Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"It is Prohibited to Prohibit"

Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches
Johann Heinrich F├╝ssli (aka Henry Fuseli)
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 1, Line 11
(Image from Wikipedia)

A girl in my American Culture course borrowed for her essay's title a quote about 'forbidding forbidding' from Ronald Fraser's book 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, which included among its many photos one image of a protester carrying a sign announcing that "It is Prohibited to Prohibit!"

I hadn't remembered that one, perhaps because it was more European than American, but my student writes that it was "one of the famous slogan (sic) used in this period," i.e., in the 60s.

At least the protester had a sense for paradoxical humor if not quite a sense of propriety. I wonder what that protester would say now, some 40 years later.

My student likes the slogan and approves of it for expressing a "spirit of freedom" -- though I could point out that it's self-refuting -- so I guess that at age 20, she's feeling the need to rebel a bit, or maybe a whole lot, against the restrictions imposed by Korea's hierarchical society.

In her essay's introduction, however, she's talking about America:
In Shakespeare's play "Macbeth" a phrase showing the theme appears during the play: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." In fact, it applies not only to the play itself but also to reality. Almost all incidents or social movements are interpreted in controversial ways. For example, some people interpret the French Revolution as disorder and chaos, while others interpret it as [a] movement of liberty and freedom. There also exists one of the most disputable moments in American history. The period is around the year 1968. The whole atmosphere of [the] 1960s-1970s term was totally different from that of the calm and stable term before it. The movement away from the conservative fifties continued and eventually resulted in revolutionary ways of thinking and real change in the cultural fabric of American life. However, it is rather a superficial viewpoint that regards this period as just turmoil. American society became more democratic through the 1960s-70s because it went through the countercultural movement of youth at that time.
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair." My student used the witches' words to describe the totally opposing ways in which people can interpret the same events, but those words also express the paradoxical, self-refuting consequences of prohibiting prohibition.

I'm even reminded of the words attributed to Hassan i Sabbah, founder of the cult of the Assassins and known as the "Old Man of the Mountain":
"Nothing is true. Everything is permitted."
Also self-refuting, but suggestive enough to inspire a Jim Carroll song, "Nothing is True," on his album Catholic Boy (probably taking it from William S. Burroughs's novel Cities of the Red Night). When I first heard that song over 20 years ago, I'd never heard of Hassan i Sabbah, but the words reminded me of Dostoevsky's famous line from The Brothers Karamazov:
"If God does not exist, then everything is permitted."
Not that Dostoevsky phrased it precisely like that ... as it turns out ... but he certainly meant something like that. And I wonder if Sabbah did too. Or was Sabbah proleptically borrowing a page from Pope Benedict's Regensburg Lecture and concluding that if Islam's God, Allah, is fundamentally irrational, then nothing is true, so everything is permitted? The logic of the Assassins and suicide bombers? If the 60s logic of prohibiting prohibition leads to permitting everything, does this explain why the Left has aligned itself with radical Islamists?

Begin with a paradox, end in violence?
Things just go from bad to worse
Starts like a kiss and ends like a curse
But nothing's true, she said everything is permitted

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