There is a famous quote by David Hume, for which my life provides experimental confirmation a thousand times over, in which he highlights the difficulty of bringing the results of philosophy into the real world. He wrote (I am stealing this from his wikiquotes page):
There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning. that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.
This is especially pertinent to Hume, who was, of course a skeptic of the empiricist variety. Epistemological humility, as demanded by the abstruse reasoning taking place in his closet, would require withholding judgment about even the reality of external objects (e.g. his closet). But life does not leave much room for withholding judgment rigorously, because one must act. The skeptic, when he steps outside his closet, must be unfaithful to his skepticism.
My goal in this post is an attempt to explore how a similar thought poses a problem for the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. Before I begin, a few words about style are pertinent. In my previous post about the novel, I noted that, in order to do justice to the novel, one really ought to write about it solely in the first person, in order to avoid naming the narrator (which, in using the term ‘narrator’, I have already done). In this post I will not obey my own stricture, since it would make the post much more difficult to understand. In my defense, Beckett, in titling the novel The Unnamable, violates this edict, too, and in a way that illustrates the theme of the book that all language is a sort of violence against what is just and true, that all language falsifies reality.
Beckett’s novel is the third in a series, and taken together they constitute as thorough an excavation of the soul as any in literature. Hume famously introspected on his experiences and could find no experience of a uniting self, and used this as the basis for his skepticism about even what Descartes thought could not be doubted: that I am. Over the course of the novels, Beckett seems to ratify Hume’s conclusion: there is no stable, unified self. Instead, selves are fluid; identities shift and merge, multiply and coalesce, and even when we see to have bored down to the very center, to the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, we still find this lack of unity. (Charlotte Renner’s essay “The Self-Multiplying Narrators of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable” provides very useful discussion of this point, and is generally an excellent piece.)
This fluidity poses problems for the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, who strives throughout the novel to say the words that will allow him to go silent. In order to be able to go silent, truly silent (for the book is full of imperceptible silences that are not true silence), the ‘I’ must say something true to himself. This leads him into a dilemma. The dilemma is set out on the very first page of the novel, when he asks himself how he is to proceed:
What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, sooner or later? (285)
The ‘I’ has two options: aporia or falsehood. ‘Aporia’ is an interesting term—it is frequently used to describe Plato’s early dialogues. Aporia represents a state of seemingly insoluble puzzlement. Plato’s early dialogues work by taking some position held to be certain or obvious and having Socrates reduce the holder of that position to a state of aporia. To proceed “by aporia pure and simple,” then, is to proceed by, in effect, withholding judgment, by being puzzled. The other alternative is not to reserve judgment, but to go ahead and make claims, claims which must turn out false in the end. Because identities are fluid, there is no stable resting point about which something true may be said. Even if it is true momentarily, whatever the ‘I’ says about himself will be invalidated as soon as he goes through one of his innumerable shifts.
The abstruse reasoning, then, surely would favor aporia. And indeed aporia here would be a sort of silence, and if he could reach the ultimate Socratic aporetic state, that of knowing only that he knows nothing, perhaps he could achieve true silence. But there is a paradox of that state: if you say that you only know that you know nothing, then you are stating a bit of knowledge you possess, and so are denying your claim to know nothing. To really know nothing, you cannot even so much as say so without losing it. Indeed, aporia is not a real option for Beckett’s ‘I’, and for very much this reason. For, as the ‘I’ says, “I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares?” (285) The very problem is that one cannot be ephectic (given to suspense of judgment) otherwise than unawares. Awareness itself creates judgment. Since the ‘I’ is nothing if not aware, compulsively, pathologically aware, it is cut off from ephecticism, from aporia. It must speak, must utter judgments that will be invalidated “sooner or later.”
Thus we can see in Beckett a skepticism even more thorough and extreme than Hume’s. Hume thought that the skeptic’s conclusions must be abandoned and lost when leaving one’s closet to engage in the affairs of daily life, for the affairs of daily life certainly require judgment, as action presupposes judgment. Inside the closet, however, skepticism could be maintained. Introspection, at least, could provide the grounds for some certain judgments, augmented by logic. But in Beckett’s world, even reason and logic and introspection as suspect. The ‘I’ muses time and again about how some unknown “they” taught him reason, and about the fat lot of good it did him. And likewise for introspection: even the introspective “truths” of the ‘I’ seem to be invented by the ‘I’’s speaking, and “truth” that is created by fiat is no real truth at all (and, as we have seen, ceases to be “true” quickly, in any case).
It is interesting in this respect that the narrators of the three novels are all confined to narrow regions. Though Molloy and Moran (of Molloy) do wander, Molloy wanders in a narrow region, and both are, by the end of their respective sections, confined to a single room, where they write their “reports”. In Malone Dies, Malone is cooped up in the room for the entirety, and the only wandering that happens is that of the characters Sapo and Macmann, characters explicitly invented by Malone as part of his “playful” telling of stories. By The Unnamable, this confinement is even more extreme, as the ‘I’ is spatially confined to ‘here’—and ‘here’ is always the same, always unchanging. (My previous post, linked above, explores this further.) Molloy, Moran, Malone, the ‘I’—all are cooped up in regions as confining and impractical as Hume’s closet. They are cut of from the necessities of life that require judgment and forced Hume to (in action) abandon his skepticism. In effect, then, they are in the closet, in the one place where Hume could achieve some certainty, however meager.
And even here, even in this narrow region where there is only writing and speaking, skepticism is what abstruse reasoning dictates. But that is not right, it is not dictated by reason at all. Rather, there is a felt sense, made explicit by the ‘I’, that aporia might be the way to proceed, that any judgment made is sure to be invalidated. Only the very concept of aporia is inaccessible, because ephecticism is available only to the unawares, in much the same way that one who truly knows nothing cannot know that and cannot say it. Since the narrators of the novel are compulsively aware, they cannot ever manage aporia. Even in the narrow regions of the head, judgment is inescapable. Once you begin speaking, you cannot stop, “you must go on.”
I have recently been reading Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels trilogy (Grove Press edition). I wrote about Molloy here, and Malone Dies here and here, and I am now making my way through The Unnamable. I have not finished the novel, but I want here to explore an interesting aspect of the work, and the way that it forces its readers to think about it.
