The Case for Dueling
Make it "Life and Death" Again
In one of my previous posts, I wrote about how I’d just watched the movie Ridicule and how the world of cutting insult and wit of Versailles sort of reminded me of Twitter at times. That’s probably giving Twitter a bit too much credit, but after I wrote the post friend remarked how there was something Utopian about making the Versailles experience accessible to all. Maybe Utopian, maybe dystopian, who knows. But it’s worth remembering that the word societé originally referred to what we’d now call “high society,” the refined world of salon and the court. Previously only the aristocrats lived in society, now we all can live in society, for better or worse. But these places were always sites of “social mobility, too”: if you were a bourgeois artist for example, you could be welcomed into aristocratic circles through your wit and talent alone. Or, like Rameau’s nephew, in the dialogue by Diderot I discussing about in the other post, you could grift a living from the rich by being amusing.
The experience of society as totally corrupt and false is pretty old. It was often the bourgeois or the bohemian artist, that is some kind of outsider, entering into society that had this realization: They were attracted to the glamor and the appearance of self-assuredness, elegance, and poise the participants demonstrated only to discover that the original denizens they so wanted to associate with were all insecure strivers as well, or else just total dodo birds. The world of culture, Hegel wrote, is a world of alienation. Rameau’s nephew has to constantly become something else to survive, to alienate himself from himself, to play the various amusing roles that are expected of him by his aristocratic patrons. (Marx also enjoyed Goethe’s translation of Diderot Rameau’s Nephew.)
Smart and sensitive people have various reactions to the experience of alienation experienced in society. Moliere’s character Alceste in The Misanthrope can’t stand the hypocrisy and falseness of society and wants to replace it with what some people would call “radical honesty” today. He’s an object of fun in the play: of course, no one can live according to the rules of integrity he has set down. Rousseau thought Alceste was just right and should not be made fun of: society was just a den of lies and a more authentic life could be found in nature or a more wholesome form of community. He hated the aristocratic society that desired his approval and attention as a famous author: he found his patrons and admirers to be scheming against him. He sounds paranoid and probably was, but if you read about the way people in society behaved themselves at the time, there’s something plausible about his fears. People in society engaged in all sorts of weird games to amuse themselves, from patently malicious gossip to “help” that was just infuriating meddling in people’s lives.
But it’s unlikely that the people Rousseau encountered and drove him crazy had a sense that they were being deliberately wicked towards him. They were probably just being polite, that is sometimes behaving one way while thinking or believing something else. It became second nature to them to be false, as it does to us all in one way or another. So one response was to imagine a different form of life, a new type of politics and community, or try to find oneself in solitude. Rousseau tried both; he seems like he was a miserable S.O.B.
I think most people find some way to adjust to themselves to the falseness that society imposes on us. Most of us have to play roles, some people find it fun, some people find it alienating and an imposition. Even authentic people have to work and cultivate what they feel is their authentic self in the face of social pressures. They are also playing a role, just one of their own choosing. Although usually if one looks closely they are following a model long set down, one maybe even centuries old. In any case they are pursuing the same logic of recognition that the false society operates on, just demanding it works on their terms: accept me, praise my integrity. Once that happens they just become another model of behavior, that is, another opportunity for pretense and falseness, a “role” someone can play. What to do?
A fight over distinction takes place. The self-conscious beings in society demand recognition as such. “I am smarter! I have more integrity!” In this context, the struggle for recognition takes the form of insult and mockery: one party is shown to be foolish, an inert stupid type, (insults often take the form of placing people in a typology, the more precise, the funnier and better) the other party shows themselves to be self-conscious, superior, witty, able to see more clearly. They have esprit, the dullard lacks it. But nowadays there’s no recourse if someone goes beyond acceptable raillery and moves into truly wounding territory, saying things that can hurt other’s reputations or sense of self. You can sue, of course, or you can appeal to Twitter mods, but that doesn’t settle anything in a satisfying way. We must have satisfaction.
I propose we return to the beginning of the whole dialectic: certain things, certain insults should automatically result in a duel. If you refuse to fight in the duel, this should result in a permanent loss of social status. Then you have no honor. The thing is these duels would probably be relatively rare: if the possibility of serious injury or death attends your words, you might be more careful what you say. There’s a lot of recent complaints about self-censorship. I say there’s not enough. Just imagine how much people would censor themselves if there was dueling! Also, since you might have to fight, people’s modes of expressions will become more refined: they will perfect more a more interesting language about their foes, they might even start to write about topics of general interest since they have to be very abstract while mocking their enemies. In other words, we should drastically raise the stakes. People act as if everything on the internet is a matter of life and death already. Why not actually try it for change? I don’t think you need to be a real tough guy, either. I recently learned that even Marcel Proust fought a duel. If sickly and frail Marcel could do it, so can you! So, be forewarned, if you cross me, I will demand satisfaction.