Category Archives: Chord

Chord: Love as hermeneutic device

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human:

Love as artifice. — Whoever wants really to get to know something new (be it a person, an event, or a book) does well to take up this new thing with all possible love, to avert his eye quickly from, even to forget, everything about it that he finds inimical, objectionable, or false. So, for example, we give the author of a book the greatest possible head start, and, as if at a race, virtually yearn with a pounding heart for him to reach his goal. By doing this, we penetrate into the heart of the new thing, into its motive center: and this is what it means to get to know it. Once we have got that far, reason then sets its limits; that overestimation, that occasional unhinging of the critical pendulum, was just a device to entice the soul of a matter out into the open.

Rorty, “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature”:

When I attribute inspirational value to works of literature, I mean that these works make people think there is more to this life than they ever imagined. … Inspirational value is typically not produced by the operations of a method, a science, a discipline, or a profession. It is produced by the individual brush strokes of unprofessional prophets and demiurges. You cannot, for example, find inspirational value in a text at the same time that you are viewing it as the product of a mechanism of cultural production. To view a work in this way gives understanding but not hope, knowledge but not self-transformation. For knowledge is a matter of putting a work in a familiar context — relating it to things already known. … If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontexualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe. Just as you cannot be swept off your feet by another human being at the same time that you recognize him or her as a good specimen of a certain type, so you cannot simultaneously be inspired by a work and be knowing about it. Later on — when first love has been replaced by marriage — you may acquire the ability to be both at once. But the really good marriages, the inspired marriages, are those which began in wild, unreflective infatuation.

 

 

Maturing

Reading Appendix A of Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, “Campaigns and Movements” I came upon this bit: “Most of us, when young, hope for purity of heart. The easiest way to assure oneself of this purity is to will one thing—but this requires seeing everything as part of a pattern whose center is that single thing. Movements offer such a pattern, and thus offer such assurance of purity. [Irving] Howe’s ability, in his later decades, to retain both critical consciousness and political conscience while not attempting to fuse the two into something larger than either, showed his admirers how to forgo such purity, and such a pattern.”

That brought to mind another passage from the introduction of Nicolai Berdyaev’s Slavery and Freedom: “My thought has always belonged to the existential type of philosophy. The inconsistencies and contradictions which are to be found in my thought are expressions of spiritual conflict, of contradictions which lie at the very heart of existence itself, and are not to be disguised by a facade of logical unity.”

For me, this immediately connects up with three themes from Nietzsche’s thought: youth, wholesale thinking, and the compulsion to systematize. (To poke around in my glorious wiki — and you really should — use the password “generalad”). Rather than explicitly draw every connection, I will juxtapose some passages and make a concept chord meant to convey an ideal of maturity I learned from Nietzsche.

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Rough consistency. — It is considered a mark of great distinction when people say ‘he is a character!’ — which means no more than that he exhibits a rough consistency, a consistency apparent even to the dullest eye! But when a subtler and profounder spirit reigns and is consistent in its more elevated manner, the spectators deny the existence of character. That is why statesmen with cunning usually act out their comedy beneath a cloak of rough consistency.

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Beware of systematisers! — Systematisers practise a kind of play-acting: in as much as they want to fill out a system and round off its horizon, they have to try to present their weaker qualities in the same style as their stronger — they try to impersonate whole and uniformly strong natures.

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I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

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Youth and criticism. — To criticize a book means to a young person no more than to repulse every single productive idea it contains and to defend oneself against it tooth and claw. A youth lives in a condition of perpetual self-defence against everything new that he cannot love wholesale, and in this condition perpetrates a superfluous crime against it as often as ever he can.

