Cant is more destructive than hypocrisy because it is harder to expose and because a humbug deceives himself as well as others, while a mere hypocrite retains some awareness; he is a rogue rather than a villain. Cant is the vehement public expression of concern for others, or of anger at an opinion casting doubt on some moral orthodoxy that is not, and cannot be, genuinely felt, its vehemence being a shield for insincerity and lack of confidence in the orthodox opinion. Doctor Johnson defined cant as “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.” Cant is contagious, and, when widespread, it creates an atmosphere in which people are afraid to call it by its name. Arguments then go by default; and if arguments go by default, ludicrous, bad, or even wicked policies result.
I think that we live in an era of cant. I do not say that it is the only such age. But it has never been, at least in my lifetime, as important as it is now to hold the right opinions and to express none of the wrong ones, if one wants to avoid vilification and to remain socially frequentable. Worse still, and even more totalitarian, is the demand for public assent to patently false or exaggerated propositions; refusal to kowtow in such circumstances becomes almost as bad a sin as uttering a forbidden view. One must join in the universal cant—or else.
Sappho’s restraint remains strangely gratifying today, when sexuality is so intensely visual, imposed top-down through the peculiar marriage of pornography and pop culture. Her verses are themselves pornographic, of course, but we’d be shortsighted in aligning them with the music videos, high-street adverts and internet clips that dominate our sexual imaginations today. Modern porn is, on the whole, relentlessly present-tense, populated by anonymous bodies performing athletic feats for the instant gratification of a voyeuristic audience. That Sappho’s work – intimate, reflective, euphemistic – maintains its allure against such a backdrop is surely significant, then. What does her work provide that modern porn cannot? And what does this tell us about our sexual imaginations more generally?
Much of the answer can be attributed to the poet’s particular evocation of ‘the erotic’. Today, the term conjures up images of burlesque performances, of teases designed to prolong the often-rushed experience of modern sex. For the Greeks, though, Eros was not an action but a god, the son of Aphrodite herself. He was bisexual, notoriously unruly, and capable of intoxicating all beings with an irrational, manic energy. His role in literature was quite precise: to shape pothos (desire) into kharis (gratification). His preferred environments were gardens, which were in many cases imagined to be populated with nymphs and naiads. If Eros’s main duty was to facilitate sexual relationships, his divine nature also served to unite bodily experience with metaphysics through an ambiguous, quasi-magical communion.
From the outset, poetry was tasked with explaining the limits of this exhilarating and dangerous life force. All of the major classical writers – from Aeschylus and Pindar to later Roman imitators such as Ovid – dedicated meditations to the god. Sappho, though, was perhaps the most gifted at articulating his contradictory traits. In her work, Eros is not a beast, like Pan or the satyrs. He is a ‘weaver of tales’, a storyteller and seducer. At the same time, he is a ‘sweet, bitter, impossible creature’, a dualistic and ambiguous force, anarchically transgressing the boundary between pleasure and pain. One of Sappho’s most playful descriptions of Eros is as a ‘limbslackener’, a kind of cosmic lubricant. In all cases, his real power is his unique capacity to bridge the realm of ideas with corporeal reality. As Plato describes in his Phaedrus, there is no separation between ‘forms’ and ‘the body’ in the sphere of Eros: both worlds are united through the dualistic ontology of sex as both an activity and an idea.
Genius calls for more than being very good at something. It is characteristic of genius to warrant the hyper-tolerance—and utter isolation—of being put on a pedestal and surrounded with a supportive entourage of yes-men. It is characteristic of genius to lack real friends, as Beth does. Viewers don’t even notice that their attraction to Beth sidesteps the question of the kind of friend she’d be. What they admire is precisely her ability to stand alone, at the top, as though friendlessness were a kind of superpower. But is there really any person whose mind is so alien that she flourishes by being set “free” from the normative expectations that constitute community membership for the rest of us?
It is telling that “genius” is virtually synonymous with “tortured genius.” It is hard to imagine a story like Beth’s without the alcoholism, drug addiction, intense loneliness and self-destructiveness. The myth is of the genius “tortured” by some internal struggle the rest of us are not smart enough to understand, so that the best we can do is step out of their way. The real torture is the one we enact by classifying people as geniuses, to serve our own fantasies of independence. Geniuses are the monsters we make.
