Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rorty has a laudatory essay on Kundera's fiction

by John Rothfork, from here
It is perennially fashionable to claim that Americans have no values (utilitarian greed being descriptive rather than normative) or that traditional (usually religious) values are in imminent danger of total erosion. Allan Bloom's recently popular book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), promotes the second charge in regard to higher education; that it is in danger of trivialization. Bloom blames Nietzsche for the putative fact that among Americans, "Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact" (143). I wish to argue the reverse: that Americans have deeply held beliefs, which are difficult to recognize or deliver up for a Platonic examination, because they are possessed in an Aristotelian sense as performative knowledge. A second issue complicates this. For there is currently a fight in America over the operational logic or vocabulary which enables public or ethical discourse to proceed. The fight is over how we -- as women, Native American Indians, Budddhists -- talk about our ethical performative knowledge.
One side hopes to conserve modernist terminology and the serious principles it articulates. Others, like Rorty, find the old lectures irrelevant and monotonous. Consequently the conservatives see Rorty and other postmodernists as threats; as iconoclasts, anarchists, juveniles, or -- at the least -- as irreverent. The tacit demand is that they must take seriously the traditional vocabulary of ethics or forfeit the right to speak publicly. The modernists fear that their enemies are trivializing a great and serious tradition that should be revered. The links in this Great Chain of Being comprise such things as Platonism, Christianity, German philosophy, and Marxist justice. It is significant that Saul Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom's book. For Bellow and Bloom are allies in the cause of modernist seriousness. Self-consciously dedicated to inviolate principles, they are offended by postmodern frivolity.
When Nietzsche, and those who further his cause, offer non-traditional metaphors, scholars like Bloom see an attack on what they consider to be the sacrosanct objects that lie behind their modernist terminology, the Platonic transcendentals that their words hope to denote and to which these men are seriously devoted.The preferred tactic of postmodernists is to avoid engagement, to talk about something else, often something silly or entertaining to break the tension, which, because it is so deadly serious, ultimately threatens coercive violence. One sees this in the fiction, for example, of Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera. By the way, Rorty has a laudatory essay on Kundera's fiction, nominating his works as preferable to those of Heidegger, because, "What the novelist finds especially comic is the attempt to privilege one [set of] descriptions, to take it as an excuse for ignoring all the others" (Papers, 2: 74).
More concretely, Kundera's early fiction suggested that when confronted by the duress of orthodoxies, such as Cold War Marxism or capitalism, one would do well to avoid either submission or rebellion by changing the vocabulary in which life is rendered meaningful; changing the discussion, for instance, to one of love, romance, or -- as it is more likely to be expressed by Kundera's characters -- chasing women. I want to consider Rorty's work because, unlike postmodern novelists, he does not so quickly change the vocabulary. A considerable part of Rorty's fame comes from his polite and patient attempts to answer the modernist invective against postmodernism. It is difficult to be content with postmodern advice to forget the consoling, but dangerous, rituals that devotion to explicit principles offers; to accept "that liberal democracies might work better if they stopped trying to give universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing to notions like 'rationality' and 'human nature' and instead viewed themselves simply as promising social experiments" (Papers, 2: 193).
Those of us who trust Rorty's advice, do not expect people involved in such experiments to be unprincipled nor to be mired in the philosophic swamp of moral relativism. We expect them to discover the principles that are important in their lives through their own experience rather than by taking principles off the shelf; out of some philosophy text or from a sermon or political speech.A generation ago (1953), the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote that, "The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling" (Mind, 29).
Milosz implied that Americans were too literal minded, too conservative, and not well enough versed in postmodern examples of social and ethical contingency. He testified that many East European intellectuals found it difficult to believe that Americans, who seemed so modern when it came to refrigerators and automobiles, could be so backward in regard to philosophy and logical consistency. In places like Warsaw, Milosz says he was sometimes asked: "Are Americans really stupid?" (Mind, 25). Like Polanyi, Professor Milosz adroitly suggested that it was this very backwardness -- which both writers associate with a stubborn and deep faith in Christianity -- that saved the Anglo-Americans from becoming enthusiastic partisans for the principles of Nazism or Stalinism.
