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Skepticism at the Margins II: Emerson’s “Man the Reformer”

2013/08/25 1 comment

A common, mostly misguided criticism of Emerson is that he is optimistic to the point of mush, that he waves evil away with his hands, that he sinks into positivity of the sappiest sort. I don’t know how this criticism can survive careful reading of any substantial portion of Emerson’s work (dare I suggest these critics are not careful readers?), but there are times where it is justified. The end of “Man the Reformer” is one such place. After a meek conclusion to the topic of everyday reform (“and we must not cease to tend to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day” – pg. 145, Library of America edition of his Essays & Lectures), Emerson makes one of his weaker segues into his real interest: man as Reformer, as “a Re-maker of what man has made” (146), which proceeds through self-reliance (“Let him renounce everything which is not true to him”). And from here, Emerson moves to a discussion of how Americans lack the twin virtues of Faith and Hope, frustratingly never defined—frustrating especially since Emerson says they are words whose meanings have been lost sight of. And then, here it comes, Emerson predicts the dawn of an era of the “sentiment of love”, and he turns to goop. The final three pages of the essay (with the exception of two valuable suggestions on the final page) is precisely the sort of overly optimistic view that Emerson’s critics attribute to him. For instance: “But one day all men will be lovers; and every calamity will be dissolved in the universal sunshine.”

Yet there is a darker undercurrent to the essay, and in the interest of restoring his name I want to recover it. Emerson sees, and mentions, but does not dwell upon, a dark force that he struggles with again and again in his journals, a force that undercuts his optimism and must be placed beside it. Emerson’s optimism is a bulwark against a form of skepticism that he sees as a very real, very live possibility, one that he has to fight against. (For this reason, I have titled this post after my earlier post on Tom Noonan’s The Wife.) Moreover, I want to suggest that Emerson himself licenses reading his lecture in this manner.

Emerson, at various points in his journals, notes that there is an objection to every manner of living. Without realizing it, as we consider one way of living, then another, then the next, we find ourselves rejecting each one on perfectly good grounds, until there are none left. This threat always remains lurking in the shadows: the threat that we will argue ourselves into catatonia, into complete inaction, and that our arguments will be flawless. Each locally justified step will carry us into a final state that is ultimately worse than anything. This is a form of skepticism: the skepticism that any manner of living is adequate to human dignity and the duty of genius.

It is this skepticism that eats away at Emerson in “Man the Reformer”. Emerson begins the essay by discussing the institution of trade, and the manner in which it creates vices in people. Emerson does not blame individuals for these vices (“The sins of our trade belong to no class, to no individual” – 138): it is the system itself that creates these vices. The vice of the individual is to see himself as merely “an obscure private person who must get his bread”—in short, not to feel himself “called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man.” Emerson does not stop with trade, however: “But by coming out of trade you have not cleared yourself. The trail of the serpent reaches into all the lucrative professions and practices of man.” Every profession has its evils, cultivates vices, requires “a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love, a compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity.”

And here Emerson draws out the full corrosive power of this skepticism:

Suppose a man is so unhappy as to be born a saint, with keen perceptions, but with the conscience and love of an angel, and he is to get his living in the world; he finds himself excluded from all lucrative works; he has no farm, and he cannot get one; for, to earn money enough to buy one, requires a sort of concentration toward money, which is the selling himself for a number of years, and to him the present hour is as sacred and inviolable as any future hour. Of course, whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated. Inextricable seem to be the twinings and tendrils of this evil, and we all involve ourselves in it the deeper by forming connections, by wives and children, by benefits and debts. (138-139)

Two things happen here. First, Emerson imagines the saint, the perfect individual: he cannot act at all, cannot make a living, for any means of doing so is too impure, requires an inadmissible sacrifice of the “sacred and inviolable” present hour. So Emerson offers a skepticism for saints: the world is such that a saint could not live in it. But we are not saints: Emerson denies that title both to himself and to his audience. This does not mitigate the skepticism, however, for the world’s ostracization of the saint vitiates any title to our property that we have. It calls all of our actions into question as well. We have no choice but to make a living, yet no matter how we do so, there the saint stands, reproaching us.