There is, in the end, only one kind of meaning. As Wittgenstein puts it, if the abstractions of philosophy are to have a use, ‘it must be as humble as that of the words “table”, “lamp”, “door”.’ He might have added ‘hmm’.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we are already living in the dystopia that some predicted five years ago, or a year ago, and that is probably too late for anyone to turn back. Surely, the corporations that now own a far greater share of the national wealth than they did a year ago have little interest in turning back—and more leverage to resist contrary proposals. We are all sick with the same disease, which is being pumped through our veins by the agents of a monopolistic oligarchy—whether they present themselves as the owners of large technology companies, or as the professional classes that are dependent on those companies for their declining wealth and status, or as identity politics campaigners, or security bureaucrats. The places where these vectors converge make up the new ideology, which is regulated by machines; the places outside this discourse are figured as threats, and made to disappear from screens and search results, using the same technologies that they use in China. The absence of a discrete ruling party apparatus either makes this new system weaker or stronger than the Chinese system. Again, I am happy to leave that question to the theorists. What I am gesturing toward is the totalizing push, the constraints on thinking and speaking, the uglification of everything, the all-around tightening of the noose.
The American system has its own special characteristics, of course. The Karens who are sick of working 70-hour weeks while raising gender nonbinary children via Zoom, have transformed the bleakness of their inner lives and the absence of healthy social connectedness into fuel for political movements that are funded by billionaires and manipulated by the Silicon Valley monopoly platforms whose consumer-end strategies involve a form of social fracking, which is how these unfortunate women wind up screaming racially charged epithets at birders in the middle of Central Park. Because politics can only provide the answer to personal problems in a healthy, functioning democratic society, which is not something that we have right now in America, it seems fair to imagine that the problems of these women and other people like them, of whatever gender, or sex, or whichever word the machines allow you to write in the grammatical spaces reserved for pronouns, will get worse instead of better. The only way out, as the older comrades have noted, is through accelerating the process of revolutionary change. Yet even then, there may be cracks that will threaten to bring the entire structure crashing down around our heads, comrades, which is why vigilance is necessary, and must be redoubled, until the utopian promise is made real here on earth, which history tells us never happens.
I don’t believe in revolutions. I live here now, with the cows and goats.
In today’s episode of the Telos Press Podcast, Camelia Raghinaru talks with John Milbank about his article “In Triplicate: Britain after Brexit; the World after Coronavirus; Retrospect and Prospect,” from Telos 191 (Summer 2020).
When the connection between the elements of the multitude and the coherence of the political machine no longer emanates from distinct parts that organically make up the whole; when the connection of the parts and their consensus no longer comes from these various parts insofar as they are diverse, but mutually and amicably communicating in the common good; when the genius of the city is no longer living in these parts, each being in its place in the heterogeneous whole according to legal justice: then political life ceases to be in the parts, it becomes a stranger to them; political life becomes transcendent and the parts only passively receive its effects. In sum, the city is replaced by The State.
Yet, in order for the friendship that is the intrinsic bond of the city to be living, it is necessary that the citizens order themselves to the common good. The common good is not only the good in which the citizens take part, or may take part, or must take part; it is the good from which they must receive or take their part, to the distribution of which they have the right. It is true that I have the right to take my turn to sit for a certain time on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes. It is true, but this is not enough to justify my pretention to citizenship. To consider the common good under this light is to consider it from a social perspective and not a political one. It is certain that this participation in the common good and this distribution of goods must be assured by society and assured in justice. But as long as we rest in this, we see in the member of the community nothing more than the subject of this good, a good in which he ought to participate. But the citizen as such is more than a subject. And to be more than a subject, he must turn towards the common good insofar as it is diffusive or communicative of itself; in other words the citizen must be the source of the communication of the good. The citizen helps himself, but he must pass the plate. It is not the subjective participation in the good that defines the activity of the citizen as a principle of the city. This subjective participation does not imply in itself any specifically political activity. When the State gets to providing all the good to each of the atoms of the uniform mass, we will no longer have anything to spontaneously communicate to each other; we will be the society of glutted subjects; we will no longer be citizens at all. This is how society curdles into the State, and how well-being ceases to be the good life.
