Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The follies of humankind, through the eyes of a young girl

In this time of economic and ecological uncertainty, which has, tellingly, given rise to the philosophical genre of “extinction studies” (see, it may be wise to remind ourselves that the human folly which has given rise to the fraught state of the present, globally, is nothing new. Human history is littered with such follies, to such a degree that the philosopher, Georg Hegel, wrote in his Philosophy of History about the “slaughter-bench of history”.

Among the many human follies one that stands out, of course, is war. Think of the thirty years’ Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens in Greek antiquity, or the other thirty years’ religious war between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in Europe, or – closer to our own era – the First and Second World Wars, let alone the Korean and Vietnam wars, in all of which countless lives were lost – and for what? We are fortunate, however, to have the testimony of a teenage girl to confirm that, despite the many human follies that have always dogged our species, even one so young had the ability to identify some of these with clear-headed perception, in so doing giving one some small sliver of optimism – perhaps other people are capable of such insight, too.

The girl I am talking about is well-known to many readers, despite the fact that she died in Belsen, a German concentration camp for Jews, of typhus in 1945 when she was only fifteen. Some readers would have guessed by now who this girl was – Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl who fled to Amsterdam, Holland, together with her family, from Germany during the time of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. The family hid in a “secret annexe”, attached to an office building at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam,until they were betrayed to the Gestapo by an informer. But let Anne speak for herself. In a diary entry dated Wednesday, 3 May 1944 (before their betrayal), she writes these astonishingly wise words (Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl, Bantam Books, New York, 1993, p. 222-223):

“As you can easily imagine we often ask ourselves here despairingly: ‘What, oh, what is the use of the war? Why can’t people live peacefully together? Why all this destruction?’

“The question is very understandable, but no one has found a satisfactory answer to it so far. Yes, why do they make still more gigantic planes, still heavier bombs and, at the same time, prefabricated houses for reconstruction? Why should millions be spent daily on the war and yet there’s no penny available for medical services, artists, or for poor people?

“Why do some people have to starve, while there are surpluses rotting in other parts of the world? Oh, why are people so crazy?

“I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war. Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.”

As Anne remarks, “no one has found a satisfactory answer” to the puzzling question concerning human destructiveness – although several answers to it have been provided, for example by that arch-pessimist among philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, during the 19th century (in his two-volume book, The World as Will and Representation), and by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in the early 20th century, particularly (but not only) in his book, Civilization and its Discontents.

When Schopenhauer first published this text the world was still caught in the lingering, rationalistic optimism induced by the European Enlightenment, with its ostensibly irrepressible faith in progress through reason, so that few people took notice of what Schopenhauer claimed in it. But as the century wore on, with one war followed by another in Europe, people became more receptive to its anthropo-pessimistic message, that although human beings do have access to the faculty of reason (through representations or ideas), this was not the driving force behind human actions. Instead, Schopenhauer argued, it is the irrational Will that drives people to do, and continue doing, the most absurd, irrational and self-destructive things. And according to Schopenhauer this would never change. Perhaps Anne would not have found this answer satisfactory, but it is rather tempting to see in it an accurate image of what the novelist, Philip Roth, calls “the human stain” – the title of one of his novels – which resonates with Schopenhauer’s account.

Freud, for his part, also disabuses his readers of the conceit, that humans are rational agents elevated above other animals by reason – the “fire” that the titan, Prometheus, stole from the gods to give to humans, who had been left without qualities by his forgetful brother, Epimetheus. For Freud humans can never rise above the never-ending struggle between two primordial instincts or drives – Eros (the life-instinct) and Thanatos (the death-instinct). All of human history can be understood, Freud avers, in terms of the struggle between these, with now the one, and now the other, temporarily gaining the upper hand.

But the dream of a “rational society” – entertained by optimistic thinkers like Jürgen Habermas – would, for Freud as for Schopenhauer, never become a reality. One of the expressions of the death-instinct is a conservative tendency to return, and keep returning, to a previous position (your “comfort zone”, which may not even be that comfortable – witness abused women’s inclination, to return to abusive relationships), while its other manifestation is aggression, which is at the root of all conflicts, including war. Perhaps neither of these “answers” would have satisfied Anne, who was exceptionally intelligent and widely read, as demonstrated in her diary. But were they really wrong? Today one witnesses, on a virtually daily basis, people attacking and/or killing others, often in the name of some ideology. One can only reiterate Anne Frank’s words: “Oh, why are people so crazy?”

Destructiveness and self-destructiveness do not always assume the appearance of war in the literal sense, of course. The genre of “extinction-studies” mentioned at the outset in this post, for example, draws attention to the self-destructiveness displayed by human beings in their blind economic and financial pursuit of material “wealth” (what a misnomer) at the cost of the very natural environment on which all living beings – including us – depend for survival.

But perhaps this has also given rise to something that is hope-inspiring, and that might have buoyed Anne Frank’s spirit. Naomi Klein, in her investigative journalistic “wake-up call”, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Alfred Knopf, 2014), after exposing the cynicism at the heart of the fossil fuel corporations and their allies, points to the radically democratic phenomenon of ordinary people beginning to resist these corporations’ attempts to extract still more oil and gas from the earth. This has become known as “Blockadia”. Klein (2014, p. 254-255):

“Blockadia is…a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines. What unites these increasingly interconnected pockets of resistance is the sheer ambition of the mining and fossil fuel companies: the fact that in their quest for high-priced commodities and higher-risk ‘unconventional’ fuels, they are pushing relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems)…

“What unites Blockadia too is the fact the people at the forefront — packing local council meetings, marching in capital cities, being hauled off in police vans, even putting their bodies between the earth-movers and earth — do not look much like your typical activist, nor do the people in one Blockadia site resemble those in another. Rather, they each look like the places where they live, and they look like everyone: the local shop owners, the university professors, the high school students, the grandmothers.”

I would say that this represents a faint glimmer of hope for humankind…

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    • Maria Marquez

      I don’t know if you’re familiar with the long running sci-fi series, Revolution – well, one of the main characters, Miles Matheson, has a saying that is every bit as pessimistic about human beings as Schopenhauer’s view. Miles frequently says that human beings will “always do the selfish, stupid thing”. That’s about right, I would say. BUT – and it’s a big BUT – perhaps now that it’s increasingly apparent that the chips are down for our species, and our natural cousin species too, because of human stupidity and selfishness, PERHAPS – and it’s a big PERHAPS – more and more people will add to the mass comprising Blocadia, and who knows. PERHAPS it will reach a kinda critical mass…which might just topple the rule of the corporations, of capital. You know Lacan’s Seminar 17, where he explains the historical transition from the dominance of the master’s discourse to that of knowledge/capital – well, just as the S2 signifier moved into the dominant position around the 17th century, so perhaps we are witnessing – as we have agreed before in Lacan-conversations – that it is possible the next quarter-turn is happening in front of our eyes today, and that the hysteric’s (rebel’s) signifier is about to assume the dominant position. You agreed with me that the global growth in resistance to capital might just be symptomatic of such an historical shift, and I know that, like myself, you have been working on this theme. Even Brexit can be aligned with this…