David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2009

Laszlo Krasznahorkai Interview

An interview with Tibor Keresztury and Judit Székely:

Is it not possible that the best minds of any given age have felt exactly the same way as you feel, since time immemorial? Is it not possible that the milieu is always like this, and it is only in retrospect that certain ages seem more attractive than others?

I am not saying that the past is brilliant – the recent past, for instance, almost killed me. But those people, living under oppression, had that something about them that gave you hope that the democratic ideals we envisaged at the time could build us a country which is more tolerable when measured by the moral and aesthetic expectations we held. But let me repeat – I would in no way like to idealise what we had at the time. How could I? I would much rather say that we have now lost by the wayside even what little we had – all that once prevented people from becoming blinded by their situation. We have lost whatever used to stop people from selling their dignity for a spoonful of gold or a spoonful of free soup – whatever they have in their spoons. And, to return to your question, I am sure it is true. I am sure all independent spirits felt in their own age that the society they had been granted was intolerable and that this could easily lead to the conclusion that all human societies are intolerable unless they exist by the highest moral and aesthetical standards. This seems true not only with regard to Western civilisations. It seems to hold true for Oriental cultures, too. Confucian himself repeatedly refers his readers to the early Zhou period, directly preceding his own, as an ideal age which his contemporaries should set their standards by. And Confucian, who created the poetic vision of the most elevated moral system in the world, lived in the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ.

In a situation like this, what do writing and literature give you? What do books mean? Obviously, not the way out. Nor does writing function as a form of personal salvation for you. Then, shall we say it is the gentlest form of rebellion? Or does it play the role of issuing certain signals?

Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation, anywhere in the world, invariably reminds me, “If you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write?” This is a subtle way of asking why I don’t shoot myself in the head right there and then, and indeed, why I hadn’t done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.

Hans Blumenberg’s Dichotomies

Having just finished The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I made a list of some of the dichotomies he treats. There are a lot of them, and the major headache of the book came from trying to keep their shifting relations in mind all at once. Blumenberg isn’t the sort to ever claim a definitive sequence or priority of concepts and their interactions, so the various ideologies treated in the book, from Platonism all the way to Feuerbach and (briefly) Freud, each create their own correlations between these concepts. Occasionally, some of the dichotomies collapse entirely, as with Nicholas of Cusa’s attempt to reconcile the finitude of the Incarnation with the infinity of God.

  • Gnosticism vs Scholasticism (especially voluntarism)

  • Holism vs subject/object duality

  • Immanence vs transcendence

  • Progress vs stasis/circularity

  • Perfection vs imperfection

  • Infinite vs finite

  • Knowledge vs morality

  • Knowledge-seeking vs happiness

  • Curiosity vs resignation

  • Geocentrism vs Copernicanism

  • Completeness vs incompleteness

  • Public vs private/secret/invisible

  • Autonomy vs indifference

  • Platonic realism vs nominalism

  • Form vs substance

Some disparate philosophies get combined on one side or another at times. Skepticism, stoicism, and Epicureanism, contra Hegel, are all treated as forms of resignation against pursuing knowledge.

Hans Blumenberg on Heidegger, Freud, and Others

The terms “forgetfulness of Being” and “repression”, deriving from very different sources in the thought of our century, represent a common underlying circumstance, namely, that what is past and forgotten can have its own sort of harmful presence.

Talk of the “undealt-with past” has concentrated in recent decades on the sins of omission of what has now become the generation of the fathers–in fact it has concentrated (increasingly) less on those who set the machinery of destruction in motion than on those who neglected to destroy it in good time or to prevent its schemes from being implemented in the first place. One should not fail to notice how such structures of reproach become plausible: They are integrated into a familiar schema, which through its capacity for variation continually gains in apparent conclusiveness.

Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success. The suggestion of a distant event that is responsible for what is wrong in the present…is an additional reason why the category of secularization is in need of a critique.

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, I.9

In other words, in bad times we seek out frameworks in which we can point to some point in the past where things went wrong, either by ignoring certain facts of existence or entering a philosophical cul-de-sac. This conveniently generates both an excuse for terrible things that might otherwise be wholly our fault, as well as a clear corrective that gives moral standing to the diagnostician. (Or, in the case of Adorno, the insistence that there is no possible corrective gives him moral standing.) Remember Being! Remember neurosis!

The solution doesn’t have to take the form of a return to the past, but it does have to cause some sort of undoing of the present, which I take to be the underlying motivation of such strategies: the desire to go from here to not-here and, even better, never-was-here. The shape of not-here matters less than the appealing prospect of having forgotten the bad times and being All Better Now.

Secularization and Heidegger seem to be the better examples. With (late) Freud and Adorno, their sheer pessimism undermines the case against their original frameworks. On the other hand, students of both of them have had no trouble constructing prescriptive frameworks that promise corrective measures just as boldly as Heidegger does.

Hobbes on Hopes and Fears

The object of hope is an apparent good; the object of fear, an apparent evil. Whence the hoped-for good that is expected to come to us we never perceive with security; for if we so perceived it, it would then be certain, and our expectation would more properly be called not hope, but joy. Even the most insubstantial arguments are sufficient for hope. Yea, even what the mind cannot truly conceive can be hoped for, if it can be expressed. Similarly, anything can be feared even though it be not conceived of, provided that it is commonly said to be terrible, or if we should see many simultaneously fleeing; for, even though the cause be unknown, we ourselves also flee, as in those terms that are called panic-terrors.

On Man 12.4

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