Maritain thought most Catholic ideas in his day on the relation of Church and State were ideological rather than an earnest grappling with the increasing secularity of modern society. He sought to describe a relatively “secular” regime that would nonetheless recognize the principles of redistribution and transcendence and conform itself to them. For several decades, his idea seemed likely to succeed, and Christian democracy, to become the postwar alternative to totalitarianism and secular liberalism.
By now, however, that hope can be said largely to have failed. It makes no sense to fault Maritain for that failure or to make him the bête noir by contrast with which a new form of integralism seeks to define itself. For, the moral failings of modern states, and of contemporary culture more generally, can best be understood precisely in a failure to respect the principles of redistribution and transcendence that Maritain articulated so well.
Our age tends to think of economics in terms of winners and losers, as Marx encourages, rather than in terms of a shared good. We make a utilitarian calculus of “greatest good for the greatest number” our standard, rather than the fulfillment of personhood. We have no means to account for the honor involved in sacrificing one’s life for one’s country or faith. We make a little pointless “god” of the individual’s will, rather than respecting the destiny inscribed in each person by the essence of the rational soul. We are “anthropocentric” rather than “theocentric” in our humanism to the extent that we have not merely become anti-human altogether. Our age requires not another integralism, but a renewed integral humanism. Whatever his limitations, Maritain should be the thinker with whom we begin that work.
A distinction must be made between colonialism, which for us moderns is wrong in principle, like fascism and communism, and colonization, which was diverse and complex, both harmful and beneficent, the story of which emerges from the painstaking work of historians who respect facts and nuances. Colonization did not in all cases prevent the establishment of ties or the maintenance of relations of mutual esteem and friendship a half-century after independence. “Colonialism,” by contrast, is a bit like the draft effect of a cloud after a storm: It never ends; like God, it is invisible but omnipresent.
Many intellectuals born in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East and now living in France or the United Kingdom endlessly accuse Westerners of racism and neocolonialism. The paradox of these thinkers is as follows, it seems to me: By putting Europe in the dock, they are restoring it to the center. First, they are forgetting that of the 27 countries of the European Union, only eight were colonizers, less than a third, whereas the rest were colonized—by Arabs, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the USSR—and kept in servitude, some until the end of the 19th century, others until 1989. By seeking to marginalize Europe, or more precisely to “provincialize” it (Dipesh Chakrabarty), we keep it as the absolute point of reference. With the result that 60 years after eight countries of Western Europe ceased all colonization, they are as blameworthy as ever.
If Europe is detestable for so many reasons, as doubtless it is, if it combines racism, oppression, and beastliness, why pull out all the stops to come live here? Why do so many brilliant minds seek to teach and publish here? Those minds are driven by the determination to be recognized in the countries whose politics and policies they denounce so vehemently. The philosophers, writers, and celebrated novelists among them are rewarded, invited to speak, and awarded various prizes, yet they persist in vituperation. That strategy might be called seduction by insult: Let me in, so that I may curse you.
It’s a comfortable position, the pleasure of manipulating “white” guilt. And some Europeans delight in being ridiculed this way. Anglo-Ghanaian writer Kwame Anthony Appiah ironically summed up the situation as follows: “Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: a relatively small group of western-style and western-trained writers and thinkers who trade in cultural products of world capitalism at the periphery.”
The status of “victim” intellectual exploring the recesses of the Western guilty conscience can be an excellent niche. The relationship of the two roles is invariable: the inquisitor who attacks, and the accused who self-flagellates.
These injections of shame are based on a postulate: Europe (and now the United States) has an inexpungable debt to the rest of the world. No amount of financial damages can compensate for the world’s incalculable loss. So goes the thinking of the “decolonial” intellectuals who have appointed themselves as the moral tax collectors of the planet—and who collect dividends from their compassion. In their eyes, Europe was made possible by the Third World (as we said in the 1960s), and its wealth rightfully belongs to its former colonies. That proposition is eminently contestable—colonialism may have cost the European countries more than it brought in and neither pillage nor theft have ever made for a solid economy, as Spain in its golden age, overwhelmed with its gold fever, attests.
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