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Tag: misery (page 2 of 4)

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.

Nikolai Leskov: The Enchanted Wanderer

I only heard of Leskov recently (Irving Howe and Walter Benjamin both wrote about him, so perhaps this is my fault), and I can’t understand why he isn’t better known in English. Leskov may not be in the absolute top rank, but he certainly deserves a place alongside other big 19th century names like Goncharov, Lermontov, and Shchedrin. But no, even though his most famous story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was turned into an opera by Shostakovich, there’s very little on him in English. Leskov is less spiritual and more folkloric than his contemporaries, preferring not to deal in big concepts like family and fate, and perhaps this makes him less archetypally Russian. But especially in the massive novel-length tale “The Enchanted Wanderer,” he pulls off an extended anti-everyman epic that has echoes of the less satirical (and less crazy) side of Gogol, but even more so, Kleist.

I adore Kleist, and I follow Gabriel Josipovici’s line that Kleist was a singular and oppositional figure in Germanic literature, pointing away from the dominant trends of the time. Leskov is nowhere near as perverse, but the willingness with which the stories blithely take hairpin turns and lapse into burlesque is something Leskov has to himself.

“The Enchanted Wanderer” plays up the blitheness, as our hero, the strong giant Ivan, is not the most reactive sort, and greets his many crazy and painful picaresque adventures with more nonchalance than anything else. For most of the story, his calm ability to take things in stride comes as simply an odd quirk, but by the end it appears integral to Leskov’s portrayal of the world. He is a reluctant storyteller. Late in his life, as a monk, some people on a boat ask him to tell his long life story, and he eventually agrees.

The story then has several more or less discrete sections with jarring transitions between them. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. He is born as a serf and becomes a horse driver for his lord. One day he inadvertently kills a monk, who returns to him in a dream at night. The conversation he has is typical of his attitude:

    “You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”

    “Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”

    …”You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”

  2. He continues at his job as a horse driver until saving the life of his lord’s son, at which point he becomes a caretaker of pigeons and such. But after a cat eats the pigeons and he cuts off his tail, he is punished and humiliated and flees to become a robber.
  3. He is soon found by another landowner who trusts him immediately to be the nursemaid for his wife and child. But the wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him, and taking a moral stance that the lovers should be together (after initially wanting to beat up the lover), he helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
  4. He shows up at a horse fair and displays his expertise in judging horses, then gets into a flogging fight with a Tartar, whom he kills. The Russians present try to haul him off to trial, so he flees with the Tartars to the steppe.
  5. The Tartars like him too much and hold him hostage on the steppe for ten years by implanting bristles into his heels, making it difficult even to walk. He has several wives and children.
  6. At age 33, he is finally able to flee from the Tartars (converting them to Christianity beforehand via some prestidigitation) by finding corrosive earth that allows him to open his heel and remove the bristles.
  7. Ivan is hired by another lord for his horse judging skills.
  8. He meets up with a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through Kleistian nightmares and hallucinations in order to cure him of drink.
  9. Still employed, he meets up with some bizarre gypsies, falling in love with the captivating dancer Grusha, to whom he loses a huge amount of money. His master goes to see Grusha the next night and buys her from the gypsies as a mistress.
  10. Grusha becomes miserable, the master grows tired of her and imprisons her in a remote cottage. She escapes and returns to our hero, demanding that he kill her to put her out of her misery. He reluctantly agrees.
  11. He joins the Russian army and, wanting to die over his guilt for killing Grusha, he embarks on a suicide mission, miraculously surviving and defeating the Tartars. He tries to confess killing Grusha, but no one believes him, and he is made an information clerk in St. Petersburg as a reward for his heroism.
  12. In St. Petersburg, he beats up an actor for harassing a young actress and loses his job as a result. Finally out of options, he joins a monastery.
  13. In the monastery he wrestles with his sins and with the Devil himself, finally driving off his torment through extreme fasting.
  14. A Jew hangs himself near the monastery and our hero thinks that his ghost is Judas and is tormenting him during the night. Turns out to be a cow.
  15. He gets frustrated while setting up a service one day and knocks over a bunch of candles in anger. He is imprisoned in a pit in the monastery for months, but he doesn’t find it too bad, and acquires a gift of prophecy.
  16. He takes the trip that began the story, meaning to go to some saints’ tombs and pray there, for he foresees more war and will leave the clergy and take up arms if war breaks out: “I want to die for my people!” he says, and the story ends.

This gives a decent idea of the eccentric nature of the story, but not of what lifts it above the level of a picaresque folktale. It’s in the telling that Leskov draws the pieces together, not just in his maintaining certain traits to the narrative but also in how he rejects other more conventional ones.

Leskov seems to have had a thing for telling stories that go on longer than their expected end point. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” famously does this, but here it’s even more perverse. The whole story is structured to lead up to Ivan joining a monastery and fulfilling his prophesied destiny, and yet when he does finally become a monk, the story goes on as if nothing has changed. He still gets into misadventures, he still falls into slapstick antics, and he still suffers in his usual nonchalant way. Far from being any particular destiny for him, his engagement with religion turns out as arbitrarily as everything before.

So if the destiny angle is not fulfilled, what forms the commonality of his adventures? It’s Ivan’s character. Ivan is not a cerebral man; he primarily acts out of instinct, and he doesn’t learn much from his experiences. He is not appreciably different from his younger self at the end of the story. But throughout, his reactions follow a certain moral pattern. He can act out of rage or out of kindness, but he tends to show a great sympathy for women and possesses a sense of honor that seems more innate than situational. If he feels bad about something, no one is able to stop him from proclaiming his unworthiness; if an authority condemns him for something he believed to be right, he ignores the conflict and just walks off. And these reactions spring forth fully formed from his unconscious; he seems to watch them as they happen rather than choose them, and this is complemented by his blase attitude toward the strangest happenings (shown well in the dialogue above, where he is ridiculously at ease with the ghost of a man he just inadvertently killed). And he has no lessons to tell to his audience on the barge; he’s just telling a story.

