Perhaps no English poem was more frequently cited during France's 1989 Bicentennial year than William Wordsworth's Prelude, in Book XI of which one finds “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!” Anyone unfamiliar with the poet's biography might reasonably have assumed that the poem was a euphoric celebration of the Revolution, something like an anticipation in blank verse of “Prairie Fire,” the 1974 “Political Statement of the Weather Underground,” the passionate aim of which was “to expose and focus attention against the power and institutions which most cruelly oppress, exploit, and delude the people.”
Indeed, there was early on a Wordsworth whom the blissfully if somewhat explosively alive Weathermen might have interpreted as one of their own: the man who while visiting France in the early 1790s was not only against the Old Regime but repeated the Revolution on a sexual level by taking a mistress and fathering an illegitimate child; the man who, safely back in England in 1793, wrote but was not able to publish his “Letter to the Bishop of Landaff,” an attack on the British political and cultural establishment that was every bit as radical as Shelley's poem “Queen Mab.” This man, having partaken of what Edmund Burke had called the intoxicating bowl of revolutionary ideas, believed that “Government was at best but a necessary evil” and upbraided the good Bishop for failing to see that the French Revolution was “a convulsion from which is to spring a fairer order of things.” Indeed, he came pretty close to agreeing with Oscar Wilde's much later remark in “The Soul of Man under Socialism” that “all authority is quite degrading.”
Of course those who have read The Prelude, especially the last five books, know another Wordsworth: one who, after a period of storm and stress that followed his growing disillusion with the Revolution as it turned tyrannous and bloody, now sees the connection between that earlier bliss and his passionate oversimplifications. He has grown conservatively away from his “juvenile errors” and thinks better of Burke. In fact, to some readers (anticipations of Tom Hayden!) he will in time become the “Lost Leader” who in Browning's poem is represented as having sold out to the establishment “for a handful of silver” — specifically, the salary he earned as Stamp Collector for Westmoreland. Stephen Gill in his recent Wordsworth: A Life calls Browning's remarks “a gross libel,” but the poem also expresses a political naiveté (Browning, who never had Wordsworth's money problems, was about as political as James Joyce) that Wordsworth had already movingly confessed to in his own life. The confession is a major reason why The Prelude was not likely to give comfort to future revolutionaries—and why at the same time it could have been so instructively read or reread during the Bicentennial year.
In The Prelude we find what since the French Revolution has been that most quintessential of modern experiences: the painful discovery that blissful expectations of an order in which liberty, equality, and fraternity will prevail have been misplaced. There is a recognition of the centrality of this experience in the number of writers who recently have taken the Revolution as their subject, and who on the whole agree with Wordsworth, to say nothing of Burke. As Harvard professor James Wilkinson puts it in “After the Revolution in France” (Salmagundi, Fall 1989), “There is a distinct irony in the fact that the two hundredth anniversary of the French revolution is being celebrated at a time when the prestige of revolutions has reached a low ebb.” Wilkinson is concerned primarily with the ultimate failure of the rhetoric of revolution, the simplistic moral absolutes of which by the mid-1970s could no longer be accepted as absolutes, so that “the ambiguities of revolutionary discourse began to collapse of their own weight.” It was Wordsworth's fate, of course, to suffer through the failure of such a rhetoric, which had supported “the hopes of men/ Who were content to barter short-lived pangs/ For a paradise of ages.”
David Gress in “Demystifying the French Revolution” (Commentary, July 1989) complements Wilkinson. Having contemplated the degeneration of Enlightenment liberal ideals to “the justification of mass murder and repression in the name of the People and virtu,” he concludes that “nothing is easier than perverting an ideal into the tool of repressive power while retaining the original slogans.” In the same vein, Mark Lilla in “The French Revolution is Dead” (Partisan Review, Spring 1989) tells us that Francois Furet's revisionist history of the Revolution and its aftermath “has made all French intellectuals in this history-drunk land confront their own troubled liberal tradition.” He reminds us also (what some visiting American graduate students find it hard to believe) “that what is now called la pensee ‘68 lost its allure some time ago in Paris.”
