How to disobey
On Disobedience and other essays
Who said ‘What matters is that man is much, not that he has much or uses much’? No, not Gandhi, nor a religious. It was Karl Marx. The accusation of being locked into materialism that is so often laid at Marx’s door - often by people who have never read any Marx at first hand - is carefully put into context by Erich Fromm in his last book, On Disobedience and other essays, published posthumously this year.
Of course, Fromm recognises, Marx was concerned that people should have basic material needs met. But the point was to free them from a preoccupation with survival so that they could be freer to get on with the work of becoming fully homo sapiens. Meeting material needs was not an end but a beginning: Marx’s aim was, says Fromm, not maximum but optimum consumption.
Unfortunately, the result of affluence in the modern West seems to have been not freedom but the emergence of ‘homo consumens’ - Fromm’s bête noire. He characterises such a person as ‘an eternal suckling’, crying for more and more material goodies to fill up the hollowness inside. But the hollow will not go away, says Fromm, until he leaves his ego-bounded greed: ‘Can he leave the prison of his own separate existence? Can he make himself empty? Can he be open to the world? As the mystics have expressed it can he be empty in order to be full?’
In this book perhaps more than any of his others, Fromm makes explicit his understanding of what he calls ‘radical mysticism’. And he reaches through this understanding to the eternal verities which he believes underlie the world’s varied philosophies, from Christianity to Humanism, Islam to Zen. But this is not a book of theology. Fromm does with his perceptions what few others dare to do: he links them with political analysis and also with psychological interpretations. In this he is specifically a man of and for our times, Marx, as Fromm points out, limited himself to a political and economic analysis of society because he didn’t have a psychological vocabulary available to him. Back in the mid-nineteenth century. Freud and Jung hadn’t got going. But the mid-twentieth century demands a synthesis of all these strands, political, psychological, and ethical-spiritual - and Fromm is the man to shoulder the task.
Readers of Fromm’s other books will know that such synsethes are his forté. But books life Fear of Freedom, though brilliant, are complex and detailed and require a fair bit of digesting. In this book, however, Fromm has distilled his ideas down into brief and lucid essays, much easier to absorb. It’s a good place for someone not yet a Fromm addict.
In particular I would recommend the title essay, where he argues the case for individual disobedience against the state when conscience requires one to stand in opposition to social pressure. ‘Human history,’ he says, ‘began with an act of disobedience and it is likely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience.’ The obedience that could end our existence is our passivity when authoritarian politicians rattle nuclear sabres. Disobedience is necessary unless we are to remain children, helpless and dependent all our lives on an internalised ‘authoritarian voice - what Freud calls the super-ego and Christians call conscience. Are we obediently to go to our deaths?
Fromm sees another conscience, the ‘humanistic conscience’ that has ‘an intuitive knowledge of what is human and inhuman, what is conducive to life and what is destructive of life’. It’s an important distinction. Being obedient to the authoritarian conscience can lead us to murdering innocents (as the Nazis did) in a way that taking responsibility to follow our humanistic conscience cannot.
Other essays in this provocative collection include ‘The Psychological Aspects of the Guaranteed Income’, and ‘The Case for Unilateral Disarmament’. Agree or disagree with his views, he makes you think.
Human Rights Guide
World Human Rights Guide
This book is an attempt to elucidate the state of human rights in the world - a difficult proposition, for not everybody agrees on what actually constitutes a ‘human right’. Humana uses the UN Intemational Covenant on Civil and Politcal Rights as his yardstick. This document, together with the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is reproduced at the beginning of his World Human Rights Guide. There are inconsistencies: human beings are supposed to have an ‘inherent right to life’, but the death penalty is permitted for ‘the most serious crimes’.
One hundred and fifty seven countries are assessed (by continent, presumably to allow comparison between regions) - 75 of them through a 50- point questionnaire which is generally pertinent and searching. However, Humana is mistaken in attaching equal weight to each question. The right to leave one’s own country or of peaceful assembly and association are far more important than the right to purchase and drink alcohol. The answers obtained are used to calculate a human rights rating from 0-100 per cent. I have my doubts about this, for surely such a complex problem cannot be reduced to a percentage point. (Is South Africa, at 30 per cent, better than Ethiopia at 17 per cent or the USSR at 27 per cent?) Thirty- two countries considered too unreliable for the questionnaire are classified in summary form under the headings ‘fair’, ‘poor’, and ‘bad’. Included are such repressive regimes as El Salvador, Iran and Guatemala (all classed as ‘bad’). Nicaragua receives a ‘poor’ rating.
