Thursday, May 24, 2012

Newspeak grows rich

A woman kills her 4 years old daughter. She cuts her body in pieces, packs them in plastic bags and puts them in the freezer. To the police, puzzled over her changing versions of the disappearance, she eventually admits her crime. The day after, a lawyer declares to the press that she comitted an “altruistic murder”, because she wanted to protect her child from sufferings that his violent father would probably inflict on her(*)

“Altruistic murder”: these are the words we heard. The expression is not a new one. It was probably created by a French psychiatrist, Clérambault (1872-1934), whose life and writings give the image of a rather unbalanced mind. But the fact that we use such words today is part of the process of language perversion that George Orwell had announced in a prophetical way.

No “Minisrty of Truth” (as Orwell’s 1984 called the ministry of propaganda) needed: the minds are shaped by an ideology of consensus carried by political or journalistic language. We are not surprised, nowadays, to hear of trade unions “action” when all railway trafic is stopped. It seems to us that “unsighted” or “less valid” are more charitable than “blind” or “disabled”. We are proud to replace the word abortion by the elegant expression “voluntary interruption of pregnancy”, while we forget that an interrupted process is supposed to resume normally at the end of the interruption... And, as a lastditch lucky find, medical ethics (??) specialists recommended «post-natal abortion»! 

To give my readers the pleasure of awarding me a “Godwin point”, I have to mention another famous expression: the devilish “Final solution”, which indeed sounds much better than “massacre of Jews”...

Returning to the “altruist murder”, I suggest the honorable lawyer to improve the expression. “Murder” sounds really rude to our ears. Nevertheless, Newspeak offers a lot of resources. He could say, for instance: “altruistic cancellation, or withdrawal”. After all, we are people of the 21st century, we are civilised people!

Albert Camus said: “To name badly things adds to the world’s misfortune”, and many centuries before him, Plato: “An unfit language is not only defective in itself, but also it still hurts souls” (Phaedo, LXIV).


(*) See the belgian newspapers of 24 may 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Arab revolutions, collateral effects (*)

Here are a few simplistic reflections – they come from a “heedful idiot” – about the wave of uprisings that arise throughout the Arab world.

Until now, it seems that the main reason of the revolt is a deep desire of freedom, in front of the unbearable arrogance of senile and corrupt tyrants. The fundamental demand of the people of Tunisia, then Egypt and Libya, etc., is to bee freed of those who embody these oppresive and maffioso regimes. The main drive of the uprising comes from urban middle classes, people who have access to the media and are connected to the social networks. The islamist groups or parties, although present and influent in these countries, seem to have been overtaken by events.

The western democratic model – so disparaged by our extreme left and anti-globalisation activists – seems henceforth desirable for these people that we regarded as not being “ready for democracy”.

Of course, in each of these countries, a risk exists that well structured organizations – the army, or islamist groups – hijack the bustle. It is the case, in particular, in Egypt, where the Muslim Brothers are strong, structured, and well organised all over the country. But, if this had regrettably to occur, it would clearly be in defiance of what the people have expressed: a disgust for the dictatorships which hold them captives. As a matter of fact, one of the most surprising things, in the events of these last weeks, was the absence – or rarity – of religious watchwords or demands.

Even more significant is the fact that, neither in Tunisia, nor in Egypt and today in Libya, anti-Israeli slogans are utterd. It is not Israeli or American flags which are burned on public squares, but the portraits of the tyrants. How can you explain that, while Arab leaders – and a large number of western analysts – offload all the responsibility of the Arab people’s misfortunes on the “Zionist ennemy”? For them, no doubt about it: beat Israël hands down and everything will be going beautifully from Maghreb to Machrek... But that “old story” does’nt work any more. These men and women know henceforth who despises and oppresses them. Let us hope that they can defend themselves, with the same courage and determination, against an Islam claiming to resume control of their spirits and their bodies.


(*) This text was posted (on "un idiot attentif") in march 2011, a few weeks after the beginning of the Arabic uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In these days, it was difficult to forsee that islamist groups would take the power. Today, the hopes raised by these events are seriously questioned. That is why I wrote this other article, posted in december 2011:

Confiscated spring...

It seems clear, today, that I reacted by excess of optimism when the first buds of the “Arab spring” appeared. Everywhere, islamist parties seize power: another demonstration of the fact that elections are a necessary component of democracy, but that it is not sufficient by itself. Such a scenario is observed in Egypt, where the alliance of Muslim Brothers and Salafists conquers an overwhelming majority...

However, it is clear that the men – and, still more, the women – who restaured the freedom of speech and started that spring-like wave, have little in common with the various islamist groups, even “moderate”. These people, most of them young and of a cultural level upper to the average, were determined to build institutions freed from religious grip. They fought for democracy, and... they collect shari’a!

How, then, could we remain optimistic? Some event viewers tend to see, in the political scene which is setting up, the emergence of a new caliphate... But there is no room for despair. Indeed, the heavy pressure of political Islam will probably be felt during a long period. It may rely on it’s strategy of indoctrination and on the blind conformity it leads into a little educated population. However, my conviction is that islamism, quite as the other totalitarianisms, cannot last infinitely.


