In Defense of Language
Commentary for 6 July 2015
“Me and my public understand each other perfectly. It doesn’t hear what I say, and I do not say what it wants to hear.”
So much is happening just now, with a possible financial earthquake in Europe, that we’re all liable to focus on effects instead of causes. For many years I’ve asked myself why so many intelligent and seemingly responsible people are somehow unable to come to terms with our collective bankruptcy. I suspect it is due to an indecent preference for intellectual short-cuts.
In the Autobiographical Reflections of Eric Voegelin we find a tribute to Karl Kraus. Voegelin wrote, “His work … must be understood in the context of the fantastic destruction of the German language during the Imperial period of Germany after 1870.” Today we tend to associate our present decline with the innovations of the 1960s, or the malign effects of the totalitarians of the 1920s and 30s. But no, the real degeneration got started long before. The evils of our modern day did not emerge out of nothing. The Golden Age of liberal capitalism was the true origin of our latter-day decadence – the ground of our most malevolent undertakings. Here is the beginning of the corruption of all language, all thought, all spirit. “Who refuses all compromise of language,” said Kraus, “refuses all compromise of cause.”
We ought to come to terms with the fact that bourgeois society gave birth to socialism from the favored conceptions of its own sons and students, who have always nurtured it. But this is only a half-truth. The alienated sons of the bourgeoisie, educated to a dangerously high degree, discovered a profound antagonism between the respectability of bourgeois life and the scandal of independent thought. “Thought is a love child,” wrote Kraus. “In middle class life one meets only with opinion.” Therefore, the over-educated boy scorns his businessman father. The educated working man’s son becomes a revolutionary named “Stalin.” Education turns out to be poison for many people; for everyone who is educated is, in fact, only half-educated. And what could be more dangerous?
This poisoning of the mind, as the fruit of middle class prosperity and education, has led civilization into the fiasco of the intellectual. Human beings are not generally competent thinkers. We tend toward incompetence, and intellectual excellence largely consists in momentarily overcoming this incompetence. In this context, therefore, let us consider the following track record: namely, that the intellectuals fell for Darwinism, fell for Marxism, and embraced psychoanalysis. And as Karl Kraus noted, “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness of which it believes itself to be the cure.” Might we also say that Marxism is the political oppression of which it believes itself to be the salvation? And hasn’t man failed to evolve in dignity since Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species?
The degeneration of our modern language stems from our preference for ideologies and fraudulent sciences. Here are found the cornerstones of our false consciousness. Voegelin tells us that Karl Kraus resisted ideology because it is the destroyer of language “as the ideological thinker has lost contact with reality and develops symbols for expressing not reality but his state of alienation from it.” To combat this we need to restore language by eschewing the fads of intellectual shortcut. But this is not easy because people want a formula. They want to hear the cadences of Adolf Hitler: “One people, one empire, one leader.” They prefer the clear-cut dividing lines of class conflict, of poor vs. rich, of us vs. them. Julien Benda called it “the treason of the intellectuals” in which everything is focused on the organizing of political hatred.
We are going insane and political correctness is at the root of our insanity. This is a simple truth which we appear incapable of confronting. Society is gradually losing touch with reality, and the individual is losing touch with reality, because our leaders are misusing language in order to invert reality. Things must once again be called by their proper names. The progressive disintegration of our society cannot be understood without first grasping the consequences of our degeneration (or violation) of language. “The phenomenon of Hitler is not exhausted by his person,” wrote Voegelin. “His success must be understood in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society in which personalities who otherwise would be grotesque, marginal figures can come to public power because they superbly represent the people who admire them. This internal destruction of society was not finished with the Allied victory over the German armies in World War II but still goes on.”
There was no real victory for civilization in 1945. And Germany was not uniquely guilty prior to 1945. All of civilized mankind is implicated in a disaster that is still ongoing. The destruction of our intellectual and spiritual life has continued up to this very day, only we have failed to recognize the symptoms. As Voegelin explained more than a quarter of a century ago, “There is yet no end in sight so far as the disintegration of society is concerned, and consequences that may surprise are possible.”
Simply look around you. Ours is a world in which men are women and women are men, in which youth knows better than old age, in which ancient principles are undermined by half-baked new principles. What was formerly disgraceful is now ennobled. What was formerly immoral is now moral. Nietzsche once described the dénouement of antiquity as “Nero on the throne and God on the cross.” It would seem that the finale of our civilization is trending in the same direction.