I think both writers, especially Milosz, found something intriguingly similar between the inarticulate Christian faith of common people in the Anglo-American world and the equally inarticulate Christian faith of peasants in Eastern European and Russia. This being the case, how could the societies have gone in such polemically different historic directions? And if it was Christian faith that saved the West from concentration camps and gulags, why would we consider giving up the faith that saved us for the insipid satisfactions of academic philosophy, much less the Brahminic lectures of Rorty? Milosz suggested that the kaleidoscope of European enthusiasms for modern philosophic programs in the twentieth century incubated a profound relativism and cynicism.
Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and other lesser traumas sensitized Europeans to the notion that tomorrow they may have to renounce today's enthusiasm for yet another novelty. Thus, Europeans developed a cautious rationalization in regard to all belief. To non-Americans, this cynicism may resemble Rorty's epistemological caution. Milosz suggested that European political tragedies had the effect of destroying all sense of trust and community. Eastern Europe was left with a sophisticated relativism, a pervasive cynicism, and unavoidably, a sense of nostalgia for what it could no longer bring itself to believe. Sneering at the British and Americans for being too stubborn to abandon their old fashioned and philosophically backward beliefs, they nonetheless envied their stable communities of law, science, technology, commerce, and even art and entertainment. What was nearly impossible for them to understand was how such communities came into existence and were sustained. As good philosophers, they looked for principles.
Although he did not identify Nietzsche as the villain, Milosz' charge was the same as Allan Bloom's: "Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything" (Mind, 81). Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Lev Tolstoy before him, Milosz was nostalgic for the cultural bulwark of Christian belief. Of course he was not a theologian and consequently not greatly interested in the terms of Christian faith. At the end of his book, Milosz sentimentalizes the state of belief itself, saying "the superstition of Polish women gathering herbs to make charms, the custom of setting an empty plate for a traveler on Christmas Eve betoken inherent good that can be developed." In contrast, he claims that "in the circles in which my friend lives, to call man a mystery is to insult him" (Mind, 249).
As Plato told us, principles must be clear cut. When the day-to-day tacit process of belief, decision, dedication, and community involvement breaks down, principles often assume an exaggerated, even a salvific, importance. For they promise to restore the very thing that was lost. The problem is that what was lost was not a principle, but a lived way of life, embodied knowledge, for which the principle is, at best, an abstraction, at worst, a caricature. In any case, this sentimental attachment is too poetic to deal with pragmatically; it cannot be the focus for social development. Milosz can be powerfully graphic in illustrating the terror of Nazism and Stalinization -- as when he conjures the uncanny feeling of how a familiar street suddenly seems alien because many of the cobblestones have been turned on edge by machine gun bullets -- but for many American readers, and certainly American pragmatists, Milosz becomes obscurantist when he turns to nostalgia, to hopes of making Christian metaphors as powerfully vivid to bourgeois Americans as they were to Milosz himself and his comrades when they faced terror and death.
The same difficulty is present in Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Over thousands of pages, they try to convince readers that the highest moral position, perhaps even the only authentically moral position, is that of standing in front of the firing squad; being crucified like Jesus in defense of a principle. The contemporary Russian wryly comments that we only discover our beliefs when they are imperiled: "When things are bad, we are not ashamed of our God. We are only ashamed of Him when things go well" (Gulag, 3: 104). Rorty would say, that is exactly the way things should be; that rendering tacit values into a set of principles can be caused, no doubt, by terror, but that this experience is not the paradigm model of morality.
Nonetheless, moralists like Bloom follow Dostoyevsky's religious existentialism to infer that Americans are morally dim-witted and ultimately without values. Milosz laments that "in the countries where Christian churches thrive there are practically no genuinely Christian novels" (Emperor, 80). From their East European and Russian pulpits it appears that American capitalists snore away like contented hogs in warm mud. The non-utilitarian moralists are provoked to hysterical self-righteousness when writers like Rorty shrug their shoulders. Thus Milosz informs us that "any normal human being who reads these Russian writers [Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak] in America, for instance, must have one dominant feeling -- that of shame," because Milosz says, we lead frivolous, narcissistic lives, ignoring our clear moral duty to come to the aid of our Christian brothers and sisters, who are the victims of a palpable evil (Emperor, 79)...posted by wolftrappe at 3:46 PM

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