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Consciousness. — Consciousness is the latest development of the organic, and hence also its most unfinished and unrobust feature. Consciousness gives rise to countless mistakes that lead an animal or human being to perish sooner than necessary, ‘beyond destiny’, as Homer puts it.’ If the preserving alliance of the instincts were not so much more powerful, if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish with open eyes of its misjudging and its fantasizing, of its lack of thoroughness and its incredulity in short, of its consciousness; or rather, without the instincts, humanity would long have ceased to exist! Before a function is fully developed and mature, it constitutes a danger to the organism, it is a good thing for it to be properly tyrannized in the meantime! Thus, consciousness is properly tyrannized — and not least by one’s pride in it! One thinks it constitutes the kernel of man, what is abiding, eternal, ultimate, most original in him! One takes consciousness to be a given determinate magnitude! One denies its growth and intermittences! Sees it as ‘the unity of the organism’! This ridiculous overestimation and misapprehension of consciousness has the very useful consequence that an all-too-rapid development of consciousness was prevented. Since they thought they already possessed it, human beings did not take much trouble to acquire it, and things are no different today! The task of assimilating knowledge and making it instinctive is still quite new; it is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is yet barely discernible it is a task seen only by those who have understood that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all of our consciousness refers to errors!

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When one is young, one venerates and despises without that art of nuance which constitutes life’s greatest prize, and it is only fair that one has to pay dearly for having assaulted men and things in this manner with Yes and No. Everything is arranged so that the worst of tastes, the taste for the unconditional, should be cruelly fooled and abused until a man learns to put a little art into his feelings and rather to risk trying even what is artificial: as the real artists of life do. The wrathful and reverent attitudes characteristic of youth do not seem to permit themselves any rest until they have forged men and things in such a way that these attitudes may be vented on them: — after all, youth in itself has something of forgery and deception. Later, when the young soul, tortured by all kinds of disappointments, finally turns suspiciously against itself, still hot and wild, even in its suspicion and pangs of conscience: how angry it is with itself now, how it tears itself to pieces, impatiently, how it takes revenge for its long self-delusion, just as if it had been a deliberate blindness! In this transition one punishes oneself with mistrust against one’s own feelings; one tortures one’s own enthusiasm with doubts, indeed, one experiences even a good conscience as a danger, as if it were a way of wrapping oneself in veils and the exhaustion of subtler honesty; and above all one takes sides, takes sides on principle, against ‘youth.’– A decade later: one comprehends that all this, too–was youth!

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The so-called soul. — The sum of the inner movements which a man finds easy, and as a consequence performs gracefully and with pleasure, one calls his soul; — if these inner movements are plainly difficult and an effort for him, he is considered soulless.

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The serious workman. — Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. The acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole. The recipe for becoming a good novelist, for example, is easy to give, but to carry it out presupposes qualities one is accustomed to overlook when one says “I do not have enough talent.” One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes each day until one has learned how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present, one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer; one should excerpt for oneself out of the individual sciences everything that will produce an artistic effect when it is well described, one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human actions, disdain no signpost to instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. One should continue in this many-sided exercise some ten years: what is then created in the workshop, however, will be fit to go out into the world. — What, however, do most people do? They begin, not with the parts, but with the whole. Perhaps they chance to strike a right note, excite attention and from then on strike worse and worse notes, for good, natural reasons. — Sometimes, when the character and intellect needed to formulate such a life-plan are lacking, fate and need take their place and lead the future master step by step through all the stipulations of his trade.

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Learning. — Michelangelo saw in Raphael study, in himself nature: there learning, here talent. This, with all deference to the great pedant, is pedantic. For what is talent but a name for an older piece of learning, experience, practice, appropriation, incorporation, whether at the stage of our fathers or an even earlier stage! And again: he who learns bestows talent upon himself — only it is not so easy to learn, and not only a matter of having the will to do so; one has to be able to learn. In the case of an artist learning is often prevented by envy, or by that pride which puts forth its sting as soon as it senses the presence of something strange and involuntarily assumes a defensive instead of a receptive posture. Raphael, like Goethe, was without pride or envy, and that is why both were great learners and not merely exploiters of those veins of ore washed clean from the siftings of the history of their forefathers. Raphael vanishes as a learner in the midst of appropriating that which his great competitor designated as his ‘nature’: he took away a piece of it every day, this noblest of thieves; but before he had taken over the whole of Michelangelo into himself, he died — and his last series of works is, as the beginning of a new plan of study, less perfect and absolutely good precisely because the great learner was interrupted in his hardest curriculum and took away with him the justificatory ultimate goal towards which he looked.

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A man’s maturity — consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.

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Human beings are naturally artificial.

It is not our nature that is most precious; it is our hard-won second-nature, that set of artifices that are so well-designed that they disappear into our being and into the world we perceive around us. They become so natural to us that we can no longer experience them as man-made, and we begin to see them as God-given if we see them at all. And they are God-given, if we understand our real relationship with God.

Amen?

Eroding to wisdom

The best quotes are the misattributed ones — overused maxims that become smoother as they tumble from paraphrase to paraphrase until they are worn smooth like river stones.

Whenever I track one of these retroactively adopted orphans back to their birthplace, I discover that almost always its character has been improved by the traumas of public life.

Take for instance the famous quote that Yogi Berra should have said, but actually never did say: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” The original quote appeared in flabbier form in a Usenet proto-meme: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is a great deal of difference.” Incidentally, one Berra quote Berra really did say is “I never said most of the things I said.”

Mark Twain is a popular misattributed source of collaboratively improved quotes, probably because Twain is the only writer of pithy sayings most people know, so if they hear a pithy saying they assume Twain must have said it. A great example of a Twain saying that Twain never said is “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Quote Investigator found the earliest example of this quote to be “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.”

Another fake Twain quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Quote Investigator explains the earliest English expression of this thought is a translation of a Pascal quote, “My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.” It took 300 years to shorten this quote to its current svelteness.

I even prefer the bastardized versions of properly attributed quotes. William James comes to mind:

When a thing is new, people say: “It is not true.”

Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: “It’s not important.”

Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say “Anyway, it’s not new.”

Who could possibly prefer the original?: “First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

This meditation on misattributed quotes hints at something important: The lessons of the “gossip game” might need some qualifications. It is undeniably true that factual information passed from person to person does degrade over the course of minutes, hours, days and months. But is this true of wisdom passed from generation to generation over the course of decades or centuries? Perhaps not. Maybe wisdom seeks its perfect form through wear.

The designer in me wants to include physical objects in the set of examples of “wisdom seeking form”. I have always loved the perfection of tradition-worn objects like houses, tables, chairs, knives, pens, teapots, clothes and bicycles. My love of erosive essentializing could make me look like some sort of conservative Platonist type, except for one subtle but crucial difference: the Platonist ideal lives above humanity in a heavenly realm of preexisting perfect archetypes; where my ideal lives among us in an eternal democratic project of iterative design, a trans-generational collaboration to makes things better and better, approaching but never quite reaching perfection.

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A friend tells me I buried the lede on this piece, and that this gives the piece a frivolous effect. One thing I have learned reflecting on philosophical communication and my own characteristic miscommunications, is that philosophy tends to reverse normal patterns of explanation. Things don’t progress in the normal subject-to-predicate order. Instead, it goes predicate-predicate-predicate-subject. You don’t exactly know what the work is about until the about finishes abouting about and finally resolves into the “what”. A capacity to enjoy philosophy is tied to an ability to endure whatlessness for long anxious stretches, until the whole mess finally coalesces and crystallizes into clear conception that makes simple sense of what preceded it.

So there’s just no way am I going to put that lede out in front where it belongs. But, being a good Liberal, I do believe in compromise, so here is what I can do: I will exhume the lede, and append it to the end, so anyone who wants to can re-read the original with this explication in mind.

What I wanted to do was to demonstrate a progressive traditionalist attitude.

Progressive traditionalism might seem like a contradiction in terms, but this is a side-effect of unexamined views of tradition that produce two mutually reinforcing oppositions: 1) progressive anti-traditionalism that wants to ignore or trash an unacceptable past in order to clear the way for a better future, and 2) traditional traditionalism that sees the past as better and the present as unacceptable, and therefore wants a future that looks more like the past than the present.

Progressive traditionalism sees tradition as a long process of collaborative improvement. The past is a swirl of good and bad. Humanity, genius is mixed with ignorance and atrocities, and our ability to discern the good and bad is a direct result of the tradition’s progress. We wouldn’t know how appalling our past is if we hadn’t lived through it, learned from it and been changed by it. Further, this work is nowhere close to finished. We are making mistakes this very moment that will be obviously stupid and wicked within a decade. I believe one of those mistakes is thinking we must choose between wholesale condemnation or wholesale worship of the past instead of treating it with the critical respect it deserves.

I wanted to demonstrate this attitude simply, and I believed a good way to do this was to show that old famous sayings can actually improve over time through being worked on by innumerable unfamous people. And I wanted to make fun of our compulsion to project this simplicity back into the past by placing the perfected words into the mouths of acclaimed geniuses. Why would we want to do that? What is the source of this need? The hammer I carry is philosophy, and the nail I see here is the unconscious impulse to preserve the current popular philosophy (also known as “common sense”) at all costs. This current philosophy, by the way, is also producing our political crisis.

There is a lot to say on this subject and it connects with some of the things in my life I value most, including my adopted Jewish religion. But I’ll leave it here for now.

Shells and pearls

This is a series of rewritten, streamlined posts on the theme of shells and pearls, which I’m considering incorporating into my pamphlet. I’ll link to the originals. If you have time to compare, let me know if you think anything was lost in the chipping, sanding and polishing.


Evert

Announcing an exciting new vocabulary acquisition: evert. I have needed this word many times, but I’ve had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning things inside-out.

Evert – verb [ with obj. ] – Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out: (as adj. everted) : the characteristic facial appearance of full, often everted lips. DERIVATIVES:
eversible (adj.),  eversion (n.). ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

With this wonderful new word I can say things like this:

“An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.”


Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.


Nacre

You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?


Father-of-Pearl

(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.

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Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?

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A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.


The earliest mention of pearls from this blog was posted on December 14, 2008.

Nacre

Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.


The earliest use of this mother-of-pearl metaphor I can find in my stuff was posted on another blog platform in December, 2006. (Again this has been edited. In my opinion, the original was uglier and more opaque. I’ll post it in the comments.)

Transcendence, non-understandings, misunderstandings

An unresolved understanding becomes a live question — an existential irritant. To ease the pain of non-understanding, the question is coated with an answer, like a pearl. Such answers re-explain away ideas which were never offered as explanations. What ought to be known internally and poetically is known about externally and factually.


Any surprise that the mezuzah I placed on the doorpost of my library is encased in mother-of-pearl?

Hanging the mezuzah inspired me to clean up my office! It’s nice to be in here, again.

 

America is philosophically diseased

America is philosophically diseased.

Most Americans perceive, believe and intuit using 19th and 20th century modes of understanding which are 1) are incompatible and irreconcilable with the others, 2) mutually hostile, and 3) inadequate for making theoretical, practical and moral sense of the realities we face.

And every one of these obsolete and broken-down philosophies assures the mind it binds that there is no need for philosophizing. Doing, not thinking, is what is needed now! Thinking is useless enough, but thinking about thinking? — That is the most pointlessly abstract, idle and meaningless thing any person could do.

The only way out of the crisis we face — (a crisis much worse than an unphilosophical mind can know how to know!) — is to learn to conceive truth very differently than we do today. We are desperate for a new popular philosophical platform, not to make us all come to the same conclusions, but to support our differences and to help us navigate them peacefully and productively.

We need, at minimum, an upgrade in a) our epistemology (and ontology), b) our ethics (and metaphysics) and c) our political practices. My own prescription is a) Bruno Latour, b) Emmanuel Levinas, c) Chantal Mouffe. But before we can build we need demolition (Friedrich Nietzsche) and ground clearing (Richard J. Bernstein).

I look at this list of thinkers, and I love seeing them together like vertebrae in a backbone.

