5.24.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Leon Trotsky, 1938.
2. Concerned Officer’s Movement, 1971.
3. Joseph Brodsky, 1987.
4. George Lakoff, 2006.

Leon Trotsky - public domain
Leon Trotsky – public domain
Numero Uno“Certain Professional, ultra-left phrase-mongers are attempting at all cost to ‘correct’ the thesis of the Secretariat of the Fourth International on war in accordance with their own ossified prejudices.  They especially attack that part of the thesis which states that in all imperialist countries the revolutionary party, while remaining in irreconcilable opposition to its own government in time of war, should, nevertheless, mold its practical politics in each country to the internal situation and to the international groupings, sharply differentiating a workers’ state from a bourgeois state, a colonial country from an imperialist country.

The proletariat of a capitalist country which finds itself in an alliance with the USSR [states the thesis] must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country.  In this sense its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR.  But in the nature of practical actions considerable differences may arise depending on the concrete war situation. (War and the Fourth International, p. 21, § 44.)

The ultra-leftists consider this postulate, the correctness of which has been confirmed by the entire course of development, as the starting point of … social-patriotism.  Since the attitude toward imperialist governments should be ‘the same’ in all countries, these strategists ban any distinctions beyond the boundaries of their own imperialist country.  Theoretically their mistake arises from an attempt to construct fundamentally different bases for war-time and peace-time policies.

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels.  What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case?  I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism.  Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians?  Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative.  Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation.  Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.

Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders “aid” to the Algerians only in order to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous “ally” and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, “the main enemy in their own country”. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their own revolutionary position.

If the above is correct in peace-time, why does it become false in war-time? Everyone knows the postulate of the famous German military theoretician, Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This profound thought leads naturally to the conclusion that the struggle against war is but the continuation of the general proletarian struggle during peace-time. Does the proletariat in peace-time reject and sabotage all the acts and measures of the bourgeois government? Even during a strike which embraces an entire city, the workers take measures to insure the delivery of food to their own districts, make sure that they have water, that the hospitals do not suffer, etc. Such measures are dictated not by opportunism in relation to the bourgeoisie but by concern for the interests of the strike itself, by concern for the sympathy of the submerged city masses, etc. These elementary rules of proletarian strategy in peace-time retain full force in time of war as well.

An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not signify at all that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle against its own “national” army. At least the workers would not interfere with soldiers who are extinguishing a fire or rescuing drowning people during a flood; on the contrary, they would help side by side with the soldiers and fraternize with them. And the question is not exhausted merely by cases of elemental calamities. If the French fascists should make an attempt today at a coup d’etat and the Daladier government found itself forced to move troops against the fascists, the revolutionary workers, while maintaining their complete political independence, would fight against the fascists alongside of these troops. Thus in a number of cases the workers are forced not only to permit and tolerate, but actively to support the practical measures of the bourgeois government.

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Let us imagine that in the next European war the Belgian proletariat conquers power sooner than the proletariat of France. Undoubtedly Hitler will try to crush the proletarian Belgium. In order to cover up its own flank, the French bourgeois government might find itself compelled to help the Belgian workers’ government with arms. The Belgian Soviets of course reach for these arms with both hands. But actuated by the principle of defeatism, perhaps the French workers ought to block their bourgeoisie from shipping arms to proletarian Belgium? Only direct traitors or out-and-out idiots can reason thus.

The French bourgeoisie could send arms to proletarian Belgium only out of fear of the greatest military danger and only in expectation of later crushing the proletarian revolution with their own weapons. To the French workers, on the contrary, proletarian Belgium is the greatest support in the struggle against their own bourgeoisie. The outcome of the struggle would be decided, in the final analysis, by the relationship of forces, into which correct policies enter as a very important factor. The revolutionary party’s first task is to utilize the contradiction between two imperialist countries, France and Germany, in order to save proletarian Belgium.

Ultra-left scholastics think not in concrete terms but in empty abstractions. They have transformed the idea of defeatism into such a vacuum. They can see vividly neither the process of war nor the process of revolution. They seek a hermetically sealed formula which excludes fresh air. But a formula of this kind can offer no orientation for the proletarian vanguard.

To carry the class struggle to its highest form – civil war – this is the task of defeatism. But this task can be solved only through the revolutionary mobilization of the masses, that is, by widening, deepening, and sharpening those revolutionary methods which constitute the content of class struggle in “peace”-time. The proletarian party does not resort to artificial methods, such as burning warehouses, setting off bombs, wrecking trains, etc., in order to bring about the defeat of its own government. Even if it were successful on this road, the military defeat would not at all lead to revolutionary success, a success which can be assured only by the independent movement of the proletariat. Revolutionary defeatism signifies only that in its class struggle the proletarian party does not stop at any “patriotic” considerations, since defeat of its own imperialist government, brought about, or hastened by the revolutionary movement of the masses is an incomparably lesser evil than victory gained at the price of national unity, that is, the political prostration of the proletariat. Therein lies the complete meaning of defeatism and this meaning is entirely sufficient.