As I read, I take notes, both noting down important stylistic (and other) features and, every ten to fifteen pages, analyzing somewhat what I have read. This helps me to remember important details and make connections between earlier and later parts of the work. I advance hypotheses about the parts I have not read, some of which are confirmed, some refuted. In doing so, I naturally talk about the characters, describing who they are and how they change. My notes for Molloy and Malone Dies are full of, “Molloy is…” or “Malone did…”
I want to illustrate how this breaks down in talking about The Unnamable, in order to reveal the way Beckett forces us to read the work. The work begins with three questions: “Where now? Who now? When now?”, which are asked in a mood that is “unquestioning” (285). The first answer given is to the second question: “I, say I”, and the mood now is “unbelieving” (285). If you cannot guess them already from this, the answers to the other two questions are not difficult to find in the text. On page 295: “But I am here. […] I have never been elsewhere…” Location: here. The answer to the third question is given both with the greatest and least directness. It is given with the greatest directness because it is contained in the very question itself, when now?, but, perhaps because of this, it is also given with the least directness, and must be inferred from passages such as this (296-297):
For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time. […] And yet I do not despair, this time, while saying who I am, where I am, of not losing me, of not going from here, of ending me.
This picture of recurrence reveals each time being experienced as the first time, and “I” am “here” always at “this time.” So the answer to “when now?” is: now. And this is right there in the question, when now. Taken together, then, the answer to the questions is: I here now.
I will return to the questions of where and when shortly, but for the moment I want to focus on the question, who now?, and its answer, I, say I. This forces us into an interesting predicament. For the natural inclination is to talk about the work having a first-person narrator, to talk about the ‘I’ that speaks in the novel. For instance, here are some example sentences from my notes:
The ‘I’ is here forever, though its eternity may be dated.
The ‘I’ and its place came into existence together.
The situation: ‘I’ is given a task at birth…
Now, however, we must pause and reflect briefly on the title of the work. Beckett gave it the title, The Unnamable, and this is clearly meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’. But now there is a problem: in saying that the title is meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’, I have named it.
To make this point clearer, consider a famous passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (§410):
“I” doesn’t name a person, nor “here” a place, and “this” is not a name. But they are connected with names. Names are explained by means of them. It is also true that it is characteristic of physics not to use these words.
This remark is placed directly after a series of remarks about identity. Wittgenstein notes that “there is a great variety of criteria for the ‘identity’ of a person” (§404). When we call a person by name, we use these criteria: Oh, that’s Friedrich, I recognize him by his walrus mustache! Wittgenstein directs our attention to this feature of our language use, and then urges us to contrast it with how we use the word ‘I’. Which criterion, of the “great variety” of criteria for personal identity, “leads me to say that I am in pain?” Wittgenstein answers his own question: “None” (§404).
The function of the word ‘I’ in the English language (‘Ich’ in Wittgenstein’s native German) is not that of a name. And this is precisely why the narrator of The Unnamable, in answering the question “who now?”, can only response, “I, say I.” To do anything else would be to give himself a name, and thus to lose sight of his unnamability. (In saying ‘himself’ and ‘his’, I have given the narrator a gender that “he” does not possess.)
This applies equally to the answers given to the other two questions. Here is not a place and now not a time. In this respect, the novel could have been called The Unplaceable (unplaceable in space and in time). To pinpoint a specific person, a specific place, a specific time, we would have to apply certain criteria, and in doing so we would switch to naming, placing. This is exactly what we do when we speak of “the narrator of The Unnamable” or “the ‘I’ at the center of The Unnamable”—we give a name. When I wrote, “‘I’ is given a task…”, I turned ‘I’ into a name.
To read and think about the novel in this way is to it a great violence, because it is to deny what is at the very heart of the book, as indicated by the title: the unnamability of the ‘I’. As much as one might explicitly explore and “respect” that theme, in writing and thinking about it in that way, such respect is undermined and the theme denied. (That the act of denying the theme arises unintentionally as a function of the words used to explore it, thus eliminating the gap between word and deed, Beckett would no doubt appreciate, for the thickness, tangibility, and activity of words, their indistinguishability from real events, is a theme running throughout the trilogy.)
It can seem inescapable to do this violence to the text in thinking and writing about it. But there is one way to avoid it, and I think it was Beckett’s purpose precisely to force this upon his readers. I, the reader, must not hold “the narrator” apart from myself (as I inherently do in even speaking of “the narrator”). Rather, I, here, now, must narrate the novel. I must speak. Instead of writing, “’I’ is given a task…”, I must write, “I am given a task at birth, a punishment for something (original sin), which I have forgotten (was I ever told?) and must remember (knowledge as recollection).”
This is the only way to do justice to the text. Beckett forces the reader to take the novel as her own speech. Now there is another predicament. For in illustrating this point about Beckett’s novel, I have been forced to speak in just the language that I have argued does violence to his text. I tried to avoid it, but in the end I know of no other way to make it clear—had I really written this post in the style I think the novel needs to be written about, my point would have been lost to the foreignness of the style. But that means that this post, which is an attempt to help people treat the text fairly, is itself unfair to the text. Luckily, I can turn again to Wittgenstein for a resolution—this time to the early Wittgenstein. Much like Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I have spoken about what cannot be spoken about, but only in order to help people see that it cannot be spoken about. This post, then, contains not a thesis but a ladder, and once the ladder has been climbed it must be kicked away.
At the end of his essay “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language”, part of which is devoted to going after Martin Heidegger’s “meaningless” language, Rudolf Carnap writes the following (Arthur Pap translation):
Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by the fact that the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche, almost entirely avoided the error of that confusion. A large part of his work has predominantly empirical content. We find there, for instance, historical analyses of specific artistic phenomena, or an historical-psychological analysis of morals. In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry.
This thesis, that metaphysics is a form of reified poetry, has fascinated me before I found it in Carnap, but even more after seeing it expressed so cogently. In many philosophical systems, the metaphysics is taken as legitimating the ethics (Stoic and Spinozan philosophy come immediately to mind, though they are hardly the only offenders). The thought is that, once we know the supra-empirical nature of the world, we can understand our purpose. But I have been tempted, as Carnap was, to see the ethics as coming first, the vision of humanity’s task as primary, and the metaphysics as coalescing around this.
I don’t know if this is an accurate psychological/sociological picture of the origin of past metaphysical systems, but I think the idea that metaphysics is a task of poetry and the arts is a powerful one. For, as I understand art, it is fundamentally directed at addressing the question, “What am I/are we doing here?”—at illuminating what David Foster Wallace called the possibilities for believing alive and human in the world as we find it. In addressing this question, the artist creates a world with a particular metaphysics: of self; of necessity, fate, and freedom; of language-world relations; etc. And these metaphysics follow from and serve to illuminate the ethics, to create a picture of humanity that provides some response to the question of our place in the world.
For Carnap, this question was a “riddle of life” with no cognitive content. I cannot agree with Carnap here, insofar as I think that our honorifics ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ can and must be applied to our ways of answering this riddle. (I explained my position here in my Aesthetics and Objectivity II.) Our answer to this riddle is ultimately given in the way we live our lives, and thus, insofar as a metaphysical view (of the sort being considered) can be true, its truthmaker is some life. I specify, “of the sort being considered,” because I am agnostic about whether there are any supra-empirical truths of metaphysics (about e.g. the nature of causality) as studied by contemporary philosophers, though I lean toward empiricist skepticism.
The purpose of this longish preamble is to set the stage for an exploration of the way that two films—Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—illustrate how the arts may use metaphysics to illuminate a particular facet of human life. The phenomenon I want to focus on is the objectivity claims we sometimes (generally implicitly) make for our moods. This occurs when, for instance, we are gripped by some strong emotion, and take offense when we see other people inhabiting some contrary mood. I suspect this happens most often when we are upset, perhaps over a small thing, or perhaps in real grief, and the happiness of others seems an affront. What right do those others have to be happy—the whole world should mourn my dead lover/my stubbed toe.
But, of course, empirically speaking, moods are local things, and do reach out to infuse the entire world and make a claim on everyone within it. The death of my lover colors, to a greater or lesser extent, not just me but the nexus of her family, friends, and acquaintances. My stubbed toe is even more localized—it reaches out only to me. When we demand that the entire world fall in line with our moods, and take affront when the world inevitably doesn’t comply, we are implicitly adopting a particular metaphysics, one in which our moods reach out to color the whole of the world, and hence impose an ethical obligation on all its inhabitants. To hold others to this standard is illegitimate, but may seem eminently reasonable when we are the grips of the mood.
This is exemplified by a striking scene in Kieslowski’s Blue, the first film in his French trilogy. Julie has been in a car crash in which her husband and daughter both died, and the film follows her throughout the grieving process. The husband left behind an unfinished concerto celebrating the forthcoming unification of Europe, which he had supposedly been writing. I say ‘supposedly’ because, in fact, the film suggests and I believe confirms that it was in fact Julie who had been writing it. At various points in the film, when the reality of her family’s death threatens to suffocate her, the screen goes black and the opening bars of the piece play.
I want to focus on one particular instance of this. Julie has made friends with a stripper, Lucille. This friendship was occasioned by Julie refusing to sign a petition to get her thrown out of their apartment complex—not out of any good will, necessarily, but rather, I suspect, out of apathy. (At various points, the film makes prominent this apathy.) Julie is swimming in the apartment complex’s pool when Lucille joins her for a brief conversation. She asks Julie, “Are you crying?” and the screen goes black, the music playing again. When the blackness ends, Julie deflects: “It’s the water.” This deflection doesn’t last, and Julie explains how she used a neighbor’s cat to kill a mouse (with pups) that was living in her apartment. Lucille promises to clean up. As she leaves, a group of kids in gaudy pink bathing suits and floaters run onscreen and jump into the pool, laughing and yelling.
At this point, we have been so immersed into Julie’s grief that we find this childish joy to be an affront, an obscenity. Even though we might recognize, at an abstract, intellectual level, that such a response is not warranted (for why should they be beholden to Julie’s grief), nonetheless we still feel it viscerally. The world presented in the film has been Julie’s world, where the salient features all reinforce the omnipresence and extra-personal reality of her grief. When the kids enter the scene, it feels like a violation of divine law. And yet it is not any such violation—and it is this very fact that grief is not necessitated, not the true moral order, that makes Julie’s eventual redemption possible.
The metaphysical reification of this phenomenon is even more pronounced in Lars von Trier’s recent Melancholia. The film follows Justine, a depressed woman as she struggles with depression and the world ends. As the film progresses, optimistic outlooks are gradually thrown by the wayside as it becomes clear that the planet Melancholia will collide with the earth, killing everyone. What this does is create a context in which Justine’s depression enables her to be the hero, comforting her sister and nephew as they await their deaths. At one and the same time, the end of the world serves to (a) justify her depression, because the underlying order of the entire world affirms the meaninglessness of everything, (b) create a context in which she is not only a functional human being, but the most functional human being left, the only one equipped to handle the world as it really is. The very metaphysics of Melancholia is a reification of Justine’s illness. To her, it seems inescapable that she must exist in this terrible state, and the world confirms her judgment. Metaphysics follows after ethics.
One of the more interesting discussions about Melancholia I’ve been a part of is whether it advocates depression as a worldview. Insofar as the metaphysics of the world serves to legitimate and elevate depression, such a judgment might seem ineluctable, and indeed once did to me. But it is also possible the film is exploring the way that, for a depressed person, her depression seems to reach out and fill the entirety of the world, until all happiness is a vice, against the very nature of things. I still go back and forth between these interpretations, and I don’t know which is correct—perhaps the film does not itself say. I hope, however, that I have shown how Melancholia—and Blue—explore a powerful and ubiquitous phenomenon through the very metaphysics of their films.
Imagine a pencil, not one of the fancy mechanical pencils of today, but a standard pencil: a bit of wood surrounding a lead core. As you write, it gradually diminishes to nothing. First the point dulls, eventually to the point where you need to re-sharpen the pencil, one way or another. Gradually there is less and less pencil, until there is barely enough left to hold as you write. But the pencil never does fully diminish to nothing, for eventually it becomes too small to write with, and then you must take up another pencil. A pencil thus gets close to becoming nothing, but never quite arrives.
This, I think, is Beckett’s model of human life. I previously wrote about two intertwined themes in Molloy, the first of Beckett’s trilogy of novels: (a) retelling a story as reliving it, and (b) the notion of Sisyphean recurrence. Malone Dies, the second novel in the trilogy, picks up both of these themes. The image of the pencil connects to both of them. As a writing implement, it is the means by which Malone retells (relives) his stories. It also embodies the impossibility of the Sisyphean task. Just as Sisyphus cannot get the rock to stay at the top of the hill, Malone cannot use up his pencil. The sense is that, if he could use up his pencil, he would finish dying, would become nothing. But he cannot: his pencil runs out before he finishes dying, and since his retelling is his reliving, that he cannot finish writing means he cannot finish dying, either. [Procedural note: This post assumes familiarity with the novel, and may contain “spoilers” insofar as spoilers can exist for a Beckett novel. I am using the edition of Three Novels published by Grove Press. All page references are to that edition.]
