donderdag 29 oktober 2015


Recently Naema Tahir called Die Welt von Gestern by Stefan Zweig one of the finest books she had read. For me actually the same holds true. It is 35 years since I read it, but its instructiveness and penetrating enjoyment are still standing sharp in my mind.

However, I completely disagree with the thoughts that she then connects to her appreciation of the book. She believes that Zweig reached that grand effect because he stays on the outside: he observes his surroundings and styles his findings in a masterly way. He does not speak about himself and this controlled distance creates depth and art.

She opposes that to the tendency of modern literature to expand extensively on the inner life of the author himself or herself, including physical and sexual aspects of private life. She calls that ‘I-lit’, with Karl Ove Knausgård and Jonathan Littell as its contemporary exponents, and she abhors it. Firstly because she finds the many sexual details repulsive. But in the second place, as she says, because someone else’s inner life is not relevant to a reader. And, as I suspect based on the tone of the piece, in the third place because of the old moralistic reason that attention to one’s own inner life is selfish.

Tahirs first argument is imaginable for me: I think too it’s often not really pleasant to, for example, get served the details of other people’s sex lives. But with her second argument, namely that it would not be relevant, I do not agree. For that reason, I also heartily disagree with her normative, condemning rejection of I-centredness.

I’m afraid that Tahirs considerations are derived a bit too much from the world of yesterday where she let herself be carried away by Zweig. That world of external control, elegant but compelling objectivity, distance and styling is completely outdated, so is my conviction. It relies too heavily on elements that are irretrievably gone, such as order thinking and the assumption of a cosmic harmony that we can bring near through control and, if necessary, by use of a little violence. In short, on an essentially Platonic conception of the world.

This underlying worldview over the past century lost its credibility. For the West, from a societal perspective, to this day the now eighty-year-old corruption of our political order by Nazism and Stalinism revealed a grim turning point. According to many experts the desire for objective order and control, deeply rooted in Western thinking, made possible those totalitarian regimes.

At the same time psychoanalysis and other humanities have increased our understanding of ourselves and our often murky motives so overwhelmingly, that Zweig’s polished gentleman existence has become unattainable for us for good. Indeed, we not even consider it to be desirable because of its unrealistic character. There is for us no choice but to descend into our troubled lives, so our literature does so as well.

And yes, that can bring up all sorts of revelations that Tahir abhors such as the conclusion  by a recent biographer that Zweig which was an exhibitionist. “I do not want to hear that”,  she exclaims, “It's a kind of defilement.” It obscures beauty and it is irrelevant.

I would say on the contrary: the very fact that Tahir’s lofty image can be brought down by the disclosure makes the disclosure relevant. Frankly, I think the focus on the inner life in all its aspects, not just the sublime, is progress. Not that I’m going to read Knausgård, but I appreciate the tendency that modern people try as best as possible to deal with their not so lofty but every-day physical, sexual and spiritual needs. And I tend to see recognition of the dark diversity of human strivings as a gain. Eventually it is a better means of averting social chaos than the controlling action of an outward ideal of civilization.

After all, how else do we ever get out of that often sterile, objectifying, communicatively poor atmosphere at our offices, schools and universities, than by systematically scrutinizing ourselves and expressing ourselves as subjects? To dismiss that as self-centered I would call old-fashionedly normative. I would like to cite Wittgenstein in this regard, in conversation with Friedrich Waismann: “At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person: I think that this is something very essential. Here there is nothing to be stated any more; all I can do is to step forth as an individual and speak in the first person.”

La Belle Epoque is definitely in the past. But that loss can be very livable, and indeed the more so as our inner life is more involved. That much faith in a certain order I still have.

Also see Escape

donderdag 22 oktober 2015

Levinas and calculation

There is a lot of emotion in the air in recent weeks. It is all about compassion, fear, disgust, enthusiasm, all triggered by the influx of refugees. The commotion is accompanied by sensible commentaries calling for restraint of the emotions using our reason.

Such as that of Nelleke Noordervliet: “The emotion reigns. The ratio has a tough job to tame that monster. Essentially the sick tweets about drowned refugees do not differ much from a consignment of cuddly toys.”

And Kim Putters, director of the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Department, believes that, “whether  you want to close the borders or to show abundant mercy”, we may need to develop new democratic methods to deal with these problems.

My reaction to such statements is: let the different emotions struggle, also within each individual. The outcome of that fight will probably yield many intermediate positions, which can be stepping stones to more reasoned outcomes.

Meanwhile, we should not pretend that there is nothing to choose or that choices are not made. The Red Cross suggests that in its advertisements in newspapers and on the radio, with the slogan “Don’t let us choose”, ie between refugees to be helped.

