Saturday, January 23, 2010

Continuous Fulgurations

The Karabogazk√∂l is a huge supersalty lagoon that protrudes like a hernia from the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Water from the Caspian rushes through a narrow straight and spreads out into the desert where it evaporates under the Turkmenistan sun, thus maintaining the difference in level between the lagoon and the sea. Only the steady input of new water allows it to persist. Some years ago, in fact, when the straight was dammed up to protect the Caspian during a drought, the lagoon dried up completely. I was fascinated by this geographic quirk when I read about it in a Scientific American article that made it seem as if the entrance to the Karabogazk√∂l was practically a waterfall—I gather it is really more like a rapids, at least these days, but the photo in the article created a more spectacular impression. Somehow the place became a visible symbol for me of the theological idea, perhaps more characteristic of Islam than in of Christianity or Judaism, that the cosmos itself is utterly dependent on a Godhead that not only created it but maintains it in existence from moment to moment. In this view, all that is is much like this wretched gulf, except that the universe depends on a steady influx of being rather than of water to maintain its evanescent reality under the black sun of nothingness. I don’t accept this metaphysical picture these days, if I ever did, but I’ve retained it as a useful way to stage a thought. In particular, I find it has a number of applications to politics.

One would very much like to think that human institutions, once created, possess the power to persist by themselves and are only destroyed by some external force or perhaps by the ripening of an internal contradiction. One dreams of a political machinery that runs by itself, keeping its balance like a gyroscope, maintaining its internal environment like a thermostat. Entranced by this illusion, propounders of constitutions are often merely projectors of perpetual motion machines of the third kind. The more sober of the old thinkers knew better. There is no destination, telos, or simple basin of attraction, no stable utopia at the end of history or even, for that matter, a permanent state of collapse short of the end of days. Monarchies become aristocracies; aristocracies coarsen into oligarchies; oligarchies are overthrown by democracies; democracies degenerate into mobocracies, idiocracies, tyrannies, or maybe fresh monarchies. The founders of states can at most set a precedent for a form of government because willful intelligent action is required in every generation to constantly recreate what can never persist by its own inertia any more than a living thing can subsist without a continuous metabolism. Persistence, in history as well as organisms, is not stasis but the degree zero of reproduction.

It doesn’t matter if you are the most conservative of conservatives. Since history’s default case is change, staying in place requires ceaseless activity. Indeed, because the same formal institutions have a different meaning in different circumstances, the human world must be remade all the more thoroughly if there are going to be any enduring values. The history of the last thirty years in America shows how easily the meaning of a nation can be lost through political paralysis. Everyone wishes that the horse-trading and hard feelings would go away, that some sort of expert commission will absolve us of responsibility, that we don’t have to take any chances. There are two great problems with this wish to renounce politics: First, as Hannah Arendt frequently insisted—and granted the drastic foreshortening of our current sense of history these days, she practically counts as a contemporary of Aristotle—there is simply no nonpolitical way to do politics; and second, even after you give up on making the omelet, the eggs are going to go on getting broken.