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All Over The Map

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Okay, I seem a little scattered these days, I know.  I can’t seem to help myself.  I am coming off a very bad year, one of the worst I’ve ever head, and scrambling to fix a piece of writing that ended up being the victim of it.  The only thing I’m happy with right now is this set of short stories I’m evaluating for a friend’s class.  So I can’t seem to keep my mind on anything for more than a minute or two at a time.

All of this is by way of an explanation.  I thought, yesterday, that I would be writing this post on the existence of the middle class in Medieval England–and there was one, a very significant one, not one that was vanishingly small–but instead I’m doing something else.  I mean, whatever.

Here’s the thing:  at and around Christmas, lots of people send me books.  They send lots of books, and all kinds of books, books that have been out for a while and books that aren’t out yet, books they know I’m looking for and books they’re sure I’ll like.  Sometimes, as I’ve  noted before, they send me books they hope will make me explode, because apparently the resulting e-mails are amusing.

About a week and a half ago, I received in the mail a newish book by a French writer named Jean Francois Revel called Last Exit to Utopia.  I like Revel in general.  the person who sent me the book knew it.   Revel died a few years ago, and this was apparently the last thing he wrote.  It is just being published here.

I looked through it for a bit, saw that it concerned Revel’s long-time obsession–the reasons and ways in which French intellectuals get high on totalitarianism–and put it aside.  I’ve still got lots of Kipling to read and then Eudora Welty, and it helps me to fix my own writing when I’m reading fiction while I’m doing it.  I’m not likely to get around to reading the Revel until well after Christmas.

This morning, however, having finished “real’ work and gone on to looking around the web, I looked at Arts and Letters Daily and found…a review, from the Wall Street Journal, of the Revel book.

So, just to be clear here, what I’m about to say refers to that review, and not to the book itself.  But something the review said strikes me. 

According to our guy at the WSJ, Revel examines not only the obvious intellectual defense of totalitarianism, from Stalin to Fidel to Mao to Khomeini, but the underlying wish to personally submit to one.

I don’t like the way that sentence reads, but I’m not quite sure how to say this.  According to this review, Revel believes that French intellectuals not only hate and fear “modernity,” by which he means the modern democratic state, but also have a positive attraction to being unfree.

I really am making a mess of this.  I think I may have a problem with the very concept.  It’s not that I’ve never known anybody with a secret wish to be dominated and oppressed.  People like that come along from time to time.  Generally, however, we tend to think of this as a mental illness.

What Revel seems to be saying–if, that is, the review is accurate–is that there is a large class of people, of a very particular type, who harbor almost irrational urges to be dominated and controlled, who need such domination and control in order to be emotionally comfortable.

I think the reason this sounds absurd is that it is, on one level, exactly that. 

But it occurs to me that I can rather see his point, at least with a certain kind of person.

What strikes me, of course, is that this is sort of the obverse of the way we usually explain the behavior of people like, for instance, Sartre, or Chomsky.  The usual assumption is that these people are looking for power in order to wield it themselves.  Revel’s (?) thesis is that a lot of them are looking for power in order to be rendered powerless.

It’s the worship of totalitarianisms as a sort of intellectual B and D.

But, like I said.  I can think of a few people who have wandered across my life who would fit this. 

And the first thing about the kind of person is that using the term “intellectual” for him is a bit misleading.  There are lots of different kinds of intellectuals in the world, and in history, and not all of them exhibit this need for personal oppression. 

Almost all the Founders of the US were intellectuals, some of them (see Jefferson) the leading lights of their time, but no matter what their failings (or virtues), I can’t think of one of them with this impulse.   The issue is less clear with John Stuart Mill, but not at all unclear with John Locke, who was neither an admirer of totalitarianisms nor in search of any.  The same could be said about Milton, whose nonfiction work comprises some really remarkable defenses of individual liberty. 

And then there’s Revel himself, and a long list of his contemporaries. 

In other words, the defining characteristic of people who have a deep emotional need to submit to totalitarianisms cannot be that they’re “intellectuals,” and it cannot be that they’re intellectuals with interests in the Humanities, either.  We can find lots of people who fit those categories who don’t have the impulse, and lots of those who don’t fit those categories–physicists, teen-aged converts to radical Islamic jihad–who do.

These days, the usual paradigm is to say that “elites” want top-down control of society and “ordinary people” do not, but aside from the fact that I think that’s a very iffy description of what’s actually going on in, say, the US at the moment, the fact is that historically it doesn’t work.  There’s a lot to learn from the fact that the German elected Hitler, and that so many of them threw themselves into near orgasmic paroxysms over the society he delivered.

I don’t actually think it makes much sense to ask why people are attracted to this sort of thing, why some people want to be dominated and surpressed.  Some people are going to want anything that is available to want, no matter how odd the rest of us think that is.