The methods of struggle change, of course, when the struggle enters the openly revolutionary phase. Civil war is a war, and in this aspect has its particular laws. In civil war, bombing of warehouses, wrecking of trains and all other forms of military “sabotage” are inevitable. Their appropriateness is decided by purely military considerations – civil war continues revolutionary politics but by other, precisely, military means.

However during an imperialist war there may be cases where a revolutionary party will be forced to resort to military-technical means, though they do not as yet follow directly from the revolutionary movement in their own country.  Thus, if it is a question of sending arms or troops against a workers’ government or a rebellious colony, not only such methods as boycott and strike, but direct military sabotage may become entirely practical and obligatory.  Resorting or not resorting to such measures will be a matter of practical possibilities.   If the Belgian workers, conquering power in war-time, have their own military agents on German soil, it would be the duty of these agents not to hesitate at any technical means in order to stop Hitler’s troops.  It is absolutely clear that the revolutionary German workers also are duty-bound (if they are able) to perform this task in the interests of the Belgian revolution, irrespective of the general course of the revolutionary movement in Germany itself.

Defeatist policy, that is, the policy of irreconcilable class struggle in war-time cannot consequently be ‘the same’ in all countries, just as the policy of the proletariat cannot be the same in peacetime.  Only the Comintern of the epigones has established a regime in which the parties of all countries break into march simultaneously with the left foot.  In struggle against this bureaucratic cretinism we have attempted more than once to prove that the general principles and tasks must be realized in each country in accordance with its internal and external conditions.  This principle retains its complete force for war-time as well.

Those ultra-leftists who do not want to think as Marxists, that is, concretely, will be caught unawares by war.  Their policy in time of war will be a fatal crowning of their policy in peace-time.  The first artillery shots will either blow the ultra-leftists into political non-existence, or else drive them into the camp of social-patriotism, exactly like the Spanish anarchists, who, absolute ‘deniers’ of the state, found themselves from the same causes bourgeois ministers when war came.  In order to carry on a correct policy in war-time one must learn to think correctly in tune of peace.”      Leon Trotsky, “Learn to Think: a Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists;” The New International, 1938


At Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base wish to make
known our feelings about the immoral and wasteful
war in which our country is embroiled.  We agree with
what we feel to be the majority view in this country that
the war in Vietnam should end.  We exercise our con-
stitutional right to add our views to those who have al-
ready publicly spoken out.  With them we demand the
withdrawal of all American military personnel and ad-
visors from that embattled land by the end of 1971.”      Concerned Officers Movement, “We, the Undersigned Concerned Officers…;” 1971

Desk - Bright Meadow Flickr
Desk – Bright Meadow Flickr
Numero TresI
For someone rather private, for someone who all his life has preferred his private condition to any role of social significance, and who went in this preference rather far – far from his motherland to say the least, for it is better to be a total failure in democracy than a martyr or the crème de la crème in tyranny – for such a person to find himself all of a sudden on this rostrum is a somewhat uncomfortable and trying experience.

This sensation is aggravated not so much by the thought of those who stood here before me as by the memory of those who have been bypassed by this honor, who were not given this chance to address ‘urbi et orbi’, as they say, from this rostrum and whose cumulative silence is sort of searching, to no avail, for release through this speaker.

The only thing that can reconcile one to this sort of situation is the simple realization that – for stylistic reasons, in the first place – one writer cannot speak for another writer, one poet for another poet especially; that had Osip Mandelstam, or Marina Tsvetaeva, or Robert Frost, or Anna Akhmatova, or Wystan Auden stood here, they couldn’t have helped but speak precisely for themselves, and that they, too, might have felt somewhat uncomfortable.

These shades disturb me constantly; they are disturbing me today as well.  In any case, they do not spur one to eloquence.  In my better moments, I deem myself their sum total, though invariably inferior to any one of them individually.  For it is not possible to better them on the page; nor is it possible to better them in actual life.  And it is precisely their lives, no matter how tragic or bitter they were, that often move me – more often perhaps than the case should be – to regret the passage of time.   If the next life exists – and I can no more deny them the possibility of eternal life than I can forget their existence in this one – if the next world does exist, they will, I hope, forgive me and the quality of what I am about to utter: after all, it is not one’s conduct on the podium which dignity in our profession is measured by.

