Phenomena Past Adventures
MAURICE MERLEAU- PONTY died in 1961- still in his early fifties. While he lived, most Americans seem to have known him- if at all- only as a shadowy third man of French intellectual life. occasionally glimpsed in the background of Sartre's brawl with Camus, and even more occasionally felt as a silent questioner, prodding Sartre into continuous revision. Only after he died, and his writings began to appear in translation, did it become widely known that we had lost in Merleau-Ponty one of the best minds of the age-and a man of matchless integrity.
The work Merleau-Ponty left us is a testament to the fruitfulness of an intelligence shaped by, among others, Hegel, Marx and the phenologist Edmund Husserl, and a sensibility tested at once by modern art and literature, and by the intricacy and terror of politics in the twentieth century. Whether we shall prove capable of claiming- and keeping -out inheritance remains to be seen. What we can begin to see now is the extremity of the position he found himself in, and the scope of the task he set himself.
Since the publication this fall of a translation of Humanisme et Terreur, a book scarcely available till now even in French, we are better able to locate the sharp edge of Merleau-Ponty's perception. The immediate object evoking his response was Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon . This account of the Moscow trials of the 1930's. presented as fiction, appeared in 1946. Along with his argumentation in The Yogi and the Commissar. Koestler's novel was taken as the expression, and for some, the justification of disillusion and inwardness, a mood then pervasive among Western intellectuals. The God That Failed, a book of essays about leaving the Communist Party, appeared in the same period, numbering among its contributors Andre Gide, Richard Wright, and Ignazio Silone, as well as Koestler. Certainly in America, as well as in France and England, Koestler seemed to speak for those whose repudiation of Stalinism broadened to include a repudiation of the left-wing opposition to Stalin, and ended by repudiating Marxist politics altogether.
In October, 1946 and February, 1947, Merleau- Ponty published his response in Les Temp Modernes, a review started by himself and Sartre in order to provide a Left, united by memories of the Resistance, with "a reading of the present... as complete and as faithful as possible ... " (quoted by Sartre in Situations. p. 168). Humanism and Terror consists of these articles woven, with other material in pursuit of the same themes, into a study of what he called the Communist problem. Koestler raises such a problem for us. says Marleau-Ponty, but he did not understand it. Indeed, Koestler is a "mediocre Marxist" who
forgets what he should have kept from his Communist past-the sense of the concrete- and keeps what he should have forgotten- the disjunction between the inward and the external. ("Humanism and Terro," p. 169)
But in his forgetfulness, Koestler becomes important to us, because he rejected Communism for the same cause that others- including himself- had embraced it, seeing in History an "unfathomable God," and seeing the Party as the church which claimed to know History's secrets.
What disturbs Merleau- Ponty is not that Koestler found that History had failed him, but that many men- Koestler included- should have come to think that History might guarantee their success. Such a view makes of history an objective will, at once the source and justification of our actions, and in particular of our violence. Undoubtedly we will need to be violent- or at least forceful- but it is dangerous to forget that it will be our violence, not History's, and that no view of history guarantees either our success or our justification.
THERE is violence in history, and liberalism frequently masks it. but, for Merleau-Ponty,
Communism cannot be justified simply by showing that violence is a component of Western humanism as an historical force, since it still has to be known whether Communist violence is, as Marx thought, "progressive." (p. 175)
If we knew that communism was on the way to a world revolution and the creation of a classless society, then, he said, "one would have to be a Communist." But we can't know that it is on this path, and so we don't know whether the violence in today's communism is necessary for its revolution. The question remains, "Is communism still equal to its humanist intentions?" ( Ibid., xviii)
For Merleau- Ponty the ultimate intentions of communism were beyond question, but his reading of Marx did not permit him to forgive "deplorable tactics." For one of Marx's central insights is that in adopting a tactic one is knowingly or not, committing one's self to a particular view of history. And if your view is partial, or if what you counted on betrays you, you are still responsible for the outcome. It is this drama of historical responsibility that Merleau-Ponty lays bare for us in Koestler's novel, in the trial of Bukharin, and in the exile and assassination of Trotsky. Such responsibility, and the anxiety and willfulness which it inspires, makes of politics, as Napoleon said, the modern tragedy. One ought not to be surprised then, that most of the personal drama of politics lies in the ways men have found of living with that responsibility, or of avoiding it.
