Friday, October 18, 2013

Friendship between books

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on choosing books in an eclectic way or rather on “reading broadly”, as I called my blog. I argued that reading broadly lays a better foundation for understanding the specific and maybe narrow topics you are interested in. I had to think of it, when I happened to read a novel by the German author Walter Flex on his friendship with Ernst Wuche during the First World War. I see you thinking already: This is again a case of eclectic reading, for what has a novel on the First World War to do with the themes discussed in these blogs? “Maybe nothing and yet maybe a lot”, is my reply. However, here I don’t want to talk about the direct relevance of these novels for “my” philosophy and philosophy in general but about eclecticism.
Flex’s novel is on friendship and especially on his relation with Ernest Wuche. In a certain sense the book can be compared with Montaigne’s essay “On friendship” dedicated to his friend Étienne de La Boétie, who had died a few years before Montaigne wrote it. Also Flex wrote his novel after his friend’s death. Flex meets Wuche for the first time when they received officer training somewhere in Germany. They clicked immediately with each other, just like Montaigne and La Boétie. And also the friendship between Flex and Wuche was short lasting but intensive. A difference is that Flex wasn’t there when Wuche died, although he was present at his burial. Also Flex, like Montaigne, couldn’t forget his friend and thinking of him made him depressive. This made Montaigne write his Essays and Flex write his novel Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten (The Wanderer between Two Worlds).
On the train to the Eastern Front, Flex and Wuche got into conversation. They talked about books. Wuche is an avid reader, and also in the trenches and behind the frontline he read a lot (as many other soldiers did, on both sides of the front). Flex tells how Wuche gets a few books from his knapsack: An anthology of Goethe, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the New Testament in a special edition for soldiers. “Is this compatible with each other?”, Flex asked. Wuche smiled and said: “In the trenches all sorts of people who do not know each other are forced to comradeship. It’s the same with books as it is with people. They may be very different – they need to be only strong and honest and be able to hold out, this gives the best comradeship.”
Must I add anything to it? Good books do not need to fit objectively, as long as they fit in the mind of the reader.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The power of words (2)

In my blog last week I wrote about Simone Weil’s analysis of the use of empty words in politics. Later this phenomenon has been exposed so well by George Orwell. The slogan “War is Peace” from his novel 1984 is a good example of how meaningless words can be used for manipulation. Weil gives also a few instances of vague words with a baleful influence on the practice of politics, just because of this vagueness: nation, security, democracy … Still today these words are often used for justifying political measures and even war. The problem is not that these words have to be skipped from our vocabulary (I certainly do not want to deny that the idea of democracy is important!). The problem is that, so Weil, “each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean … anything whatsoever” (242). Nevertheless, “we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related to one or another or to any concrete facts.” (243) Many fights are fought only in the name of abstract words that haven’t been translated into concrete aims. With right Weil speaks here of “lethal absurdity” (243).
“The prime specimen [of this lethal absurdity] is the antagonism between nations”, Weil continues. Nothing could be more true, if one realizes that the nations that a few years after she had written these words begun to fight against each other in one of the most lethal wars in history, six years after the end of this war concluded a treaty of cooperation transferring powers of these same nations to a supranational organ: The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), one of the foundations of the present European Community. The ECSC exemplifies what Weil writes just after the quotation: that national rivalries are meaningless in the light of many international networks that exist at the same time, and that, for instance, “the German steel industry may be regarded with hostility by producers of steel goods in France; but it makes little difference to the mining companies whether the iron of Lorraine [in France] is worked in France or Germany…” (243). How absurd would the establishment of an organisation like the ECSC would have sounded when Weil wrote this at the end of the 1930s!
In view of the many actual relations in the world between individuals, groups, companies and peoples, the relations between national states is only one way of how we go along with each other globally. The importance of it is simply overstressed. However, the interest of the nation cannot be in the relations with people outside the nation; it would mean that the nation would disaffirm itself. According to Weil, a study of history has shown that its interest is in its capacity to make war. Weil doesn’t say it, but I think that this can be reduced to the sociological phenomenon of ingroup-outgroup, which explains much of the social behaviour of man. Here, I cannot take notice of this complex problem, but in the end it makes that man is prepared to use violence in order to defend its own group, the ingroup, against the outgroup. “Right or wrong my country”, as the British say (and not only they do!). As soon as we see this, much of what happens internationally becomes comprehensible: “What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war; petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict. Thus when war is waged it is for the purpose of safeguarding or increasing one’s capacity to make war.” (244) However, as the singer Country Joe McDonald song in his famous chorus of the “Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag”: “What are we fighting for?”. What are the real interests of a nation? Again Weil puts the finger on the problem: “If the countries were divided by a real opposition of interests, it would be possible to arrive at satisfactory compromises. But when economic and political interests have no meaning apart from war, how can they peacefully be reconciled? It is the very concept of the nation that needs to be suppressed – or rather, the manner in which the word is used”. (245) That’s what’s done today by the European Union, for instance. The EU has been successful insofar since its foundation no war has been fought anymore between its member countries, although before the history of the relations between these countries has been a history of war (so the Netherlands, “my” country, fought at least four wars against Britain; an eighty years lasting war against Spain; several wars against France; one against Belgium; one against Germany and others against its founding states; etc.). How sad then that the EU meets with so much nationalistic opposition now. “For the word national and the expressions of which it forms part are empty of all meaning; their only content is millions of corpses, and orphans, and disabled men, and tears and despair.” (245)
The quotations are from “The power of words" in Simone Weil, An Anthology, London: Penguin Books, 2005. Here you can listen to the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag:

