Sunday, 25 January 2009

Apropos of inauguration speeches: the inner library

...And it is interesting in itself, the way we develop specialised languages to deal with situations, so that in the end we have several voices and go through life carrying round a permanent, semi-conscious library of them, a library that, for most of life, is in the business of expanding and developing ever new sections, wearing out some old ones in the process.

For some it is a matter of pride to say: I talk just the same to everyone. It is, in some ways, a curious form of egotism, as though it were a matter of honour and virtue not to bend to the other or others, not to take on a little of their presence. I had a friend who took great pride in being honest, in giving his opinion whatever the cost. The pride was in the giving of the opinion. The pride was, in effect, greater than the opinion. It was a form of display and control. The truth was to be seen being determined in his way. No mealy-mouthedness for him. His yea was yea and his nay was nay. Except nay was far more forthcoming, if only because nay is generally more dramatic. Ideally there would have been a bodily attitude, a gesture, some series of noble direct movements such as you can find in Victorian aids to orators. A proper drama. The point was it was clear and looked authoritative. Unfortunately, the opinion ceased to count for very much after a while. It was just a touch overbearing and annoying. Eventually just dull.

So we talk differently to different people in different situations. Human communication is infinitely supple: language is capable of a vast range of inflections. It's what poets live on after all. It is the gift of fine hearing that distinguishes them. That is why hearing a poet consistently blustering or making an uninterrupted series of authoritative gestures always sounds slightly false. Something vital to the act is being deliberately dropped. What remains is the impression of a moral bully, and - maybe worse - a psychological huckster.


In politics the balance is different. We expect a degree of hucksterism. We want it. We want chords to be touched, grand phrases and reiterations, the rhythms of public emotion. Such rhetoric is almost a form of courtesy, just as in ordinary life we might welcome someone asking how we are, or a compliment when we have made a special effort to appeal. There are appropriate gestures in all situations but they tend to merge into each other so we have to work at decoding them: courtesy from shiftiness, eloquence from grandiosity, substance of message from form of message. We actually want to decode: code is courtesy.

Jonathan Raban is looking to pick out the radical elements in Obama's speech, and having looked, like all who look and wish to find, does find some. They are not concrete proposals yet, but indicators of intention: one hangs on to them in hope. Each man seeks what he hopes then looks for some confirmation that what he has found is really there.

For example, Guantanamo Bay is to be closed. Very good. It shouldn't have been there in the first place. Then two ex-detainees turn up in Al Qaeda videos. Does that mean it was wrong to close Gitmo? No, that is an instance of choosing ideals over safety. It is concrete. It corresponds to our notions of justice. I very much doubt whether Abu Ghraib post-Iraq invasion was as bad as Abu Ghraib under Saddam, but in torture and humiliation there is no delicacy of comparison. In our politics - and that is to the credit of our politics - it is simply wrong. In any case, closing Gitmo is psychologically welcome. It is tough being your own villain and it's a relief to think we can go back to being, however relatively, virtuous and right.

This does not mean the question of the ideal versus the safe is going to go away. It never goes away. Nor are we ever absolutely virtuous and right. God is absolutely not on our side. Obama's speech shows that we should try to be virtuous and, in so doing, end up being - and feeling - right. There is much that is to do with virtue rather than expediency in the speech, but, in financial terms, it has to be expedient too. Some of the speech is just what we like to hear. Some of it will get done. We decode the courtesies of the speech to try to guess what that might be.

Sometimes the thought of that decoding makes me feel tired and rather old world - by which I mean European, with a European's history and experience, furthermore a specific kind of European, that is to say one of Hungarian and Jewish extraction with all the baggage and consciousness that implies. But that does not mean I have no hope, nor that the experience is all gloom. Much that looked desirable but impossible has happened in my lifetime.

That hope, perhaps, is what I want to read into Obama's speech, and much of it is there. It really is. Look! I'ts there, I can see it. And that's more than good enough to be getting on with.


Poet in Residence said...

I am full of hope. And that is something I would not dare say if I'd been watching McCain, my friends, and his one-heartbeat-away friend from the land of ice and snow (oh, and oil of course).
The USA has made the U-turn. It now remains to restart the engine.
YES THEY CAN, dammit!

The Contentious Centrist said...

I liked Obama's speech and tried to be buoyed by it, but I couldn't help feeling that the forcefulness of some parts of it ("We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.") was a presidential equivalent of whistling in the dark.

Just as I tend to regard political pity as a fountainhead for cruelty, I see hope as a narcotic meant to deaden people's perceptions to a nightmarish world.

What is the function of hope in a nightmare universe?

"It is hope that makes people walk apathetically into the gas chamber, makes them shrink back from uprising ... Hope that tears apart family bonds, makes mothers reject their children, makes women sell themselves for a piece of bread and turns men into killers. Hope makes them fight for each day of life, for maybe the next day will bring liberation ... We did not learn to renounce hope, and that is why we died in the gas."

This was said by Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish Auschwitz susvivor who put an end to his life six years after liberation.

George S said...

I thought my view of the world was dark, Noga, but you make me seem like a ray of sunshine. And even if it is dark, I guess, you may as well whistle in it. What's wrong with music?

I can't see that lack of hope would have been any use to those parts of my family that died in you-know-what (entire mother's side, half father's side). Lack of hope means giving in. Like all the virtues - faith, hope and charity, said St Paul - it cuts both ways, but I have never been without it. You can have too much of faith, as we all know. By charity he meant caritas of course, what we think of as love - and, I suspect, more have died and suffered as a result of love than of hope. But I wouldn't be without it. Nor quite without the other two either.

I think of the Berlin Wall, the end of the terrible violence in Ireland. I think of the passing of Mao and Pol Pot, the end of Franco and Salazar and the various South American and Greek Colonels, and while none of these have reached - because nothing can - the 'and they all lived happily ever after' stage, they are all, undoubtedly better.

As regards the situation of Israel, which, I guess, is the focus of your despair, I too despair, and yet even here, as with Ireland, I think it is possible for people - for enough people at least - to grow tired and start talking. What else, after all, is there?

I don't suppose anti-Semitism will go. Suspicion and envy and the tribal desire to find scapegoats are pretty permanent in the human condition, but I still don't think Britain is an anti-Semitic country. The masses themselves (shall we call them that?) lack any great animus toward anything. To some people this seems a vice, like lethargy, accidie, sloth or indifference. Coming at it from Central Europe I think I could make a case for it as a virtue compounded of tolerance, diffidence, and low blood pressure.

The Contentious Centrist said...

It's not despair I have tried to convey in my comment. I try to stay away from irrelevant emotions, as much as I can (being a very emotional person, it's a tough challenge!). I was thinking of Poe's short story "Descent into the maelstrom", in which the narrator succeeds in saving himself only after he has stopped clinging to the hope (and to the wreckage) that somehow something will happen to change his doom. Only when he becomes fully aware of what it might take to survive that descent does he succeed.

I was much struck by Tadeusz Borowski's expostulation against hope as affirming Poe's wisdom.

And anyway, when people look at Obama and say he gives them hope for change, I can't help but thinking that what some hope for is really something that can be very harmful to others. So what's the point of praising hope as if it were a universal value in and of itself?

Poet in Residence said...

Be not downhearted. 'Hope' is a universal value in and of itself. And surely we should praise it.
I am reminded of the young Welsh girl, I think she was called Mary Jones, who translated the English Bible into the Welsh language, so that she and the kept-in-the-dark-downtrodden North Walians could understand the book and 'Hope' for better times. 'Hope' kept them going. And now in America Obama is doing the same.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Without hope we are all sunk. Hope, hope, hope! Consider that Poe's shipwreck idea might be wrong.

Billy C said...

Without hope we would be like worker ants, living and dying for the moment. I don't want to be like that. Obama's words were meaningful in that he wanted to do what we would all like to do. He has the power, hopefully, to fulfill some of our hopes.