Friday, May 18, 2012

«Beauty will save the world»

Prince Myshkin, by Ilya Glazounov

«Beauty will save the world». This is one of Dostoevsky’s most often quoted sentences, but seldom knowing precisely what it means. It appears in The Idiot, one of the great novels of the author’s maturity, published in 1868. When trying to interprete such a sentence, you must remember that Dostoevsky usually refrains from taking a stand about the opinions of his characters. These express various points of vue, provoking personal reflexion of ther reader. That means that his novels are no “thesis novels”, even if they do convey a vision of the world and of the human being. Caution is thus necessary before we consider a sentence like “Beauty will save the world” as a personal opinion of the author.

That sentence is pronounced by Hippolyte Terentiev, a pathetic and revolted youg man, suffering of tuberculosis. Making the problem more complicated, the sentence is a question: “Is it true, Prince, that you once said: ‘It is beauty that will save the world’?(1). Hippolyte is speaking to Prince Myshkin, the central figure of the novel. Myshkin’s love for the beautiful and suffering Nastasya Filippovna, abused by her tutor during her childhood, is pure and compassionate. That selfless and respectful love strongly contrasts with Rogozhin’s destructive passion for the same Nastasya.

That contrast between Myshkin and Rogozhin leads us to some kind of answer to our questions. The same beauty, Nastasya Filippovna’s, captivated both of them. But Myshkin – that people regard as “idiot” because he looks at the world with empathy and innocence – understands that Nastasya’s beauty is hurt, expecting redemption and fulfillment. Gazing at a portrait of Nastasya, Myshkin exclaims: “Ah, should there be kindness in her, everything would be saved!”. Then, darkened, he adds: “Rogozhin could mary her and, a week later, stab her(2).

Through that contrast between Myshkin and Rogozhin, we already understand that beauty does not, by itself, express all its meanings. You need to look at its context or at the mystery that it suggests. In other words, beauty is seen in the light – or in the darkness – of its spectator. Behind Nastasya’s beautiful face, Myshkin discovers a humiliated and wounded soul, that a selfelss love could heal. While, for Rogozhin, the same face arises a mad, selfish and murderous passion.

It’s worth to read the lines following the quotation. Hippolyte continues to question Prince Myshkin: “... What kind of beauty will save the world? It’s Kolia who told me that... You are a diligent Christian, are’nt you? Kolia asserts that you appear as a Christian”. Kolia, a 13 years old boy, is the son of the family which accomodates Myschkin. The lad, whose heart is pure and generous, admires the Prince, who has made a friend of him. And, actually, what Hippolyte has heard from Kolia is true: Myshkin is deeply Christian. Of course, it is always advisable to be careful when interpreting Dostoevsky, but it is probably not exaggerated to think that Myshkin’s love of Christ is the image of what the writer himself feels.

Therefore, it is probably correct to understand Myshkin’s sentence as: “Christ will save the world”. Christ is the Saviour. Christ, “fairer than the children of men” (Psalm 45, 3), came to return to the man his “first beauty”. In Nastasya Filippovna’s face, Myshkin sees the suffering Christ. He looks at her deeper than the visible, to reach the depth: God’s presence.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there is, truly, the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign”. And Pope Benedict, who quotes that sentence of Simone Weil, adds: “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God (3).

If we see it in such a perspective – and we are now convinced that it is indeed Dostoevsky’s point of vue – beauty cannot be separated from kindness. The beauty that saves is God’s beauty: in God, truth, beauty and kindness are a single matter. And whoever does something good, does at the same time something beautiful, as we say it in French: “un beau geste”.

In the light of all this, how can we understand the value and the impact of art? Until recent times, most of the artists were in search of beauty, even if it was sometimes through dark, painful or violent realities. Dostoevsky’s novels, where darkness and light are mixed, are a good example of that trend. But our time has dramatically distanced from that vision. A “postmodern” art often tends, not only to criticize, but to fool or destroy, denying to the human being any hope of salvation.

Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdiaev describes art as an action through which man responds to God’s act of creation. The artist continues the Creator’s work, he completes it and makes it its own. But today, we see an “artistic” trend which, on the contrary, joins the Enemy in his destructive work. Where is beauty in that case? In his adress to the artists, already quoted, Benedict XVI reflects on this drift: “Instead of bringing [the onlooker] out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.”

No, art and genuine beauty brings peace, cures, and restores harmony, even if it uses disturbing or shoking means. “Authentic beauty, however, asserts Pope Benedict, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”

After all, if beauty must “save the world”, it will be by turning our eyes towards the New Creation, where nobody but the Saviour can lead us. The authentic artist is the one who tries to disclose that harmony and that Beauty.

(1) I don’t possess an English translation of Dostoevsky’s works. Therefore, all quotations will be personal translations of the splendid French version by André Markowicz. Here: F. Dostoïevski, L’Idiot, Trad. André Markowicz, Ed. Actes-Sud, coll. Babel, 1993, T. II, p. 102.
(2) Ibid. T. I, p. 70.
(3) Pope Benedict XVI, Adress to the artists in the Sistine Chapel, 21 november 2009.

Fiodor (the other one…)

If you are interested, other posts about Dostoevsky have been published in this blog.

- A spot on the beautiful garment (24 September 2012)
- The divided man (10 November 2012)