You say you want a revolution: what price continuity?
“Revolutions, so incontinent in their hypocritically generous haste to proclaim the rights of man, have always violated, trampled on, and broken man’s most fundamental right, so fundamental that it may stand as the definition of his being: the right to continuity.”
This was Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1936 in his essay Towards a Theory of History. He had finally acted on his growing disillusionment with politics, at least as practiced in Spain, and left the country. Of course, we now know that at this moment his country was standing on the brink of revolution and counter-revolution in which ownership of the “right of continuity” was one of the principal objects of battle.
Continuity as inevitably violated by revolution feels to me a potentially rich seam to explore in more detail this year. However, here I want to confine it to a juxtaposition of a few perspectives as resources for deeper reflection in the future, an early rehearsal if you like.
I’ll start by expanding that quote of Ortega a little to give it context:
“[Historic reason] shows us the futility of all general revolution, of all attempts — such as that of the Confusionists of 1789 — to bring about a sudden change of society and begin history anew. It opposes to the method of revolution the only method worthy of the long experience that lies behind the European of today. Revolutions, so incontinent in their hypocritically generous haste to proclaim the rights of man, have always violated, trampled on, and broken man’s most fundamental right, so fundamental that it may stand as the definition of his being: the right to continuity. The only radical difference between human history and “natural history” [that of animals] is that the former can never begin again. … Every morning the poor beasts have to face almost total oblivion of what they lived through the day before, and their intellect has to work with a minimum fund of experience. …
“Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years. It is because of this that Nietzsche defined man as the being ‘with the longest memory.’ Breaking the continuity with the past, wanting to begin again, is a lowering of man and a plagiarism of the orangutan. It was a Frenchman, Dupont-White, who around 1860 had the courage to exclaim: ‘Continuity is one of the rights of man; it is a homage of everything that distinguishes him from the beast.’
“… the method of continuity [is] the only one that can avoid, in the course of human affairs, that pathological element that makes history a notorious, constant struggle between paralytics and epileptics.”
Alongside elaboration of revolution as a dialectical, destructive struggle there is a second theme, the assertion that the faculty of effective memory is a category distinction between humankind as a species and other species of animal. This in itself is a huge area of research and contemplation, and scientific understanding will have moved on extensively since the 1930s. Without borrowing too much from a future blog entry I have in mind, I was reminded of a book by contemporary philosopher John Gray called The Silence of Animals, which is something of a comparison between the sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing of humans and natural silence of animals. The book is hugely stimulating and worth a read just for its atheist-on-atheist summary demolition of Richard Dawkins. But I will ponder further on memory plus silence, or perhaps it is really memory versus silence.
But back to a couple of thoughts on this notion of revolution, advocated by people Ortega labels “epileptics”, versus continuity, championed by “paralytics”. Obviously, these terms are being used in a non-medical sense, but I am guessing here that epilepsy is invoked as analogous to a loss of memory and connection with what went before, whilst paralysis is equated to an immoveable sense of being stuck in the past.
This I sense is a major clue to Ortega’s sentiment: in talking about continuity he is not advocating implacable stasis, which was my first instinct when I read it, but, instead, the avoidance of outright rupture. And why? Because, in my view and coining a term beloved of Marxist revolutionaries, alienation is almost inevitably exacerbated by revolution every bit as much resolved by it.
An historical case of this, which 2½ centuries is still evident in fault-lines through French politics, as we may well see in next year’s presidential election, is the revolutionary treatment meted out in places such as the Vendée, whose citizens, whilst appreciating the abolition of feudalism, did not wish for its entire past, especially the Christian heritage of France, to be swept away in favour of the Cult of Reason (later replaced with the equally secular Cult of the Supreme Being).
Embedded within the words I have quoted, Ortega is citing French philosopher and statesman Charles Dupont-White, who was amongst those charged with establishing the French Second Republic in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutionary fervour, ultimately unsuccessful, that swept across many countries in Europe. Dupont-White, a critic of unfettered capitalism and its dislocational effects on the lives and livelihoods of workers, was attempting to improve their lot by means of state intervention as a counter-veiling power, thus avoiding the catastrophically disruptive revolutionary change that he realised would lead to even more human desolation. Perhaps he recalled the popular rejection of the Republican calendar, including the replacement of Sunday with the less frequent décadi, and much of the terror and many of the trappings of the French revolutionary period half a century earlier.
Without wanting to be labelled an obscurophile in my choice of sources, I think this notion of the right to continuity is under-appreciated, certainly under-articulated. In its most extreme form, numerous totalitarian regimes in the 20th century attempted “Year Zero” style resets and the destruction of continuity with the past, most notoriously and explicitly in Cambodia but it is manifestly common to all revolutionary movements, left and right.
The less obscure George Orwell of course captured the underlying motivation of deliberate alienation from the past in his famous maxim from his novel 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future.”
Although this is one of the most chilling encapsulations of what is an age-old power play and echoed Orwell’s disillusionment as a socialist with what he came to see as the in-built destructiveness of Soviet communism, it is as relevant today as it ever was.
The upsurge in recent times of the competitive sport of “narratives”, most notably of the history of the United States but with something similar also at play in Britain and other countries, seems not to involve a legitimate transition to a set of balanced multi-polar historical narratives interwoven much as the ribbons on a Maypole. Instead, it seems to require the destruction through cultural revolution of one narrative, complete with dramatic dissolution of its associated continuities, in favour of another. The argument seems to have mutated from one in which multiple narratives in overlapping, complementary form is most likely to have the best explanatory power collectively to the Darwinian one of fight to the death. A loser – or losers – and a winner.
This brawl over the narrative, and its associated right to assert a single thread of continuity that is inevitably exclusive, is in full force at the time of writing this blog entry in respect of the legacy of the outgoing President. So keen are his detractors to kick over the embers of his original ascendancy and to “maximum delete” à la Dr Who Cybermen all those who can be tarred with his brush, removing their voices entirely. This feels uncomfortably close to Orwell’s warning, and it is being pursued with relish in plain sight largely by people and organisations who would call themselves “liberal”. Whatever happens in these next few days, I don’t think the current attempt to erase an entire political movement will have the permanent quelling effect its instigators and cheerleaders might be hoping for. Quite the opposite.
And why? Because the need for continuity is too deep in people to be silenced in this way and it will merely go underground for a samizdat season, to resurface unexpectedly once the National Guard has been demobilised.
I am left wondering who in this case is the more brittle: those retiring hurt or those championing a militarised Capitol. I wonder who are the revolutionaries and who are the counter-revolutionaries. And I wonder in such balkanised circumstances how respectful appreciation for different expressions of continuity will ever be achieved, which I think is an essential component of any lasting peace, as opposed to total annihilation.
I will close for now this incomplete discussion by leavening obscure philosophers with words from rather better known bons mots merchants, the Beatles, from “Revolution”:
“But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out.”
John, Paul, George and Ringo, unlikely champions of the most fundamental of rights: that of continuity.