As if to reinforce Lilla, the next issue of Partisan Review published “The Philosophies of ‘68” by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut. They speak of the eclipse of the most extreme anti-humanist strains in the “School of ‘68” and of those philosophers, especially Marx, now losing favor in France, whose radicalism was seen not so long ago as a continuation of the Revolution. And then there is the discouraging spectacle of socialism on the retreat—indeed, in varying stages of utter collapse—everywhere. Not that the men of 1789 were aiming at a socialist order, but their dream of a totally reconstructed society has continued to inspire dreamers of other persuasions so that the revisionist spirit threatens them all. Wordsworth was not the first or last to believe “that a benignant spirit was abroad/ Which might not be withstood.” To serve that benignant spirit was, and in some quarters still is, to be blissfully alive, but what if in action that spirit turns out to be malignant, so that, as Thomas Carlyle put it in his history of the Revolution, even its victims could march to their deaths shouting “Live the Republic!” as if “under a horrid enchantment”?
The disenchanted Wordsworth would later remember the “Domestic carnage” that took “Head after head, and never heads enough” and the “clumsy desperation” of those who “brought/ A river of Blood, and preached that nothing else/ Could cleanse the Augean stable.” It is unlikely that he would have had much sympathy for Jules Michelet's history of the Revolution, had he lived long enough to read it. For Michelet, as Gress puts it, “the revolutionaries were always right, whatever their actions, because they were defending the cause of universal freedom and justice, which only evil or ill-informed people could oppose.”
However we may sympathize with Wordsworth now we have to give Michelet his due. He anticipates Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, and the Weather Underground in his implicit agreement with Lenin that a true revolution is inevitably violent, and that those who believe that Marx and Engels thought otherwise deserve to be scorned. The rivers of blood are not only the effects of an authentic revolution but the signs of its authenticity. The absolute rhetoric mandates the absolutely cleansing bloodbath. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar the conspirators have the right formula. After they have assassinated Caesar, Brutus directs them “to bathe our hands in Caesar's blood” so that, waving their blood-smeared swords, they can walk ritualistically to the marketplace crying “Peace, freedom, and liberty.”
It is worth noting, however, that as Nietzsche reads the play in The Gay Science the blood does not authenticate the strike against political tyranny but Brutus' spiritual strength by virtue of which he is able, in the interest of his self-enhancement, to cut the enthralling bond of friendship with Caesar. Such a highly personalized kind of agape makes one wonder how often purportedly liberating bloodbaths must be understood less as efforts to elevate the downtrodden than to elevate the inciters. Perhaps this has something to do with an all too common spectacle: a revolutionary elite living like privileged aristocrats (perhaps behind guarded enclosures) while the “liberated” but tightly controlled masses do the best they can with a scarcity of potatoes, toilet paper, cigarettes, vodka, and adequate housing.
In any event, it is what Carlyle called “the all-healing Guillotine” that, as much as any other factor, still encourages many of us to take the Revolution at its own evaluation. Who can withstand the rhetoric of so much blood? In America there has always been a tendency to think of our own Revolution as second rate because of a deficiency in the bloodletting—a deficiency that might have had something to do with the relative scarcity of rhetoricians like Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine. In the meantime we must take our authentication where we can find it, perhaps in a remark like Jefferson's to Madison: “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Even a little rebellion would yield the blood without which the tree of liberty withers for lack of nourishment. So it is not hard now to imagine the potentially demoralizing position of those who are being asked to give up their vision of a blood-nurtured French Revolution. It's like asking them to believe that what Hegel called “a magnificent sunrise” was only a false dawn.
Wilkinson points out that just as in the late nineteenth century “one could aspire to be ‘good' without being ‘godly,' so in the late twentieth century it has become possible for the French (and other Europeans) to pursue moral ends without having to endorse revolutionary means.” It is the theocratic combination of the good with the godly that gives us the absolutist rhetoric that mandates the nutrifying bloodbath. There were plenty of godly and rhetorically absolute people in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s who, like the Weather Underground, acted as if they took their marching orders from the Devil in one of his most effective disguises: the perfectionist who identifies as morally intolerable any flinching from the imperative to pursue a chosen objective only in the most absolute terms.
