David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2009 (page 2 of 2)

New Classicist

As far as “being born old in a young world” (the source of which erudite commenter Dennis traces back to Alfred de Musset’s Rolla: “Je suis venu trop tard, dans un monde trop vieux”), I suppose that makes one a neo-classicist: too jaded to boast that the avant garde is avant and the nouvelle vague is nouvelle, and unwilling to adopt the pretense of having seemingly disposed of all prior influence.

“Neo-classicism” is just not as catchy as New Puritanism.

New Puritan

Hail the new puritan!
Righteous maelstrom
Cook one!
And all hardcore fiends will die by me
And all decadent sins will reap discipline
New puritan.
This is the grim reefer
The smack at the end of the straw
with a high grim quota
Your star Karma Jim
New Puritan.
The conventional is now experimental
The experimental is now conventional
It’s a dinosaur cackle
A pterodactyl cackle

The Fall

Mark Smith was always a Romantic. Update: I have been horribly ill and will return to posting soon.

Isak Dinesen: The Dreamers

Dinesen was Danish, moved to Africa for a spell, and, under a pseudonym, wrote fiction in English that evokes German Romanticism more than any English precedent. Dinesen admitted the willfully anachronistic quality of her writing, and yet it is still surprising just how greatly her work involves characters who are pretending to an ideal, and how they strive after a Romantic ideal analogously to how Dinesen pursues the Romantic and gothic qualities in writing.

The two greatest stories in Seven Gothic Tales are the two longest: The Deluge at Norderney and The Dreamers. Both involve people telling tales of themselves and others in nested layers, a la Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Both feature characters who, through an act of pretending, become greater than they otherwise would be, though this pretending ultimately kills them as well. Both subordinate the idea of a healthy and loving relationship to one containing moments of absolute intensity.

The Dreamers is the more interesting, though, because of the self-consciousness of the characters and of the author in writing it. It is about a beloved opera singer, Pellegrina, capable of transfixing audiences and earning their devotion and adulation, which she relishes. After a fire in the theater, she loses her voice, and, devastated by the loss of her ability to compel attention from others, she vows:

I will not be one person again, Marcus, I will be always many persons from now. Never again will I have my heart and my whole life bound up with one woman, to suffer so much. It is terrible to me to think of it even. That, you see, I have done long enough. I cannot be asked to do it any more. It is all over.

And so, it is revealed at this point, it turns out that Pellegrina is all three of the women in the earlier tales told by the three men in the story, each of whom was enraptured by a woman who then disappeared at the moment of their greatest passion. The stories are quite diverse, the positions of the women completely different, but the course of the love affairs is the same.

In the absence of her ability to compel people wholly through art, Pellegrina chooses to do so by acting. The situations that each of the men describe are intense, melodramatic, and even contrived. Pellegrina has orchestrated these scenarios so that she can bring about passions at the level of those of her past audiences. But the difficulties of life mean that she works on one man at a time, and because she is acting, the situation is always asymmetric. He feels love; she feels the devotion that she previously felt onstage. And because it is a pretense on her part, she must flee the scene before too long, or else the entire purpose of the pretense would disappear as reality bled through.

So there is a peculiar relationship portrayed between art and life here. The ultimate mode of passion is not between lovers, but between spectator and performer. The Romantic ideal of intensity is possible only in a contrived setting, be it explicitly artistic or merely socially engineered. This ideal doesn’t just emerge out of the pretense of Pellegrina; it requires it. Being an actual person, an ordinary human being, negates the intensity of the Romantic experience. And such intensity is only possible for a limited time while there is a performance. It is these moments that provide satisfaction of the ideal, while returning to ordinary life is disappointing but for the memories of those moments.

I think that this fits exactly with why Dinesen wrote in tribute to and in imitation of forms that were long past: it is her form of pretending, without any prejudice associated with the word. In life, as with Pellegrina’s men, it’s necessary not to know that there is a pretense, but in art the spectator can experience transcendence with full knowledge of the pretense of the artist.

Hegel on Stoicism

Hegel knocks stoicism for its ultimate uselessness:

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

Kleist on Speech and Thought

Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle.

That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination…. And if such young people, even the most ignorant among them, do most often achieve good marks this is because the minds of the examiners, if the examination is public, are themselves too embarrassed to deliver a true judgement. For not only do they themselves feel the indecency of the whole procedure: we should be ashamed to ask a person to tip out the contents of his purse before us, let alone his soul: but their own intelligences come under dangerous appraisal and they may count themselves lucky if they manage to leave the examination without having revealed more shameful weaknesses than the young finalist himself whom they have been examining.

Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking” (tr. Constantine)

This essay is fundamentally about misspeaking, and how the brain and the mouth may not each be able to do the work of the other, or else may have to do the work of the other. There is little value assigned to misspeaking because it only adds to the effort the listener has to make in understanding the speaker, and no one likes making additional effort. But because it points out those clashes between the two tracks of speech and thought, I would rather have stumbling speaking than polished oratory.

