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What Color Is Your Santa?

The Santa is white controversy got me wondering if Ronald McDonald could be Chinese….

Where Are the Space Brothers?

Why won’t extraterrestrials communicate with us, share their advanced technology and give us a jump start?

  1. There are none. We are the most intelligent race in the universe.

  2. There are super-intelligent races, but they don’t know we exist. They haven’t discovered us yet.

  3. They have discovered us, but from their point of view, there is no point to communication. The level of intelligence we would need to understand them is so much higher than what we actually have, that for them to communicate with us would be like our communicating with ants.

  4. They want to communicate with us, and are even impatient for it to happen, but they have ethical standards of non-interference and so, they are waiting for us to reach a certain level on our own. This is their way of valuing our effort. We must make the discoveries for ourselves.

  5. They do communicate, only either: a) only to a few of us; or b) only sporadically and as a whim, when individuals among them find it amusing; or c) we aren’t aware of their communication as communication from outside, and think of it as our own inner voice; or d) our intelligence really is like the ant’s, and we just aren’t picking up that much of what they are trying to tell us.

Excellent Horse-Like Lady

It got into my head last night to see what North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been up to. After all, it seems that he’s more popular in his own country than Barack Obama is in his.

It turns out that the singer in the above video, Hyon Song-Wol, was recently machine-gunned for the alleged crime of making and selling sex tapes. The real reason, however, was probably that she was once the mistress of Kim Jong-Un — whose wife, also a former pop singer, may not have appreciated such a high-profile rival.

Hyon Song-Wol was executed along with eleven other musicians from her band and a rival pop band. The remaining band members, along with family members of the victims, were forced to watch and then sent off to labor camps, on the principle of guilt by association.

The above song, “Excellent Horse-Like Lady,” from 2005, is Hyon Song-Wol’s greatest hit. In it, she enacts the role of a textile worker who loves her work and is exceptionally good at what she does.

Filled with Animals


Arthur Rimbaud as a modern teenager, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest.

I was puzzled to find this quotation from Arthur Rimbaud as part of a long, fascinating discussion of Walter Benjamin and visionary utopias.

    “The man of the future will be filled with animals.”

Here’s the full context for the quote, from author and professor Finn Brunton. (These lines, by the way, are what made me recall the citation from Benjamin that I discussed in my last post.)

    “We are at every point interpenetrated with the world, in Benjamin’s analysis, and in the future he projected, each technological transformation in our environment will reach the inmost place of our experience and understanding. … For him, in Rimbaud’s words, ‘the man of the future will be filled with animals’; the medicine of the future, Benjamin suggested, in contrast with the Fascist futurism of purity of blood, would be ‘a playground for all microbes.’ What ‘we are accustomed to call “Nature”‘ would reveal its semantic inadequacy, not least because what we are accustomed to call human would have dissolved into it.”

What could that mean, to be “filled with animals”? And where did Rimbaud say it? He said many strange and visionary things — but I’ve read pretty much all of Rimbaud, and even translated him for my own edification and amusement, and I couldn’t remember him saying anything quite like that.

I decided to search on the Internet, and came up with several places where the quote is cited, but none of them mention where Rimbaud originally wrote it. I was starting to grow suspicious. The quote always appears in a postmodern context, such as a discussion of bioengineering and genetics. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.

The earliest citation, the one from which all the others are taken, is apparently to be found in the Paul Rainbow essay “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality,” which appeared in Incorporations, a 1992 book described by its publisher as “a diverse group of reflections and interventions on the fate of the body and of subjectivity within twentieth-century modernity.” Here’s a PDF of the essay as it originally appeared in the book. And this is how Rainbow refers to the Rimbaud quote.

    “In the annex to his book on Michel Foucault—entitled ‘On the Death of Man and the Overman’—Gilles Deleuze presents a schema of three ‘force-forms,’ to use his jargon…. [The first two forms are God and man; Rainbow goes on to describe the third one.] Finally, today in the present, a field of the surhomme, or ‘afterman,’ in which finitude, as empiricity, gives way to a play of forces and forms that Deleuze labels fini-illimité. … The best example of this ‘unlimited-finite’ is DNA: an infinity of beings can and has arisen from the four bases out of which DNA is constituted. François Jacob, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, makes a similar point when he writes: ‘A limited amount of genetic information in the germ line produces an enormous number of protein structures in the soma….’ Whether Deleuze has seized the significance of Jacob’s facts remains an open question. Still, we must be intrigued when something as cryptic as Rimbaud’s formula that ‘the man of the future will be filled (chargé) with animals’ takes on a perfectly material meaning, as we shall see when we turn to the concept of model organisms in the new genetics.”

If this strikes you as gobbledygook, or some form of aborted Newspeak, I can assure you that you aren’t alone. I’m not presenting this as an example of clear and coherent writing, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of where the Rimbaud quote came from. So bear with me as I explain what Rainbow seems to be saying. DNA contains a potentially infinite amount of information, if you consider its possible transformations and mutations, so now that we’re able to map and manipulate the human genome, the “man of the future” may well be “filled with animals” (by grafting animal DNA to our own, I suppose) as Rimbaud apparently claimed. Why drag the old fraud Deleuze into it? Because he’s French — and because he made the original point about the new type of “overman” and his “unlimited-finite” potential.

Unfortunately, Rainbow still hasn’t told us where Rimbaud said what he supposedly said. He’s simply pushed us back one more step, to Deleuze’s book on Foucault. In a footnote, he tells us that Deleuze uses the quote “L’homme de l’avenir est chargé des animaux” on page 141 of his book. So let’s take a look.

(By the way, who is Paul Rainbow? Is he this guy, the acid freak in the High Sierra who saw a double rainbow and became a YouTube sensation? No, he’s this guy, a professor of anthropology and Foucault specialist at UC Berkeley.)

I will quote Deleuze in the original French, followed by the translation used in the English-language edition. Before going any further, though, I want to note that the phrase chargé de, which Rainbow translates as full of, has a range of meanings in English. It makes more sense to me to translate as loaded with, since the French say chargé for trucks where we would say loaded, or for elevators where we would say packed. Surchargé means overloaded. A battery can be chargé which means simply charged. There’s yet another range of meanings: prendre charge de means to take charge of or take responsibility for, and charger de in this sense means to give responsibility for. A chargé d’affaires, as we all know, is someone who has been given responsibility for various matters. This is the sense used in the translation below. Anyway, here’s Deleuze.

    “Qu’est-ce que le surhomme? … C’est la forme qui découle d’un nouveau rapport de forces. L’homme tend à libérer en lui la vie, le travail et le langage. Le surhomme, c’est, suivant la formule de Rimbaud, l’homme chargé des animaux même (un code qui peut capturer des fragments d’autres codes, comme dans les nouveaux schémas d’évolution latérale ou rétrograde). C’est l’homme chargé des roches elles-mêmes, ou de l’inorganique…. Comme dirait Foucault, le surhomme est beaucoup moins que la disparition des hommes existants, et beaucoup plus que le changement d’un concept: c’est l’avènement d’une nouvelle forme, ni Dieu ni l’homme, dont on peut espérer qu’elle ne sera pas pire que les deux précédentes.”
    “What is the superman? … It is the form that results from a new relation between forces. Man tends to free life, labor, and language within himself. The superman, in accordance with Rimbaud’s formula, is the man who is even in charge of the animals (a code that can capture fragments from other codes, as in the new schemata of lateral or retrograde [evolution]). It is man in charge of the very rocks or inorganic matter…. As Foucault would say, the superman is much less than the disappearance of living men, and much more than a change of concept: it is the advent of a new form that is neither God nor man and which, it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms.”

Deleuze adds a footnote, which tells us finally where the Rimbaud citation comes from (keep in mind, it’s not a direct quote).

    “La lettre de Rimbaud n’invoque pas seulement le langage ou la littérature, mais les deux autres aspects: l’homme de l’avenir est chargé de la langue nouvelle, mais aussi des animaux même, et de l’informe (‘À Paul Demeny’…).”
    “Rimbaud’s letter not only invokes language or literature, but the two other aspects: the future man is in charge not only of the new language, but also of animals and whatever is unformed (‘Letter to Paul Demeny’…).”

So now we know that the citation comes from the letter Rimbaud wrote at age 17 to his friend Paul Demeny, known as the “Letter of the Seer” because of its famous claim that “the poet makes himself a seer.” We also know that Rimbaud didn’t say “The man of the future is filled with animals,” but something more like “The superman is even in charge of the animals,” which is a very different thing. Deleuze is saying that a new sort of human exists today who is neither God nor man, but a third thing, responsible (through his amazing technological prowess, I assume) even for nature, which includes animals and inanimate things. He uses Rimbaud to buttress this thought.

But what did Rimbaud actually say? Now that we know the source of the quote, we can finally go directly to it. Here is the quote from the letter to Paul Demeny he wrote on May 15, 1871. The translation is my own, based on one by Wallace Fowlie.

    “Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu. Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animaux mêmes; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions; si ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme, si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe. Trouver une langue.”
    “So the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity, even for the animals; he must make his inventions felt, touched, heard; if what he brings back from there has form, he gives form, if it is formless, he gives formlessness. A language must be found.”

So we are no longer talking about the “man of the future,” or the “superman” either (no matter what Deleuze wants us to think), but simply the “poet” — Rimbaud himself. Of course, he is describing the poet as seer, which still makes him a “man of the future” in some sense — as he says elsewhere, “One must be absolutely modern.” But the poet he’s talking about isn’t “filled with animals,” nor does he predict the genetic engineering of our day in a utopian vision. Rimbaud is simply saying that the poet, after entering profoundly into the rhythms of nature and charging himself there (as a battery is charged), is responsible for bringing back those impressions and translating them into language, so they can be seen, felt, and heard as he saw, felt, and heard them. For this, “a language must be found” (if none exists) — and that is the mission Rimbaud gives himself.

When Body and Image Interpenetrate

Walter Benjamin predicts the Internet, crowd-sourced revolutions, and beyond:

    “Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto.”

This is from his 1928 essay “Surrealism,” which can be found in the collection Reflections — or online here.