But all the Americas, North, Central, and South, have had or still have their share of revolutionists whose rhetoric expresses the conviction that without a passionate union of goodness and godliness no magnificent sunrise is to be expected. In the Fall 1986 Hudson Review George Watson could dwell at length on the significance of the fact that in Europe and America socialism is no longer an option, but at the same time in The World Marxist Review the Mexican bishop Sergio Montez Arceo was taking the position that “to be an anti-Communist means to be anti-Christian” and that all along “Christians and Marxists have been acting on absolutely equal terms within the Sandinista National Liberation Front.” Meanwhile in Peru the Maoist Shining Path has found ways to adapt the purifying spirit of the guillotine to the exigencies of guerrilla warfare, and in Colombia the drug lords, having become experts in cocaine politics, are doing their violent best to market a product designed to eliminate any anxiety generated by the disjunction of the good and the godly and to leave unalloyed bliss in its place. Nor should we forget the narcotic effect that updated versions of Marxism, especially when fortified by blood-validating revolutions in Third World countries, continue to exercise on the part of the American left that is unable to see its earlier godliness as juvenile error.
But people do grow weary of the Perfectionist Devil and the godly intransigence he inspires. Mark Lilla's remark that today “naiveté is the only remaining capital offense in France” suggests that for a significant number of French intellectuals the revolution has been reduced to the level of juvenile error. This may seem like a strange state of affairs given the extent to which since the onset of modernism French intellectual life has come on like something born and bred in post-World War II California. If Lilla is right, these latter-day Thermidoreans were as authentic a part of the Bicentennial as memories of The Terror. Perhaps, having been forced to bear the symbolic burden of the revolution well past the point of demystification, they were in a mood to sympathize with what Wordsworth says in his 1805 “Ode to Duty”—”Me this uncharted freedom tires;/ I feel the weight of chance desires . . .”
But the question remains: what kind of life is there for progressive-minded people if they have no chance to be as blissfully alive as they might have been in the Revolution's passionate unity of the good and the godly? Must they cease agonizing over a proper answer to Lenin's question: What is to be done? Must they learn to be content with doing their pittance of good hoping that the godliness will take care of itself, meanwhile heroically enduring the pangs of conscience inflicted by the Perfectionist Devil, who reserves a special hatred for those willing to settle for the merely doable? Must they be willing to settle for less blissful levels of godliness, hoping that these do not prove to be ersatz?
Jane Fonda looks just as blissfully alive in the photos that decorate her very successful exercise books as she did in that famous picture of her posed beside a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. But even those who are still angry with the latter picture can sense that it is a sad comedown. It is as if the idealistic young Josef Goebbels, who after his first meeting with Hitler wrote in his diary “I am in heaven,” survived the war to become a successful and contented advertising executive. Somewhere in the gap between the two Fonda pictures lies the explanation of why a Marxist like the Chilean Sergio Vuskovich Rojo, writing in the October 1989 World Marxist Review, can do what progressives of all persuasions have been doing routinely all these years: extol the spirit of the French Revolution without saying a word about the bloodshed. Only the loss of his naiveté would make the blood a subject of critical attention.
The revolution, as Gress and others agree, may have been in many ways a disaster for France, but it left us with dramatic proof that the human need to experience a blissful and synergistic conjunction of the good and the godly ranks with the fear of boredom as a shaper of history. But what if in the Hegelian long-term view Francis Fukuyama is right and we arrive at the end of history to find that without the conflicts and tensions of ideology and nationalism there can be no such conjunction and life is a bore? Indeed, revolutions become so bloody because their agents, tantalized by the vision of an ideal order, assume that the experience of it in fact will be equal to the experience of it in pursuit. It is this expected equation that makes a Robespierre or a St. Just (or any romantic lover, for that matter) so blissfully alive. But in Fukuyama's view the spirit of the French Revolution has been permanently exorcized, and whatever anachronistic absolutists remain can only expect endless repetitions of the fate of Flaubert's Emma Bovary or Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. Fukuyama himself seems to be less than happy with this prospect. Thus he ends his essay with the not especially Hegelian suggestion that the “very prospect of centuries of boredom will serve to get history started again.”
