I'm playing Europa Universalis 4 at the moment as The Papal State. I've always wanted to play as the Pope and the conquer all of Europe. When I started trying this out a few months ago, I failed miserably. The Papal State is simply too small and surrounded by more powerful neighbors. However, for some reason, after trying this out a few days ago again (due to my terrible disappointment at Stellaris), I am suddenly met with amazing success. I am about to conquer the entire Italian peninsula, and soon enough will be able to go head to head with the larger states. Eventually, I hope to conquer all of Europe. One of the fun things about grand strategy games is that you are able to rewrite history. One of the failures of Stellaris , which it shares with Civilization: Beyond Earth is that a player cannot relate to alien civilizations. Playing as France and England or the Ottoman Empire by default makes a game exciting because we know their history, we have a set of assumptions and preconceived notions about them, unlike for extra terrestrial, futuristic beings.
The dream that I am trying to project upon my playthrough, of course, is my totalitarian vision of a completely dogmatic, autocratic state, headed by a Pope that is not so much enlightened, meaning knowing the truth about the world and the way the world works, &c., &c., à la Solomon King, but more like the despot whose power is so great that he is the found of meaning itself, and being so is actually the irrational multitude—the All, if you've read my previous post. The Pope is the most exceptional candidate for this function, because of his religious function. His proposals, unlike the president of a country, are not bound by physical or political reality: Given that God is omnipotent, and therefore an irrational multitude, and the Pope is the primary interpreter of the Will of God (more or less—mostly through his ex cathedra powers), then the Pope is de facto a Lacanian Master, whose pronouncements have the power to redetermine reality through his relationship with meaning.
The Platonic idea of the Philosopher-King comes to mind. I never really liked Plato. I think if you met Plato at a party, he will be the old guy who will keep talking to you, telling you about his ideas, even when you ask him to shut up. He will always have a response to your questions or objections, even if they are mostly incorrect and haphazardly discussed. I especially dislike The Republic. If anything, I consider it a historical document, which tells you about how philosophy developed. That is its importance most of all. The Philosopher-King, so says Plato, is he who can apprehend the famous Platonic Forms:
Inasmuch as philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable, and those who wander in the region of the many and variable are not philosophers, I must ask you which of the two classes should be the rulers of our State? (Book VI)
Platonic Forms, are for me, fascimus (which, to remind you, is my coinage on the micro-fascisms within groups of people just waiting to crystallize, according to Deleuze and Guattari). The idea that there is some "more and nothing. Although I will not go so far as to say I don't believe in despotism (the dictatorship of the proletariat and Lenninism are still viable, in my mind) I will say that this despotism should be strictly materialist.
In researching The Republic I also found that Plato has somewhat of a similar idea regarding despotism, insofar as he found democracy as not necessarily the best form of government. He preferred Aristocracy, which is ruled by the Philosopher-King, who command the soldiers, who in turn keep order among the people. If not governed correctly, according to Plato, the state devolves into a timocracy, into an oligarchy, and then penultimately, before succumbing to tyranny, into a democracy.
See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city—as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study—how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend. ... These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.
The critique of Plato (speaking as Socrates) is strikingly similar to more current critiques of capitalism, although in a more general form: Plato sees the equality in democracy as a severe weakness because it does not acknowledge differences in ability. Moreover, this equality also brings about a natural hedonism that in turn disregards politics, so that they never give "a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman." I don't think that this critique is somehow outdated, or is just a repudiation of democracy as a reaction against any other form of government that is not Plato's chosen one. I think we witness this type of confusion today, both at the level of politics as well as in everyday life.
We can say, without much doubt, that the current Trump phenomenon, is definitely the result of democracy living up to this ancient critique of democracy. Our refusal of any brand of "elitism," even going so far as to be suspicious of any type of meritocracy, favoring instead egalitarianism that is not based on political equality but on the equal rights to consume and the equal rights to pursue the goals of the system (but only the goals of the system and nothing else).That is to say, we are all equally allowed to pursue the capitalist-imperialist agenda: This is how we are egalitarian. However, we are all egalitarian in that we are all, equally, not allowed to challenge the system, or demand what it deems impossible. In organizing society in this way, the true differences that separate those who are capable and incapable of leading states are obscured, and those who consume more and pursue the capitalist-imperialist agenda more are seem as "more equal than others."
And is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming? Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world—the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares?
The careful idiot will be first to ask: But aren't you a communist, and aren't communists for equality? People usually have this idea of communism which is completely divorced from reality (and are not doubt the result of miseducation as a result of the Cold War). In fact, the fundemental Marxist idea of classes in society itself shows you that Marxism never assumes that people are going to be equal. Marx himself speaks of the "dictatorship" of the proletariat, which necessarily means that all other classes are subsumed other the proletariat. Thus, I find no issue with inequality. However, this inequality has to be the result of justice. This idea is aptly demonstrated by the Marxist commonplace (actually first spoken by French socialist Louis Blanc): From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Notice that the equality of entitlement is first predicated with equality of duty, and there is a very important segmentation of society according to both what they can do (ability) and what they need.
One can even go so far as to say that Democratic Equality, rather than creating a nation of million upon million equals creates, instead, a nation of no equals, insofar as, in the words of Hegel, we are equally blinded by pure light and pure darkness. This is easily illustrated by the common joke: "You are special, like everyone else." Thus, we shouldn't be surprised by the altogether commonsensical idea that elections don't matter, precisely because all votes count (which is, in turn, the exact point of egalitarian elections). The pure form of something can indeed be so pure that it becomes the empty passageway through which its opposite enters. Rather, it is the agitated form of something, the form that proceeds through the boundaries and delimitations set by contradiction, in which something becomes more present, more visible, and more concrete.
