Saturday, March 26, 2011

Don't immanentize the eschaton, or The perfect is the enemy of the good

Two of the people who have influenced my thinking most profoundly in recent years are the musicologist Richard Taruskin and the writer/war correspondent/theologian Chris Hedges. I've only been catching up on Hedges fairly recently, but I've noticed a common theme that links their writing and drives their passion. It is anti-Utopianism.

Both writers agree that the desire to create an earthly Utopia - indeed the very idea that one is even possible - is the source of most of the evil in the modern world. For Taruskin, this means, among other things, an ongoing appeal to reject authority in musical performance in favor of tradition. This may seem like a fairly abstract thing to be so passionate about, but let's formulate it in the simplest possible terms. I am performing Beethoven. Who is speaking? The range of possible answers might seem to be covered by the following : "Beethoven is speaking." "I am speaking." "Somebody else entirely is speaking."

Now, it's important to understand that much of the ideology of classical music performance and composition in the last 100 years has been based on the idea that somebody else is often speaking, and that this is a bad thing. The imperative has been to recover, insofar as possible, the voice of the composer. I may be interpreting when I play, but Beethoven is the authority, and this is expressed through the notes he wrote. My job is to deliver those notes to the audience with as little interference as possible, either from my own subjective reading of the text or from those of others.

The voice of tradition, on the other hand, claims to speak for everything in between Beethoven and me. Everyone who has heard, played and interpreted this music over the years has added something to it, and if I understand the nature of that tradition, I will either add imperceptibly to it myself, obliterating my own personality in the process (T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent") or I will seek to produce a "strong misreading" of what others have found in Beethoven's notes (roughly, Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence) and impose it as an act of Oedipal homage to my forebears. What I will emphatically not do is insist that I have the final word, or that, indeed, the final word can ever be spoken.

Hedges says very similar things about politics. A perfect world will never be created, and the desire to do so in an abiding fallacy that inevitably leads to great evil being performed in the name of good.

Now here's the interesting thing: The phrase "don't immanentize the eschaton," which is a fancy way of stating what I just said, is closely associated with William F. Buckley and American conservatism. Its most recent expression can be found in the rants of Glenn Beck, who has warned that "social justice" movements will inevitably lead to mass death. Good intentions will lead people to do evil things. We must simply try to do the best we can, as individuals, in a world that will never be perfect, at least until, to quote Tom Lehrer, we have all gone directly to our respective Valhallas, without passing go or collecting two hundred dollahs.

I think I can at least begin to understand where Glenn Beck is coming from. Taruskin and Hedges, however, are liberals. What gives?

The answer, I believe, can be found in a quote from G. K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy, which for a couple of years now has been buried in my "favorite quotations" section on Facebook. "The only real reason for being a progressive," Chesterton wrote in 1908, "is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive, it is also the only argument against being conservative." Not for him the idea that progress was inevitable, and that lining up to accelerate it was a harmless diversion. If it were true that on its own the world gets steadily better, nothing would make more sense than getting out of the way and joining Glenn Beck in denouncing social justice as a misguided Utopian dream.

The world, however, is getting worse. Toxic chemicals in our atmosphere are threatening to destroy the delicate ecological balance in which human civilization has lived for its entire history. Wealth is inexorably gravitating away from the poor and toward the wealthy, who are learning to pull the levers of power without any interference from messy democratic processes like collective bargaining. America is well on the way to creating a class of permanently unemployed and unemployable paupers. Our helpless dependence on massive amounts of energy has been fouling our air, our water, and our relations with much of the rest of the world. This is corruption, in the deepest sense, and standing against it is the only real reason for being a progressive. Not to try to create heaven on earth or impose a socialist Utopia. That's not why I'm a liberal, and anybody who insists on believing that those are my goals just doesn't understand. I'm not trying to use the government to make a perfect world. I'm trying to use whatever means are available to keep greed, lust, sloth, envy, wrath, gluttony and pride from utterly destroying the only world we have to live in.

Pass it on.


  1. Robin, from the evidence of your essay, you are a utopian. Further, you appear to regard the only history worth considering in weighing human progress to be that which has occurred during your own lifespan. I take a somewhat larger view and reach the conclusion that things have been getting better:

    Humans used to believe that the weather, earthquakes and epidemics were controlled by supernatural forces. Now, most of us understand the naturalistic basis for these events and can intervene to blunt their impact on our lives.

    A thousand years ago, the average human life expectancy was around 30. Today, the world average is 67.

    Through most of human history, most societies were monarchies. Today, many or most humans live under some form of representative government.

    Slavery used to be widespread, common and accepted in human society. Now, it is rare and marginalized.

    The role of human females in societies was almost universally circumscribed and relegated to reproduction and homemaking. Now, women are political leaders, scientists, engineers and military servicepeople.

    Between 1880 and 1920, lynchings were a weekly occurrence in the US. Today, they are extremely rare in the US and we even have a black president.

    Until the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, there was little that could be done to treat bacterial infections. Today, most bacterial infections are easily cured.

    Smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year during the last years of the 18th century and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Smallpox was officially rendered extinct by human intervention in 1979.

    200 years ago, libraries were rare and expensive and learning was accessible only to very few. Today, thanks to the internet, much of human knowledge is available to anyone with access to a computer.

    200 years ago, routine travel was limited to the walking speed of humans, horses or oxen. Today, humans routinely travel by air at several hundred miles per hour.

    200 years ago, the range of audible human speech could be easily measured in meters. Today, human speech can be transmitted almost instantly around the world and has been heard on the moon.

    You are making the perfect the enemy of the good. I do see the evil in our world and I do want to change it. I do see episodes of retreat from progress. But you and I would not have survived to our mid-50s to have this discussion if the world has not gotten much better than it used to be.

  2. Joel, you've exposed my rhetorical strategy. This essay was a deliberate attempt to perform judo on the arguments the right-wingers have been making.

    Yes, I've deliberately limited myself to talking about the country and the time I live in, because I want to make it clear that the Beck-heads are completely off-base about what they think I and others like me are doing. There is real evil to address, and the desire to do so should not be confused with naive utopianism.

    If I wanted to extend the argument, I would point out that resisting such evil in the past has resulted in precisely the list of positive accomplishments that you cite. The kind of ignorant posturing that we've been seeing from the American right wing lately, has always made, and can only make, matters worse.

  3. One further irony is that G. K. Chesterton has become something of a culture hero to Christian conservatives, even though he himself probably would have said that that phrase is an oxymoron. Bringing him into the conversation as the unabashed progressive that he was is delicious, I think.