Nostalgia Of The Wordsmiths
Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality”-
Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes.
An Émigré From Utopia
When I was a medical student, assigned to the surgical ward, I had an elderly Russian émigré patient, who underwent major abdominal surgery, followed by multiple bleeding episodes requiring more operations. He remained in the hospital a long time, during which we spent many hours together. He told me tales of Mother Russia, its people and his own hair-raising saga of survival. Since my own ancestors came from Russia, one step ahead of pogroms, I was naturally interested in his stories. To a young student living comfortably in America, these were real life, harrowing tales of narrow escapes from fanatical and blood thirsty revolutionaries bent on exterminating the old aristocracy, into which he’d been born. I’d read about such people in Joseph Conrad novels, but to meet an actual living, breathing one was fascinating. Among other things, he was unusually tolerant of pain and suffering, regarding this latest threat to his physical survival with equanimity; his attitude seemed to be “I have survived worse.” He had. He deeply loved America. When I asked him what he thought was the appeal of revolutionary Communism, he smiled as if he had given the question much thought, then replied: “nostalgia”. I have never forgotten that answer, though at the time I forgot to ask, “nostalgia for what?”. Now after 50 plus years of close observation of the human psyche, I think I know.
Many have wondered why the socialist dream remains seductive despite its failures in the real world. This is a psychological question since rational consideration of reality doesn’t change the minds of true believers. Communism itself seemed to die ignominiously with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it survives now in nostalgic obituaries for long time Stalin defenders in the NYTimes. It lingers on editorial pages in the woke yearning for an unattainable equity in a state run by progressives who will eliminate all differences of ability, talent and biology in pursuit of a transformed human nature and a better world.
The engine driving the utopian dream is nostalgia for a lost fantasy of childhood and at the steering wheel are the wordsmith intellectuals. From philosophers like Rousseau, to Hegel, Marx, Lacan, Derrida, Herbert Marcuse, and today’s critical race theorists, intellectuals continue to yearn for a world of perfection—as defined, naturally, by wordsmiths themselves. We were all born innocent and corrupted by external forces like capitalism and the nuclear family.
The late Robert Nozick, a wordsmith himself, raised the question: Why do intellectuals so often oppose capitalism? https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/why-do-intellectuals-oppose-capitalism. He suggested it was yearning for lost childhood. Specifically they were the boys and girls who received the currency of smiles and praise from teachers for their verbal ability. As they grew older they learned that our capitalist system does not value words as highly as they once were in the classroom. Outside the classroom, in the schoolyard your ability to hit a jump shot matters more than your ability to talk about it. Pleasing teachers may not get you far in the world outside the classroom. So these budding intellectuals use their skill with words to develop theories of how the bliss of early childhood can be regained along with the status they once enjoyed. Those theories overvalue words, treating them as arbiters of reality. Thus a word like gender is treated as more real than biological sex. In the utopian war on the reality of difference, words can be a potent weapon. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Under Western Eyes: “A word carries far, very far, deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.” Can it destroy reality? We are finding out right now.
In the sphere of imaginative writing, novels and plays, from H.G. Wells to Norman Mailer, from Arthur Miller to Harold Pinter, these spinners of fantasies cater to the universal human longing for utopia, a long ago time of bliss, a Garden of Eden. It goes much deeper than Nozick’s classroom of childhood. It yearns for a perfection that never existed, even in the womb. The utopians share contempt for the actual world we live in, a world in which differences of talent, intelligence, motivation and biology, are an impediment to utopian dreams. They seek a conflict free world that exists, not in reality, but in dreams, novels and myths. That’s all fine when those longings are confined to stories that entertain and illuminate. It’s when the same utopian longings and disappointments are brought to the real world that problems can arise. Norman Mailer was tolerable when he confined his angry fantasies to characters in books. Stabbing his wife was not acceptable “narration.”
The recent ideology of wokeism is a variation on the fundamental utopian revolt against reality, the ideological heir of communism, fascism and Nazism. It has escaped the confines of academia and is spreading like a virus targeting the young. As with other utopian philosophies, scapegoats are required to explain the failure of utopia to ever arrive. In this past year the scapegoat of choice became whiteness. Even psychoanalysis, once devoted to exploring the internal causes of our unhappiness, has become woke and wants to change our supposedly racist social institutions. In a paper https://nypsi.org/events/on-having-whiteness/ delivered at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, by Dr. Donald Moss, whiteness was described as a “malignant condition” that is incurable. Dr. Mengele had some ideas for dealing with incurable attributes. Like its predecessor ideologies, wokeism alters the meaning of words in order to attack reality. Racism towards whites becomes anti-racism. Regression to a terrible time of racial separation becomes progressive. Riots become peaceful demonstrations, and lifetime criminals become noble martyrs. The troublesome reality of biological differences can be dismissed if we simply use words like gender which, unlike biological sex, is infinitely malleable. Efforts to create a new reality lead to permanently mutilated bodies of young people seduced by the magical dream of a new, perfected self. The psychological reality that human nature is forever internally conflicted is dismissed. Instead it is external social forces that are the primary cause of human unhappiness and those can be changed through cultural revolution. When misery ensues, call it progress while searching for scapegoats. It’s especially ironic that psychoanalysis, a clinical discipline that emerged from the enlightenment idea of the importance of reason and the individual, has been captured by those who regard reason as a tool of oppression and who consider group identity and imaginary things like structural racism more important than the uniqueness of the individual.
