The Edge of Reason

A long time ago our philosophy department had its monthly magazine for and by its students. One of the most outstanding teachers that worked with us was the heart behind the project. She had this column for which she asked all of us, her colleagues, which one book had inspired them most. Of course no one mentioned a philosophical book. We are multilayered beings, and those books that are multilayered too are the ones that inspire us most. The ones that address the head as well as the subliminal realm, that touch our aesthetic faculty and make us think all the same. I did not have to ponder long which was ‘my’ book – it was Miroslav Krleza’s On the Edge of Reason, which I have read and reread over the years in the magnificent Dutch translation that exists.

It is frustrating to try to cite from this book, as it’s strongest point are it’s long quasi-automatically written waterfalls of thought, of which it is so hard to know where they begin and where they end, that it is almost as if, at the end of the book, you are at the beginning, which makes one want to read it again. I could describe some of it’s layers: it contains a criticism of bourgeois modes of being, and the political oppression that goes along with them. Well, one attempt to show how this works:

‘Folly wears a top hat on its highly learned head, and this top-hatted folly is a form I have studied fairly closely. Indeed, I have had both the honor and the good fortune to spend my whole humble, insignificant life as a modest member of the middle class, so modest as to be almost invisible, among top-hatted people. Our domestic, autochtonous, so to speak national and racial top-hatted man, homo cylindriacus, who, as a rule, is at the head of some man-established institution, thinks of himself, in the glamour of his civic dignity, as follows: …’ (the rest you will have to look up)

Another layer of the book consists of a criticism of knowledge and of ideology – all struggles that are being fought concerning so-called truths show these to be ideological. Our understanding of the world is, says the main character, nothing else than the light of a firefly, breaching only in the smallest manner the great darkness which surrounds us. This is not a pessimistic view. It is the best view, where I am concerned, as it makes us humble. At least it prevents the self-glorification which goes along with so many systems of belief, which claim to have found the answers to the human condition.

A final layer consists of showing that the critical mind, the mind that sees oppression (which is, as I have written here: the precondition of being moral) has to near insanity. Here Krleza’s point comes close to that of Derrida in Specters of Marx, where he analyses the near-insanity of Hamlet as the flipside of his clear view of the injustices in the kingdom of Denmark. Reason, as Hannah Arendt has shown in her study of Eichmann, valuable as it is, can easily become the slave of a cruel totalitarianism. That mode of reason which is, in her words, not ‘thinking – that is thinking from the standpoint of someone else’. Insanity pure is, of course, not desirable – it is the condition of the mind that has surrendered to the overpowering injustices of human life. The condition which we need to counter injustice and cruelty is, as Krleza put it very precisely, on the edge of reason. The edge of reason is very sharp – it has the quality of a knife which can cut through common complacencies that express our fear of seeing the dangers as they are.

Miroslav Krleza lived from 1893 until 1981. He is considered the greatest Serbo-Croatian writer and I consider him one of the greatest writers tout court. The work which has been translated in English as On the Edge of Reason, appeared originally as Na rubu pameti in 1938.

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