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.

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