Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Defeat of the Mind: Alain Finkielkraut

In this remarkable new world, I can listen to the moody, intricate sounds of the Brad Mehldau Trio while sipping a green tea smoothy product in front of a gas fire you turn on with a switch, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior on the last night of the year. It’s cold outside, though there’s very little snow on the ground. I’m reading a book I picked it up at random from a library bookstore the other day for a dollar, by someone I’ve never heard of—a French intellectual named Alain Finkielkraut. It’s called The Defeat of the Mind.

A phrase catches my attention. The author is discussing Julien Benda, who, in his now long-forgotten book Treason of the Intellectuals (1926), decries the then-current habit of celebrating particular things rather than "upholding eternal values."This point gives me pause for thought. If I had to choose between the two, I would take celebrating particular things over upholding eternal values every time. It seems to me, in fact, that eternal is one of those slippery words, like infinite and absolute, that we ought never to use, because it doesn’t refer to anything real.

Who among us can say with confidence that our values are eternal? Thus is really just a manner of speaking, designed to convey an unusual depth of devotion or commitment. And I fear it’s often used inappropriately. "I would be eternally grateful if you would move the laundry from the washer to the dryer while I'm out."

I suppose it was just the mood I was in, but that little phrase, "uphold eternal values," also struck me as strange for another reason. It is not at all clear to me that values are something we can uphold. No doubt we can exemplify values. And we can clarify them in our thoughts and defend them in conversation. But the word "uphold" connotes some sort of physical bolstering, a mechanical form of elevation that might even carry along with it an element of disdain for the mire above which we labor to position those values—and ourselves along with them. In other words, in "upholding" values we may actually be transgressing against their reality and truth.

Genuine values don’t need to be upheld, I think, so much as they need to be identified, celebrated, and embodied. To take a generic example, it may be less worthwhile to deliver a speech upholding the values of grace and beauty than simply to act in a graceful and beautiful way. And here is where the second part of Brenda's formula--celebrating particular things--comes into play.

It may be a funny film, or the curve of a snowdrift that’s hanging from the gutter just outside the window. It may be a truffle-poached piece of Florida pink shrimp, or a kind note we received in the mail though we didn’t quite deserve it. Whatever the case may be, when we celebrate a particular thing, we’re implicitly underscoring its value. That's what makes it precious, and gives it a lingering liveliness.

This would suggest that if values ought not to be described as eternal, they are by nature at least durable. A transient value is a matter of expediency and opportunism. In other words, it isn't a value at all, but a heuristic trick.


In the early portions of The Defeat of the Mind, Finkielkraut underscores the difference between the attitudes of the Enlightenment—which were based not only on reason, but on an idea of the Good extending back to Plato’s time—and the idea of the Volk endorsed by Herder and de Maistre, in which the venerable prejudices of a "people" have greater value than novelties concocted by the rational mind. At one point he writes that "in the eyes of their critics, the philosophes, under the pretext of spreading enlightenment, worked furiously to obliterate the prejudices that constituted the cultural treasure of every nation..." As Kant observed, they chose as their motto sapere aude. Do not be afraid to know, be brave and challenge conventions. Have the courage to act as you see fit, without the help of received ideas, etc.

It’s clear that during the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, venerable institutions were destroyed and ridiculous ones were sometimes put in their place. But it would be wrong to suggest that the exercise of reason invariably obliterates the past. Nor is that what Finkielkraut is suggesting. He’s trying to unearth the roots of several modern lines of thought and he finds those roots in the romantic reaction to the philosophes and their celebration of reason. Referring to Herder, de Maistre, and others, he writes:
"Their hatred of modernity led them to conceive of a radically new view of man. Their nostalgia gave way to a mutation in thought that has continued to influence us to this day. In spite of themselves these relentless defenders of the past were inventors of something new. In their mania to restore man to his proper place, they discovered unconscious thought, which worked from within. And in so doing they founded the social sciences."

