Sunday, 2 November 2014

Feel the Thought

I am trotting through Professor Radkau’s sentences when suddenly I encounter an idea of mine; one that I conceived only a few weeks ago… There she is!  Standing alone on the grass by the side of the lane.  Young and beautiful, she is wearing a long red skirt, a pink blouse, and a green waistcoat embroidered with flowers.  She holds a parasol high above her head and she smiles mischievously.  “Didn’t we meet last week in the Critic as Clerk?” she asks.  “Yes, we did”, I reply.  We exchange names - “Fanny zu Reventlow, the Countess of Schwabing"; "Paul Schloss, a professional amateur" -; and pay each other compliments; going on to talk about Robbe-Grillet and Edmund Husserl and a few other things.  We end our brief chat with a promise to meet again in the near future.  As I ride off down the lane I laugh to myself, and yet feel somewhat disconcerted - how can such a character exist independently of me?  And then a curious thought enters my mind (along with the smell of manure from a neighbouring field): am I a replica of her own carefully tailored beauty? A mile further on I meet another woman…  And this happens again and again, my journey punctuated with ideas that I have thought up and written down before - in the Critic as Clerk, in The Temperate Zone, in Freedom Against Freedom. Two weeks ago I thought gemütlichkeit a good way to describe the New Left.  Now I read that Max Weber was highly critical of what he regarded as this specifically German characteristic.  A coincidence for sure.  But I doubt the sanity of the world when Weber tells me that the resistance of concrete things to the easy flow of abstract speculation is what makes us think.  How could I have known of these ideas in advance of reading them?

This is a warning to those professors, and they are in the majority, who spend their careers searching for influences on writers, which they then catalogue in lengthy and irrelevant detail.  If they are lucky they will find a publisher who will exhibit their discoveries in books that read like filing cabinets full of carefully indexed facts.  Imagine if my words were to outlive my mortal fate to become the material for critical studies.  The similarity of my ideas to those in Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber would conclusively establish this book as their source.  But this nonsense.  For it is the other way round!  First I created them.  And only then did I find their copies.

The answer could be banal: my ideas are from my other readings of Weber, whose precise formulations I have since forgotten.  The influence does after all exist but the professors are looking in the wrong book.  

That is one explanation, and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely.  However, there is another more interesting interpretation which seems closer to this strange and uncanny truth - I invent the influences by creating the conditions where they can occur.  Writing about intellectuals, academics, capitalism and bureaucracy, I also read books on the same topics, and so create my own small ecosphere which develops a life of its own, producing plants and animals that are unique to itself. 

We live in the same metaphysical atmosphere, myself and these thinkers that I write about; and breathing in the same thoughts we conceive the same ideas, although none of us have actually discussed them.  They arise spontaneously from out of this place where we eat and work and cogitate.  Max finds that some of his ideas have already been conceived by me; while I discover that most of the Critic as Clerk was written by him over a hundred years ago.  We are like a small audience listening to a chamber orchestra playing music that we ourselves have composed; sharing the same harmonies we nevertheless listen to them differently; the melodies mutating into fragments of new thought amongst each member of our coterie.  In such a place “influence” ceases to be of any use as a means of explanation.  It is the ecosphere, the community of ideas, that must be grasped in its entirety if we are to be properly understood.  To do this the texture of the atmosphere has first to be intuited, then rendered with aesthetic skill.

Many academics lack this talent.  They can be so flat-footed.  Joachim Radkau writes about a man I don’t believe he understands at all, although he knows everything about him.  He has access to the Weber archive. He knows all about Max Weber’s mental collapse and his sexual problems.  He has all the facts and so of course he joins them together to reach what seems to be a self-evident conclusion: Weber’s breakdown was caused by his repressed sexuality.  Yes!  It is true!  Radkau thinks he has found the (dirty) secret that explains this great thinker.  However, he lacks the talent to use it properly - such sensitive material must be used with sympathy and insight; neither of which he has, I’m afraid to say.  The tone of the book is completely wrong. While his analysis is weak and clumsy.  Thus, criminally, he confuses Weber’s private life with his public writings; because he believes them to be on the same level; thus his crass comments that a love letter contradicts a famous paper on value-free science; as if there is no difference between raw emotion and deep thought; a work of philosophy an artificial affair and not a slice of quotidian existence.  Professor Radkau, I am sorry to say, is a fool (although his book is not without value - all those facts tell us something).  A novelist should have written this biography.  Poor man.  He knows so much, yet understands so little.  I suggest he go away and read Marcel Proust’s By Way of Sainte-Beuve to see the fallacies that he has made; it may not be too late to save his education.  Although we shouldn’t feel too much pity for this insensitive soul.  For by reducing everything to the banalities of love and sex Radkau destroys his subject.  Putting Weber into the pit he stones him with the facts of his recorded life.

The professor is like an old man peeping through a crack in the door to look at two young people making love.  He is shocked - he didn't realise that nice middle class girls did fellatio - and fascinated: when Else asks to be sodomised.  Obsessed by abnormal sexuality, and keen to recount every “nocturnal emission”, he doesn't notice an alternative explanation for Weber’s breakdown, although there are times when it is so obvious that even he has to record it.

Throughout his life Max Weber saw science as a vocation, but the day-to-day routine of academic life was increasingly a torture to him.  It is striking that his recovery made constant progress precisely from the moment when his professional ties were severed for good.  Having in the past had such a hectic attitude to the use of time, he developed a complete horror of fixed deadlines and retained it for many years after his breakdown.  Even when he was feeling well, ‘any compulsion, pressure or obligation involving a deadline brought the danger of a relapse - as though his body, which had until the outbreak of the illness blindly obeyed his demanding intellect, refused once and for all to bow to any necessity’ (Marianne Weber).  Weber actually developed a negative obsession with time.  In 1908 Marianne was still complaining: ‘This working to a deadline is the greatest torture for him; when you are faced with it, you have to fear any interruption by a bad night or any additional burden.’  A deadline was like a provocative evil spirit; the time pressure that once had a kind of agreeable charm had become a source of anguish.  In this respect, Weber may have experienced his nervous troubles as a typical phenomenon of modernity (the modern nervous condition described by the neurologist Wilhelm Erb), and therefore seen his illness as a key to the understanding of his age.

Weber’s sexual problems far from being the cause of his mental collapse may actually have been another symptom of it.  

Weber, it seems clear, couldn’t cope with the demands of university life.  This suggests, and his oeuvre and working methods prove it, that Max Weber wasn’t really an academic at all.  He was an artist.  The freedom of his intellect unable to fit into the narrow routines of a typical professor’s mind.  Too wild a thinker to work comfortably inside a university department; the development of an idea, and its spread into a delta of subsidiary thought, was more important to him than the production of tidy little lectures for monthly seminars.  To understand Max Weber we need to grasp this fundamental point.  Like Nietzsche and Marx before him Weber worked best when he could work freely, and he could do this only outside the university system; a place that tends to kill thought, especially when it is odd and revolutionary.  Sexual repression wasn't Max Weber’s main problem.  It was the University. It caused him stress; it produced insomnia and ruined his sex life.  Academics made him insane.  Gradually he freed himself from their influence, until he at last recovered; to become the great thinker who lives with us today.  This didn’t make the university men happy.  So eighty years later they came back to finish the job.…

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