Emerson draws this conclusion in full later in the essay: insofar as we aspire to the saintlike, we force ourselves to inaction:

If we suddenly plant our foot, and say,—I will neither eat nor drink nor wear nor touch any food or fabric which I do not know to be innocent, or deal with any person whose whole manner of life is not clear and rational, we shall stand still. Whose is so? Not mine; not thine; not his. (145)

Emerson dispels this immediately: if we cannot achieve this purity, then we must

clear ourselves each one by the interrogation, whether we have earned our bread to-day by the hearty contribution of our energies to the common benefit? and we must not cease to tend to the correction of these flagrant wrongs, by laying one stone aright every day. (145)

But is this compelling? It is eminently practical, but precisely in virtue of that, it is a failure to really address the skeptic. It is a turning away: well, we cannot act on skepticism (indeed, it leads to catatonia), so let us be practical. This response grants everything to the skeptic, and is just the shutting of the eyes that Emerson earlier protested against. Emerson does not say how this is possible without sacrificing the inviolable present hour, and so he does not say how it is possible at all.

Emerson thus does not sufficiently answer the skeptic, and he acknowledges this, for he immediately goes on to suggest that this practical solution cannot hide a deeper idea that agitates us, that we must “revise the whole of our social structure” (146) around man the Reformer, the “Re-maker of what man has made.” It is this that leads into Emerson’s almost desperately optimistic encomium over the sentiment of love. It is a vision of a radical revision of the principle at the foundation of society, and Emerson speaks as if this reform is guaranteed. But this idealism is unrealistic, and it is hard to imagine that Emerson did not know it, did not realize that world would always be inhospitable to the saint.

Why this flight to idealism? Emerson tells us himself, at the very beginning of the lecture:

What if some of the objections whereby our institutions are assailed are extreme and speculative, and the reformers tend to idealism; that only shows the extravagance of the abuses which have driven the mind into the opposite extreme. It is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas, and aims to recruit and replenish nature from that source. Let ideas establish their legitimate sway again in society, let life be fair and poetic, and the scholars will gladly be lovers, citizens, and philanthropists. (136)

If we read the ending of the essay in this light, it no longer seems optimistic—it seems desperate. What drives us to idealism is precisely our feeling the force of skepticism, of feeling not at home in the world. Interpreting Emerson by his own principles, we ought to see it not as sappily optimistic, but as deeply pessimistic. Emerson’s idealism at the end is not a prediction of a better world to come, but a bulwark against the dark forces governing the world in which he lives. It is a vision that gives him the strength to live.

I titled this essay “Skepticism at the Margins II”, in keeping with my first post on this subject, but in fact this is a misnomer. For, if what I have argued is correct, Emerson’s apparent optimism arises precisely because his skepticism has overflowed the margins and come to occupy a central place, because, when he delivered this lecture, he was losing the battle against skepticism. “Man the Reformer” should be seen as one of Emerson’s darkest essays, an essay where he turns to idealism because he cannot find effective resources to combat the skepticism gnawing at him.

Staten, Nietzsche, Emerson

2013/08/24 1 comment

While reflecting on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice, I suggested that a strength of the book is how it traces out ambivalences and oscillations in Nietzsche’s works. I included a quote from Staten in which he suggests that Nietzsche in one mood advocates a self-overcoming in which the boundaries of self-identity dissolve, but in another mood recoils from this possibility and tries to preserve those boundaries. I still think this is a strength of the book, but writing about Emerson last night reminded me of a thought that I have long toyed with that suggests that Staten might be missing an underlying unity to Nietzsche’s thought on this point. Here I want to go some small way toward fleshing out—though not resolving—this worry.

The worry begins with my secret belief that Emerson and Nietzsche are the same soul in distinct bodies. Whenever I read their work in close proximity I am always surprised by the frequency of Nietzschean comments in Emerson and Emersonian comments in Nietzsche. One of the areas in which I have most seen this overlap is in their views on selfhood. So I want to reflect briefly on Emerson, and then suggest that if Nietzsche’s views on the self can be treated in a similar way (and I think there is a reasonable likelihood of this), then perhaps Staten has failed to see a certain unity to Nietzsche’s work.

In my post last night on Emerson, I wrote this: “One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth…” That is, Emerson sees the self as most firmly defined at precisely the moment when the self is overcome. Self-reliance implies staying within one’s own boundaries, relying on one’s own intuition, not following social conventions, etc.—in short it requires a well-defined self set apart from others, for how can one stay within one’s own boundaries if such boundaries are not clearly defined? And yet when Emerson discusses the activity of the self-reliant person, this activity is precisely self-overcoming, self-transcendence. Emerson likens the activity to drawing a circle around oneself. Given time, this circle becomes constraining and a wider circle must be drawn, exploding the boundaries of the older one. This metaphor lets us see that Emerson is working with two notions of the self, which shows how Emerson can simultaneously praise self-reliance—staying within the boundaries of the self—and self-overcoming—exploding beyond those boundaries. The boundaries of self-reliance, the boundaries within which we are to stay, are those of the new circle, of the self formed in the activity of the genius. The boundaries of self-overcoming are those of the old circle, the remnant of past genius that, once the initial act of genius is past, becomes a source of self-imitation equally inimical to self-reliance as the imitation of others.