Here is a suggested core curriculum for regeneration of philosophy for our times:

 

T. S. Eliot collage

I’m getting super-swoony reading contextless T. S. Eliot quotes. These are so good, I have to make a collage of quotes right now, and maybe this can provide them a context.

“It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space and selves.”

“We had the experience, but we missed the meaning.”

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

“In order to possess what you do not possess / You must go by the way of dispossession.”

“There is no absolute point of view from which real and ideal can be finally separated and labelled.”

“Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.”

“There is no method but to be very intelligent.”

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”

“No poet, no artist of any sort, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

“Artistic inevitability lies in the complete adequacy of the external to the emotion.”

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”

Chord: social versus interhuman

Below is a chord of passages on social versus interhuman interactions, which I believe illuminate a key difference between introverts and extraverts.

Extraverts seem to prefer social interactions, where each person plays a role as a participant in some cultural order. Introverts seem to prefer interpersonal dialogue exposing the unique particularity of the individual (which in some ways undermines cultural roles).

This preference becomes conspicuous at lunchtime. Introverts will seek a situation where intimate conversation is possible, so they’ll sneak off with two or three introvert co-conspirators, carefully avoiding extraverts, who are likely to unthinkingly change the situation to suit their own tastes, by grabbing as many people as possible on the way out of the building, and creating a situation where people will perform for one another around the table. For an extravert that is what good times are, but for an introvert it ruins the possibility of anything truly fascinating happening.

  • Buber: The Social and the Interhuman — It is usual to ascribe what takes place between men to the social realm, thereby blurring a basically important line of division between two essentially different areas of human life. … we have to do here with a separate category of our existence, even a separate dimension, to use a mathematical term, and one with which we are so familiar that its peculiarity has hitherto almost escaped us. Yet insight into its peculiarity is extremely important not only for our thinking, but also for our living. … We may speak of social phenomena wherever the life of a number of men, lived with one another, bound up together, brings in its train shared experiences and reactions. But to be thus bound up together means only that each individual existence is enclosed and contained in a group existence. It does not mean that between one member and another of the group there exists any kind of personal relation. … it must be said that the leading elements in groups, especially in the later course of human history, have rather been inclined to suppress the personal relation in favour of the purely collective element. Where this latter element reigns alone or is predominant, men feel themselves to be carried by the collectivity, which lifts them out of loneliness and fear of the world and lostness. When this happens — and for modern man it is an essential happening — the life between person and person seems to retreat more and more before the advance of the collective. The collective aims at holding in check the inclination to personal life. It is as though those who are bound together in groups should in the main be concerned only with the work of the group and should turn to the personal partners, who are tolerated by the group, only in secondary meetings.
  • Nietzsche: Dialogue. — In a dialogue, there is only one single refraction of thought: this is produced by the partner in conversation, the mirror in which we want to see our thoughts reflected as beautifully as possible. But how is it with two, or three, or more partners? There the conversation necessarily loses something of its individualizing refinement; the various considerations clash, cancel each other out; the phrase that pleases the one, does not accord with the character of the other. Therefore, a man interacting with several people is forced to fall back upon himself, to present the facts as they are, but rob the subject matter of that scintillating air of humanity that makes a conversation one of the most agreeable things in the world. Just listen to the tone in which men interacting with whole groups of men tend to speak; it is as if the ground bass of all speech were: “That is who I am; that is what I say; now you think what you will about it!”
  • Nietzsche: The first distinction to draw regarding artworks. — Everything that is thought, written, painted, composed, even built and sculpted, belongs either to monologue art or to art before witnesses. The second category must also include the seemingly monologue art involving faith in God, the entire lyricism of prayer; for solitude does not yet exist to the pious — this invention was first made by us, the godless. I know no deeper distinction in an artist’s entire optics than this: whether he views his budding artwork (‘himself’) from the eye of the witness, or whether he ‘has forgotten the world’, which is the essential feature of all monologue art — it is based on forgetting; it is the music of forgetting.
  • Nietzsche: The cynic speaks. — At the theatre, one is honest only as a mass; as an individual one lies, lies to oneself. One leaves oneself at home when one goes to the theatre; one relinquishes the right to one’s own tongue and choice, to one’s taste, even to one’s courage as one has it and exercises it within one’s own four walls against god and man. No one brings the finest senses of his art to the theatre; nor does the artist who works for the theatre: there, one is people, public, herd, woman, pharisee, voting cattle, democrat, neighbour, fellow man; there, even the most personal conscience is vanquished by the levelling magic of the “greatest number”; there, stupidity breeds lasciviousness and is contagious; there, the “neighbour” reigns; there, one becomes a neighbour’.