Though Sisyphus himself does not appear in Malone Dies, the Sisyphean nature of his task does not escape Malone. He reflects on his pencil and remarks frequently about how little is left. Hidden in his bed somewhere is a second pencil, much larger, though this is never recovered and used. Malone instead faithfully records events and stories (if these are distinct) in his exercise book. (For those keeping score at home, the exercise book is Gaber’s, from Molloy.) About this exercise book, Malone tellingly remarks, “This exercise-book is my life, this big child’s exercise-book, it has taken me a long time to resign myself to that” (267). Insofar as telling the story of his life and living his life are not distinct, it is true that his exercise book is his life. Thus when he has a mysterious visitor (Lemuel), he can say, “he could easily have taken my exercise-book if he had wished” (263), and we should read this as equivalent to: “he could easily have taken my life if he had wished.”
That his exercise book is his life is also reflected in the sense of danger surrounding language throughout the book. For one thing, there is the ever-present sense that language is simply not adequate to its task, namely, telling the truth. This worry metastasized at the end of Molloy, when the final sentence of the Moran section directly contradicted the first two sentences of that section. And indeed, even earlier in that novel, the sense of truth that both Moran and Molloy professed to uphold was slippery and difficult to grasp. Malone Dies only furthers this worry. If retelling is reliving, then one has authorial control over the events of one’s life. But, if just by saying “it is so” one can make it so, what is left of truth? If truth is achieved by default, truth is no achievement. (In my most recent post on objectivity in aesthetic judgment, I talked about Huw Price’s paper “Truth as Convenient Friction”. One way to see why, in the Beckettian universe, truth loses its value is that there can be no friction.) There can be disagreement of sorts, in that there can be conflicting version of the same story/life—just as Malone and Macmann have different stories than Molloy and Moran, and yet are in another sense the same story—but there is no definitive version to settle the matter. And in any case, as Moran reflects in Molloy, such disagreement doesn’t really matter. For Sisyphus may scratch and groan in different places, and even take a different road, so long as his starting point and destination are the same.
Beyond eroding the very concept of truth, the equivocation between retelling and reliving creates a great danger. What happens, for instance, if an important point is left obscure?
The first time an exasperated master threatened him with a cane, Sapo snatched it from his hand and threw it out of the window, which was closed, for it was winter. This was enough to justify his expulsion. But Sapo was not expelled, either then or later. I must try and discover, when I have time to think about it quietly, why Sapo was not expelled when he so richly deserved to be. For I want as little as possible of darkness in his story. A little darkness, in itself, at the time, is nothing. You think no more about it and you go on. But I know what darkness is, it accumulates, thickens, then suddenly bursts and drowns everything. (184)
Allowing a little darkness, a small hole, a slight inconsistency, is the start of a snowball effect of accumulating darkness, until eventually all is darkness. And, ominously, Malone goes on, “I have not been able to find out why Sapo was not expelled.” The story of Sapo (later called Macmann) is one that Malone is making up, for the sake of playing, yet even with such authorial control over events, the danger of such explicitly recognized inconsistencies remains, and darkness gets a foothold. The same danger also arises a few pages later, after Malone describes Sapo as having gull’s eyes:
I don’t like those gull’s eyes. They remind me of an old shipwreck, I forget which. I know it is a small thing. But I am easily frightened now. I know those little phrases that seem innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark. But I am on my guard now. (192-193)
Both Molloy and Malone have a strange obsession with inventorying their possessions before they die, but neither succeeds. Molloy never even begins, though he makes passing references. Malone, toward the end of Malone Dies, makes an attempt, but does not complete it, and later his effort is rendered unsuitable. In a way, this attempt to inventory one’s possessions is the ultimate Sisyphean task. Malone defines his possessions as follows: “For only those things are mine the whereabouts of which I know well enough to be able to lay hold of them, if necessary, that is the definition I have adopted to define my possessions” (242). He lies in bed with a stick, grabbing various items as necessary. When he attempts to inventory his possessions, he still has his stick, but later he loses it. In losing it, he loses possession of his pile of objects—thus his work is undone.
But this is only a contingent failure. There is a deeper impossibility to the task. For the possessions themselves are not stable. He has authorial control over them: whatever he needs among his possessions, he can find, just as an author can introduce any element into a story she pleases. Perhaps she does so poorly and forcedly, but the power nonetheless remains. Thus there is an inherent instability to Malone’s possessions, and as such he cannot inventory them definitively. Only once he stops having needs and wants would such an inventory be possible, but someone who lacks needs and wants cannot act, and so cannot inventory. When he is capable of inventorying his possessions, the task is impossible, and it only becomes possible when he is incapable of completing it.
So here is our situation: we tell the stories of our lives, living them over as we do, hoping to reach a point where, finally, we can inventory our possessions. But this task proves impossible. We can never complete the inventory, for our possessions are shifting, and we cannot complete the story, for the pencil becomes unusable before it diminishes to nothing. So what do we do, put in this situation? I often like to recall David Foster Wallace’s magnificent description of the task of the artist as that of locating and resuscitating the possibilities for being human, even in dark times. Beckett has painted a bleak picture of human existence—do any possibilities remain? If not, then Beckett has evaded his task as an artist—or perhaps revealed the most terrible of truths… What, then, is Beckett’s response to the horrible truth about our situation that he has detailed—if he has any?
The most truthful answer is that I don’t know. What I am sure of, however, is that Beckett has not evaded his task, that he has a solution. So I’ll try to grope a bit, and hope I might pull myself in the right direction. Late in the novel, Malone, contemplating his task, wonders:
I cannot account in any other way for the changing aspect of my possessions. So that, strictly speaking, it is impossible for me to know, from one moment to the next, what is mine and what is not, according to my definition. So I wonder if I should go on, I mean go on drawing up an inventory corresponding perhaps but faintly to the facts, and if I should not rather cut it short and devote myself to some other form of distraction, of less consequence, or simply wait, doing nothing, or counting perhaps, one, two, three and so on, until all danger to myself from myself is past at last. (244)
Here we see three options. Malone recognizes the impossibility of his task, and considers whether he should (a) go on, (b) distract himself, or (c) wait, either doing nothing or counting. After some further contemplation, he doesn’t so much make a choice as simply slip, as if by accident, back into inventorying his possessions: “My photograph. It is not a photograph of me, but I am perhaps at hand” (244).