I have mentioned only five of them, those whose deeds and whose lot matter so much to me, if only because if it were not for them, I, both as a man and a writer, would amount to much less; in any case, I wouldn’t be standing here today. There were more of them, those shades – better still, sources of light: lamps? stars? – more, of course, than just five. And each one of them is capable of rendering me absolutely mute. The number of those is substantial in the life of any conscious man of letters; in my case, it doubles, thanks to the two cultures to which fate has willed me to belong. Matters are not made easier by thoughts about contemporaries and fellow writers in both cultures, poets, and fiction writers whose gifts I rank above my own, and who, had they found themselves on this rostrum, would have come to the point long ago, for surely they have more to tell the world than I do.

I will allow myself, therefore, to make a number of remarks here – disjointed, perhaps stumbling, and perhaps even perplexing in their randomness. However, the amount of time allotted to me to collect my thoughts, as well as my very occupation, will, or may, I hope, shield me, at least partially, against charges of being chaotic. A man of my occupation seldom claims a systematic mode of thinking; at worst, he claims to have a system – but even that, in his case, is borrowing from a milieu, from a social order, or from the pursuit of philosophy at a tender age. Nothing convinces an artist more of the arbitrariness of the means to which he resorts to attain a goal – however permanent it may be – than the creative process itself, the process of composition. Verse really does, in Akhmatova’s words, grow from rubbish; the roots of prose are no more honorable.

If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness – thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous “I”. Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct – free of any go-betweens – relations.

It is for this reason that art in general, literature especially, and poetry in particular, is not exactly favored by the champions of the common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity. For there, where art has stepped, where a poem has been read, they discover, in place of the anticipated consent and unanimity, indifference and polyphony; in place of the resolve to act, inattention and fastidiousness. In other words, into the little zeros with which the champions of the common good and the rulers of the masses tend to operate, art introduces a “period, period, comma, and a minus”, transforming each zero into a tiny human, albeit not always pretty, face.

The great Baratynsky, speaking of his Muse, characterized her as possessing an “uncommon visage”. It’s in acquiring this “uncommon visage” that the meaning of human existence seems to lie, since for this uncommonness we are, as it were, prepared genetically. Regardless of whether one is a writer or a reader, one’s task consists first of all in mastering a life that is one’s own, not imposed or prescribed from without, no matter how noble its appearance may be. For each of us is issued but one life, and we know full well how it all ends. It would be regrettable to squander this one chance on someone else’s appearance, someone else’s experience, on a tautology – regrettable all the more because the heralds of historical necessity, at whose urging a man may be prepared to agree to this tautology, will not go to the grave with him or give him so much as a thank-you.

Language and, presumably, literature are things that are more ancient and inevitable, more durable than any form of social organization. The revulsion, irony, or indifference often expressed by literature towards the state is essentially a reaction of the permanent – better yet, the infinite – against the temporary, against the finite. To say the least, as long as the state permits itself to interfere with the affairs of literature, literature has the right to interfere with the affairs of the state. A political system, a form of social organization, as any system in general, is by definition a form of the past tense that aspires to impose itself upon the present (and often on the future as well); and a man whose profession is language is the last one who can afford to forget this. The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state’s features, which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary.

The philosophy of the state, its ethics – not to mention its aesthetics – are always “yesterday”. Language and literature are always “today”, and often – particularly in the case where a political system is orthodox – they may even constitute “tomorrow”. One of literature’s merits is precisely that it helps a person to make the time of his existence more specific, to distinguish himself from the crowd of his predecessors as well as his like numbers, to avoid tautology – that is, the fate otherwise known by the honorific term, “victim of history”. What makes art in general, and literature in particular, remarkable, what distinguishes them from life, is precisely that they abhor repetition. In everyday life you can tell the same joke thrice and, thrice getting a laugh, become the life of the party. In art, though, this sort of conduct is called “cliché”.

Art is a recoilless weapon, and its development is determined not by the individuality of the artist, but by the dynamics and the logic of the material itself, by the previous fate of the means that each time demand (or suggest) a qualitatively new aesthetic solution. Possessing its own genealogy, dynamics, logic, and future, art is not synonymous with, but at best parallel to history; and the manner by which it exists is by continually creating a new aesthetic reality. That is why it is often found “ahead of progress”, ahead of history, whose main instrument is – should we not, once more, improve upon Marx – precisely the cliché.

Nowadays, there exists a rather widely held view, postulating that in his work a writer, in particular a poet, should make use of the language of the street, the language of the crowd. For all its democratic appearance, and its palpable advantages for a writer, this assertion is quite absurd and represents an attempt to subordinate art, in this case, literature, to history. It is only if we have resolved that it is time for Homo sapiens to come to a halt in his development that literature should speak the language of the people. Otherwise, it is the people who should speak the language of literature.

On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics; The categories of “good” and “bad” are, first and foremost, aesthetic ones, at least etymologically preceding the categories of “good” and “evil”. If in ethics not “all is permitted”, it is precisely because not “all is permitted” in aesthetics, because the number of colors in the spectrum is limited. The tender babe who cries and rejects the stranger or who, on the contrary, reaches out to him, does so instinctively, making an aesthetic choice, not a moral one.