 

Chord: eyes and ears

A chord of Nietzsche quotes:

“He who sees badly sees less and less; he who listens badly hears more than has been said.”

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“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier, simpler.”

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“He is a thinker: that means he knows how to make things simpler than they are.”

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“He who wants to mediate between two resolute thinkers shows that he is mediocre: he has no eye for what is unique; seeing things as similar and making things the same is the sign of weak eyes.”

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“Of all the arts that grow up on a particular cultural soil under particular social and political conditions, music makes its appearance last, in the autumn and deliquescence of the culture to which it belongs: at a time when the first signs and harbingers of a new spring are as a rule already perceptible; sometimes, indeed, music resounds into a new and astonished world like the language of an age that has vanished and arrives too late. … It lies in the nature of music that the fruits of its great cultural vintages grow unpalatable more quickly and are more speedily ruined than the fruits of the plastic arts, let alone those that have ripened on the tree of knowledge: for of all the products of the human artistic sense ideas are the most enduring and durable.”

 

Chord: golden ball

Rilke, via Gadamer:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is
mere skill and little gain;
but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball
thrown by an eternal partner
with an accurate and measured swing
towards you, to your centre, in an arch
from the great bridge building of God:
why catching then becomes a power —
not yours, a world’s.

*

Dialogue between Michel Serres and Bruno Latour:

Michel Serres: Just as Leibniz wrote a monadology, an elementary or atomic philosophy, here is a theory of valences around atoms, a general theory of relations, like a theology in which the important thing would be angelology — a turbulent array of messengers.

Bruno Latour: Wait a minute. This is very important, but I’m lost again. You are taking up again the metaphor of scientific method, which will not completely convince me, since, on the contrary, the general impression is that the sciences are multiple substantives, a formidable proliferation of objects, whereas for you the synthesizing element…

Michel Serres: …is relations.

Bruno Latour: But, even more than relations, the types of relation.

Michel Serres: Not only the mode of relation but the way this mode of relation establishes or invents itself, virtually or physically.

Bruno Latour: Is it like comparing passes in rugby? I mean the ways of passing and not the configurations of the players?

Michel Serres: Configurations or fixed places are important when the players don’t move — just before the game begins, or when certain established positions are called for at various points in the game — scrimmages or line-outs. They begin to fluctuate as soon as the game begins, and the multiple and fluctuating ways of passing the bail are traced out.

The ball is played, and the teams place themselves in relation to it, not vice versa. As a quasi object, the ball is the true subject of the game. Tt is like a tracker of the relations in the fluctuating collectivity around il. The same analysis is valid for the individual: the clumsy person plays with the ball and makes it gravitate around himself; the mean player imagines himself to be a subject by imag- ining the ball to be an object-the sign of a bad philosopher. On the contrary, the skilled player knows that the ball plays with him or plays off him, in such a way that he gravitates around it and fluidly follows the positions it takes, but especially the relations that it spawns.

Bruno Latour: So, your synthesis would come about in the area of the passes, of movement, and not in the area of the objects?

Michel Serres: Look at how the flames dance, where they go, from whence they come, toward what emptiness they head, how they become fragmented and then join together or die out. Both fluctuating and dancing, this sheet of flame traces relations. This is an illuminating metaphor, if I may say so, for understanding what I have in view — this continuing and fragmented topological variety, which outlines crests. which can shoot high and go out in a mo- ment. The Rames trace and compose these relations.

