Friday, April 25, 2008

The Possible and the Real

I am sore tired and a little cranky, but I want to post this now that I have written it. Tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) I will illustrate it with some pix from Frederick's Sans Souci.

Another chilling piece in the New York Times about the curious and bloodthirsty penchant of Americans for imprisoning their own. It got me thinking about an old rule of history, and a corollary: if it is possible, then it has happened ... and the corollary, the possible generates the real. I'll get back to the American lust to punish wantonly after an excursus into the 18th century.

I have finished Tim Blanning's excellent The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 and moved on to a biography of Frederick the Great, my favorite absolute monarch, which I last read in Berlin. Blanning's book is rewarding reading because he ranges across the period and the geography thematically before a rather short recitation of the events with which history buffs are much more familiar. He has a felicitous manner of expressing contradiction and dialectic, both historical and critical. In other words, he can see the Enlightenment, for example, both as a turning point or radical break and as a logical expression of all the forces which conspired both to create it and to attack it. I loved the way that he interwove the culture of reason and the culture of feeling, and I hope that my attempt to play with that through Judy Garland was not too oblique.

Blanning's period of history is goalposted by the end of the wearying and pointless slaughter that was the 30 Years War and the end of the wearying and rather more pointed slaughter that was the Napoleonic Wars. The 30 Years War was the last war of the Reformation, and the Napoleonic Wars were the first wars of the modern world. In between was a period of incessant but intermittent wars in Europe that were predominantly dynastic. Whether a Hapsburg or a Bourbon would reign in Spain (The War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1713) evidently mattered enough to massacre, slow bore, 400,000 people. Think of it, especially in the context of how much smaller the population was. 400,000 people. Precious few died in battle; vastly more died of disease and starvation and casual slaughter.

So this was the period of the rise of absolutism, such as it was, and absolutism had to cover its perks. Blanning does a good job of covering the notion of state and what I would call charisma, but he is much better at describing life and art and show and trade and livelihood. His first chapter alone is worth the price of the book ... he talks about transportation. I got to thinking that the slow rise of the West and the slow decline of the East might well hang on the different carrying capacities of horses in forests against camels in open ground and the manner in which Europe overcame its transportation disadvantage. It was a slow transformation, but by the time of Napoleon, Europeans could move human beings and materiel with an alacrity unimaginable 150 years earlier.

Absolutism was built on the back of new roads and forms of communication and organization that allowed genuine centralization and the accumulation of sufficient state power to undermine the centripetal tendencies of aristocrats. I think that the Reformation played a large role precisely by providing the centralized state with the opportunity to use religion quite independently of the church. But the key point is that absolutism became a reality because it was possible ... more precisely there could be no absolutism without the material preconditions for it. I think that is the difference between a teleological Marxism (in other words the notion that the possible leads inexorably to one reality) over a non-ideological materialist analysis (in other words the notion that you cannot grasp the real without looking at the possibilities that prefigured it).

This seems obvious, but we frequently forget it. Only my most dedicated reader will remember my rant against Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers who is one of those lazy reactionary thinkers who titillates to sweeping blame with which he swaggers and nods to himself. So the Enlightenment is responsible for the Nazis, and Stalin to boot. Yeah, and Catholicism is still the peaceful dove of love. A Burleigh forgets the simple fact that the real arises from the possible. As I like to point out, Pope Ratzinger does not strive to burn me at the stake because he can't. If he could, well, he would ... and we have the long history of his sordid little religion as proof.

I guess I am ranting.

Blanning's work is impressive because his happy prose weaves the endless tiny details of a period into a tapestry of what it became. His is materialist history. Louis XIV could only become the king because he had the means to do it ... he had to have the will and the luck and the genius as well. But no amount of luck or will or brains can make up for a lack of means or possibility.

And so it is with the American prison system. We incarcerate because we can. With that same technological and material possibilities, we could also educate and ameliorate and even save the planet. These too are possible. But the possible only underwrites the real, it does not predict it. The American prison system proves that we have the means. It also proves that our souls are empty, and it points again and once again to the naked greed that has crippled this great civilization.

It will be our epitaph. We could have saved the world, but we preferred to imprison crack whores. We had the means, and we made the choice. It was possible, so we fall back on the plaint that it had to be that way. No, no, it didn't have to be that way.

No comments: