• Rowan Fortune

Bloch’s Little Daydreamers

The second installment of my close read of Ernst Bloch's The Principle of Hope. Every essay is a stand-alone piece, but if you want to read the previous essay, click here.


Regret is a feeling that persists in the bourgeois world, but now almost exclusively in business life, so regretful dreams mostly revolve around money that has been lost. But amidst these dreams there is still room among the petit bourgeois for the heroic pose, the one they did not strike at the right time, and the thundering phrase that just did not flash out at the time. (p.30)


The first non-introductory section of the three volumed The Principle of Hope begins with an aphoristic section entitled ‘We Start Out Empty’ that reads, ‘I move. From early on we are searching. All we do is crave, cry out. Do not have what we want.’ (p.21) What Bloch is doing here, at the true commencement of his magisterial project, could be called phenomenological, he is describing—stripped of all superfluous assumptions—the maturation of a child as an analogue for our species' maturation.


And he does so in terms of craving, wishes, which are eventually, patiently articulated as play, ‘playing and collecting window-views, deep and brief glimpses into otherness.’ (p.22) Bloch cites various reports of childhood and then adolescent fantasy, charting the rise of sexual dimensions, and the creep of practical concerns. Even so, at each step, the pull of fantasy remains; ‘that of a fairytale, sharply transcending the given world.’ (p.25) We are seeing, taking root in the most fundamental basis of human consciousness, the Not-Yet-Conscious striving that is at the heart of Bloch's humanist psychology.


Bloch characterises early play, if it is free from worldly cares, as happily solipsistic, and later play, if it is drawn by romance, as compelled outwards (albeit always channelled by distorting fantasies). In friendship Bloch finds the inherent social dimension of humanity and of human desire. And it is future orientated from the start. He writes, ‘the only thing that actually binds us and establishes friendship is the common expectation of a common future’. (p.27) We are held together by dreams, just as we constitute ourselves in them. Longing, a directedness forwards in time, is at the core of being human.


Bloch sketches some of the darker facets of dreaming here too. Regret and bitterness, but also revenge and evil, which all have their place in the fantastical. If utopian striving is his primary subject, dreams gone awry are an interest nonetheless. ‘Most men are too cowardly to do evil,’ Bloch observes, ’too weak to do good; the evil that they cannot, or cannot yet do, they enjoy in advance in the dream of revenge.’ (p.30) In a section entitled ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the petit bourgeois (the main class interest behind fascism) are singled out for indulging such dreams, those filled with a ‘blind, not revolutionary rage’. (p.31) Bloch is very interested in the kinds of dreaming that is anti-utopian, and the social classes these types of dream sustain:


The employee, the petit bourgeois, of whom we are talking here, this in no way regular but increasingly regularised social stratum, contents itself with the needs which are awoken by the window-displays dressed for it. This unites all bourgeois dreams and yet it still rations them, even in more distant excursions to the over-blue coast of the travel agent’s and beyond: so that they do not explode the given world. People with wishes of this kind live beyond their own means, but never beyond the generally existing means. If this is true of the employee, in middle age and with the until now so cloudy consciousness of the middle class, then the upper middle-class citizen whose means are sufficient certainly does not have any reason even in his wildest dreams to explode the existing world. He finds it easiest to give up youthful ideals, to apply his will solely to what is attainable. To pull his weight efficiently, standing right in the middle of gainful employment, which really is that, full of plans promising profit, but on the whole without that element which, usually with contempt, he calls utopian. (pp.33-4)


This exists in stark contrast with those dreams that might explode the given world, belonging to a different class basis even if all sharing in a universal humanity:


Because our fellow man is no longer the barrier to our own freedom but rather the means by which this freedom is truly achieved. Instead of freedom of acquisition, there shines freedom from acquisition, instead of imagined pleasures of cheating the economic struggle, there shines the imagined victory of the proletarian class struggle. And even higher above this shines the distant peace, the distant opportunity of being in solidarity and being friendly with all men, an opportunity for the sake of which the struggle moves in the distant goal. The turmoil in which all this still lies admittedly makes the individual non-bourgeois dreams considerably less distinct than those which need only reach into the existing window-display. No department store sends a list out to them, there is no patron who realises these dreams from above. Instead they are characterised not only by an incomparably higher status, but also by an expectation of the unknown, a blueprint of the unrealised which the bourgeois wishful image of more mature years no longer possesses at all. (p.35)


This chapter is not only about youth and the harms done to it by present social limitations; it is also about age, its comparable diminishment in the present state of society, the loss of dreams and an acclimatisation to an undesirable state of things. ‘No mere farewell to a phase of life is marked here,’ writes Bloch in his fifties, ‘with dispersing dreams, thwarted fulfilments, but farewell to long life itself.’ (p.38) On old age, Bloch is as poignant as he is joyous about youth, but that is importantly not the whole story: again steps in Bloch the utopian, the man who hunts through the past for signs of an unrealised future state, of human consciousness grasping for more, for better.


Better is constituted in some future possible time that has caught up with the meaning of old age, as much as it fulfils the dreams of youth. While ‘the bourgeois world no longer has any use’ for old age, a socialist age will embody the ‘ability to be without vulgar haste, to see what is important, to forget what is unimportant: all this is authentic life in old age.’ (p.41) Socialism for Bloch can do this because it rests entirely and without illusion on what is human, including our imaginative capacities. The poignant meets the joyous in this utopia.

So Bloch is keen to stress the contingency of our attitudes to aging, and is compelled to mention other ways of being, ‘societies which unlike today’s declining bourgeois society did not shy away from every glimpse of the end, possessed and saw in old age a blossoming fruit, a very desirable and welcome one.’ (ibid) It is impossible not to miss a narrative component to Bloch’s writings; a man deeply interested in mystics such as Jacob Böhme, Bloch was fascinated by the shape of a life as a microcosm for the shape of life in its wholeness, at any historical moment and at therefore at every historical moment. That he recognised a humanness in all of human history is central to his work.


This fascination with the texture of existence is so distinct from the drier, more bloodless of Marx’s heirs (although, perhaps not from Marx!). Bloch’s prose is sumptuous, as playful as the play on which he reflects. He takes his time in meditation, essaying forth without the certitudes of dogmatic conviction, attempting to chart subjectivities that defy an easy summary. One of the most humane practitioners of Marx’s humanist tradition, a tradition that so often jettisons the very humanism that makes it worthwhile.


Although never addressed directly, the dreaming of the oppressed could find vast, open skies in which to take flight in this philosophy. Bloch's ideas are so opposed to the stale conservativism that characterises so much present day 'Marxism'™, with its insistence on jettisoning the Not-Yet-Conscious whenever it comes into conflict with the serious, the pragmatic, the realistic.

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