Aesthetic choice is a highly individual matter, and aesthetic experience is always a private one. Every new aesthetic reality makes one’s experience even more private; and this kind of privacy, assuming at times the guise of literary (or some other) taste, can in itself turn out to be, if not as guarantee, then a form of defense against enslavement. For a man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece, as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist. The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer – though not necessarily the happier – he is.

It is precisely in this applied, rather than Platonic, sense that we should understand Dostoevsky’s remark that beauty will save the world, or Matthew Arnold’s belief that we shall be saved by poetry. It is probably too late for the world, but for the individual man there always remains a chance. An aesthetic instinct develops in man rather rapidly, for, even without fully realizing who he is and what he actually requires, a person instinctively knows what he doesn’t like and what doesn’t suit him. In an anthropological respect, let me reiterate, a human being is an aesthetic creature before he is an ethical one. Therefore, it is not that art, particularly literature, is a by-product of our species’ development, but just the reverse. If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature – and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution – is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.

I am far from suggesting the idea of compulsory training in verse composition; nevertheless, the subdivision of society into intelligentsia and “all the rest” seems to me unacceptable. In moral terms, this situation is comparable to the subdivision of society into the poor and the rich; but if it is still possible to find some purely physical or material grounds for the existence of social inequality, for intellectual inequality these are inconceivable. Equality in this respect, unlike in anything else, has been guaranteed to us by nature. I am speaking not of education, but of the education in speech, the slightest imprecision in which may trigger the intrusion of false choice into one’s life. The existence of literature prefigures existence on literature’s plane of regard – and not only in the moral sense, but lexically as well. If a piece of music still allows a person the possibility of choosing between the passive role of listener and the active one of performer, a work of literature – of the art which is, to use Montale’s phrase, hopelessly semantic – dooms him to the role of performer only.

In this role, it would seem to me, a person should appear more often than in any other. Moreover, it seems to me that, as a result of the population explosion and the attendant, ever-increasing atomization of society (i.e., the ever-increasing isolation of the individual), this role becomes more and more inevitable for a person. I don’t suppose that I know more about life than anyone of my age, but it seems to me that, in the capacity of an interlocutor, a book is more reliable than a friend or a beloved. A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. It’s precisely this that I have in mind in speaking of the role of the performer, all the more natural for one because a novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader.

In the history of our species, in the history of Homo sapiens, the book is anthropological development, similar essentially to the invention of the wheel. Having emerged in order to give us some idea not so much of our origins as of what that sapiens is capable of, a book constitutes a means of transportation through the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page. This movement, like every movement, becomes a flight from the common denominator, from an attempt to elevate this denominator’s line, previously never reaching higher than the groin, to our heart, to our consciousness, to our imagination. This flight is the flight in the direction of “uncommon visage”, in the direction of the numerator, in the direction of autonomy, in the direction of privacy. Regardless of whose image we are created in, there are already five billion of us, and for a human being there is no other future save that outlined by art. Otherwise, what lies ahead is the past – the political one, first of all, with all its mass police entertainments.

In any event, the condition of society in which art in general, and literature in particular, are the property or prerogative of a minority appears to me unhealthy and dangerous. I am not appealing for the replacement of the state with a library, although this thought has visited me frequently; but there is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. If only because the lock and stock of literature is indeed human diversity and perversity, it turns out to be a reliable antidote for any attempt – whether familiar or yet to be invented – toward a total mass solution to the problems of human existence. As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.

Since there are no laws that can protect us from ourselves, no criminal code is capable of preventing a true crime against literature; though we can condemn the material suppression of literature – the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books – we are powerless when it comes to its worst violation: that of not reading the books. For that crime, a person pays with his whole life; if the offender is a nation, it pays with its history. Living in the country I live in, I would be the first prepared to believe that there is a set dependency between a person’s material well-being and his literary ignorance. What keeps me from doing so is the history of that country in which I was born and grew up. For, reduced to a cause-and-effect minimum, to a crude formula, the Russian tragedy is precisely the tragedy of a society in which literature turned out to be the prerogative of the minority: of the celebrated Russian intelligentsia.

I have no wish to enlarge upon the subject, no wish to darken this evening with thoughts of the tens of millions of human lives destroyed by other millions, since what occurred in Russia in the first half of the Twentieth Century occurred before the introduction of automatic weapons – in the name of the triumph of a political doctrine whose unsoundness is already manifested in the fact that it requires human sacrifice for its realization. I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens. And I am speaking precisely about reading Dickens, Sterne, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Melville, Proust, Musil, and so forth; that is, about literature, not literacy or education. A literate, educated person, to be sure, is fully capable, after reading this or that political treatise or tract, of killing his like, and even of experiencing, in so doing, a rapture of conviction. Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao Zedong, he even wrote verse. What all these men had in common, though, was that their hit list was longer than their reading list.

