Monday, April 28, 2008

The Romantic Will (continued)

To repeat, in what follows I am either paraphrasing Isaiah Berlin's essay, "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will", or quoting from it.

"'I do not accept what nature offers because I must,' Fichte declares, 'I believe it because I will.' And, 'I am not determined by my end: the end is determined by me.'

"He advocates peace, but if it is to be a choice between freedom, with its potentiality of violence, or the peace of subjection to the forces of nature, he unequivocally prefers--and indeed thinks it is the essence of man not to be able to avoid preferring--freedom. Creation is of man's essence; hence the doctrine of the dignitgy of labour, of which Fichte is virtually the author--labour is the impressing of my creative personality upon the material brought into existence by this very need, it is the means for expressing my inner self--the conquest of nature and attainment of freedom for nations and cultures is the self-realization of the will: 'Sublime and living will! Named by no name, compassed by no thought!
"Fichte's will is dynamic reason, reason in action. Yet it was not reason that seems to have impressed itself upon the imagination of his listners in the lecture-halls of Jena and Berlin, but dynamism, self-assertion; the sacred vocation of man is to transforrm himself and his world by his indomitable will. This is something novel and audacious: ends are not, as had been thought for more than two millennia, objecative values, discoverable within man or in a transcendent realm by some special faculty. Ends are not discovered at all, but made, not found but created."

"There are no objective rules, only what we make.... worldly failure is unimportant, worldly goods--riches, security, success, fame--trivial in contrast with what alone counts, respect for myself as a free being, my moral principles, my artistic or human goals; to give up the later for the former is to compromise my honour and independence, my real life, for the sake of something outside it, part of the empirical-causal treadmill, and this is to falsify what I know to be the truth, to prostitute myself, to sell out--for Fichte and those who followed him the ultimate sin.
"From here it is no great distance to the worlds of Byron's gloomy heroes--Satanic outcasts, proud, indomitable, sinister...They may by the standards of the world be accounted criminal, enemies of mankind, damned souls: but they are free; they have not bowed the knee in the house of Rimmon; they have preserved their integrity at a vast cost in agony and hatred. The Byronism that swept Europe... was a form of protest against real or imaginary suffocation in a mean, venal and hypocritical milieu, given over to greed, corruption and stupidity. Authenticity is all: 'the great object in life is sensations,' Byron once said--'to feel that we exist--even though in pain.' His heroes are like Fichte's dramatization of himself, lonely thinkers: 'There was in hiim a vital scorn of all. He stood a stranger in this breathing world.' The attack on everything that hems in and cramps, that persuades us that we are part of some great machine, from which it is impossible to break out, since it is a mere illusion to believe thatg we can leave the prison--that is the common note of the Romantic revolt. When Blake says, 'A Robin Red-breast in a cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage', the cage is the Newtonian system. Locke and Newton are devils; 'Reasoning' is 'secret Murder'; Art is the Tree of Life... Science is the Tree of Death.'"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Romantic Will (continued)

I've been in Syria for the last three weeks--in case anyone's been wondering (good luck!) where this Romantic Will business was headed. I went for the fun of it, with no specific objectives, but soon began trying to learn as much as I could about the early history of the Islamic Caliphate--a subject very remote, it would seem,from the history of the Romantic Will in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though I suppose that in itself may be worth remarking on: that is to say,nothing remotely comparable to the deification of the individual self and its absolute or utopian demands that we encounter in 19th century Romanticism, is to be met with in the history of Islamic political thought. So? (you ask); but romantic ideas and attitudes are still operative in the west, still a source of misleading expectations... Consider now the fundamental characteristics of Islamic religious practise (I quote now from a book by Bernard Lewis [no relation]): "The interior of the mosque is simple and austere. There is no altar and no sanctuary,for Islam has no sacraments and no ordained priesthood... Muslim public prayer is a disciplined, communal act of submission to the Creator, to the One, remote and immaterial God. It admits of no drama and no mystery, and has no place for liturgical music or poetry..." This disciplined ritual of submission to the will of God is to be repeated five times a day,according to the Koran. Not Romantic self-assertion, but submission. Anyone who wants to understand the basics of how we in the West differ from the peoples of the Islamic world, would do well to consider this distinction.

Lao Qiao asks if suicide bombing has any precedent in Islamic history. The Assassins of the 11th-12th centuries were professional killers who made something of a cult of close-in dagger work; it seems to have been a point of honor not to survive their victims, who were all public figures. The Assassins were not indiscriminate killers; the killing of innocent people to make a political point seems,therefore, to be unprecedented--in Islamic history if not in our own: terroristic attacks on the civilian populations of enemy cities were carried out by both sides during WW II.

Lao Qiao also wonders when and why women were made to dress like nuns. (What follows is guess-work.) It's all about honor—-male honor. It may be that Arab culture is not careful to distinguish between thoughts or intentions, and actions-- especially when women are likely to become an object of male attention. Women, it is assumed, are only too naturally apt to get sexual pleasure out of a male glance. For a man to look at a woman with desire, therefore, is tantamount to rape or seduction as her family sees it—-the ultimate dishonor. Female sexuality, then is the original source of disorder, the uncontrollable mystery that must somehow be controlled—at any cost.