Bruno Latour: Wait, I need to back up a minute. I thought I understood that there was in general a hermetical conception…

Michel Serres: Hermes passes and disappears; makes sense and destroys it; exposes the noise, the message, and the language; invents writing and, before it. music, translations and their obstacles. He is admittedly not a fixed preposition but, as is said nowadays about mailmen, he plays at pre?pose?, at delivery person.

Nietzsche:

Zarathustra had a goal; he threw his ball: now you, my friends, are the heirs of my goal; to you I throw my golden ball. More than anything, I like to see you, my friends, throwing the golden ball. And so I still linger a little on the earth: forgive me for that.

Thread chord

A passage from Latour’s latest book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, reminded me of another from Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Calvino:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, or authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Latour:

 From this point on, observers no longer find themselves facing a world that is full, continuous, without interstices, accessible to disinterested knowledge endowed with the mysterious capacity to go “everywhere” through thought. By taking apart the amalgam of res ratiocinans, we have become able to discern the narrow conduits of the production of equipped and rectified knowledge as so many slender veins that are added to other conduits and conducts along which, for example, existents can run the risk of existing. These networks are more numerous than those of references, but they are no less localizable, narrow, limited in their kind, and, too, a sketch of their features — this is the essential point — reveals as many empty places as peaks and troughs. The stubborn determination of things to keep on existing does not saturate this landscape any more than knowledge could.

Chord: substance abuse

Borges:

It was very difficult for him to sleep. To sleep is to be abstracted from the world; Funes, on his back in his cot, in the shadows, imagined every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which surrounded him. … Toward the east, in a section which was not yet cut into blocks of homes, there were some new unknown houses. Funes imagined them black, compact, made of a single obscurity; he would turn his face in this direction in order to sleep.

Geertz:

There is an Indian story — at least I heard it as an Indian story — about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked… what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

Latour:

Every instance of continuity is achieved through a discontinuity, a hiatus; every leap across a discontinuity represents a risk taken that may succeed or fail; there are thus felicity and infelicity conditions proper to each mode; the result of this passage, of this more or less successful leap, is a flow, a network, a movement, a wake left behind that will make it possible to define a particular form of existence, and, consequently, particular beings. … [T]he grasp of existents according to the mode of reproduction is not limited to lines of force [“inert matter”] and lineages [“life”]; it concerns everything that maintains itself: languages, bodies, ideas, and of course institutions. The price to pay for the discovery of such a hiatus is not as great as it appears, if we are willing to consider the alternative: we would have to posit a substance lying behind or beneath them to explain their subsistence. We would certainly not gain in intelligibility, since the enigma would simply be pushed one step further: we would have to find out what lies beneath that substance itself and, from one aporia to another, through an infinite regression that is well known in the history of philosophy, we would end up in Substance alone, in short, the exact opposite of the place we had wanted to reach. It is more economical, more rational, more logical, simpler, more elegant — if less obvious in the early phases owing to our (bad) habits of thought — to say that subsistence always pays for itself in alteration, precisely for want of the possibility of being backed up by a substance. The landscape discovered in this way seems surprising at first glance, but it has the immense advantage of being freed from any ultraworld — substance — without loss of continuity in being — subsistence. There is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above. No transcendence but the hiatus of reproduction.

Anaximander:

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

Payment due

There’s nothing at all wrong with the strong dominating the weak, as long as: 1) the strong compensate the weak, and pay for the freedom they’ve taken with comfort, order and irresponsibility and 2) leave the weak room to strengthen and buy back their freedom by taking on anxiety, mess and responsibility.

What if this exchange is not honored? Nothing but the natural consequences: the worst of all worlds: pervasive disloyalty, overall weakness, general disorder and universal anxiety.

*

If a power structure is a sound one, there’s as much in it for the weakest as for the strongest. There’s a distinctive chord of satisfaction at every stratum.

