David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2007

Hegel and Stoicism

I quote Hume and I have nothing more to say. I quote Hegel and I
have a lot more to say, and not just because Hegel is something of a
bete noire for me:

The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond
which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt
uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the
content, they soon become tedious.

Phenomenology of Spirit, 200

The greater context (as it was <a href=http://bernsteintapes.com/hegellist.html>explained to me) is
that Hegel is explaining self-consciousness looking for a way out of
the great divide between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds, the
world as we perceive it and the world as it is in the infinite, and so
on. The stoic’s solution is to deny the phenomenal world by
withdrawing from it and all desire. Hegel is referring to the stoics
and particularly Epictetus, the slave who taught that you simply
shouldn’t want what you don’t have. This is also a caricature of
Buddhist philosophies advocating the suppression of all desire.

The problem, Hegel says, is that having detached from the real
world, stoicism is empty. Unattached to any particulars, you’re left
with a world of nothing and nowhere to go. You’re just as stuck as you
were in the miserable real world, trapped and without freedom. It’s
not so bad, since all your pain is gone, but it is tedious.

Stoicism always holds an interest for me, maybe because I’m so
naturally non-stoic, but the idea of tossing frustrations aside rather
than conquering them is awfully appealing. And I don’t think that Hegel’s
criticism holds. Have you ever met a genuine stoic? I’ve only met
people trying to be stoics, and succeeding on rare, brief
occasions. So I decided that stoicism was less about being stoic all
the time and more processual. Again, think of the Zen model of
constantly correcting one’s course to maintain mindfulness; you always
drift away, but you always correct yourself. If you ever achieved
perfect mindfulness, you’d have reached a veritable state of non-being
(whether nirvana or simply an impossibility), and Hegel’s tedium
wouldn’t even arise because there would be no being left to have it.

Unfortunately, that sort of perfection doesn’t seem to happen, so it’s
not as though stoicism provides a genuine way out. But the dead end
seems to be more of a bottomless pit, since you will never find out
that stoicism fails to satisfy. Hegel’s subsequent problems of
skepticism and unhappy consciousness are states in which one can
live, but stoicism’s problem only become apparent after you’ve already
gotten there. Which you don’t.

It’s strange that Hegel, who’s obsessed with process and
development, treats such waystations as points unto themselves. It
would be fine if each was an effort that failed in the trying, but I
just don’t think that’s true with stoicism, which provides the
unreachable end of the rainbow and no indication that it could ever
disappoint. But as far as that endless striving and approximation
goes, is it worth putting your effort to that end more than any other?
I doubt it.

Otto Dix’s Doctors

The Met’s “Glitter and Doom” exhibit (I know, sounds like a Barnaby Jones episode) isn’t as impressive as the Dada one at MOMA last year, but I still got a kick out of it. I think Dix is a shallower artist than Grosz or Beckmann, so I was a little disappointed that he dominates the exhibit, but them’s the breaks. I did like seeing the portraits of doctors who didn’t mind that Dix’s pictures of them would drive away business:

Dr. Meyer Hermann. (The droll wall copy describes him as “in-reality handsome.”)

Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann. (A psychologist and hypnotist. You can’t see it here, but his eyes are all glittery, just short of black and white spirals.)

Dr. Hans Koch, urologist. Say no more. (Dix also stole Koch’s wife. “Dix and Martha Koch became lovers, sharing, among other things, a passion for dancing. When Dix returned to Dresden at the end of 1921, Martha Koch followed him, leaving her husband and two children behind. Koch remained unperturbed, however, because he had already begun an affair with his wife’s older sister, Maria Lindner. Two new couples formed. Koch and Dix became brothers-in-law, and the friendship continued until Koch’s death in 1952.”)

Still, I don’t think any of these are as simply effective as Egon Schiele’s Herr Doktor von Graff:

Dr. Erwin von Graff, gynecologist. (Given to von Graff in lieu of payment for an abortion.)

Kafka: Diogenes


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

I don’t see this parable mentioned too often, but it portrays the most severe internalization of some of Kafka’s obsessions. Everything is internalized. But while we have A, the controlling deity who answers to no one (shades of Jaynes!) and C, the unknowing worker, who is this B? Is it Klamm or the Mayor from The Castle? The father in “The Judgment”? The academy of “Report to an Academy”? Karl, Huld, or Titorelli in The Trial?

Yet it is B that chooses not to share the knowledge B gains from A with C, the very knowledge that would assuage C’s fear, or at least temper it with some sense of duty, responsibility, necessity, anything. Or does B? C does not get to ask B that question. Maybe B cannot explain to C what C does not understand. Maybe B is mediating between two entities that speak incompatible languages: one of command, one of action. Maybe C does not have an option other than to act, and C’s dreams of explanation are meaningless and cannot be satisfied. C only waits for the next order. B’s barked commands may be the only thing that C can understand. B, the messenger and interpreter, can never be sure of being properly understood. And what then of A?

And why is it that we are inside of C’s mind, while B and A are opaque? Are we reading only in C’s language?

Choose Your Own Philosophical Adventure #1: Escape from the Dialectic

[To ring in the new year, we bring you excerpts from Escape from the Dialectic, by Erica Weitzman.]

p. 56:

“The Body without Organs?!” you exclaim. “What’s that?”

Gilles and Félix give each other a knowing look. “It’s a place where everything–even your own identity–is dissolved,” Gilles says slowly. “Some people who encounter it directly never return. Then again, it may be your only way out.”

You look at both of them, hoping for some clue to what you should do. Gilles could be right. But coming face to face with the Body without Organs could also mean risking your bounded subjectivity–even your life!

If you choose to make yourself a Body without Organs, turn to page 29.
If you want to try becoming-animal instead, turn to page 81.
If you think you should go back and talk to Jacques, turn to page 7.

p. 29:

“I’ll take the risk,” you say.

“Bravo,” says Gilles. He pulls something out of his vest pocket and hands it to you. It’s an egg, but an egg like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s covered all over with curious, dotted lines, like the lines on a map, and it makes a weird, almost buzzing sound. You ask what it is.

“It’s a Dogon’s egg,” explains Félix. “Just hold it in your hand, and you’ll get to the Body without Organs.”

You’re skeptical–how can a little egg be that powerful?–but you follow his instructions anyway. Before you know it, you start to feel funny, like all your skin is melting off your body. But it doesn’t feel bad–in fact, you’ve never felt more alive in your life. You can’t even see Gilles and Félix anymore: just a swirl of flashing lights, colors, and shapes…or no, of intensities…changing at every moment. You want something, but you can’t figure out what. Food? Sex? Pain? Mommy? Or maybe you want to try to speak…?

“Marshmallow cobble meow meow jumper bumper Andalusia!” you cry out. Then everything suddenly goes dark.

Turn to page 38.

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