Monday, October 07, 2013

The power of words

Actually I didn’t need to write a blog, this week. Instead I could past Simone Weil’s essay “The power of words” here and then I would have a clear political comment on the world events of today. For Weil’s criticism of what was happening in the world around here is eternal. Or must I say, following Nietzsche, that history repeats itself? For, when writing this essay, Weil was not practising futurology but she was disclosing the hidden reality of contemporary political conflicts.
What Simone Weil (1909-1943) saw in many conflicts of her time (she wrote the essay on the eve of World War II) was that they were empty in purpose or rather that they didn’t have a clear purpose at all: “… they are conflicts with no definable objective” (p. 240). But just this kind of conflicts, are the most dangerous, Weil goes on: “The whole of history bears witness that it is precisely such conflicts that are the most bitter”. (ibid.) In a conflict where the stakes are well-defined, each combatant can judge whether the efforts and pains are worth the possible gains, Weil explains. “But when there is no objective there is no longer any common measure or proportion; no balance or comparison of alternatives is possible, and compromise is inconceivable” (241). Then only the past costs, especially the number of victims, count and just this is often a reason to continue. What we see then is that each combatant picks an object from its gamut of possible purposes and writes it with capital letters. Then the combatant says: THIS is our purpose. But often this purpose is empty. It’s just a word. “But when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruins in their name, without effectively grasping anything to which they refer, since what they refer to can never have any reality, for the simple reason that they mean nothing.” (241). Then, the only measure of success is that you are able to bash the brains of your “enemy” in.
The part of the essay I just summarized contains only one aspect of Weil’s comments, but only this analysis is enough to make it a “brilliant essay”, as Siân Miles, who wrote an introduction to it, calls it. Referring to Homer’s Iliad and Early Rome, she wrote an attack on French foreign policy of her time, and without a doubt she was also thinking of the ideological conflicts of her days between nazism, communism and western capitalism c.q. democracy. And she thought of the First World War, of course, which was still fresh in the minds of many Europeans and which might have finished earlier, if the politicians hadn’t been so stubborn. However, it is not difficult to apply Weil’s words to the political events after the Second World War as well. Although the Cold War remained cold between the countries immediately concerned (the western countries versus Russia and Eastern Europe), because of the emptiness of the conflict and its aimlessness it lasted more than forty years. The consequences of this conflict about words, or ideological struggle as it is usually called, were bigger in the regions where the ideological differences led to hot war. Then one has to think of the Vietnam War in the first place, where what was initially a war for independence dragged along so long, because it was reinterpreted in ideological terms.
Weil’s analysis can also easily be applied today when we think of what Samuel Huntington called a clash of civilizations and what can also be seen as a clash of religions. For what is actually the “definable objective” of the attack on the Twin Towers in the sense that if this or that has been reached war is over? It’s also a war that is drags along since then because of the vagueness of the aims of the terrorist attacks. And, by the way, here, too, we see that history repeats itself, as becomes clear when we read Albert Camus’s analysis of anarchistic terrorism around 1900 in his L’homme revolté (translated into English as The Rebel). For although the justifications for terrorism may have changed, its form and dynamics have remained almost exactly the same more than hundred years later. But back to Weil, her analysis is brilliant because she disclosed a phenomenon and laid her finger on a problem that were not only important in her time but that apparently are eternal. “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The quotations from “The power of words" have been taken from Simone Weil, An Anthology, London: Penguin Books, 2005.