That is, Emerson is on the one hand working with a notion of the self in a more traditional sense, though he theorizes this in a different manner than is usual. On the other hand, he also develops a notion of the self that is constituted precisely in the activity of genius, in “shooting the gap”, a self that does not pre-exist and direct this activity but rather forms alongside it. Thus we can see the coexistence of self-formation and self-dissolution in the activity of genius. I will further add that Emerson always connects this activity to the grasping of a single, universal Truth, to a participation in the “oversoul”. In this way, the activity of genius stretches beyond the confines of the organism to something more universal, another sense of self-dissolution, of the erasing of boundaries between self and others.

What I want to suggest, but not argue for right now, is that Nietzsche may well be doing something similar. The same retreats into oneself, the same fortification of boundaries around oneself that keep others out, occurs as frequently in Emerson as in Nietzsche, albeit perhaps more often in his journals than in his essays. A psychodialectical reading of Emerson thus could, I think, produce precisely the pattern found in Staten’s reading of Nietzsche: the same ambivalences and oscillations. But while there are oscillations of mood, there is an underlying unity of thought. To see self-reliance and self-overcoming as in tension, as competing possibilities, is to miss the overall movement of this thought.

The similarity between Nietzsche’s thought and Emerson’s on this point is one of the reasons that I have my hypothesis about the sameness of their souls. I am writing this from memory and so cannot cite specific passages, but the general strain of Nietzsche’s thought—an extreme individualism coupled with an equally extreme critique of the very unity of the individual—is in accord with what I have traced in Emerson. This leads me to suspect that, while Staten is no doubt picking up on very real changes in the mood of Nietzsche’s texts, he is perhaps incorrect in taking them to reveal a Nietzsche unable to decide just what he wants. In different moods, Nietzsche may be emphasizing distinct aspects of his views on the self, but they might nonetheless be distinct aspects of a single coherent view.

This post ought to convince no one, for I have not substantiated this suggestion anywhere close to sufficiently. But I hope it at least motivates the question, which will certainly feed into my future reading of Nietzsche.

Emerson as Bricoleur

2013/08/23 8 comments

Naturally, when I said that Henry Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice would be my final book be­fore classes started, I was lying—not because I intended to start a new book but because its falsehood was eminently predictable. I won’t finish it before classes start, but I have at least begun reading Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and already I have found something worth mentioning in relation to my recent series of posts on Emerson. (All page references are to the Hadot book.)

One of Hadot’s early tasks in the book is to clarify the way in which ancient Greek and Roman philosophical texts are to be read. Contemporary academic methods of reading tend to estrange the works from the contexts in which and purposes for which they were written, leading to certain methodological and stylistic aspects of the texts being systematically misunderstood or underappreciated. At the broadest level, the works are written not to convey doctrinal content, but to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress” (64). A fail­ure to understand this and the specific ways it manifests itself, or so Hadot argues, has led even “specialists in the field” to reproach ancient authors “for their bad writing, contradictions, and lack of rigor and coherence” (61).

I do not know whether Hadot’s reproach of the specialists is warranted—that is in any case not my interest. My interest lies rather in one specific ancient technique that Hadot identifies. Because so many works were commentaries on “authentic” authors the truth of whose work could not be disputed, one constraint on the commentators was the need to maintain a certain proximity to these authentic authors—albeit a proximity perhaps not recognizable as such by today’s standards, hence the specialists’ complaints. Hadot describes one way in which this closeness was maintained:

[…] this practice includes – and this is the most characteristic example – the literal use of formulae or words employed by the earlier tradition to which the author often gives a new meaning adapted to what he wants to say. […] What matters first of all is the prestige of the ancient and traditional formula, and not the exact meaning it originally had. The idea itself holds less interest than the prefabricated elements in which the writer believes he recognizes his own thought, elements that take on an unexpected meaning and purpose when they are integrated into a literary whole. This sometimes brilliant reuse of prefabricated elements gives an impression of “bricolage,” to take up a word currently in fashion, not only among anthropologists but among biologists. Thought evolves by incorporating prefabricated and pre-existing elements, which are given new meaning as they become integrated into a rational system. It is difficult to say what is most extraordinary about this process of integration: contingency, chance, irrationality, the very absurdity resulting from the elements used, or, on the contrary, the strange power of reason to integrate and systematize these disparate elements and to give them a new meaning. (65)

