Sunday, August 22, 2004

Some Thoughts on Fellow Travelers

Inspired by the previous post:

The fellow traveler never pulls the trigger himself. That much should be clear. In this sense, he is simultaneously morally superior and spiritually inferior to the executioner, at least in the sense that the executioner retains the courage to act on his beliefs. The fellow traveler is philosophically active but practically impotent; that is, he is a vicarious figure, who enacts his political and spiritual desires through others. He desires to shed blood, but does not. He desires to storm the ramparts, but does not. Whether this is a product of subconscious qualms or simple cowardice is relevant, but it is not essential to the issue. What is essential is the supreme importance of proximity; most importantly of all, the proximity to violence.

Violence in the hands of the fellow traveler--metaphorically, of course, since all fellow travelers are highly scrupulous as to their purity in this regard--is both confirmation and catalyst to their own inner sureties and the deeper crisis simultaneously at work. The intellectual man--and most fellow travelers are intellectual in nature; that is, they live most fully and confidently among the insubstantial--is a man who lives with ghosts. His thoughts lack the animating qualities of blood and sweat, those intoxicating byproducts of battle. Moreover, as the fellow traveler is, almost by definition, a man of some intelligence--although in most cases a relatively mediocre intelligence--he is hardly unaware of this terrible contradiction. The man who lives insubstantially can go farther than the man who lives resolutely in the concrete world. His mind can conjure up dreams, nightmares, fantasies, and terrors with a torturous ease. But this is a Promethean condemnation, for the intellectual is forbidden, by the very insubstantiality of his existence, from ever touching these amorphous visions; he is condemned to be tortured by their stubborn incorporeality.

To this impasse, the man of violence offers a terrible and yet irresistible consummation. The intercourse of ideology; the shared mutuality of belief, of faith; between the fellow traveler and the executioner offers to the both of them a means of escape from the weight of their respective chains. For the executioner, it offers him a transcendence which is both justification and absolution. No man who kills--except for the most redolent sociopath, who are fewer and farther between than many of us like to think--can ever fully escape the condemnation of his own memory. The blood of his victim is on his hands, and though others may not see it, he does; and the thing lives, festering in his bowels and adding weight to his every step. But the ideology of the fellow traveler, which links the act of murder to the breaking forth of new ages and new freedoms; which turns murder from an act of violence into an act of revolution; which transmutes the defiance of morality into a revolt against an unjust god; bears the executioner aloft on its wings, and leaves him with a lightness which can seem to the man of violence to be nothing less than a redemptive grace, a merciful commutation of an eternal sentence.

To the fellow traveler, however, the gift is nothing less than a new existence, an infusion of life into that which had been merely words, thoughts, dreams, easy intonations. Like the exanguinated shades of Pluto's underworld, who would come to life as they infused with blood; the intellectual, finding himself in sudden proximity to violence, indeed, to the quickening presence of death, feels himself enthralled with a new life and a new commitment. For, as every totalist movement has learned, the act of murder solidifies and commits as no other act can do. Once death has been wielded, and once one has become implicated in its excisions, there is no turning back. The beheading of kings, the concentration camp, the bullet in the back of the head in the dawn light of prison yards have all been the means by which men of violence implicated their inferiors in death; by which they bound their fellows too weak or too pure of heart to wield its power to their designs. And the fellow traveler needs this commitment. He cannot exist without it; or rather, he cannot feel his own existence without it. His is a selfish resolution, what he seeks ultimately is to satiate himself. His existence is vampiric, parasitical, pure in the sense that it is purely egotistical; it is narcissistic in the classic sense; he is drawn forth, despite his protestations of altruism, to satisfy his existential desires; and thus murder, by his witness, enters into his deepest self and resides there like a cancer, spreading until it consumes. For no one who bears witness, as so many have learned to their regret, can ever be truly innocent.

What, then, is the measure of guilt for the fellow traveler? Can we indict him with the same alacrity as we indict the executioner? Can we call him accessory? Advocate? Enabler? Is he, like the man who drives the getaway car, to be considered as fully indicted as the man who pulled the trigger?

Perhaps we must grant the fellow traveler his own special category, for his crime is a unique one. It is a crime of hypocrisy and of existential selfishness, a self-regard so total that it can encompass both murder and the negation of murder within the same sphere of mural surety without the slightest trepidation. There must be a place set aside for this manner of crime, for this form which monstrousness takes. For, in truth, the fellow travelers crime is uniquely debased, because, despite his protestations of absolute altruism, he is, in fact, utterly self-consumed. His is a crime of indifference of the most aggressive kind, an absolute indifference, a failure of empathy so total that it can countenance murder by its opposite, and embrace death by its negation.

And, in his own way, the fellow traveler indicts us all. We are not all of us men of violence, we are not all of us capable of wielding death. But we are all of us capable of indifference. And we are all, in some measure, attracted to power, attracted to the terror which murder arouses within us. We are all fellow travelers in waiting, and, if only as a warning, his condemnation ought to be the most total, the most absolute. For the fellow traveler is, finally, a man who ought to know better, a man whose intelligence and protestations of conscience are his own judgment; and in attempting to condemn the world, he condemns himself alone, and all of us with him.