However, before I move on to poetry, I would like to add that it would make sense to regard the Russian experience as a warning, if for no other reason than that the social structure of the West up to now is, on the whole, analogous to what existed in Russia prior to 1917. (This, by the way, is what explains the popularity in the West of the Nineteenth-Century Russian psychological novel, and the relative lack of success of contemporary Russian prose. The social relations that emerged in Russia in the Twentieth Century presumably seem no less exotic to the reader than do the names of the characters, which prevent him from identifying with them.) For example, the number of political parties, on the eve of the October coup in 1917, was no fewer than what we find today in the United States or Britain. In other words, a dispassionate observer might remark that in a certain sense the Nineteenth Century is still going on in the West, while in Russia it came to an end; and if I say it ended in tragedy, this is, in the first place, because of the size of the human toll taken in course of that social – or chronological – change. For in a real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus.

Although for a man whose mother tongue is Russian to speak about political evil is as natural as digestion, I would here like to change the subject. What’s wrong with discourses about the obvious is that they corrupt consciousness with their easiness, with the quickness with which they provide one with moral comfort, with the sensation of being right. Herein lies their temptation, similar in its nature to the temptation of a social reformer who begets this evil. The realization, or rather the comprehension, of this temptation, and rejection of it, are perhaps responsible to a certain extent for the destinies of many of my contemporaries, responsible for the literature that emerged from under their pens. It, that literature, was neither a flight from history nor a muffling of memory, as it may seem from the outside. “How can one write music after Auschwitz?” inquired Adorno; and one familiar with Russian history can repeat the same question by merely changing the name of the camp – and repeat it perhaps with even greater justification, since the number of people who perished in Stalin’s camps far surpasses the number of German prisoncamp victims. “And how can you eat lunch?” the American poet Mark Strand once retorted. In any case, the generation to which I belong has proven capable of writing that music.

That generation – the generation born precisely at the time when the Auschwitz crematoria were working full blast, when Stalin was at the zenith of his Godlike, absolute power, which seemed sponsored by Mother Nature herself – that generation came into the world, it appears, in order to continue what, theoretically, was supposed to be interrupted in those crematoria and in the anonymous common graves of Stalin’s archipelago. The fact that not everything got interrupted, at least not in Russia, can be credited in no small degree to my generation, and I am no less proud of belonging to it than I am of standing here today. And the fact that I am standing here is a recognition of the services that generation has rendered to culture; recalling a phrase from Mandelstam, I would add, to world culture. Looking back, I can say again that we were beginning in an empty – indeed, a terrifyingly wasted – place, and that, intuitively rather than consciously, we aspired precisely to the recreation of the effect of culture’s continuity, to the reconstruction of its forms and tropes, toward filling its few surviving, and often totally compromised, forms, with our own new, or appearing to us as new, contemporary content.

There existed, presumably, another path: the path of further deformation, the poetics of ruins and debris, of minimalism, of choked breath. If we rejected it, it was not at all because we thought that it was the path of self-dramatization, or because we were extremely animated by the idea of preserving the hereditary nobility of the forms of culture we knew, the forms that were equivalent, in our consciousness, to forms of human dignity. We rejected it because in reality the choice wasn’t ours, but, in fact, culture’s own – and this choice, again, was aesthetic rather than moral.

To be sure, it is natural for a person to perceive himself not as an instrument of culture, but, on the contrary, as its creator and custodian. But if today I assert the opposite, it’s not because toward the close of the Twentieth Century there is a certain charm in paraphrasing Plotinus, Lord Shaftesbury, Schelling, or Novalis, but because, unlike anyone else, a poet always knows that what in the vernacular is called the voice of the Muse is, in reality, the dictate of the language; that it’s not that the language happens to be his instrument, but that he is language’s means toward the continuation of its existence. Language, however, even if one imagines it as a certain animate creature (which would only be just), is not capable of ethical choice.

A person sets out to write a poem for a variety of reasons: to win the heart of his beloved; to express his attitude toward the reality surrounding him, be it a landscape or a state; to capture his state of mind at a given instant; to leave – as he thinks at that moment – a trace on the earth. He resorts to this form – the poem – most likely for unconsciously mimetic reasons: the black vertical clot of words on the white sheet of paper presumably reminds him of his own situation in the world, of the balance between space and his body. But regardless of the reasons for which he takes up the pen, and regardless of the effect produced by what emerges from beneath that pen on his audience – however great or small it may be – the immediate consequence of this enterprise is the sensation of coming into direct contact with language or, more precisely, the sensation of immediately falling into dependence on it, on everything that has already been uttered, written, and accomplished in it.

This dependence is absolute, despotic; but it unshackles as well.   For, while always older than the writer, language still possesses the colossal centrifugal energy imparted to it by its temporal potential – that is, by all time Iying ahead.  And this potential is determined not so much by the quantitative body of the nation that speaks it (though it is determined by that, too), as by the quality of the poem written in it.  It will suffice to recall the authors of Greek or Roman antiquity; it will suffice to recall Dante.  And that which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium also.  The poet, I wish to repeat, is language’s means for existence – or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives.  I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them.  But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation.

One who writes a poem, however, writes it not because he courts fame with posterity, although often he hopes that a poem will outlive him, at least briefly.  One who writes a poem writes it because the language prompts, or simply dictates, the next line.  Beginning a poem, the poet as a rule doesn’t know the way it’s going to come out, and at times he is very surprised by the way it turns out, since often it turns out better than he expected, often his thought carries further than he reckoned.  And that is the moment when the future of language invades its present.

There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the Biblical prophets, revelation.  What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them at once (gravitating primarily toward the second and the third).  For all three of them are given in the language; and there are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has ever been before him, further, perhaps, than he himself would have wished for.  The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe.  Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience; one falls into dependency on this process, the way others fall into dependency on drugs or on alcohol.  One who finds himself in this sort of dependency on language is, I guess, what they call a poet.”      Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Lecture; 1987

Numero Cuatro“For a quarter of a century, Steven Pinker and I have been on opposite sides of major intellectual and scientific divide concerning the nature of language and the mind.  Until this review, the divide was confined to the academic world.

But recently the issue of the nature of mind and language has come into politics in a big way.  We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century understanding of the mind.  The political issues in this country and the world are just too important.

Pinker, a respected professor at Harvard, has been the most articulate spokesman for the old theory.  In language, it is Noam Chomsky’s claim that language consists in (as Pinker puts it) ‘an autonomous module of syntactic rules.’  What this means is that language is claimed to be just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience, cultural or personal.

I have been on the other side, providing evidence over many years that all of those considerations enter into language, and recent evidence from the cognitive and neural sciences indicates that language involves bringing all these capacities together.  The old view is losing ground as more is learned.

In thinking, the old view comes originally from Descartes’ 17th Century rationalism. A view of thought as symbolic logic was formalized by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege around the turn of the 20th Century, and a rationalist interpretation was revived by Chomsky in the 1950’s. In that view, thought is a matter of (as Pinker puts it) “old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason.” Here reason is seen as the manipulation of meaningless symbols, as in symbolic logic.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms. Jerome Feldman’s recent MIT Press book, From Molecules to Metaphors, discusses such mechanisms.

Contrary to Descartes, reason uses these mechanisms, not formal logic. Reason is mostly unconscious, and as Antonio Damasio has written in Descartes’ Error, rationality requires emotion.

The old view in economics is the rational actor model, where all economic actors are assumed to be acting according to formal logic, including probabilistic logic. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work with Amos Tversky showing that real people do economic reasoning using frames, prototypes, and metaphors rather than classical logics.

These questions matter in progressive politics, because many progressives were brought up with the old 17th Century rationalist view of reason that implies that, if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion — since reason is universal. We know from recent elections that this is just false. “Old-fashioned … universal disembodied reason” also claims that everyone reasons the same way, that differences in world-view don’t matter. But anybody tuning in to contemporary talk shows will notice that not everybody reasons the same way and that world-view does matter.

There is another scientific divide that Pinker and I are opposite sides of. Pinker interprets Darwin in a way reminiscent of social Darwinists. He uses the metaphor of survival as a competition for genetic advantage. He has become one of the principal spokesmen for a form of evolutionary psychology that claims that there are present genetic differences between men and women that stem from prehistoric differences in gender roles. This led him to support Lawrence Summer’s suggestion that there are fewer women than men in the sciences because of genetic differences.

Luckily, this unfortunate metaphorical interpretation of Darwin has few supporters.

This divide matters because my cognitive analysis, in Moral Politics, of conservative and progressive ideologies in terms of a nation-as-family metaphor is inconsistent with his version of evolutionary psychology. The seriousness of present-day politics in America makes these issues more than a merely academic ivory-tower matter. If I — and other neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and cognitive linguists — are right, then Pinker is wrong, and vice versa. Pinker is, however, right for raising the issues and bringing these academic research questions into the public eye.

Unfortunately, what passes for a review of my book, Whose Freedom?, is actually a vituperative and underhanded attack. You might never guess from the review what the book is about. It is about the fact that freedom is a contested concept, a concept that people necessarily have different versions of, depending on their values. The book is an account of how conservative and progressive ideologies extend a limited common view of freedom in opposite directions to yield two opposed versions of the “same” concept.

