Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Nihilism as ghost story
di0genes writes, in response to my post on Speculative Realism, that he's made his way through Brassier's Nihil Unbound. I quite like the take on Brassier as telling us spooky stories around a campfire, and I think it's more than half-accurate.
I sort of got the sense that the author had gathered us around under the stars to tell us ghost stories. He seems to assume that we fear both the dark and the ghosts. In my case he's at least a little right, enough that I found it engaging.
As anyone who's done much looking into their online presence will note, there is a strong affinity between the SRists and a certain kind of terror- or horror-genre. A whole issue of Collapse was devoted to para-Lovecraftian themes. And in fact I think there is a strong affinity between nihilism, horror, and the kind of magic(k) that coalesces around these genres. This is a far more an impression than a judgment; but Reza Negarestani's blog & Cyclonopedia is just the most extreme evidence. Nihilism as a ghost story--scaring ourselves. Yes, I like it.
Brassier's discussion on Nietzsche's failed attempt to overcome nihilism. I must say I've always read Nietzsche for his critique and psychological insights rather than what he tried to build up. Part of me has always felt a little disappointed with "eternal return". It barely coheres as a mathematical idea much less as a deep foundation for a new philosophy. So I probably didn't take it seriously enough.
I think dy0genes puts his finger on one of those "two-kinds-of-people-in-the-world" taxonomies: there are readers of Nietzsche who are impressed by his moral genealogy, and others who are struck by the Eternal Return. Like most such schemes, this one has holes, but it would be interesting to look at the commentary N. has received through this lens.
For myself, I'm an Eternal Recurrence guy. I have learned more from Nietzsche than from many a thinker, and he probably shaped my Christianity more deeply than any sermon I've ever heard; but the thing in N. that grabbed me by the scruff of my neck was Eternal Return of the Same. I would say that I recognized myself absolutely in his description:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moon-light between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
To me, this is one of the ten or so scariest passages in world art and literature, up there with Yeats' "Second Coming," Schubert's "Der Erlkonig," and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Blanchot's book The Step Not Beyond, which is essentially a long gloss and meditation on this mad idea of Nietzsche's, threw me in my early 20's into the kind of malaise that one probably only encounters once or twice in one's life, at least inresponse to literature. It's all very well to say that Nietzsche was trying to spur the creation of the sort of will that could endure, and even rejoice in, the idea that the universe was an endless and meaningless grind:
Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine."
To me, the horror of it had nothing to do with an endless run of Auschwitzes and Killing Fields, or even with an endless replay of my own petty disappointments. It was just the insidious reduction of the universe to a diabolical machine, blindly putting the needle back in the groove--the idea that what seemed meaningful was just an inexplicable happening that would go on and on and on. No thrill or ecstasy or calm fulfillment could possibly, I felt, withstand the awful leveling that the Eternal Return implied. Human freedom and human creativity withered before it. Everything was reduced to an perpetuum mobile of causality.
If it doesn't grab you, probably all you can do is shrug and "hmmm" about it taking all kinds of people.
dy0genes goes on:
someplace [Nietzsche] said what was needed was a scientific Buddhism. Not until I read [Brassier's] critique did I realize that he was trying to do just that with the "creative" agenda he had set for himself.
The contradiction Brassier points out is that eternal return "exterminates all known values because it is the assertion of absolute eternal indifference, without even a "finale of nothingness" to punctuate the sequence or to distinguish between beginning or end." To my ear this sounds a lot like the emptiness that is neither born nor dies in Buddhist thought. It is all meaningless suffering. But Nietzsche posits an affirmative "redemption" by willing the world to be exactly what it is. Brassier goes on to point out that this affirmative act that "divides history in two" completely undermines the previous devaluation of eternal return (as it was intended to do) and makes the whole agenda very problematic. I think that's an interesting and well argued attack. But what struck me while reading this is how similar the moment of affirmation is to the sometimes repeated myth of the Buddha's enlightenment. Some Buddhists maintain that when enlightenment happened for the Buddha it actually happened to the whole world. Enlightenment was not only a personal experience but a cosmological one.
I don't "believe" that particular myth but I found it be an interesting parallel. It would not surprise me if Nietzsche was mindful of this parallel.
I am no Nietzsche scholar, and have not made an exhaustive study of Nietzsche's relationship to Buddhism, though this is one of the aspects of his thought that interests me. My suspicion is that it is far more interesting than the mere dismissal of "Schopenhauerian" pessimism it is usually assumed to be. In any case, Nietzsche certainly writes explicitly that he himself has divided history in two; and speaking of the murder of God, the Gay Science's madman says: "Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
dy0genes is right, too, that the Buddha's enlightenment is sometimes spoken of as having effected the whole universe--the power of Mara, the illusion-maker, was fundamentally broken. Of course, there were other Buddhas before Gautama (according to legend); but one can say that each time realization occurs, each time the sentient mind awakes to the truth of sunyata, in a sense this awakening is felt from one side of the universe to the other.
