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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"...a little fed up..."

A while ago I re-encountered a citation from Michel Houellebecq's book on H.P. Lovecraft, tellingly subtitled Against the World, Against Life. I've read only portions of this work, so I may not be being fair to Houellebecq, whose other works I have not found to my taste; the only novel I have finished (it was very elegantly written and structured and left me feeling empty) was Lanzarote). The citation from the Lovecraft book is:
Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.
(Excerpt here.)
My reaction to this as I thought about it was complicated and went in stages. Initially I sighed a kind of exasperated eye-rolling "whatever." It is difficult for me to summon up patience (or even belief) when people tell me that "loving life" is somehow, I don't know, a little bit beneath them or something. Moreover, it is somehow grotesque that a novelist should assert that love of art and love of life are, at bottom, incompatible. If a novelist cannot be expected to realize without having to think about it that famously-inventive human nature will be ready to supply you with an endless series of examples of "inconsistencies" no matter how surprising, then I don't know who can. There is, moreover, something both naive and staggeringly condescending in this disparagement, a condescension I find even in Milan Kundera, a novelist I love and who helped shape my worldview, but whose blind spots are painful to me. Kundera describes kitsch in more than one place as an attitude of fundamental "agreement with Being," and between the lines it is hard not to read an aggrieved impatience, as if with something pitiably lacking in experience. This is not just the sad head-shaking of a mild curmudgeon, but the twitch of one who suspects every ontology of harboring an ideology. (Kitsch is the "denial of shit," Kundera explains in what is still his masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. John Berger took him to task for this, in an essay called, appropriately, "A Load of Shit." Far be it from me to dream of adjudicating between two such giants. I would just point out that Kundera's stance obviously finds the "unacceptable" in the realm of aesthetics, which is not so much an answer as an avoidance of the problem.)

Well, I had got about this far in my reaction when I noticed a kind of twitch of my own. Something was out of place. And as I sat with it, it came into focus: Who am I kidding? Me, an unqualified "affirmer of life"? Ha! I am a little, and more than a little, "fed up" with the world. I have moods in which I can summon a "critique of existence" that would make a Manichean blanch and teach anti-natalists a thing or two. The universe is indeed endlessly plentiful, "full of a number of things," things like the inventiveness of police interrogators, serial killers, and psychopathic parents; of mold spores that consume spiders from within, and wasps who lay eggs in living caterpillars, to say nothing of the more mundanely red-in-tooth-&-claw nature. There are sailors trapped in sunken, slowly imploding submarines; there are children who awaken to a rocket exploding their house, their parents or siblings or themselves shredded into pieces. There are suicides and lifetimes of regret, there are brilliant minds dwindling into the twilight of demetia, there are car accidents and and fatal undiagnosed birth defects, tsunamis and earthquakes. And there are "lesser" sufferings: failed love affairs, disappointments and betrayals, misunderstandings and victimizations arising out of a thousand different tangled motives and half-motives and lazinesses and bad luck. To all of this I remain deeply and entrenchedly unreconciled. I am unreconciled, indeed, to a universe that has so much as a skinned knee in it. I would say incorrigibly unreconciled, if I did not believe (or remember that I believe) that "for God all things are possible."

I spend a great deal of time with children whose disappointments and concerns can look laughable from my going-on-50 years, and I remember all too keenly the anxiety or fear or pain I felt over matters that seemed like the end of the world. The fact that they pass into triviality does not negate the angst of the child who has lost a toy, or the awkward teen with her face breaking out, or the kid so afraid of being punished that he tells a lie. Part of me is walking away from Omelas well before anyone has been tortured in a broom closet. An evil need not be irrevocable to be unacceptable, because the band-aid and mother's kiss that makes the skinned knee "OK" is not different in kind from the imagined reconciliation of all things that Ivan Karamazov so politely declines to welcome. In these moods, I call Ivan a wuss. In these moods I am what Arjuna was called: Bibhatsu ("he-who feels repugnance," Calasso translates). Don't talk to me about "Nay-saying." Look the fucking monster in the eye.

And yet. There is a snag. The problem of evil is deep, very, very deep, deeper by far than any suspect who think it is a knock-down argument against the existence of God (or a good God, anyway). And this is because to feel the problem as a problem (as opposed to a kind of existential neuropathy) entails an answering awareness of what could be the case instead. Think about the problem of evil very long and if you are honest it will land you smack in the middle of what Amod Lele calls, with admirable symmetry, the problem of Good. (That "think about it" is crucial.) Notwithstanding all my repugnance, there is yet a gulf fixed between me and Thomas Ligotti's verdict:
In a state of anhedonia, everything is revealed in its true purposelessness and inanity. ...[A]nhedonia...is an eminently rational state.... Emotion gives an illusory focus and meaning to our lives. When the feeling is gone, so is that sense. This sense is a motivator yet it also fools you into thinking that something is important when it’s not in the least .... I couldn't possibly write something that would reflect the true depths of my aversion to everything that exists.... humans can’t handle unpleasant realities and what those realities are. But we’re predisposed not to think about those things in a way that will affect how we live, or to think about them at all in most cases.
Now here is some repugnance one can sink one's teeth into. Ligotti isn't merely saying that life is pointless, but that everyone who denies this -- and that means pretty much everybody tout court -- is simply mired in a kind of laughable self-deception. Laughable, or enviable, but Ligotti says it with a snarl that turns envy into resentment and resentment into disdain. One can feel a legitimate pity for Ligotti's awful situation, since anhedonia is obviously by definition a Hell-state; one can feel a kind of admiration for him, too, as he has turned his affliction into an occasion for deeply unsettling horror fiction, and has honed his craft until he's one of the finest writers in the genre, and, by some standards, beyond it. But both the admiration and the pity may well miss the point -- may be evasions of the point. After all, one can ask: Is the reason for the chasm between me and Ligotti simply that I am not anhedonic? That my brain is one way and his another? And doesn't this slip aside of the question of who is right?

Well, that is one answer and possibly close to what Ligotti himself would offer; but it's an answer that prescinds from the very notion of giving reasons for answers; its explanation is not on the same level as the question. It cheats itself out of the right to a little word there in the first sentence of the quote above, without which, its position deflates into a mere mistake (though not a stupid or an easily-avoidable one). You know the word in question: it's the four-letter word "true."

I found myself thinking of this issue of "world-critique" when I re-read an old post on Transcendence by Amod Lele at Love of All Wisdom. Lele is not writing about the radical pessimism Ligotti exemplifies, but rather about those forms of political or anti-political critique which see something amiss in the world and set themselves to fix it. One of Lele's main exhibits is Marxism, but he is at pains to underline the similarities between this and any spiritual "Ascent" tradition which sees something lacking in the ordinary, real world, and wants to transcend it. Some of this underlies a continuing, on-again off-again conversation between Lele and myself about gnosticism, immanence and transcendence, a little of which is explored in the second part of my interview with him, and some of which is touched on in the comments to an earlier post on Eric Voegelin. For Lele, "transcendence" goes along with finding the world bad. Either you want to get the Hell out, or you want to rebuild it from the ground up. In either case, it's what he glosses as "hatred of this world." But the point here is not, if I can put it so baldly, the "world," but the "hatred." For Voegelin, "gnosticism" is primarily a mark not of a kind of cosmology, but of a response to an existential experience of alienation. Of feeling alone, adrift, at odds. "A little bit fed up...", or more than a little. "Against the world, against life."

Christianity has always been scolded for being "world-denying," for flirting with gnosticism, and this despite its tooth-and-nail fight against the gnostics (a fight that, weirdly, also gets them bad press from a sector or would-be world "affirmers"). But what it has in common with gnosticism is what it has in common with ancient thought generally: Christianity affirms that there is a kind of story to the world. Like all ancient ways of thinking, its categories are narrative. Ray Brassier is commendably succinct in contending that dispensing with narrative is the way in which contemporary scientism, which he does not shrink from naming nihilism, differs from all past modes of thought:
conceptual rationality weans itself from the narrative structures that continue to prevail in theology and theologically inflected metaphysics. This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms.... the very category of narrative...has been rendered cognitively redundant by modern science.
I've said before that if there is (as I maintain) a truth to the ancient way of being and thinking, it is on the level of theme, not of plot. This is a distinction I took from C.S. Lewis; "plot" is just what happens in a story; "theme" is the world of the story, its whole gestalt, its "what-it's-like;" what gaming nerds call the flavor rather than the mechanics. I won't argue for this distinction, let alone my deployment of it, here; you can go read the two earlier posts for some of that. Here I want to note that the steely nihilism for which Brassier is justly renowned is, of course, also a theme, a theme of bleakness and the little blip of our meaningless lives in the Universe which just roils on, until it doesn't. To point this out is not some kind of logical gotcha -- I may have my correlationist moments, but I'm not stupid -- but it's worth noticing that this theme is enjoying an upsurge of interest and popularity. I don't assume that this means that "our cultural moment", or whatever, is any more deeply "fed up" with the world than any other; the obvious and overt nihilism of a culture is rarely the deepest symptom of its decadence. But I am interested in the recent philosophical intersections of horror and nihilism -- in particular, in the fixation in some quarters on all things "Dark," a thematics which, one cannot help but notice, frequently helps itself to all manner of associations deriving from precisely the "mythological" heritage of thought which Brassier says science is leaving behind. This is one place where Lovecraft's influence is overt, and "weirdly" mixed with the very different heritage of apophaticism -- a world-transcendence of another sort. I'll treat this somewhat in the next post.


  1. Whereas being ‘a little fed up’ may be a realistic response to a particular situation, to make it the boundary of your world as a stern metaphysical limit is foolish. There will be a fixed amount of ananda and you may run into deficit by drugging or libertinage to supply the shortfall. Sat cit ananda is also written as sat cit anantam (boundless). C.S. Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy when his spirit was enlarged by meeting his Joy. The genteel squalor which the brothers had fallen into, the wall ruined by the striking of matches, cups umber with stewed tea, was a challenge for Adamson.

    Yeats wrote:

    “Locke sank into a swoon;
    The Garden died;
    God took the spinning-jenny
    Out of his side.”

    Brassier writes:
    This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms..

    We revive the garden by ‘gardening’. It’s a monkish view I have that you have to step into the world by physically grappling with it. Yeats chose the dark side which ironically was only the confabulation of his wife giving him ‘metaphors for poetry’. Georgie invented herself as his shaktimaa.

    Now I’m rambling. Great post. I look forward to your follow up.

  2. correction: should by Joy Davidman not Joy Adamson (lion lady)

  3. Thanks for this. I think I find my symmetry far less admirable than you do. :) I'm not entirely happy with the "problem of good" phrasing precisely because I don't think the problems are symmetrical. The problem of good as I see it might more accurately be phrased the problem of value, in that those who don't see value at the heart of reality (and I'd argue this includes early or Madhyamaka Buddhists as well as modern atheists) have a harder time explaining how there can be value (good *or* bad) at all.