28 February 2007

Turning Yourself Into an Adventure

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:45 pm

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and other.

– Michel de Montaigne, 1580

I’m struck by how this fusillade of “stupefying verbiage” — Hegel’s “Master and Bondsman” discourse — anticipates so many ideas that would later come into prominence. Marxism is probably the most widely-recognized intellectual successor to Hegel’s discourse, though now it seems that 20th century political philosphers Georg Lucacs and Alexandre Kojeve may have invented this supposed lineage. What interests me more are the links to philosophical psychology.

Nietzsche called himself a psychologist rather than a philosopher. He talked a lot about the will to power, about the lordly virtues of the Greeks and Romans compared with the slave morality of the Jews and Christians — not particularly Hegelian themes, these. But then, in The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes a hypothetical scenario in which enslavement turns into the conscious self. The master, his every desire fulfilled, has no need to develop intent, rationale, interest, cooperation, memory, calculation, planning, morality, conscience, or any of the other trappings of sentience. What he wants he takes. The slave, possessed of the same desires as the master but unable to fulfill them, must carve out other channels:

All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man’s interiorization; it alone provides the soil for what is later called man’s soul. Man’s interior world, originally meager and tenuous, was expanding in every dimension, in proportion as the outward discharge of his feelings was curtailed… Hostility, cruelty, the delight in persecution, raids, excitement, destruction all turned against their begetter… man began rending, persecuting, terrifying himself, like a wild beast hurling itself against the bars of its cage. This languisher, devoured by nostalgia for the desert, who had to turn himself into an adventure, a torture chamber, an insecure and dangerous wilderness — this fool, this pining and desperate prisoner, became the inventor of “bad conscience.” Also the generator of the greatest and most disastrous of maladies, of which humanity to this day has not been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by the violent severance from his animal past, his sudden leap and fall into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his joy, and his awesomeness. Let me hasten to add that the phenomenon of an animal soul turning in upon itself, taking arms against itself, was so novel, profound, mysterious, contradictory, and pregnant with possibility, that the whole complexion of the universe was changed thereby. This spectacle (and the end of it is not yet in sight) required a divine audience to do it justice. It was a spectacle too sublime and paradoxical to pass unnoticed on some trivial planet. Henceforth man was to figure among the most unexpected and breathtaking throws in the game of dice played by Heraclitus’ great “child,” be he called Zeus or Chance. Man now aroused an interest, a suspense, a hope, almost a conviction — as though in him something were heralded, as though he were not a goal but a way, an interlude, a bridge, a great promise . . . .

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 1887

Man, his instincts thwarted by the master, be his name Father or King or Society or God, turns in on himself, with consciousness emerging from the internal struggle. In the generation after Nietzsche a prominent Viennese physician of the soul would assign new names to these concepts: id, superego, ego. It’s the working-through of Hegel’s development of self-consciousness in the bondsman.

But… Nietzsche and Freud both see self-consciousness developing in a top-down hierarchy. In Nietzsche’s scenario it’s literally the bondsmen serving a master who emerge as the first self-aware humans; for Freud every child under subjection to parents, then to the society, develops an ego. It’s as if they pick up Hegel’s master-bondsman discourse halfway through, after the dominant-submissive roles have already been established. But Hegel begins with two equals who, in confronting one another, separate into dominant and submissive. Every dyadic encounter leads to this same negotiation of status: sometimes you end up on top, sometimes on the bottom. So the individual isn’t either master or bondsman; he’s both — and that’s not even taking into account the possibility that roles can reverse themselves over the course of a relationship. So everyone has to triangulate toward self-autonomy both as the one who feeds off the other’s acclaim and as the one who has to serve it to the other.

And that’s not all. For Hegel the master-bondsman negotiation recapitulates an internal conflict between consciousness and self-consciousness. The external striving for recognition and autonomy is doubled internally. Do I serve my self-awareness, following my reasons and beliefs and calculations and plans? Or does my self-awareness serve me, figuring out ways to fulfill my desires?

