Casebook: Geometric Regional Novel by Gert Jonke
Proposition: A geometric regional novel cannot be an accurate portrayal of the region under consideration. Put another way, any geometric regional novel, Geometrischer Heimatroman, will inevitably misrepresent the region, the Heimat, in question.
Proof 1: Where there is a geometric regional novel there is a geometer. All
geometers are mathematicians. Goethe wrote: “Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them, they translate it into their own language, and forthwith it means something entirely different” (1279). Thus a geometer’s account of the region will mistranslate and so misrepresent what the geometer-qua-mathematician has perceived (seen, been told, etc.). QED.
That’s not a very good “proof” by most standards. Among other logical
transgressions it takes an ex cathedra pronouncement (Goethe’s) to be fact and plays fast and loose with terms such as perceived and language. However, such an alleged “proof” bears more similarity to the reasoning that follows theorems in mathematics textbooks than, say, another possible attempt to justify the proposition:
Proof 2: “Accuracy” in the sense of a so-called correspondence theory of truth
is an empty concept, hence it is nonsensical to call any account of the region in question either accurate or inaccurate. QED.
In this paper I argue that the narrators—more than one, as I understand it—in
Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel embrace the worldviews evident in both proofs. The novel suggests that while neither justification may be true in a desiccatedly abstract sense, both arguments are true to life. Both are measures of a world (literally, geometries) that is also a microcosm (a region, a Heimat) existing within a larger context. Moreover, the measures are intended for a worldly rather than a cloistered surveyor—one who does not shy away from apparent contradictions, one who prefers to take account of all available data, even if some seem mutually contradictory, than to discard certain perspectives for the sake of perfect correspondence to reality. This worldliness is necessary, for in the first place, there is no way of getting a clear view of the Heimat in general nor, in particular, of hearing a single, univocal account of what takes place in it. That is made clear by any number of devices Jonke employs—conflicting accounts of the same incident and indirect speech emphasizing the subjectivity of various per-ceptions, for instance. In the case of the second “proof,” these and other devices indicate that no better (no clearer, no more nearly unanimous, no more certain) correspondence between the Heimat and the descriptions of it could have been found. The darker side of the methods employed by Jonke’s narrators and the unsettling historical trajectory of the Heimat signify a willingness to sacrifice practical accuracy (consistent with the so-called correspondence theory of truth) for a synthetic coherence of “facts.” The hegemony of coherence is, as Goethe tells us, typical of mathematical systems, including geometries. The correspondence-coherence dichotomy parallels a distinction which Hannah Arendt has emphasized—between arbitrary, oppressive bureaucracy and dialogue-based, enlightened legislative government.
So much for the substance of what I offer below. As to form, Jonke’s tan-talizing
qualifier, geometric (geometrischer), invites an analysis couched in the terminology of geometry and mathematics as well as an examination of what such language means; I will accept the invitation by emphasizing how the concepts of congruence, symmetry, and geometric construction apply to Jonke’s novel.
Classical Observation versus Modern Construction
An important tool of the geometer is congruence, as in Euclid’s Elements I, Common Notion 4: “Things which coincide with one another are equal to one another.” By one reading, “the phraseology of [such] propositions leaves no doubt that [Euclid] regarded one figure as actually moved and placed upon the other” in order to check for congruence and thus for equality (Euclid 224-25). The late David Lachterman disputed, a fortiori, this interpretation of Euclid: “it is necessary for me to undermine the orthodox view, first established by Kant and his disciples and now enshrined in Heath’s translation and notes to the Elements, that for Euclid constructibility gives proof of the ‘existence’ of the mathematical entities at issue” (xii). (I say the argument is a fortiori since for Lachterman any sort of manipulation of figures, including movement, falls under the rubric of construction. Similarly, geometric figures are included under the category of “mathematical entities.”) Lachterman’s argument itself is fascinating, but for readers of Jonke, Lachterman’s rhetoric is less interesting than his conclusion. Cutting to the chase, then, Lachterman links constructivism (related to the Greek poiesis and techne, terms whose relevance to the present discussion will shortly be made clear) to philosophical and mathematical modernity; he contrasts this constructivist tendency to a nonmanipulative contemplation of natural objects and ideas that he holds to be typically classical as opposed to modern. (“Natural” in this sense is related to Greek phusis, nature.) By Lachterman’s account, geometry as practiced by Euclid is a qualitatively different enterprise from geometry as prac-ticed by Descartes.
The finer points of mathematics aside, Lachterman’s observations can help
sensitize us to an important aspect of Jonke’s novel. Consider, for instance, the gradual destruction of the trees surrounding the village square. At one point, the trees are an aspect of the village. Thus even though a “village” might be considered an artifact, at least its arboreal component is in fact natural rather than created. This suggests that any thorough study of the village must include the form of observation that Lachterman considers to be a classical as opposed to what he calls modern; one can know the blacksmith’s house by building it, but one cannot know a tree through the process of constructing it. Put another way, a complete geometric study of the village will have to incorporate at least some classical Euclidean methods even if Cartesian constructivism is also used. When the trees are cut down, however, there is that much less of the village to be known in the classical mode. In other words, the village is less phusis, nature, and more artifact, the product of poiesis. This applies not only to the village as thing but also to the village qua process. When the trees were thriving, one could observe the progress of the street sweeper by the way he swept leaves, first from one side of the square and then from the other. Before the demise of the trees, the square itself and the progress of sweeping it were to some degree defined by fallen and falling leaves (Jonke 28).
If Lachterman and Jonke’s narrators share similar perspectives on the transition
from geometric classicism to geometric modernity, then we would expect to see an increasing constructivism even as nature (e.g., the trees) is driven back from the perimeters of the village and of life in the Heimat. A harbinger of this sort of demise of Lachterman’s classic geometry can be seen by comparing two lessons offered by the village teacher. At one point in the evolution of the Heimat, the teacher shows his students instantiations of geometric ideals (in the sense of Platonic forms)—manifestations of “circles, squares, ellipses, semicircles, rectangles, semiellipses, sectors of circles, triangles, segments of ellipses” (46)—in the details of the village church’s interior. These are clearly artifacts, made by an artificer—an itinerant artist fleeing from jealous peers whom he had out-artificed.