I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a very well put-together student, and I asked him how he was able to so easily hold forth on any number of topics. He said that he remembered entire paragraphs of content, verbatim, about various subjects that interested him, and so it was just a matter of recalling and speaking them. I envied this talent because, as I explained to him, I never repeated myself verbatim. When speaking, I always started from some abstract, non-verbal items of cognition and rederived the words on the spot, and this extra effort required always caused me to slip up a bit, always caused me a bit of uncertainty that no doubt revealed me as a neophyte. Now I wonder if this tendency wasn’t/isn’t in fact due to what I think must be the horrible boredom of memorizing actual text rather than much more abbreviated and efficient concepts.

So misspeaking to me is a sign of the play (as Kant would say) between concept and language and between speaking and thinking, as opposed to the dead recitation of words that people have memorized so that they no longer remember the actual meaning or many possible meanings. Or as Wilhelm von Humboldt puts it:

In speech the energy of the mind breaks a path through the lips, but its product returns through our own ears. The idea is translated into true objectivity without being withdrawn from subjectivity. Only language can do this; and without this translation into an objectivity which returns to the subject–and such a translation occurs, even though silently, whenever language is at work–the formation of concepts and hence all true thought would be impossible…For language cannot be regarded as a substance which is present, which can be apprehended as a whole or gradually communicated; it is something which must be constantly produced, and while the laws according to which it is produced are defined, its scope and in a certain sense the manner in which it is produced remains indeterminate…Just as the particular sound mediates between the object and the man, so the whole language mediates between him and the nature that works upon him from within and without. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.

Forget the indeterminacy and one half has gone missing. Most writing and speech is dead.

Update: An apropos reblog of a short Kafka parable:


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)

Montaigne: Apology for Raymond Sebond

For a reputedly humanistic and temperate philosophy, the Apology [sic] for Raymond Sebond comes off as one of the most intemperate of Montaigne’s essays. He works himself into a frenzy of attack against all claims and pretenses of human reason, proclaiming their impotence against the works of God and fate. He quotes the Roman astrologer Manilius in tandem with Lucretius to emphasize the hopeless fatalism that is driving him. His contempt from constructive philosophy from Plato to Aristotle to his time builds, until he is even attacking the Pyrrhonists for the hubris of their claim to not knowing anything:

Ignorance that knows itself, that judges itself and condemns itself, is not complete ignorance: to be that, it must be ignorant of itself. So the profession of the Pyrrhonians is to waver, doubt, and inquire, to be sure of nothing, to answer for nothing. Of the three functions of the soul, the imaginative, the appetitive, and the consenting, they accept the first two; the last they suspend and keep it ambiguous, without inclination or approbation, however slight, in one direction or the other.

The Pyrrhonians have kept themselves a wonderful advantage in combat, having rid themselves of the need to cover up. It does not matter to them that they are struck, provided they strike; and they do their work with everything. If they win, your proposition is lame; if you win, theirs is. If they lose, they confirm ignorance; if you lose, you confirm it. If they prove that nothing is known, well and good; if they do not know how to prove it, just as good. So that, since equal reasons are found on both sides of the same subject, it may be the easier to suspend judgment on each side [Cicero].

Pyrrho did not want to make himself a stump or a stone; he wanted to make himself a living, thinking, reasoning man, enjoying all natural pleasures and comforts, employing and using all his bodily and spiritual faculties in regular and upright fashion. The fantastic, imaginary, false privileges that man has arrogated to himself, of regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth, he honestly renounced and gave up.

(tr. Frame)

Perhaps Montaigne here is susceptible to Hans Blumenberg’s attack on stoics and Epicureans: of abandoning one’s ambitions and will in favor of what minimal pleasure may be grasped from the life at hand. But Montaigne is never consistent nor focused in his views, and the frustration that drives this essay appears as directed at the stoics as at anyone else. As much as it derides the Christian apologists for saying that God will take care of it all, the Pyrrhonists fall under attack for making their practice into a dogma as well. And so at the end, as Blumenberg might have predicted, Montaigne falls into something of an otherworldly Gnosticism, denying our knowledge of God and insisting that faith alone may allow us to escape this awful and uncontrollable world. Hence, again, why he finds so much use in Manilius’s fatalistic astrological texts: to conclusively say that we are not in control of our lives.

The fatalism is the more disappointing aspect of the essay, which elsewhere delves into enough cosmology to make it Montaigne’s Timaeus. I don’t see much orthodox skepticism in it, even if Montaigne was dwelling on the subject. There is too much reference to convenient beliefs, the need for happiness, pleasure, and suffering for Montaigne to attach himself to classical skepticism alone. Nor does he particularly play one belief off against another; each one comes in for attack individually using assaultive common-sense “evidence,” much as Schopenhauer would do centuries later in trying to convince people that the world was truly unbearable.

Instead, I find the constructive aspect of the essay to be the super-Pyrrhonic method that Montaigne employs, jumping around from topic to topic and never finding any satisfaction. Although this method draws Montaigne to assorted conclusions as to humanity’s powerlessness, uselessness, and unhappiness, these are all fallacies on his part, stemming from his self-professed lassitude as a thinker. It is the dissatisfaction that emerges as the constructive attitude, not the purported skepticism or fatalism. It is an emotional and personal method.

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