Tuesday, July 15th, 2003
After finishing The Ginger Man (and not thinking too much of it) I need a new book for my commute reading -- looks like it will be Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring, which I started this morning. I think it is going to be a good one!
Last night on a lark, I picked up The Birth of Tragedy and read (for the manyth time) the forward -- it intrigues me and I may stick with it this time.
Thursday, July 17th, 2003
Today I finished The Beginning of Spring -- I felt curiously moved by the interaction between Frank and Selwyn in the next-to-last chapter, "curiously" because I could not understand quite how I was reacting. I got a sort of adrenaline rush -- though the book is not by any stretch a thriller -- and I felt totally alienated from Selwyn, much more so than I had throughout the book. Not in a particularly condemnatory way, I just thought, This guy is not from my planet.
The last chapter is total disintegration -- almost like the final third of Gravity's Rainbow in microcosm. And the ending did feel a bit like a tease.
A little later I picked up The Birth of Tragedy and started reading Nietzsche's forward to Wagner and wow! realized that it was written in Selwyn's voice. I'm not sure what to make of this realization but there it is. The first few pages of the first chapter are inspiring me to get back up on my Jaynesian hobby horse -- but I will read a bit further before I decide to subject you to that. My favorite quote from these first few pages is,
...but nature itself, long alienated or subjugated, rises again to celebrate the reconciliation with her prodigal son, man.
-- which I like in large part because every time I read it, it seems to me like Janis Joplin is speaking, and giving a different intonation to the final two words than that intended by the translator. (Who is, by the way, Francis Golffing of Bennington College; date of the translation is 1956.)
I have the evening to myself, as Ellen and Sylvia are visiting Uncle Kenny on the east end of Long Island; I think I will walk to town and have a drink. I will be joining them tomorrow so no blogging this weekend. (Not that that is unusual or anything, but still.)
Monday, July 21st, 2003
I read some more of The Birth of Tragedy this weekend and it prompted an almost unprecedented burst of note-taking -- the margins of the first 15 pages are now filled to overflowing. I am thinking a lot about dual and single worldviews -- how I find them attractive and how they are useful -- and intend to write a long post about it this evening.
I opened The Birth of Tragedy to the first page of the main text (i.e. not counting the Critical Backward Glance or the Foreword to Wagner) and read the following first sentence:
Much will be gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly — rather than merely ascertaining — that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality, even as the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation. [emphasis added, except "ascertaining" is emphasized in the original]
Well that sentence sort of knocked me for a loop. I will confess before I start laying this on you, that what I have come up with bears a bit of a tenuous relationship to this particular book, and is probably more pertinent (if still not that solidly so) to Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I am going to assume that you have read the latter, or have some knowledge of Jaynes' ideas.
What got me going is Nietzsche's formulation, "apprehending directly — rather than merely ascertaining" -- I have seen similar formulations before and never remarked on them -- the idea is pretty straightforward and familiar to me, and I would think to others as well. But look at the distinction -- what is implied is ('scuse me while I use my big words)1 a dualistic epistemology. There are two ways of knowing, at "first hand" and at "second hand", and the two are not necessarily closely related or part of the same process. And this is where I want to bring in Jaynes' idea of the bicameral mind.
Ascertaining, "coming to know", is different from knowing because it involves the willful intervention of the conscious mind. If I did not treat my conscious mind as a separate entity, there would be no need for such a distinction. My thinking is that this conscious "other" is the modern vestige of the bicameral voice Jaynes wrote about -- and I believe this fits in with what Nietzsche is writing about as well; I will talk about that when I write about the text.
What interests me right now, is dualism. I have felt for a long time that there is something wrong with dualistic metaphysics, and something right about monistic metaphics; but have never been able to explain to myself the common-sensical appeal of dualism. That is to say, both dualism and monism have attractive features but they will not fit together in the same box. But now I am realizing I can combine a monistic metaphysics with a dualistic psychology and end up with an extremely coherent world-view. (Why I should want such a thing is left open to question.)
1 I write about philosophy as a layman. Some concepts demand technical descriptions, which I use in the hope that I am not embarassing myself with misuse. Here are my understandings of terms I use here or plan to use in the near future:
- This needs an entry of its own, or several; but basically I'm talking about a worldview which splits the universe into two types of being, usually along the lines of "mental" and "physical". Think of Plato's theory of forms as a good representative.
- The opposite of dualism, the idea that everything in the universe is in one category or something like that.
- A statement or group of statements about what matter the universe is made up of.
- A statement or group of statements about what constitutes the human mind.
- A statement or group of statements about how the human mind can come to understand the universe.
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.-- Humpty-Dumpty
Friday, June 18th, 2004
Today I picked up and started reading Untimely Meditations -- specifically reading the second essay, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History in Life", which John Holbo made reference to a few days ago. I must say I'm blown away by the writing! Far from intimidatingly abstruse, this essay is positively engaging! This is the Cambridge edition, I'm not sure who the translator is because the book is not to hand right now, but it sure is well done.
My plan is to write a paper comparing the role of forgetting for Nietzsche's happy man, with the tribal groups in The Myth of the Eternal Return, who use forgetting as a way of turning their history into myth. (When I say this is my plan, be sure to take it with a grain of salt -- I have not written anything much longer than a page in years.) I have this idea that I've been working on since 1987 or so, about two different ways of visualizing time, that I think Nietzsche and Eliade may be good representatives of the two ways.
Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004
Here are some first attempts at phrasing some of the questions that I want to answer in my writing about Nietzsche and Eliade. All this is going to be quite disjointed for a while yet. I want to thank in advance, 3 people with whom I am corresponding about these ideas; they are Ed Antoine, who introduced me to Eliade; Kai Lorentzen, who has given me a lot of help with Nietzsche over the years; and Randolph Fritz, who is helping me examine my ideas a bit more closely for coherence than I am used to. Oh and of course, thanks to John Holbo for introducing me to "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life"*
How strongly does Nietzsche advocate living in the moment? My first impulse was to say that he favored it absolutely; but this is silly and wrong as he makes clear toward the front of the essay: "However, the fact that living requires the services of history must be just as clearly understood as the principle, which will be demonstrated later, that an excess of history harms the living person."
Building on and spinning off of the last question, to what extent is it proper to view Nietzsche (and Eliade) as advocates pro or contra history and memory? Nietzsche is clearly setting his essay up as an argument against "an excess of history"; and it's probably okay to take this at face value. But I was oversimplifying when I wrote to Randolph, "Note however that "losing [ones]elf in the stream of becoming" is bad by Nietzsche's lights." So this needs to be developed some more. Eliade on the other hand does not put himself forward as an advocate, or does not seem to me to do so.
*The translation I am reading is the Cambridge edition, translated by R. J. Hollingdale; however when I post quotations I will generally be using Ian Johnston's translation, which I think is not quite as well done but which is available online for cutting and pasting.
Thursday, June 24th, 2004
It occurs to me that a question that ought to be answered before I start writing this essay is, why am I writing it? What drew me to Eliade and to Nietzsche? What interests me so strongly about the notion of constructing history by forgetting events?
Thinking about this today, I came up with a tentative idea that I am interested in this because of my apocalyptic worldview -- for many years now I have lived with a fear or expectation that soon, within my lifetime, would come a major catastrophic event that would mark the end of this historical era (the era that has been in progress in the west since the beginning of the Renaissance). I have not always acknowledged this fear; but it has been present on some level at least all of my adult life. Could this be what draws me to the thesis I am working on now? Hard to say -- since I have not even formulated what the thesis is besides that it has something to do with history and with forgetting -- but I am going to take as a working hypothesis that at least a large part of my interest in these books stems from this fear.
While this is not going to be foremost in my thoughts approaching this essay, one potential side benefit of working on it should be a better understanding of the fear, and of its costs and benefits.
Tuesday, June 29th, 2004
On the train home today, I was rolling over in my mind ideas for the structure of the essay I want to write about the individual's experience of history. It's something like this: I first assume that Eliade's notion is an accurate description of how ancient peoples constructed their cosmos -- this notion can be broadly (and less than fully coherently) summarized as that by forgetting history, a culture can construct a world around itself along mythological lines. Then I introduce the conflict in Nietzsche between remembering and learning history, and forgetting history, living authentically in the present -- this too is a sloppy paraphrase but bear with me* -- and present how this can be seen as a nostalgic longing for the primitive world-view described by Eliade, and finally how this can be seen as a turning away from the primitive world-view described by Eliade. Another section that I am not sure where it should go in the essay or even if it belongs in the same essay, would treat Eliade's idea as romantic nostalgia projected onto prehistoric civilizations, and examine whether Nietzsche was laboring under the same misconceptions.
*It may be that in my writing, frequency of adverbs is a good rule-of-thumb measure for how hurriedly I am writing.
Tuesday, July 6th, 2004
Today I was reading chapters 5 and 6 of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and I came up with an idea, that may have some relevance to the essay I am hoping to write -- this work seems to feature a leitmotif of what I am calling "parallel opposites" -- a pair of phenomena which are contradictory but which arise from the same underlying process. For instance, consider the opening paragraph of chapter 5, where Nietzsche is listing the ways in which overreliance on history is harmful to life: two of these are, "it leads an age to imagine that it possesses the rarest of virtues, justice, and to a greater degree than any other age;" and, "it implants the belief... in the old age of mankind, ...that one is a latecomer and epigone." This might be a slight stretch; but these two dangers appear to me contradictory, since the latter (I would think) entails a belief in an ancient golden age, from which we have fallen.
Now let's look at the beginning of chapter 6, where Nietzsche is explaining the genesis of the first of the above dangers. In the course of this explanation he says,
Socrates considered it an illness close to insanity to imagine oneself in possession of a virtue and not to possess it. Certainly such conceit is more dangerous than the opposite delusion of being the victim of a fault or vice. Nietzsche does not come out and say as much, but both of these opposite delusions (in this context) would could be brought about by the same process. -- I need to develop what the nature of this process would be, and also to say something about how I find Nietzsche's argument here not totally coherent; once I lay this out I might be able to argue that he is stretching his point in order to work in this parallel opposites structure.
Friday, July 23rd, 2004
So I'm at a bit of a loss about what to do with this essay I've been talking about writing. I finished reading "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" this morning and, while I enjoyed it, it did not end up being about what I suspected it would be, when I started. At this point I think a critical essay comparing it with The Myth of the Eternal Return would not really be worth writing or reading.
So as I am contemplating, this evening, writing a post in which I abandon the idea of writing this piece, I open my e-mailbox and find therein a note from Randolph, in which he says he thinks I am close to "one of the great philosophical questions of our time" -- well with that kind of positive feedback how can I give up? This makes it seem like I should instead of criticizing Nietzsche, imitate him, and unabashedly write an essay about my idea of history. Do I dare? I must admit it seems a bit intimidating; particularly since I'm not sure what is this idea struggling to be had. So... I will continue to think about it and hopefully to write about it, and in time I hope to figure out what I am wanting to say.
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