Anyway, as I'm writing this post, Aragon, whose weakness from a previous war with Spain I may or may not have taken advantage of, has just defeated me in a war of reclaimation. Now, my empire is smaller than when I started. Thus, the wheel of fate turns! I can't quite make enough friends who will help me quell the advance of Aragon, which now has provinces in both the Iberian peninsula (taking back a few provinces from Spain) and northern Africa. Ironically, Augustine was from Northern Africa, in modern day Algeria—and he wrote the famous piece, City of God. Someday, perhaps I will be able to virtually create that Divine City. As for now, I wait, make friends, and contemplate my sins, as any saint should. This reminds me of a wonderful quote from The City of God:
...peace is the end sought for by war. For every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better. (Book XIX, Chapter 12)
Do I believe this? That's an issue for another time. But for now it is a nice epigraph for the letters I shall send Aragon for when I conquer them yet again, and thus establish not only the City of God, but His Kingdom.
When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over
the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages,
and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be
infinite. —Borges, "The Library of Babel" (1941)
—Borges, "The Library of Babel" (1941)
I haven't spent much time reading Kierkegaard, but the few times that I did, I liked him very much. One of the things that I liked most is his ideas regarding the human's natural stance towards the reality of God. According to Kierkegaard, our longing for infinity, and our capacity to envision it, necessarily entails the existence of God, for at the very least there is a conception of infinity, and an infinite thing necessarily exists. This is of course similar to the ideas of St. Anselm's proof of God: That the "greatest conceivable thing" must necessarily exist, because existence is superior to non-existence.
However, we run into a very important caveat. Who says, truly, that existence is superior to non-existence? Supposing that we have a universe in which non-existence is superior to existence, then does this necessarily mean that God does not exist in that supposed universe? What does it mean when something is superior to something else? Of course then we realize that superiority is a profoundly subjective term and cannot be used in any argument relating to a supremely objective (even radically alternate) entity. So the argument does not stand.
The most famous argument of Kierkegaard about God's existence is that we cannot prove his existence:
If, namely, God does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then it is also foolishness to want to demonstrate it, for in the very moment the demonstration commences, you would presuppose his existence. Otherwise you would not begin, easily percieving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist.
One never reasons in conclusion to existence, but reasons in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something, which exists, is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal. Whether you want to call existence an addition or the eternal presupposition, it can never be demonstrated. (Philosophical Fragments)
So arguments a la the Analogia Entis are no good. Arguing against God, moreover, presupposes his existence and then arguing against it. So it will not do, either. And I agree with this, although on slightly different terms.
I think the most problematic issue regarding the existence of God is his omnipotence. If he is indeed omnipotent, then he is not subject to contradiction, because every question regarding his ability would necessarily be answered in the affirmative. The most common ironic question regarding God's ability, for example, is whether he would be able to create a rock that even he himself cannot lift. The answer is yes. The objection then is if he can then he would have at least one thing he cannot do: Lift the rock. We have therefore, so the ironic idiot goes, found a contradiction. We have, yes, but an omnipotent being is beyond contradiction. If he deigns to lift a rock he cannot lift, he will still be able to do it, by virtue of his omnipotence.
Given that omnipotence is not beholden to contradiction then omnipotent beings are necessarily excluded from rational discourse. Speaking about God can therefore only take place within the context of faith, which is extra-rational. On this point, I am very Kantian: Our reason is a positively- existing apparatus that orders our perceptions, thoughts, and judgment. Given that the way things appear to us is the way these things are arranged by our reason (phenomena), that leaves space for the way things actually are (noumena), which is precisely the space in which all discussions that are extra-rational, including faith, may take place
The conjunction between our sense of infinity and faith has always been very interesting to me, especially given that we can have a mathematical understanding of infinity. This gives the feeling that we can "know" the attributes of God, since God is supposed to be infinite. Of course there is ultimately a difference between being divinely infinite and mathematically infinite, but it is interesting nonetheless. Many writers have attempted to parse the divinely infinite with the mathematically infinite, and the most interesting among them, or at least one of the most interesting, is Borges's "Library of Babel."
The story begins with an epigraphy by what I consider to be the greatest book of all time: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: "By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters . . . ." At one time or another we must have thought about how amazing it is that every book ever written is composed only of a few glyphs put together according to orthography, and then syntax, and then grammar. Considering this, we can then entertain a fascinating question: Supposing we write down all the possible combinations of these glyphs, are we going to obtain the exact combination of glyphs that make up specific works, such as Hamlet or the Bible?
The narrator of the story is simply referred to in a footnote as the "unknown author." The unknown author lives in a universe that is entirely a library, and the short story is his testament of his search for meaning. An interesting aspect in the story is the constituitive power of the contradiction between meaning and meaninglessness in the story. Given that they are presented with meaningless books, meaning is then presented with amazing importance, even though one doesn't necessarily know what use this meaning will give.
One of course is brought back to the typical Derridean concept: phonophallo logocentrism, and the inevitable madness that ensues from the search of meaning (even if the meaning produced turns out to be meaningless). I cannot help but think of my discussion of the black holes produced within the interior cosmos of writers, and how these black holes ultimately consumed and destroyed them: Could this be what is inside the black hole? The nightmarish vision of all reality reduced to a library, and all meaning and non-meaning relegated to the contents of books?