All three options are, I think, variously embodied in the text. At the beginning, Malone decides, “While waiting I shall tell myself stories, if I can” (174). He conceives himself as waiting for the point when he can inventory his possessions, which is “a thing I must leave to the very last moment, so as to be sure of not having made a mistake” (175). In the meantime, he tells himself the story of Sapo/Macmann. In fact, he says he’ll tell three stories (there’s counting), but he only ever gets to the Sapo/Macmann story (more on this later). In a way, this storytelling is not just a form of waiting, but also a means of distracting himself. The two options are not really distinct. But, finally, we must consider how frequently, in the context of telling this story, Malone agonizes about whether or not to go on, whether or not he can go on, and then—goes on. All three options, in a way, collapse into a single option. We may be distracting ourselves and waiting, but this is not nothing. It is a form of going on.
In this context I think there is an intriguing dialogue with Plato. Plato, of course, is famous for linking words to eternal, immutable forms, and in a way it is precisely this lofty vision of language of which Beckett is so thoroughly skeptical. At two points, I think there are clear references to Plato. Around the midpoint of the novel, Malone begins again his story of Sapo, only now “I can’t call him that any more, and I even wonder how I was able to stomach such a name till now. So then for, let me see, for Macmann, that’s not much better but there is no time to lose…” (222). In this talk of Macmann, Malone writes, “And it is a pleasure to find oneself again in the presence of one of those immutable relations between harmoniously perishing terms and the effect of which is this, that when weary to death one is almost resigned to—I was going to say to the immortality of the soul, but I don’t see the connexion” (222).
This seems clearly to refer to the dialogue in which Plato has Socrates, about to die, defend the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Malone sees this doctrine as the doctrine of one that someone who is “weary to death” must “resign” himself to. But, in fact, Malone denies the connection. Malone, who himself seems to be weary to death, does not in the end become tempted by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. So here is one rejection of the Platonic vision.
Much earlier in the novel, there is an even more striking reference. Malone is describing Sapo, and of his attempts to master language, and writes:
Then he was sorry he had not learnt the art of thinking, beginning by folding back the second and third fingers the better to put the index on the subject and the little finger on the verb, in the way his teacher had shown him, and sorry he could make no meaning of the babel raging in his head, the doubts, desires, imaginings and dreads. And a little less well endowed with strength and courage he too would have abandoned and despaired of ever knowing what manner of being he was, and how he was going to live, and lived vanquished, blindly, in a mad world, in the midst of strangers. (187)
Striking in this passage is the description of words themselves as tangible, graspable. Words are not connected to Platonic ideal forms, but are messy, earthly things, and possibly insufficient to make a meaning of the babel raging in our heads. Confronted with this difficulty, we have two options. We can have the strength and courage to know ourselves, or we can live vanquished and blind.
In some ways, we can see the novel as a progression from the courageous Sapo to the vanquished Malone. At one point, while sucking on a pillow, Malone writes, “The search for myself is ended. I am buried in the world, I knew I would find my place there one day” (193). And he then says that he is not wise, for if he were wise he would “let go, at this instant of happiness” (193). Instead, however, he goes back “again to the light, to the fields I so longed to love” (193).
Wisdom is letting go, but Malone cannot let go—he is not fully vanquished. Malone at numerous points likens death to birth: “for already from the world that parts at last its labia and lets me go” (183). And later, as he is dying, feet first, he says, “The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence” (276). And indeed, becoming fully vanquished is, in a way, impossible. For Malone is dying feet first, leaving the womb of existence, but that means his hands will die before his head, and he will have to stop writing before all is completed. And since his writing is his life, his story and his life will never reach an end. He says the search for himself has come to an end, but perhaps not. Some courage and strength seem to live on.
The notion of recurrence plays a central role in this. At various points, both in Molloy and Malone Dies, occasions come in sets of three. Molloy writes early on, “This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too” (4). Malone wants to tell three stories (about a man and a woman, about an animal, and about a stone), and later wants to tell of Macmann’s three phases in the House of Saint John of God. In each case, however, there is only the first time, and no more.
And it is no surprise, for we have seen that no task can be completed, and so there can be no next time, no next task. Malone addresses this specifically:
To know you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with. (247)
And this is because our position is Sisyphean. Sisyphus who recognizes his position realizes he can’t do better next time, for in reality there isn’t a next time, but only this time, repeated again and again. The details may differ but the starting and ending point is no different. As depressing as it may seem, this is a “thought to be going on with”, and Malone does go on, as Molloy goes on, and Moran goes on, and Macmann goes on. The Platonic task of knowing oneself may seem an absurdity and an impossibility, a futile endeavor for which we lack the tools we need—words that can capture truth neatly, and an immortal soul that can recollect true information—and we go on, futilely but courageously. Perhaps in doing so we make a mockery of ourselves; perhaps human life is something to mock. But we go on, against all tedium.
In my post yesterday on Nietzsche’s ineffable virtue, I ended by raising the issue of how we can make sense of Nietzsche’s writing books at all if virtue cannot be named. After all, the reason the virtue cannot be named is that purity and communication are incompatible goals. In that post, I offered a few solutions to the problem. I think, however, that there is a larger issue, one that lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy. How is an individualistic philosophy like Nietzsche’s, one that privileges purity over communication, possible, given that humans are ineluctably social animals?
This is really a deep problem for Nietzsche, though not at all one of which he was unaware. In fact, I think consideration of this problem might help to make sense of a great many features of his philosophy, including why it is so essential to move beyond good and evil. In this post I want to explore this issue, not just from the perspective of Nietzsche exegesis, but with a view toward understanding his sort of individualism more generally. As such, I’ll also draw a good bit on the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I will discuss Andrei Tarkovsky as well, because I can. Ultimately, we will see that such individualism needs its own vision about how social interactions should be organized.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra gives several descriptions of his highest virtue. In the previous post, I focused on his conception of the highest virtue as ineffable, private. Exclusive emphasis on that conception leads to the tension between virtue and sociality that I raised above. To resolve this tension we need to look at another, explicitly social conception of the highest virtue, which Zarathustra presents in his speech “On the Bestowing Virtue”. (I am using the Del Caro translation, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy.)
There, Zarathustra speaks, “Uncommon is the highest virtue and useless, it is gleaming and mild in its luster: a bestowing virtue is the highest virtue” (56). This virtue is uncommon—indeed unique, given its ineffability—useless (more on this later) and bestowing. What is a bestowing virtue? Zarathustra goes on: “This is your thirst: to become sacrifices and gifts yourselves, and therefore you thirst to amass all riches in your soul” (56). To possess a bestowing virtue is to make a sacrifice and gift of oneself. So the question becomes: what is a gift?
