In an old box the other day, I saw a crumbled piece of paper almost a couple of decades old. Fragment of a letter which Rosa Luxemburg-- the brilliant Polish heroine of the German SPD-- had written sometimes in the early 1900's, I guess. On it, I had scribbled a note:
"interesting solution to the R riddle/see Hannah!"
The minutia of what or where eludes me. But I finally managed to reconstruct the broad outlines of what I had found compelling. Why the trouble?
Because frankly, in an age when the prospect of being devoured by that barbarism of "identity" politics has become (yet again) a frighteningly real prospect, it is becoming all the more urgent for me to do what we must in order to (re)establish certain red lines that might bolster our inhibitions against collective indecencies.
I can certainly live with a wide range of critiques of various conventions we live under wherever "home" might be. And passionate activism for or against the status quo I certainly understand. Although I am increasingly losing patience for the cowardly act of hiding behind one's deity of choice or fellow citizens and so utterly fed up as well with all the nationalist prattle.
That said, what is it, really, that prevents any of us from participating in or condoning a wide range of repulsive acts?
Let's get back to the note. We start with Montesquieu first. By R, I meant Rica and he, you will recall, is one of the characters of the celebrated Persian Letters. No e-text available (that I could find) in English, but you can still read the French text here (XXX):
Mais, si quelqu'un, par hasard, apprenait à la compagnie que j'étais Persan, j'entendais aussitôt autour de moi un bourdonnement: "Ah! ah! monsieur est Persan? C'est une chose bien extraordinaire! Comment peut-on être Persan?
The gist, I suppose:
If [in Paris] someone chances to inform them that I was a Persian, I soon heard a murmur all around me: "Ah! Indeed! He is a Persian? How extraordinary! How can anyone be a Persian?' "
Well, really, the book is more about the French than it is about the Persians, I know. But that's what makes the reading experience all the more interesting. We can assume any prospective we choose to, couldn't we? And so, once we pose the question of how we can be a Persian, or German, American, Saudi, Egyptian or a Pakistani, we at once enter a realm which for Joyce (as Baldwin points out) is history as nightmare.
Baldwin further reminds us that "people become trapped in history and history is trapped in them." History as litanies of suffering, or a long list of real (and perceived) pains and torments.
And then Rosa's unique compassion which I found an interesting antidote to the poison of the self absorbed Rica in all of us:
What do you want with this particular suffering of the Jews? The poor victims on the rubber plantations in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play a game of catch, are just as near to me. Do you remember the words written on the work of the Great General Staff about Trotha's campaign in the Kalahari dessert? "And the death-rattles, the mad cries of those dying of thirst, faded away into the sublime silence of eternity."
Oh, this "sublime silence of eternity" in which so many screams have faded away unheard. It rings within me so strongly that I have no special corner of my heart reserved for the ghetto: I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds and human tears.
And Hannah Arendt, in her Men in Dark Times, does wonderfully in explicating the genesis of this enchanting generosity of spirit. She so rightly emphasizes the importance of "ethical codes," and of "moral taste":
Nettle rightly stresses Rosa Luxemburg's excellent relations with her family, her parents, brothers, sister, and niece, none of whom ever showed the slightest inclination to socialist convictions or revolutionary activities, yet who did everything they could for her when she had to hide from the police or was in prison. The point is worth making, for it gives us a glimpse of this unique Jewish family background without which the emergence of the ethical code of the peer group would be nearly incomprehensible. The hidden equalizer of those who always treated one another as equals—and hardly anybody else—was the essentially simple experience of a childhood world in which mutual respect and unconditional trust, a universal humanity and a genuine, almost naïve contempt for social and ethnic distinctions were taken for granted. What the members of the peer group had in common was what can only be called moral taste, which is so different from "moral principles"; the authenticity of their morality they owned to having grown up in a world that was not out of joint. This gave them their "rare self-confidence," so unsettling to the world into which they then came, and so bitterly resented as arrogance and conceit.
Something to think seriously about, no?