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.

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.