Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

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.”

An Indifferent Man

I desired to see Cioran’s Genealogy of Fanaticism flow from my pen into my notebook. After transcribing his essay I started to capture a few fragments here, but decided to post the full text in its slightly hysterical and brilliant glory. This is the first essay in A Short History of Decay.

In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events: the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy … whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional. History is nothing but a procession of false Absolutes, a series of temples raised to pretexts, a degradation of the mind before the Improbable. Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it; depleting himself to create fake gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike. His power to adore is responsible for all his crimes: a man who loves a god unduly forces other men to love his god, eager to exterminate them if they refuse. There is no form of intolerance, of proselytism or ideological intransigence which fails to reveal the bestial substratum of enthusiasm. Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable. We kill only in the name of a god or of his counterfeits: the excesses provoked by the goddess Reason, by the concept of nation, class, or race are akin to those of the Inquisition or of the Reformation. The ages of fervor abound in bloody exploits: a Saint Teresa could only be the contemporary of the auto-da-fé, a Luther of the repression of the Peasants’ Revolt. In every mystic outburst, the moans of victims parallel the moans of ecstasy… . Scaffolds, dungeons, jails flourish only in the shadow of a faith—of that need to believe which has infested the mind forever. The devil pales beside the man who owns a truth, his truth. We are unfair to a Nero, a Tiberius: it was not they who invented the concept heretic: they were only degenerate dreamers who happened to be entertained by massacres. The real criminals are men who establish an orthodoxy on the religious or political level, men who distinguish between the faithful and the schismatic.

When we refuse to admit the interchangeable character of ideas, blood flows … firm resolves draw the dagger; fiery eyes presage slaughter. No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with its convictions, and that, in return for having forsaken doubt and sloth—vices nobler than all its virtues—has taken the path to perdition, into history, that indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse… . Here certitudes abound: suppress them, best of all suppress their consequences, and you recover paradise. What is the Fall but the pursuit of a truth and the assurance you have found it, the passion for a dogma, domicile within a dogma? The result is fanaticism—fundamental defect which gives man the craving for effectiveness, for prophecy, for terror—a lyrical leprosy by which he contaminates souls, subdues them, crushes or exalts them… . Only the skeptics (or idlers or aesthetes) escape, because they propose nothing, because they—humanity’s true benefactors—undermine fanaticism’s purposes, analyze its frenzy. I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity. In the fervent mind you always find the camouflaged beast of prey; no protection is adequate against the claws of a prophet… . Once he raises his voice, whether in the name of heaven, of the city, or some other excuse, away with you: satyr of your solitude, he will not forgive your living on the wrong side of his truths and his transports; he wants you to share his hysteria, his fullness, he wants to impose it on you, and thereby to disfigure you. A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth, where our mania for salvation makes life unbreathable. Look around you: everywhere, specters preaching; each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples—officialdom, with its rules—a metaphysics designed for monkeys… Everyone trying to remedy everyone’s life: even beggars, even the incurable aspire to it: the sidewalks and hospitals of the world overflow with reformers. The longing to become a source of events affects each man like a mental disorder or a desired malediction. Society—an inferno of saviors! What Diogenes was looking for with his lantern was an indifferent man. …

It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say ‘we’ with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke ‘others’ and regard himself as their interpreter—for me to consider him my enemy. I see in him a tyrant manqué an approximate executioner, quite as detestable as the first-rate tyrants, the first-rate executioners. Every faith practices some form of terror, all the more dreadful when the ‘pure’ are its agents. We mistrust the swindler, the trickster, the con-man; yet to them we can impute none of history’s great convulsions; believing in nothing, it is not they who rummage in your hearts, or your ulterior motives; they leave you to your apathy, to your despair or to your uselessness; to them humanity owes the few moments of prosperity it has known: it is they who save the peoples whom fanatics torture and ‘idealists’ destroy. Doctrineless, they have only whims and interests, accommodating vices a thousand times more endurable than the ravages provoked by principled despotism; for all of life’s evils come from a ‘conception of life.’ An accomplished politician should search out the ancient sophists and take lessons in oratory—and in corruption… .

Whereas the fanatic is incorruptible: if he kills for an idea, he can just as well get himself killed for one; in either case, tyrant or martyr, he is a monster. No human beings more dangerous than those who have suffered for a belief: the great persecutors are recruited among the martyrs not quite beheaded. Far from diminishing the appetite for power, suffering exasperates it; hence the mind feels more comfortable in the society of a braggart than in that of a martyr; and nothing is more repugnant to it than the spectacle of dying for an idea… . Revolted by the sublime and by carnage, the mind dreams of a provincial ennui on the scale of the universe, of a History whose stagnation would be so great that doubt would take on the lineaments of an event and hope a calamity…