Friday, 14 September 2012

A Return to Postwar Humanism?

I am interested by the statement made by the leftist London cultural historian Ken Worpole, in his response early last year to new editions of novels by Alexander Baron [here], that ‘we sorely need’ a ‘return’ to the ‘vital postwar humanist “moment” in European cinema, fiction and intellectual life’. I can certainly identify the category of postwar humanism in terms of (what I have called elsewhere on this blog) ‘English existentialism’: Murdoch, Wilson, and quite probably Gascoyne, Read and Baron himself. Karl Jaspers is presented by Chris Thornhill as an – perhaps the – exemplary German humanist thinker of the immediate postwar period. But as I read more deeply in Thornhill’s books, I am realizing that the postwar German moment of reconstruction was far from straightforwardly humanist: there is also the functionalist strand of social thought, or social philosophy, which culminates in Luhmann’s antihumanism. I wonder too whether, within the British context, Worpole’s category of postwar humanism is not rendered similarly paradoxical by the development of welfare state ideology: the British functionalism?  

I found Worpole’s article via Susie Thomas’s worthwhile piece for the Literary London Journal, ‘Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963): Remembering the Holocaust in Hackney’ [here]. I have written about Baron's wonderful novel myself elsewhere, though I have not been able to approach its treatment of the war. Thomas notes of Baron’s protagonist Harryboy Boas:     

‘Harryboy's longing for oblivion, and his repeated failure to retain any material possessions, is also connected to the fate of the Jews in postwar Europe: in particular to the need to be exonerated of the guilt of surviving. At one point Harryboy considers becoming a slum landlord in the East End: “I could get a whole tribe of immigrants in here, straight off the boat, paying me a pound a week each to kip on mattresses on the floor. My golden future”. But he loses the houses in a crap [sic] game: “Empty, the burden of possession lifted from me, I walked away”. Only by having nothing can he remain innocent.’

This resonates, I feel, with my own strangely innocent and contactless life, as a London-born, guilt-born son of an East German refugee, and in particular with the idea of a 'vocation of obscurity', which I propounded in my book Iain Sinclair and then, on this blog, in relation to Hamann's early form of Christian existentialism. It is as if already with Hamann, humanism is contiguous with a more Eastern-style, Zen or Daoist detachment from the subject, an abdication of agency; in the same way, perhaps, as a dialectic of humanism (manifesting for example as post-Kierkegaardian decisionism) and antihumanism (Heideggerian indifferentism/fatalism; Schmitt?) later emerged to vividly characterize interwar German thinking.