The implication here is that boredom has a dependence on absence of violence, and that, conversely, the presence of violence has something to do with being alive, blissfully or otherwise, in the ongoing world of history. In its 1986 convention the American Anthropological Association took no account of this dependence in its “Statement on Violence.” “Except for rare pathologies,” the Statement says, “the genes do not produce individuals necessarily predisposed to violence.” Since violence “is neither in our revolutionary legacy nor in our genes . . . we conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism and empowered with confidence to undertake the transformative tasks needed in the International Year of Peace and in the years to come.” Indeed, for the anthropologists violence is no more a scientifically verifiable factor in human behavior than competition is for some of Fukuyama's “neorealist” adversaries—although Fukuyama would probably see the connections among violence, competition, and boredom that the anthropologists miss.
Rutgers professor Robin Fox clearly sees those connections as he dissents from the “Statement on Violence” in the 1989 September-October Encounter. To him it isn't pessimism that threatens peace, nor is it aggression, which “is not a basic motivation for action; it is a tool for other more frightening motives.” One of the worst of these is fanaticism, an example of which he finds in the Statement itself with its absolute certainty about “what is or is not ‘scientifically correct.' “ Professor Fox admits that he is less frightened by aggressive instincts, which he thinks he can understand and handle, “than by the prospect of being at the mercy of human intelligence and culture, given its record.” In fact, he sounds a bit like Wordsworth in his disillusionment with William Godwin and all “speculative schemes—/ That promised to abstract the hopes of Man/ Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth/ Forever in a purer element.” But as he rejects the simplistic absolutes of the Statement Fox sounds a bit like Wilkinson too, for he is rejecting a revolutionary rhetoric fired by a Utopian expectation of a world from which violence—being a product of nurture, not nature—is permanently absent so that liberty, equality, and fraternity can prevail.
It might appear then that the anthropologists are offering progressives an opportunity for a blissful participation in the revolutionary project to shape a New Man in a New World. And this time perhaps they can focus attention on Hegel's sunrise metaphor and Trotsky's optimistic prediction in Literature and Revolution that under socialism we may all attain the level of a Beethoven or a Goethe. Unfortunately, this not only contradicts Lenin's dogma that a true revolution must be violent, but it will offend those who are being asked to believe that something crucial to their experience of the French and all “true” revolutions, the validating bloodbath, is unnatural. They will be in the position of football fans asked to believe that their game will be more enjoyable once the violence has been subtracted from it. Delacroix's painting “Liberty Leading the People” (inspired by the Revolution of 1830) says something important about revolution that the anthropologists ignore or have forgotten: that if it has its way it will be violent and bloody and blissful or it will be false and not worth the effort. And nobody in the Delacroix painting, certainly not the bare-breasted Goddess of Liberty, appears to be bored. Even the dead people suggest in that context that they have been caught up in an enterprise so absolutely good and godly that no one would dare to accuse them of naiveté.
In American universities at the present time the conflict between Old Regime diehards and Jacobin liberators is being repeated as champions of the traditional humanistic canon defend themselves against what the philosopher Richard Rorty has called “the rainbow coalition of the American cultural left.” James F. Peterman and D. E. Richardson make it clear in “A Rally for the American Left” (Sewanee Review, Fall 1989) how heated the rhetoric of the conflict was at the conference at which Rorty made his remark. One of the memorable presentations was made by Richard A. Lanham, appropriately a specialist in rhetoric. His paper “took the form of an encomium on the computer, which he announced will soon abolish the distinction between high culture and mass culture and will democratize art by making everyone who can operate a computer into an artist and critic.”