The underlying premise here is that in such a universe there must be a book for everything, or, in the words of the unknown author, a book for All:
All—the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.
The "All" of Borges is the infinity of knowledge, both the truth and the untrue. So long as it can be expressed, no matter how incoherent, it must necessarily be expressed. The interesting point is that this massive disregard for coherence is what produces a supernatural form of truth: So that even the future and arcana are revealed. Moreover, the fact that a certain combination of glyphs would turn out to be meaningful is actually entirely contingent, given that it is reliant on the language and history of the reader, which develop independently of the books. However, contingency does not matter: the nature, history, language, or understanding of a thing. Given that the library has All, then it must necessarily contain information regarding any subject somewhere.
Here, again, we encounter the problem of omnipotence, especially in terms of how it nullifies its meaningfulness: Given that there is an infinite amount of nonsense alongside the (coincidentally) meaningful, then it is not possible to obtain a book that actually speaks of the arcane, or the future, without already possessing the information because it is also perfectly possible that the book is fallacious. The unknown author hints at this thought when he considers the following:
In truth, the Library includes all verbal structures, all variations permitted by the twenty-five orthographical symbols, but not a single example of absolute nonsense. It is useless to observe that the best volume of the many hexagons under my administration is entitled The Combed Thunderclap and another The Plaster Cramp and another Axaxaxas mlö. These phrases, at first glance incoherent, can no doubt be justified in a cryptographical or allegorical manner; such a justification is verbal and, ex hypothesi, already figures in the Library.
Suppose, for example, that Copernicus finds a book about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. He would be liable to consider the book nonsense, and as far as he is concerned it is. Thus, the presupposition that the library has all possible knowledge, known, unknown, and knowable, loses its potency. The books can mean anything and, in being so, mean almost nothing. The meaning is projected onto the books, rather than derived. This epitemological gap is also portrayed in the rhetorical question: "You who read me, are you sure of understanding my language?"
The relevant gap here is, interestingly enough, is the same gap that we mentioned regarding faith: The Kantian gap between the phenomenon and the noumenon. For Kant, epistemology defines ontology, according to his transcendental idealism. Moreover, Reason constrains us to that which is bounded to our immediate understanding, to phenomenon. Imagine if the noumenal form of, say, your lover is also his exact phenomenal form: He is exactly the same not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, &c., &c. Regardless, it is still the phenomenal form that is relevant to your interactions, because it is the part that is integrated into your "phenomenal totality," or the interrelated totality of your experience.
The unknown author fails to completely comprehend the nature of this All, although his greatest concern is coming to terms with it. For example, he notes: "The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms." However, he does not seem to realize that not writing, as well, is already something that is present in the Library, given that the space is one of the 25 glyphs, and thus there certainly is a book that contains nothing. He is already a phantom in the guise of The All, or more specifically the meaning he attempts to find in what is more properly a meaningless, irrational multitude that cannot be integrated into rational discussion or inquiry.
This understanding of the nature of infinity brings us closer to at the same time understanding Kierkegaard's "fear and trembling" when confronting the idea of God. To Kierkegaard, God is a an ambiguous, extra-rational thing that is so completely beyond human understanding that his will is beyond even the rational: "In Abraham's case, duty is found in the doing of God's will, which is itself higher than the universal. His duty transcends the ethical" (Fear and Trembling). Ultimately, allegiance to this God can only be inferred subjectively, through a subjective act, a leap of faith, a fundamental choice of either/or that entails either complete submission or complete rejection:
A king's existence is demonstrated by way of subjection and submissiveness. Do you want to try and demonstrate that the king exists? Will you do so by offering a string of proofs, a series of arguments? No. If you are serious, you will demonstrate the king's existence by your submission, by the way you live. And so it is with demonstrating God's existence. It is accomplished not by proofs but by worship. Any other way is but a thinker's pious bungling. (Philosophical Fragments)
For Kierkegaard, this leap into submission is the natural outcome of accepting God as the irrational omnipotence. To accept him is to truly understand the irrational completeness of infinity—its complete divorce from rational understanding. For Kierkegaard, there is no coincidence between the Kantian phenomenon and noumenon. The gap is must be traversed by a leap of faith and is irreducible. Any type of compromise is simply not possible:
Each person must choose between God and the world, God and mammon. This is the eternal, unchangeable condition of choice that can never be evaded — no, never in all eternity. No one can say, "God and world, they are not, after all, so absolutely different. One can combine them both in one choice." This is to refrain from choosing. When there is a choice between two, then to want to choose both is just to shrink from the choice "to one's own destruction (Heb. 10:39). No one can say, "One can choose a little mammon and also God as well." No, it is presumptuous ridicule of God if someone thinks that only the preson who desires great wealth chooses mammon. Alas, the person who insists on having a penny without God, wants to have a penny all for himself. He hereby chooses mammon. A penny is enough, the choice is made, he has chosen mammon; that it is little makes not the slightest difference. (Either/Or)
In both Borges and Kierkegaard, we witness a surrender to the infinite. For the unknown author, knowing that the Library is "unlimited and cyclical" remains his elegant hope. For Kierkegaard, the infinite is that which is God himself. In both, the infinite is the irrational multitude, whose omnipotence or omniscience produces a paradoxical epitemological and ontological gap from the limits of human Reason based on identity and contradiction. The most important thing to remember is the irrationality of the infinite, its separation from rationality. All too often we witness elaborations of God, his nature, what he is supposed to do and not do. Yet an infinite being cannot be grasped by the finite mind. "Inter finitum et infinitum non est pro-portio."