27 February 2007

Kids Too Self-Absorbed?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:01 pm

Here’s an article about narcissism among American college students. “You’re special,” American kids are told over and over again. I think maybe every American kid should spend at least a year going to a French school, just to get a feel for what it’s like not to be special. When our daughter was in the CM2 (5th grade) her teacher explained medieval feudalism like this:

The king is like the directrice (principal), the lords are like the teachers, and the serfs are like the students. Serfs could never become lords. Just like you: no matter how old or smart you get, you’ll never be more than just a student in this school.

Fear of the Absolute Master

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:01 pm

[Continuing Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondsman” discourse…] In the “death struggle” between two individuals, one self-consciousness has achieved dominance (the lord) while the other has become subservient (the bondsman). Now the lord has the bondsman working for him, generating that which the lord desires: servitude, recognition, confirmation that the lord exists only for himself. But, paradoxically, the lord’s sense of self-sufficiency comes only through the agency of another; that is, the subservience of the bondsman. In essence, then, the lord depends on the bondsman for his own sense of independence. Thus lordship falls apart as the basis for the autonomy of self-consciousness.

Conversely, the bondsman is dependent on the lord, doing the lord’s bidding, providing the lord with recognition. How does the bondsman fulfill the lord’s desire for recognition? He works on it; he comes up with ways to satisfy the lord’s desire. But that means that the bondsman is on his own, generating value out of nothing to hand over to the lord. The bondsman turns out to be the self-sufficient one, because he is the one who, without help from the lord, produces what the lord desires. The bondsman exists for the sake of the lord, but the lord is also dependent on the bondsman. The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman. Lord and bondsman both lose the struggle for self-sufficiency to the other.

But they also both win the struggle. The truth of the bondsman is that he lives for the sake of the other; servitude has the lord for its essential reality. To the bondsman, the lord exists as an object that supplies life and meaning. That meaning, though, has been with the bondsman all along.

For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, which is the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-itself, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness.

The bondsman becomes servile and the lord exerts mastery both for the same reason: they fear the loss of pure being-in-itself, which is the fear of death, the absolute Lord. But that fear has been in them and with them all along; they don’t really need each other to make it real. This fear of death, says Hegel, is the pure being-for-self that both are striving for, that both are seeking from each other. But they’ve both always already had it; they just don’t realize it.

This moment of pure being-for-self is also explicit for the bondsman, for in the lord it exists for him as his object. Furthermore, his consciousness is not this dissolution of everything stable merely in principle; in his service he actually brings it about. Through his service he rids himself of his attachment to natural life in every single detail; and gets rid of it by working on it.

In other words, the bondsman doesn’t just cower in fear of the absolute Master. Through service, by working, by living for the master, the bondsman releases himself from the dread that defines him, which is the fear of death.

However, the feeling of absolute power in general, and in the particular form of service, is only implicitly this dissolution, and although the fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not therein aware that it is a being-for-itself. Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.

Becoming conscious of what one truly is: that’s true self-consciousness, autonomous self-consciousness, that elusive power for which every self-consciousness strives. But what is that self-consiousness? Is it only a condition of dread, a fear of the absolute Master death? Or isn’t it also a condition of pure being-for-self through which one escapes the “natural life” of dread? The master seeks to evade this dread through desire for the other, for the sense of autonomy that only the other can give him. The master’s victory is fleeting. Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off. The bondsman doesn’t evade his dread through dominance and desire; he masters it within himself. Up until now the bondsman’s motivation to work has been an external one: fear of the master. But now the bondsman comes to realize that the dread which motivates his service and work isn’t really provided by the other, the master. The dread, which is fear of death, has always already existsed within himself.

Now, however, he destroys this alien negative moment, posits himself as a negative in the permanent order of things, and thereby becomes for himself, someone existing on his own account. In the lord, the being-for-self is an ‘other’ for the bondsman, or is only for him [i.e., is not his own]; in fear, the being-for-self is in the bondsman himself; in fashioning the thing [i.e., that sense of autonomy which the master desires and which the bondsman produces through his work] he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him, that he himself exists actually in his own right… Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.