In fact, it could be argued that Benjamin’s reference to a future “when in technology body and image…interpenetrate” looks even further ahead than the Internet we have today. He seems to be describing a situation where the Internet becomes part of our own bodies, so we can receive the impressions of others directly through our own senses, or upload our impressions directly to the collective cloud. Google Glass may be the first primitive manifestation of this, but the full technological realization is still years in the future. Only in this way will we live the “revolutionary tension” of humankind as “bodily collective innervation” — which means stimulation of the nerves. If this is really what the Communist Manifesto is all about, then it was truly a radically futuristic document, one whose ultimate vision will not be realized by technology until some two hundred years after it was written (1848)!

Sincere?

Today I found myself, not for the first time, arguing with a friend about whether the U.S. under Bush was “sincere” in its desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. My position has always been that many of the people around Bush (people like Paul Wolfowitz), as well as Bush himself, were sincere. However crazy their reasoning may have seemed to us, and however full of hubris it may have been (believing that the U.S. could reshape the world merely by wishing it so) there was a plan to turn the Middle East into a series of democratic states (not just take their oil) in the belief that only free Arabs in control of their destiny could help us to fight Al Qaeda-style terrorism. My friend wasn’t buying any of this, so for documentary proof, I went back to this April 2003 article by Josh Marshall, creator of the political news site TPM, in which he lays out the grand vision neoconservatives had at the time (improbable as it was), in the first days of the war in Iraq. The article made an impression on me then that I never forgot, and I still feel it’s the best piece of political analysis of that decade.

    “In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction…. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. … Late last month, The Weekly Standard‘s Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a ‘world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism…a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future.’ In short, the administration is trying to roll the table — to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. … Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments — or, failing that, U.S. troops — rule the entire Middle East. …
    “[According to neoconservatives] the Middle East today is like the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Politically warped fundamentalism is the contemporary equivalent of communism or fascism. Terrorists with potential access to weapons of mass destruction are like an arsenal pointed at the United States. The primary cause of all this danger is the Arab world’s endemic despotism, corruption, poverty, and economic stagnation. Repressive regimes channel dissent into the mosques, where the hopeless and disenfranchised are taught a brand of Islam that combines anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, and a worship of violence that borders on nihilism. Unable to overthrow their own authoritarian rulers, the citizenry turns its fury against the foreign power that funds and supports these corrupt regimes to maintain stability and access to oil: the United States. … Trying to ‘manage’ this dysfunctional Islamic world…is as foolish, unproductive, and dangerous as détente was with the Soviets, the hawks believe. Nor is it necessary, given the unparalleled power of the American military. Using that power to confront Soviet communism led to the demise of that totalitarianism and the establishment of democratic (or at least non-threatening) regimes from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. Why not use that same power to upend the entire corrupt Middle East edifice and bring liberty, democracy, and the rule of law to the Arab world?
    “The hawks’ grand plan differs depending on whom you speak to, but the basic outline runs like this: The United States establishes a reasonably democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq — assume it falls somewhere between Turkey and Jordan on the spectrum of democracy and the rule of law. Not perfect, representative democracy, certainly, but a system infinitely preferable to Saddam’s. The example of a democratic Iraq will radically change the political dynamics of the Middle East. When Palestinians see average Iraqis beginning to enjoy real freedom and economic opportunity, they’ll want the same themselves. With that happy prospect on one hand and implacable United States will on the other, they’ll demand that the Palestinian Authority reform politically and negotiate with Israel. That in turn will lead to a real peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. A democratic Iraq will also hasten the fall of the fundamentalist Shi’a mullahs in Iran, whose citizens are gradually adopting anti-fanatic, pro-Western sympathies. A democratized Iran would create a string of democratic, pro-Western governments (Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) stretching across the historical heartland of Islam. … Syria would be no more than a pale reminder of the bad old days. (If they made trouble, a U.S. invasion would take care of them, too.) And to the tiny Gulf emirates making hesitant steps toward democratization, the corrupt regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would no longer look like examples of stability and strength in a benighted region, but holdouts against the democratic tide. Once the dust settles, we could decide whether to ignore them as harmless throwbacks to the bad old days or deal with them, too. We’d be in a much stronger position to do so since we’d no longer require their friendship to help us manage ugly regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
    “The audacious nature of the neocons’ plan makes it easy to criticize but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. … You can hear yourself saying, ‘That plan’s just crazy enough to work.’”

I should note that the article is titled “Practice to Deceive,” so doesn’t that undermine my claim that the Bush administration was sincere? But the article doesn’t claim that their desire to democratize the Middle East was insincere. To the contrary, the duplicity referred to is of the opposite variety — they were claiming to the American people that their plan was far narrower in scope, dedicated only to ensuring that Iraq was free of chemical and biological weapons. Only after American troops were engaged would the full dimensions of the plan become clear, and the American people realize that we were committed to a region-wide project of twenty years’ duration. By then we would have no other choice but to swallow our doubts about democratization and nation-building, and see things through.

Of course, none of this turned out quite as the neoconservatives imagined it then. The Palestinians, for example, saw nothing worth imitating in the fate of their Iraqi brothers. And where democratic elections did occur, the people stubbornly refused to vote for the sort of people the Bush administration had in mind (like Ahmed Chelabi), choosing instead pro-Iranian Shi’a conservatives in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005, and Hamas in Palestine in 2006. Eventually, the Bush administration grew considerably less sincere in its desire for democracy in the Middle East, and backed away almost entirely from the original plan. A few neoconservatives (not many) even apologized to us for their naive and deceptive advice. But still, it helps from time to time to go back to this original snapshot of Josh Marshall’s, and remind ourselves of the kind of imperial hubris that was in the air then.

Links 20 August 2013

During my time in the labyrinth of footloose youth, I’ve barely had time for other Internet reading. However, current affairs did manage to poke through a bit in the past couple of days. The themes of interest for me were the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda while passing through London (Greenwald is the journalist who receieved Edward Snowden’s classified documents about NSA spying); a call for Swedes, men and women, to wear hijabs in solidarity with a pregnant Muslim woman who was assaulted in the street for wearing a hijab; and testimonials from Egyptian revolutionary youth showing how torn, angry, disgusted, and betrayed they are by the horrifying turn toward authoritarianism their country has taken. Here are the links.

The Guardian, “David Miranda’s Detention at Heathrow ‘Extraordinary’ Says Senior MP“:

    “David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8:05 a.m. and informed that he was to be questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He was held for almost nine hours and officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.
    “‘It is an extraordinary twist to a very complicated story,’ [Kenneth] Vaz [chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee] told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Monday. … ‘What needs to happen pretty rapidly is we need to establish the full facts — now you have a complaint from Mr. Greenwald and the Brazilian government. They indeed have said they are concerned at the use of terrorism legislation for something that does not appear to relate to terrorism, so it needs to be clarified, and clarified quickly.’ …
    “Miranda was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under Schedule 7 — over 97% — last less than an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours. …
    “Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, said: ‘It is utterly improbable that David Michael Miranda, a Brazilian national transiting through London, was detained at random, given the role his partner has played in revealing the truth about the unlawful nature of NSA surveillance. David’s detention was unlawful and inexcusable. … There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government.’”

Washington Post, “U.S. Had Advance Notice of Britain’s Plan to Detain Reporter Glenn Greenwald’s Partner“:

    “White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials had received a ‘heads-up’ that London police would detain David Miranda on Sunday, but he said the U.S. government did not request Miranda’s detention, calling it ‘a law enforcement action’ taken by the British government.
    “‘This was a decision that was made by the British government without the involvement and not at the request of the United States government. It’s as simple as that,’ Earnest said. …
    “Greenwald, in an e-mail on Monday, said his partner had been questioned about a variety of subjects including ‘what stories we were working on at that moment.’
    “‘David was asked mostly about the work Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I were doing on NSA stories…’ Greenwald said. ‘He was also asked about Brazil, the political situation in Brazil, and his friends and family.’ …
    “Greenwald declined to respond to a question about whether Miranda had served as a courier for classified material related to the paper’s NSA coverage.”

BBC News, “David Miranda Detention: MP Asks Police for Explanation“:

    “‘I remained in a room, there were six different agents coming and going, talking to me,’ Mr. Miranda said. ‘They asked questions about my entire life, about everything. They took my computer, video game, mobile phone, my memory cards, everything.’
    “In Germany, Mr. Miranda had been staying with U.S. filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has also been working on the Snowden files with Mr. Greenwald and the Guardian, according to the newspaper.
    “His flights were being paid for by the Guardian. A spokesman said he was not an employee of the newspaper but ‘often assists’ with Mr. Greenwald’s work. …
    “Mr. Greenwald said the British authorities’ actions in holding Mr. Miranda amounted to ‘bullying’ and linked it to his writing about Mr. Snowden’s revelations concerning the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). …
    “He told the BBC police did not ask Mr Miranda ‘a single question’ about terrorism but instead asked about what ‘Guardian journalists were doing on the NSA stories.’
    “Mr. Greenwald said he would respond by writing reports ‘much more aggressively than before.’
    “‘I have lots of documents about the way the secret services operate in England,’ he said. ‘I think they are going to regret what they did.’”

The Guardian, “NSA Files: Why the Guardian in London Destroyed Hard Drives of Leaked Files“:

    “Guardian editors on Tuesday revealed why and how the newspaper destroyed computer hard drives containing copies of some of the secret files leaked by Edward Snowden. The decision was taken after a threat of legal action by the government that could have stopped reporting on the extent of American and British government surveillance revealed by the documents. …
    “The initial UK attempts to stop reporting on the files came two weeks after the publication of the first story based on Snowden’s leaks…. Two senior British officials arrived at the Guardian’s offices to see [Editor-in-Chief Alan] Rusbridger and his deputy, Paul Johnson. They were cordial but made it clear they came on high authority to demand the immediate surrender of all the Snowden files in the Guardian’s possession.
    “They argued that the material was stolen and that a newspaper had no business holding on to it. The Official Secrets Act was mentioned but not threatened. …
    “After three weeks which saw the publication of several more articles on both sides of the Atlantic about GCHQ and NSA internet and phone surveillance, British government officials got back in touch and took a sterner approach. ‘You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back,’ one of them said.”

Al Jazeera, “Swedes Don Hijab to Support Muslim Woman“:

    “Scores of Swedish women from various faiths have posted pictures of themselves wearing hijab, or traditional Muslim headscarves, in solidarity with a woman attacked in a Stockholm suburb, apparently for wearing one.
    “Police spokesman Ulf Hoffman said an unknown assailant had attacked the pregnant woman in the suburb of Farsta on Friday by banging her head against a car.
    “Hoffman said the man shouted slurs which have led police to believe the attack was motivated by the woman’s religion. …
    “Using hashtag #hijabuppropet (hijab outcry) women posted their photos in headscarves on the social networking sites Twitter and Instagram. …
    “In an opinion piece published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on Sunday, the organisers of ‘hijabuppropet’ urged Justice Minister Beatrice Ask to ‘ensure that Swedish Muslim women are guaranteed the right to personal safety and religious freedom, without being subject to verbal and physical attacks.’”