One may imagine that in this utopianly leveled condition there would be no conflict between the good and the godly, and no outside position from which anyone could be found guilty of naiveté. But one may be struck too with the hint of a revolutionary totality in Lanham's visionary program. It takes us back to Robespierre's expectation of a totally reconstructed Republic of Virtue in which Old Regime hierarchy will be replaced by New Order equality, but this time bloodlessly. Student manifestoes in the 1960s (“The Port Huron Statement” in America or “The Nanterre Manifesto” in France) had this all-or-nothing quality. The latter, for instance, saw that it was pointless to try to improve the University of Nanterre when “the whole of society has not been reconstructed.” Lanham's computer holds out the promise of such a reconstructing—one perhaps in which Trotsky's dream of everyman a Beethoven or Goethe will be realized at last, though by means Trotsky could hardly have anticipated.
Whether computer rhetoric would be what Wordsworth called “the language really used by men” as distinguished from “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers” is another matter. Certainly the language of The Prelude suggests otherwise. Besides, Wordsworth's expectations of technology were anything but Utopian. Science, he writes in Book II, “appears but what in truth she is, /Not as our glory and our absolute boast, /But as a succedaneum and a prop /To our infirmity.” To him Lanham's computer would probably have been nothing more than one of those crowd-bedazzling monstrosities that in Book VII make that ancient English festival, Bartholomew Fair, an image of “blank confusion.” We might imagine him being less impressed with the magic of the computer than with the naiveté of assuming that its software would be produced by omniscient and benevolent agents.
Perhaps Wordsworth would have judged Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses a novelistic repetition of the phantasmagoric spirit of that Fair. However, in Mark Edmundson's “Prophet of a New Postmodernism” (Harper's, December 1989) Rushdie's novel becomes a proper handbook for anyone anxious to escape both the wearisome negativity of postmodernism and the stale metaphors of the traditional humanistic canon. Rushdie not only finds the “prolific variety of contemporary culture exhilarating” but through his devotion “simultaneously to demystification and to renewal” he points the way to a positive and romantic postmodernism that can “contribute to a world literature and world culture.” Being antagonistic to European xenophobia, he champions a confluence of cultures and, one might surmise, an ongoing campaign of constructive canon-bashing.
Rushdie Man, with the image of a super-godly and guillotine-threatening ayatollah ever before him, continues the postmodern tradition of debunking established values. He knows that “everything's in motion, up for grabs,” but his aim is always to keep the story of his life open so that renewing transformations are always possible. Indeed, he comes on much like his late countryman, that iconoclastic and cosmopolitan liberator from all Old Regimes, the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Rushdie Man may look with suspicion on Lanham's computer (too much impersonal machinery there); he cannot come to the end of history because he will be making history up as he goes along; he has no problem with the conflict of the good and godly (he will suspect all godly rhetoric as a self-diminishing trap); and he is never bored. It is conventional postmodernism that has become a bore, and Professor Edmundson is very good on this subject.
Here indeed is a revitalizing program for any progressive who has been driven into the ranks of the disenchanted postmodernists by the bad press the French Revolution has been getting. But the program is not all that new. Edmundson even takes it back to Emerson, though we had better forget the latter's “New England Reformers” essay, which might suggest that Rushdie Man is dangerously without irony and perhaps a candidate for exhibition in Bartholomew Fair after all. But more immediately, he is an updating of Robert J. Lifton's Protean Man of the late 1960s.
In an age of change and flux when the traditional ways of being godly and good had lost their authority, the lifestyle of Protean Man was “characterized by an indeterminate series of experiments and explorations—some shallow, some profound—each of which may be readily abandoned in favor of still new psychological quests.” Because for him everything was up for grabs, he was wary of all those commitments associated with the traditional man of character (and celebrated in the traditional humanistic canon) that threatened to foreclose on his potential and impoverish his autobiography. Like Sartre he could say, indeed had to say, “I have no superego “—the superego being designed (as Nietzsche knew) to deny the Beethoven or Goethe potential in each of us, and being therefore, a notorious impoverisher of autobiographies. He too abhorred the xenophobia of Western culture, especially as it loomed as a factor in the Vietnam War. He could understand what Jane Fonda was doing beside that North Vietnam antiaircraft gun: she was dramatizing in the face of a life-denying Old Regime an act of self-transformation. And of course Protean Man was badly equipped to see that such a blissfully self-transforming act might be serving the interests of a Regime committed to making all such ungodly transformations impossible.
Rushdie Man, like Protean Man before him, may give comfort to those who need to believe that literal or symbolic strikes against an Old Regime or a xenophobic academic canon are still possible. But Rushdie Man seems to be as cripplingly suspicious as Protean Man that behind every capital “T” truth is an ayatollah in disguise. Besides, he will be over-receptive to the Perfectionist Devil's dogma that the apparent human need of the synergistic consequences of community is nothing more than an absolute threat to the absolute good of his autonomy. Under these circumstances narcissism however defined becomes an attractive means of blissful survival in the interest of continuing self-transformations—and those who remember the sixties and seventies may also remember what
ramshackle autobiographies such self-centered questers could produce. It's not easy to imagine Rushdie Man having the capacity for self-abnegation necessary to band together with other Rushdies in the pursuit of continuing renewal in a diversitarian world that is likely to contain some more-or-less violent anti-Rushdies.
The more likely thing, to judge the history that is not yet ended, is that he will be appropriated by some enchanting ayatollah who, in the act of making him question his values and then filling the resulting vacuum of his life with new meaning, will blind Rushdie Man to the distinction between the bliss of self-transformation and the bliss of total self-abnegation—and there will be no xenophobic canon on which he can take a self-protective stand. Perhaps his best hope is that, like the Bagwan Rajneesh, particular cultures will value him as a diversion from the doldrums of the commonplace, as visitors to Wordsworth's Bartholomew Fair value “The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes.”
Charismatic leaders always have the effect of bringing history to an end—old history, that is, with its stale metaphors. Hegel, whom the late Eric Voegelin called a sorcerer, apparently has had this effect on Fukuyama. Perhaps human beings cannot live if they have to give up all hope of such an epochal turning, either here or in the hereafter. So a quarter of a century ago history-weary people were finding intimations of such a turning in the fortune-cookie banalities of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, the rhetoric of Port Huron or the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the promise of renewal through violence as they found it in Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. But the old history keeps reminding us that the enchantments of the new-order historians can be, as Carlyle saw them, so horrid that the enchanted ones will go blissfully to the all-healing guillotine. Hitler's historical promise of the thousand-year Reich was no less enchanting and no less conducive to blissful self-abnegation, even for tough-minded intellectuals like Martin Heidegger.
In Hitler's transformed history, that thousand years was a synonym for forever, just as big numbers are for romantic lovers. Thus the lover in Andrew Marveil's poem “To His Coy Mistress” asserts that if envious old time did not stand in the way he would be happy to spend thirty thousand years praising his loved one's charms, which is of course a way of talking about the history-annihilating function of true love. Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald's novel is in this tradition when he rejects Nick Carraway's reminder that Gatsby cannot repeat his past blissful experience with Daisy Buchanan. To Gatsby that experience, not having been time-bound to begin with, cannot be “past”; it stands for the possibility of a transformed life beyond the end of history in a symbiosis of the good and the godly.
Gatsby never sounds more American than he does at his moment, when at a level of erotic entrancement he repeats our initial national and somewhat bloody act of self-transformation as we cast off an Old Regime and as many of its political and social canons as we could manage to do without. Ever since, canon-bashing has been as American as cherry pie, and it should be no surprise now to see it happening on a curricular level in American universities. Nor should it be surprising that to French intellectuals, who have become disenchanted with their own Revolution and its many reenactments, we often appear trapped in our old naiveté's. The late Sidney Hook complained about the unhistorical order and content of Stanford's new Western Culture curriculum. Perhaps the Frenchmen would see that complaint in a slightly different context, realizing in their French way that canon-bashing is at bottom a kind of love affair to which the terms of the old history do not apply.
