The Blood of a Single Bird

Hans Bellmer-The Brick Cell-Date Unknown
Hans Bellmer-The Brick Cell-Date Unknown

Writing over two centuries ago, the Marquis De Sade remarked with his characteristic poetic outrageousness and provocative flair, “It has been estimated that more fifty million individuals have lost their lives to wars and religious massacres. Is there even one among them worth the blood of a single bird?” As the Sadean scholar Annie Le Brun noted in her excellent The Reality Overload, Sade’s savage negation strikes us like lightning and is an invitation to view an inverted perspective that allows us to ask: what remains of the rationalist foundations we thoughtlessly ascribe to tolerance, humanism and ecology?

Or not, if you are a devotee of The New Optimists, who subscribe to the theory that we are living in the best of times and that the ultimate triumph of progress is inevitable, as long as we carry on the Enlightenment tradition of placing our faith in Reason and Science. Allied to the ‘End of History’ theory that Western style democracy and free market capitalism represents the death of ideology (we can all stop chasing those chimeras, neo-liberalism is the high water mark of political systems that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people possible), the New Optimists, especially the High Priest of the movement, Steven Pinker, seek to show with quantitative data and any number of graphs that war, poverty and violence are at an all time low, and therefore we should dismiss any lingering unease about this fur-lined prison we inhabit and be happy. Anyone who doesn’t is an irrational, cynical ingrate who hasn’t learned the value of positive thinking.

Employing a Manichean worldview the New Optimists portray science, reason and humanism as unalloyed virtues that has produced all the good and none of the bad, all of which is entirely the product of anti-Enlightenment irrationality.  The criticism that the philosophes of the Enlightenment led to the technocratic genocide of the Holocaust (which is portrayed as a statistical blip), as advanced by the Frankfurt school is contemptuously dismissed out of hand; rather it was the Romanticism that arose as a rejection of reason that was the root cause of Nazism. Even the development of the nuclear bomb with its unprecedented capabilities of annihilation doesn’t overly concern the New Optimists, we could destroy all life on earth, but we haven’t yet, so uncork the champagne!

After surveying the five thousand years of human atrocities that we politely call history maybe the quantity of war and violence might be on a downward trajectory, but that doesn’t negate the suffering of the people in the numerous contemporary war zones one iota. The facile self congratulatory tone of the so-called rational optimists is appalling. Their belief in liberal progress and their denial of the powerful and necessary irrational forces within humanity speaks of a naivety that is neither touching or endearing, rather a dangerous and deluded wishful thinking.

To return to the opening quote by the Divine Marquis, one of the first thinkers who wasn’t blinded by the glare and dazzle of the Enlightenment, who realised the potential for tyranny committed in the name of progress, this furious contrarian understood the enshrinement of human reason would lead to the degradation and devastation of the natural realm. A realm humanity has constantly sought to be divorced from by a persistent denial of our very nature. 

35 thoughts on “The Blood of a Single Bird

    1. Absolutely. Somebody said that it is a view of a man looking out of the window of a Prius driving to a TED lecture. I tend to be somewhat of a pessimist, but that kind of callow optimist is enraging. But I am just an irrational, cynical ingrate I suppose.

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      1. It made me laugh, glad you liked it. Nothing more infuriating than told to be grateful, especially as life is complex for everyone. As a keen student of De Sade and the Surrealists I believe that too rationality is dangerous, and the Enlightenment wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

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    1. Thank you Chris, I am actually astonished that these new optimist pundits have any currency whatsoever given the paucity of ideas, but I suppose people like to be vindicated. I keep faith in De Sade and the Surrealists, rather unfashionably but still.

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  1. One could make a rather long and detailed list of all the ways Reason and Science have destroyed the world. Fifty million dead before the Marquis’ time? Hundreds of millions of dead in wars since then. Anyway… I really love the lines about looking at the world through a Prius window on the way to a Ted talk! That is hilarious. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence and clear vision should be able to see the absurdity of that approach. Ah and in the end, with any philosophy, we are free to reject it.

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    1. Pinker takes a global approach to warfare so he would put the number vastly higher by De Sade time, plus he goes by percentages…. therefore a war that kills 100,000 in a country with a population is worse than a million people killed in a population of 15 million….a war in China in the eighth century with a toll of 36 million is the equivalent of 420 million in the mid 20th century. A bit of sleight of hand really. A very Enlightenment approach, quantity trumps quality. Pinker views the mid 20th century with its world wars and genocides as blips in a constant upward trajectory toward the wonderful peaceful world we are entering. Needless to say I believe the Marquis is a better guide to human nature than this risible tenured Pollyanna.

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      1. Spinning the facts to make the case. The vast majority need to believe things are getting better or else what is the point. It’s a delusion but probably a necessary one in order to keep on. The question is why keep on? Which is the greater tragedy? To end all human suffering by species’ extinction or to carry indefinitely with the agonies of our current state? A cheery good morning to you, by the way!