A few of the hijab photos posted to twitter, from the “Traveler in Time” tumblr account.

More photos from BuzzFeed, “Women in Sweden Wear Headscarves After Muslim Woman Is Assaulted.”

Jack Shenker in Mada, “Beyond the Voice of Battle“:

    “What is happening in Egypt at the moment, and what is being lost? Lives, above all else; hundreds of them….
    “But beyond people, something else is being lost, too — just as those most invested in the old Egypt intended. For me, the most powerful expression of Egypt’s revolution has never been anything tangible, but rather that state of mind when the world seems to tip on its head and bevel with possibility, where the landscape of imagination is recast. I first encountered it on January 25 2011….
    “The deployment of the police across the road in front of us was a signal that…we would come a stop, engage in some minor scuffling, and then be herded into a harmless protest pen so that the capital could get on with its day. But on this occasion, with reports of mass unrest spreading throughout the city, something was different. Nobody among the marchers slowed, nobody broke ranks, and instead they just kept on going, right towards those shields, chanting and glaring mutinously into the eyes of those that held them…. In the end, the troops simply gave way. And as we pushed past them and onto the empty street behind, several protesters broke into a run — or more accurately a skip, a dance, a hodgepodge of hops and jumps — and many began whooping and hollering and even kissing the ground. …
    “That newfound sense of agency, of an ability to shape the world around you in ways you never knew existed — that gave me my definition of revolution…. Nothing can pose a greater threat to elites wishing to preserve their political and economic privileges than that sense of agency, and since Egypt’s revolution began, not a single farm, factory, classroom or college in the land has remained entirely immune from its influence.
    “Which brings us to the scenes on Egypt’s streets today. The relentless imposition of state violence creates binaries as well as bodies: You are either with us or against us, pro-military or pro-Brotherhood, an Egyptian or a terrorist. And binaries from above achieve the opposite of imagination from below. … How Egypt’s defenders of the status quo, forced onto the back foot by a revolution that struggles against authoritarianism and state violence, have longed to [undermine the independent thought of the people]. In their current ‘war on terror,’ as the strapline on state television puts it, they finally have the enemy, the fight and the stage on which to do so. Thus far, their efforts are meeting with spectacular success.”

Yasmin El Rifae in Cairo, again, “Dispatches“:

    “Egypt has given me a life-changing political education in the last two and a half years. … It’s hard, now, not to feel like something has been stolen from me. As I write this, I am deeply aware of how many others have had the much more devastating loss, the theft, of a loved one or a limb.
    “The past days have left me with a feeling of uselessness and alienation. I condemn both the Brotherhood and the security forces in their inter-locking cycle of violence and lies. There is no place for me in the street, or in a national conversation determined to start and end with chauvinistic nationalism. So I stay in and watch the city descend into silence, the streets emptying of life as military curfew approaches.
    “This is not the first time the state has pushed us to the edge…. It’s not the first time, but it might be the bloodiest and the scariest – and the one receiving the loudest applause. I do not know how we will move forward from here, or when we will stop flaunting our cruelty as a source of pride.”

Omar Robert Hamilton in Mada, “Everything Was Possible“:

    “I mourn the dead and I despise those killing them. I mourn the dead and I despise those sending them to their deaths. I mourn the dead and I despise those that excuse their murder. How did it come to this? How did we get here? What is this place?
    “There were moments when we could have broken the army’s grip on the country. We should have stayed in Tahrir after Mubarak was ousted. … But we left. Everyone said they would be back the next day and then, somehow, they weren’t. People wanted to shower and to sleep in their own beds. Then spontaneous cleaning brigades of earnest patriots spread through the city and by midday everything was nice and tidy and gone. …
    “Had all the forces that were supposedly against the military — the revolutionaries, the liberals, the Brotherhood and the Salafis — ever truly united where might we be today? Dead, possibly. But maybe not. Maybe somewhere closer to a civilian state. A real, ideological alliance was never possible. But a tactical, practical one might just have worked. But rather than work together each party repeatedly met with and made deals with the army, consistently placing the generals in the strongest tactical position. Everyone was to blame. …
    “It was transformative: the belief we all shared, for a moment, in each other. In an eternity of disappointment and greed and malice that moment…in which having a community was preferable to being alone with a book, had a value that will never be lost. You cannot underestimate how important these two and half years have been for people, how empowered, how unafraid people were. The existence of the revolution should not be confused with the existence of a political leadership and process. The revolution is dead when we say it’s dead. The revolution is dead when we will no longer die for it. …
    “I cannot stand up to death today. Today I am a coward who can only write. I see the revolution being dragged away to be shot over a shallow grave and I don’t know what to do. But I do know that, before it’s too late, we will grab it, we will fight for it. We have to, or we will never be able to live with ourselves.”

Lee Smith in Tablet, “What’s Wrong with Egypt’s Liberals? For Starters, They’re Not Liberals“:

    “If some observers mistakenly predicted that the Twitter-friendly liberals who thronged Tahrir Square two and a half years ago would become the new face of Egypt, almost no one could have guessed that those same liberals would soon find themselves demonstrating in favor of military rule. Now American journalists, analysts, and Middle East experts all want to know what happened to a political movement whose ostensible goal was to overthrow an authoritarian leader in order to usher in a golden age of Egyptian democracy. …
    “Seen through modern Western eyes, none of this makes sense. Just because the anti-Morsi camp allegedly put millions of people into the streets to demand the elected president’s ouster doesn’t make the army’s action ‘democratic.’ But for some observers in the Middle East, the strange bedfellows that Egyptian liberals seem to prefer are not so shocking: The coup is merely the latest inflection of a longer historical arc that unites authoritarians and liberals in a profound ambivalence about Western values and the West itself. ‘I’m not at all surprised this was the work of what we’ve come to call the liberals,’ said Samuel Tadros, author of the newly published Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity….
    “Tadros…told me in a recent interview that they were never liberals in the first place, or at least not as the term is usually understood in Western political communities. ‘In Egypt, liberalism didn’t start as it did in Europe with the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie that sought to limit the powers of the state and other entrenched institutions like the church and the aristocracy. In Egypt, there was no crisis pitting the individual against the state because liberalism was born with the rise of the civil-servant class in the mid 19th century. Since civil servants are a part of the state, this liberalism is not at all interested in limiting the role of the state.’ …
    “Because the civil-servant class owed its advancement — education, employment, rise in salaries — to the state, it came to see the state as the agent of change, he explains. And not surprisingly the liberals came to worship the institution that embodied state power in its purest form, the ruler. ‘It is the job of the ruler to impose modernity on a reluctant population,’ said Tadros. Arab liberals understand themselves as members of an elite class that shares little in common with the unwashed masses. If the ruler can’t modernize the masses, at least he must protect the advantages that the state lavished on the liberals.”

David Kenner in Foreign Policy, “How 36 Egyptian Prisoners Suffocated to Death in the Back of a Police Van“:

    “Of all the ways to die, this was one of the most horrible. On Monday, the Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces had killed 36 Islamist prisoners the day before…. Security officials said that the prisoners had rioted while in a prison truck and captured a guard, causing the officers to respond by firing tear gas and the prisoners to die of asphyxiation. If that’s the case, crowd control experts say, the prisoners perished in agony — gasping for air and incapable of resisting their guards. …
    “Lawyer Ossama ElMahdy visited the morgue on Monday…and tweeted extremely graphic pictures of the bodies. He wrote that the dead men’s faces were so blue — almost black — that the families assumed they were burned, but they were not.
    “It is possible to kill 36 people with tear gas, but it is extremely difficult…. ‘It would be an agonizing death as well, with a burning sensation on all the wet areas of the body, a gasping and even gagging sensation, coughing, tightness of the chesta gasping and even gagging sensation, coughing, tightness of the chest,’ said Sid Heal, a former officer in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and expert on crowd control techniques. … Whatever happened in that prison truck, however, did not convince the police officers to let in fresh air and save their prisoners’ lives.”

Lafcadio’s Adventures: Footloose Youth of the 1910s


The Wandervogel of Germany.

I recently found myself thinking about the name Lafcadio, which has two associations for me. The first is Lafcadio Hearn, the turn-of-the-20th-century author of Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of Japanese ghost stories. Apparently, Hearn was named for the Greek island of Lefkada where he was born. Despite his being a Westerner who moved to Japan late in life, Hearn found success in his second career as a collector of Japanese literary curiosities — his first career was as a journalist in New Orleans. His work is well-known in Japan to this day, and the 1964 movie Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi was based on his book. I watched the film a couple of years ago and read the book after that, however that’s not what I want to talk about here.

My second association for the name Lafcadio comes from André Gide’s 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, most often translated into English as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In the novel, Lafcadio is an elegant rogue of 19 who attempts a “gratuitous act” — a purely arbitrary, unplanned, and unmotivated act, in his case tossing a fellow passenger from a train. Much else happens in the novel besides, and a good summary can be found here. Some critics seem to think that Gide based Lafcadio on the real-life artistic provocateur Arthur Cravan, a poet-boxer and proto-Dadaist, but this seems like a stretch. Cravan was at the height of his Parisian fame (such as it was) when Les Caves du Vatican was published, and he’d attacked Gide the year before in his literary revue Maintenant (which was sold from a pushcart), but Gide had been developing ideas for his novel for several years by then. It seems far more likely (according to analyses such as this one) that Gide drew his inspiration for Lafcadio from the characters of Raskolnikov and Kirillov in Dostoevsky, Julien Sorel in Stendhal, and a variety of young men he knew in real life.

As often happens when I start doing research on the internet, by now I felt like I was being drawn into a labyrinth. I had two questions to answer: What exactly did Arthur Cravan say about André Gide in his review that (according to André Breton, at least) left Gide still hurting twenty years later? And why was the concept of a “gratuitous act” so controversial in the early 20th century, that many of the early critics of Les Caves du Vatican apparently saw little else in the novel, ignoring its send-up of bourgeois morality and its picaresque qualities?