Again, dread stands at the foundation of being-for-self. The master, seeking validation through the work of the subservient other rather than through absolute fear, attains only an empty self-centered attitude. If the bondsman stays stuck in the lesser dread of fearing the master, then the real negativity of being-for-self remains external to the bondsman, and he stays enmeshed in servitude. This internal condition of dread on which being-for-self is built: it isn’t a permanent and absolute essence belonging to the self, enabling the self to transcend fear and death; rather it is a skill which is master over some things, but not over the universal power and the whole of objective being.

Thus concludes Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondsman” discourse. It’s only 9 pages long, so I haven’t really made it more concise. Tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll try to pull some of Hegel’s themes forward into contemporary relevance.

Entering the Third Century

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:31 am

samlcarr has alerted me to the fact that the Ivan, Are You Okay? post now has more than 200 comments. Strangely enough, even the Triple Digits! post, which commemorated the 100th comment, has itself generated 20 comments of its own. Is Ivan any closer to becoming a believer? Are his interlocutors any closer to losing their faith? Any metacomments; i.e., comments about the comments?

26 February 2007

That Obscure Object of Desire

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:00 pm

Continuing Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” discourse, the focus of attention moves from the individual to the dyad. Now this movement of self-consciousness in relation to another self-consciousness has in this way been represented as the action of one self-consciousness. Hegel says that the relationship of self-consciousness to self-as-other parallels the relationship of self to other.

Two independent self-consciousnesses encounter one another. Each is a self in relation to an other. When one self A observes the other B as object, B is also a subject observing A as an object. Each sees the other do the same as it does: A is aware of B as an object under scrutiny and also of B as subject scrutinizing A. A comes out of himself to encounter B in the world, but A also pulls back into himself, bringing B in as an object under scrutiny, as a thing that exists for A’s sake. And vice versa. The two selves mirror one another; self is doubled in the other. But each self is also an autonomous agent, wholly separate from the other. This movement of diversity into unity and back again Hegel calls Force. This bidirectional movement of selves objectifying and dominating one another can be recognized as an abstract Force characterizing all selves in relation to all others. Attaining this abstract awareness is a formidably difficult achievement, and it results only from a prolonged struggle.

At the same time as the two selves are interacting with each other, each self is trying to resolve its own internal self-distancing, with self-consciousness trying to assert dominance over self-as-object (discussed in yesterday’s post). But self-as-object is also self-as-other. Self-consciousness externalizes the inner struggle, trying to assert dominance over the other in order to achieve autonomy as a self. So A tries to dominate B, tries to get B to acknowledge A as the reason for B’s existence. And, again, vice versa. Each self knows that it is trying to dominate the other; each knows that the other is trying to dominate itself. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.

At first, for the individual A, everything and everyone else are objects that exist only for the sake of A’s own self. So too for B encountering A. Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and therefore its own self-certainty still has no truth. And what is the truth? That each other self is certain of its own self. If I am A, I can reach that truth only when I realize that, for B, I am the object that exists only for B’s sake. That to the other I am an object under scrutiny and domination.

In order for me to achieve successful autonomy as a self-consciousness, then, I have to objectify and dominate the other without letting the other do the same to me. In other words, in order to achieve my own self-autonomy I have to kill the self-autonomy of the other so that the other lives only for my sake. And vice versa: each seeks the death of the other. In order to kill the other’s autonomous selfhood, though, I have to stake my own life. Why? Because I have to engage the other, and I know that the other is trying to kill me as well.

Thus the relation of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case. And it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won… The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. Similarly, just as each stakes his own life, so each must seek the other’s death, for it values the other no more than itself; its essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other,’ it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality.

