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Book Review : The Society Giveth--and Taketh Away

April 10, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff (Elizabeth Sifton/Viking: $14.95)

Political freedom in a society means, very roughly, that society's power leaves the individual alone, except in specified and more-or-less agreed-upon areas: tax-paying, military service, seat belts, and so on. The trouble with being left alone, though, is that you may, in fact, be left alone.

That is the general theme of Michael Ignatieff's "The Needs of Strangers," a highly non-systematic ramble around the mutual contradictions of man's individual and social natures.

Ignatieff, a Canadian historian living in England, begins his ramble at his own front door. He wanders through a North London market among a crowd of old-age pensioners who hunt for small bargains and take them off to solitary rooms and apartments. Seeing an old man who seems on the point of collapse, Ignatieff sits him down in a nearby pub and finishes his shopping for him. The old man stares straight ahead, barely acknowledging his benefactor.

Help Needed but Unwanted

"He needed my help," Ignatieff writes, "but he didn't want it." Ignatieff's gesture was a singularity; normally, not he but a tiny portion of his taxes would care for the old and indigent. And that fact cuts both ways.

"The mediated quality of our relationship seems necessary to both of us. They are dependent upon the state, not upon me, and we are both glad of it. Yet I am also aware of how this mediation walls us off from each other."

A democratic welfare society, Ignatieff suggests, is an honorable enough effort to bridge some of the dreadful gaps left by the 19th-Century's practice of an extreme laissez-faire individualism. It may manage to take care of elemental needs, he continues, but it leaves other needs--for companionship, for respect, for involvement--unsatisfied.

There is a quality of human need, he writes, that seems to evade any form of political or social arrangement. And his book, which meanders freely and often confusingly, looks at examples from literature and social thought to pursue the trail of evasion.

He uses King Lear, first of all. Lear's older daughters had a point, no doubt, in arguing that their father didn't need his own retinue when he stayed with them. But there is something central to our human nature, Ignatieff believes, in Lear's rejection of their rationality.

Equality Versus Uniqueness

"We are more than right-bearing creatures," he writes. "There is more to respect in a person than his rights." Each person is different. To treat people equally--the only way any modern welfare system knows how--"is to treat them like a thing."

Ignatieff is better on North London codgers than he is on King Lear, where he wanders off to suggest a repressed incestuous relationship between Lear and Cordelia. The relevance of this to his theme is baffling, and his comparison of Lear's wild heath to a modern psychiatric institute doesn't really work.

He cites St. Augustine's division of human needs into those that society can satisfy and those it can't. Society may give us freedom of choice, but not the freedom--or satisfaction--of knowing that we have chosen right. It can't instill metaphysical purpose, in other words. Divine Grace had to do the job.

That was of no use to secular thinkers. David Hume believed in the value of progress as generated by free and autonomous activity, and that material satisfactions and a moderate fulfillment of the passions could console in the absence of a Divine Purpose.

After Hume, Ignatieff explores Rousseau, who rejected the dynamic of progress, seeing in it an alienation that could only be countered by a return to nature and the small community.

He was right about the alienation, Ignatieff suggests. But the fact is that we live in a large, productive and impersonal society. So how do we recognize and satisfy the kind of human need once filled by religion or the communal life of primitive tribes?

We need a new language for our needs, he writes. "Fraternity" and "solidarity" are terms that belong to old utopian movements and have lost their life.

Echoes of Athens

"Our political images of civic belonging remain haunted by the classical polis, by Athens, Rome and Florence," he writes. And goes on to ask: "Is there a language of belonging adequate to Los Angeles?"

The question stands out nicely, after a good deal of wandering and murky purposes. But the answer slips back into murkiness. He notes that art manages to create value out of transience, and cites Joyce on Dublin, Bellows on Chicago, Edward Hopper's paintings of New York. Perhaps we can take our example here, he suggests, but he doesn't say how.

In any case, Hopper's all-night diners have been swallowed up by New York's concrete plazas and glass gallerias; which both proves Ignatieff's point and also undermines it.

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