Let me begin by saying I was stunned by the enormous number of letters we received in response to last week’s piece urging me to continue with my philosophical mumblings. Also bear in mind that in philosophy, the one may well be wiser than the many. In any case, I will continue a bit more in this vein, discussing today a strange topic: enchantment.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School, a group of German philosophers. This was later published as a book. Dissertations are written by students who are still, in most cases, “children,” but it occurred to me that there might be something of value to be found in it. One of the philosophers I wrote about was Theodor Adorno. Adorno viewed antiquity as a place of enchantment, where the laws of nature were transcended by miracles, and where life itself could take on marvelous and terrible shapes.
For Adorno, the dividing line in the world was Odysseus, who fought with the Greeks at Troy, as chronicled in Homer’s “Iliad.” After the Trojan War he left on his odyssey, confronting the enchantment of the world. He met the Cyclops, whose vision was perfect but without depth. He met the Lotus-Eaters, who ate from a plant that caused them to forget everything they had been, giving them a life free from memory, happier but poorer for that. And, perhaps most marvelous of all, he met the Sirens. These were woman so seductive that merely on hearing their song, men would knowingly and eagerly serve them to their quick death.
The teaching of Homer was that the world that we prosaically call experience is a lie. It hides the uncanny beauty that is there in plain sight. The Siren and the Lotus draw you to death, but you are going there anyway. Let the death be beautiful, enfolded in the extraordinary improbability of the enchantment around us. According to Adorno, Odysseus encountered each of these enchanted truths and, in resisting their seductive power, destroyed them. Put another way by Adorno, Odysseus brought enlightenment to the world; he disenchanted it and, with that, abolished the uncanny and miraculous. And we were forever poorer for it, because with enlightenment, death became a tragedy rather than fulfillment.
The work I have been doing much of my life has been intended to disenchant the political life (and yes Senator, I know you knew Homer, and I know I am no Homer). Still, I live in the traditions of our past, and the method for understanding the politics of the world that I have labored on is on the distant and majestic tradition of “The Odyssey.” Whatever I touch, I make small. I take away both will and choice, and I declare the greatest of men to be mere bubbles trapped in the tides of history, their greatness crafted by illusions that make us think of them as enchanted. My task has been to tear away the enchantment and reveal the geopolitical machine screeching and clanking away behind the uncanny facade of genius, courage, generosity and evil. The splendid texture of humanity is pulled aside to reveal the tragedy of reality.
My discussion on the attack on Saudi oil facilities by the Iranians could have been a tale of beauty, courage, desperation and hope, a tale as ancient as the Bible being rewritten in the Arabian sands. I could call the drones dragons and their creators sorcerers. I could have turned it from what squalid affair human things are, to the marvelous things human things had been. I could have – but didn’t. Both visions are true in their way, but the truth I wanted to find was the mechanics that caused Iran to use the Houthis to attack the Saudis and the cold calculations that went into what was, in the end, simply the work of geopolitical necessity. I was like Odysseus, who was nothing if not clever, and by stripping the world of courage and gallantry, of sacrifice and triumph, I told a truth that was only part of the truth, and the less satisfying part.
The problem of geopolitics as I have pursued it is not that it is wrong, but that it is insufficient for the human soul. If that is all that there is, then what are we? I keep coming back to these lines from “Macbeth”:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
There is no promise of meaning in geopolitics. The only thing it tries to deliver is understanding. It tells us who we are. It leaves us little hope that something extraordinary might happen. Understanding why things happen is as important as Odysseus understanding the Sirens. What we know, we will protect ourselves from.
A scholar can live in this arid world. He is as doomed to live in this world because that is his nature, and that is his fate, just as any fabled creature from antiquity. But a scholar is also a human, or should be. As a human, he yearns for the uncanny, the miraculous, the unexpected – the heroic. As a scholar, he understands necessity alone and knows that there are no longer heroes.
And this is the deep weakness of geopolitics and the enlightenment. In all things, it can explain how, robbing it of its truth. Consider love – in my case, love of a woman. There are certainly biological forces. And as one study showed, love is based on accidental proximity and cyclical necessity. That is probably true, but I know that there is more. It is nothing I can write in a formula, but it is something that can be grasped by a few lines of beautiful language or a snatch of a song. It cannot be published, but it is real. So too is heroism. A man might come to the crucial moment by accident, but when he faces his enemy, his mind stages a battle between fear, duty and pride. That battle cannot be footnoted, but at that moment, man encounters the uncanny.
I am proud of what I have done in geopolitics, but it is insufficient, all the more so because of the vastness of its pretensions. It brushes aside love and bravery as incidental to the truth, and it is not wrong. But I remember in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” when the mathematician yells “insufficient, insufficient,” having discovered that there is more to economics than what economists think.
The problem of the enlightenment is that its ruthless destruction of the enchanted has failed. The enchanted cannot be banished so easily. It merely comes back in increasingly terrifying forms to a world that thinks it has been banished. For me, at this point in my life, it seems a reconciliation of enlightenment and enchantment is what our souls cry out for. Meaning, not in having one or the other, but in finding that they are opposite sides of the same thing.
For me and for geopolitics, there are two moments of enchantment on which we rest. The first is the love of a man and woman and the child that they bring to life, and the enchantment of the world that makes it so. This is the foundation of all community. The second is when a friend I once had stood his ground and went to his death because, I think, he understood the enchanted moment life had offered him and he took it. Geopolitics is about nations and war. It is about generations not yet born and the heroes they will make. This is the point where the inhumanity of geopolitics can find a grounding in the enchantment that was taken from us by Odysseus.