We recall that, in Hegel’s analysis, the self-consciousness equates the other with the self-as-object. Trying to kill the other is equivalent to trying to kill the externalized, objectivized self in a generalized desire to subsume all selves under the mastery of self-consciousness. But, says Hegel, this trial by death is futile, because to kill the other consciousness is to kill all consciousnesses, including one’s own, turning them into mere objects. The two do not reciprocally give and receive one another back from each other consciously, but leave each other free only indifferently, like things. Seeking the other’s death is equivalent to attempting suicide.

In order for self-consciousness to achieve autonomy, it must subsume all selves — one’s own as well as the other’s — in such a way as to preserve and maintain what is superceded, and consequently survives its own supercession. In this experience, self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. Consciousness must survive the struggle with self-consciousness, living to serve self-consciousness as a bondsman serves his lord. The bondsman isn’t a rival to be killed, but rather something to be desired — desired for its subservience, for its acknowledgment of the lord’s lordship, for its existing for the lord’s sake and not its own.

Ultimately A doesn’t want to keep B at a distance, as a separate object. A wants to satisfy his desire, to enjoy B as a thing, to absorb B’s value into A. But, says Hegel, A takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing and has the pure enjoyment of it. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who works on it. In other words, A enjoys the subservience and acknowledgment that B provides to A, thereby reinforcing A’s sense of autonomy. But A preserves B alive, so that B through working for A can continually provide that which A desires: subservience, recognition, a sense that every self lives for the sake of A’s self-consciousness. In so doing A has divided B in two: the consciousness of the bondsman who serves, and “that obscure object of desire” — the intangible sense of subservience that B continually provides to A.

More than enough for today, I fear. Tomorrow: how the bondsman becomes the lord — assuming I can figure out what Hegel is saying.

25 February 2007

Superceding the Self-as-Other

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:30 pm

Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.

In this first sentence of his “Lordship and Bondage” discourse Hegel isn’t just saying that I go around seeking others’ recognition. He’s saying that I am self-aware because the other is aware of me.

Self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself. This has a two-fold significance: first, it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being; secondly, in doing so it has superceded the other, for it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self.

What? I think it goes like this: First there’s consciousness — awareness of the world and other people in it. When you become self-conscious, you come to know yourself: this is the first self-consciousness. But you also become aware of yourself at a distance, as someone in the world — almost as if you were someone else: this is the other self-consciousness. The second self-consiousness, by seeing self as other, loses self as self. At the same time, by looking upon yourself like you were outside of yourself, like an other, the whole sense of otherness gets absorbed into the self.

Does this seem right? I think so. By becoming self-aware, on the one hand you transcend yourself, you know who you are. But you also become alienated from yourself, because now you can observe yourself from a distance, as though you were someone else. It’s as though you were two people: the transcendent observer, and the object being observed. By placing your self under observation, your self is no longer you: you’ve placed yourself outside yourself, in the place that the other occupies. But now, since that other is really you under self-observation, it’s as if you’ve absorbed all otherness into yourself. All others now come to seem like manifestations of your own self. You’re both self-alienated and self-absorbed at the same time. You lose the ability to differentiate yourself from others, but at the same time you’ve opened up a division within yourself. That doesn’t sound so good. What’s to be done?

It [i.e., self-consciousness] must supercede this otherness of itself.

Right; so I have to stop holding myself at a distance when I’m aware of myself. I’ve become internally divided: self as me, the subject who is aware; and self as the object of my own self-awareness. I need to pull myself back together. But now Hegel throws me off the track:

First, it [self-consciousness] must proceed to supercede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being; secondly, in so doing it proceeds to supercede its own self, for this other is itself.

What other independent being? It is the self-as-0bject of which the self-awareness is aware, this sense of self-as-other. Hegel says that self-awareness can reunite with its self only by dominating the self of which it is aware, to make self-as-other subservient to self-awareness. Self must come under the control of self-awareness. Otherwise, says Hegel, self-as-other comes to dominate, which externalizes the self and enslaves the self to the other. The self must dominate the otherness within itself if it is to become autonomous. When this happens self loses its otherness. This releases otherness from its captivity within the self: the other person becomes truly other again, an autonomous being in its own right, rather than merely something absorbed inside the self.

Thus ends the first page of Hegel’s discourse, which focuses on the self. The second page shifts the focus to the other and to the interaction of two separate conscious selves. At least that’s what I think — but I could be wrong.

24 February 2007

Stupefying Verbiage

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:23 am

It’s not at all clear what Hegel is up to with his “Lordship and Bondage” discourse. He might be talking about two people struggling with each other for recognition, or the emergence of an autonomous self-consciousness from within consciousness, or the ability of the underclass to achieve dominance through work. The writing isn’t really technical, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear. It’s idiosyncratic, dense, multilayered. A lot of people dismiss Hegel as a fraud, and maybe they’re right. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt (I’m sure he’d be thrilled) and presume that what he says makes sense. Then I’ll give myself the same benefit and presume that I understand the sense he’s making.

Hegel is talking about consciousness becoming conscious of itself. But consciousness doesn’t reside only within the individual mind; it’s also universal Mind coming to know itself through individuals, groups, social movements, history. What happens inside each individual consciousness mirrors that which takes place universally. But I don’t think Hegel sees human activity as merely reflecting the workings of universal Spirit. Rather, universal Spirit is a decentralized and distributed force that “really” manifests itself in individual minds, in dyads, in class struggles, and the flow of human history. This is a sort of panentheism: individual minds don’t just point to universal Spirit; they are part of it, a localized manifestation of what happens always and everywhere, at every level of abstraction.

The trick for me is to restrain myself. I don’t really want to think about Hegel, or even about philosophy; I want to think about human psychology. So, can I safely ignore the multi-layeredness of the master-slave discussion and limit myself to the self? Self in relation to other; self in relation to self. But I see that I’ve already made an artificial distinction, because all the levels of analysis interact with one another. Self’s relation to self is in large part determined by self’s relation to other, which in turn is largely determined by sociohistorical conditions that no selves can transcend. Self’s relation to self, the most intimate of relations, cannot be understood apart from participation in the collective.

Let’s say my understanding of Hegel is, generally and on this simplest level, accurate. Do I believe it’s true? Hegel presents a kind of reworked synthesis of Christianity and Greek thought that reached its medieval height in Aquinas. He adds a kind of Eastern twist that is even more explicit in his contemporary Schopenhauer – who, it should be noted, was no Hegel fan:

If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.

I suppose that Hegel and Schopenhauer are two forks in the broader road that is Idealism, even as Plato and Aristotle were two earlier forks in this same road. It’s the participation of the individual spirit in the universal Spirit, such that the individual is always already determined not just by random, impersonal, material forces but by multiple strands of conscious and unconscious forces that might be called something like transcendent Mind. This basic idealist idea, stripped of any sort of Mastermind – call it God – continues in Nietzsche and Marx, in Freud and Heidegger, in Lacan and Derrida, in Zizek and Baudrillard. This modern-to-postmodern trajectory of European idealism is at its core a secularization of a way of seeing the world that can be traced back to the New Testament. All through the Medieval era the Christian philosophers were working on reconciling (1) the interpenetration of matter and spirit that characterized the Hebrew worldview with (2) the Greek separation into a hierarchy of lower and higher. Which I suppose is why the post-evangelicals resonate with the postmodernists: they’re launched on the same spiritual trajectory.

And so I see that I have failed to zero in on psychology, drifting almost inevitably into the history of thought. I repent. I’ll try to do better next time.

22 February 2007

Children Running on the Grass

Filed under: Culture, Fiction — ktismatics @ 8:52 pm

Now that’s what I call happiness, beams the senator as he and his guest, a Soviet bloc refugee, watch a group of American children running through the grass toward an artificial skating rink. As if there was no grass in Communist countries, no running children. The guest imagines the senator tranformed into a Communist statesman, the same smile on his face as he looks down on the May Day workers’ parade from the reviewing stand.