We have already seen that a gift, for Nietzsche, is uncommon and useless. Here I want to bring Emerson and Tarkovsky into play, for both of them have thoughts about gift giving that are congenial to the Nietzschean picture, and can help to expand our conception of gift giving. Emerson, in his second series of essays, wrote a very short piece entitled “Gifts”. (I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays & Lectures.) In this essay, Emerson bemoans gifts of rings and jewels, which are not gifts, but mere “apologies for gifts” (536). He continues: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me” (536). Furthermore, all gift giving ought to be reciprocal: “The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537). And this, Emerson thinks, speaks to “the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts” (537).
Emerson and Nietzsche, then, converge on several points. A gift is a form of sacrifice, and it is beautiful, not useful. It should flow out of oneself, not out of social obligation or a view to what the other person wants or needs. A gift, then, is something quite removed from the domain of prudence.
This view of gifts is also that of Andrei Tarkovsky, in his film The Sacrifice. Early in the film, Otto the postman gives a gift to Alexander: a map of the world from several centuries ago. If you wish to find your way around in the world, it is quite useless, but it is beautiful and uncommon, and the sort of thing that only a man of Otto’s interests and eccentricities is likely to have to give as a gift. Furthermore, the gift is a sacrifice—Otto explicitly says that every gift is a sacrifice.
While I think my previous post on the relation between Nietzsche and Tarkovsky must be judged a failure on the whole, I think a few points I made are worth remembering. One issue people have in interpreting the film is the apparent injustice of Alexander’s sacrifice: surely he is wrong his son, at the very least. And what does his stopping speaking and giving up contact with his son have to do with averting nuclear warfare? Part of what drives these questions is a failure to appreciate the character of gift giving and self-sacrifice, of making a gift of oneself (to God, in this case). It is precisely the uselessness and imprudence of the gift that makes it appropriate and beautiful—and if you cannot see the beauty of Alexander’s sacrifice, I do not believe you watched the film very well. Recall Emerson: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” That is precisely why it is his voice and his son that Alexander must sacrifice.
Among these three poets we can thus see a shared vision of gift giving as a form of self-sacrifice, useless and beautiful. One way my prior analysis of Tarkovsky’s film went wrong was that I subsumed it too much under Kierkegaardian concepts, particularly that of a teleological suspension of the ethical. What was right in this, however, is the fact that acts of giving and self-sacrifice, of the sort Nietzsche, Emerson, and Tarkovsky conceive, are not captured by ethical categories. Ethics can be considered to have a positive role in society, that of making people useful to one another, as well as a negative role, that of preventing people from harming one another. Different ethical systems vary in which they emphasize, but broadly speaking they center around these aims—particularly the non-theistic ethics of today.
In this way, ethics is like an extension of manners and etiquette. It is a lubricant for society. As Emerson describes it in his essay “Manners” (517):
Manners aim to facilitate life, to get rid of impediments, and bring the man pure to energize. They aid our dealing and conversation, as a railway aids travelling, by getting rid of all avoidable obstructions of the road, and leaving nothing to be conquered but pure space.
Here manners (and by extension, ethics) are conceived as something primarily useful, and thus quite unlike gifts in the sense I’ve been considering. Moreover, as Emerson bemoaned time and again, these social rules create obligations, obligations that draw the poet away from himself. Just consider our usual etiquette of favors: I do you a favor, now you owe me one, and I now have a certain power over you. Gift giving, however, cannot create obligations in this way, because gift-giving, for Emerson, is always already reciprocal. Again: “The gift, to be true, must the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537, emphasis added).
Gift giving is a form of sacrifice: there is no expectation of reciprocation, of receiving anything in return. It is a sort of inner compulsion, driven by a virtue that wishes to bestow itself. It is not practical, and it cannot create social obligations. Thus gift giving is a practice that is situated beyond good and evil, where morality is seen as a form of mutual backscratching (which is how Nietzsche saw it).
Nietzsche’s amoralism, them, is not simply nihilistic destruction, but is an attempt to replace one form of social interaction, the semi-contractual form of ethical interaction, with social interaction as a form of gift giving. “You compel all things to and into yourselves, so that they may gush back from your well as the gifts of your love” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 56).
Sociality is thus not totally lost for Nietzsche, but it can still be a lonely prospect for the individualist, as Nietzsche’s life bears out. This loneliness occurs because of the necessarily reciprocal nature of giving gifts. I can only be said to receive your gift and your sacrifice if I also have a gift and sacrifice for you. One of the learning processes Zarathustra must go through over the course of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is learning to find an audience. Initially he tries to address public crowds, and meets only with mockery. His sacrifice is there, but there is no one to receive it. As the book progresses, he must learn to find his friends—those who can receive his gift, and who bring gifts of their own.
Interestingly, Nietzsche considered Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be his gift to the world, and it is worthwhile to reflect on its enigmatic subtitle in this context. (What I will say will of course not exhaust the meaning of that subtitle.) The book is “A Book for All and None”. As a book, it is written in a public language and is thus accessible to all (in principle, of course not in practice). But it must be received as a gift—in that sense it can only be received by someone who can reciprocate, who has a gift and sacrifice of his own. But to do that, one must have a highest virtue of one’s own, a virtue that is not Zarathustra’s. To be able to reciprocate, then, one must reject, must turn away from Zarathustra’s teaching. “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 59). So it is a book for none—only by rejecting it can it be received.
Nietzschean sociality is thus based on friendship, but not a friendship based on mutual benefit. Rather, it is a friendship based on spontaneous, internally compelled gift giving and self-sacrifice. It is lonely, for friends are hard to find—harder even than disciples. The flip side is that a few friends suffice, and the resulting interactions are beautiful in all their uselessness. I’ll let Emerson have the final word, from “Manners” (522):
We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day together, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus. No degree of affection need invade this religion.
In a previous post, I argued that, strictly speaking, there is no truth about what occurs in a work of art than what is shown or stated in the work itself. We may and indeed must fill in these gaps in order to interpret the work, and we may do so more or less correctly, but to do so we must go beyond the text, must say what is not strictly true. (Incidentally, I think this is a good example illustrating my earlier point that we sometimes need a norm of truth or rightness even where the strictest notion of ‘truth’ does not apply.)
