An epigraph to a long article in The Guardian newspaper recently caught my eye. The article was written by the prominent psychoanalyst and writer, Adam Phillips, who argued, with his customary lack of clarity, that the pursuit of happiness through pleasure often makes us unhappy—hardly an original thesis.
The epigraph came from Roland Barthes, the French structuralist philosopher who advanced learning and knowledge by about as much as Bernie Madoff advanced Wall Street’s reputation for financial rectitude. It went as follows:
A fly bothers me, I kill it: you kill what bothers you. If I had not killed the fly, it would have been out of pure liberalism: I am liberal in order not to be a killer.
I find it astonishing that such abject, shallow, sub-Tolstoyan nonsense should be given credence or considered worthy of quotation in any context whatsoever.
Is to kill a fly really the first step in the descent to killing men, as Heinrich Heine had said that the burning of books would eventually lead to the burning of men? Last night, for example, some people singing drunkenly in the street bothered me; was I bound to kill them because, a few hours earlier, I had taken the life of a wasp?
And in what sense is reverence for life a peculiarly liberal, rather than merely human quality? Certainly many a liberal—in the sense of the word that I think Phillips must have meant in quoting Barthes—is now much in favor of euthanasia, and not therefore opposed to killing.
Let us reason more accurately than the great French philosopher. I saw a fly land on a liberal’s nose. Therefore I became a conservative, in order to avoid flies.
Alas, that there should be so little logic in the midst of so much education!