I think the real question is why such a taste should have become so integral to the intellectual history of the West since the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment was, after all, an intellectual enterprise, and an intellectual enterprise that intellectuals succeeded in bringing into the world.  Four hundred or so years after the death of Locke, nobody in the world except some radical Islamic clerics questions the ultimate moral rightness of democracy as a basis for social order, and of meritocracy as a basis for rewarding individuals. 

We’re so used to all this, we forget that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson made their arguments to a world that flatly rejected the idea that people could be self-governing, or that they ought to be.  The Catholic Church flatly opposed democracy as a form of government right down to the beginning of the twentieth century.  Society, the Church said, should reflect the order that God put into the Universe.  Christ was the King of Kings, not the President of Presidents, and nobody had the right to elect him.

Sometimes I think we profoundly underestimate the extent to which individual rights and society as a meritocracy pose a significant threat to the personalities of a significantly large minority of the people on earth.

For most of us brought up in the system–intellectuals or otherwise–these things represent an enormous opportunity, the chance to reinvent ourselves, to reject or accept what we were born with and to become the people we want to be. 

For some of us this means making lots of money.  For others it means publishing books, or getting a degree in cosmology, or rescuing dogs, or raising the perfect family.  For anybody more excited by the opportunity to try to succeed than they are afraid of failure, this looks like a pretty good deal.

For people more afraid of failure–more afraid of it than they are afraid of anything else–I think there might be a different calculation going on here.  Settled societies, totalitarian and otherwise, provide their members with ready-made identities and the certain knowledge that their lives are not their fault or their responsibility.

And here I am again.  Back where I always end  up when I start thinking about this stuff.

Tomorrow, maybe I’ll get back to the English Middle Ages and the English middle class.

Written by janeh

December 15th, 2009 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'All Over The Map'

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  1. There are many people who are afraid to think for themselves. This characteristic can be found in groups as well as individuals. Buying into an ideology that encourages blind obedience to an established agenda leaves disciples with little responsibility. I’ll not name the several cults and religious groups that expect “pay, pray and obey” from their members. I’m not crazy about the self esteem movement (if it is one) but to think for yourself–even about the most minute things– and develop some self respect is the way to avoid considering yourself victimized by anyone else. I mention again the current movie “Precious,” and the book it was made from PUSH. The young woman protagonist begins as a victim but slowly digs herself out of it and begins to love herself and take responsibilty for her life.


    15 Dec 09 at 3:11 pm

  2. Apparently my view of the Middle Ages is so skewed as to not resemble reality. So where did I get these ideas? Disney cartoons? I’m not sure. It’s been a long time since I read the greater part of A Distant Mirror, and so perhaps I’ve recycled those neurons for other purposes.

    What I find interesting is that we (or I at least) tend to think of the Middle Ages as having occurred pretty much exclusively in England. Italian MA? Turkish MA? Not so much.


    15 Dec 09 at 3:40 pm

  3. OK, haven’t read the Revel either and read the same piece on aldaily.
    There do seem to be people who like taking orders, but I don’t think there are very many of them: they just make a convenient excuse. It was easier to say Germans were rejecting freedom in voting for Hitler than to say they were trading some freedoms for riches and power. THAT might hit uncomfortably close to home elsewhere.
    This is the point at which I would usually cite Ayn Rand on “second-handers” and “Attila the Hun and the Witch Doctor” on the superstition of the powerful and the worship of raw power on the part of intellectuals–but I think that too is comfort rather than analysis.

    You can make a better case that an intellectual hopes for influence over a totalitarian state he will never have in a free one. No Obama “Science Czar” will ever have the power of a Lysenko.

    But try this one: for many people–intellectuals at least as much as anyone else–being important is a high priority, and importance is very much a zero-sum game. In the United States, a political theorist probably teaches political science somewhere, and if he’s diligent and reasonably competent he’ll have tenure, and be able to afford a house in the suburbs and a respectable car. He will publish in a university press–hundreds of copies of each volume. And no one will know his name except for a few freshmen who will have forgotten it by their junior year. In Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or China perhaps even today, the same theorist will publish by samizdat, be locked up in lunatic asylums or sent off to destructive labor camps. In which society is he taken seriously? In which is he important? It’s worth repeating that the defection of the intellectuals begins about when they could see what status they would have in a free prosperous society.

    I think the number of people who simply don’t want to be free–who would prefer a life of slavery–is right up there with the number of people who want to have sex with chickens. The number who would trade some freedom for something else–power, riches, security–is pretty much everyone: it’s a matter of finding the balance. But the number who would give up their freedom–or at least the freedom of others–in order to be important could be a large and troubling element.