Finkielkraut doesn’t like the social sciences much, but he acknowledges that the effort to explore "exotic" tastes and expose the underlying logic of far-flung patterns of social organization does have value.
"From the perspective of the social sciences, high culture is only a fragmentary expression of a far broader category that includes food, clothing, work, games, in sum "all of the customs and skills learned by man as a member of society." And by subsuming the cultured under the cultural, the social sciences accomplish two things at once: they prevent us from being satisfied with ourselves and from making the world over again in our image. The social sciences cure us from imperialism and tribalism, from the belief that we are the lawful heirs of universalism and from the aggressive affirmation of our own specificity. Thanks to their teachings, our European identity is no longer a mission or a subject of pride; it is just one way of living and thinking to be considered alongside everybody else’s. "

It’s nice to read a book about world affairs in which the United States is never mentioned. (Americans think about themselves too much, both positively and negatively.) Of course, the issues Finkielkraut is exploring often echo the ones we face. Nor ought we to be surprised that they are so similar. The United States is only one of many heirs to the Enlightenment tradition, after all. And the fact that the United States is a more religious nation than most only brings home the fact more forcefully to us that the conflict between reason and various time-bound traditions will never be resolved once and for all. How could it be? Reason has nothing much to apply itself to other than experience, and to a large extent our experiences are drawn from the traditions of the culture within which we are being raised.

Our thoughts are not entirely shaped by our traditions, however. If they were, then the desire to alter or discard outmoded traditions would be far less common than it is. Educators in many fields find it difficult to escape the challenge of answering the question, "What should I teach?" This simple fact should make it obvious that culture dictates nothing. In this remarkable new world, we are continually expanding, or simplifying, or refining, or in some other way renewing our culture.
Yet the issue of cultural development is a stickler. The Romantic celebration of the Volk, and the argument that value rises from the soil and life of specific times and places and manifests itself in diverse ways, almost goes without saying nowadays. It seems equally obvious to me, however, that cultures differ in the degree to which, for example, their legal institutions are capable of administering justice. The cuisine of one culture may be more sophisticated than that of another, its art more robust. These are general remarks, of course, against which it must immediately be added that justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, truth and error, nobility and baseness are to be found in every culture and part of the world, though not, perhaps, in equal measure. It hardly needs to be added that each of us participates in many cultures simultaneously. When Finkielkraut speaks of European culture, we immediately ask ourselves if it’s Austrian, Italian, or French culture he’s referring to. Is it a Jewish-French or an École-Normale-Supérieure subculture? The possibilities are too numerous to mention. We arrive at the end of this line of thought concluding that culture may be a useful sociological construct, but it doesn’t really exist. An individual’s culture is the same thing as his or her personal history, and everyone’s personal history is unique.
oes this render the study of culture in its various manifestations pointless? Not really. But it ought to alert us to the fact that the norms and types which feed the constructions of sociologists and anthropologists can never tell us the complete story of any culture. Finkielkraut makes repeated (and unfavorable) references to the current ascendancy of "culture" over "the cultured," and with good reason. The presumption that the most commonplace artifacts and habits of a social group expose its "truth" is largely wrong-headed. On the contrary, it is the most extraordinary things a culture produces that end up defining it.

Let me give you an example. There has only been one Homer, and there is nothing typical about him. (Though scholars are confident that Homer’s works are the culmination of a long oral tradition, and were written by at least two people, one of whom may have been female, that doesn’t alter the fact that "his" epics are sui generis.) Yet fully one half of the books that have survived from classical Greek times are copies of the Iliad and Odyssey. In other words, Homer was both utterly unique and widely influential in the ancient Greek world. Sociologists might prefer to describe his works as "normative"—the ugliest word in the English language. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are extraordinary, atypical, unique.

The most significant aspect of Homer’s work remains to be highlighted—it continues to move and entertain many of us today! To classicists and historians this fact may be of little interest, and it would be a mistake for scholars to view the ancient Greek world exclusively in light of modern tastes. On the other hand, it would be difficult to give sense and meaning to any aspect of ancient Greek life, from Eleusian mystery cults to Spartan military procedures, without in some way highlighting their virtues in terms that everyone can relate to. This drive to expose the perfect "form" of continually evolving institutions, modes of expression, or ways of preparing fish, is often associated with rationalism, "universalism," and the theories of Plato, but it should be obvious that the events and artifacts we’re studying remain rooted in the habits of specifics time, places, and peoples. What we’re talking about here is not sociology, or Platonism, but history.

