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.
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.
This is the second part of an occasional series as I work through this monster of a book, which to me seems far more dense than Blumenberg’s earlier The Legitimacy of the Modern World. (In the intervening years, he seems to have read many, many more books.)
Blumenberg started the book by placing humanity in an antagonism with its environment, and the problem caused when, as I mentioned in the first part, one can no longer just run away from the hostile things in the world. Myth then emerges as, he plainly states, a way of engaging with and shaping that which is beyond us. The formation of an ordered world of myth (and its sibling theory) produces “the capacity to be addressed…Every story gives an Achilles’ heel to sheer power” (p. 16; power here being that which exerts itself over us).
Then there is a five-step process of the development of myth, beginnign with the undefined, superior, hostile Other (pp. 22-23):
The Other becomes the Other One, via the process of giving a name or names to the Other. (This is clearer in German, where the journey from das Andere (abstract Other) to der Andere (personal Other One) is a function of the grammar.) This lays the ground for personification and engagement.
A physiognomy of the Other One is generated, along with accompanying behavior patterns and character, setting the grounds for the laws of engagement with the Other One.
The concept of fidelity emerges, by which the Other One will reliably show favor to those that…the Other One favors, in accordance with the physiognomy and laws.
Humans may enter into a covenant of some sort with the Other One: if you do what it wants (which may well not be possible), the Other One will deliver on its promises.
The covenant is superseded by “an absolute realism of the commitment of divine favor to men,” where we and the Other One are in it together, so to speak, and the world is friendly.
The last two stages are Judaism and Christianity, at least in the history that Blumenberg chronicles, and anyone who has read Hegel will see the Protestant-influenced German movement from the Jewish world of Talmudic law to the Christian world of Christ’s love. Except that Blumenberg is quite clear that the Christian cycle fails to solve the problems of the covenant-based myth: evil, suffering, etc. Like all myths, he says, it moves the problems of its predecessor around, but this is hardly an undisputed achievement. So theodicy continues to exist and the supposed friendliness of the world is always in doubt; the myth is under constant threat of replacement.
So far this is indeed very Nietzschean, but Blumenberg is much more historically savvy, or at least he wants to present the problem as one that lives on in theory itself. (Nietzsche was more content to wave away theory; Blumenberg is not an anarchist.) And he has a small coup in the first chapter to show his insight.
If we look back on the multiplicity of the historically accumulated theories of the origin of religion, they sort themselves out into two main types. The first is represented by Feuerbach, for whom the divinity is nothing but man’s self-projection into heaven, his temporary representation in a foreign medium, through which his self-concept is enriched and becomes capable of retraction from its interim state of projection. The second is represented by Rudolf Otto, for whom God and the gods arise from an a priori and homogeneous original sensation of the ‘holy,’ in which awe and fear, fascination and world anxiety, uncanniness and unfamiliarity are secondarily combined. Must one not also expect both theories to have their corresponding phenomena, which just haven’t been separated, descriptively, by the name “religion”?
To paraphrase: the theories of the origin of religion merely recapitulate religious experience itself rather than providing explanation. In other words, we have not come so far from myth as we think. And, Blumenberg hints, it applies just as easily to philosophy, which so often appeals to either (a) a holistic identity of divinity and man (Spinoza, Hegel, transhumanists) or (b) some kind of radical alterity by which the Other is apotheosized and related to mystically (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas, Badiou). At least as I read him, Blumenberg’s ambition is to portray these religious and philosophical mechanisms as aspects of a single, more fundamental mythical (or perhaps more accurately, metaphorical or meaning-generating) mechanism.
I saw Heiner Goebbel’s odd Stifters Dinge this weekend (made odder with the persistent head cold I’ve had), and though I think it’s senseless to try to give a concrete analysis of it, one part jumped out at me, an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss where he says that there is nowhere left unexplored in the world, no remaining frontiers. I don’t think he’s right, but humanity is definitely at a place where we finally think of the whole planet as our home rather than any one part of it. And so…
If we have to seek man’s origin in the category of animals that ‘flee,’ then we can comprehend that before the change of biotope [from jungle to savanna] all signals that set off flight reactions would indeed have the power of fear but would not have to reach the level of a dominating condition of anxiety, as long as mere movement was available as a means of clarifying the situation. But if one imagines that this solution was no longer, or no longer constantly, successful, then from that point onward the situations that enforced flight either had to be dealt with by standing one’s ground or had to be avoided by means of anticipation.
Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth 1.1
So while Hegel thinks the primary will of humanity is desire, for Blumenberg the primary motive of primitive humanity is getting the hell out of Dodge. And when we settled down and no longer ran from place to place, an underlying anxiety originated of the anticipation of having to pick up sticks and run. (Blumenberg is more prosaic than Heidegger; he thinks life is tough enough on its own without the problems of Dasein.) And as long as we could imagine that flight, could imagine packing up and rebuilding elsewhere, the anxiety could be kept in check.
But I wonder: when you’ve filled up the planet and you know you’re stuck on it and you start to see assorted disaster scenarios that offer no refuge to start over (be they nuclear, environmental, or otherwise), what does that do to the anxiety? There’s no flight left (except to other planets, the fantasy of some optimists).
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.
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.