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.

Donald Trump, Sabbatai Zevi, And The Unchastened Devotee

I have made note, here, of a habit of mine intended to prompt writing:

Sometimes I scribble little notes to myself…prompted by observations while walking…by a passage read in a book…a scene in a movie. Sometimes they make sense when I return to them…and an expanded thought based on them finds its way into my writing…

It doesn’t always work:

But sometimes…they make little or no sense. I have no idea what prompted them…This forgetfulness stems…from their provenance. When I write them down, I am possessed by a panic that the momentary thought will disappear, leaving no trace behind. So, cutting corners, I rush to commit to permanence [leaving out some perhaps necessary detail].

Today, I am confronted with another example of that genre:

Sabbatai Zevi and the Republican fallen

I am not sure what prompted this thought but Donald Trump and his followers prompt a few responses.

Many fascist leaders have portrayed themselves as messiahs. They attract a following, the admiring attention and devotion of those who find in their blunt, intemperate messages the promise of a salvation, a deliverance, from their own messy lives (as all human ones are.) These followers scurry after their New Prophet, unwilling and unable to accept the often mounting evidence that their ‘leader’, their ‘redeemer.’ is anything but. Mostly, they follow him over a cliff, but tragically, not before they have pushed a few innocents from those same ramparts themselves. And then, suddenly or not, the ostensible Messiah is no more, literally or figuratively: he becomes an apostate, or meets death, at his own hand or at those of others. When he departs, his followers may find themselves akin to those who wake up from a nightmare in which they remember themselves as the possessed, sleep-walkers and zombies of a kind. They might look around, at each other, and wonder what demonic forces coursed through their body and mind, committing them to courses of action which now serve as causes of regret and dismay.

It is too early to tell how and when the spectacle of the Trump will conclude. Perhaps he will crash and burn in the Republican primaries; perhaps he will be defeated by party machine maneuvers, perhaps he will be nominated by the Republican Party and then, find defeat at voting stations. (I continue to be resolutely optimistic that he will not be this nation’s next President.)

But I do not think his defeat will be chastening for him or his followers. For Trump, it will mean, as is usually the case in a culture that rewards such bad behavior, a book deal, or perhaps even a new television show. For his followers, convinced of conspiracy and informed by rumor and innuendo, it will be the signal to commit anew to a new struggle. Perhaps with renewed vigor and determination, with an eye firmly on 2020.

The real damage done by Trump is not the uncorking of the fascist genie (that’s been out and about for a while); rather, it is his–and the Republican Party’s–coddling, nourishment, and elevation to national prominence and respectability of that force–all by their placing it on the most exalted American political stage of all.

We will pay the price for this insanity for a long time. In many different and difficult ways.

Parable of the Sower: Octavia Butler’s Parable

Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower, the richly symbolic and subversive.story of Lauren Olamina, a prophet in the making, one finding her voice and her people in the midst of an America whose social order is collapsing around her, grows on you.  The story line is sparse: the US’ accumulated social, political and environmental dysfunctions have grown out of control thanks to a myopic complacent populace; some fortunate families shelter in gated communities while urban war rages outside; rape, murder, and mayhem rule rampant; a young girl, convinced she has devised a new religion, Earthseed–whose central principles are that ‘God is Change’ and can be ‘shaped’–finds her sheltering life within these walls untenable, and leaves after yet another attack on them convinces her it is more dangerous inside than outside. From that point on, she accumulates a small band of fellow travelers and heads north to possible safety. On the way she finds further gruesome evidence of the end of the new world and dreams about a new one. The haven promised them turns out to be a burnt-out shelter, the larger world on a smaller scale–but she chooses to drop anchor and get to work on it. (I’ve not read the sequel Parable of the Talents yet, but I intend to. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it sets its action in the years 2025-2027. Though perhaps inevitable, I suspect it is besides the point to wonder if its speculations about a collapsing US are on the mark. The real story lies elsewhere. )

Parable of the Sower is subversive because the prophet is a young black girl, not an old white man. She is wise beyond her years. She is sexually active with young and old men alike; she can be harsh and soft.  She is scientifically literate. She is hyperempathic–she can literally feel the pain of others. (This is a dangerous ‘blessing’ in a world with so much pain but Lauren comes to learn its limits and to live with it.)  She is tough and resourceful and clever; we come to admire her as her dangerous journey progresses. We do not normally associate these qualities with people meeting Lauren’s description–not in this society anyway, with its dominant stereotypes and ideological frames of understanding.  Just for this character, Parable of the Sower would have been an interesting and enlightening read.

But there is more. Earthseed seems a little new-ageish, but teasing out some of Lauren’s pronouncements enable an understanding of it as a kind of existentialist creed, one grounded in a richly interactionist. embedded, dynamic view of man and nature and cosmos. Heaven and hell are found here, around us, made by us, shaped by our actions; the old religions shrouded them in mystery but we live in them everyday. (The shrewd prophet uses that old word ‘God’ to make her religion easier to follow by those accustomed to old anthropomorphic deities.) In a world headed for hell in a handbasket this religion offers no solace, facilitates no finger-pointing; the blame is ours, but so may be the rewards for reconstructing it.  No creed can, or should, offer more.