Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Insomnia: passivity terminable and interminable

A while ago I posted a meditation on sleep, waking, sunyata and the in-itself. It has long seemed to me very telling that Levinas, one of the thinkers under whose tutelage I remain lo these decades after first reading him, begins his ontological investigations with an exploration of the theme of insomnia.
It is as a modality or modification of insomnia that consciousness is consciousness-of-..., a gathering into being or into presence, which, at a certain depth of vigilance where vigilance has to clothe itself with justice, is essential essential to insomnia. Insomnia, wakefulness or vigilance, far from being definable as the simple negation of the natural phenomenon of sleep, belongs to the categorial, antecendent to all anthropological attention and stupor. Ever on the verge of awakening, sleep communicates with vigilance; while trying to escape, sleep stays tuned in, in an obedience to the wakefulness which threatens it and calls to it, which demands. ("God & Philosophy," in The Levinas Reader, p 169).
It is a thematic of the inescapable, of being which cannot be declined because it does not belong to intentionality but rather vice-versa (Levinas calls it "formalism without intentionality"). This motif of irrefusable experience, a kind of irruption of strangeness unavoidably close to the self (so close that it is the self-before-identification, I might say), is shared by Levinas with another thinker from eastern Europe, another claimant of Nietzsche's mantle, E.M. Cioran. Cioran defines man as the animal that wants to sleep but cannot. A fine essay on this aspect of Cioran's thought showed up late last year on the blog Heterodoxia; I just noticed it. There is also an excellent post on Cioran at Dark Chemistry.

A common response to Cioran is recoil from his unremitting pessimism. His philosophy is indeed a litany of refusals of consolation. He does not so much parry as laugh (bitterly) at every proffered reason to prefer existence to nothingness. Cioran's philosophy is a modern restatement of the wisdom of Silenus: the best thing for man is not to be born, and the next-best is to die soon; or it would be, if only, if only. "We have lost, being born, as much as we will lose dying," he muses. And again: "It's not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late."

At first glance one might think Cioran's a spirit very close to the antipodes of my own, I who praise Rousseau and Leibniz precisely for their optimism (the optimism Voltaire found it so easy to lampoon). And yet, not just the articulation of his anti-vision, not just the "passion" with which he held it, incites my admiration. Nor is it just the mockery he directs at the pretensions of human prometheanism that make me want to make occasional common cause with him. It is rather the absolute commitment with which he follows the insight of, the wisdom of, suffering. Cioran's mother once told him that, had she known how unhappy he owuld be, she would have aborted him. And yet Cioran followed his despair not to depths, but to (as the title of his first book puts it) heights.

Nietzsche's critique of Buddhism was in part that it offered a soteriology of sleep. He believed that the turn of Europe toward the longing for nirvana was a losing of nerve in the face of existence, a symptom of nihilism. One can certainly critique this view of Buddhism, the very name of which derives from the Sanskrit word for awake. But however well or poorly Nietzsche mis-read the Buddha, his take on the First Noble Truth seems pretty solid. "Life is dukkha," suffering, thirst, craving, discomfiture. To the will to end suffering, (the Third Noble Truth), Nietzsche rejoined instead with a paean to suffering:
Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering.(Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, 28)

You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? ...whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it--has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Beyond Good & Evil,"Our Virtues")
Nietzsche was, however, a better Buddhist than he knew; for the Dharma would direct one not away from one's suffering but back to it, with eyes wide open and mind attentive. As for his stipulation that human beings can will suffering "provided one shows him some meaning in it," we will come back to this.

The word suffer means, strictly speaking, to experience or to undergo (the su- is derived from the Latin sub-; compare the end of the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra: "Thus began Zarathustra's going-under," untergehen.) Strictly speaking, to suffer can be absolutely neutral in meaning. To be sure, dukkha has some strong negative connotations; but what this ought to suggest to us is that there is a fundamentally traumatic dimension to all experience whatsoever. This is why the Christian tradition refers to Christ's passion, the rendering of Christ as utterly subject; this is why this Passion is held to redeem created nature (and not, incidentally, only human nature) which, as a craving for experience which tends asymptotically towards non-being, is an inability to shut itself off.

I am thinking this to some degree alongside Michael Austin's thoughts on structuralism, which he defines as (among other things),
a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.
This should be thought in dialogue with a renewed reflection on aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime. As will be recalled, Burke considered the sublime to be precisely a kind of trauma--he calls the delight it occasions a "negative pain"--and Kant also remarks on the way in which the sublime is an incitement to a sort of fear. I would say, following a line I've tried to sketch before, that this involves a "summons" (to use Levinas' term) to rise to the occasion of one's own being; but also an anxiety that one will fail (will "miss the mark," in the Christian sense of sin).

Now obviously there can be more than one defense against trauma, even if one concedes (as Austin does not) that the Real just is traumatic. (I don't concede this either, but I come closer.) For instance, one might try, not to construct meaning, but to withdraw from the whole shebang. In this respect, Cioran takes insomnia to be the very mark of the human; man is the animal that wants to sleep and cannot. This incapacity to withdraw from passivity, this ultra-passivity, is very close to what Levinas also saw; and it is what Harman makes the sine qua non of relation: for an object to have a psyche is for it to be in relation, and this means for the object to be in the interior of a larger one. An entity which is furthest "outside" is (for that moment, and contingently) what Harman calls dormant, with advised reference to the connotations of sleep which we get in this loan-word from French. But note that this furthest-outside mirrors, in a strange way, the "withdrawing" of the object-in-itself in Harman's ontology (the notorious "molten interior" of objects).