The senator had only one argument on his side: his feeling. When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all political parties and movements. Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality; the artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

When I say “totalitarian” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mother who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree, “Be fruitful and multiply.” In this light, we can regard the gulag as a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.

Kitsch has its source in the categorical agreement with being [see yesterday’s post]. But what is the basis of being? God? Mankind? Struggle? Love? Man? Woman? Since opinions vary, there are various kitsches: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Communist, Fascist, democratic, feminist, European, American, national, international.

– Milan Kundera, The Incredible Lightness of Being, 1984

Within postmodernity can be detected the yearnings of a romanticism that values heart over head, intuition over evidence, foundation over superstructure, past over future, tradition over innovation, communal over individual, local over global. Are we preparing a breeding ground for a revival of kitsch? Or will our postmodern ironic self-awareness and ambivalence save us from ourselves?

21 February 2007

A Theodicy of Shit

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 1:04 pm

I posted on The Unbearable Lightness of Being before. This time, following yesterday’s post on Nabokov and poshlost, we have Kundera on kitsch. Kundera is Czech: his fictional meditation on kitsch must be so well-known in Eastern Europe that Zizek, a Slovenian, can refer to it prominently in The Parallax View without even citing the source: Part II is entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Being No One;” Chapter 3, “The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Divine Shit.” But back to Kundera’s book, which is a strange amalgam of fiction and nonfiction.

Early in WWII Stalin’s son Yakov found himself in a German prison camp, bivouacked with a group of British soldiers who resented his unsanitary latrine habits. Eventually the complaint was brought to the commandant. Unable to stand the humiliation of discussing his own shit with the arrogant German, Yakov, cursing loudly in Russian, threw himself onto the electrified barbed-wire fence and was killed.

Stalin’s son had a hard time of it. All evidence points to the conclusion that his father killed the woman by whom he had the boy. Young Stalin was therefore both the Son of God (because his father was revered by God) and His cast-off. People feared him twofold: he could injure them by both his wrath (he was, after all, Stalin’s son) and his favor (his father might punish his cast-off son’s friends in order to punish him)… Was he, who bore on his shoulders the drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? …If the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light…

Stalin’s son laid down his life for shit. But death for shit is not a senseless death. The Germans who sacrificed their lives to expand their country’s territory to the east, the Russians who died to extend their country’s power to the west — yes, they died for something idiotic, and their deaths have no meaning or general validity. Amid the general idiocy of the war, the death of Stalin’s son stands out as the sole metaphysical death.

The narrator of Kundera’s novel, who presumably is Kundera himself, remembers looking at pictures of God in a children’s Old Testament:

He was a bearded old man with eyes, nose, a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious. Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit and thus came to question the basic thesis of Christian anthropology, namely, that man was created in God’s image. Either/or: either man was created in God’s image — and God has intestines — or God lacks intestines and man is not like him.

The ancient Gnostics felt as I did at the age of five. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.” Shit is a more onerous problem than evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.

Kundera the narrator goes on to wonder whether Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse in Paradise. Saint Jerome said “no” in the fourth century. In the ninth century Erigena said “yes,” but with the proviso that Adam’s erections were entirely voluntary, like raising an arm.

What the great theologian found incompatible with Paradise was not sexual intercourse and the attendant pleasure; what he found incompatible with Paradise was excitement. Bear in mind: There was pleasure in Paradise, but no excitement.

Erigenea’s argument holds the key to a theological justification (in other words, a theodicy) of shit. As long as man was allowed to remain in Paradise, either (like Valentinus’ Jesus) he did not defecate at all, or (as would seem more likely) he did not look upon shit as something repellant. Not until after God expelled man from Paradise did He make him feel disgust. Man began to hide what shamed him, and by the time he removed the veil, he was blinded by a great light. Thus, immediately after his introduction to disgust, he was introduced to excitement. Without shit (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word) there would be no sexual love as we know it, accompanied by pounding heart and blinded senses…

Behind all European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being. The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unaccptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.

Yet again I find myself drawn back to Genesis 1. Perhaps more from Kundera on kitsch in the next post.