Chord: mind over matter

Some quotes on the theme of divorce of mind and matter:

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Arthur Eddington:

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun — a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.

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Hannah Arendt:

…While world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science. Under the sign of earth alienation, every science, not only physical and natural science, so radically changed its innermost content that one may doubt whether prior to the modern age anything like science existed at all. This is perhaps clearest in the development of the new science’s most important mental instrument, the devices of modern algebra, by which mathematics “succeeded in freeing itself from the shackles of spatiality,” that is, from geometry, which, as the name indicates, depends on terrestrial measures and measurements. Modern mathematics freed man from the shackles of earth-bound experience and his power of cognition from the shackles of finitude.

The decisive point here is not that men at the beginning of the modern age still believed with Plato in the mathematical structure of the universe nor that, one generation later, they believed with Descartes that certain knowledge is possible only where the mind plays with its own forms and formulas. What is decisive is the entirely un-Platonic subjection of geometry to algebraic treatment, which discloses the modern ideal of reducing terrestrial sense data and movements to mathematical symbols. … Yet even more significant than this possibility — to reckon with entities which could not be “seen” by the eye of the mind — was the fact that the new mental instrument, in this respect even newer and more significant than all the scientific tools it helped to devise, opened the way for an altogether novel mode of meeting and approaching nature in the experiment. In the experiment man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a universal, astrophysical viewpoint, a cosmic standpoint outside nature itself.

…With the rise of modernity, mathematics does not simply enlarge its content or reach out into the infinite to become applicable to the immensity of an infinite and infinitely growing, expanding universe, but ceases to be concerned with appearances at all. It is no longer the beginning of philosophy, of the “science” of Being in its true appearance, but becomes instead the science of the structure of the human mind.

*

Jorge Luis Borges:

Like all men of the Library, I have travelled in my youth: I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite.

Chord: Nietzsche’s practical metaphysics

The circle must be closed. — He who has followed a philosophy or a species of thought to the end of its course and then around the end will grasp from his inner experience why the masters and teachers who came afterwards turned away from it, often with an expression of deprecation. For, though the circle has to be circumscribed, the individual, even the greatest, sits firmly on his point of the periphery with an inexorable expression of obstinacy, as though the circle ought never to be closed.

*

Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned!

*

A few rungs down. — One level of education, itself a very high one, has been reached when man gets beyond superstitious and religious concepts and fears and, for example, no longer believes in the heavenly angels or original sin, and has stopped talking about the soul’s salvation. Once he is at this level of liberation, he must still make a last intense effort to overcome metaphysics. Then, however, a retrograde movement is necessary: he must understand both the historical and the psychological justification in metaphysical ideas. He must recognize how mankind’s greatest advancement came from them and how, if one did not take this retrograde step, one would rob himself of mankind’s finest accomplishments to date.

With regard to philosophical metaphysics, I now see a number of people who have arrived at the negative goal (that all positive metaphysics is an error), but only a few who climb back down a few rungs. For one should look out over the last rung of the ladder, but not want to stand on it. Those who are most enlightened can go only as far as to free themselves of metaphysics and look back on it with superiority, while here, as in the hippodrome, it is necessary to take a turn at the end of the track.

*

One should not be deceived: great spirits are skeptics… Strength, freedom which is born of the strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of conviction are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons. Such men do not look far enough, they do not look beneath themselves: but to be permitted to join in the discussion of value and disvalue, one must see five hundred convictions beneath oneself — behind oneself … A spirit who wants great things, who also wants the means to them, is necessarily a skeptic. Freedom from all kinds of convictions, to be able to see freely, is part of strength … Great passion, the ground and the power of his existence, even more enlightened, even more despotic than he is himself, employs his whole intellect; it makes him unhesitating; it gives him courage even for unholy means; under certain circumstances it does not begrudge him convictions. Conviction as a means: many things are attained only by means of a conviction. Great passion uses and uses up convictions, it does not succumb to them — it knows itself sovereign…