I'll go on record here as recoiling from Harman's notion of the dormant object, an object that has no relations whatsoever. We can think of this, Harman says, as
an infinite regress downward in the world, with no tiniest layer of microparticle bringing an end to the chain of beings. But the same does not hold in reverse.... Imagine an ocean without a bottom, but with a turbulent surface where certain drops of water have neighbors below but none above. This is the model of the world that has resulted from our previous discussion.
This concept strikes me as almost brutal, a conceptual guillotining of a chain of relations that would otherwise be seen to obtain. To be sure, Harman has his reasons; he wants to decline the notion of a complete inter-relatedness of the world:
The idea of a universe as a whole actually seems like a fruitless abstraction, and there is some autonomy for the various different parts of the cosmos, all of which require work to be interwoven together, which proves that they are not already interwoven.
This refusal of the Whole, characteristic of a strain of postmodern philosophy, is a theme that links Harman to thinkers with whom he has, otherwise, considerable distance, including Badiou, Deleuze, and Derrida. On the other hand, the notion of work to be done to accomplish the interweaving, does I think capture something right, a pragmatist streak in Harman quite congenial to the process-theology inspired by his hero Whitehead. I cannot concede to Harman that the notion of the Whole is a barren one, a "fruitless abstraction," but I can acknowledge it as an orientation instead of a point of departure.

To wrap up this, as usual, widely-cast net of a post, I want to consider two sub-themes here. First is that there is a strange echo here of a thematic from Bergson. (Incidentally, we need to think Bergson in a way other than merely via Deleuze, not because Deleuze's influence is baneful but because any single reading of a philosopher is always reductive. Yet another reason to hope to see Jankelevitch's book on Bergson translated-- or even Benda's.) I want to tentatively suggest that the way Harman's withdrawing interior, refusing all relation, bends around Klein-bottle like to meet his dormant object, exterior to all others, is a curious example of what Bergson critiqued when he remarked that time had been "spatialized" in philosophy, that it had been thought on the model of space and not in its own terms (which he attempted to do especially in Time and Free Will). Harman goes some way toward this in his thinking of time, space, eidos, and essence as Heidegger's Fourfold. The recovery of an "exteriority" other than spatial is one of the grounding intuitions of Levinas (Totality and Infinity is subtitled "an essay on exteriority"); see especially his remarks on Bergson in Ethics and Infinity. Also, in denying (in the same essay) that dormancy is at all like death (the horizon of the future), Harman is both very close to and veering away from Levinas. Like almost everything in this post, this needs to be spelled out more fully.

The second point is that Austin wants to argue against what he's calling structuralism, a label he uses to describe a philosophy that sees meaning as essentially the provenance of the human. Austin lists Nietzsche among his thinkers "who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life," but I see Nietzsche (at least in the citations above) as standing in the middle of the stream that claims human beings weave meaning in direct response to the suffering that is inevitably theirs; he simply asserts that we ought to keep suffering, as it were precisely for this reason.

While I've asserted above that there is a traumatic aspect to experience per se (though the mention of Longinus, Burke, or Kant, on the sublime ought to alert us that this trauma is not mere suffering), I do not claim that humans are the inventors of meaning, whether we think of this meaning as more or less sufficient (like Cassirer) or falling pitifully short (like Cioran); and I concur with Austin that this notion is to be resisted. But I see structuralism, not as a philosophy that construes the real as trauma, but rather as the philosophy that articulates the experience of trauma thus universalized. There is a sense in which structuralism (a la Austin) is simply philosophy as such: that is, if we acknowledge the force of the Socratic claim that "the unexamined life is not worth living," as an answer to the Silenic claim that "not to be born is the best for man, and next best is to die soon." It is not necessary to consider human ingenuity the only source of meaning to admit either that meaning is a stay against trauma (pace Austin, the nonhuman world experiences dukkha galore), or to see the possibility that "examination" may be the way human beings make meaning.

Of course, there remains the question of whether it succeeds in answering the question, or merely of posing it. The Buddha (whose title, I have underscored before, means simply "awake") would suggest that insomnia, whether thought a la Levinas or Cioran, may be only the hither side of another sort of awakening altogether.

1 comment:

  1. "Nietzsche was, however, a better Buddhist than he knew;"
    I think this is a grave misunderstanding of Nietzsche. The view that suffering is bad because it is a product of delusion, and, hence, must be overcome is central to Buddhism. But for Nietzsche suffering is not bad and it is not necessarily a product of delusion. Suffering is good if it is the necessary means to the creation of value, of the beautiful, of the strong, of the great, and so on.
    Further, Nietzsche's affirmation of life runs counter to the Buddhist negation of life as a vale of delusion and attendant sufferings. The first "noble truth" identifies life itself with suffering. This is incoherent but gives us an idea of the underlying Buddhist attitude to life.
    Nietzsche's attitude to the Buddha and Buddhism is summed up in a remark in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in "Of the Preachers of Death"):
    "There are the consumptives of the soul....
    They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say "Life is refuted!"
    But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence."