Saturday, July 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Nine

“Symptoms of Orwell’s 1984,” pages 221-228

Readers enjoyed the gloomy portrait in 1984, and were comforted by the thought that only in Russia was the book relevant as description. Then they took steps that gradually converted Orwell's novel into an increasingly accurate prophesy beyond the Soviet Union.

Before 1914 freedom to travel and to speak, to publish and to emigrate, was widely available (at least to white men) outside of the benighted land of the Czars. Russia and its secret police were regarded as horrific. Now the non-Russian world is moving rapidly to non-freedom, though the gap with Russia doesn’t shrink, because the Russians have moved further into tyranny themselves. A Siberian exile in Czarist Russia was a model of freedom compared to Soviet labor camps, while travel to Western Europe has been suppressed even for non-exiled Russians.

Inhibition of the independent thought of first-rate people has been the rule throughout history, from ancient Athens onwards. “In most countries at most times, whatever subsequently came to be thought best was viewed with horror at the time by those who wielded authority [p. 223].” The Soviets (and now the West) have merely democratized the suppression, made it available to all, while the instruments of suppression, the police, have grown more powerful.

Organizations serve their ostensible purpose, but they also promote their own power, and it is this latter service to which they are most devoted. Woe betide the person who tries to publicize the wrongdoing of the police. And the courts enter too late in the game to offer protection to innocent non-conformists. Some prestigious universities can maintain intellectual freedom even in the face of McCarthy-like attacks, but less established schools cannot hold out. Fears of counterrevolutionaries in Russia and communists in the US have created a stifling culture.

Liberalism became established in fighting the increased power of monarchs; now, freedom lovers must counter the enhanced control by police and other organizations. A second police force is necessary, one aimed at establishing innocence, not guilt, of accused parties. Our current institutions make a mockery of the idea that it is better for many guilty people to go free than to convict one innocent: the state’s resources on the side of guilt cannot be matched by an accused person. Nonetheless, the social good really does demand that we worry more about a false conviction than a false acquittal. Perhaps the “assumption of guilt” would be appropriate when authorities are the accused, but not for other people.

The enhanced power of authorities busies itself with the suppression of truth and the promulgation of falsehood. Russians are denied knowledge of the rest of the world, and Chinese intellectuals must renounce any knowledge that does not descend from the approved sources. Not only are dissident thinkers punished, their families are as well. In much of the non-communist world, too, opinions at odds with the official ones will be ignored and their holders ostracized. “There is no longer, even among those who think themselves more or less liberal, a belief that it is a good thing to study all sides of a question [p. 227].” Libraries prune their collections on behalf of purported lovers of freedom: the censorship reveals their lack of confidence in winning arguments with ideas and evidence in a neutral marketplace of ideas. During World War II, British subjects were not prevented from listening to German radio: the tolerant policy of an authority confident in the rightness of its cause. “So long as we prevent Communists from being heard, we produce the impression that they must have a very strong case [p. 228].” We are sacrificing the means of acquiring truth – open and free discussion – to our fears, with the result that the gulf between truth and the officially accepted variety of truth grows to Orwellian dimensions. The intellectual suppression infects education, too. Teachers risk their careers by uttering ideas that deviate even moderately from the official truth. The suppression is accompanied with significant public support, despite the ignorance that is thereby mandated for children.

“Fear is the source from which all these evils spring, and fear, as is apt to happen in a panic, inspires the very actions which bring about the disasters that are dreaded [p. 228].” The fact that the dangers are real and even momentous does not justify a course of action which enhances those dangers. Our world of Orwellian doublethink is not stable; under current circumstances, it is succeeded by the equality of the global grave.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Eight

“The Road to Happiness,” pages 215-220

“For over two thousand years it has been the custom among earnest moralists to decry happiness as something degraded and unworthy [p. 215].” The Greek and Roman Stoics, the modern German philosophers, Carlyle: all have offered their support to immoral undertakings. An expression of disdain for happiness generally means that it is other people’s happiness that you disdain. Maybe you selflessly sacrifice your own happiness for mankind; you still are apt to fall into envy of those happy people who are less noble, and harden your heart towards them, as has happened to many Communists.

