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Feb 23, 2013

Dostoevsky, Beckett: Problem of Freedom

What did we see as we moved from museum to museum? One key issue that we were tracing was an historic evolution in thought about the role of the individual in relation to the community. In the Louvre, if we consider the period from the Renaissance until the Enlightenment (roughly the 1400s-1700s), we saw A LOT of Christian-oriented paintings and sculptures and most of these depicted biblical scenes. The works that weren’t specifically Christian, such as the Mona Lisa, depicted scenes in which the character or setting was clearly defined and usually arranged in a harmonious, balanced manner. The scene might have been violent or grotesque, but the depiction was “classical.” In other words, there was always a clear narrative or point of view.
If you think of the Pompidou, however, which includes mostly 20th Century art, then you get an entirely different and even opposite picture. In the Pompidou, you often had to ask yourself, “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” The works there often seemed out of balance, dissonant, and lacking a clear narrative or point of view. If there were any works that referred to Christianity, they did so ironically. Characters and settings were sometimes so wholly contorted or fragmented that they made little sense in any “real world” way.
I would argue that the Rodin museum and the Orsay lie somewhere in between the Louvre and the Pompidou and represent the transition between the two.
Why? What does this change signal? One thing at least that it tells us about is the problem (and rewards) of freedom. You know that in France, in 1789, the Revolution brought about the end of the monarchy and the introduction of democracy. Even though this was a turbulent and uneven transition, the idea that the individual (you and I) deserve the right to exist as independent agents of our own destiny – outside of the demands and strictures of the church or the state – represented a fundamental shift in the way people thought of themselves.  This revolution in thought was taking place in England and America as well. Of course this revolution in thought, the movement toward a conception of the “Rights of Man,” was incomplete. Only white men laid claim to their rights originally, denying them to others, but the die was cast, to use a cliche. Once the church and the state fell as external arbiters of control, then it was only a matter of time before “everyone” felt empowered to assert their basic human rights. (We are still dealing with this revolution in America, as gays and lesbians are struggling to obtain their basic human rights.)
So why is freedom a problem, in this context? Freedom is a problem because it forces the individual to take responsibility for their actions and to confront the world on their own terms. And this is scary as hell. It’s much easier to drink cheap beer and watch reruns of The Office than to confront the emptiness of your own life and seriously consider your place in the cosmos.
Besides that problem, an argument could be made (and has been made) that the relative elevation of the individual and devaluation of the institutions of church and state have actually destabilized society. If you have no church to believe in and no monarchy to pay allegiance to, then you’re more or less on your own. Into this breach, some have argued, stepped various authoritarian movements – Fascism, Nazism, Communism/Stalinism – that provided at least some semblance of order and meaning. Of course, such movements also provided World War. This is a simplification, but the English critic Isaiah Berlin has argued, I think convincingly, that the cult of individuality that has evolved in the West since the time of the Enlightenment has engendered totalitarian movements, movements that have harnessed the “collective power” of individuals against those who seemed less than “human.” The artwork in the Pompidou reflects the sense of fragmentation, chaos, and violence that has been unleashed since Voltaire wrote Candide.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” poses a question. Is it better to choose “freedom,” especially since freedom results in inevitable conflict, or is it better to choose “safety,” even if in order to achieve that safety we must give up our freedom. This is a question that we have to deal with every day.
As we move out of discussing works that arise of the Enlightenment, we are faced with the crises created by Enlightenment ideas – individual liberty, scientific discovery and exploration, Protestantism. Voltaire’s response to the old order, the old narrative – the aristocracy, the church – is primarily satirical, at least in Candide, but his solution is arguably conservative, or at least not revolutionary: tend your garden. This solution places the nexus of the argument squarely on the shoulders of the individual, but this individual is not a revolutionary in the Marxian sense. Candide is no revolutionary.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” (1880) which is a chapter out of his novel The Brothers Karamazov, while specifically concerning the Roman Catholic Church, is  about this problem of freedom. If we are all essentially equal, if there is no authority over us determining how we are to live and providing us with basic necessities, then how are we to satisfy our needs without killing each other, without anarchy? The English writer Thomas Hobbes, in the 17th Century, argued that we cannot. Such lives of freedom are “nasty, brutish, and short,” he wrote in Leviathan; consequently, we require a ruler (a monarch) endowed with absolute power who can maintain order and provide for the well-being of the masses. Hobbes believed that we must even give our freedom of conscience over to the monarch, who will then decide what “we” are to believe. Is it possible to “love” the monarch in such a system?
The Inquisitor argues that Christ offered freedom of belief to all humanity, essentially viewing all people as equal before God. The Inquisitor argues that by refusing the devil’s temptations, Christ was asserting that one’s love of God cannot arise out of fear or manipulation, but out of free choice. After all, is it love if one is forced to it? The problem, the Inquisitor argues, is that given freedom, humanity will revert to Hobbes’ chaotic state. We will destroy each other. The Inquisitor’s solution, then, is to provide the “millions” with the things they crave – bread, moral certitude, and universality. The church will demand absolute obedience, but in return it will provide the “millions” with peace, the peace of innocent children. In this way, the Inquisitor argues, the church is actually more benevolent than Christ himself, who misjudged human nature and assumed that we are essentially “good” when in fact we are essentially “bad.”
This solution, however, is not simply to be dismissed as the solution of a corrupt church. Rather, it is the solution offered by every narrative – political, economic, and religious – that seeks to tell the “millions” how to live. Karl Marx’s narrative in The Communist Manifesto (1848)  is another example of a narrative that seeks to justify a certain “will to power.” And in this sense, it is the same narrative as that developed by one of the “Founding Fathers” of liberal democracy, John Locke. Locke argued that we are all naturally free, but he further asserted that capitalism and competition were right and natural. Marx would agree with the first part of this argument, but he would argue that capitalism and competition are finally barriers to real freedom, the freedom of the proletariat – the “millions” – from the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Such freedom, however, became a kind of oppression of its own, at least as practiced in the former Soviet Union. But in relation to the “lies” offered by the Inquisitor, the narrative offered by Marx seems almost refreshing.
In any case, what is clear is that in the 19th Century, Western and Russian literature were trying to deal with the problem of the proper relationship between the individual and society. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) is also about the problem of the individual who is free to make choices. In the case of Krapp, the play’s protagonist, he realizes that he has made the wrong choices. (You can also view the complete play on Youtube. It’s really strange and worth viewing.
Krapp has made audio recordings of himself every year for many years on the anniversary of his birthday. The play takes place on a night when he is about to make a new recording. First, however, he listens to recordings of himself from previous years. What this means is that you have narratives within narratives. You have Krapp in the “present” day listening to, fast-forwarding, and commenting upon the Krapp of the “old” day. The old Krapp often makes predictions and decisions about the future that the present-day Krapp no long believes in or knows are untrue. This predicament sums up the conflict at the heart of much of modern World literature: In a world in which all the narratives (of family, of church, of state, of everything) have been challenged or fractured, then how do we answer the big three questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I know?
Once you have read the “Grand Inquisitor,” and Krapp’s Last Tape, please Reply three separate times. First, answer the question, “What do you think of the Inquisitor’s reasoning?” Quote from the text in your answer. Second, answer the question, “What does Krapp regret the most and why?” Quote from the text in your answer. You can answer these questions by simply replying to this Post. Third, reply to another of your peer’s comments with a substantive, thorough, respectful, reasoned argument. You may agree or disagree with the other student, but explain your reasoning.

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