On 23 June last year, two significant events took place, for me at least. First, it was the day of Britain’s referendum on whether to remain in the European Union: I was one of the 17.4 million who voted to leave. Second, I was offered and accepted a contract from Zero Books for the publication of my novel, That Existential Leap: a crime story.
I won’t pretend the novel is about Brexit. In fact, let me offer particular assurance to readers who voted to remain that there is no mention whatsoever of the EU or the referendum. That Existential Leap is set in the 1990s, and parts of it were even first drafted that long ago. Nevertheless, the title of the novel does accidentally capture two different ways of understanding what happened last June. And if, as I believe, Brexit is closer to the former than the latter, it’s an existential leap that has been brewing since long before the supposed annus horribilis of 2016.
So while it is not a ‘post-Brexit novel’, That Existential Leap is perhaps a response to certain aspects of the gradually emerging world that spawned it. This was brought home to me in October, when Prime Minister Theresa May said people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ don’t know the meaning of citizenship. Many saw this as a post-Brexit turn to nationalism and xenophobia, and responded by reasserting their sense of world citizenship; a survey found 47 percent of Britons said they somewhat or strongly agreed that they considered themselves more as global citizens than citizens of the United Kingdom. The pivotal character in That Existential Leap would probably have been one of them
Despite the name, Siegfried is actually Scottish, but not particularly exercised about it. In fact, the young man finds himself unable to identify with anyone or anything around him – instead seeing himself in Raskolnikov, the fictional antihero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – so it’s safe to say he is not a model citizen of anywhere.
Siegfried effectively rejects everything about his given identity in order to remake himself in his own terms, which of course turns out to be harder than it sounds. He leaves home for New York, but having no desire to become a US citizen or to settle in any conventional way – even as a conventionally illegal immigrant, with a community to bed into – he is immediately confronted with a paradox:
‘He had chosen New York very deliberately, and yet without having to think about it, because of what it symbolized. Freedom, a new start. A new life, hope. But such things could never be the qualities of a city itself; they were for its citizens, however newly arrived. Siegfried was no more a citizen of New York than a backpacker is a citizen of Thailand. It was not his legal status that kept him “out,” but neither was the barrier cultural. Simply, he had no business in New York.’
Determined not to give up and return to his old life, the first thing Siegfried does on arriving is to destroy his passport, symbolically shedding the rights and responsibilities that came with his old (national) identity. He is now a citizen of the world in Theresa May’s sense: a citizen of nowhere.
And at the risk of seeming pedantic, the world is not something of which one can meaningfully be a citizen. There’s no government to vote for or pay tax to, let alone fight for. At best, claiming world citizenship is a way of expressing a vague and agreeably commitment-free affinity with human kind; at worst, it is a way of distancing oneself from one’s actual but disagreeable fellow citizens – the sort of people who voted for Brexit. In the latter case, perhaps citizens of the world form a more exclusive club than the name suggests.
Of course, national citizenship itself is exclusive, which is partly why people object to it. But then, so is the EU. The flipside of free movement within the EU is discrimination against people from non-EU countries. Granted, those who object to Brexit on the grounds that they identify as ‘European citizens’ tend not to think of it that way. They don’t mean they are European in the sense of ‘not Asian’ or ‘not African’, or even ‘not American’. They like the idea of being part of something bigger, more rather than less inclusive. But arguably, in making a show of looking outward, they turn their backs on their actual fellow citizens.
Some have traced the idea of world citizenship back to the Stoic idea of the cosmopolis, or world city. But that’s really quite different from cosmopolitanism in the modern sense of cultural mixing, the interplay of different traditions, perspectives and ways of life. Classical cosmopolitanism was much more abstract and idealistic, expressing a desire to withdraw from or rise above the messily conflicting interests and particularities that constitute politics in the real world.
I think there is more than a hint of that in the reaction against Brexit. People look at the state of British national politics, and understandably dream of being citizens of the world. But in doing so – and especially in preferring the unaccountable, technocratic governance of the EU to a government accountable to their supposedly ignorant, easily manipulated fellow citizens – in a sense they disavow citizenship altogether.
Imagine asking someone about their loved ones, only to have them answer, ‘I am a lover of humanity!’ Probing further about particular loved ones, you get only, ‘Oh, just everyone. I don’t believe in favouritism.’ You would surely conclude that this person really did not know the meaning of love. Citizenship may be less particular than love, but it does have to be particular if it is to mean anything – if only so you know whom you have to convince in order to elect a government of your liking.
Siegfried sees that, and simply refuses citizenship, refuses to be defined by it or anything else. He wants his self-definition to be his own – even if noone else will acknowledge it – and that’s the adolescent identity crisis at the core of That Existential Leap. And as I’ve hinted, this problem of identification is just as vexatious when it comes to love. Siegfried’s counterpart in the other main strand of the novel is Alexander, a Glasgow police detective undergoing a premature midlife crisis to complement Siegfried’s somewhat delayed adolescent one.
Love and mistaken identity
Any relationship by definition involves being something to someone, and a successful relationship requires both parties roughly to agree on what that something is. Alexander has a dread of being taken for something other than his true self as he understands it; in a flashback to his time as an awkward young constable in uniform, he reflects that he would think less of any woman who was attracted to the self he presented outwardly. This kind of thinking causes him all kinds of problems.
Something of Alexander’s anxiety is captured in Pascal’s Pensées (1669): ‘someone who loves a person because of her beauty, does he love her? No, because smallpox, which will destroy beauty without destroying the person, will ensure that he no longer loves her. And if someone loves me for my judgement, for my memory, is it me they love? No, because I can lose these qualities without losing myself.’
Of course, there must be a line somewhere between a reasonable objection to being valued for one’s superficial qualities, and a crazy refusal to acknowledge any property at all as being even partially constitutive of oneself. This problem is considered in the French philosopher Vincent Descombes’ recent book Puzzling Identities (from which I’ve taken the Pascal quotation).
Descombes finds an answer in Aristotle, who discusses the pride artists take in their work. This is justified because ‘in a way, the work is the maker in actuality’ or ‘what he is in potentiality, the work shows in actuality’. This means the artist would be foolish to complain that his admirers are not admiring the real him. His work reveals his ‘expressive identity’; he endows it not only with his accidental, given characteristics, but with his heart and soul, which is to say the parts of himself that he – rightly or wrongly – considers to be his own.
The idea of a character attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to realise his true self through great art is a common theme of bildungsromans. Descombes paraphrases Hegel’s comments on the form: ‘The hero’s great expectations are contradicted by the hard realities of life, and especially by his own inadequacies. The story finally ends with the reconciliation of the hero to the prose of the world. He becomes “as good a philistine as others.”’
The formula also applies to Crime and Punishment, though somewhat elevated by that novel’s focus on morality rather than art. Raskolnikov imagines himself to be above the morality of the ‘ant heap’ and must be humbled before he can be redeemed. And his admirer Siegfried is of course aware of this:
‘Dostoevsky had been trying to pre-empt and contain him, but Siegfried would not be so easily contained; he would show the world a different ending.’
It is for readers to judge whether That Existential Leap has a satisfactorily different ending. But the prose of the world has changed since the 19th century, and becoming a good philistine is perhaps not as simple as it was. Indeed, Siegfried is also aware that his adolescent rebellion has an historic as well as biographical context. Intermittently, he discerns a societal crisis that seems to parallel his own (one that DCI Alexander also confronts in a very different way). But for all the important changes that took place between the 1820s and the 1990s, arguably it’s a crisis that has been brewing for at least half a millennium.
A Hamlet in every home
In Puzzling Identities, Descombes discusses Charles Taylor’s idea of the Great Disembedding, a series of developments that ushered in the modern world (roughly since the Reformation) by allowing individuals to conceive of themselves as such, as individuals distinct from their social status and role. It feels natural to us now to think of society as being made up of autonomous individuals, rather than individuals being defined by society, but that in itself is a culturally conditioned assumption.
Moreover, it is an assumption that forces us to confront the question of who we are as individuals and how we stand in relation to society. As Descombes puts it: ‘Each of us has become (more or less) an individual through a labor of self-fashioning that consists in de-socializing one’s idea of oneself.’ Siegfried may be an extreme case, but it is important to all of us to have a self that is not reducible to our heritage, occupation or any other demographic classification.
Of course, for most people for most of the past several hundred years, there has been relatively limited room for manoeuvre. Peasants and labourers have not traditionally agonised over their true calling. But that is not to say they have not had inner lives, dreams and frustrations. The mass political struggles of the modern era were driven by masses of individuals combining because they did not accept the limitations of their given social roles.
The peculiarly personal form of identity crisis that drives the bildungsroman of course has a long history – Descombes discusses both Martin Luther and Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exemplars – but it no doubt reached a critical mass in the 19th century among bourgeois young people with time on their hands. It certainly did not stop there, though. The spread of rights, prosperity and mobility in the 20th century greatly increased the scope of individual freedom. Even if most people continued to have a conventional job or career, marry, have children, they were increasingly aware that these were choices they were making, a fact highlighted by the minority who opted for alternative ways of life.
