gall and gumption

Friday, March 24, 2006

Gerda -- III

If you're just arriving, here's Part I and here's Part II.

"These conditions apply to too many people all over the world to make me regard Gerda as isolated. She is an interantional phenomenon. But all the same I think that there may be enough Gerdas concentrated in separate areas to make her in effect a nationalist phenomenon. She probably exists in sufficient numbers in Central Europe to make it an aggressive and, indeed, irresistible power. She was, after all, the determining element in the Austro-Hungarian Empire all through the nineteenth century. The parasite city of Vienna, spoiled by its share of the luxury the Austrian and Hungarian nobles wrung out of their peasantry, and terrified by the signs of economic insecurity, howled all the time to be given other people's loaves. Think how furiously they demanded that they should be given preference over the Czechs in seeking employment, that they should not have to pass such difficult examinations as the Czechs for entrance to the Civil Service. It must have disgusted a proud German like Bismarck, who was an aristocrat, a rounded ma who repudiated nothing of life and knew the peasant's role as well as his own, and who was not afraid. But Gerda would have thought the agitation quite natural.

"Let us admit it, for a little while the whole of our world may belong to Gerda. She will snatch it out of hands too well-bred and compassionate and astonished to defend it. What we must remember is that she will not be able to keep it. For her contempt for the process makes her unable to conduct any process. You remember how when we met her at the station at Belgrade she expressed an opinion on the book you held in your hand, The Healing Hand, which was sheer nonsense, becauseu she had not read the book; she imagined that she could judge it by her knowledge of the bare fact of its existence. You saw at Ochrid how she had not the faitest idea of what Communism is and how it is distinguished from Social Democracy, though she was once a Cmmunist herself; she had obviously never thought of making any effort to find out what was the creed behind the church she had joined simply because it was large and many other people had joined it before her. You can conquer a country on this principle. To go up in an airplane and drop bombs is a simple use of an elaborate process that has already been developed. But you cannot administer a country on this principle....."

I've quoted this at length because, it's good to bear in mind, that World War II was imminent. At the time of this visit, the Nazis had already had their putsch in Austria. West's husband, considering process, is looking back at the financial mess that Germany was between the wars, for one thing. "Consider the disastrous history of Austrian and German banking since the war," he says, "which is not to be explained by anything except the sheer inability of bankers of Gerda's kind to realize that banking is a process in which due regard has to be paid all the time to the laws of causality."

By the time the book came out in 1940 his prophecy had become horribly horribly true. He gave them about five, maybe ten years before the Gerdas would pull something. That turns out to have been a rather optimistic calculation.

It sounds quite prophetic for our time, too, or worth thinking about. Suppose instead of the nice cellophane-wrapped loaf of bread he was talking about oil? And suppose Gerda was a Security Mom? How much of the current fears about security can be laid to feelings and impulses such as he describes here? A lot, I think. And I'm sure other current analogous situations will suggest themselves. When I read this whole passage I felt I was having one of those experiences when literature of the past was looking at me and the times I live in, rather than the other way around.

I love the arc of this argument from the very specific observation of one person's behavior, to the recognition of a social type, to seeing how these impulses, organized and given a lot of power -- say military power -- are destructive on a vaster scale but on the same principle. That's what I wanted to share, at least till the publishers bust me on fair use. But you should read the book. When I ask why people do some things -- I used to wonder about the Serb violence against the Bosnians in teh 1990s, for instance, and all the articles I read that tried to explain it would depart into these summaries of ancient history. But they didn't explain the violent impulse. This passage, I think, is one explanation of the violent impulse, and it places it really really near.


At 9:46 PM, Blogger Leigh said...

Let us admit it, for a little while the whole of our world may belong to Gerda. She will snatch it out of hands too well-bred and compassionate and astonished to defend it.

Yes, and it is happening right here, right now, isn't it?

Thanks for this.

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