January 22, 2008
“Invictus” and Fear

I started to make this a comment on Jerry’s Kristol post, then decided the Russell quote wanted to be republished.

We start from the Times hiring of neocon attack dog and serial reality denier Bill Kristol, not only a neocon but the son-in-law of the father of the neocons; that is, he didn’t even make the journey from Trotskyism himself. Calculating an equation based admittedly on at least one irrational variable, I’m not surprised that Kristol didn’t know “Invictus”. And I don’t just ascribe this simply to his congenital inability to see reality; Bob Altemeyer explains all.

As the first term of the equation, I wasn’t taught most of what Jerry asked and my score on his test is embarassingly low, though I’m old enough to remember the Winston jingle, and I might do better on the yellow-submarine test. But even growing up in Appalachia, in the ninth grade I was taught “Beneath the blows of circumstance/my head is bloody but unbowed” (or maybe it should be “unbow’d”…). It was of the few poems I really fastened onto in public school, other than haiku which I loved as soon as I came across Basho. You gotta take a poet seriously who said that a great writer will produce perhaps a dozen quality poems in a lifetime; in other words he’s looking at 204 syllables. Otherwise my tastes in poetry were pedestrian, like nineteenth century; I was caught up in Beckett and Faulkner.

The second term of the equation is, perhaps confusingly, the first point: that “Invictus” is a strong statement, or more accurately a statement of strength. The way I read it, the poet has attained some level of comfort with the dangers of the world; he knows he’ll eventually be overcome by them but has made peace with that. Thus he has a certain superiority to his fate, which allows him to imagine himself unbeatable. As Bertrand Russell put it:

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

This feeling, or philosophy, of harmony with the universe is entirely alien to the necons, and to Altemeyer’s right-wing authoritarians in general. One of their basic characteristics is the view, nearly always acquired in childhood, that the world is a dangerous and unfriendly place, people are basically bad-hearted, and you protect yourself from the necessity to interact with others if you can; in a word, their weltanshauung is fear. Combined with a sense of self-righteousness maintained by avoiding those who disagree with them, this produces a combination of subservience to convention and submission to authority with aggressive impulses that are inhibited until they’re perceived to be sanctioned by that authority. Thus an Altemeyerian High RSW.

Kristol and his fellow neocons are scared. They gained control and failed utterly, and now see themselves and their fearful prescriptions rejected wholesale by the society they inhabit and look down on. They can’t imagine seeing the world as William Ernest Henley did: they are neither the masters of their fates nor the captains of their souls. They know themselves poorly enough still to believe that all evil comes from outside. Thus they hate, and feel righteous about doing so. Their point of view requires universal agreement; otherwise the curtain will be drawn aside and they’ll be forced to confront the nagging feeling that they’re completely full of shit.

It may be that it is not poetry passing from the scene, but the strength of character and of world view required to grasp an idea entirely different from one’s own. As the machinery of society increasingly conforms to our individual whims, the difficulties inherent in personal relationships will become more irritating, and we’ll seek more balms for the pain of paying attention.

But I’m an optimist; I think relationships will continue to be worth it. For those for whom it’s too painful, we’ll have holodecks.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 22, 2008 12:13 AM
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For me, poetry didn't appeal to me in high school. It came later. But I still remember some of the simpler Robert Frost poems we learned in the 4th grade.

The true spark that set of a certain enlightenment in my soul was being introduced to Emerson and Thoreau in the tenth grade. It wasn't the transcendentalism or libertarianism, which itself is a certain ideology, it was the grandeur and magnanimity of the writing that lit the fire.

But in a way I feel sorry for people like Kristol. Great writing must be viewed in the proper perspective. If we try to attach to a certain ideology and fail to grasp that each work is only another fallible mans view of the world, we can never come to appreciate the whole range of humanity and get lost in the frailty and unreliability of one or another writer's fallible view of the world. We are all struggling to understand this mystical and mysterious place in the universe which we occupy for just a brief moment, but we can never truly come to grasp with its immensity. The joy is in the search for understanding.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 7:25 AM

Let me drop another ingredient into the stew. Timothy McVeigh's last words, not spoken but given to his jailers as a print-out, were "Invictus." I always figured that the underlying impetus for the bombing was that McVeigh had washed out of Special Forces training. He had, that is, offered himself up to the authoritarians to serve as an authoritarian of the follower type ó and been rejected.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on January 22, 2008 8:40 AM

I was just being nice Jerry, which, since Chuck mentioned Altemeyer, the last chapter of the online book that John Dean recommended on how we should deal with authoritarians is a critical part of the book.

But I understand the analogy.

Posted by: Buck on January 22, 2008 9:23 PM
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