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Skepticism at the margins VII: Creativity as an error

“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (487) Why should it be unhappy to dis­cover that we exist? Consider how, in “Experience”, Emerson defines ‘happiness’: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” (478) But to know that you exist, that you act, that you might have acted differently—how is this possible without leaving a “crevice”? So there is an inherent unhappiness in our awareness. Much of the Emersonian task—and the Nietzschean task to come—is to recover joy in the face of this unhappiness.

Immediately preceding Emerson’s recharacterization of the image of the Fall is a reflection on skepticism: “The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (487) There is a skeptical undercurrent running throughout the essay, as when, earlier, Emerson writes what I find the most wonderful sentence in perhaps his entire corpus, “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (480) Here then is a source of skepticism: for no course of action can we have absolute certainty—each is beset by some objection. Were we Cartesians about actions, refusing to act without such assurance, we would all be lumps.

And yet, and yet, does not Emerson tell us what is spiritual just a few pages earlier? Does he not say, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence” (475)? Just as Descartes resolved his skepticism by an appeal to God, Emerson seems to turn to the divine—only he locates it within the self. There, in self-reliance, we find the stable ground for action, the possibility of certainty. Descartes’ solution was a cop-out; Emerson is not so sanguine. For Emerson finds, lurking beneath the spiritual, the self-evidencing, a still deeper skepticism. It is here, on this shifting ground, that he must find his affirmation, must plant his foundation.

Let us return to the Fall. “Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” (487) Specifically, we suspect our perception of the world: we see through lenses tinted by our values. “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” (487) And then comes the crucial point: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” (487) Our evaluations are something creative: they make objects—say, a good man or an evil man—where there was none before. Here is idealism, and one can easily nod here, yes, yes, we know Emerson is an idealist—and in this fashion nod off. But Emerson is not just espousing a tired idealism. He is locating beneath it a disturbing skepticism: all our creativity in valuing, all our self-reliance, all our self-evidencing spirituality—all this may be in error.

That is why “the whole frame of things preaches indifferency.” (478) What is real, in the sense of mind-independent, does not support our values. It is Epicurean, random. What is creative and divine is something mind-dependent, something with no basis beyond ourselves. It is our “Fall” to have come to know this, to be unable to reify our values naively. The possibility of self-reliant affirmation remains, but no longer may it be done self-consciously—happily, if you will. For the crevice is always there, and skepticism leaks in, lingers at the margins. Can it be turned into an affirmation? Well, that is the question, isn’t it?

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Daybreak meditations, §35

2014/01/07 2 comments

The spring semester has started, hence I am walking to campus again, hence my Daybreak meditations have begun anew. I am using the Cambridge edition, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

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The Nietzsche passage, to begin:

Feelings and their origination in judgments. – ‘Trust your feelings!’ – But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of feelings (inclinations, aversions). The inspiration born of a feeling is the grandchild of a judgment – and often of a false judgment! – and in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings – means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Nietzsche has, alongside Emerson, been the primary inspiration for my conception of experiment, and here he illustrates on aspect of that basic idea. What I deem by the term ‘experiment’ is a form of moral perfectionism that insists on honesty to oneself above all else—but does so while questioning the very existence of a self to which one could be honest. Nietzsche in this passage is defending a form of skepticism of the body: our feelings and inclinations are not properly our own, but only the inherited judgments of our ancestors. They are not properly our own; obedience to them is not honesty to ourselves but to others.

We have spontaneous, uncontrolled reactions to things, immediate feelings about them—but we should not trust these feelings. For, if we look to their origin, we find that they come from past judgments made by others. Nietzsche has, at times, antiquated views about inheritance, but this one, I believe, sticks. Our parents judge that something is bad, and then this sense of badness is inculcated in us without our ever arriving at the judgment for ourselves—and perhaps we must in fact look even further than our parents to find the original judgment. An example from my own history: my mother abhors southern accents, and while I do not share the judgment, I do share the feeling. My initial distaste for the sound is fading with time, whether in part due to my rejection of the judgment I do not know, but is still present. There is a tendency of my body to feel in particular ways, and it comes from a judgment made by another.

If we let our feelings, birthed in this fashion, determine our judgments, then we are letting the reason of another, the experience of another, the job of determining our own selves. And this is quite contrary to the experimental injunction to be honest to oneself. In my last Daybreak meditation (link above), I looked at Nietzsche’s distinction between customs in their first generation—when they are motivated by some benefit—and in their second generation, when their force derives from their being the customary thing to do.—This is, incidentally, quite similar to the acquaintance/description distinction I drew in my previous post.—This provides a useful way of thinking about feelings: they are, in effect, customs of thought, received via inheritance and not via any first generation processes of judgment.

That Nietzsche is motivated by the injunction to honesty in this passage is shown by his revealing comment that feelings are not “a child of your own”—it is to one’s own children that one should be loyal, not the children of one’s parents. What counts as a child of our own? Nietzsche suggests that we have something divine, godlike within us: our own reason and experience. As for Emerson, what divinity is possible is nothing other than self-trust—but at the base of this self-trust is a very great mistrust of our bodies. This is not a revulsion of the body as merely material—after all, where else shall we find anything divine, if not in the “merely” material, as there is nothing else?—but it is a recognition that what shapes our bodies is so often foreign to us. And, at the risk of jumping ahead of myself, I cannot help but look to §49, the subject of my next Daybreak meditation, where Nietzsche describes the motto of the last man as follows: nihil humani a me alienum puto—nothing human is foreign to me.

Though my conception of experiment has been brewing since last summer, its development was jolted by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. Nietzsche provides the necessary flipside to Emerson’s title: self-distrust. The one is cheap without the other.

Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.