Cataract of the Spirit

The passage below, Beckett rehashing Schopenhauer, is from Mark Nixon’s study of Beckett’s tour of Nazi Germany, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937. My library copy has to go back today. They come with a price tag suitable only for institutions, but they are so rich and insightful I’m going to have to spring for a copy.

There are moments when the veil of hope is finally torn apart and the suddenly liberated eyes see their world, as it is, as it must be. Alas, it does not last long, the revelation quickly passes, the eyes can only bear such pitiless light for a short while, the membrane of hope grows again and one returns to the world of phenomena.
Hope is the cataract of the spirit, which cannot be pierced until it is completely ripe for decay. Not every cataract ripens, and many a human being can even spend his whole life within the mist of hope. And if the cataract may have been healed for the moment, it always forms itself again immediately, as does the hope.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

Traces of Individuality

It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

Michel Houellebecq

Born Fascist

Michael Howard’s Liberation or Catastrophe (Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century) is bracing. I find myself disagreeing with the thrust of his political interpretation but edified by his historical perspective, which reflects a broad reading of philosophical and literary texts.

Xenophobia, an inclination to violence, a pleasure in humiliating others, the desire to find security from a hostile world in one’s own group or tribe or gang with its own initiation processes and symbols and necessary enemies, all these are features common to all mankind (though not of corse womankind) as schoolboys know very well. We are all born Fascists, and have to be expensively educated out of it. And when all the structures of civil society painfully built up over generations disintegrate, whether through sudden catastrophe or gradual erosion, it is to these habits that we naturally return.

It’s difficult to disagree, though hard to accept, Howard’s ‘born Fascist’ theme. His analysis of the roots of Fascism and the challenges posed by a modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society is excellent.

As for the West, we know our situation far too well to believe that the Enlightenment has yet solved the problems it has created and that history for us has come to the end. Andre Gidé said something to the effect that ‘to free oneself is only a beginning. The real problem is to know how to live in liberty’; a discovery being made today by the populations of the former communist countries. A prison is also a kind of home. In the West, intellectuals may have become used to living in the godless world explored by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the last century, Heidegger and Sartre is this. But the social effects are only now beginning to be widely felt, of a world in which people are left entirely free to create and live by their own values, with neither traditional authority nor religious beliefs to guide them. We do now worry too much so long as, for most of the population, liberal capitalism continues quite literally to deliver the goods, in quantities and of a quality undreamed of by our forbears. But it liberal capitalism were to fail, as has its rival communism, we know what would be the likely alternative.