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Posts Tagged ‘The Coast of Utopia

“The future, said Herzen, was the offspring of accident and willfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as behind”*…

 

Herzen

 

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in, and admiring of, plurality. Plurality—a condition of society in which people who hold widely different beliefs and are committed to quite different values nevertheless find some way to live in relative peace with one another—is to be distinguished from pluralism, which may be described as a conviction that a society in which people pursue a great diversity of ends is intrinsically superior to a more unified society. That I don’t believe. I think that our society would be better off if we were all united by a deeply shared set of convictions—my convictions, as it happens. (Imagine that!) But I would want such singleness of vision to be freely chosen, which will obviously never happen. So in default of my ideal, I say: Better plurality than tyranny, and better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me.

From this point of view, the most zealous on the contemporary American left and the contemporary American right have something fundamental in common: They never ask the question, Am I fit to rule others?” I see this self-blindness not only in electoral politics but also in intra-religious and academic disputes. They take it for granted that the rightness of their convictions makes them fit: that the justice of a cause can make a perfectly straight thing out of the crooked timber of their humanity. To be sure, I continue to say, better a tyranny presided over by others than a tyranny presided over by me; but I also say, better that none of those zealots ever achieve the power they lust for—because their very confidence in their right to rule is the most absolute disqualification for rule that I can imagine. This Alexander Herzen understood.

The central figure in Tom Stoppard’s great dramatic trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002) is Herzen (1812–70), the first Russian socialist. From exile in England, Herzen published The Bell, which the great American critic Dwight Macdonald, the editor of an English-language edition of Herzen’s memoirs, called perhaps the most effective muckraking magazine in radical history.”…

What distinguishes Stoppard’s Herzen—which I think is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the real Herzen— from Marx and Chernyshevsky is simply that his thought is more historical than theirs. Both of them believed themselves to be deeply historical thinkers, but they had, in their different ways, settled on a complete and wholly enclosed understanding of the point that history is coming to, the point at which it will effectively conclude. They shared a sense of the telos, the goal, or end, of history...

Herzen… didn’t know where history was going or how it would get there. He understands himself to be in the midst of a great procession, one of many both before and after him to take up the cause of justice and freedom. History is plurality, even among those who share a commitment, a cause. 

This is Stoppard’s image of the true scholar and the true activist alike. In Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, Septimus Hodge consoles his pupil Lady Thomasina Coverly when she cries out in grief for all the lost plays of the Athenians”: We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short.” And Stoppard’s Herzen, near the end of this magnificent trilogy, finds the same consolation and expresses it with some of the same words, but even more concisely and beautifully: The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.”…

Why the great Russian thinker refused to pick up the axe to advance his cause: “Alexander Herzen and the Plural World.”  From Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and proprietor of a consistently-interesting newsletter, Snakes and Ladders.

* Tom Stoppard, in an essay on Alexander Herzen

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As we ponder plurality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force (though it remained legal in the possessions of the East India Company until the passage of the Indian Slavery Act, 1843).

200px-Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795)

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”, 1787 medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood for the British anti-slavery campaign

source

 

Written by LW

August 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

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