Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888).jpg
This somehow this seemed an appropriate portrait for this essay: here at his desk is the young Russian radical and author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888), as depicted by his friend Ilia Efimovich Repin. (Met. 1972.145.2)

For some time now I’ve realized that I am effectively politically and ideologically homeless. Having for a time sojourned on the libertarian left, over the last few years I’ve drifted away from the left side of the spectrum, but without really ending up anywhere classifiable. By many metrics I no doubt still appear ‘leftish’—I am critical of both statism and capitalism, embrace political decentralization, the wider distribution of power and wealth, localized control, the importance of unions, co-ops, and other mutualist or even socialist forms of political economy, and so on. While I would not describe myself as an environmentalist, my reasons are similar to those of someone like Paul Kingsnorth (whose trajectory I think I can understand quite well, and which has many similarities with my own), and the importance of the ecological to my politics has increased, in no small part I suspect to having recently become a father. But at the same time I have grown extremely critical, or simply uninterested, in much of the rest of leftist discourse, both in its more ‘classical’ formulations and its contemporary manifestations in the West, most of which I find alternatively infuriating and dull. I have never had any interest in and but little patience for so-called progressive politics, and the recent turn of those politics towards essentialism and shallow identity-mongering has done nothing to raise my appetite. But closer to the lay of the radical politics I once practiced, I can no longer countenance a politics based solely on some form of ‘liberation’ divorced from transcendent values, nor can I intellectually or otherwise justify the ideas of personal autonomy and strict egalitarianism lying behind those ideas of liberation. And I found that a great deal of what I needed to maintain to remain a ‘good’ leftist, even of the libertarian variety, simply did not mesh with any form of reality I could perceive. Nor could I any longer reconcile the full range of my ‘strong’ political commitments with my commitment to Orthodox Christianity and my increasingly ‘thick’ formation within the Church.

But even deeper, I found that I simply could not subordinate my life and the world around me to a political ideology of any sort, that I could not and did not want to bring everything under the aegis of the political: which was exactly what seemingly every political option, left and right, was demanding. So there it is in a nutshell—in what follows, here and in further essays, eventually, I’d like to walk through this process, to scope out my own twists and turns of thinking, of practice, of emotional development and change. As is the case with a lot of personal, autobiographical writing, my foremost goal is really just to explain myself to myself, to make sense of my own life’s trajectory through a selective but, I hope, relatively honest and thoughtful narrative. Of course there are arguments and claims herein, which I imagine an astute reader picking up on and probably contesting. But more fundamentally, I think that this political de-conversion narrative points to a very important reality about what it is to be human: our lives do not unfold neatly and coherently, our thinking and our cultural participation and choices do not necessarily make sense, and where we end up is often quite unpredictable and contingent. Every self is really a sort of bricolage, a multitude of wills at work in one person, as Flannery O’Connor put it. Our lives unfold under the signs of many ‘cultures’ and traces, things gathered in the past rising to the surface unexpectedly and uncalled for. Therein, in fact, lies part of the problem with any political ideology: it tends to smooth things over, to foreclose the stories and pieces and moements that do not ‘fit,’ and to demand that we render our own life narratives accordingly.

So, to begin. I don’t really know precisely at what point I started to think of myself as being on the left of the political spectrum. It was really more of a gradual process, and a gradual realization- both coming and going. In this I imagine that my experience is not too different from that of many others. That said, there have been particular points in my life that have stood out as pivotal moments, both at the time and in later reflection, moments that, not coincidentally, also provide good structure for a narrative. My two most important political epiphanies both came, at different speeds, in the first years of the new millennium: the first, and probably most fundamental, was a result of a summer spent in southwest China, at the tender age of nineteen. That summer was, in retrospect, one of the most important and formative periods in my life, a summer of dawning realizations, vastly opened vistas, joyful, sometimes strange, encounters, and wrenching conclusions about the nature of things. I was hardly a naive or uninformed young person at the time, to be sure, but my knowledge of the world beyond my own corner of it was mostly mediated to me at a remove, and that mediation, as is so often the case, disguised as much as it revealed.

Among the revelations visited upon me during those alternatively blissful and excruciating months in the hills of Yunnan was a clarity about the nature of the state and of capitalism. I had already imbued literature, political positions, and cultural ephemera such as to give me a critical stance towards both, but it was fragmentary and incoherent. I thought of certain sorts of states—authoritarian and totalitarian ones—as ‘bad,’ and if I thought of capitalism at all I worried about its particular uses, and did not think of political economy or economy in general in a very systematic way. I had a sense that capitalism was the result of free markets, within the framework of a state that oversaw some things but mostly left the market to work its magic, or something along those lines.

Continue reading “Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.”