Shifting gears, I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels—I’m now nearing the end of the second, Malone Dies. In my post on Molloy, “Beckett’s Sisyphean Recurrence”, one major theme I discussed was that of Beckett’s equivocation between retelling and reliving. In Molloy, there are two parts, one told by Molloy and one by Moran, each of whom offers an autobiography in which their retelling of their life story is indistinguishable from their reliving it. I plan to offer a similar style of analysis for Malone Dies when I complete it, but for now I want to make a brief note of a relation between this theme in Beckett’s trilogy and my earlier point about interpretation.
Malone Dies, like Molloy, has two central characters, not necessarily distinct. But instead of being in two parts, Malone Dies is one part, with the two characters intermingling. And whereas in Molloy the two characters tell their own stories, in Malone Dies Malone tells both his and Macmann’s story. I won’t detail it here, but there is ample evidence in Malone Dies that the retelling as reliving theme continues. There is no clear distinction—and potentially not even an unclear one—between Malone’s telling the story (his or Macmann’s) and the events actually occurring.
When this distinction between retelling and reliving is broken down in this way, it raises serious questions about the distinction between truth and fiction, and we (the readers) feel a deep uneasiness about what it might even be to tell the truth in a context like this. (As was no doubt Beckett’s intention: skepticism about the ability of language to capture truth is a paranoia underlying the entirety of the trilogy.) It also raises questions about the interpretation of life, since life is now effectively a story.
What I want to do here is to locate concerns similar to those I raised in “Constructive Empiricism and Interpretation” in the text of Beckett’s Malone Dies. As I said above, the novel is the intertwining of two stories, that of Malone and that of Macmann. Malone, on his deathbed, decides to “play”, and chooses his game that of telling three stories: one about a man and woman, one about an animal, and one about a stone. Up to the point I’ve read, he tells the story of a boy, Saposcat, nicknamed Sapo, later named (when he is an adult) Macmann. Interspersed with this are passages in which he wrenches himself out of the Macmann story to comment on his own current state.
I want particularly to focus on a particular passage of the Macmann story. The previous Macmann passage ended with Macmann lying on the ground in the rain. The passage ends in the middle of a sentence, which is never completed, as Malone is suddenly possessed by an urgent need to inventory his possessions. When Malone returns to Macmann, ten pages later, we are “much later” in the story.
Two things are interesting about this passage in the Macmann story. First, in the very first sentence, Malone writes, “One day, much later, to judge by his appearance, Macmann came to again, once again, in a kind of asylum” (p. 248). This sentence is quite remarkable. Particularly intriguing is the description of Macmann “coming to,” suggesting that he was not conscious for the entire (quite long) time that is not covered by Malone’s writing. (Tangent: compare this to the beginning and ending of Part I of Molloy.) This is striking, but perhaps more striking is that Malone, the author of this purportedly fictional story (that he is making up to “play”), has to infer (“to judge by his appearance”) how much time has passed. What Malone has not explicitly written, he must infer.
Later in the passage is an even more incredible bit. Malone notices an inconsistency in the story he is telling: Macmann had a hat, but he lost it in the field when he was lying down in the rain. In this new passage, Macmann again has a hat, which Malone infers to be “the selfsame hat”, judging by its great resemblance to the earlier hat (note the presence of inference again). This immediately raises doubt for Malone (p. 252):
Can it be then that it is not the same Macmann at all, after all, in spite of the great resemblance (for those who know the power of the passing years), both physical and otherwise. It is true the Macmanns are legion in the island and pride themselves, what is more, with few exceptions, on having one and all, in the last analysis, sprung from the same illustrious ball. It is therefore inevitable they should resemble one another, now and then, to the point of being confused even in the minds of those who wish them well and would like nothing better than to tell between them.
Here Malone comes to doubt that he is even talking about the same person as before—certainly the evidence underdetermines it. Perhaps it is the same Macmann, perhaps a different Macmann, for they are legion, and who can tell the difference. Malone eventually drops the question: “So long as it is what is called a living being you can’t go wrong, you have the guilty one.” The question loses any relevance, but more than that, it is not at all clear that there is any answer at all. Is it the same Macmann? Is it a different Macmann? There is no difference between either option, no possible evidence that would tell between the two—so I conclude that, within the world of Beckett’s novel, there simply can be no true (or false) answer to the question.
That is, as I am reading this passage, one issue Beckett confronts, in dissolving the distinction between retelling and reliving, is the same issue I identified in my post on interpretation. What is not in the text, does not exist. There are, I think, interesting ways that this connects with the Sisyphean recurrence that also characterizes Beckett’s novels—for instance, different retellings of the same story will differ in their details, just as will Sisyphus’ different trips up the hill—but a full elaboration of these connections will have to wait for another post.
For quite a long time now I have been struggling with the Nietzschean notion of the private, ineffable virtue. Here I want to go some way toward explaining why Nietzsche’s virtue really must be private, and toward elucidating what implications this has for how we should read Nietzsche more generally.
The passage I will focus on comes from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part one, in the section titled “On the Passions of Pleasure and Pain”. (I am using the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition, translated by Adrian del Caro.) The section begins (p. 24):
My brother, if you have one virtue, and it is your virtue, then you have it in common with no one.
To be sure, you want to call her by name and caress her; you want to tug at her ear and have fun with her.
And behold! Now you have her name in common with the people and have become the people and the herd with your virtue!
You would do better to say: “Unspeakable and nameless is that which causes my soul agony and sweetness and is even the hunger of my entrails.”
Let your virtue be too high for the familiarity of names, and if you must speak of it, then do not be ashamed to stammer about it.
It is clear that Nietzsche has a deep skepticism of attaching names to virtues. Why? The argument seems to be that if a virtue is truly one’s own, then it is not shared. Language, however, is of necessity public—words are shared between members of a linguistic community. To give the virtue a name is thus to make it public, to forgo one’s ownership of it. To understand this argument, I want to think about Nietzsche as a moral perfectionist, and relate this to some points made, in an altogether different context, by the sociologist Steven Shapin, reflecting on the state of his own discipline.
In calling Nietzsche a moral perfectionist, I mean that he takes a position where the moral good (in this case, his private virtue) is in every case an overriding good: there is never cause to sacrifice adherence to one’s virtue for the sake of any other aim or good. Of course, Nietzsche considers himself an amoralist, which seems to complicate my calling him a moral perfectionist. However, Nietzsche’s amoralism amounts (as I understand it) primarily to a rejection of public morality and named virtues. It is not a rejection of the broader project aimed at addressing the broader question, “how should I live,” which I think is a clearly moral project in another perfectly good sense of the word ‘moral’. In any event, with respect to one’s private virtue, Nietzsche is a perfectionist, whether we call his brand of perfectionism ‘moral’ or not.
