by Upstate NY
Mon Jul 18th, 2005 at 03:41:53 PM EST
I was almost tempted to title this diary, The Reign of Terror since that would have been more appropriate, but I also wanted it to be read by those of you who had the time. Hence the title.
Sometimes in the middle of the serious news stories I feel battered by these days, I need to step back, turn off the TV, hang out on a chair in my living room (no TV there) and pick up an old book I haven't read in ages. This morning I picked up a book by the French literary critic and thinker Maurice Blanchot, and as I read I saw the narrow context of all these London bombs and Rovian crimes shrink inside a larger context, that of history, of life, of revolution and ideas, but most of all beliefs that we affirm as universal.
I decided to write a diary and share with you a brief clip from Blanchot's essay, "Literature and the Right to Death" (which he wrote about 50 years ago), because I feel it addresses the mentality of the Fundies on both sides of this Terror War and most of all, it tries to create a space for us that live in the middle of the warring sides.
Also cross-posted at Daily Kos
First, for those of you familiar with Blanchot and those of you who are familiar but can't quite cotton to someone with his history, I'll provide the background so we don't have to be reminded of it later on. Just a brief history. Blanchot died a couple years ago when he was in his nineties. As a young man and Vichy sympathizer, he handed out anti-Semitic leaflets in Paris. Still a young man, and in fact it was during WW2, he underwent a conversion and disavowed his formerly racist beliefs. He became active in the French underground. He was captured by the Nazis at one point and put into a firing line. Although he survived the line he wrote that having been lined up waiting for a bullet to enter his skull put him into a peculair discourse with death. He described it as slipping through a secret door in the wall behind him. For much of his life afterward, he became a recluse, a writer of essays and fiction, a protest leader in 1968.
Anyway, here are the parts of the essay that really caught my interest:
"[When a citizen] encounters those decisive moments in history when everything seems put into question, when law, faith, the State, the world above, the world of the past--everything sinks effortlessly into nothingness. The man knows he has not stepped out of history, but history is now the void, the void in the process of realization, it is ABSOLUTE freedom which has become an event. Such periods are given the name Revolution. At this moment, freedom which aspires to be realized in the immediate form of everything is possible, everything can be done. A fabulous moment--and no one who has experienced it can completely recover from it, since he has experienced history as his own history and his own freedom as universal freedom. Revolutionary action is the passage from nothing to everything, the affirmation of the absolute as event and of every event as absolute. Revolutionary action demands purity, and the certainty that everything it does has absolute value, that it is not just any action performed to bring about some desirable and respectable goal, but that it itself is the ultimate goal. The Last Act. This last act is freedom, and the only choice left is between freedom and nothing. This is why, at that point, the only tolerable slogan is: FREEDOM OR DEATH. Thus the Reign of Terror comes into being. People cease to be individuals working at specific tasks, acting here and only now: each person is universal freedom, and universal freedom knows nothing about elsewhere or tomorrow, or work or a work accomplished. No one has a right to a private life any longer, everything is public, and the most guilty person is the suspect--the person who has a secret, who keeps a thought, an intimacy to himself. And in the end no one has a right to his life any longer, to his actually separate and physically distinct existence. This is the meaning of the Reign of Terror. Every citizen has a right to death, so to speak: death is not a sentence passed on him, it is his most essential right; he is not suppressed as a guilty person--he needs death so that he can proclaim himself a citizen and it is in the disappearance of death that freedom causes him to be born. Death in the Reign of Terror is not simply a way of punishing seditionaries; rather, since it becomes the unavoidable, in some sense the desired lot of everyone, it appears as the very operation of freedom in free men. When the blade falls on Robespierre, it executes no one. Robespierre's virtue is simply his existence already suppressed, the anticipated presence of his death, the decision to allow freedom to assert itself completely in him and through its universality negate the particular reality of his life...The terror they personify does not come from the death they inflict on others but from the death they inflict on themselves. They bear its features, they do their thinking and make their decisions with death sitting on their shoulders, and this is why their thinking is cold, implacable; it has the freedom of a decapitated head. The terrorists are those who desire absolute freedom and are fully conscious that this constitutes a desire for their own death, they are conscious of the freedom they affirm as they are conscious of their death which they realize, and consequently they behave not like people living among other living people, but like beings deprived of being, like universal thoughts, pure abstractions beyond history, judging and deciding in the name of all history. Death as an event no longer has any importance. During the Reign of Terror individuals die and it means nothing. In the words of Hegel, 'The coldest and meanest death is no more significant than cutting off a head of cabbage.' Why? Isn't Death the achievement of freedom--that is, the richest moment of meaning? But it is also only the empty point in that freedom, a manifestation of the fact that such a freedom is still abstract, ideal, that it is only poverty and platitude. Each person dies, but everyone is alive, and that really also means everyone is dead. "Dying," on the other hand, is pure insignificance, an event without concrete reality, one which has lost all value as a personal and interior drama, because there is no longer any interior. The moment when I DIE signifies to me as I die a banality which there is no way to take into consideration: in the liberated world and in these moments when freedom is an absolute apparition, dying is unimportant and death has no depth. The Reign of Terror and revolution--not war--have taught us this."