So while there is a melancholic fatalism to the plot, Ivan’s personality makes it difficult to greet the events with any sort of tragic sense, because his own attitude is such that he knows he will survive anything, even if he doesn’t wish to. This makes him very much the archetype of a “wanderer,” but one without angst and one untroubled by regret, concerned neither with salvation nor damnation. Yet he is not a holy fool in any sense, as he suffers greatly and maintains a consistent, though buried, moral posture throughout. As with Kleist, the whole story holds together in spite of its refusing any easy shape that it might fit.

Holiday Cheer from Eduard von Hartmann

Combining Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill, he gives us the best-case scenario:

The second condition of the possibility of victory is that the consciousness of mankind be penetrated by the folly of volition and the misery of all existence; that it have conceived so deep a yearning for the peace and the painlessness of non being, and all the motives hitherto making for volition and existence have been so far seen through in their vanity and nothingness that that yearning after the annihilation of volition and existence attains resistless authority as a practical motive. According to the last chapter, this condition is one whose fulfilment in the hoary age of humanity we may expect with the greatest probability, when the theoretical cognition of the misery of existence is truthfully comprehended, and this cognition gradually more and more overcomes the opposing instinctive emotional judgment, and even becomes a practically efficient feeling, which as a union of present pain memory of former pain, and forefeeling of care and fear becomes a collective feeling in every individual embracing the whole life of the individual and through sympathy the whole world, which at last attains unlimited sway. Doubt as to the general motive power of such an idea at first certainly arising and communicated in more or less abstract form, would not be authorised, for it is the invariably observed course of historically regulative ideas which have arisen in
the brain of an individual, that although they can only be communicated in abstract form, they penetrate in course of time into the heart of the masses, and at last arouse their will to a passionateness not seldom bordering on fanaticism. But if ever an idea was born as feeling, it is the pessimistic sympathy with oneself and everything living and the longing after the peace of non existence, and if ever an idea was called to fulfill its historical mission without turbulence and passion silently but steadily and persistently in the interior of the soul, it is this.

From this point of view too the possibility therefore appears anything but remote that the pessimistic consciousness will one day become the dominant motive of voluntary choice.

Philosophy of the Unconscious By Eduard von Hartmann, William Chatterton Coupland

John Williams: Stoner

Whatever my reservations about the New York Review of Books, if it subsidizes reissues of things like this, I pardon its sins. Extra points for choosing such an apt cover painting to implicitly portray its hapless professor hero:

 

And here is Stoner speaking:

Stoner looked across the room, out of the window, trying to remember. “The three of us were together, and he said–something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as–as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

Walker is an ignorant, smooth-talking, careerist academic, and there’s little separating his portrayal in this book (from 1965, but taking place mostly in the first half of the century) from these sorts of people today. Stoner is an impractical dreamer, a farmboy who goes to a local college and discovers he loves literature, and so does his graduate work at the same school and then gets a professorship there. He makes two mistakes: he marries the wrong woman, and he makes the wrong enemy in his department. These are big mistakes, and he pays big for them.

I cannot recall any other academic novel that treats its subject material with such unremitting gravity. The standard model of an academic novel is to either indulge in high melodrama (Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch) or to make light of the intellectual pretenses of its characters (Kinsley Amis’s overrated Lucky Jim, Malcolm Bradbury’s far funnier Stepping Westward). Williams’s approach seems to have been to adopt the social realist approach of George Gissingand Sinclair Lewis’s more sober moments and apply it to the incongruous and hermetic world of a university. Consequently, he treats the small events of Stoner’s life with a sense of real consequence, as though they were matters of life and death. And so they become.

After his mistakes, Stoner is a defeated man, and it takes him years to recover. But what saves the novel from being just an exercise in misery is that Stoner does get his triumph. He fights against the inertial decline of his life, and he wins. It is, objectively speaking, a small triumph, but on the terms that Williams has set, it validates his existence without qualification. The novel is a passage from ideals that cannot be fulfilled to a non-tragic view of life, and it’s summarized best in this passage:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age, he began to know that it was neither a stae of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as an act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

I don’t mean to downplay the brutally accurate portrayals of academic politics and fleeting trends, which feel absolutely au courant, but the novel would not stand out as it does if it did not treat its subject matter with the same respect and humility with which Stoner himself treats literature and teaching.

Walser on Kleist

A different side of Walser altogether:

What he writes makes him grimace: his creations miscarry. Toward autumn he is taken ill. He is amazed at the gentleness which now comes over him. His sister travels to Thun to bring him home. There are deep furrows in his cheeks. His face has the expression and coloring of a man whose soul has been eaten away. His eyes are more lifeless than the eyebrows over them. His hair hangs clotted in thick pointed hanks over his temples, which are contorted by all the thoughts which he imagines have dragged him into filthy pits and into hells. The verses that resound in his brain seem to him like the croakings of ravens; he would like to eradicate his memory. He would like to shed his life; but first he wants to shatter the shells of life. His fury rages at the pitch of his agony, his scorn at the pitch of his misery. My dear, what is the matter, his sister embraces him. Nothing, nothing. That was the ultimate wrong, that he should have to say what was wrong with him.

“Kleist in Thun”

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