David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: nietzsche (page 2 of 4)

Nietzsche on the Passions

In detail,  the  following must  be distinguished:

1.  the  dominating  passion,  which  even  brings  with  it  the supremest  form  of  health;  here  the  co-ordination  of  the  inner systems  and  their  operation  in  the  service  of  one  end  is  best achieved-but this  is  almost  the  definition  of health!

2.  the  antagonism  of  the  passions;  two,  three,  a  multiplicity of  “souls  in  one  breast”: very  unhealthy,  inner  ruin,  disintegration,  betraying and  increasing and  inner conflict  and  anarchism -unless one  passion  at  last  becomes master.  Return  to  health-

3.  juxtaposition  without  antagonism  or  collaboration:  often periodic,  and  then,  as  soon  as  an  order  has  been  established,  also healthy.  The  most  interesting  men,  the  chameleons,  belong  here; they  are  not  in  contradiction with  themselves,  they  are  happy  and secure,  but  they  do  not  develop—their  differing  states  lie  juxtaposed,  even  if  they  are  separated  sevenfold.  They  change,  they do  not  become.

Will To Power 778

#1 is Nietzsche’s old saw about how to be maximally awesome, and so not terribly interesting. #2 is a variation on his critique of modern mentality, phrased especially well (with a Goethe quote). But #3 is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, sort of a mercurial Rameau’s Nephew type without the psychology or self-awareness. They aren’t really chameleons though, are they? Just naturally prodigal or adaptable? (It depends on when and where the states show themselves.)

Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, ch. 1

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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”?

p. 28

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.

Jean Améry

Our slave morality will not triumph. Our ressentiments—emotional source of every genuine morality, which was always a morality for the losers —have little or no chance at all to make the evil work of the overwhelmers bitter for them. We victims must ?nish with our retroactive rancor. In the sense that the KZ argot once gave to the word “?nish”; it meant as much as to “kill.” Soon we must and will be ?nished. Until that time has come, we request of those whose peace is disturbed by our grudge that they be patient.


I was struck that this passage from the resolutely secular Améry, for whom being a Jew had little to do with religion, echoed that religious pessimist Charles Péguy in its post-Nietzschean despair:

Try as we may, try as we may, they will always go faster than we, they will always do more than we, a deal more than we. All that is needed to set a farm ablaze is a flint. It takes, it took years to build it. It isn’t difficult. One doesn’t have to be so clever. It takes months and months, it took work and more work to make the crop grow. And all that is needed to set a crop ablaze is a flint. It takes years and years to mak a man grow, it took bread and more bread to feed him, and work and more work, and all kinds of work. And all that is needed to kill him is one blow. One swordthrust and it’s done. To make a good Christian, the plough has to work twenty years. To kill a good Christian, the sword has to work one minute. It’s always that way. It’s like the plough to work twenty years and it’s like the sword to work one minute. It’s always that way. It’s like the plough to work twenty years and it’s like the sword to work one minute, and to do more, to be stronger, to make an end of things. So we people will always be the weaker ones. We will always go more slowly, we will always do less. We are the party of those who build up. They are the party of those who pull down. We are the party of the plough. They are the party of the sword. We will always be beaten. They will always get the better of us, on top of us. No matter what we say.

For one wounded man dragging himself along the roads, for one man we pick up on the roads, for one child dragging himself along the roadsides, how many people are wounded, and sick, and forsaken, how many women are made unhappy and children forsaken because of the war, and how many are killed, and how many unfortunates lose their souls. Those who kill lose their souls because they kill. And those who are killed lose their souls because they are killed. Those who are strongest, those who kill lose their souls through the murder which they commit. And those who are killed, the man who is weaker, lose their souls through the murder which they suffer, for, seeing how weak they are and how bruised, always the same being weak, and the same unhappy, and the same beaten, and the same killed, then, unhappy ones, they despair of their salvation, because they despair of the goodness of God. Thus, no matter where one may turn, on both sides, it is a game in which, no matter how one plays or what one plays for, salvation is always bound to lose and perdition always bound to win. There is nothing but ingratitude, nothing but despair and perdition.

And bread everlasting. He who is too much in lack of daily bread no longer has any desire for bread everlasting, the bread of Jesus Christ.

It’s exactly the inability of religion to overcome suffering and starvation that makes it useless to Améry.

Grondin on Gadamer

“Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding” (Gadamer). This quotation does not fit the typical picture of Gadamer. His hermeneutic position is usually taken to be something for which there seems to be plentiful evidence: namely, that given the prejudice structure of understanding, there can never be any “confirmation by the things themselves.” But it is easy to show that his hermeneutics is quite misunderstood when taken thus. Even if Gadamer’s utterances are not always perfectly consistent, his “rehabilitation” of prejudices still warns us to be critically “aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” On the other hand, Gadamer does not fall into the positivist extreme of calling for a negation of the prejudice structure of understanding in order to let the thing speak for itself without being obfuscated by subjectivity. A reflexively critical understanding of the kind contended for will be concerned “not merely to form anticipatory ideas, but to make them conscious, so as to monitor them and thus acquire right understanding from the things themselves.” This is what Gadamer finds in Heidegger: the mean between the positivist dissolution of the self and Nietzsche’s universal perspectivism. The question is only how one is to come by the “appropriate” fore-projections that permit the “thing itself” to speak.

Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics

This has the ring of truth for me, and it embodies one of the central Gadamerian concepts of why a “method” is needed at all, or more accurately, how it comes into existence. Pace deconstructionism, Gadamer seeks to portray the process of how truth criteria evolve over time, not to postpone forever the idea that we could ever have them, but to indicate the persistence of changing standards of truth, verification, correctness, and understanding. The two extremes that Gadamer rejects are, first, the analytic (verificationist) pretense towards objectivity, and, second, the purely subjectivist account by which meaning and criteria fail to make any sense on their own terms, dismissing the first as impossible and the second as useless. The speaking of the “thing itself” is not some timeless universal innate to the text, but the arrival at a convention of truth under the current socio-historical horizon that can be seen as being as “accurate” as possible. The “method” for doing so is the process of questioning prejudice and, more simply, being aware of it. This “working out” involves strictures given to us by the text itself, not just our own prejudices. The understanding we obtain this way, for Gadamer, is as good as it gets. The reason the thing itself then speaks is that we have achieved the purest interaction with it possible under the inevitable influence of remaining subjective prejudices, partially cognitivized. Then, under the most successful application of this “method,” what we can glean from the text is what the text says to us. I take this to be the ontology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses. The ideality of the word is what raises everything linguistic beyond the finitude and transience that characterize other remnants of past existence. It is not this document, as a piece of the past, that is the bearer of tradition but the continuity of memory. Through it tradition becomes part of our own world, and thus what it communicates can be stated immediately. Where we have a written tradition, we are not just told a particular thing; a past humanity itself becomes present to us in its general relation to the world….

Thus written texts present the real hermeneutical task. Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.

Gadamer, Truth and Method (392)

Erich Auerbach: Mimesis 1

Auerbach on the Iliad and the Old Testament:

We have compared these two texts, and, with them, the two kinds of style they embody, in order to reach a starting point for an investigation into the literary representation of reality in European culture. The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [Iliad] fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand [Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.

Auerbach lays out all of this schema very quickly in the first chapter, yet so much of it falls so easily from the juxtaposition of the two texts. What struck me was the combination of factors, how Auerbach associates the linear with the behavioral with the well-defined in the Iliad; and in the Old Testament, how he associates the psychological with the tentative and the inchoate, and the problematic. To rephrase his summation, the Iliad presents people as permanently established beings, and the Old Testament portrays them as torn between (religious) ideals for themselves and an uncertain ego/self.

Two associations come to mind. The first is Julian Jaynes and his portrayal of the split, pre-conscious mind devoid of self-conscious doubt, versus the unified mind with an uncommitted consciousness. Utterly implausible as a theory, I still find the analogy compelling.

The second is Alasdair MacIntyre’s version of Nietzsche’s critique of post-Kantian Enlightenment ethics, and MacIntyre’s deployment of it to make an argument in favor of Aristotelian teleological ethics, or (even better!) neo-Thomist ethics. MacIntyre places the starting point of ethical false consciousness at Kant, who, MacIntyre claims, separated the ethical imperative from the concept of “the good life” (cf. Aristotle) and “the good” (cf. Aquinas). In After Virtue he chiefly proposes Aristotelian ethics as a solution, suggesting that the embrace of a defined “good life” as a telos engenders ethical behavior. Elsewhere he seems to find this just as problematic and moves to Aquinas, but I’m more concerned with the Aristotle/Kant distinction.

MacIntyre’s dichotomy between Enlightenment ethical imperatives and Aristotle’s teleological life parallels loosely with the two sides Auerbach identifies in the two ancient works. In the Iliad, characters live out their lives–good and bad–as though by divine force, their characters established by the continued ease with which they fulfill our expectations of their behavior. In the Old Testament, characters are continually struggling with and against the dicta they mystically receive. While these may not be ethically imperative, the characters only avoid the logical gap that MacIntyre identifies in Kant by appealing to the universality of God. Otherwise, they are potentially just as alienated from their ideals as a post-Enlightenment ethicist.

It’s a tenuous connection. But I want to ask why Auerbach identifies such a split in ancient texts while MacIntyre and to some extent Nietzsche locate it at the dawn of modern ethics. Does it have something to do with the fields of literature vs. philosophy? I suspect that the difference in their viewpoints originates in Auerbach’s ability to deal in character and description (and its relation to the foreground/background of literature), while MacIntyre is dealing in intangible imperatives and universals (including the universal of the human and the life).

Both sides are dealing in abstractions, but Auerbach’s abstractions (i.e., characters) are by definition more pluralistic and implicit. It forces him to do more heavy lifting to synthesize a unified thesis, which he accomplishes mostly through an intimidating amount of cross-referencing. MacIntyre gets the philosophical theses for free, but he is consequently more prone to identify single authors as nexuses.

I won’t speculate yet on how this gets them to their respective positions, but I’ve got a few hundred pages left of Mimesis to read. But it’s always inspiring to see someone making a case for literature showing philosophy, even if it takes a book devourer like Auerbach to process it all.

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