Long quotation over. A few days after 9/11, Bush uttered his now famous threat that petrified the world. "You are either with us or against us." That reductive threat and gross oversimplification not only echoed the Ancient Greek call to war, FREEDOM OR DEATH, but it was based in an ideology already rampant in the Bush White House. The basic gist was this: we have the answers, we are the solution, we have access to the absolute truth. Subsequent statements that Bush is the vessel of a "higher father" did nothing to blunt the administration's messiah complex.
From where does this complex issue from? Is it indeed the faith-based Born-Again values that Bush espouses, or does it come from somewhere else, the Neo-Con agenda (and how similar is that agenda to bin Laden's jihad)? I'll argue that it comes from both sources, not because the two flames of ideology in this White House have both influenced the WH's course, but because Neo-Con ideas are very similar to EndTime theology. If you recall, the Neo-Con advisers all have roots in the Neo-Liberal Left. They once believed (and perhaps still do) in the idea of perpetual revolution. History is something that transforms existence, and indeed, for them, it rules it, and they are all too happy to goose this transformation along. They believe in a future which is not coming tomorrow, but a future that is to be actuated now through revolution. This is why Blanchot is putting a peculair spin on the word freedom. For Blanchot, the liberated are those who are allowed to live the absolute existence right now. They have been liberated from doubt, and from any alternate course in their own histories. Freedom is living in the absolute truth. We have it, and we are going to liberate you.
Kick it over to the EndTimers. I was recently struck by a "60 Minutes" clip of a middle-class family with two beautiful kids who were under the complete spell of the LaHaye's. The mother, who had everything to live for, spoke these words: "Jesus couldn't come soon enough for me." They are goosing along a transformation at the end of history, one in which death and genocide are a price to be paid, not an end to abhor. Armageddon is a party. Once you start living for death, everything changes.
Blanchot's description of such absolutists is like something out of "Night of the Living Dead." The absolutists come to terms with dying in a peculiar way, and then they go on living (at leastb their bodies and minds do), they inhabit the world like zombies. They have ascended to a greater plain in which "the particularity of their own personal lives" is subsumed by the idea that history will reveal to us the ultimate truth, one which we can all live by.
The EndTimers and Born-Agains like Bush (NOTE: I am not referring to all Born-Agains), or as I like to call them, the Dead-Alreadies, project their own beliefs out into the world as hardcore bedrock universal values. That's why they can't stand the Muslims, the Jews and the Catholics, because there's only one repository for the truth, and it resides with them. Their universe insists that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the country, that natural law is the basis behind all law, that salvation only comes through Christ (which is all well and good for a Christian, but don't foist your values on me). In their absolute universe, everyone has a part to play. Even Terry Schiavo, denied the right to privacy, is considered an actor in the culture war. Why? Because she would dare assume a private or individual's stake in the moment of her death. That death is God's death, not yours. That body is not yours, it belongs to my law.
It's not a Culture of Life, it's a Culture of Death.
The video clips of the London bombers in the subway have led investigators to speculate that perhaps the bombers didn't know the bombs would go off as soon as they placed them. The evidence investigators cite is that bombers don't laugh like these guys did, bombers have a strange look in their eyes, indeed they've become hollowed out. I sometimes wonder if, in George Bush's eyes, I can see this same resignation to death alongside the resolute belief in his own righteousness. Blanchot thinks the two go hand in hand, and if he were alive today I'm sure he'd be the authority on the looks of those who have come into a discourse with death. Blanchot opened the possibility of a secret door that we may slip into as we stand in the firing line, and that door insists on the individual and ethical response.
If these times have anything in common with Robespierre's Reign, we can look forward to them ending hopefully very soon.