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      2. Definitely a case of cherry picking facts and besides should philosophy be based on statistics? Also very much a case of defending the status quo, there are lines about the lower middle class having more amenities than the Rockafellas one hundred and fifty years ago. In Pinker’s schema Martin Luther King Jr should have been grateful than he wasn’t born in Alabama in 1830. A specious and facile way of thinking. Besides he attacks Nietzsche, Romanticism and Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment even though compared to those movements and thinkers, regardless of there faults he thought is puerile and shallow. Just another apologist for neo-liberalism and free market capitalism. As for existential angst, well both Swift and Beckett were deep, deep pessimists and misanthropes yet Swift courageously defended the Irish state against the rapacious British and Beckett was a hero of the French Resistance. Even De Sade, with all of his nihilism and anti-humanism stood by his principles and refused to implement the death penalty during the Terror. So it is possible to take a grim view of life and yet maintain dignity and courage.

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      3. Shallow?!? Ridiculous! As for pessimism and nihilism, there still seems to be a component of self determination. Now I realize De Sade felt we were (or should be) slaves to our nature, but to choose one way or another still gives dignity to man. The State does not have the right to commit murder in behalf of its policies. Or something like that… Anyway, I would ascribe to a more Epicurean idea: we know we have this life, we do not know what may or may not come after, so make the most of this time that we have and refrain from inflicting any more suffering on this world and its citizens.

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      4. I was calling Pinker shallow in comparison to Nietzsche, Adorno etc. In Sade passion dictates, the State is acting cold bloody and without passion to defend an abstract principle, therefore it is wrong. Plus if murder is wrong why is the state sanctioned punishment for the crime an act of murder. Oh the fun of moral philosophy!

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      5. In Dialectics of Enlightenment they position De Sade as carrying the Kantian categorical imperative into the sexual sphere and therefore an enlightenment figure. I see Sade as more of a counter-Enlightenment figure, along with Blake and Goya pointing towards Romanticism. However it is a very fine book with lots of valid points and a central text of the Frankfurt school.

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      6. I’m not entirely sure what that means…. didn’t the categorical imperative mean that the action had to be universally agreeable to all persons? Certainly de Sade would have infringed upon the sexual rights of someone! Maybe I’m not understanding …

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      7. Well De Sade would have to jump through hoops to met the categorical imperative but that’s De Sade. The overwhelming nature of sexual desire means that his characters act as if the maxims of their actions were to become through their will a universal law of nature. Plus do not forget the will of every rational being is a universally legislating will. So a special reading of Kant could led to Sadean conclusions, but Kant is not an easy read.

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      8. Alright,, so I wasn’t off in left field, with my comment about Sade. So at the core, our very natures (especially on a sexual level) fall into that same categorical imperative – it’s what we all want in the end?

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      9. As Kant denies free will and sexual desire is so compelling Sade puts it into the categorical imperative for sovereign individuals, who can then impose their desires upon others until another stronger sovereign individual comes along and imposes their will.

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  2. You pessimistic sly. Well but yes, I tend to think around these lines as well. An additional message along the ones of Pinkerton would be that negative news we are surrounded by are used by our governments to influence us inhabitants, keep us in a constant state of fear and intimidation, so that we may nurture the faith in law enforcement of our own country and distracted from major deficiency in the system. Fact is that news are highly processed and used to channel our thoughts and opinions into specific directions. Thank you so much for your posts, truly thought-inducing.

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    1. My pleasure, I do try to provoke thought and to look at subjects at a different angle. The information we receive is definitely skewered and everyone has an agenda. Pinker’s agenda is to uphold the status quo and that the plebs should be happy with their bread and circuses well those in power don’t have to wipe the smug smile off their face.

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  3. The “best of times” when the US President denies the problem of climate change, while other leaders acknowledge it but don’t do much about it in practice. The “best of times” when the incarceration rate in the USA is the highest in history since that of the USSR under Stalin’s terror, when US parents are pushed by media to be ever more paranoid and controlling of their children, and children deprived of any liberty become ever more depressive.
    Who are the real visionaries? At the beginning of 1914, Victor Plarr wrote about the writer Ernest Dowson and fellow artists:
    ‘The “tomorrow one dies” phrase recurred constantly in Dowson’s talk … The young men of the Decadence were for ever acting and speaking as though after their time all would be chaos, and yet that period is twenty years ago, and they are many of them dead, and everything goes on as usual.’

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    1. Pinker and others of the New Optimists ilk wrote their books either prior to Trump even if they are published after and they themselves would be anti-populist because they are fine believers in the neo-liberal, free market end of history routine. I am sure they would argue that it is just another blip of some sort. I used the quote from De Sade as it has an anti-humanism and rubbishes the idea that a better world can be found in quantity of data. Needless to say I have no time for such vapid, Pollyanna ideas that is merely meant to keep the masses in its place, shut up and be happy that you weren’t born in the past seems to be the basic thrust.

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