Monday, 4 April 2011

The Bakunin desire

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

The Bakunin desire
Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust!

On the 25th of May last year, I dropped one of our soup bowls into the kitchen sink and broke it. This was a sorrowful event, not because of the material value of the thing, but because I feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility whenever I am the cause of death; in this case, ‘death’ I define as the cessation of this particular bowl’s state of being a bowl: the end of its ability to function in terms of what it had been called into being to accomplish. We had bought the bowl at a hundred-yen shop about ten years before, in the first year we lived in this house. It and its companions (other bowls, both shallow and deep, and a few large plates) are examples of a pattern that was common at the time, but which has since disappeared from the shops. They must have been machine-made to some extent, but each one is different: there are subtle distortions in the form of the bowls that suggest human involvement in shaping them; the glaze was applied to each in a similar style but with a slightly different effect each time. The pattern on the plates and inside the bowls is a gentle, graduated spiral caused by spinning the unfired dish while quickly running a brush charged with glaze over its surface. These are simple, cheap vessels, which still manage to possess the virtue of things passed from the hand of the maker to the hand of the user, although this passage admittedly involved industrial-scale mediation between makers in China and users in Japan, at quantities of several thousand units at a time. Bowls from China are still available from the hundred-yen shops, but this kind of bowl is no longer made: once our supply is exhausted in random incidents of clumsiness when I am at the sink, there will be no more. The bowl I broke on the 25th of May last year was once a simple thing, acquired casually and for no other reason than the fact that we happened to lack bowls of that size; but, over time, the accidents of industrial production had turned it into a rarity, and years of good service in use had imbued it with the beginnings of a personality. Sentimentalist that I am, it seemed to have a tragic and forlorn conclusion: this line of thought that spun out in my mind as I finished washing the dishes, taking as much exaggerated care with the survivors as I did with the memory of the newly-deceased bowl.
When I broke the soup bowl, it moved me to reflect on how I break things: the effects of clumsiness both small, such as dropping a bowl in the sink, and large, such as inadvertently throwing over a whole way of life. Twenty-one years ago, in the spring and summer, I was engaged in the business of leaving university and faced the prospect of choosing what would become my career. Without giving it much thought, I fumbled a couple of academic options to continue my studies, dropped a couple of job opportunities that would have kept me at the university, and bumbled my way into a clerical position that I went on to occupy for the next ten years. Then, when I decided to move to Japan, in all the excitement and novelty of my new experiences, I failed to notice one of the terrifying consequences of emigration: that it is no longer possible for me to bumble, because I no longer have access to falling back on what I had done before, if what I try to accomplish fails to work out. There’s nothing unique in these aspects of my experience, save in the particulars of the situations I encountered, but my example does serve to illustrate how easy it is to break dishes on a grand scale. A time of decision can slip by without being noticed; out of manic enthusiasm, a decision can be taken without forethought: these simple acts of clumsiness can bring the structure of a life crashing down, and shut off access to a way of living. It shows how easy and how difficult it is to change: how quickly one thing can be destroyed and something else move into view, even though the ‘something else’ may be terrifyingly vague and formless. At the same time there’s a shining beauty in the act of falling off the flatbed-truck of destiny: failure pushes me to embrace the forces of creative destruction. In one of my notebooks, I called this ‘the Bakunin desire’.
When I speak of this ‘Bakunin desire’, it reflects an error in my thinking: it cannot refer to Mikhail Bakunin himself, because my ‘desire’ does not reflect any desire of his, nor is it a desire to be like him; it has nothing to do with political philosophy at all. I am using ‘Bakunin’ as an adjective, referring to an urge to synthesise all the contradictory impulses and impressions that come upon me when I think about change and destruction: it’s all very mystical, and distinctly non-revolutionary. Still, Bakunin’s famous maxim was not the product of the mature anarchist’s thinking: he wrote about the creative aspect of the destructive urge not long before he threw over an academic career of his own, after he’d already rejected being a member of the military or civil service in Russia. He was still an intoxicated Hegelian at the time, and mystical, too; the full conclusion of his essay The Reaction in Germany reads: Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too! He wants us to think of the great dialectic of History here, but of course he’s not very far removed from Shiva and Vishnu, or of the conception of divinity long held here in Japan, as being inherently creative and destructive. Which is to say that destruction is not an evil in itself, but an expression of one aspect of a continuity of being that is the source of all creation, of all life. Bakunin is inviting us to see radical change as something emanating from the same quasi-divine force that quickens all living things. If I can hold up under the pressure of the unknown, it may even relieve some of my anxiety at the number of times my hands have lost their grip on what I was meant to be holding.
Bakunin escaped his Siberian exile by slipping out of the country aboard a trading vessel bound for Japan. He was briefly in Yokohama in the fall of 1861, before making his way back to Europe via San Francisco, Panama, and New York, with a spell in Boston. His life was a series of arrow-shaft trajectories between clearly defined points, with little time spent fumbling and bumbling as I have done. When he spoke of trusting in the eternal Spirit, of the unfathomable and eternal source of all life, he had the good fortune not to be as superstitious and sentimental about it as I am. The Bakunin desire, the desire to submit to creative destruction, has always left me feeling at once liberated and terrified. I can’t imagine that such thinking ever bothered Bakunin very much, but I inevitably find myself wanting to hold on to everything as it has always been, even as I embrace the idea that the destruction of our civilisation would not lessen the store of creative potential in the world. On the 26th of May last year, I glued back together the pieces of the bowl I had broken in the kitchen sink. It no longer has the strength to function as a serving-bowl for food, but I have it here beside me on the desk. Some chips are visible on the outside, where bits of the bowl had been too small to recover, but the pattern of swirling brushstrokes is still clear, and the form of the bowl is still as lovely as ever. Whatever Bakunin desires I may harbour, still my revolutions are always accidental, the products of clumsiness rather than any overall plan. Whatever it is that I have been called into being to accomplish, I hope I can get it done without breaking too many more dishes.

The quotation from Bakunin’s The Reaction in Germany is from Sam Dolgoff’s 1971 translation.