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New Left Review 14, March-April 2002


If bourgeois society requires both ceaseless economic dynamism and permanent ethical stability—disorder of invention and desire, order of labour and justification—what figures of the imagination offer a synthesis of these contradictory demands? The intertwining of routines and romances, virtues and villainies, in Scott and Goethe, Dickens and Balzac, Zola and Mann.

TERRY EAGLETON

CAPITALISM AND FORM

Many a ruling class has sought to erase from historical memory the blood and squalor in which it was born. As Blaise Pascal admonishes with arresting candour in his Pensées, ‘The truth about the [original] usurpation must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.’ [1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Harmondsworth 1966, pp. 46–7. Kant, too, was wary of speculation on the origins of political power, which he thought a menace to the state. [2] Hans Reiss, ed., Kant: Political Writings, Cambridge 1970, p. 143. It is not just that these are bloody and arbitrary; it is also the sheer scandal of an origin as such, for what was born can also die. It is certain, Hume writes in his Treatise of Human Nature, that at the origin of every nation we will find rebellion and usurpation; it is time alone which ‘reconciles men to an authority, and makes it seem just and reasonable’. [3] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford 1960, p. 556. Political legitimacy, in short, is founded on fading memory and blunted sensibility, as crimes come to grow on us like old cronies. So it is that in Britain, France, Ireland and elsewhere, historiographical revisionism in the late bourgeois epoch comes to rewrite the heroics of revolution as the pragmatics of power, in a ceremony of self-oblivion which is not without its neurotic symptomatology.

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