Thus, we confront the ultimate question: How do we deal with infinity, with the "All"? Do we witness infinity, ever? I answer yes, as radical contingency, as the massive opening up of possibility, such that the world is changed in all its aspects (given the inseparable nature of epistemology and ontology), in what Badiou called The Event. And as in the infinity discussed such radical contingencies (which take place only in four areas: art, science, politics, and love) are capable of God-like infinity that is divorced from human reason. More on this soon.
While on the toilet I read Jeneatte Winterson's "The Lives of Saints" (TLS) and I wasn't really expecting much. Not because Winterson isn't a good writer. She has to be one of the best writers of what we may call "postmodern fiction." It's just that I don't get her. Perhaps I just don't have an affinity for stories that are purely formly exercises. I don't know if that's fair to say, but that's how I experience the stories of hers that I've heard. But I really liked TLS. I do have a few misigivings about the writing. Occasionally, Winterson goes consciously postmodern and tries to give us metaphors that I think are too sentimental. At one point, she writes: "She fed me on boiled cabbage. I have heard it is a cure for gout." The character doesn't have gout or anything. She just says that out of nowhere. I suppose the sponteneity is postmodern, and that this is supposed to be some kind of "contingent rupture that shows the totalitarian nature of self-referential text and the lines of flight that can be built to escape." But I just don't like it.
What I do like, however, is the meaningful nature of the structure Winterson employs for the story. Understanding the story without taking particular note of the structure is impossible, and all you'd be left with is a rather weird love story. You can easily mistake it for self-serving pretentiousness, if one only reads it for the content of the text. In true postmodern fashion, the structure of the text—the story as story, as syuzhet, is one of the primary sources of meaning, with some of the contents of the story there only as placeholders (as in the cure for gout above), which is like when you put tape in the shape of an X on windows just to indicate that the opening is not empty.
The story is ostensibly about how the narrator falls in love with a girl, Jane, who visits a nearby shop. The sex of the narrator is not revealed, but we will assume the narrator is female, after Winterson. The narrator begins following her. She stalks her, and in doing so slowly walks closer and closer to her until eventually they become lovers. Jane tells her a story of how she fell in love with a servant where she used to live with her husband, and she became pregnant. The servant decided to leave and asked that she come with her. Jane refused, and lived with her husband without speaking of the incident ever again. She also refuses to speak from that point onward, until presumbly she meets the narrator. They spend a night in Jane's house. After this Jane avoids him, until finally she departs forever.
The key to reading the story is the title and the declaration made by the narrator immediately after she and the girl begin speaking:
In the lives of saints I look for confirmation of excess. To them it is not strange to spend nights on a mountain or to forgo food. For them, the visionary and the ordinary coincide. Above all, they have no domestic virtues, preferring intesity to comfort. Despite their inhospitable ways, they ferment with life, like those bleak railway cuttings that host horizontal dandelions. They know there is no passion without pain.
In this quotation, Winterson tells us, as herself, as writer, rather than the narrator, her agenda: The purpose of the story is to discuss the problem of the saint as "excess." The saint, this passage proposes, is constituted by the dialectical tension between the "visionary" and the "ordinary," between "intensity" and "comfort," between "inhospitable ways" and "life." The substance that binds the contradiction together, their synthesis, is passion through pain. This tension she calls "excess."
The most apparent answer to this problem is the conjunction of the girl's confession regarding being impregnated by the male servant and the dream-like world that takes the place of the old one. The confession, the revelation, is the juncture that demarcates the "real" world of the "ordinary house" and the "saintly," hagiographic world with the "castle protected by a moat." Then, this new world collapses when she leaves. However, although the narrator has "returned" to the real world, her vision of the saintly world remains:
Could it be true that [she] was now walking into a small house full of everyday things? Was it not more likely that she would disappear into her magic kingdom and leave me on the other side of the water, my throat clogged with feelings that resist words?
An interesting thing about this story, however, is that it is easy to miss the prior act of "sin," which is only revealed as sin when one recognizes the transformative power of sin that is more apparently shown in the juncture above. When the narrator falls in love with Jane and begins following her around, the story turns immediately more surreal. She follows Jane as she walks around town, and even cuts a dangling thread from her skirt, without Jane noticing. They also get to know each other when the narrator walks in step with her, after following her around, and even then it takes some time for Jane to notice her. This more subtle transformation retroactively constitutes, through the internal logic of the story, the act of falling in love with Jane a sin, although a sin that is not as potent as sex, which is Jane's sin that causes a more significant and persistent transformation.
This subtle retroactive effect is what makes the story. It is proof of the consistency of the story and therefore bolsters the power of the climactic encounter. This also separates the narrator from Jane, as the narrator's love for Jane just falls short of excess—it required much more to bring about the excess that brings about sainthood through sin, although the effect remains.
The narrator discusses the experience phenomenologically, through the lens of experience as she has experienced it, rather than through reality, through "what actually happened":
Time is not constant. Time in stories least of all. Anyone can fall asleep and lose generations in their dreams. The night I spent with her has taken up my whole life and now I live attached to my life like a codicil.
The epiphany here, like the treatment of storywriting, is structural. The lesson that the narrator learned is about the nature of stories, of memories, and of epiphanies: That reality can become disjunctive and broken, that time is not constant, and what is actually an ordinary house can become a castle. This epiephany I feel is very generic for the genre and for the style. In the ending paragraph, she also tells us that there is more contained in such stories than what can be revealed: A commonplace of stories, especially postmodern stories, that is so well-worn it hardly merits interpretation. For this reason I do not regard this epiphany as the true defining point of this story. The climax is so generic that I am tempted to say that, in this piece, it serves no function apart from being a placeholder, so that the story exists as a story, and the primarily source of meaning in this story is instead the internal logic vis-a-vis sin and transformation.
