A Funeral In My Brain

by David Wemyss (March 2012)

I felt a funeral in my brain,
        And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
        That sense was breaking through.

 And then a plank in reason, broke,
        And I dropped down and down –
And hit a world at every plunge,
        And finished knowing – then –   

                              Emily Dickinson

One of the things I’ve been doing in my essays for the New English Review is trying to re-imagine human kindliness as something more like what the expression meant in the nineteen fifties. I certainly wouldn’t romanticize that decade – in many ways it was a time when people weren’t all that nice to one another – but it was at least a time when kindliness was likely to be seen as the characteristic of an individual person, not a social policy, whereas nowadays it seems to be the other way round. Human sympathy is hopelessly tangled up with managerial formalism.

The colourful and three-dimensional world of genuine kindliness and anger – and remorse and rapprochement – has been replaced by monochrome flatness. People simper carefully around questions about whether a curt or critical remark could be “construed as bullying” or whether an employee could “invoke the grievance procedure”. Our everyday speech has become tractionless.

Wittgenstein saw all of this coming as long ago as the first half of the twentieth century, although he couldn’t really have foreseen the full horror of public and private language as it is today. But even in the nineteen thirties he was tormented by the layers of affectation and piety he detected in conversation – especially that of academics. Intriguingly, he thought the problem had a lot to do with the deeply-ingrained assumption that following linguistic rules must be a matter of interpretation – no doubt in the course of super-fast mental activity. After all, what other explanation could there be? And so people could not help but cultivate a habit of mind that actually made itself self-conscious about its own language-experience. They assumed that their self-consciousness was something they were finding in their minds, but, for Wittgenstein, they were putting it there to find.

A picture held us captive.

So what we get from Wittgenstein is a very different picture, one in which linguistic rules are “most themselves” when followed in immediacy. He also makes us realize that the analogy we need is not that of a single ailment but that of the human body as a whole. The body is vulnerable to many illnesses and weaknesses, and will diminish and decay, and language is just the same. There’s no end to the situations in which language no longer traverses rough ground – where it would have had a proper grip – but slips and slides on artificial glassiness instead. I’d love to look at domestic and intimate examples, but, in the short term, I’ll stick with public and political categories, not least those of the modern workplace. Those are the categories that contaminate the domestic and the intimate in the most obvious ways – and never more so than in our present age.

So here goes. I’m going to begin by saying that, in chattering endlessly about “racism”, I think we’ve lost sight of how the word itself is a problem. It’s the same with words like sexism and homophobia. These are unattractive words because they’re particularly loaded with the problem Wittgenstein identified about all words; namely, that they tempt us to believe they stand for substantives – discrete meanings in our heads. This has to be borne in mind as we concede the use of these words on the grounds that, unfortunately, they are here to stay.

Let’s test it out. I’m definitely a bit of a snob, probably a bit of a racist, and even a little bit homophobic – although the words are poor players as they strut and fret – but in each case I conceal the truth very effectively. Obviously, it can be tactically advantageous to do so but, more to the point, I’m very clear that the impulses in question could easily be unkind – were they to be expressed unreservedly. All in all, my general amiability is a much stronger aspect of my personality.

As Freud and Schopenhauer told us, the human condition just is a rich panoply of prejudices. Kindly and affectionate people are those lucky enough to have had their prejudices whittled down by good taste and good manners – and by a disposition of gratitude for existence. Of course kindly people sometimes become markedly unaffectionate when they become doctrinal – but more of that later.

I may say at this juncture that it is also part of my general amiability that I think that any social or political philosophy that puts race or religion at the centre of its project is playing with fire, which is why I worry about some of the hostility to Islam one finds in the New English Review. Having said that, though, you have to be intellectually honest. I do think that the West is sleepwalking towards trouble by kow-towing to Islam. The idea that a small child in a British school should not be frightened by a teacher hiding her face behind a burka – or that the point is that the child needs to be educated out of her fear – is absurd.

People in Britain do not wear black masks to conceal their features. The multicultural fantasy that wants to relativise this belongs in a theoretical dream-world. In European and American terms, Islam is a very strange and unattractive religion – if indeed it deserves to be called a religion at all, as Rebecca Bynum has very convincingly disputed – and its place is that of an outsider. That being accepted, we can start asking meaningful questions about hospitality and peaceful co-existence.

But I’d like to move these thoughts in a slightly different direction. One evening, a few years ago now, one of my friends challenged another because the latter had used the expression “nigger in the woodpile,” meaning of course an unforeseen or hidden problem. Now I think the word “nigger” is unlikely to ever be used in a kindly or innocent way, but the use on this occasion of “nigger in the woodpile” – by one of a group of middle-aged middle-class white Europeans who had known each other for thirty years – was innocent.

Of course the friend challenging it believed it wasn’t. Or, rather, he thought it was a surprising piece of ignorance which it would be inexcusable to try to reclaim now that a warning had been issued. A desired comparison would no doubt be with a parent conveying imaginatively and successfully to a child that swearing can demean a speaker in ways much more nuanced than those that merely offend against primness.

It’s a comparison I’d reject. The imaginative moves of a loving mother or father are not remotely similar to the latest edicts of an equalities commission – something which people on the left don’t seem able to grasp. It’s a familiar libertarian right/collectivist left antagonism. But what doesn’t get noticed is how the dispute opens up a deeper difference between two largely incompatible ways of finding the world.

Would that a challenger of an everyday remark might refrain not only because the context was imaginably innocent but also because nitpicking about someone else’s speech was in any case a deeply unhealthy practice, the avoidance of which should usually supersede any other consideration!

But in fact nitpicking about what people say is widely approved of. People clearly see it as a kind of attention to detail – whereas even the briefest of reflections on the opacity of language should suggest the opposite.

The friend who was challenged was so struck by the conversational twist that he quite naturally felt that he would never again use the offending expression. Its former immediacy had gone forever. I think that’s the right reaction – you can insist provocatively and theatrically that you’re going to go on using an offending expression in a situation like this, but it wouldn’t ring true any more for a well-meaning person. Yet, that having been said, it remained more to the point for me that the original challenge had been deeply wrong. The incident caused a lot of consternation at the time, and here I am still writing about it years later, so why was it so important? Let me try to explain, although it isn’t easy.

As I said at the outset, I have always been struck by the way in which everyday linguistic moves feel better – feel deeper and truer – if explanations for them remain implicit. And of course the most rooted form of the implicit is a Gemeinschaft-type immediacy in which there is no nitpicking about meaning because – by and large – everyone shares the same assumptions.

Nowadays – because of what they think they are doing when they are speaking – most people are simply too opinionated. But there can be no abstract understanding of where they cross the line, and no abstract coordinates for locating the line. Style is known by its fruits, although it can’t just hide behind the trump card of irreducible mystery – not always. We can’t simply say that panache just knows panache, as if it were a kind of aristocratic seemliness. Then again it is a bit like that.

If we can only grasp this, we can affirm a nostalgic yearning for seamlessly consensual speech, but yet not imagine that we are now committed to a theoretical model that justifies our yearning. Heidegger ended up trapped into thinking that the only problem with doctrinally-contrived speech was that it emerged too quickly – not that it was wrong in itself. Indeed he got cornered into deciding that it wasn’t anything in itself, only in how it felt in a historically-grounded moment.

How it felt was the only criterion of judgement allowable. If you employ Heidegger against politically correct banality, you find yourself in bed with the prospect of the same banality – as long as it’s going to be redeemed by the seamless uniformity of a future epoch. The Nuremburg Rallies were all right with Heidegger because there was no nitpicking. No one was quibbling about the meaning of the word Fuhrer.

Sounds worrying. Yet the only reason it seems like a trap is because there’s no theoretical model for springing it – which is why Wittgenstein turns out to be of more use to us at this juncture. He reminds us that, although we can usually imagine plausible causal explanations for our actions – after all, such explanations often have considerable predictive and explanatory power – we’re actually in quite a sinister psychological situation when we examine them.

But there’s no theoretical model of when it would be felicitous to examine and when it wouldn’t. And that’s frustrating. But it is how it is. David Hume would have been quick to point out that explanatory models fell well short of being pictures of causality. Centuries later, Wittgenstein found himself developing the same theme in relation to the experience of speech. 

So the explanations associable with our words are not nothing, but there’s something deeply easeful about the felt immediacy of such explanations remaining implicit. The experiential and the ethical are conflated in the merely (but compellingly) suggestive.

This brings us to the most intractable question of all. It seems obvious that our thoughts are in our heads somehow, as mental or neurological events. They might be faulty and corrigible, but, at the point at which we have them, they seem to represent the mental surety of “knowing that we know” something.

But words like “thought” and “know” are bewitching words. We find ourselves held captive by the compulsive feeling that they must stand for something – something with a defining essence. We assume that our thinking occurs in our brains, and the idea that it could occur elsewhere (or nowhere) seems impossible. Yet Wittgenstein said that no supposition seemed to him more natural than that there was no process in the brain correlated with thinking. It sounds absurd, and I’d have to concede that the word ”correlated” is not ideal. Maybe “structurally equivalent” would have been better.

Anyway, I think there’s more than enough in it to encourage us to think afresh about the harm caused by a culture of outward moral perfectionism in the (supposed) content of speech. Worrying about the style would be more to the point. When precepts and expectations about content are at the “forefront” of someone’s mind, their human agency is all the more doctrinal. If this had not been such a painful realisation over the last five years or so, I would still be locating myself on the left. Eventually, though, a plank in reason broke.

And I dropped down and down.

I hesitated to preface this essay with lines from Emily Dickinson lest the suggestion of irreducible disquietudes shifting almost tangibly inside her head should elicit the charge that I was drawing on Wittgenstein yet employing a very un-Wittgensteinian picture. But seeing the erroneousness of such a charge is to glimpse what Wittgenstein meant.

He was once told about a general who had led from the front and earned the affection and respect of all his men. In a near-hopeless situation, he had gathered them together to be honest about their dire predicament, and to say that it had been an honour to lead them, and to have known them, and that he would look forward to knowing them without rank in the life to come – if there was one.

