Alan Jacobs — Breaking Bread with the Dead

La démonstration de Jacobs « en faveur d’une généalogie de l’amour » n’est pas une invitation à lire les classiques, ou seulement de manière tangente, mais une défense du conservatisme au sens le plus noble du terme. Breaking Bread with the Dead se referme après quelques pages consacrées à Seamus Heaney, poète irlandais jusqu’au bout des ongles qui n’a jamais soutenu la cause nationaliste.

Jacobs porte la même contradiction : tout en abjurant le Parti républicain trumpisé, le professeur de sciences humaines se tient à distance des tenants du « progressisme » le plus avancé, et semble parfois les rejeter dos à dos. Avec un livre de Simone Weil à portée de main gauche et un tome de G. K. Chesterton à portée de main droite, il pose la question de la dissociation de l’œuvre de l’auteur.

La conservation d’une œuvre ne dit rien de son auteur, mais tout de ses lecteurs. C’est un cliché, dans les deux sens du terme, du génie de l’époque. Le racisme de Hume, le sexisme de Joyce, l’antisémitisme de Céline, sont des étalons à l’aune desquels nous pouvons mesurer le progrès de l’humanité. Il faut lire les classiques précisément parce qu’ils nous sont étrangers au mieux, intolérables au pire.

Ils nous informent sur notre identité, souvent forgée à leur contact, et dévoilent les défauts que nos futurs lecteurs nous reprocheront. Voilà le conservatisme de Jacobs : non pas celui de la droite la plus bête du monde qui agonit le présent parce qu’il dévie du futur rêvé par les images d’Épinal, mais celui qui veut protéger le futur des images que nous dessinons aujourd’hui.

Ce n’est pas une mauvaise raison de passer un weekend pluvieux en compagnie d’auteurs morts et enterrés depuis des siècles, mais c’est précisément celle qui motive mon progressisme. Le futur ne doit pas être protégé, il doit… être. Lisons les classiques, oui, mais n’oublions pas que l’histoire s’écrit au présent.

Notes

Un « esprit tranquille », p. 8-9 :

The suspicion that there’s got to be some better way for people to live has the salutary effect of suppressing reflex. To open yourself to the past is to make yourself less vulnerable to the cruelties of descending in tweeted wrath on a young woman whose clothing you disapprove of, or firing an employee because of a tweet you didn’t take time to understand, or responding to climate change either by ignoring it or by indulging in impotent rage. You realize that you need not obey the impulses of this moment – which, it is fair to say, never tend to produce a tranquil mind.

Le concept de « densité personnelle », qui me rappelle l’idée chestertonienne d’« amplification spirituelle », p. 18-20 :

However, these insights, though powerful, are not what this book is about. I will not try to convince you that a knowledge of history will protect you from the propaganda of tyrants, or sharpen your political judgment, or even help you to identify fake quotes online – though I believe that a knowledge of history will indeed produce all those good things. I am going to try to convince you that the deeper your understanding of the past, the greater personal density you will accumulate. […] We might add, in light of our earlier discussion of social acceleration, that insofar as that acceleration traps us in the moment, the more weightless we become. We lack the density to stay put even in the mildest breeze from our news feeds. Temporal bandwidth helps give us the requisite density: it addresses our condition of “frenetic standstill” by simultaneously slowing us down and giving us more freedom of movement. It is a balm for agitated souls. In other words, this is a self-help book.

Le partage du pain, p. 28-29 :

Fortunately, we live in an enlightened society that has transcended such irrational narrowness and exclusivity. Right?

Perhaps not so much. We are certainly still concerned with the clean and the unclean. Consider this recent phenomenon: restaurant diners discovering that a politician or media personality from the Other Side is eating at a nearby table, and agitating to have the offender cast out. We might also think of people who won’t sit at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Passover dinner with those whose politics are simply too alien, too repulsive: and note that it’s not being in the same room that defiles so much as sharing a meal. As the Clementine Homilies say, “when we have persuaded them to have true thoughts, and to follow a right course of action, … then we dwell with them."

