Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Modernist Politics

Leonard Woolf’s “Fear and Politics” provoked a variety of responses from me. I was wondering as I read through it how acerbic he intended his humor to be. As I read part of it to my roommate (in order to share my enjoyment), I found myself saying that I didn’t think he intended it to be taken too seriously or literally (this in reference to the section about killing or not killing Germans) as it would then become highly offensive, my assumption apparently being that a discussion of offing the entire German population was too exaggerated to be taken seriously. And ultimately I think my initial reaction was correct in that I think he was intentionally exaggerating the posed position he gave to the political right as represented by the rhinoceros and company.

However, after I made that statement to my roommate, I had a mental double-take, and my mind immediately went to Voltaire’s Candide and its black comedy. Leonard frames/words the passage on the Germans so hysterically that it has the same effect as one of Voltaire’s many passages in which his characters offhandedly lose a limb. You feel tricked into laughing at what, after you think about it, is a truly horrendous description or assertion. This stark contrast between the humor and the stark, mindless violence forces you to reconsider whether, even in light of a presumably purposeful exaggeration, such a characterization doesn’t more closely resemble the reality than would a less straw-man-like one. And if so, again, exactly how eviscerating is Leonard trying to be? I’m not sure exactly where to go with this question. I don’t think he treats every position as severely as he does the conservative, though he does mock the Mandrill in his assertion that Lenin and Trotsky might also have “blue wrinkles on [their] nose[s] and . . . sky-blue rump[s]” (146).

In general, he seems to treat the whole episode with cynicism. The bestiary genre calls to mind the moralizing fable, but that does not seem to apply as directly as would a connection with Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles: a debate amongst animals that ends on an unsatisfactory note. I imagine that Leonard would support the voice of the owl (a traditional figure of wisdom), but the elephant gets the last word—his interruption even prevents the owl from finishing his statement. Thus the closing argument comes from a character who makes similar claims to validity as does the rhinoceros (appeal to age), and it frames the issue in troubling language, painting “BORN INTO CAPTIVITY” as a positive. Furthermore, I believe that Leonard worked very actively in favor of a united nations, which the elephant dismisses. Nonetheless, his dichotomy of fear and security (in this case termed captivity) bears persuasive force, undermined only by the terminology. Is Leonard deconstructing the binary by presenting it through a non-normative voice (or is that my modern interpretation), or is he merely presenting a cynical view of how the political process stymies the voice of reason whenever it gets the opportunity to speak and superficially satisfies everyone (the zoo animals do applaud) by appealing to defunct, but still respected, political metaphors—where people feel safe. I’m tempted to try and apply the Zizek reading we had for Dr. Morrissey’s class this week in which he criticizes what he terms as para-politics: the rule-governed debate that prevents real politics from occurring, but I would probably botch it, and I’m not sure that it would work anyway, so I won’t.