Koestler's repudiation of Marxism can thus be seen as part of his general denial that history and politics have any claim on his inner life. For Merleau-Ponty suggests that Koestler's principles, "applied without compromise ... make it impossible to define a political position in the world as it is" ( Ibid., 174); If this is true, then Koestler's allegiances are an expression more of temperament and mood than of reasoned conviction, or self-interest. It now seems necessary for reasonable men to come to a political stance, even if their motive is to defend their inner lives against the excessive claims of politics. One may feel that history is irrelevant to one's mood, but then one must recognize that history will not allow us our privacy without a struggle.
For Bukharin, unshaken in his commitment to the Russian revolution, but confronted with the failure of the opposition to Stalin, achieving a political stance was more difficult. Condemned as a traitor, he determined both to admit, indeed, to help the Prosecutor establish, that in his untimely opposition to Stalin, he was no better than a traitor. At the same time, he tried to deny with all the irony and passion still left to him that he was in fact in the service of a foreign country. That this denial was in Merleau-Ponty's account, so difficult to make, is a measure of the desperation of the old Bolsheviks facing Stalin's attack. Their intentions, they believed, had joined them to the enemies of the Revolution, and it must have seemed that to say aloud that their intention was not that at all, would be an attempt to deny their guilt. And who, after all, would care if their revolutionary honor, in Merleau-Ponty's phrase, was preserved? Bukharin, in prison waiting to be executed, fell silent.
Why, if Merleau-Ponty's account of Bukharin's behavior is correct, could not Stalin have granted Bukharin his intentions, and condemned his actions? Why make a farce of Bukharin's tragic acceptance of his guilt? Merleau-Ponty did not attempt to answer these questions directly, perhaps because for him Stalinism was not yet over: he continued to work with the French Communist Party until the existence of the labor camps in Russia was revealed a few years later. But he provides the terms for an answer, and suggests the consequences of remaining silent. For Stalin to acknowledge that Bukharin was guilty of having the wrong view of history- at least, of disagreeing with Stalin- would have been to acknowledge that a good Marxist can be wrong. And that would have made the correctness of Stalin's leadership a function of his political genius, and ultimately of the inexorability of his secret police. Such an acknowledgment would have been an admission that Marxism is not a "science of the future." And Stalinism it might be said, is what happens to Marxism when men pretend that it is a science of the future.
Since the early fifties there have been many accounts of Stalinism. and Stalin, but few I think, have taken stock at the same time of the desperate position of a revolution confined to one country, and of the terrible consequences of the measures taken in the name of defending that revolution.
... the most serious threat to civilization is not to kill a man because of his ideas (this has often been done in wartime), but to do so without recognizing it or saying so, and to hide revolutionary justice behind the mask of the penal code. For by hiding violence one grows accustomed to it and makes an institution of it. (p. 34)
This sounds familiar enough now, but the fact that Merleau-Ponty could write it in 1947 begins to explain how much better prepared he was than most to face the shameful revelations of the fifties.
VIOLENCE in history, Merleau-Ponty concludes, derives from the fact, recorded by Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that although "men make their own history they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves." History becomes a nightmare for us, because we cannot know in advance whether the detours we think we must take may not become dead-ends, whether the circumstances may not, in the end, defeat us: and because we suspect that the cost of defeat will be too high. Terrorizing others is one response to the anxiety of trying to make history- their terror of you becomes evidence of your control over the future. That the enormous means of terror in the possession of Hitler and Stalin could not make their control total, does not seem to stop the rest of us from attempting it, with our own methods, in our own lives.