Recalling a similar time, Wordsworth speaks of “Tempting region that/ For zeal to enter and refresh herself, / Where passions had the privilege to work,/ And never hear the sound of their own names.” We are understandably inclined to take comfort from those people, French or not, who have had enough of such zealously transmogrified passion, who have disjoined doing good from revolutionary godliness and have made a capital offense out of naiveté. In this soberer mood they are willing to settle for a future that emphasizes a more humane control of those forces which, if allowed to go their way, enlist the cooperation of ayatollah and guillotine. Perhaps there was a comforting sign of this new spirit in the fact that during the Bicentennial, not far from the Paris Opera, you could for a few francs buy a toy replica of a guillotine. Imagine being able to buy a cuddly Ayatollah Khomeini doll in an Iranian bazaar.
Nevertheless, under present circumstances this fear of naiveté can make one uneasy, especially if one takes this term, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur does, in the context of the hermeneutic of suspicion that has dominated our century. The three masters of the school of suspicion are Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. In Freud and Philosophy Ricoeur identifies their common intention as “the decision to look upon the whole of consciousness as ‘false' consciousness.” In the perspective of this hermeneutic it is definitely an advantage to he born without a superego like Sartre, to be blessed with the heroic determination to violate one's dearest convictions like Nietzsche's Brutus, or to possess the means of exposing the power-lusting ideology that for Professor Lanham supports the distinction between high and mass culture.
Unfortunately, the masters of the school of suspicion, who like all masters aspire to establish themselves beyond suspicion, provide their students with the means of hoisting them with their own petards. If, for instance, they have taught their students to be less concerned with what an adversary says than with his genealogy (where he is coming from), then in the very process of using all their entrancing rhetoric they may tempt the students to wonder where the masters are coming from. So that enchanting modern game of demystification—one of the most available substitutes for religious conversion—arrives in its later innings at the demystification of the demystifiers.
But Ricoeur's delineation of the hermeneutic of suspicion is preliminary to the completion of the hermeneutic circle and the achievement of a second naiveté, which is not “the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.” Here the hermeneutic maxim is “Believe in order to understand, understand in order to believe.”
This second naiveté is an intellectually toughened coming home to Being that will stand firm against the assaults of the school of suspicion. Thanks to the legerdemain of the Perfectionist Devil, however, the second naiveté can be made to appear identical with the first naiveté of the simple soul, with the result that naiveté of whatever sort, being a liability in the ongoing war with all entrancers, becomes a capital offense. So too the understandable desire to survive becomes a crippling fear of the second naiveté (to Rushdie Man or Nietzsche Man it rules out the self-transformations that matter most), and a crippling inability to see that the effort to be civilized depends on the effort to keep the good and the godly in a workable conjunction.
When the Abbé Sieyčs—author of the important Revolutionary pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?”—was asked he had done during The Terror, he replied that he had survived. One of Ricoeur's implications is that survival, like irony, is not enough, may be only a holding action against that dreaded time when the, familiar discomforts of Professor Edmundson's negative postmodernism become absolutely intolerable. Apparently it was not enough for Sieyes. Once the terrorists had proven to be nonsurvivors he helped Napoleon to power, so that before the latter too became one more non-survivor it was possible for Hegel to believe that Napoleon was the spirit of the French Revolution raised to the eminence of “World Soul.”
Wordsworth too survived and so missed the fate of becoming “a poor mistaken and bewildered offering” to the Revolution. But he was not spared the ensuing “perturbations of a youthful mind” that preceded what we may now call his second naiveté. This, as he tells us in a great passage in Book XII, came by way of rediscovering the “hiding places of man's power,” those “spots of time” rooted in past naive experience that retain “a renovating virtue” the issue of which is clearest vision and “profoundest knowledge.” The value he continued to find in simple souls, which can be embarrassing now to those who read him through the filter of the hermeneutic of suspicion, had the humanistic consequence of enabling him to find “Once more in Man an object of delight.”
Wordsworth at his poetic best never lost his sense of the vital connection between his first and second naiveté. Nor did he lose his Burkean sense of the interdependence of past and present, the loss of which, he had come to see, had made him blissfully amenable to “the hopes of men/ Who were content to barter short-lived pangs/ For paradise of ages.” And having seen this, the French Revolution for him was dead.
John P. Sisk is Arnold Professor of the Humanities emeritus at Gonzaga University and the author of Person and Institution.