My suggestion here is that Emerson’s relationship to prior thinkers is much better understood as something very similar to this sort of bricolage, though not identical. I have gone some way toward making this suggestion in my posts on Emersonian and academic reading and on realism and idealism as medicine. I want to go a bit further here.

The first note to make is to draw attention to a superficial distinction between Emersonian bricolage and the bricolage Hadot discusses. Emerson at numerous points in his journals and essays disparages the institution of quoting. Quote Bacon, Emerson says, and Emerson will stop reading your work and go reread Bacon. Emerson does on occasion quote in his works, but it is a rarity. Thus, in general, he does not show the ancient reverence for established formulae. Nevertheless, he does show much the same irreverent reverence for doctrine, in a way that is likely to provoke the disdain of philosophers if they do not take care to understand what he is doing. That is what I want to explore here.

Again and again in his works, Emerson invokes the doctrines of names of past thinkers—Plato especially is a favorite. Bacon, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Swedenborg, and Montaigne are others who get frequent mention. What Emerson does with these philosophers, when he goes beyond namedropping, is to pick a doctrine of theirs and promote it, but with blasé disregard for the details of their position. From Plato, for instance, he takes the immortality of the soul, and from Kant the absolute moral law. From both, he takes his idealism in general (explored in one of the earlier posts linked above)—leaving aside that they espouse two quite different versions of idealism. But Emerson is neither Platonic nor Kantian. Emerson’s version of absolute moral law, for instance, is one that is compatible with his saying that, were he the devil’s child, he would act of the devil. And, in my experience, his use of the immortality of the soul is nothing more than a formula, rather than a worked out bit of doctrine. That is, Emerson brings it up at various points, always with a purpose in mind, but the purpose is served by the resonances of the formula itself, and does not require any defense of it as a doctrine. I have already argued, in my post on realism and idealism in Emerson, that he uses those doctrines in ways that specifically de-emphasize their status as doctrines and rhetorically position them so as to promote spiritual progress in his readers—indicating a commonality not just of method but of intent between Emerson and the ancients.

These examples could be multiplied, but unfortunately I do not have a handy list of references for them and have to write this from memory, so I cannot go into more detail about specific instances. I will try to touch on this in future posts, but here I will turn to a brief attempt to understand why Emerson adopts such a method.

One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth—Emerson’s Kantian-only-not absolute moral law. But, though we grasp the same truth as others, we cannot grasp it by imitation—this is why Emerson’s philosophy is irreducible to doctrine (in the way Hadot argues that ancient philosophy is not fundamentally doctrinal) and inseparable from some notion of spiritual progress. This is also why Emerson makes such heavy use of the rhetorical devices I’ve explored in my posts on his work: they perhaps subvert any easy doctrinal coherence of his essays, but they do so in a way that improves the reader who is sensitive to them.

The reason why this truth cannot be grasped by imitation is that the truth does not lie in the new state achieved, but in the “shooting of the gap” between the old and the new state. Doctrine—which can be shared by any number of people—is thus, precisely in virtue of its stability of content, unstable as truth in this Emersonian sense: this stability means that it becomes imitation (self-imitation counts!) and thus a barrier to Emersonian self-overcoming—thus the disparagement of quoting discussed earlier.

Emerson’s adoption of Kantian and Platonic (and other) formulae, which at the same time shows reverence for their genius and irreverence for the details of their thought, exemplifies this aspect of his philosophy. That Emerson can adopt the same formulae as past giants shows the connection between their thought and fortifies his contention of their being a single truth that is grasped again and again by the most disparate of philosophers. That Emerson adopts these formulae with such “carelessness” (by the lights of current standards of exegesis) illustrates precisely the instability of doctrinal truth: Emersonian truth cannot be arrived at by imitation, and so Emersonian use of e.g. Kant’s moral law cannot simply be an imitation of Kant (or even an extension of Kant, an internal improvement to Kant’s system, for that still is not self-reliance). What justifies Emerson’s use of these formulae (by the lights of his own system) is precisely that they are caught up in his own radical movement of thought, his own overcoming of both the past and himself.

We can also understand in light of these considerations why Emerson’s method differs from the ancients, even though both are a sort of bricolage. For the ancient authors, certain authors were authentic. An authentic author “could neither be mistaken, or contradict himself, nor develop his arguments poorly, nor disagree with any other authentic author” (74—Hadot is here quoting a work from Charles Thurot). The goal of ancient texts was to explicate the truth contained in these works. In this context, “any potential meaning, as long as it was coherent with what was considered to be the master’s doctrine, was consequently held to be true” (73—this is Hadot himself speaking). In this way of going about things, the works of these authentic authors stand as permanent accomplishments and so they can be imitated, explicated, etc. This creates a context for the appropriation of formula down to the word: the formula itself is an accomplishment that may be taken on in a new context.

For Emerson, however, accomplishments are not stable, as we have seen. Emerson explicitly makes this point in connection to the great thinkers of the past in “Literary Ethics”:

The book of philosophy is only a fact, and no more inspiring fact than another, and no less; but a wise man will never esteem it anything final and transcending. Go and talk with a man of genius, and the first word he utters, sets all your so-called knowledge afloat and at large. Then Plato, Bacon, Kant, and the Eclectic Cousin, condescend instantly to be men and mere facts.

In the presence of new genius, the products of old genius cease to be accomplishments and instead are mere facts to be appropriated by the new genius. Moreover, among Emerson’s innumerable reflections on the value and proper method of reading, he specifically says that we read (or ought to read) others to find ourselves, and so should only pay attention to those parts that we find confirm our own thought. Here there is no pretense of faithfulness to the old doctrine: it is material for the free play of genius, which may appropriate however it sees fit. And, particularly, genius may appropriate it in a thoroughly piecemeal manner. Older texts do not contain truth that must be located and explicated; instead, they hint at the past occurrence of a grasping of truth and so may point toward a future grasping of truth in the reader, but one that cannot be achieved by imitation.

It is not quite right to say that the ancients locate truth in particular texts, whereas Emerson locates truth in action. Indeed, it is part of Hadot’s very argument that ancient theory was inseparable from spiritual practice. But in ancient spiritual practice, there was a requirement of faithfulness to the text: explication of the text was itself a spiritual exercise. Emerson’s spiritual practice, by contrast, insofar as his essays exemplify it, does not impose this requirement: he thinks of texts in a fundamentally different way. But despite these differences, I believe we may see Emerson as a modern variant of the ancient bricoleur.

Reflections on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice

2013/08/21 1 comment

I recently finished reading Henry Staten’s book Nietzsche’s Voice, a book I found both richly suggestive and frustratingly ethereal. This is the last book I will have a chance to read before resuming classes and hence reading primarily for academic purposes. I shall try to make time on weekends to continue reading and writing about Emerson’s essays (and hopefully to slot some fiction reading in there as well), but on the whole I anticipate that my activity here will greatly slow down in the coming months. As such, I think it is worthwhile to post a few thoughts about Nietzsche’s Voice as a conclusion to my recent set of reflections on Nietzsche.

Staten adopts what he calls a “psychodialectical” reading of Nietzsche, something he says he learned from Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology. Psychodialectical reading, as Staten describes it, requires tracing the flow(s) of libidinal energy in Nietzsche’s texts. I am not sure that Staten makes a strong case for thinking of this energy specifically as libidinal, but in any event the reading he produces is interesting. He is primarily concerned to look at those areas where Nietzsche takes ambivalent, oscillating attitudes: toward asceticism, toward pity, toward suffering, toward life, toward affirmation, toward eternal recurrence, and so on. He delineates different “moods” (for lack of a better word) in which Nietzsche writes: at times he moves in one bold direction, at times he shrinks away from what he elsewhere praises. For example, Staten discusses Nietzsche’s relation to part-whole relations:

It is as though Nietzsche’s original nostalgia for a lost unity of all beings, his desire to be restored as a part to the whole, were invertible into the desire to become the whole by expanding to incorporate all the other parts. In either case, there is a restored totality. But, in one case, self-identity is retained; in the other, the self dissolves, its boundaries are permeated by the being of others, countless others, or the self explodes, is dispersed into an infinitude of bodies and roles. (150)

This captures a fundamental oscillation that Staten finds in Nietzsche: Nietzsche praises the self that constantly overcomes itself, dissolving its own boundaries, but equally recoils from this self-dissolution, at times trying to preserve self-identity.

Tracing out such oscillations and connecting them to specific moods (and thereby interconnecting the various ambivalences) is, in my reading, the primary task of the book. It is richly suggestive in that it teaches a way of reading Nietzsche that is fruitful, that provides a way of understanding why Nietzsche’s corpus does not function clearly as a unity. Moreover, it does this without simply condemning Nietzsche for inconsistency: it tries to understand why someone would undergo just these movements of thought. While it has its share of critical moments—mostly expressed through tone, not argument—the book is primarily characterized by sympathetic neutrality: it is primarily descriptive, not evaluative. (I do not mean to criticize by saying that Staten’s criticism comes through mostly in tone rather than argument. His task is not to criticize Nietzsche, but to understand him in a new way. It is simply the case that Staten at times cannot help hinting at his own evaluations.)

Besides this rich suggestiveness, however, is a frustrating ethereality: it is incredibly difficult to pin down, at times. It traces out these ambivalences in great detail, but then almost seems to leave them be. It hints at an overarching structure, but this is difficult to find. For instance, the one-sentence conclusion to the penultimate chapter (“Pity and Love”) reads: “The ambivalences, chiastic reversals, double investments, and so on that we have traced in Nietzsche’s text follow from the paradox of this telos that is the undoing of all teleology” (169)—a fascinating suggestion, but one that isn’t clearly, explicitly substantiated by the text. Too much attention is given to the tracing, as it were, and not enough to the following. As such, I feel that what I have primarily learned from this book is not anything specific about Nietzsche, but simply a method by which I might come to learn something about Nietzsche. But perhaps this is more valuable than a definite interpretation in any case. I certainly intend to incorporate some of Staten’s methods into my future Nietzsche reading.

I do want to look at one concrete suggestion Staten does make, toward the very end of the book. My starting point is the following passage:

When the eternal recurrence is first announced in The Gay Science, when the demon comes to announce it, to explain that you will have to live this life over and over “innumerable times more,” with “nothing new in it” but always the same pains and joys in every minute detail, why is it that he comes “into your loneliest loneliness” to announce it? Isn’t it because it is this, the loneliest loneliness itself into which the demon comes, and not the repetition of specific events of suffering, that is the essence of the unbearability of the eternal return, so that when Nietzsche/Zarathustra thinks of reliving his life innumerable times what he thinks of is the eternity of an absolute solitude where no human voice ever reaches? (183)

These two sentences illustrate the power of Staten’s method of reading. I have long been captivated by Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence, writing about it (or at least around it) with some frequency here (some uses being more legitimate than others), but I readily confess to a still-stunted understanding of it. One way in which this this understanding was until this morning stunted is that I had hardly at all considered the significance of the thought being presented as coming in one’s “loneliest loneliness.”

Staten’s reading is powerful here because it shows why this detail is crucial. Nietzsche writes in different moods: in some moods he is full of good cheer (for instance, at the start of Twilight of the Idols), in others he is lonely. Nietzsche’s works are also full of references to times that are associated with different moods and energy levels, and much of the dramatic action of Thus Spoke Zarathustra follows Zarathustra’s shifting moods. Nietzsche praises his notion of “gay science” and writes in Twilight of the Idols that “Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part” (foreword). Maintaining such high spirits in the face of gloominess, loneliness, and suffering is one of Nietzsche’s great tasks, and so a reading of Nietzsche that traces out changes in Nietzsches “spirits” and the conditions (loneliness, company, etc.) in which these changes occur is, by Nietzsche’s own lights, essential. In the case of the eternal recurrence, the fact that its announcement comes in Nietzsche’s loneliest loneliness means that Nietzsche’s act of affirmation must come in his loneliest loneliness—he must, as Staten says, affirm a seemingly unbearable eternity of loneliness.

This may also help resolve some of the issues I raised in my string of posts on Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (linked above). In the first of these, I discussed Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Human, All too Human, in which he discussed his creation of the free spirits. This, he said, stemmed out of loneliness (among other things): he created his free spirits out of loneliness. They did not exist, so Nietzsche invented them to keep him company and raise his spirits—in short, they helped make his loneliness bearable, something he could affirm. (This understanding gives a central place in Nietzsche’s thought to the eternal recurrence, a place I think is justified but which could be and is disputed.) The same, one might think, happens with Nietzsche’s claim to be born posthumously.