What this reminds the Christian of, of course, is the breaking of death by the Resurrection. This is, for the Christian, only the ne plus ultra of Revelation. In his exchange of letters with Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey, Franz Rosenzweig says regarding Revelation that it and it alone makes a "real before and after" in the world.
This can be critiqued as "magical thinking," but such claims of cosmological status for personal events chime with a profoundly liturgical mode of experience. What happens under the Bo Tree, or on this hill outside Jerusalem, or here at this altar in this church, is connected to the world, and even the meaning of the world. "Mah Nishtana?" goes the Haggadah question; "Why is this night different from all other nights?" "This is the night," the Easter exultet declares, "when first you saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea....This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave." Any sense of "commemoration" is here secondary to an immediate enactment, a recognition of a present reality that obtains here and now. In the same way, the Hopi elder who Jung met on the Southwest American pueblo declared that he was helping the sun across the sky; implicit in his worldview was the sense that if he did not perform his dance, something in the cosmos could fray.
It is a simple matter to declare such assertions denotatively false--the sun will not fail if the Hopi elder does not dance, and "this night" is not part of the same 24-hour period as a night in Palestine or Egypt two or three millenia ago (leaving aside any other problematic claims about what happened on those occasions). But one wonders if the great rabbis, the Church fathers, and the Hopi elders are such fools as this easy dismissal might assume. A Jungian rejoinder (and not just Jungian) might be that an assertion can be connotatively true while denotatively false. While I am not sure I would want to defend this claim in exactly this form, I am anxious to defend the spirit of it from being a mere last-ditch sorry attempt to preserve discredited beliefs.
"Preservation" is not what is at issue, as if concern for the holy was a kind of spiritual wildlife conservation. What is called for is not a chain of museums or national parks for those who would be tourists of the sacred, but a rediscovery of what it means to live a whole life in the way that the Hopi or the Aboriginal elder or the Christian monk could. "The glory of God," wrote St Irenaeus of Lyons, "is the human person fully alive." (Against Heresies, IV 7)
The word for the kind of connection--implicit in the worldview of the Hopi elder or the Aboriginal singer--between the sentient being and its cosmic context, is participation, often found in Greek as methexis or as metalepsis. This is a technical term I hope I will be able to unpack more fully in some future posts, but it derives (in philosophy) most anciently from Plato, and has featured prominently in Levy-Bruhl, Barfield, and (one reason I am interested in them), some of the thinkers connected with Radical Orthodoxy.
Nietzsche did indeed know that what was needed was a new religion, of a sort; he was attracted to and horrified by the prospect that he would be its John the Baptist. He knew that it must have some sort of relationship to Plato; he himself called it "reversed" platonism. "Scientific Buddhism" may be as good a name as any for what he would have wanted, and it is important that for him, the Eternal Return was (like "enlightenment") a kind of experience, and not just an idea. This is the matter for a good deal of reflection. But I think it worth noting that the Eternal Return, in making every moment "simultaneous" in a sense, is a kind of flattened or mechanistic cosmos but one in which one could say, in a sense "This is the night." It is a vision not of a "scientific" universe but an interpretation of the meaning of a scientific universe, a universe that preserves the denotation of "this is the night," without the connotation -- i.e., without participation.
Many would-be defenders of the sacred, many aspiring "re-enchanters," are suspicious of or resentful of science. And there is a challenge from science, but this challenge is not that science undoes the meaning of the world. Brassier is rightly impatient with the humanities' general resistance to science. I think the divide between the humanities and the sciences is a cultural rather than a spiritual rift, and will be best addressed culturally not "spiritually." (This is one reason why I consider the work of John Brockman of special significance). Indeed, from one point of view, there is nothing especially "spiritual" about the humanities.
If I agree with Brassier about anything, it is the need to overcome the allergic reaction that so many in the humanities seem to feel about science--not about particular scientific results, but about the general esprit of science. Not that I think there is nothing amiss with scientism; but the answer to this is not avoidance and retreat.
I resonate very much with Brassier's account of nihilism as opportunity, not mere impasse. But his impatient claim that "philosophers would do well to stop trying to re-enchant the world" is a view that is about as uncongenial as I can imagine to my own disposition. It is true that thinking does risk being merely ridiculous when it tries too hard to pull off something like 're-enchantment.' To some degree this ridiculousness strikes me as having something to do with Keats' disdain for poetry that "has designs upon us." I would argue that the answer to this danger of ridiculousness is finesse, not abdication. Still, for all my differences with him, I find Brassier very bracing, and I like having my opposite so clearly laid out for me, but of course the challenging thing is he's not merely my opposite. I'm certainly glad di0genes found the book worth reading. I am more inclined now to see a certain kind of fascination with nihilism as a telling of ghost stories -- a sort of Halloween of philosophers. Which does not mean, of course, that there are not some who do try to practice black magic.