To answer the first question, I had to locate the original French text of Cravan’s take-down of Gide, and I found it in several places on the Internet, including here. Since no English translation was available, I made my own. In it, Cravan describes his fantasy of visiting Gide, seducing him with “my shoulders, my beauty, my eccentricities, my words,” and persuading him to finance a romp together through Arabian lands. Since his actual visit to Gide didn’t go off nearly so well, Cravan decided to take his revenge by caricaturing Gide as a stingy, overly fastidious, humorless bourgeois. The bulk of his essay has the same tone of mockery as Bob Dylan’s famous line, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Here is a sample:

    “A maid opened to me (M. Gide doesn’t have a butler). She took me up to the second floor, and had me wait…. Some stained-glass windows, that I found tacky, let daylight fall on a writing desk where pages were spread whose ink was still moist. Naturally, I didn’t abstain from committing the small indiscretion you may imagine. That is how I can inform you that M. Gide punishes his thought terribly — it must be impossible for him to send the typographer anything less than a fourth draft.
    “The maid came to get me again…. At the moment I came into the salon, some yappy little dogs were barking noisily. Was this going to lack dignity? But M. Gide would soon be here. Nevertheless, I had plenty of time to look around. … Above all, a very Protestant obsession with order and cleanliness. I even broke out, for a moment, in a disagreeable sweat at the thought that I might have soiled the carpet. I would have probably pushed my curiosity a bit further, or even succumbed to the exquisite temptation of putting some small trinket in my pocket, if I could have rid myself of the very clear sensation that M. Gide was spying through some small, secret hole in the wallpaper. …
    “Finally the man showed up. … ‘Monsieur Gide,’ I began, ‘I’ve taken the liberty of coming to you, and yet I believe I must tell you from the get-go that I prefer, for example, boxing a great deal more than I do literature.’
    “’Yet literature is the only point where we might meet,’ my interlocutor replied rather drily.
    “I was thinking: What flair for life!
    “So we spoke about literature, and since he asked me that question that must be particularly dear to him, ‘What have you read of mine?’ I answered without raising my eyebrows, and putting the greatest possible loyalty into my gaze, ‘I’m afraid to read you.’ I imagine that M. Gide must have raised his eyebrows spectacularly.”

All in all, I find this rather droll, and it’s hard for me to believe that Gide was so insecure as to still feel insulted twenty years later. In his place, I think I would have felt almost flattered that a talented young man had gone to the trouble to insult me so cleverly. (Though the part about my sickly appearance, my tiny white hands, and the skin peeling from my face might have disturbed me — and I might have asked my entourage for weeks afterward, “Are you sure those stained glass windows aren’t tacky?”) As far as what motivated Cravan to burn his bridges so publicly, Philippe Sollers expressed an interesting theory in Le Monde: it was payback for Gide’s failure to support Oscar Wilde more publicly in his trial, the one where Wilde called homosexuality “the love that dare not speak its name.” As Sollers puts it, “It’s a matter of avenging Wilde, who died in misery, by demonstrating that there can be an official, orderly, profitable, Nobel-worthy homosexuality and that, therefore, that isn’t the question here.”

So let’s move on to my second question, about the “gratuitous act.” When I read The Vatican Cellars years ago, Lafcadio came across to me as an enjoyable rogue, someone I was rooting for — so it surprised me to recall that he’d done something so brutal as toss a man from a train, just because he could, and because he didn’t like the guy’s looks. Once he did that, however, I would have preferred that he’d remained true to his original amoral nature, rather than start to have regrets. We seem jaded to existential questions like these nowadays, but when Gide’s novel appeared in 1914, it was controversial enough to provoke strong reactions, all the way from young men carrying it with them into the trenches of World War I (because they saw Lafacadio as a hero), to the predictable outrage on the Catholic right. Wishing to better understand the debate around the “gratuitous act” (which apparently dates back to Dostoevsky), I did a search on the phrase and came up with this, by George D. Painter from his book André Gide: A Critical Biography.

    “Did Gide himself believe in the ‘gratuitous act’? Presumably not, for he repeatedly denies its existence, and he discusses it through the mouths of burlesque characters…. He believed in it, if at all, not as a fact, but as a fabulous absolute, a moral and aesthetic concept not valid in itself, but showing the way to new discoveries. The gratuitous act is like a pointer on a scientific instrument, indicating some impossibly high figure — it is important not because it is truthful in itself, but because it demands an explanation. …
    “The gratuitous act is a symbol: philosophically, of freedom; morally, of instantaneous expression of the whole personality; and psychologically, of the break-through of the Id. … But the moment we investigate the gratuitous act not as a fruitful image but as a real entity, it disintegrates into fallacies. If a really motiveless act were possible, as might be with some lesion of the brain, it would be meaningless — to have any significance it must have a significant cause — and so cease to be gratuitous! And in practical aesthetics, if the novelist is to convince the reader that a gratuitous act has been committed, then he must make it credible by giving it a motive — and once again its gratuity disappears. A gratuitous act is pure only so long as it remains mysterious. …
    “The act of Lafcadio, a mere mortal, has its hidden causes. He does not know them, attributing his deed…to curiosity and love of risk, and Gide does not state them; but they are clear enough. Lafcadio’s illegitimacy has made him an enemy of society. He has simultaneously found and lost his father; his inheritance of 40,000 francs a year of useless money is only a final mockery. His unconscious need for recognition and parental love…has turned to equally unconscious need for revenge. In the mediocre bourgeois image of Fleurissoire he pushes overboard the society that has rejected him. … When Gide came later to discuss the suicide of Kirillov in his Dostoevsky, he called it ‘gratuitous, but not without motive’; and re-defined ‘gratuitous’ as ‘without motivation from outside.’ By thus restoring logicality to the gratuitous act he detracted from its mystical significance; he made it a riddle with an answer, a specimen of mainly psychological interest.”

In an earlier work, Prometheus, Gide defined a gratuitous act as “an act unmotivated by passion or interest, born from itself, a means to no end.” But logically, such an act is impossible. Anyone who consciously sets out to do something arbitrary and unmotivated is seeking to prove to himself that he can do something arbitrary and unmotivated — and this, then, is his motivation. Conversely, anyone who acts in a seemingly arbitrary way without conscious motivation is simply a victim of his own unexamined impulses, and thus hardly a paragon of free will. Gide himself tired of the argument in later years, and gave increasingly snippy answers when the subject came up.

An unexpected angle of the debate appeared when I saw in my search results that Thomas Mann described homosexuality as a kind of gratuitous act. So what’s the connection, according to Mann? “A lack of consequences and responsibility…a proud and free attitude.” The following quote is from A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919–1939 by Florence Tamagne.

    “The symbolic weight of homosexuality was perceived early on by Thomas Mann who, in his book On Marriage, legitimates inversion because of its artistic and aesthetic potential: ‘One may justifiably qualify homosexuality as the erotic of esthetics…. It is ‘free love,’ in that it implies sterility, a dead end, a lack of consequences and responsibility. Nothing happens as a result of it, it will not form the basis for anything, it is art for art’s sake, which on the aesthetic level can be a very proud and free attitude, though without any doubt immoral.’ Homosexuality is art for art’s sake; in this formula Thomas Mann summarized the topicality of the phenomenon; homosexuality was modern, a symbol of the gratuitous act, just like the murder of Lafcadio…. A whole generation murdered by the war was recalled in this useless, irresponsible and sterile act.”

Wait — what’s this about “a whole generation murdered by the war”? Was Mann saying that the death of hundreds of thousands of young men in World War I was an “irresponsible and sterile act” like Lafcadio throwing a stranger from a train? And did this make homosexuality good or bad? I read further in Tamagne’s book, but rather than pursuing this subject, she turned instead to homoeroticism in the German youth movements of the 1900s–1930s.

    “Youth movements really took off in the Twenties and Thirties. In these movements, there was an emphasis on contact with nature, and a preoccupation with hygiene. Boys, sorted by age brackets, wore shorts and shirts with open collars. They learned autonomy and a sense of responsibility, on their own. … And it was in Germany that the Jugendbewegungen [the youth movements], of which the Wandervogel was the most famous example, made their greatest strides. … Founded in 1895…in the beginning Wandervogel was made up of high-school pupils and educators who wanted certain reforms. After the war, its promotion of nationalism was reinforced…and it developed a myth of youth as the regenerative force of the German people. The war had encouraged the rise of this myth, propagated in particular by the book with powerful homoerotic overtones by Walter Flex, Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten [The Wanderer Between Two Worlds], published in 1917. … Flex met Ernst Wusche in the spring of 1915, on the Eastern front, but in August Wusche was killed, leaving Flex…in despair. He wrote his book in homage to Wusche’s memory, giving an idealized image of his friend, a symbol of the patriotic youth that gave its life for Germany.”

It seemed that I’d turned a corner in my labyrinth, and was now in a new sector. I recalled reading about the Wandervogel in the past. They were groups of teenagers, mostly boys aged 14–20 or so, who went roaming the countryside for days at a time, singing, building campfires, bonding with nature and each other. Since the Nazis’ rise to power was also marked by the formation of a powerful youth movement, the Hitler Youth, some have accused the Wandervogel and similar groups of being precursors to fascism. Yet their ideals seemed more inclined to the romantic notion of self-discovery, freedom from propriety and constraint, and an almost hippie-like return to nature. I decided to abandon my research on the “gratuitous act” and instead learn more about the Wandervogel. I recalled how in the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, the arrival of World War I appears to its youthful protagonists as the unavoidable call of a historic destiny, a sort of cleansing that would sweep all before it and prepare the way for a new ideal. How did the German youth movements tie into that?

This quote from Ernst Jünger captures the feeling. Jünger himself was a former Wandervogel who became one of Germany’s most highly decorated veterans of World War I, and later a celebrated author.

    “We had left lecture room, class room, and bench behind us. We had been welded by a few weeks’ training into one corporate mass inspired by the enthusiasm of one thought…to carry forward the German ideals of ’70. We had grown up in a material age, and in each one of us there was the yearning for great experience, such as we had never known. The war had entered into us like wine. We had set out in a rain of flowers to seek the death of heroes. The war was our dream of greatness, power, and glory. It was a man’s work, a duel on fields whose flowers would be stained with blood. There is no lovelier death in the world…anything rather than stay at home, anything to make [us] one with the rest.”

