Ineluctable totalitarianism

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

When discussing the inconceivable — that which is abstract from reason — we tend to hurry to subjects at our limits of conception such as the afterlife, god, or to fantasy worlds or bodies. There are, however, things that are allatonce earthly, perceivable, but incomprehensible. These are the immediate social & political issues that demand our attention, that are not a luxury contemplation [as philosophy certainly is] but a necessity. For instance, the terrors of the Holocaust or the ideal of a Year Zero in Phnom Penh. Any intellectualizing of these subjects can only be likened to politicking, so far is it from explanation proper. Nevertheless, they must not remain in the realm of silence.

History offers one opportunity to elaborate the precise events & motives (again, not to be confused with meanings) & to divulge the private stories of those involved. Many modern historical methods steer clear of judgement, claiming the journalistic-ideal of objectivity. Another method, however, is that of exposing the national & universal myths of human existence so as to situate the indigestible mutations of our common lot. In its examination of past experience this is historical only superficially. What is formed in history’s place is a shared narrative — a constructed social experience — which is used to delineate the arcs or trends of happenings & the way these infringe on individual lives. The advantage of the second method is in its capacity for psychological summation: of the author, certainly, & perhaps a greater generational feeling — at the very least as an example of one. That it does not adhere to the conventional objectivism of cause & effect or those of proper documentation are both what enables & the disadvantages this genre. Its preference is for the question of spiritual peril over any claim to truth.

To make an exorcism, you must call upon a priest.

Toward the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship, a small volume was published that attempted an unsympathetic accounting for fascism in this vein, one that might revert the sense of fatality & incite change. Its author, Carlo Levi, was already in the public eye for his ardent involvement with the Justice & Liberty party, for his series of arrests, petitions, & releases, & somewhat less for his paintings (a practice he persisted all throughout his life, focusing his work into realist representations of everyday life mostly with respect for the impressionist brush strokes which preceded him directly). The volume was Fear of Freedom; unpopular upon its 1942 publication, it would take much of the rest of his life to have the tome noticed.

Fear of Freedom employs the methodology of intellectual irrationality. Levi’s manner of understanding was through the sacred, unconsciously intuited &, therefore, of greater & truer effect than fact or history could aspire to. This was especially true for a dark time when scrutiny, the requisite condition of science & interpretation, was itself barred by the state — disagreement was treason (xxxviii). In Levi’s own words, “the light of reason cannot illuminate this darkness, but only burn these idols & turn them into barren cinders” (15). The ideas are too delicate for the aggression of scrutiny in any case. His is the province of metaphor:

Beyond metaphors, we cannot grasp anything human, unless we start from the feel of ‘the sacred’: the most ambiguous, deep-seated, double-edged of all feelings & senses, worm & eagle alike; a continuous dark denial of freedom & art, & — conversely — a continuous creation of art & freedom. & again, we cannot understand anything social, unless we start from the meanings of ‘religion’, this disrespectful heir of things sacred. (1)

While an atheist, he does not shy from instrumentalizing religion as “the individuating limitation of that which has no shape, the symbolic fixation of the indeterminate” (42). In Levi’s book, the social arc is typified through Christianity.* Especially important is the sacrificial act which destroys in the same instant it makes sacred — the eucharist is the epitome of this — likewise the aspect of estrangement is the only means of establishing the religious union. Levi uncovers in this contradiction a cemented naturalization of ecstatic masochism so that “every self-inflicted mutilation seems holy, every humiliation & abasement acceptable in order to reach a complete religious fixation” (24).

This is a dangerous predisposition. Once the State intervenes, most of the work to dispirit has been achieved already. This is fortuitous to a totalitarian mission, as a body of people who are unclaimed by individual passions are the ideal playfield for the State. “[S]tate-idolatry is an idolatry of the individual soul, unable to achieve the freedom it requires: it is also the need to find an external, enduring certainty — in human relationship a certainty of life, the persistence of heredity through the generations” (53). The State’s claim on individuals is purely through the social lure: protection through perpetuation & that never-foreign-enough notion that you are involved in something bigger. Again, Levi calls on the religious equivalent to elaborate; he speaks of a mass. This is “the negative origin of all qualities” (71), as essential to us as names, what we define ourselves against & what we fight for. Leadership of a mass comprised of the unclaimed is inevitably hyper-protectionist, megalo-expansionist, & unthreatened.

Since the mass has no limits, its state-equivalent, in its symbolical & hierarchic preciseness, is an idol of unlimited power, to which nothing may be extraneous, & the mystery of which is absolute. To this idol everything must be sacrificed — both freedom & blood. Its necessary rites are total slavery & continuous war. (77—8).

Dehumanization begot depoliticization. Depoliticization begot submission. The children of submission include: the loss of will (except for the willingness to fight in defence of the State), the under-critical mind which is satisfied with the assumption that it cannot understand political actions, inaction, & the death of spirit. According to Levi, this was an ineluctable fate whose only enemy was ‘work on the self’, where individuals acknowledge their passions completely, liberate their desire for them, & reset their limits of differentiation.

Here, one conforms to the mentality of either servants or gentry; there is no other choice where there are no free people. Their souls are imprisoned.

Péter Nádas, ‘Parallel Stories’ (203)


* A privileged position is granted religion for two reasons: 1/ religious narratives are suitable metaphors for the human life in crisis & the everyday as is their intention, 2/ religion is the embodiment of metaphor, the manifestation of sacredness. [Let us take a moment to define sacredness. When using the term, Levi always has in mind its most generic possibility of a mere totem, as words are for things. For any idea to exist, it must take the shape of an idol by principle in order to be a communicable presence.]


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