Saturday, September 5, 2015

Consolation for intellectuals in a time of despair

In addition to public figures and intellectuals by profession, the planet is dotted with independent scholars and autodidacts who persevere on sheer motivation alone. In the past month I had a conversation with one of them, who sees the political and general prospects for the world as hopeless, as any thinking person would, and wondered whether he should just give up his intellectual and politically motivated work which nobody cares about and which will not have a discernible impact.

I could not give him the usual consolations of traditional religion or New Age pabulum, so I had to think of an alternative. I quickly thought of two authors: Theodor W. Adorno and Jorge Luis Borges.
I zeroed in on the concluding paragraph:
By contrast the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. . . . Open thinking points beyond itself. . . .Whatever has once been thought can be suppressed, forgotten, can vanish. But it cannot be denied that something of it survives. For thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought. . . . The happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity. The universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such. Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.
Justifying an uncompromising intellectual perspective when it goes unappreciated, not just by strangers, but by one's most intimate loved ones, can be stressful. Here is the most relevant rebuttal to the superstitious and the anti-intellectual, as only Adorno can express it:
This comes at the head of what I have dubbed via my twisted sense of humor "Adorno's Best Break-Up Quotes." Need I spell out when and why I would draw on these quotes?

Here is a related take on the same idea:
"Adorno's Best Break-Up Quotes" comprise a significant chunk of my podcast of 5/7/15: "Adorno for Autodidacts," in my series Studies in a Dying Culture under the auspices of Think Twice Radio.

So . . . The first item I used for my friend was the final paragraph of Adorno's essay "Resignation" quoted above. My second source was a short story by Jorge Luis Borges:
In "The Secret Miracle" (summary), the protagonist is sentenced to die by firing squad. He prays to God to be granted one year to fulfill his life's mission, to finish writing an unfinished play. His wish is granted in a surprising way: as he faces the firing squad, at the instant he is to be shot, time freezes. He along with everyone else remains motionless, but he is free to compose and polish his work to perfection, which he finishes mentally in this frozen scene in a year's time.  When his work is complete, the scene comes to life and he is shot to death.

No record of his work will ever be made, no one will know of its existence, and thus he will never receive recognition from the world. But the fact that he was able to complete his work, albeit only in his own mind, made the effort worthwhile.

When I related the Adorno quote and this plot summary, my friend was inspired. This was just what he needed to carry on.

Absorption is happiness. Expression is happiness. Thought is happiness.

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