Theorists of the good life are apt to forget what frailty that flesh is heir to. Too much sacrifice of pleasure, even for a worthy cause, will render the cause repellent. (Recall Russell’s concern that many mothers sacrificed too much for their families.) The notion that a happiness consciously sought slips out of reach is true only if the method of seeking is mistaken, as it is if you take to drink. Your concrete ‘rule to live by’ should be specific to your preferences, but it should not be inconsistent with happiness.

Many people who possess the requisite conditions for happiness – health and sufficient income – are nonetheless unhappy. Generally this problem is due to an incorrect theory. Other animals, who lack theories but act on instinct, take pleasure in existence. Humans sometimes do not let their plans conduce enough with instinct, so even if they fulfill their plans, they cannot be happy. People who are happy share some common characteristics. “The most important of these things is an activity which at most times is enjoyable on its own account, and which, in addition, gradually builds up something that you are glad to see coming into existence [p. 217]” – like the Reading Bertrand Russell blog, Bertie does not add. Sometimes this involves child-rearing, sometimes artistic or scientific creation, sometimes gardening.

The sorts of activity that bring happiness require that a person not be overly fatigued. Alas, most jobs do not naturally bring happiness, and leave people too tired for active pursuits in their non-work time. Other people curtail their natural impulses (or insist that their children do) to avoid the negative thoughts of neighbors; the price of their propriety is constant boredom, borderline or full-on. The pursuit of success in society undermines happiness, even though such success can contribute to happiness – provided social success is not the goal of one's activity, and is accompanied by meaningful accomplishments.

Happiness in healthy and well-fed people requires “a stable framework built round a central purpose [p. 219]” – work and family, again, if suitable, serve this function – and some spontaneous, purposeless activity. Then quotidian existence can bring simple joy, without any need for deep theorizing. If the daily routine is not suitable, then a new routine, one consistent with happiness, is the antidote. And it may be that it is our physical, animal selves that need a larger place in our routine. Long walks do more than Milton can in enlivening the daily tasks of man.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Seven

“How I Write,” pages 210-214

When young, Russell loosely modeled his writing after that of John Stuart Mill, but with the additional goal of a sort of efficiency, the use of the minimum number of words consistent with clarity. At the age of twenty-one, Russell fell under the influence of Logan Pearsall Smith (who, like Mill, was (later) a relative of sorts). Pearsall Smith venerated style over substance, and invoked odd rules such as prodigious comma use and employing the word “and” only at the start of a sentence. Pearsall Smith also emphasized one more commonplace piece of wisdom, that of improving writing via rewriting. Russell’s attempts to abide by the rewriting precept (for style, not substance) brought a perverse result, weaker second drafts. But the experiment gave Russell the evidence he needed to save time in the future by eschewing rewriting.

Russell used to suffer from anxiety when contemplating a serious piece of writing, and he would make many frustrating, false starts. He overcame this problem by first thinking about a problem, sorting it out – and then taking time off: “…I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking [p. 211].” Generally his subconscious would produce resolutions of the problems that remained, and the book would quickly appear, Athena-like. This process played out for his 1914 lectures and book Our Knowledge of the External World, where the resolution only coalesced in the moment he began to dictate, seamlessly, the material to a stenographer. [Russell also described his practice of waiting and letting inspiration come of its own accord in Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Happiness.] Though the resulting work was far from perfect, it would not have been improved at the time by further effort at composition.

Russell went through a more florid phase in his writing, associated with the time of producing "A Free Man’s Worship," “a work of which I do not now think well [p. 212].” The intentional imitation of Milton at that time was a mistake, as is all effort at imitation. Russell repeats his point from the previous chapter, that successful style involves a personal element that conscious imitation undermines. But reading good writers, without imitating them, can lend pleasing rhythm to prose.

Russell offers a few pieces of advice for writers: Prefer short words to long words; avoid run-on sentences; and, don’t use scientific-sounding terminology that muddles what it should clarify. Or rather, if you are a professor, go ahead and employ academic parlance for your first publication. You then will have established your bona fides, like Russell did, and henceforth you will have license to write in an understandable manner.