Wittgenstein regretted the last bit. “That spoilt everything!” And yet he certainly wasn’t affirming a belief in life after death.

Needless to say, I also hesitated to quote Emily because she obviously wasn’t writing about politics. But I’m not really writing about politics either. I’m writing about being turned inside out emotionally and spiritually – in the course of several years – during which time I was actually trying to become apolitical once more (see “Shades of the Prison House” in the August 2011 edition of the New English Review).

To begin with, I told myself I wanted to be politically illiterate again. To get back to the garden. But you can’t, of course, and, in any case, I had fallen into a deep melancholy that was turning up thoughts and impressions that (I was beginning to see) could be placed within an intellectual conservative tradition. Although Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein – as ever – still offered me the best reflections of myself that I had ever caught sight of, it was a surprisingly painful struggle to accept that (despite a complete aversion to the world of business and commerce) categories of conservatism were actually offering me new models of self-understanding.

In particular, Michael Oakeshott was my kind of conservative. Resting his philosophical position on a most congenial understanding of conversation, he too had no interest in the mercantile tradition. Far from it. Yet he had no loathing of money. He just didn’t pay much attention to it. He said that one of his chums “would rather be bilked than bothered”, but he was probably describing himself. He thought that a conservative disposition enjoyed the present, without too much thought of the morrow – or regret for the past. In its broadest sense, it was (to repeat an earlier theme) a disposition of gratitude for life.

Of course the egalitarian retort is that this just provides cover for aristocratic disdain. Gratitude is all very well if you’re comfortably enough off to have something to be grateful for, but what if you don’t? Oakeshott would reply that this was pointless resentment. Does anyone really want to live in a state where it is not that equality of opportunity is to be encouraged but that equality of outcome is to be engineered? Evidently, many would say yes, but, for Oakeshott, inequality of outcome was simply in the nature of a free society.

We should be unsentimental enough to just say it – but sentimental enough to remain uneasy. It is one thing to realize that the gravitational pull of sentimentality is dangerous, but another thing altogether to have become immune to it. In fact, although I’ve frequently criticized sentimentality, there are really two different forms of it at stake here.

First of all there is the felicitous amiability which any well-adjusted person has a good chance of feeling for any other well-adjusted person – potentially, even for complete strangers – give or take a caprice or two here and there. These affinities come and go, with lightness of touch. They are gently preferential but deeply human. Along with a bit of enlightened self-interest, they fuel our natural feeling that, if that old lady is unwell, we will ask if we can help. And we hope she will be looked after in hospital.

We hope she will be looked after, but not in the same way as we hope for a parent to survive an operation, or a son or daughter to be happy. Actually, in most cases – not necessarily in all – we forget the old lady, as she will forget us. Our feeling for her is just a little thing, but wonderful nonetheless. The stuff of humanity, indeed.

In fact, to begin with, this swings me leftwards again, bringing to mind as it does the way in which, here in the UK, even conservatives are puzzled that “Obamacare” is such a big problem in America. I appreciate that there are deep constitutional and philosophical reasons why some Americans are very different from Europeans on this issue, but, over here, an egalitarian health service and a (moderate) welfare state are just logical conclusions to draw from those little bits of parochial fellow-feeling for strangers I was talking about.

However the problems start – and I veer to the right again – when we go beyond that low-key kinship to topple over into the other type of sentimentality – the sentimentality that cannot let the little things be, and projects onto them the age-old desire to live for something bigger than oneself. Suddenly the little streams have to run into oceanic feelings. And the oceanic feelings have to mean that, some day, somehow, somewhere, everyone will have a prize, and no one will have lost.

Freedom only flourishes when we grasp opportunities in life – whether to make money or get to know Miaskovsky’s symphonies or tend a garden – but the second sentimentality wants to start talking about how some people enjoy better opportunities than others without the remotest idea of how (or where) to stop talking about it. Language again. 

For example, most people here in Scotland (where I live) either romanticize the public sector or hold it in contempt. Both views are stupid, but the polarization feeds on itself. These days, our cultural elites consider soft-right positions – no, not positions, just ordinary doubts or skepticisms that are “a bit right-wing-sounding” – to be beyond the pale, or a bit sad, as if some sort of quiet betrayal has occurred.

“I was really disappointed to hear you saying you would like to go back to academic selection in schools,” a young educationalist said to a teacher friend last year. The tone was one of regret – sorrow that an older member of the profession, perhaps a bit weary after years in the classroom, had somehow slipped into reactionary error.

It seems you have to choose which side you’re on. If you don’t, someone else will choose for you. So you pre-empt that by choosing for yourself in a way you wouldn’t otherwise do – and lose the capacity to wonder about a world where it might not happen like that, a world where people might even be not especially politicised.

We live in a time when everyday language has become enervated as a result of fifty years of leftward cultural interference. Yet the answer is not to pursue a counter-ideological rightward libertarianism but to remember (or re-imagine) how it used to be fairly normal to be apolitical, and – perhaps more to the point – to be unmoved by the complaint that one should not be. Of course it is enough for bad men to prosper that good men do nothing, but that is a very different precept from the idea that “everything is political”. It is not.

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