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Tourists, Revolutionaries, Enablers, Whatever

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Tosay, I really, really, really apologize for the typing.  First, I’m the sickest I’ve been yet, with one of those fever making me floaty feelings that results in a lot of rambling if I start talking.  Second, I’m on an excellent computer that has, for some reason, been set up so that I can’t actually sit at the keyboard, but have to sit sort of sideways and twist around. 

Robert wants us to notice that all the people I’m talking about are Americans, and Cheryl says Lori Berenson seems to be more of a revolutionary than a tourist at the revolution.

As for the Americans–I think it’s true enough that these people only show up in advanced Western civilizations, but I know it isn’t true that they only show up in countries where very little is done in response to their romanticism.  They show up all over Dostoyevski, for instance, and he was writing about Russia at a time when doing some of this stuff could, and did, land you in Siberia.

I’m also not sure that actually getting down in the nitty gritty and committing “revolutionary” acts actually qualifies you as a revolutionary, rather than a tourist.  It seems to me that this is precisely a romantic movement, that it starts in earnest with the English Romantic Poets–with Shelley, but especially with Byron.

And Byron certainly got down to the nitty gritty.  He went to war on behalf of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and died at thirty six while doing it.  But he was, I think, still a tourist.  He was a man who went looking for a cause to commit to, rather than one who had such a cause given to him naturally by circumstances.

I’m not sure if that’s clear.

But I’ve been wondering this morning if what we’re actually seeing here is not just adolescence, or romanticism,  but an adolescent/romantic response to the death of religion.

I don’t mean that religion is dead for everybody.  Nor do I mean that anybody who does not believe in God will get caught up in dangerous and destructive causes.  I don’t believe in God, and the only cause I’m really interested in at the moment is getting over this cold and getting back to work on the new book, which I think they rather expect to have me send them pretty soon.

I do think, however, that there are some people who need religion in a psychological way–who do not function well if they are not able to see themselves as part of a cause bigger and more important than themselves.

This is something that has always been rather thin on the ground in the countries of the Anglophone sphere. The “nation of shopkeepers” that drove Marx so crazy was a nation of people willing to settle for small satisfactions and everyday meanings. 

And I think that a willingness to live in the everyday is a necessary if not sufficient condition for a successful modern democracy.  The real problem with all the political screaming–fascist! Communist!  just like Hitler!–that’s been going on lately is that it derails the idea of politics as the art of the practical. 

I think that for all of these people, from Byron on down, the need has been for some big, overaching, apocalyptic Meaning with a capital M, and once they no longer believed in God, they had to find that meaning in politics.  That accounts, I think, for the incredible will to violence in all these people–almost always people who are relatively well off and privileged in their societies.

Maybe, for some people, looking at the world and seeing that it by and large–at least in their part of it–a very nice place, where you’re not going tob e killed or starve, where you can go on day after day being happy about the tuna casserole you made and the movie you saw last Sunday, maybe that looks like a huge black hole where there isno point to anything.

That would account, I think, for the fanaticism, and for the dogmatism, which is often far worse than the dogmatism of various religious groups.  The Inquisition was less hysterical on the subject of orthodoxy than your average Berkeley Maoist.

George Steiner–to quote another writer I like–once said, in an essay called “Archives of Eden,” that true art, high art, is not possible in a democratic republic, and further not possible once we no longer accept the idea of God.  You need extremes of inequality of condition, and the impetus of eternity, to create the Sistine ceiling or The Well-Temptered Clavier or any of the plays of Shakespeare.

I have no idea if this is true or not.  It seems to me that Shakespeare himself was happy as a clam in that natrion of shopkeepers, and one of the least self-consciously important artists of all time.  I can’t imagine him thinking of himself as an Artist with a capital A.

In fact, I wonder how much of Steiner’s thesis comes from the fact that we are unable to hear the word “artist” any more without automatically defining it as Goethe did.  The Sorrows of Young Werther gave us the Romantic movement, and the Artist as finely tuned and tortured genius.  Before then, an artist was a craftsman, who worked for commissions, usually, and got his job done without too much fuss.

Well, no, not exactly.  Michaelangelo is supposed to have been something of a histrionic nut.  But you know what I mean.

I keep thinking these tourists at the revolution are all Byron–they are all Young Werther, except that they live in an age that has demystified both art and religion for them, so they have gon on to the only thing in the culture that still seems to be promising an Ultimate Meaning:  apocalyptic politics, in which intoxication with violence takes the place of the intoxication with God that characterized people like, say St. Teresa of Avila.

The Sorrows ofYoung Werther is a thoroughly silly book, but it marked the end of the Enlightenment, and it’s first child wasn’t Byron, but the French Terror.

That ought to be enough blitherng for one day.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2008 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Tourists, Revolutionaries, Enablers, Whatever'

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  1. The parallel between religions and politics is obvious (at least for religions that aren’t social formalities and politics that aren’t the art of the possible), as is the fact that some people are perfectly happy and as far as anyone else can see fulfilled in a life without any overarching beliefs or causes, religious or political but others find such a life intolerably empty.