I think that’s a seriously misleading slogan, because of course choices are constantly being made. Politicians, like Merkel and Orban, do so on a daily basis by opening and closing boundaries a little more or less. UNHCR selects refugees in the region for resettlement in Europe, and thereby uses ‘objective criteria’, not the ‘subjective desire’ of the refugee. And chance selects because some people are precisely at the right time in the right place while others are not. I would not know how this could be avoided. Not everyone can come here, that is precisely the tragedy behind the whole thing.

The Red Cross’s utopia assumes the same malleability as the journalist Ron Frese who recently with a penetrating look asked our prime minister “Mr. Rutte, you are surely in control?”. This malleability is far removed from the necessarily always utilitarian colored political acting. Decisive in that arena is what is feasible for the greatest number of people, citizens and migrants, and then always a certain degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It is a form of calculation.

Shouldn’t something like that offend my favorite philosopher Levinas, and therewith myself, squarely? Indeed, isn’t this at odds with the attention that Levinas calls for the other person?
Yes, it definitely is. Especially when you explain Levinas in such a way that you have always to stand ready for everybody everywhere. Actually this is not my standpoint, but yet a complication in his philosophy remains that the Other whom I meet may compete with  another Other, even several Others. To them, I also have the absolute obligations which Levinas is talking about, but because of that the various obligations get relativized to some extent.

Levinas recognizes this socio-political complication, and does not run away from it. But in fact he offers no new perspective and at this point simply joins the Western political-philosophical tradition. Which already for centuries is engaged in reflection on balancing all  competing obligations that people have towards each other. Levinas embraces with enthusiasm the political and legal institutions of our society where that weighing of interests  occurs. He considers their existence of very great importance.

As Levinas’s added value may indeed be considered that he shows that this somewhat bleak socio-political weighing of interests is never just right. Due to the balancing and the corresponding calculation, the original moral obligation will always be betrayed to a certain extent. However blessed the work of our legislators, judges and academics, the institutions in which they work at times exhibit a complacency that in the eyes of Levinas is by definition misplaced. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusionary content, measured by whether perhaps too much violence is done to the original moral obligation. Levinas never tires to ask attention for that.

Also see How naïve is Levinas really? and Totalitarianism is with us

zondag 4 oktober 2015

Humiliation is never good

Last week I thought: this goes all wrong. I do not mean that we - the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France – accept too many refugees, because I do not know. Maybe we can handle it.

Nor do not mean that other countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, Israel - wrongly hold off the boat, because they may have their reasons.

I refer specifically to the reproaches made by the rich and developed West within the EU to the poorer and less developed East. Thus it is said that Hungary is “antisocial” and “inhumane”, and that the Eastern European countries in their opposition to mandatory quotas don’t represent “21st century Europe”.

Aren’t here the most deadly ingredients that can play in the interaction between people and states fully active again? The moral and cultural superiority of the West and the ‘primitiveness’ of the unruly countries are recurring themes. And therewith humiliation is the order of the day.

This is so bad because with a bit more historical look at our own cultural and social developments it may become well understandable that the East European countries do what they do. Don’t we ourselves wrestle with the integration of newcomers, while working on that already for fifty years. A couple of years ago Chancellor Merkel still considered integration to have “failed”. I did not agree with her, I think it goes well in many areas, but let’s not forget  that we needed fifty years for it. That experience Eastern European countries do not have. And Israel certainly not, because for such a development peace is a prerequisite for, including with Syria.

Furthermore, the seventy-year post-war peace and prosperity helped the indigenous Western European population to for the first time in world history think in completely different ways about faith, tradition, sexuality and identity. Remember the many shocks accompanied the process, at least in Holland, from the rebellion of the first prosperity-generation of in the sixties, through massive secularization, the revolt of Fortuyn and Wilders to the current debate about Blackface.

A suchlike cultural and social development apparently can only start to develop after a period of 20 to 25 years of peace and stability, the point where Eastern Europe is only now. Moreover, Hungary and Romania have had bad experiences with the difficult embeddable Roma. How ethical – or simply: wise – is it to demand of others something after twenty-five years that took us seventy years te reach?

Europe will have to deal with its member states in the way in which a state deals with its subjects. No state will oblige citizens to just take refugees into their homes. Those who can and want to do so may be encouraged. But those who are not ready to do so for whatever reasons – trouble in organizing their own life, trauma, poverty – can not be forced. And certainly not with an appeal to 21st century moral standards which originate in Western peace and prosperity and are suddenly thought to be universal.

The latter pretension can only have a humiliating effect. And does the pedantic West still not know what that means?

Also see Reluctance against the West, Half-grown and Plato disproved?