The same feeling of extreme romanticism is captured by Jay W. Baird in To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon, where he paraphrases the account of Franz Brüchle, who was present on the field of battle at Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914. This event, in which thousands of raw recruits were cut down in the flower of youth while singing a patriotic hymn, later became a powerful symbol to German nationalists of youthful purity and sacrifice.

    “The young men…were outrageously overconfident in early October 1914 as they headed west in their troop transport trains toward France. There was no hint of melancholy in their songs, which promised parents and sweethearts their swift return…. Most of the young men were university and gymnasium students, thrilled with the opportunity thrust upon them at this historic moment in the nation’s history. Many had the immature faces of seventeen-year-old boys, and their eyes shone with enthusiasm. They encamped for a few weeks near Lille, behind the front lines, where they received what passed for military training. Many went into battle without even being issued the shovels needed to prepare cover to protect them from enemy fire. And there were too few officers to lead these units. Suddenly, on the night of 26 October 1914, they were ordered into alarm readiness and thrust into the front on the line between Langemarck and Ypers, facing battle-tried English units armed with artillery and machine guns. As a result, the zealous youths, many of them drunk with excitement and bursting into song, were mowed down by the thousands as they attacked the enemy in open fields. Their assault had not been prepared by an artillery bombardment, and the result was senseless carnage.”

Adolf Hitler was present at Langemarck as well, as a young private, and he recounts the experience in Mein Kampf.

    “We marched silently through a wet, cold night in Flanders… shrapnel and shells exploded all around us; but before the smoke had cleared, the first hurrahs welled up from two hundred voices as the first messengers of death. Then we heard the crack and roar of gunfire, singing and yelling, and with wild eyes we all lunged forward, faster and faster, until suddenly man-to-man fighting broke out in turnip fields and thickets. We heard the sounds of a song from afar which came closer and closer to us, passing from one company to another, and then, just as men were dying all around us it spread into our ranks, and we passed it on: ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt!’”

Florence Tamagne had referred to The Wanderer Between Two Worlds and the “powerful homoerotic overtones” with which its author, Walter Flex, portrayed his dead friend August Wusche, idolizing him as a symbol of youthful sacrifice. I learned that Wusche had been a leader in the Wandervogel before going to war, and that Flex’s book — published posthumously, because he himself was killed in 1917 — had an enormous impact on German youth during and after the war, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. However, the book is almost forgotten today, and no English translation exists, so it wasn’t easy to learn more about it and the values it expressed. I tried searching for the book’s title along with the term Wandervogel (which means, by the way, “Migrating Bird”) to see what connections I could discover. This led me to a chapter from The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest, in which the author traces the rise of the German youth movements and the way they were ultimately co-opted by the Nazis. He is particularly critical of what he sees as their failure to face up to reality, their escapism and lack of “objective values” which, he feels, made it easy for the Nazis to manipulate their emotions.

    “[The Wandervogel's] criticism of bourgeois society did not touch its foundations but merely opted for looking for a romantic way of life within it. Strictly speaking, this protest against the lies lived by the elder generation was, for all its striving after ‘inner truthfulness,’ a demand by these young people for the right to live their own lies. … Of all their literary productions, what survived for only a short while…[was] Walter Flex’s book Wanderer Between Two Worlds, whose hero in fact wanders exclusively towards that other world which he has built up in his daydreams out of ‘theology, political irrationality and resignation to fate.’ To remain pure and [yet] become mature: this formula summed up the self-knowledge of that pre-war generation which withdrew from the demands of its present…. It was entirely consistent with this that the legendary gathering on the Hoher Meissner, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, proclaimed retreat to ‘inner freedom and personal responsibility’ as the answer to the contemporary situation, which it clearly felt to be an emergency. The best the Wandervogel movement had to offer was honesty, self-discipline and the capacity for enthusiastic faith, but all this remained largely self-centred, without anchorage in an objective system of values…. The First World War further reinforced the attitudes established by the Wandervogel movement. … Only about one third of the 15,000 or so Wandervogel who went to the front returned, and the exceptionally high casualty rate was seen as confirming their way of looking on selfless devotion, self-sacrifice and readiness to die as high virtues. But the old anti-civilization attitude, too, remained and in fact emerged even stronger, imbued now with nationalist bitterness.”

Why did the Nazis, in particular, benefit from an upsurge of youth support in the late 1920s and 1930s?

    “There were many influences at work here: the difficult conditions of everyday life after the war; a longing for new, ‘organic’ forms of community aroused by the experience of comradeship during the war and in the Bunde, or youth associations, which the other parties were unable to exploit; an urge among the young to prove themselves; and various anti-bourgeois attitudes, for the most part reflecting the idea that ‘times were changing’ and so aggravating the widespread hostility towards the Weimar Republic as the ‘state of the old.’ … Credulously, fanatically, unhesitatingly ready for extreme measures, they [the post-war generation] saw themselves mobilized for the aim of National Socialism and, right down to the teenagers, swarmed into the ranks of the party. …
    “What linked them all [youth movements from the Wandervogel through the Hitler Youth of the 1930s], along with numerous other common features, was their rapturous suppression of the instinct of self-preservation, their faith in the magic of self-sacrifice. It was a romantic attitude that was described and construed as heroic, when in truth it was only an ineptitude for life and a readiness to die.”

I found myself frustrated by certain of Fest’s criticisms, which struck me as too vague to get a handle on what the youth movements actually believed. “Ineptitude for life”? I would have liked a nice, chunky quote from their writings so I could decide for myself. Though Fest had mentioned The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, I wasn’t any closer to understanding what that book was actually about, except that it was a dreamy paean to inner purity and “resignation to fate.” But his mention of the “legendary gathering on the Hoher Meissner” left me with a tantalizing clue. If that was the time and place where the Wandervogel had come together to define themselves in a time of social crisis, perhaps they had produced a declaration of principle that would clarify their beliefs? I continued my research in this vein.

I soon learned that the Hoher Meissner is a mountain range in central Germany, where several thousand youth and their adult supporters gathered in October 1913. They represented a very diverse spectrum of views from progressive to nationalist, as well as many who wanted nothing to do with politics. The main questions were how to unite the diverse youth groups under one umbrella without compromising their autonomy, and what to do with members who were now too old for a youth movement but who wanted to stay involved. One of the more coherent descriptions I found of the ideological trends of the day was (unfortunately) on the Aryan Futurism website, in a talk by Alisdair Clarke called “Hans Bluher and the Wandervogel.” (Hans Bluher was an early member of the Wandervogel who developed a theory of homoerotic male bonding as the source of the institutions of the state. This theory, which sounds crazy today, attracted the interest of Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann.) Alisdair Clarke writes:

    “The most important event in the history of the Wandervogel was 11 October 1913 when the Jungendbewegung Free German Youth Movement was summoned to a mass-meeting on the Meissner Heights outside Kassel. A manifesto was issued, which stated in part, ‘German Youth no longer intend to remain a dependency of the older generation, excluded from public life and relegated to a passive role. It seeks, independently of the commands of convention, to give shape and form to its own life. It strives after a lifestyle, corresponding to its youth, which will make it possible to take itself and its activities seriously and to integrate itself as a special factor in the general work of culture.’ Ludwig Klages from the Cosmic Circle [followers of the poet Stefan George] composed ‘Mensch und Erde’ (Man and Earth) for the occasion, while others sang from Hans Breuer’s youth movement songbook published the same year. What was called the ‘Meissner Formula’ strove ‘to shape life through self-responsibility and wholehearted sincerity.’
    “After World War I the Wandervogel lost little of its early idealism, but its cohesiveness was tested. St. Ch. Waldecke wrote in Der Eigene [a gay journal of the day] in 1925 that it had now condensed into four distinct streams…[one of which considered itself to be] Free German, often Anarchist. It was this bunch that descended directly from the Meissner Heights meeting in 1913, and these were the most direct inheritors of the initial Wandervogel inspiration. This group was bolstered by an influx from Dr. Gustav Wyneken’s Free School Communities. This branch of the Wandervogel was closely associated with Der Weisse Ritter house in Berlin, from 1921 publisher of The White Knight newspaper for the youth movement.”

We have a number of new leads here, and it would be impossible to pursue them all. However, I’ll have occasion to return to Gustav Wyneken, an educator and a major influence on the Wandervogel from the older generation, who was present at Hoher Meissner. For now, let us note that the main tendency of the Wandervogel was “Free German, often Anarchist.” They wanted youth to take an active role in the cultural life of the nation, not as “a dependency of the older generation,” but in a new way “corresponding to its youth” and “independently of the commands of convention.”

Wikipedia’s article on the “German Youth Movement” reinforces the idea that the Wandervogel began as a rebellion against the repressive conventions of the previous generation, particularly the regimentation and materialsm of the industrial revolution.

    “To escape the repressive and authoritarian society of the end of the 19th century and the adult values of a new modern German society increasingly transformed by industrialism, imperial militarism, and British and Victorian influence, groups of young people searched for free space to develop some healthy life of their own away from the increasingly contaminated cities growing all around and from where most of them came to be disappointed. Also a romantic longing for a pristine state of things and older cultural diverse traditions played a part. They turned to nature, confraternity and adventure. …
    “The Youth Movement was very idealistic, romantic and moral. Therefore its members tended to take greater risks in following and acting upon their beliefs and persuasions. This might be the reason why one can find significant members of the Youth Movement on both sides, among the Nazis and among the Widerstand [active resistance to Nazism].”

A 2011 post by Peter Berger, “Movements,” on the religion blog of The American Interest, also emphasizes the rebellious nature of the Wandervogel, as well as its extreme diversity.

    “It consisted of young people (mostly from the educated middle class) who wandered around the country, singing folk and marching songs to the accompaniment of guitars, camping out under the stars, feeling one with nature and each other. They considered themselves as refugees from decadent urban culture and rebels against stuffy bourgeois convention. Supposedly they were free spirits. There were discrepant strands within the movement — some German nationalist, some anti-Semitic, some politically liberal, some homoerotic (others welcomed girls). These discrepancies were very obvious in an event in 1913 defined as historic, the Hohe Meissner Treffen, a gathering of thousands of ‘free German youth’ over several days on a mountain top. After World War I the movement lost whatever cohesion it had. Different political parties created their own youth groups.”

The Wandervogel Q&A, copied from the now-defunct website wandervogel.com, reinforces this image with a description of the Wandervogel penned by Richard Miller in (apparently) his 1977 book Bohemia: The Protoculture Here and Now.

