Liberté…

March 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

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After the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman died in January I read the last online article he published, ‘How Neoliberalism Prepared the Way for Donald Trump’. He begins by recalling Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin in 1956 as a mere matter of ‘mistakes and deformations’ and likens this to the reactions of Hillary Clinton’s sympathisers after her election defeat: they too cited mistakes and even deformations, simultaneously leaving her neoliberal policies untainted by failure.
Outlining the historical rise of neoliberalism, Bauman reminds the reader of the Enlightenment principles embodied in what became the French Revolution’s rallying cry: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and that all three of these are dependent on the other two. You cannot have liberty without equality, and both depend on fraternity, or, in its more current translation, solidarity. They are an indivisible triad.
We’ve seen most blatantly how the idea of liberty has been abused in the U.S. Among a series of dubious and dangerous ‘freedoms’ the most Trump-fixated appears to be the freedom not to pay any tax, which is to dissociate oneself economically as an individual from social bonds and supports, to deny a very basic form of solidarity. We’ve seen how in the Brexit vote many proclaimed their wish to take their country back by becoming free of the EU. Of these some voted for Brexit and for UKIP because, living in areas of decline and deprivation, they saw themselves neglected by other parties, including and perhaps especially by Labour, traditionally the party of the working class. Until 1997, when Blair divorced it from such notions, Labour was, at least nominally, the party of equality.
The Remain campaign, including those sections of the mainstream media supporting it, wilfully refused to engage with that crucial question of who owns the country perceived to be in need of taking back. There would have to have been an acknowledgement of what underlies the profound inequality dividing Britain, and of its ‘ownership’ as part of a globalised neoliberal carve up. Margaret Thatcher began by privatising our public utilities in the 80s, and since then public assets have been sold off on a grand scale to many foreign bidders inside and outside Europe. Leaving the EU won’t bring them back.
Alas, the delusion of English superiority, a residue of Empire, proved corrosive to the Brexit vote and as a result enjoys resurgence.
From these recent examples in Britain and the US we know that people often vote fatally against their own interests (especially when they’re kept in the dark by those seeking power), and this is threatening to become a Europe-wide phenomenon. Such triumphs of the irrational have come insistently to mind as I’ve been reading the stories of Heinrich von Kleist.
Kleist was an influential figure for the German Romantic movement, but his fiction is astonishing for its modernity. It asks philosophical questions about the first two terms in that triad: Liberty and Equality, about what it means to lack power, to wield power and to resist power. It is grounded in despair over the Enlightenment’s only partial answers to those questions. Kleist, also a dramatist (his best-known play is Penthesilea), was greatly admired by Kafka and Brecht. He took his own life in 1811, at the age of 34.
Eric Rohmer’s film, La Marquise von O (1976), had been my prompt, long ago, to turn to the novella. Reading it was a revelation. The young Marquise is a widow with children who has returned to live with her loving parents after her husband’s death. Her father commands a citadel that comes under attack and is taken by Russian forces, a group of whom attempt to rape her. Rescue arrives in the shape of a handsome officer, whereupon she loses consciousness and, without hesitation, he himself takes advantage of the situation. To her complete amazement, months later she finds herself pregnant. Strange and rich in paradox, the narrative unfolds with a light-footed irony that dispels its inner darkness. Only with its ending does it truly unsettle, bringing the realisation that this is an essay on a world without freedoms for women. Outcast status is revoked here, though in two other stories women endure appalling suffering for their violations of law and religion. Elsewhere, in a brief tale of the uncanny, an old beggar woman bides her time for revenge on the wealthy aristocrat who has occasioned her death by his heartlessness.
Kleist’s modernity resides in a succinct and spare style of narration that stands back from its characters and their experience. In its coolness and economy it prefigures the 20th-century short story. The effect is devastatingly powerful, even unbearable, for what’s contained by this mastery of form is a fever, a tragic fury. With an insight and complexity that is almost prophetic, he shows us the relentlessness of injustice. One story, set in the 14th century, patterned like a vivid fairytale, ends with a form of retribution potently reminiscent of the cruelties with which the Grimm brothers often punish the evildoers who mistreat children. Kleist, however, is the acknowledged influence on them, not the other way round.
Injustice, however random or insane, seems to prevail, yet perhaps the work of Kleist that has reverberated most across the last two centuries is ‘Michael Kohlhaas’, his longest fiction, the story of a man so grievously injured and insulted by the powerful that he becomes an emblem of adamant defiance. Its historical connection to the 16th-century Peasant War in Germany is implicit. Its inspiration for J.M.Coetzee’s apartheid-era Life & Times of Michael K is evident, and the passive resistance of Herman Melville’s Bartleby might well have Kleistian origins. There have been two film adaptations, in 1969 and 2013. Michael Kohlhaas lives on.
Kleist is a writer for our times, wresting meaning from a world that appears overwhelmingly without it, undoing his own apparent pessimism with a creative answer, the writing of endless struggle. He’s a writer to love and to fear – for the terrors he saw too clearly. ‘Kleist in Thun’ a story by Robert Walser (another tortured spirit, another humbling genius, whom Susan Sontag described as the link between Kleist and Kafka) tells us ‘He is too sensitive to be happy, too haunted by all his irresolute, cautious, mistrusted feelings.’ But night soothes him: ‘The light of the lamp eliminates his image of his whereabouts, and clears his brain and he writes now.’
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
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