In this story, the sin of the saint is that which merits the hagiography, and in this sense is indistinguishable from goodness. The point is that both extreme good and extreme evil are forms of excess. It is the excess, the lack of domestic virtues, that creates the saint, regardless of the content of this excess: The infinite complexity of such excess exceeds "ordinary things." We are left with the insurmountable ambiguity of the "excess," of the stain, of what Lacan might call the objet petit a.In attempting to translate it into our common understanding, we may describe it as an ordinary house or a castle. Regardless, there is more than we can describe. All we have, rather, are generic stories and generic epiphanies. However, even in such a state of incalculable complexity, we can still obtain some measure of understanding, through the structure and internal logic possessed by the contingent elements, as one "sees" magnetic fields only through the non-spontaneous ordering of iron filings.
The only sentence of the final paragraph says: "All stories end here." Again, Winterson shows that the story is purely performative, and what we should notice instead is the structure it assumes. The beginning, middle, and end are all typical, but how do the elements and concepts relate to each other, and what are the characteristics of these relationships? Stories are limited, as Winterson claims, but it is possible to manipulate the form, to "hack" it, so to speak. Doing so brings about new possibilities for meaning that can bring about, in turn, new ways of framing our own understanding.
"...the historical sense involves a perception, not
only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical
sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his
bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe
from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country
has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This
historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the
temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes
a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer
most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity."
—T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
—T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1921)
Writers tend to be solitary. This is because to create a written
work requires an extraordinary amount of time alone, an extraordinary
amount of introspection, and an extraordinary amount of patience.
Whereas non-writers carry around with them a heart, a brain, a spleen,
and a set of kidneys, writers at their best carry around with them
entire cosmos in which stories take place. And more often than not
writers tend to curve inward, in terms of the trajectory of their lives,
most of the time, and more than a few times this has led to catastrophe
for them: Hemingway, Capote, Carver, Thompson, &c., &c., all writers who
met their demise by being trapped within black holes of their own making. Today, I read on Reddit about black holes. The common conception is that they
"suck" you in. Obviously, this is inaccurate. For one, there is no air in
space, and suction involves fluid moving towards a region with lower pressure.
Rather, in black holes, once you go past the "event horizon," spacetime itself
curves towards the singularity. That is to say, even if you find a way to
go the other direction, that path will only lead you back to that thing you
sought to escape—that is to say, escape itself becomes only the process of
getting more entrapped. That, I think, is illustrative, as well, of the most original meaning
of "tragedy," in the Greek sense. The "reversal of fortunes" (peripetiea) as
a result of things becoming known (anagnorisis) take place because of some
internal flaw (hamartia): Consider Oedipus and his hubris, which initiates
the action of him being king (the killing of the king of Thebes) as well as
his downfall (the fact that the king he killed was in fact his father).
Interestingly enough, his father also caused his own downfall: By leaving
Oedipus for dead because of a prophecy that he will be killed by his own son,
he unwittingly provided the conditions for the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The path to avoiding their fate only led them back to it, and hamartia is the
exploding star that creates the inescapable void. The gift of the writer I think is one such hamartia: The powers of
observation, of putting things into the written word, of probing the human
mind, of posing questions, all of these are brilliant until the moment the star
collapses in on itself, and the light is consumed by a darkness that even the
brightest light cannot escape. This ambiguity fascinates me. It shows that
Hegel, and those in the tradition of Heraclitus before him, was fundamnetally
correct: Within a thing is its own opposite, that a concept is sustained by
its own internal contradiction. And at one point or another, the contradiction
produces a kind of transcendence, which both destroys and preserves it: That
is to say, that which destroyed the writers mentioned above is also that
which preserves them—not their tragic death, but their contributions to
literature and culture. I also reread T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual
Talent. I used to profoundly hate this essay, and equated the
Tradition mentioned in it as a kind of fascismus, or a monument upon
which the unorganized fascist tendencies of a group of people may
precipitate into actuality (given that, in the words of Gilles Deleuze
and Felix Guattari: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just
waiting to crystallize"). In my undergraduate thesis I equated Tradition as
it was used in that essay with the Lacanian big Other, which is a complex
concept that relates mostly to the radical alterity of the individual subject
to the system of signs that constitutes that subject's language. This
impenetrable alterity does not exist, but is postulated through our
interactions and experiences: "Le grand Autre n'existe pas." But the pursuit
for meaning usually centers around figures who claim access to this big Other,
and the power that this figure then attains at times lead humanity towards
catastrophe. So what I basically said in my thesis is that T.S. Eliot claims
access to the big Other qua Tradition. However, after revisiting
it, I am realizing that perhaps I was too harsh with my assessment. I
don't think T.S. Eliot was claiming special, privileged access; he was
merely describing the necessarily-existing big Other. He does not say
that he can somehow decipher messages from beyond that would grant us a
total understanding of our world, nor does he claim (he's not silly
enough to do this, of course) that he embodies it. Rather, he
illuminates the relationship of the subject with this alterity that,
even though it is completely and impenetrably different from the
individual subject (or talent). Eliot notes that the past forms the precedent that is the
foundation for the further creation of meaning:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning
alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his
relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you
must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this
as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The
necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided;
what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens
simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded
Today, I read on Reddit about black holes. The common conception is that they "suck" you in. Obviously, this is inaccurate. For one, there is no air in space, and suction involves fluid moving towards a region with lower pressure. Rather, in black holes, once you go past the "event horizon," spacetime itself curves towards the singularity. That is to say, even if you find a way to go the other direction, that path will only lead you back to that thing you sought to escape—that is to say, escape itself becomes only the process of getting more entrapped.
