On reason

When I first decided I was going to be a writer, at around the age of ten, I wanted to be a fantasy writer and a poet. My mother still has my first folder of poems, carefully typed out like a proper book complete with a contents page. My first attempt at a novel was a ham-fisted copy of The Lord of the Rings. I wrote about a hundred pages by hand in my new black-ink fountain pen, which I subsequently threw out as embarrassing juvenilia at the lofty age of fourteen.

Both of these vocations are popularly supposed to be the antithesis of rationality: the fantasist/poet lives with her head in the clouds, oblivious to the ‘real world’. And it is true that when I was a teenager daydreams were my lifeline, my escape from an emotional universe that at the time felt unremittingly bleak.

But even then, reason and the obduracy of reality mattered to me a great deal. In the chaos that surrounded my parents’ divorce, rational thought was a means of finding moorings outside the inevitable partiality of my subjective experience. Not that I would have put it that way at the time.

Much later, I nodded wisely when I read Terry Pratchett’s dictum: ‘Only those with their feet on rock can build castles in the air.’ It seems to me now these seemingly paradoxical desires – to imagine otherwise, to reason clearly through the complexities of reality – are differing aspects of the same project.

The so-called reason that exists without imagination or feeling seems to me to be the opposite of rationality, a maimed thing that substitutes authority for critical thought and that, in its application in the world, can only lead to horrific irrationalities. One example is destroying our environment – on which we depend for our survival – for short-term financial gain. Another is the suicidal death-cult of Nazi Germany.

Authority and reason are commonly linked, although they are by no means the same thing. And both are thought of as masculine virtues. (It is worth remembering that the word ‘virtue’ itself derives from the Latin vir, man.) The feminine, with all its traditional associations to incontinent nature, is the irrational, hysterical, shrill, weak, untrustworthy and deceitful. As a result, often no masculine person need do anything more to assert his reasonableness than to be male, and anyone identified as feminine can find their reasonable arguments dismissed as ‘hysterical’.

This is to say no more than what is obvious (at least to those who are identified with this notion of the ‘feminine’, which has included Jewish men, people who are not white, and anyone whose sexuality does not fit neat binaries). It is by no means obvious to some men, whose sublime maleness embodies Reason and Authority so perfectly they need never display logic or knowledge, or indeed any semblance of thought whatsoever.

Reason is a quality on which millions of words have been written (mostly by men) since Aristotle, and I am no philosopher. But I have been thinking lately about how this marrying of reason and authority notion trickles down into everyday interactions.

Everyone, even the most publicly irrational people – perhaps especially these people – wants to be perceived as a reasonable human being. It is a mark of our humanity, a badge that says we are worth listening to. For centuries, it has been argued that our capacity for reason distinguishes us from beasts: animals act irrationally and are violent for no reason, while proper human beings judiciously act, even if it is with violence, from the most rational of motives.

In the shifting veils of subjective experience it can become dizzyingly difficult to tell reason from unreason. It is no wonder that human beings are so very fond of authority – how seductive it is, how restful, to have someone to tell you what to do! But it is frightening to watch how the substitution of authority for reason so quickly blurs the distinctions between fantasy, rationality and delusion.

We invent fantasies all the time – fairytales, economic theories – to imagine new realities. But if our imaginations are not mediated by reason, we end up with the monstrosities of collective delusion.

We are seeing such feral fantasies in our public sphere right now, where scientific method is libelled as a leftist conspiracy, or white supremacists bitterly attack historians for pointing out to them that their fantasies of Roman or mediaeval whiteness are just that, baseless fancies nurtured by decades of Hollywood movies.

These arguments, even when they are mere abuse, nevertheless claim reasonableness. It is not reason: it is authority masquerading as reasonableness; grotesque, empty-headed, redfaced, with nothing behind it except a threat, overt or covert, that anybody who doesn’t submit will be punished. It has nothing to do with the desire to understand. Words are simply noise used to silence anything that challenges their claim to authority.

Which is why, of course, it is pointless to argue with Nazis.

Image: Clouds / Jenny Laird



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Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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