Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings –
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down –
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.

Hermeneutical Experience

The hermeneutic experience that we are endeavoring to think from the viewpoint of language as medium is certainly not an experience of thinking in the same sense as this dialectic of the concept, which seeks to free itself entirely from the power of language. Nevertheless, there is something resembling dialectic in hermeneutical experience: an activity of the thing itself, an action that, unlike the methodology of modern science, is a passion, an understanding, an event that happens to one.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
Truth and Method

An Optical and Moral Illusion

First proposition. The reasons for which “this” world has been characterised as “apparent” are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely undemonstrable.

Second proposition. The criteria which have been bestowed on the “true being” of things are the criteria of not-being, of naught; the “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: indeed an apparent world, insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion.

Third proposition. To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against a better life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.

Fourth proposition. Any distinction between a “true” and an “apparent” world-whether in the Christian manner or in the manner of Kant (in the end, an underhanded Christian)-is only a suggestion of decadence, a symptom of the decline of life. That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For “appearance” in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction. The tragic is no pessimist: he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible-he is Dionysan.

Twilight of the Idols

What We Once Knew As Life

I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

Theodor Adorno
Minima Moralia

Nothing Compared to the Stars

Text below from a letter, which I think very beautiful, written by German-British astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). She refers to Aganice (Aglaonice) of Thessaly, considered the first astronomer in ancient Greece.

William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an Index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication. William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.

I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telescope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.

Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long, lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science —

Aganice of Thessaly,
Catherina Hevelius,
Maria Agnesi
— as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? that she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.

What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent, young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.

However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.

Write soon ,

The comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, named after Caroline Herschel is expected to reappear to earthbound observers on March 16 2092. “The asteroid 281 Lucretia (discovered 1888) was named after Caroline’s second given name, and the crater C. Herschel on the Moon is named after her.”

Caroline was celebrated in a poem by Adrienne Rich.

Concentrated Nourishment


After reading Theodor Adorno’s work Thomas Mann corresponded with the philosopher, leading to their collaboration on the musicological aspects of Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Adorno wrote to Mann of his admiration for several of his books, especially The Confessions of Felix Krull, Mann in turn wrote to Adorno about his ‘fascinating reading’ of Minima Moralia, which he considered magnificent. Mann also wrote of Minima Moralia:

I have held on to your book magnetically for several days; it makes, day after day, for fascinating reading, though it can only be enjoyed in small gulps, as it is the most concentrated nourishment. It is said that the composition of the planet Sirius, which is of white colour, is made of such dense matter that a cubic inch of it would, with us, weigh a ton. This is why it has such an extraordinary strong field of gravity, similar to the one that surrounds your book. And all this in the face of the homey and inviting titles above your breathtaking figures of thought. No sooner has one said to oneself, “That’s quite enough for today!,” than along comes such a nice fairy-tale heading that one delves into a new adventure.

Enlightenment and Thinking (Kant)

This morning I reread Kant’s well-known What is Enlightenment? [PDF], an essay that I’ve reflected on many times over the years.

Much more interesting (a recent reading, thanks to a friend’s deeper knowledge of Kant) though is Kant’s lesser-known (to me anyway) development on enlightenment and thinking, which is perhaps more reasonable and realistic. I quote below from SS40 of The Critique of Judgement. This piece, with extended footnote, emphasises the difficulty of thinking, and of the removal of superstition/prejudice. Enlightenment, like anything of worth, does not come easily.

While the following maxims of common human understanding do not properly come in here as constituent parts of the critique of taste, they may still serve to elucidate its fundamental propositions. They are these: (I) to think for oneself; (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else; (3) always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought, the second that of enlarged thought, the third that of consistent thought. The first is the maxim of a never passive reason. To be given to such passivity, consequently to heteronomy of reason, is called prejudice; and the greatest of all prejudices is that of fancying nature not to be subject to rules which the understanding by virtue of its own essential laws lays at its basis, i.e., superstition. Emancipation from superstition is called enlightenment*; for although this term applies also to emancipation from prejudices generally, still superstition deserves pre-eminently (in sensu eminenti) to be called a prejudice. For the condition of blindness into which superstition puts one, which is as much as demands from one as an obligation, makes the need of being led by others, and consequently the passive state of the reason, pre-eminently conspicuous. As to the second maxim belonging to our habits of thought, we have quite got into the way of calling a man narrow (narrow, as opposed to being of enlarged mind) whose talents fall short of what is required for employment upon work of any magnitude (especially that involving intensity). But the question here is not one of the faculty of cognition, but of the mental habit of making a final use of it. This, however small the range and degree to which man’s natural endowments extend, still indicates a man of enlarged mind: if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgement, which cramp the minds of so many others, and reflects upon his own judgement from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by shifting his ground to the standpoint of others). The third maxim-that, namely, of consistent thought-is the hardest of attainment, and is only attainable by the union of both the former, and after constant attention to them has made one at home in their observance. We may say: The first of these is the maxim of understanding, the second that of judgement, the third of that reason.

*We readily see that enlightenment, while easy, no doubt, in thesi, in hypothesis is difficult and slow of realization. For not to be passive with one’s reason, but always to be self-legislative, is doubtless quite an easy matter for a man who only desires to be adapted to his essential end, and does not seek to know what is beyond his understanding. But as the tendency in the latter direction is hardly avoidable, and others are always coming and promising with full assurance that they are able to satisfy one’s curiosity, it must be very difficult to preserve or restore in the mind (and particularly in the public mind) that merely negative attitude (which constitutes enlightenment proper).

The Deeps of Time

I saw here more clearly than anywhere that it is impossible to separate layers of culture, that they interpenetrate, that the earlier cult shines through that of the present, and through that earlier cult shines a cult more ancient still. I saw that there is virtually nothing more enduring than the rituals which it is the storyteller’s job to reinterpret as needed. Behind the secularised narrative lies the saint’s legend, behind the legend the heroic epic, behind the epic the myth.

Christa Wolf
Conditions of a Narrative

Reluctantly Discontinuing Patterns of Childhood

It doesn’t surprise me that Christa Wolf had difficulties writing Patterns of Childhood. Wolf says that she made thirty-eight attempts to begin this fictional autobiography, the reconstruction of her memories of a childhood under Hitler’s National Socialism.

Though the work is complex and often extraordinarily beautiful, I found myself deflected by the text, partly by the frequent need to reflect on Wolf’s concepts of selfhood and history, and partly due to a puzzling estrangement from the narrative. This may be the first time I have abandoned a book (temporarily perhaps) that I found both beautiful and profound. Why this should be the case intrigues me and I haven’t a precise explanation. I found the communication between family members, mother-daughter particularly, somewhat formulaic. The narrator addresses herself in the second person, and her past self, Nelly, in the third person. This unusual autobiographical point of view may account for the distance I felt from the work.

Wolf’s Cassandra has been much on my mind since reading it a fortnight ago. I tracked down a 1984 edition published by Virago Press that includes four companion lectures, which illuminate its background and implications. I’ve also tracked down Wolf’s Medea, which flowerville suggests outclasses Cassandra.