A Human Figure in Profound Meditation

The Repentant Magdalen
c. 1635/1640, by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652),
oil on canvas (Nat. Gall. of Art 1974.52.1)

‘Georges de la Tour, like John Donne, is one of the rediscoveries of the twentieth century; and the admiration that both have evoked in our own time may be traced to the same fundamental causes. I do not mean simply the photographic realism of the composition, but rather the way in which every detail of the work is controlled by a human figure in profound meditation. This person’s thoughts are not abstract: the left hand, with its sensitive, tapered fingers, probes the eyesocket of a skull; the arm, so delicately clothed, conveys a rude sensation to the brain. Meanwhile the eye is focused on a mirror, where we are accustomed to pursue the work of preparing “a face to meet the faces”” that we meet: yet here the inquiring eye meets “the skull beneath the skin,” a skull that seems to devour the book on which it rests. Sight and touch, then, meet to form these thoughts, meditative, piercing, looking through the mirror, probing whatever lies beyond. For me, at least, it suggests simultaneously Donne and Yeats: Donne in his shroud and Yeats in his tower, especially the figure that ends A Vision: “Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra.”

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.

To Be Able to Give One Has to Possess

It would be useless to turn one’s back on the past in order simply to concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible. The opposition of future to past or past to future is absurd. The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life. But to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated, and created afresh by us. Of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past…

The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes. Today the preservation of what little of it remains ought to become almost an obsession. We must put an end to the terrible uprootedness which European colonial methods always produce, even under their least cruel aspects. We must abstain, once victory [1] is ours, from punishing the conquered enemy by uprooting him still further; seeing that it is neither possible nor desirable to exterminate him, to aggravate his lunacy would be to show oneself more of a lunatic than he. We must also keep, above all, well to the fore any political, legal, or technical innovations likely to have social repercussions, some arrangement whereby human beings may once more be able to recover their roots.

[1] That is, over the Axis: Weil wrote the book this excerpted from in 1943.

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind, translated by Arthur Wills (New York: Octagon Books, 1979), 51-52.

On Landscapes

A Brazilian Landscape
‘A Brazilian Landscape,’ by the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612–1680). (Met. 1981.318)


The landscape has its own sound, an idiom, a dialect, a particular light and temperature and their changes with the seasons. The landscape is the median, the densest synthesis, the ordinary reality. Most people grow up not in countries or towns but in what occupies the middle ground between them: in landscapes. “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification.” The landscape is the center, the focus of our lives, and so it is also what is most contentious, contested, embattled, and susceptible to myth-making and ideological construction. There are near-equivalent terms: region, scenery, homeland. The landscape is more important than the political-administrative district; it means more to us than the state, and its meanings reach deeper. People define themselves by the landscape in which they have their roots no less than by the nation whose citizens they are. That is why landscape paintings are not just depictions but our world en miniature: microcosms. Because the landscape designates a totality, the history of the landscape, and of the cultural landscape in particular, has come to stand for efforts to reunite divided and isolated disciplines, to recover the conviction that history can, and should be, narrated as an integral whole, as histoire totale. “Landscape” is a highly malleable term, but its core meaning is inalienable, whether we speak of ruined landscapes or the landscapes of memory, of human or urban landscapes. It always designates the cohesive form, the ensemble. All its various meanings are anchored in its primary signification, the physical landscape.

We walk or travel through landscapes. Their changing appearances and the distinctions that let us tell them apart reveal the richness of our world. The landscape is the consummate result of human labor and human genuis. It is the greatest work of art imaginable, the supreme human achievement, and when our endeavors in it come to grief, it is the greatest conceivable calamity. The landscape is the most solid substance in which man has ever wrought the objective reality of his existence—geography, Robert A. Dodgshon has written, is about the “materiality of social life”—and at once his subtlest and most atmospheric creation, to which poets, philosophers, architects, and the entire human community have each contributed their shares. So to read and decipher landscapes is to unlock a door to the history of a people, of the nations, of humanity. Because “virgin” landscapes do not—or not longer—exist, all history of the landscape is a history of cultural landscapes. Hugo Hassinger has argued that anthropogeography is simply the “morphology of the cultural landscape,” the study of the tectonics of the social sphere, the inertia of the built world, the visible distribution of power and powerlessness, to mention only a few aspects. Historians are experts in matters of cultural forms: (cultural) morphologists. They take an interest in surfaces, and so they must be good phenomenologists and physiognomists if they hope to detect essential processes. They read the landscape like a text, carefully peeling off layer upon layer as though it were a palimpsest.

Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 235-237.

On ‘Influence’

‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality. It is a very strange that a term with such an incongruous astral background has come to play such a role, because it is right against the real energy of the lexicon. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle… – everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round- in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.

Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1985) 58-59.

Notes On the ‘Why’ of Doing History

In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.

In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.

Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.

History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.

Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’


« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973