Finkielkraut notes at one point that Goethe once picked up a Chinese novel, hoping to be moved and impressed by an alien culture and a radically different type of work, only to find that the story closely resembled his own novels and the works of Samuel Richardson! Goethe pursued the notion of "universality" in art for a while, and even went so far as to assert that:

"We will have more success in achieving a degree of general tolerance if we leave undisturbed the distinctive qualities that make individual human beings and whole peoples different and remain true to the idea that the value of anything with true merit lies in its belonging to all humanity."

In the end, however, Goethe chose to join the camp of those who celebrated the unique aesthetic modes and standards of different cultures. That was a mistake. The issue need not, and in fact cannot, be decided one way or the other. If a work of art—German, Chinese, or Brazilian—is utterly alien to us, it will be impossible for us to make sense of it, much less actually appreciate it. If it’s too familiar, on the other hand, we won’t find it very interesting. The dialectic of familiar and unfamiliar, native and foreign, deepens our understanding of life and enriches our personal culture.

This cross-fertilization of cultures (and generations) underlies much that’s interesting in modern life. Among those who have examined the process analytically examples that immediately come to mind include the Scot Alastair Reid’s recount of his discovery of Spain (Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, 1987), V. S. Naipaul’s fascinating journey through the cultures of England, India, Africa, and his native Trinidad (The Enigma of Arrival may be taken as representative), and Pankaj Mishra’s youthful exploration of Western literature (see, for example, the early story "Edmund Wilson in Benares," 1998). It was a foreigner, D. H. Lawrence, who was the first to draw the world’s attention to the deeper significance and relevance of nineteenth century American Literature.
Yet Finkielkraut himself is less interested in underscoring the importance of personal judgment with regard to literature and other manifestations of culture than in addressing the unfortunate demise of its influence under the onslaught of what we in the United States call special-interest groups and political correctness.

"It was at the expense of their culture that European individuals gained, one by one, all their rights. In the end it is the critique of tradition that constitutes the spiritual foundation of Europe, a fact the philosophy of decolonization has let us forget by persuading us that the individual is nothing more than a cultural phenomenon."

By the end of the book, I regret to report, Finkielkraut is spouting eloquent laments that rock-and-roll, advertisements, and popular entertainment are obliterating all notions of what was once called "high culture." This may well be true but it’s certainly nothing new. A scholar of his level of erudition ought to be well aware that the conflict between mandarin and popular elements of culture is as old as culture itself. It’s like a deep-ocean current that continually stirs up the nutrients required by the life of thought.

Finkielkraut predicts the arrival of a world largely inhabited by zombies and fanatics. (Maybe during his research he watched Shaun of the Dead once too often?) Clearly I’m not in tune with the times, but I find myself surrounded on all sides by articles, essays, magazines, books, musical recordings, films, and other sundry artifacts of culture that make me giddy with excitement and sorely troubled by the very small amount of time I have to absorb it all. Finkielkraut is distressed that the youth of today find it difficult to make distinctions between Beethoven and Bob Marley, and speak of Montaigne and the latest talk-show host with equal enthusiasm. Yet it seems to me that more than a few people of all ages continue to read and explore.I consider myself an Everyman in that respect. I get my books from the public library de-acquisition shops. I read at random. I’ve long since given up any pretense of "covering the field" or of "keeping up."

The New Year is here. An ore boat bedecked with a long string of yellow lights moves slowly east through the darkness a few miles out on the lake. A bright star hangs above it. In fact, the stars are out in full force tonight. I stepped out on the frozen porch in my bare feet a few minutes ago to ogle them.

To stand on a frozen deck in bare feet in the winter night—is that part of out native culture? Is that what people in Minnesota do?

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