If we cannot break bread with our contemporaries who violate our political commitments – whose views seem so alien and wrong that to share a meal with them feels like a kind of defilement – then it would seem that asking us to break bread with the dead is a futile act indeed. But perhaps not.

Simone Weil dans le texte, p. 36 :

And this is also true of any legitimate interest in the past. Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.

Le problème des réglages par défaut des réseaux sociaux, p. 49 :

Nevertheless: we all need better strategies for making decisions, because the defaults we have inherited have costs that we are rarely aware of – and one of the purposes of this book is to increase our awareness of those costs. Just as our word-processing program gives us a default font that we might not have the energy to change, and a digital thermostat offers preset temperatures that we might not be sure how to change, our social media feeds assume that we will be interested in… what everyone else is interested in, which will surely be something that happened today. We may not know that we can change the default settings of the media machine; we may know but lack the time and energy to do so. And so those settings continue to reinforce the presentism that they’re claiming merely to reflect. By reading and considering the past, we cut through the thick, strong vines that bind our attention to the things of the moment. Our attention thereby becomes more free.

Pardonne-nous nos offenses, p. 71-72 :

Long ago C. S. Lewis wrote that Petruchio’s words “are very startling to a modern audience; but those who cannot face such startling should not read old books.” This is harsh, I think – there are good reasons why women who know that the patriarchal order has scarcely been demolished might prefer not to sit and watch a celebration of it – but there is something a little odd, and not satisfactory, about trying to combine a disinclination to be “startled,” at least in that way, with an appreciation for “the classics.” Maybe there’s something to be said for those who just refuse to read or watch such stuff: at least that refusal acknowledges that you can’t simply reshape “startling” texts in your own image. Surely we have lost something vital when we have lost the power to be startled, even offended, by the voices from the past. To say “This text offends me, I will read no further” may be shortsighted; but to read a “great book” from the past with such reverence that you can’t see where its views are wrong, or even where they differ from your Own, is no better. Indeed, in foreclosing the possibility of real challenge it is worse.

Identité et altérité, p. 99 :

The experiences of these two men testify to the enormous power of reading. But the experiences of Abrahams and Douglass also show us that that power arises in some cases from likeness – from the sense that that could be me speaking *and from difference – *that is someone very different from me speaking. For mental and moral health we need both. Our presentist moment overemphasizes the former and neglects the latter – or rather, rarely even acknowledges the latter. We tend to get at the need for otherness in different ways.

De la différence entre « instruction » et « enseignement », p. 109 :

In this model, whether employed by the right or left or by some other political agenda that doesn’t fit on that scale, the books of the past may well be useful instruments but they cannot be our teachers. They cannot teach us in part because we are refusing to listen to what they have to say that doesn’t fit into our preexisting categories.

Identité et altérité (bis), p. 134 :

This is wonderfully true and powerful; but there’s something also to be said for that moment when a figure from the past who has perfectly anticipated something you already believe then turns around and says something that puzzles or alienates you. That is, I firmly believe, the greater moment of enlightenment: the moment of double realization. To confront the reality that the very same people who give us rich wisdom can also talk what seems to us absolute nonsense (and vice versa) is an education in the human condition. Including our own condition, which is likewise compounded of wisdom and nonsense.

« Un tas de pierres », p. 157 :

To see the art of our ancestors can be an incredibly powerful thing; but we want also, we can’t help but want also, the human voice, to hear those who came before us speak to us. And when they do speak with human tongue, even when it’s in writing, they make themselves hard to ignore. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has spoken of the revelation that came to him when he realized that Jerusalem is “just stones.” Just stones! Well, one can choose to see them that way. But no one can pick up an old book, open it, and think: just marks. Just ink sprayed on wood pulp. We may despise the words written there, or think them irrelevant, but we can’t escape knowing what they are. Another human being from another world has spoken to us.