H.G. Wells and George Orwell
Among the twentieth century’s most celebrated authors, H.G. Wells is an outstanding example of wordsmith utopianism, a utopianism which was challenged by George Orwell. Wells’s futuristic utopian fiction was entertaining, but Wells, away from his writing desk, was a socialist who minimized the horrors of the Russian Revolution and then topped that foolishness by trivializing the dangers posed by Hitler. Orwell possessed a psychological understanding of human nature that Wells lacked, and composed dystopias that have outlasted Wells’s utopias.He understood how reality could be undermined by changing the meaning of words.
In 1940, Wells was still apologizing for the Soviets and minimizing Hitler’s threat. Orwell's words could apply as accurately today to the entire crowd of “creative” wordsmith intellectuals, in the literary, academic and media world. He wrote:
“There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accused Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill's estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells's. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells's attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good... Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration….”
——Wells, Hitler and the World State
Utopians and Scapegoats
Our wordsmith utopians, like Wells, disavow their own aggression. They understand other cultures and wouldn’t think of using force to defend ours. They deploy overvalued, magically invested words to resolve all conflicts. Their own sense of identity is sentimental. They weep, they deeply care, they admire themselves for being virtuous. They hold meetings and appoint study groups. When utopian tyrants—Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Ayatollahs-- behave murderously, it is rationalized or denied because the goals are virtuous. Verbal diplomacy and virtue signaling make appeasement the preferred negotiating stance. Today’s Neville Chamberlains, fail to understand human nature. It should come as no surprise that statues of Churchill are being defaced by antiracists.
In the end utopias never arrive and their promotors look for scapegoats to blame. Just as Wells trivialized Hitler and Stalin’s violence, so do contemporary leftists minimize, for example, jihadi violence, and blame Israel. However, their obsessive preoccupation with the sins of Israel is not, they insist, Jew hatred at work. They have nothing against Jews, it’s just the Jewish state, Israel. They especially admire dead Jews.
When not attacking scapegoats, the Utopians’ psychological ignorance of human nature produces policies like defunding and demonizing police. Human nature will then prevail and crime soars. If you attack firemen attempting to save burning businesses set alight by woke activists, arson will increase. When such idiotic policies fail, scapegoats must be found because it can’t possibly be the fault of progressive ideology. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing a sharp rise in attacks on Jews, now reimagined as white privileged oppressors. It matters nothing that Jews have been the target of genocide for thousands of years. Nor does it matter that, for instance, my ancestors were not racist oppressors of people of color but were mostly murdered in Russia, Poland and Germany for the crime of being Jews. However, in the minds of the woke, fantasies of the disease of whiteness prevail over reality. In fact, whiteness seen as a metastatic disease may require standard treatment for cancers-excision. Nazism was also a utopian ideology, seeking to replace flawed human nature with perfected aryan man. Its followers felt virtuous, for they were curing diseased humanity.
In closeup encounters over 50 plus years with human nature, as a psychoanalyst, I have observed the universality of utopian longings, and their intensity. For example, all patients say they wish to change, yet all are quite resistant to real internal change. What they mean by “change” is often an unrealistic fantasy, of permanent happiness, free of all inner conflict, something like the old Henny Youngman joke wherein a man with a broken arm goes to his doctor asking if he’ll be able to play the violin when it heals. The doctor answers certainly, to which the patient replies, that’s great Doc, I never could play before. Internal conflicts, unfortunately, can never be fully resolved this side of the grave; they are part of being alive. Ways of handling conflict can change, with hard work. Behavior can definitely be modified—without any internal change at all. Give me an electric cattle prod and I’ll modify your behavior quickly. Utopians sense this individual recalcitrance and are ready to use the cattle prod on whole groups to bring about the change they seek. Internal change, shifting the way a person thinks and handles conflicts, is slow, difficult and limited. It requires an honesty many find hard to achieve. It’s always easier to assign blame—to fate, parents, luck, etc. In the new woke ideology, blame extends to the nuclear family, capitalism and of course, racism.
Repairing The Past
Great artists can depict paradise lost. Raphael’s portraits of Madonna and Child in the Prado can elicit tears of longing and loss even in a non-believer. Somerset Maugham wrote a great novel, Of Human Bondage, a thinly disguised history of his own lifelong enslavement to women in pursuit of that bliss depicted by Raphael. Reading his beautiful self therapeutic effort, the attempt to make sense of his irrational misery is palpable. When he finished the novel, Maugham no longer felt the intense compulsion to write. Unlike Wells, the great novelists illuminate conflicted human nature and help us understand ourselves and our strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities and new ways to think about our lives. They teach us that love between parents and children is as close as we flawed humans can come to that primal bliss.