    “They pooled their money, spoke hobo slang, peasant patois and medieval vulgate. They were loud and rude, sometimes ragged and dirty and torn by briars. They carried packs, wore woolen capes, shorts, dark shirts, Tyrolean hats with heavy boots and bright neck scarves. Part hobo and part medieval they were very offensive to their elders.”

(If all of this sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960s–1970s, an in-depth examination of the influence of the Wandervogel on California “nature boy” culture and the later hippies can be found here, along with vintage photos of free-spirited nudity. However, we are still lost in the labyrinth and must return our task.)

The most detailed information I could find on the Hoher Meissner gathering comes from a 1969 Durham University dissertation by D. J. McGlynn, “A Historical Study of the Development of the Youth Service in Germany,” which in turn seems to draw most of its information from Walter Lacqueur’s 1962 book Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement. The chapter of Lacqueur’s book that covers the Hoher Meissner gathering is unfortunately not available online, but McGlynn’s dissertation summarizes it nicely.

    “Bruno Lemke, a young mathematician and philosopher, opened the Meissner proceedings by summarising the views of the Wandervögel and other organisations present, and this was followed by a general debate. Hans Paasche’s speech ‘The German House is on fire and we are the fire brigade’ was wildly and enthusiastically received. Some common agreement was reached between the Wandervögel and the puritan reformers, and it was decided that the Meissner declaration should include a passage urging that alcohol and nicotine should be banned from all meetings of the Freideutsohe Jugend. [Gustav] Wyneken and his friend, [Martin] Luserke, expressed the opinion that youth was the time of life when one had to get to know oneself…and that before entering upon the stress and struggle of adult life, young people needed to withdraw into the wilderness, as Christ withdrew into the desert, to acquire a vital inner knowledge of themselves. Without this, they could find it difficult to decide what leader or what party to follow, and there was a distinct danger that they might be captivated by some modern pied piper and lured to perdition by a powerful appeal to vague emotions.
    “It is difficult to present an accurate picture of the Hohe Meissner gathering, as the full text of the various speeches has not been preserved, but it seems clear from what has been recorded that it represented a determined effort by various fanatical extremists to capture the Youth Movement for their own ends. Of all the adults present, Wyneken was the most outstanding, and mainly owing to him the meeting was held to some extent on rational grounds. His last speech, delivered on the Sunday morning as a summing-up of the meeting, is well described by Laqueur.
      “‘Wyneken said that he approached this assignment with great reluctance, after having heard what kinds of voices and ideas had been received by many with acclamation. He deplored narrow nationalist impulses and for love of country itself he wished that there might never be a war. He recalled the great patriotism of the heroes of 1873 — but had they not been citizens of the world at the same time? Had not Gneisenau written that principles were more important than countries, and that if Prussia and its rulers were not capable of defeating Napoleon, England had better take over Germany and give it a free constitution? We are ready to display our patriotism at the slightest provocation, said Wyneken, because we have acquired it so cheaply: but there is something less than genuine about it. Germany was now no longer a geographical nation, it had achieved a political unity. But were the German people truly united? Were there not deep cleavages in that unity? … Finally, was it not true that the younger generation had a much greater task than the extinguishing of a fire somewhere? They had to help in changing the world permanently.’
    “Out of the Meissner meeting came the famous Meissner Declaration:
      “‘Free German Youth, on their own initiative, of their own responsibility, and with deep sincerity, are determined to shape independently their own lives. For the sake of this inner freedom they will under any and all circumstances take united action.’”

Incidentally, McGlynn also gives an excellent summary of the Walter Flex book The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, finally tying it with absolute clarity to the romanticism of the Wandervogel movement.

    Der Wanderer zwisohen beiden Welten was published in 1917, shortly before the author’s death on the battlefield. Over a million copies of this book were eventually produced, and of these several hundred thousand copies were sold in the first two or three years after its first publication. The book is written around a real person, Ernst Wurche, who served with Flex in the war until he was killed in 1915. Although Wurche himself was not a particularly heroic type, he had been one of the very best types of Wandervögel leader, and Flex seems both to have appreciated his qualities in this field and to have had the gift to interpret them in the written word in a way which had a special appeal to the young generation of that time. In the book Wurohe is portrayed as a good comrade, a pure youth, a hero and a model to all his men. His deepest concern was for the cause of the Youth Movement and a Germany which it was to revitalise. He says, ‘To remain pure and yet to grow mature, this is the most beautiful and most difficult art of life.’ When Wurche’s mother is informed by Flex of the details of his death, she asks if he had taken part in an attack before he was killed, and when told that this had been so, we read ‘…then she shut her eyes and sat back. “That was his greatest desire,” she said slowly, as though it was a painful joy to know that what she had so long feared, had come to pass. A mother should know what was the deepest desire of her child. And it must be a deep desire indeed if she is anxious about its realisation after his death. O mothers, you German mothers!’ When Wurche learns about Italy’s joining the Allies, he compares it with the action of Judas Iscariot. Had he lived, doubtless he would have continued to believe in the just cause of his country, and in the ‘stab in the back’ theory of the cause of the downfall of Germany in November 1918.”

The final turn in my labyrinth came when I discovered that Walter Benjamin, of all people, had been a leader in the German Youth Movement, and had been present at Hoher Meissner! Benjamin (for those of you who don’t know) was a Jewish, neo-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, a social critic with mystic leanings who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, and whose writings have been hugely influential in postmodernist circles in recent years. In 1913, he was 21 years old, and a contributor to the youth journal Anfang sponsored by Gustav Wyneken, whose boarding school he had attended from 1905–1907. The following is taken from a review of Benjamin’s Early Writings (1910–1917) by Matthew Charles in Radical Philosophy.

    “The idea under which this epoch of Benjamin’s life is to be assembled is that of Youth. It is an epoch marked above all by the personal and intellectual influence of the educational reformer Gustav Wyneken. Benjamin’s philosophical interests first bloom under Wyneken’s gaze whilst schoooling at Haubinda in 1905. When he publicly denounces his mentor a decade later, he does so in order to wrest from Wyneken’s grasp the living legacy of his idea. It is one founded philosophically on Wyneken’s blend of an Idealism of Spirit with the Nietzschean metaphysics of Life, and socially on the ‘Youth Culture’ Wyneken promoted first at Haubinda and then at the Free School Community in Wickersdorf. … Benjamin was also profoundly influenced by Wyneken’s insistence that youth must actively create its own culture, one that positively fills in the hollowed-out time between childhood and adulthood, in order to transform spiritually the bourgeois institutions of society….
    “By 1913 Benjamin held a leading role in the Anfang movement, producing its journal and organizing public speakers…. [For Anfang, he wrote a] report on the First Free German Youth Congress held at Mount Meissner in October 1913, which collected together the different elements of the nascent German Youth Movement…. In February 1914 Benjamin was elected president of the Free Students’ Association of Berlin University, a post he held until the outbreak of the First World War in August. But the chauvanistic, nationalistic and anti-Semetic forces that manifested themselves on ‘High Meissner’ — and against which Benjamin’s ideals of youth were pitted — tore the fragile movement apart. Anfang was wrongly identified [by conservative politicians] as a mouthpiece for Wyneken…. Wyneken was expelled from the Free German Youth and Anfang split into factions…. The outbreak of war that summer sent a generation of young men to be slaughtered at the front. …
    “As Howard Eiland writes in his introduction to the Early Writings: ‘After this event, Benjamin effectifely ceased his student activism — in a letter two months later, he writes of the need for a “harder, purer, more invisible radicalism” — and he turned away from most of his comrades in the youth movement, including his former mentor, Gustav Wyneken, whom he denounced, in a letter of March 9, 1915, for his public support of the German war effort.’”

The young Benjamin may have broken with Wyneken over his support for the war, but it’s ironic that Wyneken was pressured to leave the German Youth Movement for the opposite reason, insufficient nationalism. A few years later, he was to suffer a far more serious career setback, when he was accused of homosexual relations with two of his students. Wyneken had come to national prominence as the leader of a network of Free Schools organized on the principle of “pedagogic eros,” which is just as it sounds, the idea that a teacher and his students share an erotic bond. Though defended during the scandal by the school’s leadership as well many of the parents, he was forced out as leader of the Free Schools in 1920, and convicted the following year of “committing vice with minors.”

What saddens me here is not so much the sexualization of trust in a parent figure — a story we’ve seen repeated with sickening regularity over the years, right up to the Catholic Church scandal of our day — but that Wyneken presented this frankly and openly as the core value of his movement, and seemingly no one gave it a second thought. He did have another idea, though, with a more positive lasting impact — the idea of a Youth Culture in which youth lead themselves, defining their own values independently of adult supervision. This principle runs through the Wandervogel from its formation, and it can be seen in the Meissner Declaration of “Free German Youth…determined to shape independently their own lives.” It was clearly an inspiration to the young Walter Benjamin, starting him on a career of radical thinking.

It should be apparent by now that the 1910s were a surprisingly radical time. Gangs of footloose youth roamed the countryside, and theories of homoerotic bonding were embraced by progressives and nationalists alike. Let’s not forget, too, that this was the era of the Suffragettes, the Russian Revolution, and Dada and Surrealism in art. The 1960s were no more radical — their radicalism was simply updated to a fancier time, the era of satellites and airplanes, computer mainframes and moon landings. If these things follow in cycles of fifty years, we should be entering another radical age now.

NOTE: The labyrinth is infinite, and this post would be too, if I were to try to exhaust all its leads once and for all. However, please permit me to present a few options for further exploration, should you decide to go further on your own.

  • Eden’s Island — a blog dedicated to eden ahbez, known as Nature Boy, a California personality of the 1940s who could be considered the first hippie.
  • Fidus: Temple Designs” on Strange Flowers — examples of the work of the turn-of-the-20th-century German artist who captured the pagan, naturist sensibility of his time, and helped to inspire the psychedelic art of the 1960s.
  • Wandervogel” on Vouloir — a collection of articles in French, including a concise history, a look at the Wandervogel as a revolt against bourgeois values, biographies of some of the key players, and a description of the modern French Wandervogel.
  • Walter Benjamin” by D. Officer — a brief examination of Benjamin’s life and work, as it appeared in the London communist journal of the 1990s, Radical Chains.
  • On the Concept of History” by Walter Benjamin — written as France was being invaded by the Nazis, it contains this quote: “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.”
  • The Truth Seeker: The work of Gershom Scholem” by Adam Kirsch on Tablet — a review of Lamentations of Youth, the early diaries of Gershom Schloem, close friend to Walter Benjamin and the greatest 20th century scholar of Jewish mysticism.

