Hope against hope

As I have mentioned a time or two before, the cultural left exerts a tyrannical force policing our speech. Witness the case of Elon Musk and X/Twitter. The cases can be multiplied endlessly. You don’t need my help on this score.

The cause of free speech threatens to become the exclusive property of conservatives. Wherever the left holds sway, free speech is a dying or dead letter. The utopia implicit in leftist thought provides for thought control as well. The left means to stamp out our heterodox thoughts as well as our nonconforming speech. Guilty thought gives rise to guilty speech!

The concept of free speech arrived late in human history. With the fate of Socrates in mind, writers who took up political subjects from Plato forward nevertheless found the means to express their thoughts. They did so through the use of irony, concealing their true thought beneath the surface or between the lines of their writings.

This is the subject of Arthur Melzer’s superb 2014 book, Philosophy Between the Lines. Melzer is a great teacher. Just about every page of the book provides a model of, and a lesson in, humane learning.

Melzer uses the terms “politic irony” and “pedagogic irony” to express the means of those who wrote about politics but obscured their true thought. “Politic irony” is defensive. In illiberal societies, one can’t say what he really thinks about the defects of the powers that be. The fear of persecution counsels prudence. One must speak and write in the most guarded terms. One must use “Aesopian” language, as they put it in the regimes of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Melzer specifically addresses the lineage of “Aesopian” devices in Russian poetry, prose, and film at pages 130-133 and 302-304 of the book.

Irony also serves a “pedagogic purpose.” Ironic literature imposes a discipline on the reader. It compels the interested reader to rise to the challenge. Melzer quotes Aquinas: “The very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”

Nadezhda Mandelstam was the widow of the famous Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a victim of the Gulag in 1938. The publication of her memoir Hope Against Hope (translated by Max Hayward) in 1970 was something of an event. The New York Times review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gives a sense of the impact it had at the time.

Mandelstam referred to and memorialized her husband in the memoir as “M.” Early in the book she discusses the ubiquity of informers — she refers to them as “adjutants” of the regime who “wrote” reports for the secret police. Unable to speak freely, the Mandelstams and their friends resorted to irony. She explains:

We tried to become adept in Aesopian language. At parties with graduate students we always raised our glasses first “for those who have given us such a happy life,” and both the initiated and the students understood in the required sense.

It was quite natural for the “adjutants” and all the rest of them to “write,” but the odd thing was how we were still able to joke and laugh. In 1938 M. even declared he had invented a device for the suppression of jokes as a dangerous thing: he would move his lips silently and point at his throat to indicate the position of the cut-off device. But the “device” didn’t help and M. couldn’t stop telling jokes.

Melzer doesn’t cite Mandelstam’s memoir, but it provides examples of “reading between the lines” that have stayed stuck in my mind since I read it more than 30 years ago.

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