That, I think, is illustrative, as well, of the most original meaning of "tragedy," in the Greek sense. The "reversal of fortunes" (peripetiea) as a result of things becoming known (anagnorisis) take place because of some internal flaw (hamartia): Consider Oedipus and his hubris, which initiates the action of him being king (the killing of the king of Thebes) as well as his downfall (the fact that the king he killed was in fact his father). Interestingly enough, his father also caused his own downfall: By leaving Oedipus for dead because of a prophecy that he will be killed by his own son, he unwittingly provided the conditions for the fulfillment of the prophecy. The path to avoiding their fate only led them back to it, and hamartia is the exploding star that creates the inescapable void.
The gift of the writer I think is one such hamartia: The powers of observation, of putting things into the written word, of probing the human mind, of posing questions, all of these are brilliant until the moment the star collapses in on itself, and the light is consumed by a darkness that even the brightest light cannot escape. This ambiguity fascinates me. It shows that Hegel, and those in the tradition of Heraclitus before him, was fundamnetally correct: Within a thing is its own opposite, that a concept is sustained by its own internal contradiction. And at one point or another, the contradiction produces a kind of transcendence, which both destroys and preserves it: That is to say, that which destroyed the writers mentioned above is also that which preserves them—not their tragic death, but their contributions to literature and culture.
I also reread T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent. I used to profoundly hate this essay, and equated the Tradition mentioned in it as a kind of fascismus, or a monument upon which the unorganized fascist tendencies of a group of people may precipitate into actuality (given that, in the words of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize"). In my undergraduate thesis I equated Tradition as it was used in that essay with the Lacanian big Other, which is a complex concept that relates mostly to the radical alterity of the individual subject to the system of signs that constitutes that subject's language. This impenetrable alterity does not exist, but is postulated through our interactions and experiences: "Le grand Autre n'existe pas." But the pursuit for meaning usually centers around figures who claim access to this big Other, and the power that this figure then attains at times lead humanity towards catastrophe.
So what I basically said in my thesis is that T.S. Eliot claims access to the big Other qua Tradition. However, after revisiting it, I am realizing that perhaps I was too harsh with my assessment. I don't think T.S. Eliot was claiming special, privileged access; he was merely describing the necessarily-existing big Other. He does not say that he can somehow decipher messages from beyond that would grant us a total understanding of our world, nor does he claim (he's not silly enough to do this, of course) that he embodies it. Rather, he illuminates the relationship of the subject with this alterity that, even though it is completely and impenetrably different from the individual subject (or talent).
Eliot notes that the past forms the precedent that is the foundation for the further creation of meaning:
I agree. Just as the word of a sentence gains meaning through that before it, so does the past necessarily inform the meaning of the present. This process is necessary if language is to be shared between at least two subjectivities: The two subjects must have a shared locus of meaning (Nietzsche's "third sphere" between Subject and World) from which meaning is both derived and expressed, so that, says Eliot, it represents emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet." Generally, we call this locus the big Other. Within the specific realm of literature, we may call it Tradition.
He expresses the "radical alterity" of Tradition from the individual subject thusly:
The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.
It is all too common, especially for younger writers, to speak of breaking from Tradition, because of their boredom with it, or because they think it is pretentious (a charge discussed by Eliot himself). However, in doing so, especially without understanding the function of Tradition in ordinary discourse, they also create works that are lacking in technical ability as well as in an understanding of the conventions that would develop through the assessment and criticism of the past, so that present works may be improved:
...the mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of "personality," not being necessarily more interesting, or having "more to say," but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.
The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.
Thus, the writer, both pratically as in obtaining conventions and techniques, as well as theoretically, as in speaking from the third locus in which language takes place, is indeed beholden to Tradition as the subject is beholden to Language (as Lacan's "parlêtre"). Given that, as I've discussed in the previous post, I still believe in literature as the pursuit for Truth, then I consider this essay essential to understanding how that effort may be achieved in view of universality.
Finally, I'd like to point out some issues. Although the writer certainly communicates, even with himself, through the big Other, it would be a mistake to subsume identity to the big Other altogether, although this is possible when one suffers from hysteria. For normally functioning subjects, the interaction between the big Other is one of constant dialectical tension, of interaction and in the best case critical examination. However, Eliot somehow thinks that the process of engaging with Tradition involves subsuming one's self in it: "What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." He repeats this in his closing paragraph: "And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done."
The problem with this, of course, is that although the big Other functions as a kind of "regulatory idea" and a postulated entity through the realities of language, it does not actually exist. In the process of this self-sacrifice, the writer will find himself not transcending into some type of higher state that is the culmination of both the past and the present. Rather, he simply finds himself extinct: Less "among the dead" and more simply dead. There has to be a minimum gap between the subject and the big Other, the individual talent and Tradition for the two to function: Literature is not the result of the tension between the individual talent and Tradition but the tension itself.
Eliot himself seems to discuss the importance of this tension:
If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of “sublimity” misses the mark. For it is not the “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.
