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A Swarm in Anger


Notwithstanding the case made for Wordsworth in the current Harper’s, I hold steadfast to the belief that Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the Prometheus of English Romanticism. Moreover, Coleridge is such a vibrant and roguish figure put side-by-side with Wordsworth. He might make the perfect student radical – if transported into the era of the 1968 student revolts, for instance. He had a wild and beautiful imagination, a fixation on the artificial paradise, an esthetic obsession, and he was much taken by things German from the era of classical idealism melting into Romanticism, of Kant, Goethe and Schiller. Like Carlyle, he worked hard to import the best of this tradition back to Britain. But in truth his skills as a translator are somewhat suspect – that is, the translations he rendered are works of art themselves, but not necessarily too faithful to the original. Into this bin we could cast his translation of Schiller’s great Wallenstein, but likely also the long-missing translation of Goethe’s Faust for which he was paid ?100 in 1814, but which never quite made its way into print. The Coleridge Faust is expected to make its publication debut this fall, probably in September, thanks to Oxford University Press and the career-making detective work of Professor James McKusick, a University of Montana philologist who verified a musty manuscript as the long-missing work of Coleridge.

In the last week, the print and broadcast media have been filled with reports about the tightly-knit band of Neocons and their attempts to influence the sentencing of their Queen Bee, Scooter Libby. I kept thinking back to Coleridge as translator and one of his typically brilliant observations drawn from the study of German philology:

I have often thought, that it would be neither uninstructive nor unamusing to analyze and bring forward into distinct consciousness, that complex feeling, with which readers in general take part against the author, in favor of the critic; and the readiness with which they apply to all poets the old sarcasm of Horace upon the scriblers of his time: ‘Genus irritabile vatum.’ A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we well know, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism. Having a deficient portion of internal and proper warmth, mind of this class seek in the crowd circum fana for a warmth in common which they do not possess singly. Cold and phlegmatic in their own nature, like damp hay, they heat and inflame by co-acervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased temperature of collected multitudes. Hence the German word for fanaticism (such at least was its original import) is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, Schwärmen, Schwärmerey.

The passion being in inverse proportion to the insight, that the more vivid, as this the less distinct; anger is the inevitable consequence. The absence of all foundation within their own minds for that, which they yet believe both true and indispensable for their safety and happiness, cannot but produce an uneasy state of feeling, an involuntary sense of fear from which nature has no means of rescuing herself but by anger. Experience informs us that the first defence of weak minds is to recriminate.

S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, ch. 2: in Collected Works vol. 7/1, p. 30-31 (Bollingen ed. 1983).

Now a couple of keys to understanding this passage for the Latin-, eighteenth century English- and Old High German-challenged. The first quotation “Genus irritabile vatum” is by Horace (Epistles 2.2.102) and means “The irritable (or touchy) species of poets;” the second expression “circum fana” would mean “around the temple,” but the sense here clearly is of people gathered or pressed together in a religious ceremony within a temple. The word “co-acervation” was defined by Dr. Johnson as “the act of heaping.” The German term Schwärmerei stems, just as Coleridge says, from the “swarm” of bees, which has an identical English and German root. It was coined by Martin Luther in 1527: he used it to describe some of the Protestant faithful who broke with him and began to espouse a politically radical primitive Christianity with traits strongly critical of secular authority. Thomas Müntzer was a key figure among them.

Now Coleridge’s image of the world of bees in mindless anger and his extraction from it of the observation that “the first defense of weak minds is to recriminate” is brilliant, and it seems to me it perfectly describes the reaction of the Neocons to the Libby sentence. Indeed, it tells us why these men – who are so quick to claim their natural talent at governance – are indeed so nightmarishly bad in everything they have of late undertaken in the affairs of men and state. (Though as with every group, there are some exceptions, and with this one, I continue to be greatly impressed with Zalmay Khalildad). Let’s just catalogue a few of these remarkable individual beestings from the Neocon hive, stirred to anger by the Court’s sentence:

  • “A dozen legal scholars,” a veritable who’s-who of the Neocons in legal academia, submitted a post-sentencing brief in which they argue that the prosecution of Libby must be overturned because special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has no lawful authority. In their brief, the academic luminaries argue that the notion of prosecutorial independence is so old-hat. What we need, is a new vision in which prosecutors are strictly subordinated to political figures, and made to do their bidding. (Sounds just like the proposition that Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales and their go-between, Monica Goodling, have been busily implementing already). The list includes Robert Bork of Yale (now in the papers for his tort suit against the Yale Club over a recent slip and fall he suffered), Vikram Amar of the University of California Hastings, Randy Barnett and Viet Dinh of Georgetown, Douglas Kmiec and Robert Pushaw of Pepperdine, Richard Parker of Harvard, Gary Lawson of Boston University, Thomas Merrill of Columbia, Earl Maltz of Rutgers, Robert Nagel of the University of Colorado, and that “political liberal” Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, reports the New York Sun.

  • Marty Peretz, writing his blog at The New Republic: “That there is so much unabashed joy at the prospective imprisonment of an American patriot is a disturbing mirror of our national life. For this, the Bush administration bears much responsibility. Still, this case is an exercise in vindictive vengeance. That it was begun by an obsessed prosecutor who had failed in at least one and far more important instance endangering our security and that it was stamped “approved” by an uncomprehending judge for whom the only aftermath to a guilty verdict is a prison sentence, these are common failings of our system of justice.” (A wonderful example of why Marty is rapidly emerging as the magazine world’s equivalent of David Broder.)

  • Fouad Ajami writing at the Wall Street Journal (which has already printed so many hysterical pleas for Libby that I’ve lost count of them): “In ‘The Soldier’s Creed,’ there is a particularly compelling principle: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This is a cherished belief, and it has been so since soldiers and chroniclers and philosophers thought about wars and great, common endeavors. Across time and space, cultures, each in its own way, have given voice to this most basic of beliefs. They have done it, we know, to give heart to those who embark on a common mission, to give them confidence that they will not be given up under duress. A process that yields up Scooter Libby to a zealous prosecutor is justice gone awry.”

  • MSNBC’s foul-mouthed Tucker Carlson (whose father Richard Carlson sits on the board of Libby’s defense fund), in an interview with Salon: “If it is in fact true that she had served under nonofficial cover and was then working at Langley, the story is why was CIA calling her covert? … CIA clearly didn’t really give a shit about keeping her identity secret if she’s going to work at fucking Langley… I call bullshit on that, I don’t care what they say.”

  • William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writing in the Neocon house organ, reacts to a White House spokeswoman’s statement that Bush will not intervene: “So much for loyalty, or decency, or courage. For President Bush, loyalty is apparently a one-way street; decency is something he’s for as long as he doesn’t have to take any risks in its behalf; and courage–well, that’s nowhere to be seen. Many of us used to respect President Bush. Can one respect him still?”

Are there none in this crowd who have managed to maintain a smidgen of sense? Well, indeed, there is one, who deserves to be called out for keeping his wits and judgment and resisting the pressures of the Neocon signature Group Think: Andrew McCarthy. Writing in National Review Online, McCarthy says:

the ardor of his supporters — including, I believe, NR — has hurt him, and hurt the conservative movement, in very fundamental ways. As to him personally, all this passionate rhetoric about his heroic service to the United States, how the investigation should never have happened, and how he got unfairly singled out and screwed (all of which I agree with) would be fine if it weren’t obscuring something fairly important: Lying to the FBI and a grand jury is a very bad thing, even if we all think it was an unworthy investigation.

The blather about the foibles of memory is just an excuse for people who don’t want to confront that inconvenient fact. Foibles of memory come up in every trial — they were particularly highlighted in the Libby trial because the defense hoped to score points with them given the nature of the charges, but they were not materially different from what happens in every trial. That’s why we have juries.

McCarthy, a former career prosecutor, builds from the simple principle of equal justice – the same rules must apply to Neocons and the others. Can you really have a bifurcated legal system in which the Neocons are suited out with a stack of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards? Ultimately that’s the issue and it’s what lurks behind the swarm from the Neocon hive.

The bees are disappearing around the country, and alarm bells sound. Times are grim for those Neocons. Perhaps their historical moment is passing. We can always hope.

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