Our recalcitrant every day reality doesn’t lend itself to the realization of wordsmiths’ utopian wishes. Pain, loss, failure, disease are inevitable. And yet, these emotional children dominate public discourse precisely because of their verbal skills. When authors step into the public arena they often, like Wells, bring along their utopian dreams and visions.
Most of us utilize creativity in verbal and non-verbal ways to solve the problems and conflicts of everyday life, as best we can, but we don’t create narratives in public media. Nor do we write books on imaginary topics like WhiteFragility which we then claim are real.
It is frustrating to the grandiosity and narcissism of every infant to discover there are differences—of strength, intelligence, creativity, looks and fortune. Perhaps the most difficult blow to a young person’s self centeredness is the realization that other people exist and that there are differences between the sexes and the generations. To future wordsmiths this painful realization is grappled with verbally. In the schoolyard, physical actions are valued more than words. Action quickly reveals our limits and the unavoidable nature of reality. Ted Williams once pointed out that in baseball the best players will fall short 7 of 10 times—and wind up in the Hall of Fame. That’s reality. Writers can create a world in which failure is eliminated and where Mighty Casey never strikes out. Truly great writers create complex fictional characters who help us understand our own flawed human nature. Orwell is one of those. Joseph Conrad was another. He reflected in Under Western Eyes on the way Communist revolutionaries brought destruction in their eagerness to tear down a flawed system. He wrote: “…the ferocity and imbecility of autocratic rule..provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means at hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institution….”
For many wordsmiths destruction is necessary and welcome for the arrival of a perfect world.
The Marquis de Sade is a very important author and spiritual precursor of totalitarian ideologies that seek to destroy reality. Sade repeatedly attacked the OldTestament God, the God who differentiates order from chaos, men from women, the generations from one another, humans from other animals and good from evil. Sade argued for the heightened pleasures of transgressive chaos. His influence on authors who followed continues to the present day. It has passed from the world of fiction to our everyday world where transgressors are often hailed as heroic for not submitting to biological realities, and where fathers go to court for permission to marry their daughters. Sade conveyed the intense pleasure to be had from destruction, a pleasure that is not acknowledged by the practitioners of wokeism.
The Lingering Question of Nostalgia
To return to my patient and that unasked question. I think I have the answer now. Utopians are nostalgic not for anything real, but for a fantasy, a garden of Eden, a perfect childhood in which painful differences of talent, looks, fortune, do not exist, an egalitarian paradise where sexual and aggressive conflicts don't occur and all problems are solvable with words. As long as human beings feel injured by their very condition, their own mortality, their own vulnerability, as long as reality includes blows to one’s sense of childhood grandiosity and entitlement, the fantasy of socialist paradise will persist. We are all going to die. Progressive utopians, like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost cannot accept the fundamental limitations of human nature and so they opt for an imaginary world in which they are eternally young.
We can easily understand now, why there is an alliance between intersectional woke leftists and fanatical Islamists. Both are in the grip of nostalgia for a world that never existed. Both yearn for a fantasied perfect egalitarian world they were forced out of long ago. They ignore human nature and demand an equity that can never exist- without gulags. Left-liberal wordsmith intellectuals, having been good little boys and girls, are terrified and fascinated by aggression and ready to submit when terrorists come calling. These woke crybullies secretly admire Islamists’ willingness to blow up the world to usher in Paradise. Each group has severe difficulties coping with basic biological reality, that there are two sexes. Progressives seek to contain the threat by denying differences; Islamists try to contain the same threat by controlling and enslaving women. In truth, both groups seek to overcome their fear of sexual difference by returning to a mythic time, a womb-like fantasy, before differentiation existed. This is why they can't tolerate differing political views. Difference itself is an unacceptable part of the real world. In fact, reality depends on difference. Both Muslim extremists and the woke are harshly intolerant of differing views. Such views threaten their belief systems. No point trying to reason with true believers. Reason itself is abusive, an invention of white supremacists.
While wordsmith intellectuals, these overgrown children, control much of the media, universities, and entertainment industry, they are outnumbered by adults dealing with the real world. They can do much damage, for, as Churchill once said, “The worst difficulties from which we suffer...come from within. They do not come from the cottages of the wage earners, they come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to its culture, take much from its strength.”
Fortunately many citizens living outside of Hollywood and the Upper West Side of Manhattan are not intimidated by their supposed intellectual betters. I believe that, like my Russian émigré patient, the “wage earners” deeply and patriotically love this country and will rise from their slumbers to defeat the utopian revolutionaries.
Stephen Rittenberg, M.D.