That is to say, that the process of manipulating the "medium," that which he later calls the "structural drama," is more important than the content, whether it be the greatness, emotions, or components. Moreover, the question of subsuming the subject in the big Other is further put into question when Eliot noted above that the writer has no personality to express, since that would mean as well that the writer has no self to sacrifice. I could only surmise that T.S. Eliot was only making a poetic flourish. His ideas remain consistent when these two instances are discarded. My objection is therefore properly summarized by his quotation of Aristotle's De Anima (which, in true Eliot fashion he quotes in Greek): "For surely the mind is something more divine and not subject to external impression." He probably meant the "collective mind" that constitutes Tradition, but I believe it in the original context of Aristotle. The subject persists despite its reliance and necessity to the big Other.
In my youth, I discarded the entire thing rather than only these two passages. It makes me wonder if in the future I'll regard the thing completely as true. In any case, I find much merit in the essay now, for the description of the relationship of the writer to Tradition, although not without a few misgivings. The most important among my complaints I think is the complete discard for the subjectivity of the writer. It does exist, even if Eliot calls for its complete renunciation. Perhaps this is what happened to the Tragic figures I mentioned above, those who killed themselves in the pursuit for literary Truth: They sacrificed themselves at the altar of the Word, to that which does not exist. Although one does not subsume one's self entirely to the Other, one does compromise, and on occasion perhaps compromise too much. Now, they are among the dead to which they formerly only compared themselves.
"What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art, which lack artistic quality, have no force, however progressive they are politically. Therefore, we oppose both works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the 'poster and slogan style' which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power. On questions of literature and art we must carry on a struggle on two fronts."
For no good reason, I'm working on an erotic science fiction piece. I have a crush on somebody I've never met, and I think that maybe I'm using this entire episode as some kind of catharsis--and I'm completely okay with that, because at least I'm writing, which is something I consider productive, or at least more productive than my more usual habits (none of them reputable). Anyway, to write the thing better I've decided to look up examples of sex scenes in all kinds of literature, including pulp and genre fiction.
There was a beautiful time when people used to read to pass the time, and I don't just mean Henry Miller and Nobokov and Kafka. We had a more transcient and trash kind of literature called pulp fiction, named after the wood pulp they used for the cheap, recycled paper of the magazines where these kinds of stories appeared. These didn't really survive because they were a kind of throwaway fiction, which you consumed to satisfy a desire (mostly to ward away boredom, but also sexual desire and the desire for violence/gore). No one expected them to be preserved for posterity, or to be studied by scholar for their literary merits. If they are considered today, it is mostly because of their effect on pop fiction.
When something is made to satisfy, we tend to throw them away or use them until they are gone, or else we consider it a waste. On the other hand, a piece of art can be satisfying but that's beside the point. Ultimately it has to be beautiful, or truthful, or important. If it also happens to be satisfying, then that's good. A great number of them are not, though. I'm tempted to say this kind of attitude is correlated with capitalist mechanisms. If you throw something away, you'll need to buy a new one. If you want something that you don't throw away, you're going to have to buy the more expensive model. But in pre-capitalist societies you rarely bought something you intended to throw away afterwards. It also helped that productive powers were not as great then, and materials were more difficult to come by. Anyway, my point is that pulp fiction was written to satisfy needs, rather than, say, to explore the meaning of human existence or untangle the complexities of human emotion. In pulps, you get an exciting story and you're through. To ask of it any more is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of the thing. So, if literature must be beautiful, truthful, or important, although it can be occasionally satisfying, pulp fiction must be satisfying, although it can be occasionally beautiful, truthful, or important.
I have no illusions regard my attitude towards pulp fiction. I feel the obsessive need to rebel against the establishment, stemming both from an authentic philosophical conviction as well as a childhood spent in Catholic school. I am fascinated by the body, and by the fulfillment of its desires. More importantly, I am fascinated by the prohibition against it. However, I also have no illusions about the question of what I call "actual, objective merit" in art. Actual, objective merit exists, and some written works are not as worthy of attention as others. The Universal Thing to which all actually-existing literature are shadows T.S. Eliot once called Tradition (to which, in his famous essay, the "Individual Talent" must surrender himself), and I believe in universals, not in the way that I believe in, say, that the pyramids of Giza or the way that I believe in the nose in front of my face. I believe in it in the same way that I believe in justice, or equality, or freedom. It is not a passive belief--as in, I believe in it because there it is--but an active one, which is made true through the collected effects of human subjectivities and their values.
To that end, my project wasn't really to imitate pulp fiction as it was to gather the tools they used and use it for what I hope would be an authentic literary project. So I looked up a variety of pulp fiction--or, more broadly, what I'd call "literature of convenience"--especially erotica, contrasted them with more literary treatements of sex, and tried to characterize them, in the hopes that doing so would provide me with devices I can use for my own fiction, which would be a type of dialectical synthesis between the "literature of merit" and the "literature of convenience."
What I found actually is just how strange sex is treated in literary fiction. Usually, the characters start by kissing, hugging, or whatever, and then suddenly the scene explodes into a torrent of metaphors and abstractions. Even the most modern novels did this, and most recently I encountered it on my own in Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. Even in the famous Tropic of Cancer the sex takes place within a framework of surrealism, rather than as an actual act:
At night when I look at Boris' goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces...
This metaphorical nature maybe makes sense given that when you have sex the actual machinations are secondary to what those thrusts, and kisses, and occasionally slapping (if you're cool), and feelings mean. The specifics would be pleasurable and satisfying to read, but as we've established that's not the domain of the literature of merit. And I think that sucks, honestly, especially when we're living in a society where sexual interaction is beginning to become more and more meaningful in a positive sense. I would even go so far as to say that novels that do not involve sexuality, especially when discussing human society and psychology, approach falsehood.
