The Promise of Politics, epilogue

The modern growth of worldlessness, the withering away of everything between us, can also be described as the spread of the desert. That we live and move in a desert-world was first recognized by Nietzsche, and it was also Nietzsche who made the first decisive mistake in diagnosing it. Like almost all who came after him, he believed that the desert is in ourselves, thereby revealing himself not only as one of the earliest conscious inhabitants of the desert but also, by the same token, as the victim of its most terrible illusion. Modern psychology is desert psychology: when we lose the faculty to judge – to suffer and condemn – we begin to think that there is something wrong with us if we cannot live under the conditions of desert life. Insofar as psychology tries to “help” us, it helps us “adjust” to those conditions, taking away our only hope, namely that we, who are not of the desert though we live in it, are able to transform it into a human world. Psychology turns everything topsy-turvy: precisely because we suffer under desert conditions we are still human and still intact; the danger lies in becoming true inhabitants of the desert and feeling at home in it.

The great danger is that there are sandstorms in the desert, that the desert is not always quiet as a cemetery where, after all, everything remains possible, but can whip up a movement of its own. These storms are totalitarian movements whose chief characteristic is that they are extremely well-adjusted to the conditions of the desert. In fact, they reckon with nothing else and therefore seem to be the most adequate political form of desert life. Both psychology, the discipline of adjusting human life to the desert, and totalitarian movements, the sandstorms in which false or pseudo-action suddenly bursts forth from deathlike quiet, present imminent danger to the two human faculties that patiently enable us to transform the desert rather than ourselves, the conjoined faculties of passion and action. It is true that when caught up in totalitarian movements or the adjustments of modern psychology we suffer less; we lose the faculty of suffering and with it the virtue of endurance. Only those who can be endure the passion of living under desert conditions can be trusted to summon up in themselves the courage that lies at the root of action, of becoming an active being.

The sandstorms moreover menace even those oases in the desert without which none of us could endure, whereas psychology only tries to make us so accustomed to desert life that we no longer feel the need for oases. The oases are those fields of life which exist independently, or largely so, from political conditions. What went wrong in politics, our plural existence, and not what we can do and create insofar as we exist in the singular: in the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently worldless relationship between human beings as it exists in love and sometimes in friendship – when one heart reaches out directly to the other, as in friendship, or when the in-between, the world goes up in flames, as in love. Without the intactness of these oases we would not know how to breathe, and political scientists should know this. If they who must spend their lives in the desert, trying to do this or that, constantly worrying about its conditions, do not know how to use the oases, they will become desert inhabitants even without the help of psychology. In other words, the oases, which are not places of “relaxation” but life-giving sources that let us live in the desert without becoming reconciled to it, will dry up.

The opposite danger is much more common. Its usual name is escapism: to escape from the world of the desert, from politics, into… whatever it may be, is a less dangerous and more subtle form of ruining the oases than the sandstorms that menace their existence, as it were, from without. In attempting to escape, we carry the sand of the desert into the oases – as Kierkegaard, trying to escape doubt, carried his very doubt into religion when leaped into faith. The lack of endurance, the failure to recognize and endure doubt as one of the fundamental conditions of modern life, introduces doubt into the only realm where it should never enter: the religious, strictly speaking, the realm of faith. This is only an example to show what we are doing when we attempt to escape the desert. Because we ruin the life-giving oases when we go to them for the purpose of escaping, it sometimes seems as though everything conspires mutually to generalize the conditions of the desert.

This too is an illusion. In the last analysis, the human world is always the product of man’s amor mundi, a human artifice whose potential immortality is always subject to the mortality of those who build it and the natality of those who come to live in it. What Hamlet said is always true: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” In this sense, in its need for beginners that it may be begun anew, the world is always a desert. Yet out of the conditions of worldlessness that first appeared in the modern age – which should not be confused  with Christian other worldliness – grew the question of Leibniz, Schelling and Heidegger: Why is there anything at all and not rather nothing? And out of the specific conditions of our contemporary world, which menace us not only with no-thingness but also with no-bodyness, may grow the question, Why is anybody at all and not rather nobody? These questions may sound nihilistic, but they are not. On the contrary, they are the anti-nihilistic questions asked in the objective situation of nihilism where no-thingness and no-bodyness threaten to destroy the world.

Andrew Wyeth - Wind from the Sea, 1947

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