Revolution: Game Over

At least 120 are dead in Cairo in a pre-dawn massacre.

    “The massacre took place in the small hours of Saturday morning, at a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya, east Cairo, where tens of thousands of pro-Morsi supporters have camped since Morsi was deposed on 3 July.
    “Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said the shooting started shortly before pre-dawn morning prayers on the fringes of a round-the-clock vigil being staged by backers of Morsi, who was toppled by the army more than three weeks ago.
    “‘They are not shooting to wound, they are shooting to kill,’ Haddad said, adding that the death toll might be much higher. …
    “The deaths come just two weeks after military and police officers massacred 51 Morsi supporters at a nearby protest in east Cairo.
    “They also happened less than 24 hours after hundreds of thousands of anti-Morsi protesters gathered in Egyptian streets to give General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Morsi, their assent to crack down on what he had on Wednesday called ‘terrorism’.
    “Sceptics say this is a euphemism for a violent campaign on largely peaceful Morsi supporters….”

Mohamed ElBaradei, how does it feel now to be seated in this government? Here’s what you said yesterday, before the killings:

    “It is time that we end this miserable state of polarisation using rational means. We have to be tolerant so that we can build Egypt.
    “Non-violence, rule of law…and reconciliation based on inclusiveness are key principles to adhere to during this difficult time.”

So will you resign in protest today? Call for an aggressive investigation? Or will we hear more mealy-mouthed words?

The tragedy of Egypt is that both “sides” in this struggle, the military and the Brotherhood, seem to be treating it as a zero-sum game, meaning there is no room for those who feel caught in the middle and can’t bring themselves to identify with either (authoritarian) camp. By rights, this should include nearly all the revolutionary forces who brought down the Mubarak regime in the first place.

I’ve never been to Egypt, but I do try to evaluate the news out of Egypt as if I were an Egyptian citizen, faced with the choices they are faced with, and I’ll say this: throughout the whole post-revolutionary process until now, with all its ups and downs, I’ve never once felt the urge to boycott an election or a referendum. However flawed the choices may have been, it always felt better to validate the concept of citizen participation. But if there were elections under this new regime in a few weeks or months, even if there were candidates who matched my political views exactly, it would be nearly impossible to persuade me to go to the polls, because I would feel like I was validating the very massacres we’ve just seen. Cold-blooded, premeditated, state-sponsored killing. In my eyes, the process is irrevocably tainted in a way that it hasn’t been until now, even at its worst moments.

The Egyptian revolution is over, it seems, and it failed. I hope I’m wrong.

UPDATE: Abdel-Rahman Daour, a spokesman for the pro-Morsi sit-in:

    “No one’s going anywhere. We either have freedom or we die. We’re not going to live in a country without freedom.”

Islam Taher, a pro-Morsi protester whose childhood friend was killed:

    “If this was animals being killed, people would care. But because it’s us, they don’t.”

A Universe Predisposed for Us

In his New Yorker blog post Thomas Nagel: Thoughts Are Real, Richard Brody lays out the arguments of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

    “People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that…everything is physical. … Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists — namely, mental stuff. The vast flow of perceptions, ideas, and emotions that arise in each human mind is something that, in his view, actually exists as something other than merely the electrical firings in the brain that gives rise to them….
    “His argument is that, if the mental things arising from the minds of living things are a distinct realm of existence, then strictly physical theories about the origins of life, such as Darwinian theory, cannot be entirely correct. Life cannot have arisen solely from a primordial chemical reaction, and the process of natural selection cannot account for the creation of the realm of mind. …
    “Since neither physics nor Darwinian biology — the concept of evolution — can account for the emergence of a mental world from a physical one, Nagel contends that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. But then he goes further, into strange and visionary territory. … He suggests that any theory of the universe, any comprehensive mesh of physics and biology, will need to succeed in ‘showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it.’
    “And this, he argues, would be a theory of teleology — a preprogrammed or built-in tendency in the universe toward the particular goal of fulfilling the possibilities of mentality. In a splendid image, Nagel writes, ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.’

In other words, according to Nagel, the universe is predisposed to favor an outcome in which intelligence like ours exists.

Meanwhile, Scientific American has published an article which touches on similar themes, Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.

    “Physicists routinely describe the universe as being made of tiny subatomic particles that push and pull on one another by means of force fields. … But this view sweeps a little-known fact under the rug: the particle interpretation of quantum physics, as well as the field interpretation, stretches our conventional notions of ‘particle’ and ‘field’ to such an extent that ever more people think the world might be made of something else entirely. …
    “Many physicists think that particles are not things at all but excitations in a quantum field, the modern successor of classical fields such as the magnetic field. But fields, too, are paradoxical.
    “If neither particles nor fields are fundamental, then what is? Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin.”

Unfortunately, this is just a “teaser” — the article itself is behind a paywall. But it prompted me to do further research. As a former computer programmer, the mention of “properties such as mass, charge and spin” reminded me of the properties assigned to an object in programming. I soon learned that in 1990, John Archibald Wheeler, one of the preeminent physicists of his time, introduced the concept of “it from bit,” in which the building blocks of the universe are neither particles nor fields, but bits of information.

    “It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’ — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions …in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”

The concept of the universe as information is seconded by Anton Zeilinger, a contemporary physicist reknowned for his demonstrations of “quantum teleportation” — the instantaneous transfer of properties through space from one entangled particle to another, which means that the particle (or its information) has traveled faster than the speed of light. The following comments come from a 2006 interview.

    “For me the concept of ‘information’ is at the basis of everything we call ‘nature.’ The moon, the chair, the equation of states, anything and everything, because we can’t talk about anything without de facto speaking about the information we have of these things. In this sense the information is the basic building block of our world. …
    “We’ve learnt in the natural sciences that the key to understanding can often be found if we lift certain dividing lines in our minds. Newton showed that the apple falls to the ground according to the same laws that govern the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. And with this he made the old differentiation between earthly and heavenly phenomena obsolete. Darwin showed that there is no dividing line between man and animal. And Einstein lifted the line dividing space and time. But in our heads, we still draw a dividing line between ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge about reality,’ in other words between reality and information. And you cannot draw this line. There is no recipe, no process for distinguishing between reality and information. All this thinking and talking about reality is about information, which is why one should not make a distinction in the formulation of laws of nature. Quantum theory, correctly interpreted, is information theory.”

This article from 2001, The Mystery of Quantum Mechanics by Hans Christian von Baeyer, has much more to say about Zeilinger’s ideas on information as the building blocks of the universe.

    “Zeilinger thinks that before we can truly understand quantum theory, it must be connected in some way to what we know and feel. The problem, he says, is the lack of a simple underlying principle…. All the other major theories of physics are based on such principles — pithy, comprehensible maxims that anchor the formulae in the everyday world. … Now Zeilinger proposes to rebuild quantum mechanics on a similar basis, to put it in terms that need no debatable philosophy.
    “Perhaps it is no surprise that the terms he uses are those of information. We live in the age of information. We depend increasingly on information technology, our schools teach information processing and information science, and our industry and commerce are information based. But until now, the concept of information has only hovered on the edge of physics.
    “About a decade ago, John Archibald Wheeler urged that information should take centre stage. What we call reality, he thinks, arises from the questions we ask about it and the responses we receive. ‘Tomorrow, we will have learned to understand and express all of physics in the language of information,’ he said.
    “The atom of information is the bit…. If experiments are questions we ask of nature, then the simplest of them have yes or no answers: ‘Did the photon arrive here, or not?’ ‘Did the counter click, or not?’ We can also ask more complex questions, but they can always be built up from simpler yes or no questions like these.
    “Zeilinger’s conceptual leap is to associate bits with the building blocks of the material world. In quantum mechanics, these building blocks are called elementary systems, and the archetypal elementary system is the spin of an electron. The only possible outcomes of measuring an electron’s spin are ‘up’ and ‘down.’ … These outcomes could just as well be labelled ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ or, in the fashion of digital computers, ’1′ and ’0.’ …
    “Zeilinger’s single, simple principle leads to these three cornerstones of quantum mechanics: quantisation, uncertainty and entanglement. What, then, of the more formal elements of quantum mechanics such as wave functions and Schrödinger’s equation — the bread and butter of atomic physicists? The road promises to be long and steep, but Zeilinger and his student Caslav Brukner, have now begun the ascent.”

This article from last year, The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet by Amir Aczel, is also definitely worth a look, if you have any interest in what cutting-edge physics is thinking about. In it, Aczel tackles a thought problem, the Boltzmann Brain, which is currently making the rounds in quantum theory.

    “The second law of thermodynamics implies that the entropy — the degree of randomness, or disorder — of any closed system never decreases (and generally increases). … Investing energy can bring back order to the system and thus reduce its entropy. So a high-entropy [disordered] state is ‘normal,’ while creating order is something that requires concentrated, directed energy. This is an important observation. …
    “Boltzmann wondered why our observed universe seems so orderly rather than completely random, as one might expect as the ‘natural’ state of the universe. … And he hypothesized that perhaps our portion of the universe is just a statistical fluke: an aberration within a wider universe in which randomness reigns supreme. So a Boltzmann brain, named after him, is a brain — a conscious observer — that materializes out of the disorderly universe purely by chance (a very, very small chance, I must emphasize) in the same way that, as Boltzmann had suggested, our entire universe may have emerged out of a wider chaotic multiverse purely through a random event. As Andrei Linde of Stanford put it in an interview with the New York Times: ‘It’s cheaper’ to create just a disembodied brain than it is to make a universe.”

So according to the second law of thermodynamics, our universe should not exist, since it is extremely ordered and complex — a high-energy state — whereas the “natural” state would be a universe that is all noise and no signal, a dead universe of chaotic, disordered events. Aczel continues:

    “But if you travel forever in the multiverse, will you encounter a single Boltzmann brain?
    The argument made by Linde…as well as by other proponents of the infinite multiverse and its Boltzmann brains is that the probability of producing — purely by chance, through quantum fluctuations, in infinite space and time — a disembodied brain is higher than the probability of producing an entire universe.
    “But this is not true. A brain requires a body to support it, and a world to feed it and house it and protect it, and — from everything we know so far from science — it needs 13.7 billion years of an expanding universe, galaxy and star formation, including many millions of years of fusion in stars to create and spread around the iron and carbon and oxygen and other essentials needed to start and maintain life on a hospitable planet, and to set evolution in motion, in order to create a conscious, thinking, self-aware brain. …
    “Wait to infinity and these ingredients will all just materialize in the right way through a ‘quantum fluctuation’? I think not. The case of a Boltzmann brain is unmeasurably more complicated, and astronomically more demanding probabilistically, than that of a simple sequence of 150,000 characters to be typed in the right order ["a monkey typing Shakespeare"]. It is, in fact — because of the requirements of something like our world to support a human or a computer brain — an event of probability zero. It cannot happen by itself even ‘at infinity.’”