The reason this might help me resolve my questions about The Anti-Christ is that I suspect—though I have not yet done the work (and for reasons mentioned won’t have time to anytime soon)—that tracing out the flows of energy in Nietzsche’s text as he brings up the free spirits, the Hyperboreans, and the “very few” will shed light on their roles and interrelations. When he invokes them, what is he acting on or reacting to? How do they modulate his moods? In my posts I went part of the way to addressing the first of these questions, but did not achieve any firm resolution. Perhaps there is none to be had—Staten’s method of reading did not often, in his own case, lead to clear resolutions that I could find—but an understanding of the tensions will nonetheless deepen my appreciation of Nietzsche.

Skepticism at the Margins: Tom Noonan’s The Wife

2013/08/16 2 comments

I read Stanley Cavell’s book on Emersonian perfectionism, Conditions Handsome and Un­handsome, a while ago, but didn’t make much of it. However, one suggestion he made stuck with me: that we should (read Wittgenstein as) allow(ing) skepticism to exist at the mar­gins, that the possibility of skepticism should be left open, should not be fully dispensed with. (Wittgenstein says,) while we need not be skeptics, the possibility of skepticism should never fully leave us. I did not fully grasp the point in relation to Wittgenstein, but the suggestion itself has bounced around my mind since I finished the work.

The reason why I am interested in Cavell’s suggestion now relates to a quote from David Foster Wallace that I bring up fairly frequently. In an interview, David Foster Wallace explained why he did not care for Bret Easton Ellis’ work:

You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

I bring this up often on this blog because I use it to understand particular artworks and to understand art in general. When reading a book or watching a film, I hunt for “those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow”. And, because I think searching for those elements is a task for serious intellectual inquiry, I think this characterizes (at least one aspect of) artistic works as contributions to such inquiry (of course, they have other uses as well).

This has led me into trouble at times, however, for some works of art simply do not seem to offer solutions—or worse, they do offer solutions, and then cut them off, show in painful detail how they fail, how people are trapped, how all-too-tangible forces snuff out anything that dares still to glow. Are these works failures, by David Foster Wallace’s admirable criterion? And if they are, can his criterion survive, given that many such works are otherwise of the highest quality? Here I think Cavell helps: the distinction between such works and the Ellis-type works that Wallace condemns—I have never read Ellis so I am just taking Wallace’s critique for granted here—is that such works constitute the skeptical margin of Wallace’s sort of inquiry, a margin that must be kept alive. Perhaps there are no more possibilities for being alive and human; perhaps there never were. And it is not an abdication of responsibility to countenance that possibility, no more than it’s an abdication of responsibility to be a skeptic about knowledge—though of course one may be either sort of skeptic out of just such laziness.

Thus concludes the purely philosophical portion of this post: now I want to look at this idea in relation to Tom Noonan’s film The Wife. Earlier, I wrote a series of four posts on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, looking precisely at the way that it painted “the times” (all times, really) as dark, yet still explored the ways that one might nonetheless be alive and human in them. It explored the pitfalls of these ways as well, of course—Cassavetes’ picture of Mabel is sympathetic but not romantic.

The darkness of the times, for Cassavetes, comes about through the nature of social interaction (hence the darkness of all times, for human interactions feature in all human times). Interaction oppresses on two levels: first, within an individual, the fear of being judged closes her off to the possibilities for freedom that exist (we see this in Margaret especially); second, in the interactions themselves, we see people act in paternalistic rather than fraternal ways, leading in the end to Mabel being locked up “for her own good”.

Noonan’s film, from 1995, is the skeptical side to Cassavetes’ dark but ultimately hopeful vision. Much like Cassavetes’ films, Noonan’s The Wife works by showing in visceral detail the repressive power of human interactions. Unlike Cassavetes, Noonan suggests there is no escape from it, no possibilities for freedom.

Jack and Rita, two (married) therapists, have retired to their home for a bit of a break from their work. At the start of the film, we only see them, and already we see the perils of social interaction. Jack (played by Noonan himself) is constantly stepping on Rita, ignoring her requests, pushing himself away from her, and all with his horrifying smile, the smile of someone who is always joking around to the point where it can only be malicious. At this point, we can perhaps pass it off as simply a struggling marriage: Jack walks all over Rita, and Rita is weak enough to let him.

Soon enough, one of their patients, Cosmo, arrives, having been dragged there against his will by his wife, Arlie. Cosmo is uptight beyond measure, and he is here especially wound up because he is in a place where he does not want to be. His wife, by contrast, is freewheeling, entirely loose. She is basically Cosmo’s opposite.