Jonke’s priest and artist are somewhat reminiscent of the namesakes of
Hermann Hesse’s novel Narziss und Goldmund (Narcissus and Goldmund); in both instances a vagabond artist-sensualist is commissioned and to some degree protected by a cleric. Hesse, however, portrays his abbot as a brilliant scholar as well as a pious administrator of church property and others’ souls; the nature of Jonke’s priestly lineage is less clear. Each priest in the succession keeps records assiduously, but there is nothing to indicate scholarly aptitude or conscientious stewardship. More specifically, Hesse’s abbot is a scholar-administrator who engages in dialogue reminiscent of legislative activity—a give-and-take strategy for coming to appreciate pre-existing truth; Jonke’s priest appears to be more isolated, more the sort of figure who, in his assiduously kept chronicles, constructs the truth. Hesse’s artist excels at creating organic, lifelike, emotive pieces. Certainly any sculpture can be said to include geometric forms, but in the case of Hesse’s Goldmund, these forms are subordinate to the synergy they find in the figure, the gestalt, in its entirety. Jonke’s description of the itinerant artist’s crea-tions is quite different. The geometric figures themselves seem ascendant, almost as though the description were of an iconoclast mosque in which decoration may consist of geometric design alone and any correspondence between the elements of such design and human life is strictly forbidden. These contrasts will continue to be significant in the discussion below of legislative versus bureaucratic governance. For now, the main points are that the geometric constructions evident in Jonke’s chapel are very much ascendant rather than subordinate to complex “human” figures and that the priest who commissioned the carvings was presumably part of an idiosyncratic, indeed almost hermetic lineage.
The artist’s work—in particular, its geometric character—is shown to the village
children for the purpose of explaining social convention rather than demonstrating natural mathematical relationships. Moreover, the priest merely points and explains; he does not employ any tools, nor does he manipulate the wooden accoutrements of the church in any way. In other words, neither by purpose nor method does the lesson represent a poietic trespass on nature. Later, by contrast, the teacher uses a compass—a tool of geometric construction if ever one existed—to demonstrate the circularity of the cross-section of a tree stump. It seems plain that the children could have perceived the circular form classically, without a constructive demonstration, but the teacher chooses to deliver his lesson in what Lachterman would dub a modernist way: “He takes the large school compass, places its point into the center of the tree stump, lets the end of the other compass branch, which is suspended freely in the air, touch the circumference of the circle-shaped tree stump, traces the circle with the compass, following the circumference of the tree stump” (49). Clearly this demonstration could not have been carried out had the trees not been cut through and thus destroyed. Pedagogy aside, it is equally certain that the teacher need not have used a compass in the sense that he accomplished no epistemological goal. What he did was to show his mastery of technique and to underscore his species’ hegemony over the rest of nature; after all, the motion of the compass arm merely traces something that is already “circle-shaped” by nature. To demonstrate by pretending to construct when one could simply point and explain seems analogous to taking a trophy—to lifting the scalp from a person one has killed, for example.
Having discussed classical versus modern methods of doing geometry, Lachterman
seems to disallow any rapprochement of classicism and modernity that would permit observed and constructed realities to coexist. The reason is that the two worldviews have no (geometric) overlap: concretely, either a tree is left alive and observed in that state or it is killed and processed into artifacts; more abstractly, either the entire Heimat is accepted as an object of study as it already is or organically becomes, or else it is constructed (and possibly reconstructed too, if, for instance, it is partly destroyed by some agent such as Jonke’s mysterious mortar-eating birds, as at 110 ff.). In its classical approach, geometry measures nature and existing artifacts; the second strategy, that of modern construction, permits only familiarity with artifacts and the processes that create them.
This either-or epistemology finds a close parallel in Jonke’s region, his Heimat.
By the end of the novel, it is not just that the trees surrounding the village square have been purged. Now the utter deforestation of the Heimat is foreseen, with the result that techne and poiesis—the conception and creation of artifacts—can at last run wholly amok. “The huge supply of wood which will suddenly build up will be utilized to produce” a dizzying list of artifacts ranging from “canal pile planking” to “seats of government” to “bay windows for women looking down” (106-107). And it is not just the trees that will disappear, for “there are also many who say the whole land will probably very soon be decorated and paneled with wood” (107). Cartesian geometry will supplant Euclidean.
Jonke’s illustrations provide further data points that argue for reading the novel
as Lachterman reads intellectual history—as exemplifying a foundational change in the way we think and talk about reality—though perhaps we need to think of modernism as beginning before the seventeenth century. I take it as un-controversial that Jonke’s illustrations do little or nothing to advance the reader’s understanding of most issues central to the novel’s “plot” (such as it is). How, for instance, does the blueprint of a riverboat help us understand why people wish to travel on the water? Do we really need a map of the village (in one stage of its evolution) to understand the spatial relationship of the blacksmith’s house to the dwellings of others? How hard can it be to understand what a village square looks like?
Beginning in the miraculous decades around the turn of the fourteenth century (decades unmatched in their radical changes in perception until the era of Einstein and Picasso) and continuing on for generations, sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly, sometimes in one terrain of mentalité and sometimes another, Western Europeans evolved a new way, more purely visual and quantitative than the old, of perceiving time, space, and material environment. (Crosby 227)
So writes Alfred W. Crosby, adding:
The greatest advantage the aficionados of sight gained was simply its compatibility with measurement in terms of uniform quanta. St. Bonaventure, Schoolman and minister general of the Franciscans, proclaimed that “God is light in the most literal sense”; ipso facto, it functioned uniformly throughout time and space. . . . Westerners, monotheists fascinated with light, gloried in pantometry. (228)
We can easily apply Crosby’s remarks in such a way that a second irremediable
tension emerges from Jonke’s title. It is not just problematic that a given geometry, as a discipline where coherence is sovereign, might fail to correspond adequately to a concrete Heimat; it is also vexing that when a geometry does purport to correspond to a reality such as a geographical region, to represent it, it does so as the tool of a modern era obsessed with uniformity. (More on correspondence and coherence in the next section.) By Crosby’s way of reckoning intellectual history, any twentieth-century Western geometry is inevitably a “pantometry,” a tool of a vision- and quantification-obsessed culture that values universal applicability far more highly than regional fidelity. A geometric-regional novel is thus a paradox, a universal-particular account. As such it can function as a kind or allegory, a tale of specifics that reveals universal truths; or its elements can be locked in an irresolvable tension with one another, trying to universalize what in fact is only particular; or, finally, it can be a ham-fisted approximation of regional truths on the basis of general principles that don’t always apply (as when a neophyte psychoanalyst refuses to admit that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar).
Correspondence and Coherence Theories of Truth
Lachterman’s foundational point is that there are two epistemological senses of geometric terms like congruence and equality. In the classical case, the geometer progresses primarily through observation (naturally, as it were, though perhaps only through intense mental effort); in the modernist paradigm, thought does not proceed independently of construction. Clearly the two methods of perceiving something like congruence differ significantly from one another. But can either method yield an accurate geometry and, what is most germane to reading Jonke’s novel, an accurate geometric appraisal of the Heimat? Put another way, can either method produce results that are “true” for whatever purposes are important to the geometer?
Not in the world according to Jonke if we take the geometry to be modernist in
Lachterman’s terms. In the very title of Jonke’s novel we see an assault on the possibility of an accurate geometric regional novel. That is because modernist geometry on the one hand and the perception of a region and its mores on the other embody two essentially different conceptions of accuracy, which is to say, of truth. Metaphysicians and epistemologists call one such basic conception the coherence theory of truth.
According to the coherence theory, to say that a statement (usually called a judgment) is true or false is to say that it coheres or fails to cohere with a system of other statements; that it is a member of a system whose elements are related to each other by ties of logical implication as the elements in a system of pure mathematics are related. (White 130)
A contrasting view is probably obvious. Called the correspondence theory of truth,
it amounts to “the view . . . that ‘truth consists in some form of corre-spondence between belief and fact’ ” (in Bertrand Russell’s phrase) (Prior 223-24). At issue is the way thought relates to reality, and it is this relation that is meant by “correspondence.”
Aquinas used correspondentia in this way at least once, but much more often he used other expressions and preferred most of all the definition of truth which he attributed to the ninth-century Jewish Neoplatonist Isaac Israeli: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus. (“Truth is the adequation of things and the intellect”). (Prior 224)
Now the Heimat that Jonke’s geometer must study is presumably in large measure
a thing in the most general sense—it is external to the geometer and thus is also external to the geometry. In other words, the Heimat itself is not one or a subset of the propositions that constitute any geometry. This otherness seems to have two competing entailments, depending on whether the observer adopts a correspondence or a coherence theory of truth. On the one hand, a view of the Heimat based on correspondence requires a kind of adequation—a making equal in the sense of finding one-to-one correspondences—between epistemological terms of reference and the Heimat. But a coherence theorist might derive a different lesson from the separation. On this account the observer need not discover accurate correspondences but rather need only ensure that the intellectual tools of observation are mutually consistent, i.e., that they cohere. Systems of mathematics, including various kinds of geometries, arguably are judged good or bad, adequate or inadequate, based on a coherence rather than a correspondence criterion. If this is true, then geometries exist independently of their applicability in general and of how they are applied to particular happenings in any Heimat. This is not to say that correspondence is always irrelevant. For instance, depending on the reality chosen and the purposes of the geometer, a Euclidean geometry’s treatment of parallels might be more useful than a non-Euclidean geometry’s. But if we focus on coherence alone, then no geometry is objectively “accurate” with respect to Jonke’s Heimat or any other. An even stronger assertion: no geometry can be viewed as adequate if it is not internally coherent, no matter how apt a correspondence with the Heimat any given geometer might find. Goethe puts it more concisely:
Mathematics, like dialectics, is an instrument of the inner higher sense, while in practice it is an art like rhetoric. For both of these, nothing has value but form; content is immaterial. Whether mathematics is adding up pennies or guineas, whether rhetoric is defending truth or falsehood, makes no difference to either. (311)
(Goethe’s remarks about the primacy of form over content in mathematics obviously apply to geometry as a subdiscipline of mathematics)
Jonke’s very title tells us that his work is neither a modernist geometry pur nor
simply a regional novel. If it were a modernist geometric novel, we could look for coherence; if a regional novel, a Heimatroman, for correspondence or adequation in the sense meant by Isaac Israeli and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the case of a geometric regional novel, the two conceptions of truth—coherence and correspondence—must remain in conflict. Add that fact to the tension between Lachterman’s classical and modern senses of geometry, and at best a very slippery sense of terms such as congruence and equality will be possible. This is significant because normally we can evaluate the actions of characters in a novel and the nature of the environments in which they act with some certainty. We can do so because we are able to liken these actions and environments to their analogues elsewhere—happenings and contexts from our own real-life experience, those appearing in other works of fiction we have read, those that we think are real even though we have experienced them only vicariously (e.g., through a documentary aired on television). In short, we find congruencies. Jonke’s title serves notice that things will not be so simple between the covers of his novel.
Lachterman’s contrast between two radically different approaches to geometry
depended on the distinction between the natural and the artificial (man-made) in parallel with the distinction between classical and modern worldviews. In the previous section we saw how this distinction played out in the realm of epistemology. But what of ethics—does the distinction find any parallel effects in that domain? In most regional novels, Heimatromane, ethical issues arguably play as serious a role as epistemological considerations, and usually the two go hand in hand. Paradoxically, Jonke’s account of village entertainment provides the best illustration of the turn from the natural to the artificial in the realm of ethics.
Two Tightrope Walkers, Jonke’s and Adam Smith’s: Symmetry, Sympathy, and the Presence or Absence of a Single “Human Nature”
An itinerant troupe of acrobats enters Jonke’s village and offers, among other diversions, a tightrope act. As the townspeople watch the progress of the tightrope walker, they “are tensely silent with open mouths” (22). By one account, the branch of a tree to which the high wire has been secured breaks, causing the walker to fall onto the crossbar of the winch of the well in the town square, breaking his back: “a few people are said to have screamed like mad, while others threw their hats in the air or reached into their coat pockets, taking out the rest of their coins and tossing them into the center of the square . . .” (23). It would seem that the exception does indeed prove the rule here—that very few (the screamers) are repulsed by the tragedy while most are excited by or even enjoy the spectacle.
Of course one might interpret the screaming of the few as excited approbation,
as a kind of cheer. However, even if we interpret this screaming as a reaction of horror, it is nevertheless the reaction only of the few. Flinging one’s hat into the air and tossing all of one’s pocket change into the center of the square are surely acts akin to applause, no different in import than the cheers of those who enjoy watching the bull finished off by a matador or of those eagerly viewing a fallen gladiator being slain by the victor. Who knows whether these others are in the majority or not; perhaps most of the spectators are simply inert, not noticeably reacting at all. The text is mute on this score. What is clear is that even on the most generous search for a sympathetic response from the crowd, it is the only the few who react humanely. The second account, the “Report in the Fine Arts Section of the Newspaper” (25-27), is even more emphatic in underscoring the apparent death of the tightrope walker as pure entertainment rather than an occasion that would prompt concern for a human tragedy: “The people were completely carried away, responded with enthusiastic applause, and burst into frenetic demonstrations of approval” (26). Ironically, the newspaper review alludes to the “simple sensitivity of our people”(27). Any such sensitivity is apparently aesthetic in the most amoral sense.
This apparent nihilism can be underscored by comparison with one of the most
famous tightrope walkers in the history of ethical theory. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith asserts,
That this is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels, may be demonstrated by many obvious observations, if it should not be thought sufficiently evident of itself. When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation. (10)
An adverb in this passage bears emphasizing:”we naturally shrink or draw back.”
Smith’s “mob” is certainly not “the few” of Jonke’s village—those few, that is,
who might (on a charitable reading) bear a humane sensitivity to the suf-fering and death of others. On the contrary, Smith’s mob is everyman and all men. In all human beings, no matter from what social stratum, there is a natural sympathy that is the wellspring of all moral sentiment. We all have the capacity to act ethically, because we all have the ability to feel what the other guy feels. It makes no difference that he is a complete stranger. If we could watch a tightrope lose one of its anchors, see the tightrope walker fall, and finally cheer and applaud when he breaks his back on impact, then we would no longer be natural humans, no longer a part of the natural order of things. Instead, we would be monsters. We might appear to be ordinary men and women, but in fact we would be less than human in the terms of Smith’s account.
How is that possible—to be at once Homo sapiens and yet also subhuman to
the point of being monstrous? The answer seems to come right out of Rous-seau: something must supplant or at least overlay and smother nature—in this case, human nature. In the village, convention in the form of bureaucracy un-dermines any number of human traits and activities ranging from simple common sense to walking in the forest. The most striking representation of this bu-reaucracy is found in the edicts that purport to protect citizens from nature itself as well as from “black men” (Vazulik’s translation, perhaps better rendered as “boogey men”). Conventional prophylactics against a supposedly menacing nature are represented by the signs on trees before they are felled (15):
DURING STORMY CONDITIONS
STAND UNDER TREES AT YOUR OWN RISK
SECTION 42, MUNICIPAL DEPARTMENT OF PARKS.
And again (29):
STOPPING UNDER OLD TREES
STOPPING UNDER TREES
ESPECIALLY IN WIND AND STORMS IS DANGEROUS
THOSE WHO DO NOT COMPLY
MUST SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES
SECTION 42, MUNICIPAL DEPARTMENT OF PARKS.
The danger hardly requires mention, let alone an ordinance, among people who have grown up walking and working in the woods. And that is how the villag-ers have matured. A citizen of the village, for instance, “fears chestnuts and other fruits that fall from trees, to guard against that one holds his hand above his head or wears a wide-brimmed hat” (108); such a person need not be reminded of the danger of being under the trees in storms.
Bureaucracies versus Legislatures: Arendt on Bureaucracy and Totalitarianism; Tillich on Signs and Symbols
It is striking that the source of so many of the edicts issued for the Heimat, including the questionnaire to be completed by all would-be pedestrians desiring to traverse wooded areas (98-103), seem not to be the product of any legislative action, in which the merits of a proposed policy or law have been debated. Rather, the edicts emerge from bureaucracy in the purest sense—governance by the unexamined and unrestrained power of officials who are not subject to the sort of accountability that exists in a multiparty legislature. The most glaring example of this sort of bureaucratic immunity can be seen in
With regard to possible errors or harm, as long as these do not concern civil matters, bridgekeepers can neither be held accountable nor be prosecuted because the general view is that TO ERR IS HUMAN. (37)
(The caveat in § 5 seems, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, to underscore rather than contradict the point that there are no checks and balances applied to bureaucratic power. Are we to believe that criminal “matters” are immune from accountability and prosecution while civil transgressions are not? Only in a bureaucracy!)
The apparently bureaucratic as opposed to legislative nature of all such
ordinances is significant because it signals the most insidious sort of oppres-sion—an abuse of citizenry that is totalitarian. Describing Russia and Austria-Hungary at the outbreak of World War I, Hannah Arendt notes:
As much as for their rule over multinational territories they were distinguished from other governments in that they governed the peoples directly (and not only exploited them) by a bureaucracy; parties played insignificant roles, and parliaments had no legislative functions; the state ruled through an administration that applied decrees. . . .