The review is based on two rhetorical strategies:

  • First, claim that I say the opposite of what I really say. Point out that that is ridiculous. Then ridicule me for saying such a thing. Pinker uses the tactic over and over.
  • Second, assume that his old guard theory is obviously right and anything else is radical and crazy. He uses the second strategy with his politics as well as his theory of mind.

Here are some examples.

Pinker represents the research results on conceptual metaphor as follows:

“Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors …”

I have actually argued the opposite.

  • Chapter 12 of Metaphors We Live By discussed the non-metaphorical grounding of conceptual systems.
  • Chapter 2 of More Than Cool Reason begins with a section on “What is not metaphorical.”
  • Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things goes through 373 pages of non-metaphorical conceptual analysis before bringing up examples of metaphorical thought.
  • Mark Johnson and myself in Philosophy in the Flesh (see chapter 3) survey the basic mechanisms of thought, beginning with the non-metaphorical ones, e.g., image-schemas, conceptual frames (sometimes called simply “schemas” in psychology), and various kinds of prototype structures.

Metaphorical thought is based on these extensive and absolutely crucial aspects of non-metaphorical thought. The system of metaphorical thought is extensive, as these cognitive science books show in great detail. Results from other branches of cognitive science demonstrating the reality of unconscious conceptual metaphor are listed in chapter 6 of Philosophy in the Flesh.

Having claimed falsely that I believe that all thought is metaphorical, Pinker then chides me by taking the position I have actually advocated: “Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly.” Just as I have not only said, but have argued empirically.

Pinker even gets the research in his own field of psychology wrong. “Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.” But experiments show exactly the opposite, as Ray Gibbs at UC Santa Cruz and Lera Boroditsky at Stanford (whose work has won her an NSF Career Award) have dramatically shown. For details, see Gibbs, R., The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1994. Gibbs, R., and Steen, G. (Eds.), Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999. Katz, A.; Cacciari, C.; Gibbs, R.; and Turner, M. Figurative Language and Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75(1), 1-28

In addition, Pinker misunderstands the most basic result in contemporary metaphor research: Metaphor is a matter of thought, not just language. The same words can be instances of different conceptual metaphors. To take a familiar example: It’s all downhill from here can mean either (1) things will get progressively worse, based on the Good Is Up, Bad Is Down metaphor; or (2) things will be easier from now on, based on the metaphor in which Action is Understood as Motion (as in things are moving right along) and Easy Action is understood in terms of easy (i.e., downhill) motion. The literature in the field is filled with such examples.

One of my persistent themes is that facts are crucial, and that the right system of frames is often required in order to make sense of facts. With a system of frames that is inconsistent with the facts, the frames (which are realized in the brain) will stay in place and the facts will be ignored. That is why framing to reveal truth is so important. Here is what I say in Don’t Think of an Elephant! (pp. 109-110):

“Facts are all-important. They are crucial. But they must be framed appropriately if they are to be an effective part of public discourse. We have to know what a fact has to do with moral principles and political principles. We have to frame those facts as effectively and honestly as we can. And honest framing of the facts will entail other frames that can be checked with other facts.”

In short, I’m a realist, both about how the mind works and how the world works. Given that the mind works by frames and metaphors, the challenge is to use such a mind to accurately characterize how the world works. That is what “reframing” is about — correcting framing that distorts truths and finding framing that allows truth to be seen.

But Pinker claims that I say the opposite, that rather than being a realist, he says I am a cognitive relativist: “All this belies Lakoff’s cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality. It undermines his tips in the political arena as well. Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and not to pay attention to polls. Instead, they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ heads. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda…”

Here is what I actually say about spin and propaganda (Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 100-101):

“Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it—that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good.

Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.

The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”

Here again Pinker represents me as saying the opposite of what I actually say.

One of the findings of cognitive science that is most important for politics is that frames are mental structures that can be either associated with words (the surface frames) or that structure higher-level organizations of knowledge. The surface frames only stick easily when they fit into higher structures, such as the strict father /nurturant parent worldviews that I discuss in great detail in Moral Politics and elsewhere. Here’s what I (and my colleagues and the Rockridge Institute) say in Thinking Points:

“Surface frames are associated with phrases like “war on terror” that both activate and depend critically on deep frames. These are the most basic frames that constitute a moral worldview or a political philosophy. Deep frames define one’s overall “common sense.” Without deep frames there is nothing for surface frames to hang onto. Slogans do not make sense without the appropriate deep frames in place. “ (p. 29)

The same basic point is made in my other books applying cognitive science to politics. Again, Pinker claims that I say the opposite. “Cognitive science has not shown that people absorb frames through sheer repetition. On the contrary, information is retained when it fits into a person’s greater understanding of the subject matter.” But that is exactly what I said! The deep frames characterize the “greater understanding of the subject matter;” the surface frames can be “retained” only when they fit the deep frames.

