Today’s topic: Political texts, from The Art of War, to Utopia, to The Communist Manifesto, have been grossly misunderstood. Often used in the opposite context to which they were written.
By Kaill McNeil
Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay declared the author was dead. Unlike Nietzsche’s death-notice for God, Barthes was writing metaphorically. Referring to the primacy of authors’ intent when analyzing a work. The irony of him publishing this, and expecting to be taken seriously, clearly lost. Ignoring Barthes, which he invites, mistakes have been made. Key intents of major political texts, lost in interpretation. The opposite message, from that intended, entering the zeitgeist.
An early victim of literalism, was The Art of War. Much like The Lottery the title belies the purpose of the writing. Far from a catalogue of gore, giving directions on how best to kill, it is a spiritual and political treatise, outlining how conflicts can be won with little fighting at all. Most of the methods detailed, involved alternatives to open war, using cunning, subterfuge, and politicking to get a desired result. Author, Sun Tzu, makes it plain that a commander who resorts to open combat has failed.
Similar to Sun Tzu in terms of intention, as well as misinterpretation, was Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher, politician and intellectual whose last name has come to mean everything sinister and underhanded. ‘Machiavellian’ is not a descriptor to which most aspire. It is an underserved reputation rooted in a single text. Published in 1532, The Prince was a genuine attempt to guide new rulers. When The Prince was published, Italy was less a single, united country, than a patchwork of semi-autonomous city-states. Far from being a manual on subterfuge and evil intent the text was written as a primer for upstart monarchs on the benefits of being even-handed and fair. If anything, Machiavelli was a moderate trying to keep the peace. His name more applicable to the likes of McGovern or Biden than Trump or Nixon.
Left Not Right
Equally misapplied, George Orwell’s worldview encompassed none of the elements the use of ‘Orwellian’ implies. Very much a fuzzy Liberal, with some unavoidably colonialist attitudes, Orwell’s primary concern was authoritarianism. Not the obvious and brutal authoritarianism of European fascism, embodied by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Spain, but the much more insidious one further east. Few authoritarian empires pulled a more successful con job than the Bolshevik leaders of the then Soviet Union. One that still has supporters today.
Heaven to Hell
While the Bolsheviks promised the underclass heaven, they were being loaded on trains to Hell, or to the Gulag, pot-eh-to pot-ah-to. Something laid out in scathing fashion in the pages of Animal Farm. The treacherous pigs a perfect metaphor for ordinary citizens who continue to believe in a revolution that has been utterly and completely betrayed by those in power.
In his final novel Orwell describes a world where individuals are told to reject the evidence of their own eyes and ears, where thinking for yourself has become a crime. 1984, is thought by many to be anti-Nazi, despite the fact it specifically mentions a group called “The Proles”, uses international time (“the clocks were striking thirteen”) and describes intentional changes in language. The Russian of the Soviet Union and German of East Germany are markedly different from the Russian of the modern era, or the German of the West. This was just one of the reasons it took nearly 25 years for East Germany to reintegrate into the West after 1990. Also, in terms of naked symbolism, one of the tanks that roll by in the film version has a red, five-pointed star on the side. The biggest clue, though is in the name of the party. Simply called The Party through most of the narrative, there is occasional mention of Ingsoc, or, English Socialists.
Utopia Never Was, And Never Will Be
Less popular now than the above texts, Thomas More’s Utopia has had more of an impact on western culture and philosophy than almost any other book. Published in 1516, under the reign of Henry VIII, Utopia is not what most think it is. The book was a short novel, not an essay, or treatise. It is a work of fiction, and what’s more, satire, poking fun at the ‘perfect society’ thinking of the Tudor era. Thomas More gave such believers their perfect society. Described in exquisite detail, and given a name that, in Latin, translates literally to ‘no place.’ Utopia does not exist, and that was More’s entire point.
It just proves that most people hear the title and assume they got the message. Sometimes it actually requires reading the text, or being smart enough to track the real meaning of the words you are reading. Hope to see you next week, until then,