Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

The Pleasures Of Books Never To Be Written

In ‘The Flaubert Apocrypha’ (from: Flaubert’s Parrot, Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 115-116), Julian Barnes writes:

If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to a brothel which doesn’t come off, perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never needs to be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

I cannot now find a definite citation for this claim but I distinctly remember reading the results of a study which claimed that loudly proclaiming–to all and sundry–the undertaking and commencement of some virtuous course of action correlated quite significantly with the non-completion of that work. As the theory went, when such announcements were made, they were typically greeted with cries of congratulation and adulation from friends and family, which were all too eagerly lapped up in lieu of doing the actual work. That’s where things stayed–why bother with doing the hard yards when you could have the glory, in advance, for free?

The pure mental indulgence of a fantasy for a book could be a similar ‘accomplishment’: the conjuring up of a vision of a literary masterpiece, perfectly conceived and imagined, every component of it resting in artfully arranged relationships with every other, flawlessly executed, with no blemishes present or visible. All that comes between the initial foggy gropings and the ‘final product’ is elided–it is but a short, sharp movement from the time the vision first hove into view to an indulgence and wallowing in the adulation and appreciation that greets its completion. The perfections of the initial idea are preserved through the ‘process,’ magically transmuted into an enduring ‘finished product’ with none of the vexing, terror-inducing anxiety and frustration that is its usual accomplishment.

I wonder if this is why Barnes describes the sensation made note of above as ‘the sweetest moment in writing’: for what could be more pleasurable than to contemplate the initial object of the love-gaze: the idea, the hook, the story, the thesis, the parting of the clouds to reveal the treasure–and to then lightly skip over the dirty business to lift that gaze and direct it upon that distant place where after passing through the Magic Factory it emerges, complete with cover and spine? Perhaps this sensation is animated by a recognition of the pains glimpsed but not felt; what could be sweeter than that?

Barnes alludes too,  to those works that are ‘never sullied with a definite shape,’ never ‘exposed to a less loving gaze.’ He is right, of course; these are the sweetest pleasures of all, the ‘ideas’ you hold in reserve, unwilling to let this distinctly inferior world have any truck with them whatsoever.

Note: I was reminded of this passage by an essay in the Paul Horgan collection I cited here yesterday, which includes an essay titled ‘Preface to an Unwritten Book.’ That composition was meant to substitute for a book because of its alternative offerings: ‘citations’ rather than ‘examinations in depth.’

Wishful Dreaming And Running On Cold Mornings

Last night, my preparations for bed included a little collection of running gear: tights, shorts, gloves, hat, an inner layer, and finally, an outer sweatshirt. I was planning to make a return to a running routine after having been diverted and distracted back in December. I had checked in with my running partner to see if he was going for his usual morning run, and it was on. With a slight caveat: it was, after all, going to be twenty degrees in the morning. Did I still want to go? With some measure of apprehension, I confirmed my intentions to brave the cold. My spirits were considerably bolstered by my wife, who assured me I would warm up once I began moving. Still, as I turned in for the night, I was not looking forward to stepping out of my heated building, out onto a still-dark morn and a deserted icy sidewalk swept clean by a chilly wind. The sensible folks would either still be in bed, or only venturing out with far more apparel than I would be. Wasn’t I too old for this shit?

An indeterminate number of hours later, I found myself stepping out of my co-op building. It was warm, almost balmy. All around me, on my street and its sidewalks, I could see people, my neighbors, standing around, talking, laughing, making merry. I walked down the street bemused and pleasantly surprised; this was so much more tolerable than I had anticipated. I could live with this late spring vibe, I thought.

And then I woke up.

Ah yes, wishful dreaming. A most interesting phenomenon. In my high school and college days, I would sometimes find myself dreaming about my latest crush and her willing acceptance of my charming conversation and sparkling repartee; she would join me for a walk, look deep into my eyes, perhaps even hold my hand. (These romantic reveries were invariably quite chaste; there was no question of rounding the bases in them; perhaps a few halting steps away from home plate at best.) And then, I would wake up and spend the next day gazing at her from afar, cursing the waking hours that had removed that wondrous nocturnal proximity we had enjoyed a few hours before.

As last night’s slumbers and many others in the intervening years have taught me, wishing for magical interventions never quite goes away, especially in our unconscious states. Sometimes stubborn obstacles to personal and professional success disappear; sometimes long-missed companions grace me with their presence; sometimes I have already begun a long-awaited vacation. And many others, of course.

We retain, it seems, in this dimension at least, some measure of the child we once were.

Note: Oh, and this morning? It was twenty-one degrees with a wind chill of seventeen degrees. I ran about three and a half miles. My fingertips and toes got a little numb, but that was about it. Motion did keep me warm, and I returned exhilarated. I plan to go out Friday morning. I don’t think I’ll have the same dream on Thursday night.

The Dog Stars: The Apocalypse As Outdoorsman Fantasy

Peter Heller‘s The Dog Stars is one of those post-apocalyptic novels in which authorial fantasies are overwhelmingly transparent.

The world is coming to an end; flu has stalked the land; millions have died. Violence is the currency of most human interaction; food is scarce; government is invisible. And so on. You’ve seen most of this before. But there is a twist.

The novel’s central protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot of sorts. He lives on a now abandoned airfield with another man, Bagley, who is a stone-cold killer, the kind of man who has a lifetime subscription to Soldier of Fortune, and wonders why he is never invited to contribute articles for it. Our hero, the aviator, has some fuel for his aircraft, a Cessna, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Beast,’  and a faithful dog, who accompanies him everywhere. He has guns. (Indeed, Bagley and Hig have a small arsenal, which also includes grenades and mortars.) They have plenty of ammunition, often dispensed at those who dare breach the boundaries of their solitary outpost. Every once in a while, Hig goes flying. He finds food, he carries out reconnaissance, he patrols the perimeters, he drops off food and supplies to another band of survivors (an act of kindness Bagley finds gratuitous).  He looks for signs of life. He hears radio signals, and he follows them. He finds surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. He returns. Along the way, he loses one companion, and finds another one.

So: men have guns in the Wild West, they go hunting, fishing, tracking with faithful dogs, they kill anyone who moves. They fly, the splendid sprawling wilderness of the American West beneath them. Fuel and food and bullets are scarce, but not really. Nine years on, real scarcity still hasn’t kicked in. When the desire for human companionship gets really strong, our hero finds a beautiful woman. They bond; they have both experienced loss in the past. She soon gives herself up to him, coming to his bed at night. She asks for, and receives, ‘oral pleasure.’

This fantasy of an American West unspoiled by tourists, full of wild game, journeyed over by a light aircraft, with a never-ending supply of aviation fuel and ammunition, and just enough women, is written quite beautifully. Heller has many lyrical descriptions of man and nature, man in nature, and just plain nature. Reading The Dog Stars made me want to return to Colorado–or New Mexico, Montana, or Idaho, for that matter–to go hiking again through its valleys and over its alpine passes, to look down on its glittering cobalt lakes, to gaze up at its snow-capped peaks. I wouldn’t carry canned food. I’d hunt and fish and cook my meals by myself. Perhaps I’d get laid too. At night, in a tent, the sounds of my virtuosic love-making muffled by the gurgling brook nearby.

And if a broken-toothed, malodorous, tobacco-chewing, potentially-rapist redneck ever got in my way, whether on a highway or a trail or campsite, I’d blow his fucking brains out with one of my many guns. After warning him to back the fuck up, of course.