I regularly talk about the fact that Americans typically have both strict and nurturant models in their brains. For example, here is what I say on p. 70 of Whose Freedom?, “Finally and most important, just about every American has both models engrained in his or her brain …” Don’t Think of an Elephant! has a whole chapter (chapter 10) based on this phenomenon. Thinking Points also has a whole chapter on this phenomenon, called “Biconceptualism.” Here is what Pinker says, “Nor is the claim that people are locked into a single frame anywhere to be found in cognitive linguistics, which emphasizes that people can nimbly switch among the many framing made available by language.” Not everybody is all that nimble when it comes to conservative versus progressive worldviews, but many people can shift back and forth in a particular area of life — or an election — as I discuss.

In Whose Freedom? I discuss the difference between freedom from and freedom to (p. 30). Then, throughout the book, I show that both the progressive and conservative versions of freedom use both freedom from and freedom to. For example, progressives focus on freedom from want and fear, and well as from government spying on citizens and interfering with family medical decisions, and also freedom of access to opportunity and fulfillment in life (e.g., education and health care). Conservatives are concerned with freedom from government interference in the market (e.g., via regulation) and they are concerned with freedom to use their property any way they want. In short, the old Isaiah Berlin claims about the distinction do not hold up.

Pinker acts as if I don’t discuss the distinction: “Lakoff again makes little use of previous analyses. Freedom comes in two flavors.” And then he acts as if he is informing me of freedom from and freedom to, when I have discussed both throughout the book. Even worse, he gets it wrong. He gives the old-fashioned claims that just don’t work. This becomes clear all through the book if you actually read it.

In another case, Chapter 7 of Whose Freedom? discusses direct versus systemic causation. On the first page of the chapter, I say, “It is surely not the case that conservatives are simpleminded and cannot think in terms of complex systems. Indeed, conservative strategists consistently outdo progressive strategists when I comes to long term overall strategic initiatives.” Pinker’s version: “It takes considerable ignorance, indeed chutzpah, to boast that only a progressive such as himself can understand the difference between systemic and direct causation.” The opposite of what I say.

I’ll leave off here, though the same tactics are used throughout the review.

The results coming out of neuroscience and the cognitive sciences show that, far from there being “old-fashioned disembodied universal reason,” people really reason using frames, prototypes, image-schemas, and metaphors — and bring emotion into the mix as an inherent part of rationality. All of these mechanisms of thought are embodied — resulting from the nature of brain structure and neural computation on the one hand, and embodied experience on the other. They lie outside of the mechanisms of formal logic, which is the basis of the contemporary version of 17th Century rationalist thought.

What is one to do in the face of this reality?  In Whose Freedom?, I argue (p. 257) for a ‘higher rationality,’ a mode of thought that takes into account the understanding of the view of mind that comes from cognitive science and neuroscience — a rationality that talks about frame-based and metaphorical thought explicitly and discusses their effects, especially in politics.  But this is only possible if the true nature of thought is widely understood, and that takes honest, open public discussion.

What is one to make of Pinker’s “review”? Why would he repeatedly attribute to me the opposite of what I say? I can think of two explanations:

    1. He is threatened and is being nasty and underhanded — trying to survive by gaining competitive advantage any way he can.
    2. He is thinking in terms of old frames that do not permit him to understand new ideas and facts that do not fit his frames.  Since he can only understand what I am saying in terms of his old frames, he can only make sense of what I am saying as being nonsense — the opposite of what I actually say.  That is, since the facts of what I am saying don’t fit his frames, his frames stay and the facts are adjusted to fit his frames.

I don’t know Pinker well enough to know which is true, or whether there is some third explanation.

* * *

If you are a reader who wants to know what I have really said and what the overall evidence is, I direct you to the following books and to the long lists of references given there:

Nonpolitical books:

Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1980; Second edition, 2002.

Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987.

More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (with Mark Turner). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Philosophy. (with Mark Johnson). New York: Basic Books. 1999.

Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York: Basic Books. 2000 (get the paperback edition).

Applications to politics:

Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996. Second edition, 2003.

Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green. 2004.

Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux. 2006.

Thinking Points: Our American Vision and Values; A Progressive’s Handbook (with the Rockridge Institute). New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux. 2006.
Sorry the list is so long, but a lot of researchers have been working out the new view.  Getting informed is well worth the trouble.  The issues are large, deep, and vital to the preservation of our democracy.”      George Lakoff, “When Cognitive Science Enters Politics;” The New Republic (a reply to a Stephen Pinker Review of Lakoff’s Whose Freedom), 2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20080517092902/http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/research/lakoff/whencognitivescienceenterspolitics.