Young people have to confront these choices as they approach adulthood, often resulting in either teenage rebellion or angsty self-absorption, or both: the adolescent identity crisis has become a cliché in the post-war West. There is a Hamlet in every home. And it is Siegfried’s awareness that he is an embarrassing, overgrown cliché that drives him to make his existential leap.
And thus, Siegfried begins to embody the societal crisis that parallels his personal one. The flipside of the growth of individual freedom in recent history is that traditional ways of life and forms of community have been steadily undermined. And it should be noted that these ‘traditional’ forms really have their origins after Taylor’s Great Disembedding: the nation, trades unions, political parties, even the modern churches. These modern institutions gave disembedded individuals a way to make sense of their place in the world, even a means of shaping their own lives. But by the end of the 20th century, they were in seemingly chronic decline.
Solid ground from which to leap
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term ‘liquid modernity’ to describe the doubly disembedded quality of life at a time when previously ‘solid’ social forms, from marriage to employment to citizenship, are in flux. When That Existential Leap was a work in progress, I wrote an essay inspired by Bauman’s book, Identity (‘The trouble with being human these days’). I summarised the challenge this way: ‘There is no overbearing social script dictating how we should live our lives, and placing individual biographies in the context of a greater whole’. Consequently, living well requires ‘a subjective commitment to particular goals and even institutions that embody those goals’. No doubt I was thinking of Siegfried.
For Siegfried, existential freedom does not mean refusing commitments and obligations, but choosing them. He wants to belong, but only to greater wholes of his own making. That’s why he has no interest in citizenship of any existing nation. Long ago, I imagined the novel would end with Siegfried founding a new republic of free heroes. Without giving too much away, I couldn’t quite pull that off. But he and Alexander both do make subjective commitments that make a difference to their own lives and others’, and the latter’s commitment to a certain conception of individual subjectivity shapes his approach to police work.
For Alexander, the role of the law is not to shape behaviour, but to hold people to account. Citizens, not the state, are the moral agents. They implicitly endorse even those laws they choose to break. But such a view implies an ultimate source of collective authority independent of the state, a means by which individuals can pool their sovereignty, to use a topical expression. Modern democracy serves that purpose, but there is not a democratic state in the world that is not attached to something more foundational, a country.
Descombes describes how Enlightenment thinkers believed man has the right and the duty to liberate himself from unchosen obligations, to replace social bonds with a social contract. But to the great surprise of the heirs of the Enlightenment, he writes, man today continues to see social bonds like nationality as part of his identity: ‘By representing his human bonds as components of his identity, he makes plain that his right to subjective satisfaction as an individual authorises him to include the fact of his contingent individuation within his definition of himself’.
In other words, most people do not want to remake themselves from scratch. For probably the great majority of people, citizenship is not a contract, but a given. And accordingly, there is a stubborn sense that being born in a country entitles you to certain rights – even if you are not a particularly good citizen – including the right to a say over the future of that country.
Puzzling Identities was first published in French in 2013, before Brexit and Trump inspired rumblings about a return of ethno-nationalism. Obviously Descombes will have been writing in the context of French debates about republicanism, multiculturalism and so on, but he does not deal with these in detail. What he is describing is more basic: the foundation for such debates, the imaginative leap by which we agree that there is such a thing as a country, before we can argue over what kind of country it is or should be.
In the context of democratic sovereignty, a country gives us ground on which to stand – literally, in the sense that while a democratic state does not have to be strictly national in character, it does have to be territorial. When parliament passes a law, it does not apply to the whole planet, because the whole planet has not given its authority to parliament; the country has. (In theory, there could be a democratic world government, but that would mean a lot more people to have to talk round to our way of thinking on any given issue.)
If Brexit is an existential leap, the real audacity is not in leaving the EU, but in throwing in our lot with our fellow citizens, accepting that we (which, from a Siegfried-like perspective, is to say they) are sovereign. Just think how many anti-Brexit arguments focused on the terrible things a democratically elected British government might do if not constrained by the unaccountably beneficent EU.
Things could get worse. The UK is not a healthy polis: we lack political parties that are representative, let alone inspiring. But my own view is that the situation is more likely to improve if people believe politics makes a difference and their own votes count. Brexit is a leap in that direction. But of course it’s not enough. Citizenship is not enough.
If we are really to shape our own lives, we need new ways of combining and relating to one another; we need institutions and conventions we can truly own. That Existential Leap is an exploration of what that means for one disaffected youth and those he encounters. As well as a crime story, it is a love story of sorts. There is adventure, intrigue, mystery. And absolutely nothing about Brexit.