Diffidence, Humility, Weakness, and Other Strengths: Subjunctive Prophecy

J. Perl

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"Perhaps be damned," Ezra Pound wrote in the margin of The Waste Land typescript, at the point where Tiresias has his vision of the young man carbuncular. Some quatrains later, T. S. Eliot has the prophet saying "may," and Pound has crossed out the word, then explained: "make up yr. mind—you Tiresias if you know you know damn well or else you dont." Pound was well-read, whatever else might be said of him, and it is interesting, to those who think distinctions among modernists worth observing, that Pound should notice that prophets tend not to say "perhaps," whereas Eliot, in his even more extensive reading of prophecy, did not notice (or care). The poem does seem a better, a more laconic, poem for the deletions of "perhaps" and "may." Still, the century might have been a better century had various Eliots said, "No, Ezra," to their Pounds—decisively. It appears that Ezra Pound was thinking, not simply of Eliot's poem and its decorum, but more universally: that "perhaps" should be damned to hell. Pound's "Canto 30" is a complaint against pity, irresolution, weakness of any kind (" . . . Pity forbiddeth them slaye . . . / none may seek purity . . . / Nothing is now clean slayne / But rotteth away"). And following Pound from those lines to his trial for treason, you can see where—precisely hell—a life without "perhaps" may land you. [End Page 449] It is worth considering that prophets may speak imprecisely, provisionally, subjunctively. Take, for example, the recent fulfillment, at the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, of Isaiah 11:6. Isaiah says that "the calf and the young lion" will lie down together, whereas it is an antelope—a pair of oryxes, to be precise—that a lioness (motives unknown; she looks depressed in the news-agency photograph) has adopted and fed since last winter. It would seem that, one day, not long ago, "perhaps" entered her worldview. She became a devoted if forlorn adopter of antelopes that, until then, she had deemed delicious. Much as at Christmas 1914, German, French, and British soldiers chose to play ball, chew the fat, and decorate trees together rather than, however briefly, shoot each other dead. (The "spontaneous truce" is the theme of Stanley Weintraub's book, Silent Night.) Or take the experience of Oxfam's manager, Tony Vaux, on learning that his representative in Belgrade had nearly been killed by a NATO missile. "I suddenly had the feeling," Vaux writes in The Selfish Altruist, "that I might be on the wrong side. And then came the more chilling realization that I should not be on any side at all." Does diffidence or uncertainty—whatever the opposite of self-justification is—entail conversion? Is riding backward from Emmaus the best way off a high horse? Our continuing symposium on enmity and related mysteries is based on a different hypothesis: that even educators are educable. Proceeding generically, "Peace and Mind" in its third installment considers philosophical self-denial, literary humility, and historical diffidence—the exemplars are Wittgenstein; Bakhtin; Turgenev and Herzen—then samples the moral je m'accuse of Péter Nádas and the antipolitics (almost impolitics) of Adam Michnik. Gianni Vattimo has for years suggested "weak thought" as an alternative to the strength or power that so many intellectuals, misreading Nietzsche, have imagined is a quality of intellectual life. Vattimo is now a member of the European Parliament and encourages a public-spirited weakness that Rei Terada's portrayal of Wittgenstein, which follows on our interview with Vattimo, may help to clarify. Terada's Wittgenstein is the Ubermensch Bound—rebound in chains of his own making, in defense of conventionalities against singularities like himself. The "ideal of compassionate self-denial" that Nina Pelikan...
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)449-451
JournalCommon Knowledge
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002


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