitions. Prince Hamlet may think that the murder of his father is unjust, but the ensuing tragedy is a result of the unrealistic way he plots for revenge. Brecht said that 'conflict is the essence of drama.' It might be a truism, but it was right on the mark.

The reason why we have these towering works of art is precisely because we live through periods of attrition, austerity and misery. I suggest you read my short story Planet Zhelanie (* Available on the navbar to the right. I am also pleased to announce that I plan to turn it into a novel soon. *) to see how I treat this theme. Even though we have ambitious dreams and hopes, it results in attritition - in their gradual diminution and eventual loss. Yet scarring moments in history result in great works of art. See the video below with Orson Welles in The Third Man: 'In Italy, they had the Borgias and that resulted in the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of brotherly peace and democracy. And what did that produce? The coo-coo clock.'  I would not endorse the repressive measures of 16th century Italian nobility; I would align myself with the social democratic values exemplified by the ideals of 1945 Labour party. However, it does prove that the idea of a utopia would be dreadfully boring. (J. G. Ballard was against the idea of social democracy because he claimed that if a society would be that equitable, nothing happens.) What I do think it does prove is that any utopia would be dreadfully boring to live in. As there would be no conflict, we would have no tragedy. There would certainly be no Shakespeare! Scientific fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins relish the idea of a society governed by science, whereby we can relish the wonders of nature. (Such claims reveal the mind of a closet believer!) The kind of scientific utopian societies presented by Dawkins and Steven Pinker are fallaciously based on the premise that, if we are governed by science, we will have the perfect society. This just substitutes religion for science, the Catholic cross for the equivalent iconography. Science should just be used in its mundane forms. I do not undervalue it. In fact, I am sure the discoveries of Newton, Einstein etc. are up there with Shakespeare. However, as soon as you propose a scientific model for society, you a proposing a kind of fundamentalism. (In fact, one of the side-effects of secularisation should be religious tolerance.) In any case, if these utopian ideals did materialise, the human capacity for the imagination would be lost. It would be boring. Strife is necessary, as is attrition.

The paragraph above grew and grew. It is a tad bit long. I will not bother to edit it and break it down! Not to worry because, as promised, below you have the video of Orson Welles' classic monologue. Enjoy.

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