29 June 2011

The Fading Inheritance

Obnoxious as modern British culture has become in recent decades - and surely there's no smugness more odious than that which exudes contempt not just of other people but of one's former "stupid" self - yet there is one thing about today's Brits that I continue to enjoy. Unlike perhaps most of us Americans, the British by and large have not yet abandoned the art of writing as if they actually liked words, and took pleasure in them, and saw the point of them. The British, even today, don't seem to write as if they were embarrassed from writing, as if it were something intrinsically effeminate or evasive of real life. They don't write - or maybe they haven't yet mastered the American art of writing - as if the specific words you chose were all a matter of the sublimest indifference, because ultimately having to use words at all was at best a pitiful substitute for actually - well, you know, doing something.

But most importantly for me, somehow the British continue to write - however routinely and indifferently - as if they still had some vague, ancestral notion of words' power, not just to dilute or diminish or obscure, but to enhance and invigorate, one's sense of the living creature being described. And here I mean one's sense, not just of how vivid, and crisp, and cleanly and deliciously itself that creature is, but how loved, and love-able, and able-to-be-delighted-in. Even (when he wants to) by Man. Or certainly, in any case, by the writer. I mean, again, a kind of writer (in this respect not unlike her own Author) so intent on reaching the Heart of the people and things she describes, that the words themselves no longer have to be just traffic jams or temporary roadblocks, or delays or detours due to construction, but can actually become main thoroughfares, maybe even highways and expressways. Or else, at the very least, a long, interminably-winding, yet thoroughly absorbing garden path. (And how much better one that helps us find the shed of the Gardener?)

Best of all, even the most modern- or future-minded British writing may still betray the hint - occasionally - that real creatures, human or otherwise, were made for something better than just human manipulation. It is these latter kinds of suggestion that I especially enjoy, because they contain a subtle reminder to me - however little intended by the writer - that there really are no earthly frontiers, and never have been: that no place on earth is a clean slate; that no frontiers are ever absolute (not even those blazed by hardy Americans); that every earthly place into which we enter is laden with human meanings that preceded ours. And even those few remaining places as yet unsettled by Man are everywhere etched and inscribed with Divine meanings, which once in a while may clash with those cherished significations we'd most prefer to assign or impose.

And so let's by all means try to enjoy today's better British writing where we find it - Charles Moore's weekly column in the Spectator is one instance that comes to mind - and while we can. After all, no writer is indefinitely immune to the inroads of his culture. And in a culture as rapidly and dynamically evolving as modern Britain's, how long, I wonder, before its people one day become thoroughly disgusted with their past selves, and irretrievably infatuated with their present ones? How long, in short, before your average educated Brit has no more use or respect for words than, say, an educated American?

14 June 2011

The Power of Change

Maybe I'm haunted. But somehow I can't seem to shake this haunting sense I have - this sense of an extraordinary fear walking abroad in America today. A virulent, agitating, frenzying fear of tyranny. And not just any tyranny either, but specifically one that is exercised over normal, healthy, strong people by the weak and mediocre.

Indeed I find it to be much the same fear, whether it's of a tyranny exercised by the weak and mediocre directly, or by a certain sinister and ominous Somebody Else on their behalf. Hence this gnawing sense I get - mostly from a lot of things I read, sometimes from what I hear - of a widespread, and possibly growing, perception. A perception that weak and mediocre people, if left to flourish and proliferate unduly, can easily become a positive danger to civil liberties and a free society. That they need either:

1) to die out of their own accord gracefully and unobstrusively; or else (to be less eugenic and more egalitarian about it)
2) to have their weakness and mediocrity more or less squeezed, or scared, out of them, lest that same unfitness to rule and manage themselves - or even, say, to manage a business - should become an opportunity and a foothold for would-be despots, or aspiring demagogues.

As if tyrants wanted nothing more challenging in life than to rule over weak people. As if most really serious, all-or-nothing dictators - the kind most worth worrying about - were looking for nothing better than a secure, easy, predictable life.

I don't think it's that simple. What this scenario keeps forgetting is that your truly self-made, state-of-the-art dictator is about the last one to want to suffer fools easily or willingly. He's apt to have far less patience for weakness and mediocrity than do most to-the-manner-born kings and queens. After all, he's earned his way up; why should he have time for cretins who in all probability have never really earned anything? Any tyrant who's worth his salt, and is on top of his game, is not looking for mostly cringing, sniveling wretches to rule over. He likes and welcomes a challenge. Not only is he at least as good at tyrannizing over the strong and exceptional as over those whom they habitually despise. He's even better at making both strong and weak, rich and poor, slave and free, feel obliged to become yet stronger, and more exceptional. And yet also to feel that, somehow, they can never be quite strong and exceptional enough - either to meet his (always escalating) expectations, or even to earn a small modicum of his respect.

All of this may seem hard to imagine or envision. But I'm quite an optimist when it comes to the Future of Tyranny. I'm convinced that the top-of-his-game tyrant both has been, and will continue to be, able to pull this off. And he will do so with polish and ease, because he understands that even the utmost non-violent mutual animosity among his subjects is a smart despot's best friend. He knows that a State in which every citizen feels desperate to be strong - and equally desperate to prove it - is far the best way to make all citizens most distrustful of and at enmity with each other, and so least able and fit to govern themselves. It is also the best, or at least the most continually tested, way of assuring himself that he continues to be stronger than all of them. Besides further securing and buttressing his own moral high ground ("Look at this pack of hungry wolves I rule over"). And as any honest woman who's ever been seduced and discarded by a rake can tell you: How do you know you're strong, until you've succeeded in exercising your power over someone or something truly powerful? Granted there are risks involved. But what's bitterness and a broken heart compared to a chance at that kind of victory?

In any case, the really skilled adept at tyranny has little if anything to fear from those particular quarters. He's long since buried irretrievably - or so he hopes? - any lingering, pestering memories of either bitter- or broken-heartedness. He alone, in contrast to the various grades of swine grunting round his feet, is authentically master of himself. And so by rights equally free, both to make his herd into whatever he wants them to be, and to make them think they're doing it freely to themselves. Nor am I sure he has any other choice but to mold and manipulate them in this fashion, if he's really serious in his pursuit of power. That is, power as we humans conventionally think of it. Power not in the Divine sense, which of itself is an exquisitely humble, attentive, supportive thing, but in the human sense of a constant vindication of one's pride of independence of anyone and anything, and of one's ability endlessly to remake oneself and others. In this latter sense, please understand, our tyrant has no hope of ever discovering the full extent of his power over his herd - the full depth of what they are prepared to think and do and become in order to please him - so long as he makes few or no demands on his swine. On the contrary, his demands must be constant and relentless and always changing, even to the point of requiring the utter denaturing and dehumanizing of his subjects. After all, how can you truly become anyone's god, except by working incessantly to undo the work of the previous?

"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

I can't help thinking either that Orwell was essentially wrong in the answer he puts into Winston's mouth, or that he was grossly oversimplifying his whole argument in the interests of narrative flow. You don't assert your power over another merely by making him suffer. Any unthinking, unfeeling brute can do that. It is rather - as any honest woman knows - by making him change.