Legally, government by bureaucracy is government by decree, and this means that power, which in constitutional government only enforces the law, becomes the direct source of all legislation. Decrees moreover remain anonymous (while laws can always be traced to specific men or assemblies), and therefore seem to flow from some over-all ruling power that needs no justification. (243)
Arendt’s description of menacing anonymity applies as well to the ordinances in Jonke’s village as to the decrees of actual totalitarian regimes. This anonymity is not just a curious feature but is in fact oppressive whether or not the government of the village and its surroundings is completely bureaucratic. (We never have a clear look at this government; we only glimpse it through such manifestations as the ordinances, the activities of the mayor, and the forced conscription of young men into the army—all of which seem anything but legislative. Even when young men of the village are about to be impressed, for instance, there is no sign of serious legislative discussion of alternatives.) Assuming the best case—that the government is not wholly totalitarian—the anonymity of the bureaucratic rule-makers is nonetheless oppressive to the point of being dehumanizing. Steinbeck knew as much when one of his desperate dustbowl farmers, about to be dispossessed, sought the identity of his tormentor in vain: the agent of the farmer’s distress wasn’t a person at all; it was “the bank.” Then why not shoot the president or board members of the bank? Because such local functionaries merely take orders from “the East.” The seemingly infinite regress from the personal to the impersonal to the yet more impersonal reveals the two key facts about bureaucracy: “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all” (Steinbeck 40). In the case of the village, even so-called “laws” (as in the chapter entitled “The New Law” (96-108)) may in fact be bureaucratic decrees. We simply don’t know and neither, perhaps, do the villagers. In that case, to whom can they appeal?
What we do know is that legislatures, the source of laws proper in Arendt’s
sense, are swayed by logical argument. Bureaucracies, by contrast, can be influenced by nonsensical means—hence the footnote to Bridge Ordinance § 3, which states that sometimes no one will be allowed to cross bridges because everyone is “on principle” suspicious at such times. The means of allaying this principled mistrust of the bridgekeepers is not, as one might suppose, to address the causes of suspicion rationally. Rather, the solution is to obtain a second photo identity card, identical to the first, even though the first is already assumed not to have been forged (36). It is irrelevant that a second card, identical to the first, can offer no new information to any official. The only possible sense to having the second card is to demonstrate that the would-be traveler is aware of bureaucratic guidelines and follows them. This smacks suspiciously of the coherence theory of truth—a sense proper to a pure geometer but not to the practical business of governance where the correspondence of theory to fact is paramount.
But there appears to be a paradox here. Again applying the correspondence-
coherencedistinction, we might interpret the bureaucracy of the Heimat as being closer to a correspondence than a coherence theory if we note the genuine rigor of geometry as opposed to the pseudorigor of the bureaucratic guidelines. In the latter, the judgment calls of bridgekeepers are critical and cannot be standardized in geometric fashion. (The possibility of disagreement between two bridgekeepers with respect to the same person is acknowledged in Bridge Ordinance § 1. 2. a (34)—the keeper on one side of a bridge might allow a traveler to pass, while the keeper on the other side might turn the same person back.) But neither are the whims of bridgekeepers an adequation of the kind sought by correspondence theorists: arbitrary edicts and decisions are divorced from reality rather than correspondent to it. What emerges, then, is a tension reminiscent of the contradiction in Jonke’s title (discussed above). Bureaucratic whim is coherent only in so far as it is bureaucratic; incoherence becomes a standard by which mutually contradictory pronouncements can be said, in a bizarre sense, to be coherent.
This is not to say that we desire complete coherence of a geometric sort when
dealing with human affairs. On the contrary, we seek a kind of fidelity that might actually require room for interpretation and thus the possibility of contradiction. Returning to the language of Lachterman, we see obvious classical precedents for distinguishing between those subjects that can be made rigorous and those that must remain amenable to the interpretation and good judgment of the reader. Aristotle leaves no room for doubt that what we now call his Prior and Posterior Analytics are rigorous in a way that his Nicomachean Ethics cannot be:
Our discussion will be adequate if we make things perspicuous enough to accord with the subject matter; for we would not seek the same degree of exactness in all sorts of arguments alike, any more than in the products of different craft. . . . And so, since this [ethics] is our subject and these are our premises, we shall be satisfied to indicate the truth roughly and in outline; since our subject and our premises are things that hold good usually [but not universally], we shall be satisfied to draw conclusions of the same sort. (2)
Apparently the bureaucracy of the Heimat emphasizes coherence in the sense of pretending to be consistent and demanding perfectly uniform obedience (i.e., obedience without exception). Yet the rigor is a sham. Aristotle suggests that the study of no aspect of human nature and behavior can be mathematically rigorous; if this is true, human behavior and its governance are likely to be, as a matter of natural fact, somewhat anarchic. Legislatures à la Arendt accommodate this anarchy through dialogue (literally words passed across the gap separating varying opinions) and thus legislative rule is classical in the sense that Aristotle is a classical thinker. Bureaucracies function differently. Again as indicated by the tension in Jonke’s title—geometric region—bureaucracies incorporate a pretense of rigor that belies inherent inconsistency. If this is contrary to a classical outlook, perhaps it is modernist in Lachterman’s sense. This would imply a tendency to construct law without regard for its practical (i.e., correspondent as opposed to coherent) and natural consequences. The shoe appears to fit, for that is exactly what bureaucracy does on Arendt’s account.
Another way of seeing the danger of bureaucracy as opposed to a legislative
system is to recognize the bureaucracy as synthetic (as opposed to natural) and random (as opposed to teleologically or functionally determined). It is difficult to believe that the eccentric ordinances of the village and the surrounding countryside could be repeated in any exact way elsewhere, that is, in another village or another regional locale. The uniqueness of the village bureaucracy thus provides an identity of a kind that is not wholly geometric in the sense of being topographical and universal. True,
The village lies in a hollow.
It is surrounded by mountains. (9)
But the village is also defined by a collection of idiosyncratic mores. Arguably the same can be said of all villages and of social collectives in general. But here we encounter two possible outlooks. One might think of the collective as being something organic or natural, consistent with what many take to be the classical Greek view of the human being as zoon politikon, a political animal. In an Aristotelian conception—which is to say, a teleological one—this social being tends not only to live in a collective but to live best in one of a certain kind. The tendency will reach its fruition, its telos, primarily through the rational coherence of its members. There is a natural end state and therefore only one best goal.
It has been pointed out, however, that the Greek tradition offers another
view—one in which
two axioms of the classic school of Greek philosophy have lost their metaphysical validity. Neither man’s reason expressed in the power of rational speech, nor his political virtue, exist a priori. The city-state . . . could not have been . . . the one essential form toward which all society tends. The typical social nexus would . . . be linguistic and secondarily topographical and economic. And we can infer that the morality of law and of justice, which for the classic thinkers was grounded in the absolute character of the city-state, was for the anthropologists simply a variable pattern of convenient and conventional usage by which any social aggregate sought to maintain inner cohesion and external protection against enemies. (Havelock 80)
The dichotomy, then, is between a teleological system (the best kind of state based on the “fit” among human nature, the natural environment, and human government) and a functional system (based on linguistic compatibility or some other sort of convenience).
Where does Jonke’s Heimat fit? Apparently, an Aristotelian teleology does not
apply. The village and its inhabitants do indeed seem to change, to develop. But do they progress? Citizens such as the blacksmith and his family build new structures; the townspeople in general move from burning charcoal to burning primarily coal; trees are cut down, and their stumps eventually removed; mortar-eating birds emerge, but at length the townspeople learn to defeat them. Does any of this constitute real progress toward a best state? Is the development of the town more or less random, or is it truly directed to what an Aristotelian calls a final cause? Unlike blindly mechanistic Darwinian evolution, Aristotelian progress includes understanding of the end state. The fact that the townspeople learn to repel birds that would otherwise destroy the buildings in the village seems to be progress of a kind. Yet Jonke is careful to note the epistemological impotence of the zoologist: “As much as he regretted it, the zoologist said, in this case, even he, as a zoologist and a natural scientist, was completely powerless and at his wits’ end” (95). Here again we see the distinction between the ability to manipulate nature in order to achieve a goal—much in the vein of poiesis and techne—as opposed to understanding nature in the sense of noesis, a robust knowledge. The villagers know what to do about the birds but not why the tactic of spraying water works. The consistence with the arbitrary nature of bureaucracy is obvious: in either case, change (whether in the realm of policy exemplified by bridge ordinances or activities such as spraying water on marauding birds) is epistemologically “blind” in a sense analogous to that in which Darwinian evolution is metaphysically blind. Jonke’s villagers know what to do when the birds come but not why they must do it; the village and the entire Heimat are evolving toward some end state but not a determinate one.
Another case in point is the villagers’ hostile reaction but ultimate capitulation to the
practice of impressing young villagers into military service. Inter-estingly, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, in a pastoral letter, use the phrase”blind obedience” when they address the issue of conscription. Hannah Arendt would have been impressed by their antibureaucratic mind set.
Catholic teaching does not question the right in principle of a government to require military service of its citizens provided the government shows it is necessary. A citizen may not casually disregard his country’s conscientious decision to call its citizens to acts of legitimate defense. Moreover, the role of Christian citizens in the armed forces is a service to the common good and an exercise of the virtue of patriotism, so long as they fulfill this role within defined moral norms.
2. At the same time, no state may demand blind obedience. Our 1980
statement urged the government to present convincing reasons for draft registration and opposed restitution of conscription itself except in case of a national defense emergency. (136)
It is understandable that a group of people would employ a survival skill such as spraying the birds just because it works; an explanatory scientific model is nice to have but not essential. But bureaucratic policies often don’t work, so why would they be perpetuated? One reasonable answer can be extrapolated from theological semiotics. Paul Tillich suggests that “signs do not participate in any way in the reality and power of that to which they point. Symbols, although they are not the same as that which they symbolize, participate in its meaning and power” (379). The result is that symbols function as bridges, making what Tillich calls “interior reality” correspond to “exterior reality.” This language is obviously reminiscent of a correspondence theory of truth, and it is important to emphasize that the correspondence is real: symbols do not work if they merely form a coherent set with one another; they must correspond to a reality. The concept is essentially Jungian in that symbols originate in the collective (Tillich does not say “racial” or species-wide) conscience. A symbol
is not invented intentionally; even if somebody would try to invent a symbol, as sometimes happens, then it becomes a symbol only if the unconscious of a group says “yes” to it. It means that something is opened up by it. . . . Now this implies further that in the moment in which this inner situation of the human group to a symbol has ceased to exist, then the symbol dies. The symbol does not “say” anything any more. In this way, all of the polytheistic gods have died; the situation in which they were born has changed or does not exist any more, and so the symbols died. (381)
We can imagine that the seemingly arbitrary ordinances in Jonke’s Heimat might
once have been just that—random manifestations of a bureaucrat’s will to power. On the other hand, consistent with Tillich’s reflections, it could be the case that ordinances once symbolized the commitment of citizens to certain ways of living and acting, probably for good (practical, correspondent) reasons. But if this were the case, would not the ordinances qua symbols simply have died—much as a politician in a democratic legislature “dies” when he no longer has a majority of constituents behind him?
Tillich does envision an alternative fate for symbols:
Religion, as everything in life, stands under the law of ambiguity, “ambiguity” meaning that it is creative and destructive at the same time. Religion has its holiness and its unholiness, and the reason for this is obvious from what has been said about religious symbolism. Religious symbols point symbolically to that which transcends all of them. But since, as symbols, they participate in that to which they point, they always have the tendency (in the human mind, of course) to replace that to which they are supposed to point, and to become ultimate in themselves. And in the moment in which they do this, they become idols. All idolatry is nothing else than the absolutizing of symbols of the Holy, and making them identical with the Holy itself. (382)
Extrapolating from the theological to the political, something similar might have
occurred in the case of the Heimat’s ordinances: they could have emerged from laws in the best sense—from collective habits that not only lubricated the interface among citizens and between citizens and their environment, but also ennobled the society by binding all of its members to respect a transcendent, external code or ideal. Certainly a secular constitution can possess an almost re-ligious aura in the bridging sense of Tillich’s symbols. But, continuing the extrapolation, constitutions and the laws they help generate, if indeed they function in part as symbols in Tillich’s sense, must also be vulnerable to idolization. Unless a legislature, a free press, or some other organ can patrol the psychic perimeter and crush idols where they are found, bureaucracies of the most arbitrary sort will create and perpetuate random ordinances.
The wording of those ordinances might also be considered geometric in an odd
sense: in Greek, logos, often translated as word, can also mean ratio or proportion. Certainly the words that constitute ordinances can codify a societal geometry in something like this quantified way. The ordinances tell us the relationship in which various members and groups stand to one another (their ratio) and what rewards and punishments are merited by (are proportional to) various acts. But this is just one sense in which Jonke’s Heimat can be analyzed in geometric terms; another term of geometric as well as social relevance is symmetry.
Symmetry and Multiple Viewpoints
The supplanting of human nature by a patently inhumane bureaucracy might be extended to the broader tension we have already seen—that between nature (phusis) and artifact (techne, poiesis). There are a number of things we conceive as being opposed to the natural, most especially the conventional, the artificial, the synthetic. We know that each of us is a child of our time (to borrow a title from Horváth) in the broadest sense—of our overall culture in whatever state of development it happens to be. In the case of Jonke”s village, there is a palpable development measured by the construction of artifacts (e.g., the priest’s chronicle of events, the building of the blacksmith’s house) and by the destruction and supplanting of nature. Most obvious on the latter score is the removal of the trees that once surrounded the village square. But perhaps Jonke’s multiple viewpoints are the most serious sign that the synthetic is in ascendancy over the natural.
Early in the novel we observe the villagers coming together to roast and eat a bull.
The animal had attacked a traveler and was killed; consistent with village custom,
The bull is then skewered and roasted in the village square.
Everyone receives a piece of the roasted meat. (11)
(Or perhaps not; more on that possibility shortly.) The mayor eats with the people. But why? “Some say . . . that the mayor does this less for culinary reasons than for psychological ones” (11). Then we learn more about the mayor’s background and motivations, only to find that “that isn’t known for sure” (12). Finally we are told that the entire scene in which the bull was killed, roasted, and shared among the villagers and with the mayor, may not have happened at all (12-14). It as though we are seeing a kind of symmetry in the geometric sense.
Imagine that a geometric figure is reflected on one of its sides or even one of the
points on its perimeter or perhaps rotated or flipped. (In mathematics, the last two possibilities are generally treated in group theory under the heading of “symmetry groups” rather than in geometry.) Suppose we look at two triangles, either one a reflection of the other (19):
What we see throughout the novel—whether in the explicit reversal in the account
of the killing (or not killing) and eating (or not eating) of the bull, the varying accounts of the tightrope walker’s demise (19-27), or the frequent use of indirect speech—is a kind of verbal reflection on a vertex, as graphically illustrated above. The resulting verbal symmetries are more or less perfect, but one thing seems clear: The sense of such juxtaposed passages is to be found in the sense of coherence; sense is nonexistent in the sense of correspondence. In other words, an account that says, “The bull attacked a traveler; the traveler killed the bull; the villagers roasted and ate the bull . . .” is neither more nor less coherent than a version that asserts, “The bull did not attack a traveler; the traveler did not kill the bull in question; the villagers did not roast and eat the bull in question. . . .” But presumably we could distinguish between some such alternate accounts on the basis of correspondence—how well or badly one statement reflects a preconstructive reality if only we knew what that reality was. But we do not; we are left with coherence alone as a criterion of evaluating language about the Heimat.
If this is true, then verbal constructions of reality are not only possible but inevitable.
Lest that sound too radical, we should remember that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus emerges from the fundamental conviction that philosophical problems will evaporate if we use language properly. Looked at from the other side, some of our convictions—such-and-so is (really) a problem—are created by the misuse of language. On this view the relationship between language and reality is symmetric rather than one-way. Wittgenstein does not deny that language can fail to correspond well to a perceived reality, but he does allow for cases in which language drives perception rather than mirrors or describes it. (Of course this general insight has precedents that far predate Wittgenstein. The Confucian doctrine of rectification of names comes immediately to mind, but on the basis of nationality and influence, Wittgenstein seems a particularly apt example for the purposes of this paper.)
Of course a narrator enamored of a correspondence theory of truth might have to
correct himself and in that sense offer different accounts of reality. But even if this is the case, it seems clear that unlike the sort of coherence-based possibilities offered by Jonke’s narrators, one of the accounts is privileged. There is a fact of the matter even if descriptions of it are subject to amendment. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s narrator begs the reader’s understanding of his epistemologically underprivileged status—that of mental patient, often heavily medicated, perhaps sometimes recovering from electric shock therapy, and certainly not omniscient. Still the narrator insists that his account is veracious in a certain sense: “But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen” (8). The reader can imagine this narrator backing off from earlier testimony about certain particulars that occurred in the mental health facility, but it is inconceivable that the symmetry is as above—that the account conceived of as an entire geometric figure would be supplanted by one of its innumerable possible symmetries. Each of the infinite number of such figures is coherent in the sense that the concept of a triangle (just for instance) contains no inherent contradictions, but some depict a given physical reality better than others. Kesey’s narrator, though possibly deranged, retains at least a shred of conviction about the correspondence of his mental images (impressions, recollections, etc.) to an external reality. The narrator transcends geometry and enters his previous, mental ward-Heimat (microcosm), so to speak. Jonke’s narrators seem not to have this certainty. They remain geometers, which is to say, coherence theorists. In this case, the sheer number of symmetric possibilities is overwhelming and thus none is taken as privileged.