It is difficult to know about yourself, and ought to be even more difficult to say aloud that you are not tempted by violence, that when you are violent it is only because you have to be. I believe that this was true of Merleau-Ponty, not just from the little I know of his life, but from the myriad ways in which he resisted the subtler temptation to what might be called intellectual violence. He never allowed himself to seal off his writing from the claims of others, knowing that they would be made, but refusing to judge in advance which of them would be fair. He ought to make his words particular, and timely, knowing that later they might be turned against him.
This sense of discipline is perhaps the place to begin an explanation of Merleau-Ponty's view of Trotsky. For it is Trotsky's discipline, his permanent refusal to compromise in the face of defeat, exile, and assassination that makes him- as Merleau-Ponty put it-sublime. At the same moment, Merleau-Ponty wonders "whether history is made by such men." (p. 80) In part, he means that too strict a rejection of compromise will cramp the possibility of action as quickly as an easy recourse to terrorism. But Trotsky certainly knew that, and as Merleau-Ponty points out, he did not attempt to seize power from Stalin in 1926. Merleau-Ponty discerns in Trotsky a sort of utopianism-living and dying "for a future projected by desire." (p. 80) But Trotsky saw that in himself, and called it the source of "the greatest human happiness." (p. 79) And late in his life he faced the possibility that without a world revolution at the end of the Second World War, nothing else would remain but "to recognize frankly that the socialist program... [had] ended as a utopia." From a Marxist, there is no more severe condemnation.
Finally, I think what disturbs Merleau-Ponty is that what we revere in Trotsky, the heroism of his life and mind, cannot be imitated. Without the particular circumstances of his life, our attempt to pursue his passion for the truth becomes merely our desire to be right. At the end of his life Merleau-Ponty asked himself
What good is there in having been right yesterday against Stalinism and today against the Algerian affair, what good in patiently untying the false knots of communism and anti-communism, and in setting down in black and white what both know better than we do, if these truths of tomorrow do not exempt a young man from the adventures of fascism and communism today? ("Signs," p. 5)
Merleau-Ponty, it seems to me, was right many times in his life, often alone, facing the vituperation of Left and Right, and living with the misunderstandings of his friends. But to measure his life by the rightness of his beliefs must have seemed to him to be a last refusal to face the ambiguity of history. If we cling to such truths, we make them sterile, because we are forgetting how fragile and momentary our perception of them was, and remains.
IN A MEMORIAL essay, published some months after Merleau-Ponty died, Sartre wrote that "[Merleau-Ponty] showed me that I was making History in the same way that M. Jourdain was speaking prose." ( Situations, p. 176) But to know that we are making history all the time is not yet to know how we are making it, day by day, and how we are to live with such knowledge. When Merleau-Ponty reproached Trotsky for an incomplete attention to "the compromises of everyday history," he was in part recording our need to be awakened to "the importance of daily events and action." He wanted philosophy to provide that awakening, but first it was necessary to realize that philosophy
... cannot tell us THAT humanity will be realized as though it possessed some knowledge apart and were not itself embarked upon experience.. (p. 188)
What philosophy could do, what Merleau-Ponty devoted his work to doing, was to "arouse in us a love for our times ... [and] like the most fragile object of perception- a soap bubble or a wave- or like the simplest dialogue, embrace... indivisibly all the order and the disorder of the world." (p. 189)
Inevitably we come to wonder why, if our concern is for the present, we are so preoccupied with the past. In part, of course, tales of the past can give us courage, or reconcile us to weakness. And arguments from the past sometimes seem to support our own conclusions. But frequently we find that we go back to the past because its quarrels remained unresolved, and its dreams unfulfilled, and we have inherited its disorder. If we respond to this disorder by deploring the weakness and blindness of those who left it to us, we will miss our chances for strength and insight. "History never confesses," wrote Merleau-Ponty, "not even her lost illusions, but neither does she dream of them again." ( Signs, p. 35) When we discover that we persist in those illusions, and when we stop asking the past to condemn itself and justify our present, then we may, if we are careful in our attention, let the past speak for itself. History could then cease to be our nightmare, and we might learn from it to speak, and act, for ourselves.