20 February 2007

Lolita is Famous, Not I

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

Good morning. I am ready.

– Vladimir Nabokov, Paris Review, 1967

Many of the Paris Review’s interviews with famous writers are online — like this one with Vladimir Nabokov. Asked to comment on one critic’s complaint that his fictional worlds were static and obsessive, that they did not “break apart like the worlds of ordinary reality,” Nabokov replied:

Let me suggest that the very term “everyday reality” is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.

Asked whether his characters ever take over and dictate the course of his novels:

My characters are galley slaves.

Asked to comment on a critic who thought Nabokov was repetitive:

Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.

Asked if he considered himself part of any particular community:

Not really. I can mentally collect quite a large number of individuals whom I am fond of, but they would form a very disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a real island. Otherwise, I would say that I am fairly comfortable in the company of American intellectuals who have read my books.

Asked if he follows a preplanned outline or if he writes from beginning to end:

The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any point I happen to chose.

Asked whether he considers himself a “nostalgist”:

As to the past, I would not mind retrieving from various corners of space-time certain lost comforts, such as baggy trousers and long, deep bathtubs.

Asked to describe nuances of the Russian word “poshlost”:

Corny trash, vulgar cliches, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature — these are obvious examples. Now if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race… The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue,”… One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objets trouves in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls… all of it is as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago… And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

Asked about critics’ ranking of contemporary writers:

All very amusing. I am a little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer, or an old Russian writer — or an ageless international freak… Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure novelist with an unpronounceable name.

This interview was conducted forty years ago. In dismissing so much of “modern” art as poshlost, was Nabokov revealing himself as an old-fashioned curmudgeon or an “ageless freak”? He is generally regarded as a modernist, yet his description of “everyday reality” sounds a lot like postmodernism’s disdainful characterization of modernity. I wonder what Nabokov would have pointed to as poshlost in today’s culture? Would he dismiss both “modernism” and “postmodernism” as poshlost?

16 February 2007

Expertises, Estimations Gratuites, Devises

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:20 am


15 February 2007

Nature Does Not Exist

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:14 pm

What then is Nature, that Nature which Galileo declared to be written in ‘mathematical language’? Grasped in its pure multiple-being, nature should be natural-being-in-totality: that is, the multiple which is composed of all the ordinals… Nature has no sayable being. There are only some natural beings… One could say: everything (which is natural) is (belongs) in everything, save that there is no everything. The homogeneity of the ontological schema of natural schema of natural presentations is realized in the unlimited opening in a chain of name-numbers, such that each is composed of all those which precede it.

Badiou, Being and Event, 1988

The first question is this: do I really want to get to the point where I can honestly say that I understand what he’s talking about? My answer, almost unbelievably, is ‘yes.’

The second question is this: am I able to resist this lure? My answer, almost certainly, is ‘yes.’

The third question is this: will I resist?

Maybe there’s a short-cut. I will now turn to a randomly-selected sentence in this book and deem it a mystical portal to Truth. I’m thinking of page 284. I’m thinking of line 5. Let’s see… here’s the complete sentence, with line 5 in bold:

The effort, this time, is to contain the un-measure, not by reinforcing rules and prohibiting the indiscernible, but directly from above, by the conceptual practice of possibly maximal presentations.

Okay, does anyone receive any messages from this passage?

14 February 2007

The 2007 Tohu Vavohu Tour

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 10:12 am

22 March ———— Geneva

24 March ———— Bologna

25 March ———— Venice

28 March ———— Innsbruck

30 March ———— Vienna

1 April —————- Prague

3 April ————— Leipzig

4 April ————— Berlin

6 April ————— Bremen

7 April ————— The Hague

8 April ————— Brussels

10 April ————– London

12 April ————– Manchester

13 April ————– Dublin

15 April ————– Paris

17 April ————– Bordeaux

19 April ————– Bilbao

21 April ————– Madrid

23 April ————– Barcelona

Order your t-shirt today!

