Thursday, June 28, 2012

On not being on the train to Auschwitz

Imagine me sitting in a train towards you. As I fondly think of you and our future meeting, I stare out the window and see another train standing still on the adjacent track. Suddenly I feel myself thrust forward, ever so slightly but unmistakebly forward. “Here we go,” I mumble… But no, wait! It is not me who is moving but the other train departing in the opposite direction… Apparently I am the victim of an opticomotor illusion, as my brain interprets the perceived backward motion of the other train as my own forward motion. I thought I was finally coming towards you, but here I am, still idling at the station, not one inch closer to my destination. Meanwhile the other train is moving further and futher away from us. Pretty soon it will be forever out if sight. How infinitely sad.

The illusion of progress 
I don’t know eactly why I find this such a deeply disturbing experience. Thinking about it fills my head with an explosive mixture of various reasons, images and emotions. I think the main thing that disturbs me is what this ‘train experience’ suggests about the forward motion of modern civilization as such: all the advances we have made in science, technology, economy, democracy, medicin, human rights, emancipation, freedom… What if our progression here is likewise nothing but an illusion created by the counter movement of something else, something withdrawing from us, moving away in the opposite direction? What if all the things we moderns have lost, all the so-called ‘victims of progress’ – uncorrupted nature, substantial community, true humanity, a living God – what if they are in fact leaving us behind, whereas we are still idling at the station? What if the forward motion of the train called “modernity” is an illusion created by the counter movement of that other train – the train to Auschwitz? And for “Auschwitz” we might substitute any of the other man-made disasters that have paved the way to our present world. “Auschwitz” names the unnameable because unthinkable skeleton in our closet.

Unresolved guilt
And if this is bad enough, what disturbs me even further is the idea that we are still idling at the station, doing nothing while that ‘other train’ is forever moving away from us. Of course we might be excused by insisting on the illusion we were in. “It is not our fault,” we might say. And yet once we have seen through that illusion, once we have recognized the progress of modernity for what it is – namely, a passive farewell to the other train as it leaves the station – don’t we have a moral obligation to finally do something, to achieve some real progress this time, if only to prevent still other trains from leaving the station in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we lie down on the tracks, like activists in front of a nuclear transport, forming a human blockade, a human chain, chained to the tracks, chained to each other, finally solidarious, finally together? Shouldn’t we have interpreted that first illusion – the illusion of our coming together, caused by the departure of the other train – as an impulse, an incentive to really get together, a nudge in the back pushing us in the right direction, namely, toward each other, to solidarity, to joint action in name of that other train to Auschwitz? Sure, we gather regularly at official state memorials where we hold hands and solemnly swear: “Never again!” But then we go home and it’s business as usual…

To finally make an omelette
One of the things that disturb me, then, in the ‘train experience’ is the unresolved guilt we have towards that other train, our failure to answer its call to solidarious action. But intimately connected with this feeling of guilt is a philosophical confusion about the nature of human subjectivity and autonomy. Just consider the illusion of forward motion caused by the counter movement of that other train which takes the “victims of modernity” to their destinity. Shouldn’t we say that modernity bought into that illusion and that this credulity was its basic mistake? Modernity sees those victims as its victims, as the ‘collateral damage’ of its forward and autonomous activity – like Lenin said: “If you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.” Modernity sees its train as moving forward, leaving the other train behind at the station, immobile in its suposedly premodern ahistoricity. But the ‘train experience’ suggests otherwise: the other train is leaving modernity behind, leaving it stagnant in its illusion of progressive history. One would think, then, that the modern idea of autonomous subjectivity is an illusion as well, as part and parcel of this broader illusion of progress. This is no doubt partly true. Yet at the same time the idea of autonomy is also redeemed by the other train, as it calls us to shared responsibility, to solidarious action in name of those others who are no longer among us. The Other Train is also the Train of the Other, departing from us, leaving us behind, forcing us to stand on our own two feet, responsible, in charge of the world. Thus our autonomy – our self-legislation – is also the real effect of the retreat of the heteronomous ‘Law of the Other’. As if Lenin’s eggs broke from their own accord – like Humpty Dumpty falling to pieces – saying to us: “Now you make an omelette! Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” Perhaps that was the deeper meaning of the Bolshevik who replied: “Comrade, I see the broken eggs everywhere. But where, oh where, is the omelette?” Autonomy, then, is the responsibility to finally make an omelette in order to give some justificatory sense to all the broken eggs… 

The originary moment of Humpty’s death
Of course, in the meantime so many eggs have been broken that no omelette – no matter how wonderful – could ever redeem them. There is no theodicy for Auschwitz, no ruse of reason able to sublate this absolute negativity. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again, not by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”. And still we owe it to Humpty to save others from a similar fate. Perhaps that is the omelette we are called upon to make by all the broken eggs: the omelette of our own responsibility, our solidarious autonomy. In a sense, then, the yolk inside Humpty was simply our own being: we ourselves were freed from the shells imprisoning us when Humpty fell and broke. The yolk was our essence in its state of immediate heteronomy, our substantial community with otherness in the womb of nature where the borders between beings are not yet clear-cut. Humpty’s death was our birth – a double birth, since we were not only freed from our fusion with the Other but were also made responsible for the Other as the first victim of our coming to autonomy. A birth, then, which was both factual (freedom from the Other) and moral (responsibility for the Other). Here, one could say, the poet Jaromil from Kundera’s novel Life is elsewhere goes
wrong when he writes:

He is free who is unaware of his origin.
He is free who is born of an egg dropped in the woods.
He is free who is spat out from the sky and touches
the earth without a pang of gratitude.

What he forgets is the egg that has to be broken for this freedom to be possible – a breach which makes our freedom guilty from the start.  

Milan Kundera (1986), Life is elsewhere. New York: Penguin Books, p.121.

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