02 Sep

“Popperian” is a word. It is not quite so exotic as “Bohm-Bawerkian” but it is nonetheless pretty impressive according to me. It would be great to work either or both into my fiction, and perhaps I will manage it one day.Naturally it would be great to discover in a future life looking down on some admiring soul as she or he writes “Evansian” (pronounced e-VAN-sian, thanks) and love her or him for it. Is this likely to happen? No. My paltry contribution, if any, to literature and the life of the mind is a shrunken pea next to these two great intellects. This does not worry me, though it does worry me that I may not reach out and touch the people I would like to touch through my writing. Like all writers, I write to be read, and in the vast seas of literature now washing around the planet, it is not easy for one’s public – assuming it exists – to spy what a writer has to offer and snap it up, sharks for style…Popper must have known he would have a public when he was writing the book that led to his fame –The Open Society and Its Enemies. This amazing extended essay – my version came in two volumes, each with an elaborate set of notes in tiny print to back up the main text – took the stick to Plato, Hegel and Marx, and anyone else the future Sir Karl had in his sights while he toiled away at Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Popper’s book was not published till after the Second World War, but had an immediate effect, particularly in relation to Plato, whose reputation has never really recovered from the trashing Popper meted out. Popper’s basic thesis was that thinkers who advocated closed systems, with roles attached to various strata in society – as for example in Plato’s Republic – were enemies of freedom and dangerous to society. Of his three targets, he had the greatest sympathy for Marx, who he saw as motivated by the harsh conditions for the vast mass of the humanity around him in his time – but, he believed, not merely wrong, but seductively wrong in the worst possible way. Nowadays even Marxists must sympathise with Popper’s position in the wake of Stalinist atrocities reflected wherever that monster’s example has held sway – Mao’s China and Saddam’s Iraq but two…all accounting for millions of deaths.

What Popper argued most forcefully was the unknowability of life, the messy, haphazard way things happen. Supposing an inevitability to social development, he said, was wrong in theory, and terribly wrong in practice. Dostoevsky’s prophetic novel Demons, showing ideologues ruthlessly condemning innocent people to try to fit reality into the mould of their ideology, comes to mind.

Popper’s argument about society was a correlative of his ideas about science, that gave his name its “ian”. But it is the social aspect that is most compelling to me – even if, as some may say, he really got it wrong about Marx. According to this view, Marx was betrayed not by his own ideas but by their interpretation by his presumptive followers, be they “vulgar Marxists” or worse, Stalinists. Marx never claimed to know what socialism would be like, this argument runs, on the unsurprising grounds that since it was an entirely different kind of society, he would be unable to picture it. And he was careful, as his friend Engels was careful, to point out that “relapse” from a later stage of civilisation to “barbarism” was always possible: like Spengler later on, they recognised that societies rise and fall, and what this might imply. There is some force to this argument though there is also a great deal of merit in the criticism that Marx wanted to have it both ways; “socialism is inevitable, but I don’t know what it will be like” sounds kind of weird really.

To me, trying to figure out the right way to live, to have a philosophy that sorted things out, Popper has been a shining light. He allows me to see life in all its astonishing, hilarious and tragic uncertainties and dimensions, to take in what is worthwhile in thinkers like Marx and Plato – he could find nothing at all virtuous in Hegel – while not falling prey to dogmatism. And when I am writing, or working on writing, Popper’s steely gaze scans my lines as I try to reflect my ideas in interesting stories. This has worked out – or not – in different ways in all my books. The Russian Idea, my most recent novel, shows something of a Popperian at work in Vladimir, Nadya’s father, while Kathe, the heroine of The Kleiber Monster, is meant to reveal the agonies of the Popperian, existentialist reality. In neither case does Popper come into it as a name. Nor does he figure explicitly in any of the others.

Whether Popper would approve or not – he died seven years before I first put e-pen to e-paper – his example shines for me in another way. He stood for things, at a time when doing it was difficult intellectually and dangerous personally. But even if this weren’t true, his ideas are important, it seems to me, for any writer wanting to deal with ideas in any way at all. Many writers are in his debt without ever having heard his name.

As for stars and lollies, I reckon a Chupa Chup for anyone who’s got this far, but ten yellow and four purple stars that may be stuck on the case of the PC. Thanks for reading.

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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter, Uncategorized


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