13 February 2007

A Gray Winter Day in an Old Hotel

Filed under: First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 3:21 pm

david lynch handprint

Axxon N, the longest-running radio play in history.

– David Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006

To the best of my recollection, no one again says those first two words after the opening line. But you do see the words. “Axxon N,” written on a metal wall in an alleyway behind a movie studio. “Axxon N,” written on a brick wall in an anonymous Baltic city. The words are iconic, enigmatic, ominous, portalic, probably meaningless — prototypically Lynchian words.

This is a movie about movies. There are characters who talk to one another; there is location and story, emotion and mood, action and reaction. But Inland Empire isn’t about any of these things. It’s about acting, dialogue, staging, scenery, screenplay, editing, sound effects, cinematography, directing. It’s also about going to the movies, watching, listening, becoming immersed, trying to understand, trying to create meaning.

I understand that “Axxon N” is the name of an internet video series that David Lynch was going to make for his website. I guess he decided to make it part of the movie instead.

In one of the scenes the main character becomes a hooker, streetwalking across the famous stars pressed into the concrete sidewalks at Hollywood and Vine. Here too “Axxon N” is written on the wall. Ten minutes down the coast from our town is Cannes. In the plaza outside the film festival headquarters the stars have pressed their handprints into the concrete. David Lynch’s is one of the prints.

I get more personal inspiration watching David Lynch movies than anyone else’s. I don’t always love what he’s done — though usually I do — and sometimes I think he’s messing with me. But consistently I get the sense of a guy who’s trying to show the things that maybe only he can see to anybody who wants to take the trouble to watch.

12 February 2007

The Unlikeliest Thing

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:12 pm

Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment; and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain. (Psalm 104:2)

For the pagans, the Greeks, the medievalists, nature participates God, revealing in bedimmed image a divine essence that suffuses the surfaces of the world as light shining through fabric reveals the shadows and contours of the reality behind it. The appearances that reveal but an image of the depths, the representation of the immaterial in matter: isn’t this, asks Barfield, what the Psalmist sees?

For a moment we are inclined to feel that the Psalmist, too, is experiencing the representations as representations, and the world as a theophany. But as we read on, we are impressed more and more with the enormous difference between this world and the world either of Greek or of medieval man… For here is not only no hint of mythology, but no real suggestion of manifestation. Everything proclaims the glory of God, but nothing represents Him. Nothing could be more beautiful, and nothing could be less Platonic.

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and so are the stony rocks for the conies, but it is not, we are made to feel, by contemplating these phenomena that we shall rise to the contemplation of the invisible Divinity who brought them into being. Here, too, the appearances are indeed grounded in divinity; but they are not grounded in the same way. They are not appearances — still less, ‘names’ — of God. They are things created by God. There is, in short, nothing to suggest ‘immanence,’ and everything to suggest the contrary.

If, moreover, we review the Old Testament as a whole, we shall scarcely find there suggested what we find assumed by both Aristotle and Aquinas, namely, that knowledge of God’s creation can become knowledge of God… The Jew could rejoice in the appearances; but he was not curious about them. He was not interested in them. He was, above all, detached from them.

Yahweh’s commandment not to make any graven images was, says Barfield, perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. Everyone else represented their gods; Israel was forbidden from having anything to do with nations whose gods participated the appearances of the material world. It’s too easy to substitute the sensory appearance of the representation for the reality it represents, as if the idol were a numinous object in its own right: this is idolatry.

I think that’s all I want to say about Barfield. The questions I ask myself are these:

  • Thought as a representation of Truth: isn’t this an essentially pagan/Greek idea? The same holds for language as representation of Truth. The idea of representation implies that truths participate minds or words in the same way they might participate the sun or the mountains or graven images.
  • Did the Hebrews conceive of thought and language in non-representational terms? Just as the Creation is wholly other than the Creator, are ideas and discourses wholly other than the truths toward which they point?
  • What is the nature of a Hebraic Truth that does not participate minds and words? Is it knowable?
Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.