I’ve been reading what is arguably one of the greatest novels ever written when I came across this:
“While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned not with his intellect but with his whole being, by life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity. And now during these last three weeks of the march he had learned still another new, consolatory truth – that nothing in this world is terrible. He had learned that as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and lack freedom. He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together.”
This is a short excerpt from my favourite novel, ‘Baudolino’ (chapter 26), where the protagonist meets a strange Christian tribe while travelling East – each character on a joint quest in search of their own catharsis. It is an example of Umberto Eco’s wittily crafted dialogue:
… Boron, on the contrary was impressed by this wisdom, and he began asking the old man a series of questions.
“Which number is greater, that of the living or of the dead?”
“The dead are greater, but they can no longer be counted. So those you can see are more than those you cannot see.”
“Which is stronger, death or life?”
“Life, because when it rises, the sun has luminous and splendid rays, and when it sets, it seems weaker.”
“Which is more, earth or sea?”
“Earth, because the sea rests on the bed of earth.”
“Which came first, night or day?”
“Night. Everything that is born is formed in the darkness of the womb and is only later brought into the light.”
“Which is the better side, left or right?”
“Right. Indeed, the sun rises on the right and follows its orbit in the heavens to the left, and a woman suckles her babe first with the right breast.”
“Which is the most fierce of animals?” the Poet asked then.
“Ask yourself. You, too, are a wild beast, you have with you other beasts, and in your lust for power you want to deprive all other beasts of life.”
Then the Poet said: “But if all were like you, the sea would never be sailed, the earth would never be tilled, the great kingdoms would not be born to carry order and greatness into the base disorder of earthly things.”
The old man replied: “Each of these things is surely fortunate, but it is built on the misfortune of others, and that we do not desire.”
From the album “Road Salt One” by Pain Of Salvation:
“I wanted to be changed by the road.
I so wanted to change the road.
But somehow we both resisted change.
Somehow we were both too strong.
And yet we both winded away, unsure of where we head.
And it’s like we’re both confused as to who is who.
As if, late in the night, you can’t tell the runner from the road – the walker from the walked.
Maybe I am just the road, dreaming that I walk.”
So. There is this one clip on YouTube where George Carlin talks about pride and nationhood, and it’s one of my all time favourite gems of his. He makes a very telling point about some of the eyebrow-raising aspects of humanity.
I do, however, disagree with him on one particular point. While I think it’s somewhat absurd to be proud of one’s nationality (patriotism and nationalism – what’s the difference really?) I do not think it is a genetic accident. Nationhood, like many other human notions, need to be built and maintained through our communication and behaviour. It’s not something that will pop out by itself – people have fought, believed and argued for nationhood – nor would it continue to exist without the affirmation it needs to survive.
For example, the association of language with a nation-state. There is often the assumption that the two go along together, so much so that the concept of a ‘dialect’ helps to maintain the ideology of a nation-state and innate nationhood. Why does Spain have so numerous official languages, yet the various ways of speaking in Italian were demoted to dialects in favour of a general standardised Italian? Was there perhaps a political need to create a united Italian peninsula, the first of its kind since Justinian dynasty’s brief reconquest of Rome? Not until the 1800’s the German-speaking people were considered peoples.
“It has become customary for cultural analysts to treat objects, such as flags, as if they were texts. The process can be reversed, so that the text appears as a flag.” – A telling point. It may be that Carlin fell victim to his own object of displeasure. It just may be that he was advocating nationhood in the most subtle, banal, of ways.
(Much of my understanding on the social construction of nationhood is based on Billig’s Banal Nationalism, from which the above quote can be found on page 173.)
“Nationalism as an ideology is paradoxical: it is a product of the modern age but it creates myths about the antiquity and pre-modernity of nation states. The symbolism of nationhood hides its own recency.”
The following article provides a wonderful argument against realism, a philosophy which in my opinion is too childish for scientific communities:
“Death and Furniture: The Rhetoric, Politics and Theology of Bottom Line Arguments Against Relativism” by Derek Edwards, Malcolm Ashmore & Jonathan Potter (1995).
The past few days I’ve been enjoying the shows of George Carlin and Bill Hicks. While I was already aware of Hicks’ work, Carlin was relatively new to me and, boy, does he know how to drive a point. Being unable to enjoy a simple rant against society – and atheism is just about the only view I do not share with these two men – I had to start looking into their shows more closely. Yes, these men are very bluntly talking about government abuse of people. And it’s not just any abuse, but the abuse that takes place in everyday life. But there was one question that I couldn’t get past. Are they really being that revolutionary, when it’s a message that easily resonates with an audience? Were they also involved in activism, in trying to actually combat this monolithic evil thrown upon everyday people? Or is it just a gimmick? In all honesty, I don’t know if they were involved or not. But that goes beyond my point. To return to my earlier question; is it really breaking new ground to be shocking, rude and anti-governmental in an age where these are praised virtues? After all, if we recall Hicks’ call for marketing people to commit suicide and their reaction: “oh yeah, there’s some real big dollar in that – he’s doing the right thing!”