As Rita prepares dinner, Arlie explores the house, and Cosmo darts around like a scared rabbit, Noonan (as director, not as Jack) pairs up the characters, running through the permutations of possible pairs. Some are obviously strained (Jack-Rita, Rita-Arlie), whereas others sometimes seem open. But these latter, at the precise moment they begin to open up, are interrupted by the introduction of a third person (usually Jack) who cuts off what openness there was. At this point, the pairings change, and the process begins again. Here we begin to hope: if only two people could get time alone together, for the tension comes from there being too many people—if two people got substantial time alone it would all work out.

Noonan’s next step is to separate the men and the women: Rita and Arlie remain inside, cooking, while Jack and Cosmo go for a walk. Rita and Arlie remain tense around each other: Rita treats Arlie like someone who is violating her home, and Arlie for her part, acts this out. They attempt to make conversation, but fail. With Jack and Cosmo, however, there is more hope. Cosmo seems on the verge of a breakthrough (so he and Jack say), and Jack takes him to a quiet place where, Jack says, he (Jack) can find his authenticity. Since this is what Cosmo wants (or has been bamboozled into wanting), it seems that finally something good will happen. They go back to the house with this hope, and in the house it is torn down (and it is revealed to us that it never had any substance, that Jack is a fraud and a tyrant, etc.). But before this, there is the hope: if only Cosmo can survive this trip to the house, he will achieve some redemption. Cosmo expresses his feeling of what oppresses him: his opportunities are always cut off, and now he wants, for once, an opportunity that is not cut off. After Cosmo says this, we see what has been going on in the previous scenes as the constant cutting off of opportunities, and we see Cosmo’s prospects: if only, in the house, this opportunity is not cut off…

In the house, the four sit down to dinner (but only after some machinations by Jack that reveal more of the darkness he embodies). Natural alliances start to form: Rita and Cosmo band together (as victims), while Arlie and Jack cooperate as oppressors. Whenever Cosmo or Rita try to talk, they are cut off. Rita tries to make space for Cosmo to talk (within the weak pairing, she serves as the protector), but is too weak to succeed. Arlie, too, sometimes gets cut off, but Jack always steps in to protect her, to let her speak (in the strong pairing, Jack is thus the protector). The result is an increasingly horrible and awkward dinner, with Jack and Arlie ganging up on Cosmo against the increasingly feeble protests of Rita. But it raises yet another glimmer of light: if only Cosmo and Rita can have time alone—let Jack and Arlie go away, and then finally there can be an opportunity that is not cut off.

So Noonan explores this possibility. After bringing the tensions to a head, with Arlie saying terrible things to Cosmo, Arlie storms out of the house and Jack goes to look for her, leaving Rita and Cosmo alone in the house. Cosmo starts to open up, though Rita seems distant (we find out later that she has been taking Quaaludes). Finally, he achieves his breakthrough, “expressing what he feels” (what he tried and failed to do during the dinner, again and again). At this point, in perhaps the most shattering moment of the film, Rita walks out of the room. Cosmo, so happy to finally be talking, doesn’t notice and simply goes on talking to the air. At this moment, Cosmo is reduced to his lowest point, and the film’s skepticism becomes complete. For every possibility within social interactions has been tried and has failed—Rita’s walking out of the room constitutes the final failure of social interaction—and all that is left is isolation, embodied by Cosmo’s self-expression to nobody. As awful, as painful to watch, as the preceding scenes were, nothing is worse than this, than watching Cosmo finally spin freely, but in a way that makes no contact with the rest of the world, that generates no friction: Cosmo, spinning frictionlessly in a void.

There is more to the film, but this is a good place to stop: it shows the deeply skeptical position of the film with respect to the question: is it possible to be alive and human? (It is possible to read the end of the film as offering a glimmer of hope, but I think what has come before makes this highly implausible.) The two fundamental possibilities, isolation and socialization, are both insufficient as contexts for being alive and human. In isolation, one’s opportunities are not cut off, but only because they generate no friction, contact nothing, affect nothing. Within social interactions, by contrast, the friction generated cuts off all opportunities without fail.

Is Noonan right? Is there really no possibility for human freedom? I want to say no. I want to say that Cassavetes shows how he is wrong, shows that the possibility remains, even if only dimly. But Noonan can always respond: yes, but my film captures the reality of things; Cassavetes’ film is only a fiction. And that is just the point: skepticism always has a rejoinder, always finds its place, even if only at the margins.