    15 Dec 09 at 5:51 pm

  4. Lymaree, there was a “Middle Ages” throughout Europe – filled with Italian artists like Cimabue, the French authors of the chanson de geste (i.e. The Song of Roland – a great read), philosophers like Aquinas. As far as Turkey – not an area I know a lot about. Islamic and Byzantine influences are all over Italy and Spain, brought there primarily during those early centuries that Christianity was blooming. And, the emergence of literature like Scheherazade’s tales dates to that period, I believe. Well – they were probably very early Middle Ages.

    As far as the Middle Class in the Middle Ages goes – am I correct in remembering that the King of England had to appeal to the Londoners for permission to rule? Or did Shakespeare mislead me on that? After the plague, skilled workers were in high demand throughout Europe – hence a strong middle class.


    15 Dec 09 at 6:13 pm

  5. I think I know more about the middle ages in England because that’s what I had access to information about and what fascinated me at an impressionable age. I know a little about what is now France, but almost nothing about anywhere else. They must have *had* middle ages of one sort or another, at least the European people did; other regions probably went through different stages differently labelled. Of course, Russia emancipated her serfs very late…I wish I knew more about Russia than the communist revolution and Catherine the Great.

    London was a powerful city. Still is, I guess. But I think that in the Middle Ages the kings didn’t assume they controlled London until they were actually installed there, without the citizenry rioting in the streets and with the civic authorities showing up to lend their support.

    I think it’s a bit misleading to talk of people wanting to submit to a tyrant, particularly in sexual terms. As Robert said, just about anyone will trade some degree of freedom for some degree of power or riches or authority. I think our need to belong is important, too. We all have it and satisfy it in various ways, with our families and our professions and our friends and our nations or regions and so on and so forth. Mostly this is probably beneficial – we feel comfortable in a bone-deep way that probably is generated by our genes. We give up some of our autonomy, sacrificing time and energy to the benefit of the group, and besides comfort, we get to be part of something bigger than ourselves; something that can produce things that we cannot on our own.

    Of course, like all human endeavours, this can go wrong. We can end up destroying our family in an attempt to protect it or destroying others in order to protect our family or our society. But it’s not a case of wanting to be dominated; wanting to be a slave. It’s a case of wanting connection with others or to be part of something big and permanent and important – and giving in order to get this. Giving time and money and energy. Giving all those at the request of someone who promised what we want…it’s just a normal human process of creating a society, gone wrong.


    15 Dec 09 at 7:36 pm

  6. Gail, I realize the rest of the world was still there during the MAs, but it’s funny how even when we start out talking about some other area, we end up talking about England.

    As for submitting to a tyrant, I’m not so sure. Just read a National Geographic article about a tribe of hunter-gatherers who live as humans did for hundreds of thousdands of years. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/12/hadza/finkel-text
    Great article. No leaders. No set groups in which to live, people move freely from group to group, and spouse to spouse. Women are free and equal, though there are gender-specific tasks. Their environment provides enough food that subsistence takes fewer of their hours than working does of ours.

    So apparently there isn’t really an inborn human need for power, or the exercise or submission to same. It’s interesting to observe an entire human society where having enough and no more, and desiring no more is actually valued. Probably comes from having to move constantly. More possessions mean less mobility, and mobility is survival to them.


    15 Dec 09 at 10:42 pm

  7. I haven’t met many people who actually *wanted* to be dominated (although I’ve met a few), but I’ve met quite a few (and read about many more) who thought that *other people* ought to be dominated. Either by them, or by other people who thought like they did. Obviously, the world would be much better if everyone thought like they did, or at least was forced to act as if they did. This desire doesn’t seem to be limited to any particular class or party or religion.

    Do the French intellectuals want to be dominated themselves, or do they just want some right-thinking person to dominate everybody else?

    Lee B

    15 Dec 09 at 10:56 pm

  8. I’m always a bit suspicious about these stories of ideal hunter-gatherer societies. I suspect that, like in the most egalitarian of families, there is a lot going on that members understand and see but non-members don’t. And these groups in particular are extended families, not societies.

    They do have some structure – their chief or elder gets the best bit of the baboon – and their pacifism may be as much due to the way they are vastly outnumbered by the people now moving into their territory. They eat reasonably well, but are starved for protein. They have gender-specific tasks – but their lives in general allow for very little in the way of individual interests or jobs. There’s little entertainment, no mention of healers or midwives, no religious or spiritual life, no care of or interest in animals or plants other than the immediately practical…and there’s really no place for the sickly or elderly (unless they’re healthy and strong). I’d have no place in a narrow society (or extended family) like that; I’d find it incredibly narrow and limiting. Hurray for agriculture, say I!


    16 Dec 09 at 9:08 am

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