David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: gnosticism (page 2 of 4)

Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

Joyce and the Past

No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

Ulysses I.2

This passage (ominously quoted by the Times sportswriter before he said “It is clear that the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been pondering long and fruitfully on this text from the great book”) is thought by Stephen early on in Ulysses, and I read it as one of the most evident unifying points between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Stephen and Bloom both blatantly invoke the difficulty of accepting the past, Stephen with his “History is a nightmare…” attitude and Bloom with his entire family life and family history. (And really Stephen with his family as well, for family and death are two of the great Catholic/Platonic pillars around which Joyce’s work revolves.)

Specifically, the issue is one of accepting the erasure of possibilities and the cementing of tragedy by the passage of time. The obsession with alternate possibilities and counterfactuals embodies the otherworldly gnosticism that Joyce frequently rejects and ridicules. This passage in the second chapter is mirrored quite precisely by one from the penultimate chapter, when Bloom sadly contemplates “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future” in abandoning the idea of Stephen as a surrogate son. Bloom comes to some acceptance of time’s branding. With Stephen it is less clear.

But I do think Joyce not only endorsed this acceptance but urged that the tragedy be memorialized and (secularly) sanctified. In the climatic passage of III.3 in Finnegans Wake, when the Four Old Men or whatever you want to call them excavate the mound of sleeping, dead HCE and the screams of history come pouring out, a torrent of war calls, mournings, and death:

— Crum abu! Cromwell to victory!
— We’ll gore them and gash them and gun them and gloat on them.
— Zinzin.
— O, widows and orphans, it’s the yeomen! Redshanks for ever! Up Lancs!
— The cry of the roedeer it is! The white hind. Their slots, linklink, the hound hunthorning ! Send us and peace ! Title ! Title !
— Christ in our irish times! Christ on the airs independence! Christ hold the freedman’s chareman! Christ light the dully expressed!
— Slog slagt and sluaghter! Rape the daughter! Choke the pope!
— Aure ! Cloudy father ! Unsure ! Nongood !
— Zinzin.
— Sold! I am sold! Brinabride! My ersther! My sidster! Brinabride, goodbye! Brinabride! I sold!
— Pipette dear! Us! Us! Me! Me!
— Fort! Fort! Bayroyt! March!
— Me! I’m true. True! Isolde. Pipette. My precious!
— Zinzin.

The men are senile and HCE/Shaun is sleepy or dead, so there is an elegaic quality to the chapter, but here there is no hiding the raw horror, the actual and endlessly repeated fall of man. (It’s some of the least confused verbiage in the whole book; the mysterious “Zinzin” is theorized to be the ringing of the phone that the old men are listening in on.) I read it as a codification of that which must be spoken not to be forgotten, repressed, and/or ignored, in order to speak honestly and fully of the “irreparability of the past” and not think it away.

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.

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

Hans Blumenberg Cheat Sheet

This is a quick attempt to summarize Blumenberg’s positions on some of the main pre-modern thinkers he treats. Corrections welcome.

  • Platonism: Knowledge = happiness = justice. Elitist guardians possess greatest amounts of all three. Knowledge to be pursued. A lawful, knowable connection between this reality and the reality of the forms.
  • Epicureanism: Happiness attained by ignoring that which does not directly concern you. Knowledge-as-exploration is distracting and leads to misery. Abandonment of any claim to universal knowledge. Anti-elitist.
  • Stoicism: Happiness attained by the cessation of desire, including desire for knowledge. Anti-elitist.
  • Skepticism: Pursuit of knowledge undermined through rhetoric, ultimately ending in a negation of humanity’s ability to know or master the world.
  • Gnosticism: As conceived by Marcion and others, Christian salvation is attained through knowledge of the irrelevance of this evil world and focus on private knowledge of the real and good God. Knowledge is good but resolutely non-secular, not to be pursued in this world–and therefore there is no public standard of knowledge, no method of verification. Elitist, as only those who pursue otherworldly wisdom get saved.
  • Augustine: Abandons Gnosticism to focus on salvation attained through virtuous acts and repentance in this world. Beginning of classic anti-elitist Catholic/Scholastic tradition. Condemns curiosity as an arrogant and dangerous distraction from the real matter of salvation.
  • Scholasticism: As epitomized by Aquinas, the attempt to locate salvation and relevance in this world while placing God in a realm beyond comprehension. The height of establishing a coherent and meaningful connection between this world and God. Curiosity beyond the restricted realm of humanity is fiercely condemned.
  • Voluntarism: The particular offshoot doctrine of God being constrained by no law or rule whatsoever in what He can bring about. Consequently, curiosity loses some of its forbidden character as there is no greater law or theory that could be discovered.
  • Nominalism: In the context of theology, a doctrine of Ockham and others that proposes that every object in this world does not have any linkage to a real, greater Platonic sort of form in the amorphous Godly realm. Undermines Scholasticism by making the “greater” reality (whether of forms or God) more remote from this reality and diminishing God’s derivable influence on this reality; thereby it is now safer for conceptualism and theory to exist in this reality, as it does not intrude on God’s turf.
  • Nicholas of Cusa: Specifically proposes that humanity may discover the truths of this world through a proto-scientific process of trial and error by which we may eventually achieve a perfect, though limited, knowledge of our own world. Endorsement of curiosity as an integral part of the theological whole.
  • Giordano Bruno: Expands and reverses Nicholas’s conceptions by putting no limits on the expansion of humanity’s knowledge, now encompassing the (Copernican) heavens and the earth’s place in the now non-geocentric universe. Beginning of genuine self-assertion over the (now-expanded) world.
  • Descartes: Represents an odd regression to the problems of Scholasticism, by attempting to reconcile a posited voluntarist God with one who guarantees a quasi-scientific, perfectible methodology in this world. The attempt fails, and so Descartes represents the last gasp of a not-yet-secularized scientific curiosity, for which Leibniz will take him to task.
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