The other extreme, in which no symmetry is found, can be emphasized by returning
to Adam Smith’s notion of sympathy and realizing that Jonke’s villag-ers seem unnatural because lacking in this natural trait. The symmetry of kindred feeling is absent. This is not to say that we humans always know each other and each other’s feelings, nor even that we always believe we have such knowledge. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to feel uncertainty not as a chronic, omniscient aspect of life (as seems to be the case in Jonke’s Heimat), but rather to admit the possibility of uncertainty on the grounds that one sometimes feels isolated from even those who are closest. Thus Wolfgang Weyrauch in his poem “Signale” (“Signals”):
Ich sah dich, und ich sah dich nicht,
ich seh dich nicht und ich seh dich doch,
ich sah dich nie und seh dich noch,
denn dein Gesicht ist mein Gesicht,
denn meins ist deins, und du bist ich,
und ich bin du. Wir sind die Welt,
und wenn die Lava niederfällt,
denkst du an mich, denk ich an dich. . . . (313-14)
I see you not, yet I see you still,
I never saw you yet see you still,
for your face is my face,
for mine is yours, and you are I,
and I am you. We are the world,
and when the lava’s dropping down,
you think of me, I think of you. . . . (Trans. ed.)]
Weyrauch’s point seems at least in part to be that uncertainty about reality does exist—just not always. The same sorts of Boolean epistemological symmetries that we see in Jonke’s Heimat—a is known to be a, a is known to be not a—hold for Weyrauch, but they are temporary. There is a resolution, even if it is susceptible to future doubts. In Weyrauch’s (perhaps cyclical) end state, a Smithian sympathy emerges, a sympathy so strong that subject and object are merged: “du bist ich,/und ich bin du.” It is a startling spectrum: Adam Smith finds sympathy to be a natural attribute and believes it to be the basis of all moral sentiment. He characterizes such sympathy much as a kind of symmetry of feeling; moreover, this kind of symmetry has an almost geometric palpability. We see that in Smith’s example of those observing the tightrope walker, swaying along with the artist as he inches along the rope. But the sympathy is not only coherent (in the sense of being consistent with other aspects of human nature rather than contradicting them); it also corresponds to a reality. Those with whom we have sympathy really are other, and yet they really are like us. Though that fact may be as hard for us to grasp as it was hard for Kesey’s narrator to recount his tale, there is such a thing as metaphysical truth; there are matters of fact. Weyrauch likewise allows for moments of self-doubt regarding one’s knowledge of the other vis-à-vis oneself, but in the end the doubt is resolved. Jonke’s narrators are at the other end of the spectrum. Symmetry of the self-doubting sort—a is a, a is not a—is never resolved into a symmetry of certainty in the form of sympathy. Geometric coherence, if it exists at all, never finds its fruition in a practical correspondence among outlooks.
Perhaps the reason for this difference can be found in two basic sorts of system.
For many (and I would include Adam Smith as well as Kesey’s and Weyrauch’s narrators in this camp), systems emerge dialectically; they are not the product of a single, momentary impulse nor of one isolated opinion uninformed by other perspectives. Self-doubt prompts one to engage in dialogue with others and consider alternative points of view. By contrast, one rarely has a sense that the records, narratives, and official decisions within Jonke’s Heimat are so informed. When does one see the priest, who assiduously keeps a record of his perspective of happenings in the village and the surrounding area, at the scene of the action he presumably records or engaged in fact-finding discussions with villagers? Does the “REPORT IN THE FINE ARTS SECTION OF THE NEWSPAPER” seem based on anything like observational checks and balances, despite its discussion of “consensus” and various opinion (25-27)? Do the bridgekeepers who disagree about the suitability of a traveler to cross the bridge make any effort to discuss their perspectives and arrive at a common position? Not a bit! It is as Hannah Arendt said: the bureaucratic state differs from the state whose activities are based on a legislature (i.e., a body devoted to discussion). A legislative (dialectically emergent) system is, in a sense, not a system at all, or at least it is qualitatively different from a bureaucratic system that remains static simply because dialogue is unwelcome. One suspects that Nietzsche’s mistrust of architectonics in general had to do with the lack of fluidity, of evolutionary response to valid counterargument, as well as to the hegemony of coherence over correspondence, when he wrote in Twilight of the Idols: “26. I distrust all systematizers and go out of my way to avoid them. The will to system is a lack of honesty” (946, Trans. ed.).
Would that Jonke’s villagers and we ourselves could follow Nietzsche’s example!
Would that we could avoid the grand architects of arbitrary bureaucracy and the constellation of concepts that go along with this tendency! The ubiquity of systematizers in the worst sense—geometric coherence theorists who construct their “truths” in the mode of Lachterman’s modernism and Arendt’s totalitarian bureaucrats—convinces us that the villagers cannot do so.
And what of us? Has Jonke accurately described life beyond the boundaries of
his Heimat? So it would seem. Deforestation is undeniably occurring, and worldwide reluctance to limit pollutants—as exemplified by the refusal of two U.S. presidents (representing both major parties) to embrace the Kyoto Protocol and parliamentary stalling that allows European heads of state to trumpet support with no risk of having to “walk the walk,” for instance—could spin out of control. Moreover, we have our own priests who record without having witnessed, our spiritual journalists who attempt with words alone to construct bizarre realities. Most recently, this ilk has even sought to remove the tragic from their descriptions of tragedy, seeing God’s will in a mass murder, and then to blame their innocent countrymen for the loss of life. A healthy correspondence between theory and reality is unimportant to such demagogues so long as the tales they tell are coherent, that is, consistent with their odd worldviews. A sane mind could not imagine that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, [and] People For the American Way” were in some way responsible for the murder of 4,000 or so innocents on 11 September 2001. Yet our Falwells and Robertsons spin such theories and might yet cocoon us entirely. If such non sequiturs are allowed to go unchallenged, we might find ourselves obeying bridge ordinances, hunting for the “black men” in the woods of our own Heimat, and insisting that all citizens fill out long, surreal questionnaires. Gert Jonke has given us fair warning.
1 “On the broadcast of the Christian television program ‘The 700 Club,’ Falwell
made the following statement: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’ ” ‘ ”
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