So to have intelligent life like our own, a universe must first evolve in such a way as to support life. And as Boltzmann pointed out a century ago, there is something highly “unnatural” (according to the second law of thermodynamics) about a universe ordered enough, and complex enough, and durable enough, to do this. The probability of this happening on its own, through a quantum fluctuation, is vanishingly small — and yet here we are.

This brings us back to Nagel, and the notion that our universe must be predisposed in some way to seek complexity and self-awareness. There must be some other principle at work here to counter the drift towards entropy. If the universe is really made of information as Anderson and Zeilinger believe, maybe that predisposition is built into the programming. Maybe we live in a universe which, through random events playing out over time according to natural law, is pre-programmed with a high likelihood of becoming conscious.

So who or what did the programming? Was there a programmer? I have some thoughts on the subject that I’ll share below. The following pieces were written in the last few months of 2012. I was reflecting then on what I knew of current theories in physics, but I’m not a student of physics, and I was really coming at this from another angle. My real interest is the study of the world’s religions, particularly the Eastern traditions, and religious philosophy. What struck me is that if you squint at science and religion in just the right way, scientific and religious views of the universe seem to be returning to harmony.

— • —

Earth is a fine planet. Enjoy your time here.

What is a planet? It’s a place where intelligence comes to settle for a while. It’s a place where, out of all the infinite universes, galaxies, and stars unsuited to life, a harmonious balance of gravity, temperature, and chemicals exists to make life work.

My current theory is that wherever intelligence can be, it will be. It is everywhere, seeking the right receptacle. It will inhabit the receptacle to the extent that the receptacle is able to carry it. At times intelligence will even guide the receptacle to improve its capacities, as when a complex molecule striving to become life makes the leap with some kind of innate intelligence.

We seem to know what we’re going to become before we get there. We have a precognitive intuition that recognizes new discoveries as obvious and says, “I told you so.” It remains in the background but prods us to knowledge wherever new knowledge is possible, and then breaks through to reveal itself as the thing we knew all along.

Why doesn’t it simply tell us all we need to know in advance? Because we ourselves must make the discovery. The complex molecule must go through a billion permutations before it becomes a cell. The tadpole must evolve over millions of years into a bird, an elephant, a dog. The scientist must labor for years over his equations before finally grasping the concept in its simplicity. Intelligence guides us, but we must do the work.

It’s the process that counts — the result is just a side effect. By putting itself to work in the world through physical laws, natural selection, or the workings of the mind, intelligence finds progressively more worthy receptacles and is itself improved. The ultimate project of intelligence is the universe itself, with evolution as its sign.

— • —

I’m arguing that events in the universe are pre-programmed both for randomness — to produce sufficient variety — and for what I’ll call “useful complexity,” meaning a preference for results that achieve a more advanced state. In this way, simply by “running the clock” and allowing randomness to happen, according to rules that prefer more advanced states, evolution will inevitably take place, leading to life bearing planets, intelligent life on those planets, and beyond. While the process is completely random (though constrained by rules), the result is, roughly speaking, foreoredained. The universe was designed to evolve to a higher state.

“Spontaneous programming,” as a friend of mine calls it, is coupled with a “learning curve” so the most successful variations take priority over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection shows how this learning curve works, not just in the biological world, but in the physical world as well (solar systems, organic compounds) and even on the level of cosmology (universe formation, natural laws). Some natural laws and universes were “discarded” simply because they didn’t work. They didn’t produce a stable equilibrium able to hold itself together and build yet further complexity.

So “spontaneous programming” plus the “learning curve” (which is natural selection, or the tendency to preserve a successful model) equals complexity.

— • —

We should be operating under the premise that God doesn’t “intervene” and our universe has been running under the same rules from the beginning. That those rules produced all this complexity, including us, is built into the programming, or the design, or the original intent of the model in which we are living. Thus, through a principle of guided randomness, which is to say randomness filtered through, constrained by, or selected according to certain parameters which favor complexity, we got from random stardust to where we are now without divine intervention.

— • —

WHAT IS GOD?

This is simple. God is what we call the unknown. Since the first humans knew nothing at all, even about the natural forces that acted on them directly, they called those forces God. The natural world, with its winds and rivers, animals and forests, was seen as sacred, and we walked within that sacred space. Later, when humans began to understand these natural forces rationally and reduce them to patterns, God retreated to the heavens, and became associated with the sun and moon, planets and stars. In a yet further abstraction, the dawn of monotheism invited us to perceive God as the “unmoved mover,” the unseen, unknowable, yet omnipresent force behind the known universe. And today, for those who feel that physical laws explain everything, scientific inquiry has so far pushed back the boundaries of the unknown that there is no longer any room for God.

DOES GOD EXIST?

It seems obvious to me that no matter how much humans eventually come to understand about ourselves and the universe in which we live, there will always be infinitely more that we don’t know. This is partly because our perceptions and mental capacities are limited, no matter how much we abstract them or acquire additional tools — and partly because each time we manage to solve an intellectual problem such as the structure of DNA or the expanding nature of the universe, this only leads to more questions about how these things actually work. So if God is what we call the unknown, as I claim above, then God will be with us forever, one step out of reach.

Let me give two examples. Darwin gave us a working model of evolution and how the various forms of life arose that we see around us today. We can map the DNA of these life forms, and confirm that humans are much closer to monkeys than we are to lizards or birds. Scientists can trace back, in theory, all the current forms of life to a single source, simple one-celled organisms that existed in the earth’s primeval oceans a billion years ago. We understand how the existence of certain elements like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, in certain combinations at certain temperatures, made the formation of complex hydrocarbons possible, which are the building blocks of life. What we don’t know is why it happened, or how these static compounds, however complex, “learned” to move around, acquire energy from their environment in a systematic way, and above all reproduce their complex structure in subsequent generations. Does it make sense that such an exceptional “qualitative leap” could occur entirely by chance, through random combination of molecules over billions of years? Perhaps, but we can easily imagine a trillion planets like ours where the same material conditions existed and the same complex hydrocarbons formed, but where the leap to a self-reproducing new form, which we call life, never occurred. So at least, we must admit that we are very lucky.

My other example involves the universe itself. Less than a century ago, astronomers discovered that our universe is expanding from a single point in time and space, known as the Big Bang. Indeed, time and space are themselves products of the Big Bang, and only have meaning within the confines of our universe, which is vast but not infinite. The expulsion of matter and energy from that single point produced all the forms we now perceive — galaxies and nebulas, planets and stars. For life as we know it to exist in the universe, stars are necessary as a source of heat, and planets like the earth are also necessary, to serve as an “incubator” for life. Fortunately, our universe seems to contain a vast quantity of planets and suns. But what the latest theories now tell us is that if the Big Bang had occurred in a slightly different way, no planets or suns would have arisen. If the physics of the Big Bang were tweaked even slightly, either the universe would have collapsed almost instantly, or it would have expanded too fast and dispersed all its energy, or the separation of matter and energy into discrete masses would never have happened, and we would have an undifferentiated field of plasma, rather than planets and suns. Indeed, the parameters for a “suitable” universe are so exact that the chances of one forming from a random Big Bang are vanishingly small. Now, apparently scientists believe that new universes are being formed all the time — not that we can see them, because their Big Bangs occur beyond the bounds of our own universe — in more than sufficient quantities to produce a universe like our own, once in a while. But while random events may have caused us to be where we are, once again we can say we are extremely lucky.

Therefore, at the very frontiers of modern science — the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth — are two “miracles” which, though they can be explained by physical laws and random events, are so unlikely as to raise the question, “Why?” Why did it happen, when obviously it didn’t have to happen, and indeed has not happened far more often — so much so that it boggles the imagination? For one universe like ours with the conditions to support life, ten to the trillionth power universes had to form where the physical laws were a tiny bit off; and for life to arise on earth, who knows how many random combinations had to occur before one molecule arose that proved to be self perpetuating. If God is what we call the unknown, then clearly God played a role here, for the simple reason that we can’t answer the question, “Why?” How we managed to be so lucky is unknown.

Of course, this is all just sophistry, simply a game of defining God in such a way that I can later bring her back into the picture under the guise of clever wordplay. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken as a proof that God exists, simply an example of how much about our existence, even for a rationalist, necessarily remains mysterious and unexplained. Indeed, for a rationalist there is no “miracle” at all, because all the universes that came into being without being able to support life, and all the chemical reactions that came close to generating life on our planet but fell short, are simply irrelevant to the fact that it eventually worked. Had it failed, we wouldn’t be here to gripe about it, so of course we live in a universe able to support life, and on a planet that produced life, however rare that may be. A rationalist may allow herself to wonder at the seemingly infinite blind alleys necessary to produce one random rationalist — but there is nothing miraculous about it, or anything unknown. It’s simply the product of chance, just as you can be sure that enough monkeys, or enough raindrops, at enough keyboards will eventually write Shakespeare.

But Hamlet produced by rain falling on an infinity of keyboards would be just as meaningless as all the garbage words produced on those same keyboards beforehand, because there is no intent. Fundamentally, instinctively, we sense that there is an essential difference between Hamlet written by meaningless raindrops, and Hamlet written by Shakespeare with intent. These events are of an entirely different order. So the real question here is, did life emerge on this planet, in this universe, through intent? Were we helped in some way? Were the rules written so that the series of random events that occurred would make our emergence more probable, even likely? It makes all the difference, and it speaks to our future as well. Raindrops producing Hamlet will go on to produce a nearly infinite series of garbage words before producing Hamlet once again, or Plato’s Republic. But if there is intent, perhaps both our past and our future have meaning. Perhaps we’re headed somewhere, somewhere unknown. And since God is what we call the unknown, maybe God is the future we’re headed to — in a universe that is far from meaningless, because it is governed by intent.