The crucial point is that Nietzsche cannot tolerate compromise. This comes out later in the same section, when Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, “My brother, if you are lucky then you have one virtue and no more: thus will you go more easily over the bridge” (p. 25). Why is this? Because “now nothing evil grows anymore out of you, unless it is the evil that grows from the struggle among your virtues” (p. 25). In the case where someone has multiple virtues, these may conflict, and then one or the other must be sacrificed, and this sacrifice is what, for Nietzsche, amounts to evil. This conflict arises because “each of your virtues is greedy for the highest. It wants your entire spirit, to be its herald; it wants your entire strength in rage, hatred, and love” (p. 25). The person with one virtue is lucky, because such a person can avoid evil of the Nietzschean sort.
It is this perfectionism that drives Nietzsche’s praise of the virtue that has no name. This connection can be illustrated by considering Steven Shapin’s concluding discussion in “Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism-Internalism Debate” (published 1992 in History of Science 30). At the end of the paper, he discusses the move toward “purity” within the discipline—purity that divorced the study of the field from particular political aspirations. One aspect of this purity is that the concepts of the sociology of science have moved further and further away from the entrenched divisions in public discourse. (Shapin is considering Latour’s notorious actor-network theory, which rejects distinctions between e.g. ‘human being’ and ‘scallop’ in favor of categories such as ‘stronger and weaker heterogeneous associations.’ I take no stand on the worthwhileness of Latour’s project.)
Shapin does not decry, at a broad level, the move toward purity. He accepts that “our current understandings of science are arguably much better just because the older conventions and classifications have been so severely criticized. That process is irreversible, and I am sure, rightly so.” Nevertheless, moving forward, he wishes to stress the risk this poses: that the discipline might become so pure that it becomes “irrelevant to anything outside the disciplinary we have constructed.” Why? “The price of purity is privacy. As we reject distinctions… we find ourselves puzzled what to say to [people] whose understandings of the world may trade in these categories and whose practical activities in the world manipulate them.”
The worry Shapin is expounding is that, in developing a pure sociology with its own “private” concepts, there is a risk of cutting off communication with those parts of the world where the concepts rejected by sociologists still hold sway. Shapin, on this basis, urges compromise, moving back and forth between perspectives, in order to allow for such communication. He puts it pithily: “Communication imposes compromise.” Specifically, Shapin suggests that sociologists have a choice between purity and communication.
Shapin is talking about groups of people with distinct “languages” rather than solo individuals, but the tension between purity and communication is precisely the same one that Nietzsche touches upon in the passage I’ve been considering. Here it’s useful to think of Nietzsche’s account of concept-formation in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”. (I’m using the version published in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, translated by Ronald Speirs.) It’s an earlier work in the Nietzsche corpus, and he never published it, so we should be wary of taking too much from it. Nevertheless, I think the discussion of concept-formation illustrates precisely the tension between communication and purity that drives the ineffability of Nietzschean virtue. In the essay, he writes:
Let us consider in particular how concepts are formed; each word immediately becomes a concept, not by virtue of the fact that it is intended to serve as a memory (say) of the unique, utterly individualized, primary experience to which it owes its existence, but because at the same time it must fit countless other, more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases. Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent. […]
Like form, a concept is produced by overlooking what is individual and real, whereas nature knows neither forms nor concepts and hence no species, but only an ‘X’ which is inaccessible to us and indefinable by us.
Nietzsche’s concern here is to undermine the thought that concepts capture reality. (He goes on to call truth “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration…”) Concepts all involve falsification, by treating as the same cases that are, in fact, non-equivalent. Every concept excludes features of the individual, and thus makes generalization possible. No concept captures the individual in its full individuality. (Nietzsche is right about this; it’s another matter whether it supports his strong conclusions about truth.) Conceptualization sacrifices the purity of the individual for the sake of generality. To name a virtue, then, must necessarily be to compromise it, for Nietzsche, and his perfectionism will not allow that.
This I think shows why Nietzsche’s virtue must be private and ineffable, but it raises a question Nietzsche’s larger project that I want to consider briefly. If communication is such a threat to purity, why does Nietzsche write at all? How are we to take Nietzsche’s writings? (It raises many other questions, as well, but I won’t consider them here.)
There are two fairly straightforward reasons why Nietzsche writes, and one more esoteric reason. First, a great deal of Nietzsche’s project aims at undermining the apparent hold established, public virtues have upon us. This is the point of Nietzsche’s genealogical method: it shows us that these virtues arose historically, by contingent processes that could have gone quite differently. There is no necessity to our having the virtues we have. This is a form of ground clearing: it makes room for the individualistic vision he has to come into view in the first place. Second, I think there is a positive project that accompanies this negative project. Nietzsche has to say something about the upkeep of one’s private virtue. While the virtue is one’s own, there can be generally better or worse ways of finding and cultivating one’s private virtue. Nietzsche’s works are filled with what looks like praise of various attributes (honesty, cruelty, cheerfulness)—what looks like praise of particular virtues. I think these passages should be read as passages indicating the sorts of qualities needed in order to cultivate the ineffable virtue. These two projects, positive and negative, I think make fairly good sense on the surface.
There is a third reason that Nietzsche writes, however, and it is, I think, the most puzzling and most interesting. Nietzsche writes to seduce and elevate, and deploys innumerable rhetorical tricks to these ends. For instance, he often writes to shock. Why? Because Nietzsche’s goal is ultimately to change how you live your life, and he is skeptical of the ability of passionless reason to do so. Lives are changed because they are poked, prodded, and provoked until they wake. As this sort of writer, Nietzsche is not hoping to impart truths, and the last thing he wants is followers and disciples. “You are my believers, but what matter all believers!” (Zarathustra, p. 59).
Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, famously compares his book to a ladder that brings someone to a new point of view. Once someone has climbed the ladder, they no longer need it and can kick it away. (In the Tractatus, this happens because the conclusions of the Tractatus reveal its propositions to be meaningless from the new vantage point.) Something similar goes on in Nietzsche: the person who takes Zarathustra’s message to heart is the one who rejects Zarathustra. Nietzsche captures this powerfully at the very end of part one: “You had not yet sought yourselves, then you found me. All believers do this; that’s why all faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (p. 59). Zarathustra’s speeches function as a prod for one to search for oneself—and such searching means not following Zarathustra, but turning away.