The book is compiled from a liberal democratic viewpoint, and all liberal democracies receive very high ratings. The UK gets 95 per cent ‘despite the major problem (sic) of N. Ireland’. Women are considered by Humana to have equal rights to men, there is freedom of movement, no political press censorship, no detention without charge, no police searches without warrants, nor any torture or coercion by the state. Is this the country we live in? Moreover, since he doesn’t raise the question of a right to life, or adequate nutrition, India rates 70 per cent when a large proportion of her population is malnourished. In fact, the Guide ignores economic rights completely, so there is no attempt to analyse the distribution of wealth within each country.
Despite its flaws, the Guide can be recommended with reservation. Its ultimate value is to warn us about what could happen if we do not stay alert and allow what precious few liberties are left to trickle away.
AUNT JULIA is the narrator’s aunt. She is 32, he is 18. They fall in love and race around having whacky adventures trying to find someone to marry them, since the marriage isn’t quite legal. In this wonderfully crazy Peruvian novel, that’s the sanest part - and what’s more, it’s true. The author Mario Vargas Llosa, really did marry his aunt.
The recent English translation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (originally La tia Julia y el escribidor) should win it a place on Western bookshelves beside the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It belongs to the same ‘magic-realism’ genre as 100 Years of Solitude, a way of writing so different to conventional Western literature that it should be read for an experience of the world’s cultural diversity - giving one’s cultural tastebuds a surprise, like eating quick-fried seaweed after a lifetime of soggy baked beans.
The book begins at a radio station. The youthful narrator’s job is to write news bulletins but in his spare moments he painstakingly composes and re-composes ‘literature’: solemn short stories, heavy with half-baked symbolism. In the same building there is quite another kind of writer, Pedro Camacho. He unashamedly writes soapopera. His words flow torrentially and scripts are broadcast uncorrected to an adoring, uneducated audience clamouring for their next piece of melodrama.
But is it really so easy to separate ‘good literature’ from soap? Llosa is playing a gentle joke on his would-be sophisticated readers and the truth slowly dawns as the novel goes on.
The book is constructed so that every alternate chapter tells an instalment in the love story of Aunt Julia. But the interleaving chapters introduce us one by one to the lives of bizarre and fascinating characters, a panoply of Peruvians who lead tantalising lives. For example, we meet a tough policeman on the beat who finds a mysterious black man, his face crisscrossed with a myriad knife-slashes, skeletally thin, wandering naked in the wintry Lima night. What’s his story?
And then there’s the alcoholic aristocrat who became Peru’s foremost football referee. How did that come about? And there’s the doctor, a fine and upright citizen with an aquiline nose and a penetrating gaze, who goes to his beautiful young niece's s wedding celebrations to find the
bride-tobe’s equally beautiful brother in a state of frantic despair - and the bride pregnant. The groom turns out not to be the father of the baby - so who is? The tormented brother confesses his true love and passion for his sister. Shock, horror. What will happen next? Well, sorry, it’s the end of the chapter, time to go back to the story of Aunt Julia. You’ll have to wait for the next thrilling instalment.
And that’s the trick. You do wait, cliff-hung, each time for that next thrilling instalment. It takes a good while for the penny to drop that these chapters are Pedro Camacho’s soap-opera. For all our intellectual pretensions, we’ve been had.
The realisation only begins to dawn when we are told that Pedro Camacho’s fans have been writing in to complain that he’s getting his characters and plots mixed up - and at just about this time the perplexed reader has also begun to wonder about the plot: the stories seem to be getting more and more fantastic and the names seem to be getting mixed up. Is it the book,or is it one’s memory playing tricks...? A character half-way through the book is described as having ‘an aquiline nose and a penetrating gaze’, and the phrase seems uncomfortably familiar. Wasn’t the doctor described like this before? Yes, he was.
The plots gather up into a vast whirlwind, where bits of debris from one story line collide with fragments from another in glorious chaos. But the author’s tone never changes - everything is told in the same quiet, considered manner. Lunacy with a straight face; like Monty Python mayhem described soothingly in a voice-over by a cricket commentator. By the end one is being introduced to characters with aquiline gazes and penetrating foreheads. Sense dissolves into nonsense as the reader dissolves into laughter.
I won’t give any more away, but leave you with this thought: Llosa is much admired in Peru, not only as a novelist he’s twice been invited to head the government. Imagine Mrs Thatcher or President Reagan writing a novel like this before taking up their appointment. Perhaps it should be obligatory.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
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