    I’m sure I’ll think of more to type later, but besides doing a ‘me, too’, I wanted add an academic anecdote. Our first university became a university (rather than a college) in 1949, and still had when I was an undergraduate student an overwhelming proportion of CFA (Come From Away) among the faculty, some of whom were not exactly subtle about their opinion of a small new university in a remote and largely rural part of Canada. One version of this sort of opinion was that we would never be a world-class university because our suicide rate was too low. True academics had such a drive towards academic perfection, the theory went, that they killed themselves from stress or failure or something. Local students were remarkably unlikely to kill themselves over academic achievement, proving their – our – unsuitability for the scholastic world.

    I mention this anecdote because of the tie to suffering. To be real or of value, something must entail suffering and death. This doesn’t seem to be quite the same as the usual Christian teachings about suffering, which is more along the line of ‘suffering is inevitable in this life (for various reasons) but can be endured with the help of God.’ What this anecdote, and the idea of the Suffering Artist, and even the idea of the Suffering Political Activist have in mind is that you can’t learn, or paint, or be active politically in any worthwhile way unless you suffer. That’s a very different view of the role of suffering in life. Is that what Steiner’s getting at? Can we blame, or attribute, this idea to romanticism? Or is romanticism just a channel for the need for meaning, but a channel with a slightly different slant on the place of violence than most other channels (eg religion) have. That is, is the search for meaning and the need for violence and the need for an explanation of suffering all part of human nature and religion, art and politics merely ways to handle what’s bred into the chromosomes?


    12 Nov 08 at 1:15 pm

  2. Somme years ago I read a book about the USSR under Stalin (I think it was by Robert Conquest). He commented that the compulsory study of Marxism-Lenisism and many of the public ceremonies were strongly reminiscent of religion.


    12 Nov 08 at 4:55 pm

  3. Yeah, I thought of Byron and of the Narodniki. And think of the European malcontents who show up for the American War of Independence: they weren’t all mercenaries. And I think you can make a good case that there are people who, in the absence of religion, ask more of government than it can possibly deliver.

    But neither Byron nor the Narodniki were surprised or outraged by the response of the governments they attacked, any more than John Brown’s people were shocked to be hanged after Harper’s Ferry. They expected the response, which to me makes them valid revoutionaries–though a bit flakey in other respects. Only the post-1964 West seems to produce people who with every evidence of sincerity call some civil authority a fascist dictatorship and then are astounded when the government they attack beats the Tourists up and throws them in prison.

    From roughly 1776 onward, the West has had a floating population of revolutionary wannabes. But only from 1964 have they stopped expecting consequences.


    12 Nov 08 at 5:48 pm

  4. robert, 1964 was about when US universities started letting students shout down speakers they didn’t agree with and allowed sit ins to occupy university buildings without penalty.


    12 Nov 08 at 8:11 pm

  5. “From roughly 1776 onward, the West has had a floating population of revolutionary wannabes. But only from 1964 have they stopped expecting consequences.”

    Does the treatment of martyrs have anything to do with it? Religions, political movements (in the controlling a country sense), labour movements, civil rights movements have all had their martyrs, and for a long time a lot was written about their sufferings. But this is not so popular any more, at least in the west. You don’t get so many popular books and songs focusing on the suffering and horrible deaths of your predecessors in the struggle. So maybe nowadays, when the Tourist thinks of martyrdom in pursuit of civil rights for all Chileans (or whatever), he thinks more in terms of being away from their families or living in poor conditions than of being killed, slowly and agonizingly.

    Would I be considered anti-American if I suggested that some version of this approach is peculiarly American? The idea of some Americans that their government will bail them out of any trouble they might get into in a foreign country could be a result of being a citizen of the most powerful country in the world. Or, on the other hand, it might just be another manifestation of revolutionary tourism.


    13 Nov 08 at 8:01 am

  6. “Would I be considered anti-American if I suggested that some version of this approach is peculiarly American? The idea of some Americans that their government will bail them out of any trouble they might get into in a foreign country could be a result of being a citizen of the most powerful country in the world. Or, on the other hand, it might just be another manifestation of revolutionary tourism.”

    This used to be a particularly American phenomenon, at least if you believed the hype. But these days, with the aid of a thoroughly cynical media anxious to embarrass the Government at every opportunity, young Australians (Gens X and Y and whatever) seem to believe that it is their god-given right to travel where they want, when they want and how they want and, regardless of their behaviour – often gross and culturally inappropriate – they expect, indeed demand, that the Australian Government bail them out of whatever trouble they find themselves.

    Places like Bali in Indonesia have become very dangerous since the Bali bombings and the recent execution of the perpetrators, but young Australians, and often their equally dopey parents, happily ignore the Government warnings and travel anyway, secure in the knowledge that, like the British in the Greek and Spanish resorts, they will be among their own kind virtually to the total exclusion of any authentic local colour. But mostly, they just know that the Australian media will persecute the Government to rescue them from any trouble they might get into.

    I simply don’t think that most of these young people have enough intelligence to form any sort of rationale for their behaviour, whether it is purportedly political, religious or just hedonistism. They might spout all sorts of idealistic slogans, but in the end they are just there for the adventure, and the cause is irrelevant.


    13 Nov 08 at 8:37 am

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