I would go so far as to say that the idea that the literature of merit does not necessarily need to be satisfying is intrinsically linked to the aversion of the Judeo-Abrahamic tradition of the "sacred" nature of the body, with the unresolved dialectic that involves its transcendent origin as well as its immanent worthlessness and sinfulness. We're ready for an aufhebung of this dialectic, a synthesis that both transcends and preserves these two related but differing ideas. The concreteness of the sexual encounter, I believe, can be just as meaningful as any objective correlative, and not in terms of what they could mean or what they could evoke, but as a meditation on the pleasure that we feel when we have sex or for that matter when we read about sexual encounters.
In integrating frank, straightforward, and even prosaiac descriptions of sexuality we may find ourselves technically lacking, but I sincerely think that the sexual encounters in pulp fiction, although not the most refined, and in some cases just very, very bad, can be used as a foundation for our understanding of how to pull of the sex scene in terms of technique, with particular attention to the physicality as well as the satisfaction of the reader, and the satisfaction as a legitimate reaction to the piece.
Most of the time, we are led into discussions of what is "legitimate" and what is "illegitimate" in art. My good friend and fellow degenerate ~solar and I just the other day had a conversation about "outsider" art. The common objection to this is the apparent fallacy of the dichotomy: Who, exactly, decides what is legitimate and what isn't? And given the absence of such authority how then do we decide the criteria for what is legitimate and illegitimate, outsider art and just "art"? The most common attitude about this question is that the very trascendent, immaterial concept of "Legitimacy" is fundamentally flawed, inconsistent, and false. I have two objections to this popular view.
First, to deny the existence of "good" and "bad" art at the most fundamental is to accept that, for example, Twilight can possibly be good literature--that, in the logical parlance, "there is at least one possible world" in which that is true. To some, this is perfectly conceivable. However, given my understanding of literature as not merely intellectual (and therefore prone to relativism) but sensual, then this possible world would need to have humans that are different in terms of biological and evolutionary characteristics. T.S. Eliot once remarked that he didn't like it when he was asked what his poems "meant"–-what was important is what the poems, the arranged sounds and associations within and between the words, that mattered. Thus, if people remain people as we know it in these "possible worlds," we can safely say that this cannot be the case. Given that there is at least one book that is necessarily inferior to others (regardless if there are other novels that are worse) then we can say that there does appear to be a hierarchy in terms of merit.
Second, literature continues to be the search for Truth, which I continue to believe is universal. I accept that some truths are local, and even subjective, but I still believe in the project of achieving universal, egalitarian Truth. This is not a matter of metaphysics, either. This Truth is not a transcendental, otherworldly idea, but an immanent, assertive belief (as above) that I think is intimately tied with our identity as humans. I echo Augustin in believing that there is only deformed good. All humans share the value of freedom, egalitarianism, equality, &c., &c., not only because we have evolutionary functions that have tended us psychologically towards these values but also because we have built a civilization that is dependent on them. History shows that we are moving towards the more widespread, concrete, and consistent fulfillment of these values, and every time we act against these values we come closer to ending our civilization as a whole.
With this in mind, we cannot make a case for saying pulp fiction is literature, equivocating them as if literary merit is merely a political, discursive game. However, we can learn from pulp fiction in creating our literature, especially as we begin to integrate sexuality in fiction and continue the tradition of taking part in the sensual experiences of the reader through the experience of the written word. I am about 5,000 words into my "erotic space opera." Yes, I'm aware the proper term is "planetary romance." I'm also aware that Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black is writing an erotic space opera. Maybe she'll do better than me. Actually, she probably will. But that won't stop me.
The accusation has been levied against us repetaedly, a lie told with such fervor that it ceases to become an observation and takes on rather the appearance of an axiom, of a dimensionless point in space that exists only in virtuality: That communism is a utopian affair, and by that very fact impossible. How, one can ask, can man live in perfect equality with his neighbor? How shall we live in a totalitarian state? How shall we work without pay, and live without money? Surely, such a state cannot exist.
Comrades, today we confront the meaning of utopia everywhere, and we pursue it with the relentleness of a man deluded of hiw own abilities and the abilities of the world in which he lives: We ask how man can live in equality, when we neglect to ask how we can allow most of our fellow man to live in squalor. We ask how man can live in a totalitarian state, when our governments engage in perpetual imperialist war, the support for which is derived from the confounding ideology of neo-liberalism. We ask how a man can work without pay, when we exploit the working class of the world to maintain our material existence. Surely, such a state cannot continue to exist and when we observe the existential crises that plague our civilization and our planet, we can only come to the conclusion that utopias should not be regarded as so impossible as we already live in one!
The possible and the impossible are rarely if ever within the domain of human understanding: How impossible was it, for example, to accomplish many years ago that which we accomplish today as a matter of course? The possible is merely an interpretation of the limits of our capabilty to comprehend the world in which we live and our capacity to change it. This is not to say all things are possible–-the first person to say this is free to impale himself and tell me it is impossible for him to perish. Rather, this is to say that apart from the empirical realities we are never sure of what is possible and therefore barring this we cannot in the same token say what is impossible. The category fails to be useful, loses its meaning when it is confronted with its opposite, and thus emerges the third category: That of the imminent, of what is already always there, always in the process of becoming: When one is asked when a grain of sand becomes a heap, the answer is that there was never simply a grain of sand nor was there after simply a heap, for in the process of becoming the grain of sand was always a heap-in-process, an imminent heap contained within a grain of sand, neither possible nor impossible.