Martin Hägglund’s This Life

“The brevity of my life is made salient by the forms of time to which I am recalled.”

“What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal.”

“The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at heart of what I call secular faith.”

“I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time.”

“I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.”

The “idea of secular life as empty or meaningless is itself a religious notion.”

The central thesis of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is summarised in his introduction. His book then labours to go beyond critical philosophy, developing his arguments through readings of the Bible, Buddhist philosophy, Greek and Roman Stoics, and writers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Augustine, C. S. Lewis and Charles Taylor. In the most rewarding chapter, he reads a secular confession in Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Finally, he turns to Marx’s argument that renders spiritual freedom the essential attribute of human labour.

The book seems unnecessarily verbose, not to disguise weak reasoning, but an excessive use of circumlocution. I was also surprised that Feuerbach is missing from Hägglund’s pantheon of writers, as from what little I understand of this undervalued thinker, his is a highly elegant argument that dissolves religious essence into human existence, without finding, it necessary (a strength of Hägglund’s) for an aggressive tearing-down.

That said, Hägglund’s thesis is substantive and thought provoking. It succeeds in moving Knausgaard forward in my reading plans, and reminds me to reread Feuerbach, a thinker I read with great enjoyment in my twenties.

Here is a proper review of Hägglund’s book.

Sadly a Happy Woman

‘Yes, she felt a perfect animal inside her. The thought of one day setting this animal loose disgusted her. Perhaps for fear of lack of aesthetic. Or dreading a revelation …’ p.10

‘And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?’ p.23

‘The impression that if she could remain in the feeling for a few more instants she’d have a revelation—easily, like seeing the rest of the world just by leaning from the earth towards space. Eternity wasn’t just time, but something like the deeply rooted certainty that she couldn’t contain it in her body because of death; the impossibility of going beyond eternity was eternity; and a feeling in absolute, almost abstract purity was also eternal. What really gave her a sense of eternity was the impossibility of knowing how many human beings would succeed her body, which would one day be so far from the present with the speed of a shooting star.’ p.35

‘Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.’ p.36

‘From that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre heard a wave of her own reminiscences would surface to memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had …’ p. 66

‘Because the last ice cubes had melted and now she was sadly a happy woman.’ p.101

‘… in that same, strange, deceptive room where the dust had now won out over the shine.’ p.104

‘Sunday is something like Christmas trees …’ p.161

There are comparisons between Clarice Lispector’s and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing that I resisted as too easy. But they share Spinoza’s God and Nietzsche’s joyous, brooding presence. My second reading of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin, richer and deeper than the first. Dorothy Richardson, in the early parts of Pilgrimage, is traversing similar plains.

 

The dog is our superior

“A British poet began a verse to a dog: The curate says you have no soul—. I know that he has none. That is good; but it is spiteful. Let us admit the curate. For the dog would. A dog does not care a wag of his tail whether a man is curate or editor of a newspaper. Therein the dog is our superior.”

John Albert Macy, The Critical Game

From Macy’s essay on Maurice Maeterlinck, the latter a writer I know little of beyond his being held in high esteem by Miriam Henderson, Dorothy Richardson’s protagonist in Pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage continues to enchant to the point that I cannot imagine reading another work of fiction with quite the same degree of pleasure and absorption. I’m taking my time with Pilgrimage, feeling no inclination to finish, but also allowing myself to drift into sampling Maeterlinck—whose essays I like very much—Spinoza, and Emerson, writers Richardson alludes to directly or indirectly in Pilgrimage.

Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

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.”

Be Cautious

Image

Portrait in oil of the dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the painter Franz Wulfhagen (1624–1670) from Bremen, Germany. Created in 1664, probably commissioned by the scholar Johann Eberhard Schweling, the painting today is in private hands in France.

Portrait in oil of the dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza by the painter Franz Wulfhagen (1624–1670) from Bremen, Germany. Created in 1664, probably commissioned by the scholar Johann Eberhard Schweling, the painting today is in private hands in France.

Spinoza’s mother tongue was Spanish; he was a master of Hebrew and had an effective command of Portuguese and Dutch – perhaps also of French. However, none of those languages contained the wealth of scientific and philosophical argument that was contained in Latin, which language therefore became, for Spinoza, both the primary vehicle of his thought, and the symbol of his intellectual quest. In choosing the universal language of our culture, Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely. He chose a single word from that language for his device: caute — `be cautious’ – inscribed beneath a rose, the symbol of secrecy. For having chosen to write in a language that was so widely intelligible, he was compelled to hide what he had written.

From Roger Scruton’s Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction