26 May 2007

Giving up on the belief in society

copy of a letter

Although giving up on the belief in society is very traumatic, it is difficult to see what one is giving up on. One is breaking a taboo which puts one beyond the pale; one can never again feel any sense of supportive solidarity with the human race. They can all be against one; one cannot prevent this if they want to be; they are not under one’s control. One must be identified only with what is under one’s control, and that is very little.

One loses the possibility of glamour; glamour comes from social glorification, and you are stripping society of its power to glorify you. This seems, at the time, like a terrible loss. If you (say) get a Nobel Prize, it will not reinforce your sense of significance. But, you decide, you must give up on the glamour that you wanted to get from it, so that you will not be incapacitated from doing the work that may get you one, if ever you can get into a position to do such work.

And you accept that you have lost your destiny; you will spend your life asserting the significance of what should have been in loss and mourning; but you will never give up. You know that everyone would disapprove of this; ‘move on’, they would say, ‘give up’.

You must accept the discontinuity in your life in order to go on pursuing the same things as before, and mourning for their loss. More usually, people wish to retain an idea that they are still in the same life (I wished it myself); that it is continuous with their previous life, just modified.

Maybe they will get less of what they wanted out of society and in a different form, but they don’t want to think they have given up on it. This means that they will need to keep their minds distorted and decentralised.

It is (paradoxically) only by giving up that you are enabled not to give up, and pretending not to have given up means that you have really lost the essential thing.

You said how was it that, at the SPR, I could feel like a convicted criminal wearing broad arrows and be clearly aware of the implications of all their jibes and taunts, and yet really feel as much a Professor as ever, although not socially recognised as such, and regard those who taunted me, and those whose machinations had placed me in this position, as the real criminals, and as having acted badly by the standards which academics ought to have.

I think the positive part comes out of the centralisation; you don’t decide in advance that this is the position you are going to adopt. Any significantly centralising manoeuvre is, I think, experienced as negative, as loss and dangerous. You don’t know what may come of it, you may never be able to be motivated to try to get anything again. But in practice, if the effect is really centralising, positive and unforeseeable results ensue, and you find that you are confident and sure of yourself in a way that you never were before, even when your life seemed to be most successful and socially rewarded.

As for the risk of losing motivation, I found that I still had very strong motivation to get social recognition as a Professor as soon as possible, and a Nobel Prize. I also had very strong motivation to work on an adequate scale in any area where I had started to see what could be done and confidence that there would be significant progress which I would be able to make in the light of the perceptions which I already had in those areas.

This did not, of course, give me any motivation to fiddle around in those areas inconclusively or ‘theorise’ about them vaguely, as other people did. But there was a very strong drive to get into a position where I could work on them on an adequate scale. Such drives, if they could not be implemented, did not go away. But they would be less tormenting if I could be intellectually active and functional on an adequate scale in any area of work which had some realistic content, and which could be done in a way that was contributing either to my career advancement towards a Professorship or to my build-up of capital.