Sunday, May 23rd, 2004
I have been distracted, a bit, from Heart of Darkness by the book which Ed Antoine gave me for my birthday present; it is The Myth of the Eternal Return: or, Cosmos and History, by Mircea Eliade. I can't quite tell yet, what is the nature of the book; its prose is the very dense essay style that makes me reluctant to read philosophy (though I believe its genre is probably sociology). But this is a book that I am judging by (a) its cover and (b) the fact that Ed gave it to me, as worth spending some time being puzzled by.
The moment I saw the title I had a pretty fully formed thought along the lines of, "Cool -- he is going to investigate how different early cultures came up with the idea of a cyclical cosmos, and how that relates to being human." -- I know -- a lot to come up with from 10 words, 5 of which are articles, conjunctions or prepositions -- still, Ed assured me that I was on the right track with that supposition. And that investigation is interesting to me; so I am trying to get on board with Eliade's difficult prose.
So far, a lot of what he is saying seems like pretty intuitive ideas backed up with historical research. One thing that I liked: he was talking about how cultures would tend to think of unknown territory as being part of the chaos that preceded creation, and when they conquered or explored new territory would perform rituals that made it part of the created universe; at one point on page 15, he writes, "...the temple or sacred city is always the meeting point of the three cosmic regions: heaven, earth, and hell." And that made me start thinking about how if "hell" is the chaos outside our knowledge, and "heaven" is Platonic forms, i.e. pure knowledge, then "earth" is the imposition of forms onto the unknown, is reality which we can dominate by naming.
Wednesday, May 26th, 2004
As noted below, my memory of reading the book from 15 years ago suggested that the whole body of the story is Marlowe's journey upriver, and the final scene is his arrival at the Inner Station to find Kurtz dead. In this fantasy Heart of Darkness, the final sentence of the novel is "Mistah Kurtz, he dead."
Needless to say, the actual book goes a little different -- I spent a little time while reading the middle third or so of it, trying to reconcile my expectations to the plot that was unfolding. I did not abandon them entirely until Marlowe actually met Kurtz; until then I was holding on to a thin thread of hope that his talk about their meeting was some kind of metaphor. This shows, I think, the danger of rereading something with expectations when your memory of it is so far gone, and suggests that I should reread it a second time -- it is after all quite short. So I think I will keep it along with me for a while yet. I am going to turn my attention to The Myth of the Eternal Return; but when that drags (as it will) I will have some backup reading on hand.
Thursday, May 27th, 2004
The Myth of Eternal Return -- Eliade's take on ritualistic behavior (or at least a subset of same) is that by reenacting segments of their culture's creation myth, people can extend the scope of their "created" cosmos to a new element of their reality -- e.g. a marriage or a new baby. On p. 24 he says, "... it is not merely a question of imitating an exemplary model... the principal consideration is the result of that hierogamy, i.e. the Cosmic creation." This seems like an interesting distinction to me.
Wednesday, June 9th, 2004
John Holbo has an interesting post up examining Bookslut's laws of adaptation, in which he includes this passage from Nietzsche's On the Use and Abuse of History for Life:
The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is. Even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy. Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming ... Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture. In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is ...
It seems to me like this could tie in pretty well with Eliade's stuff about transformation of history into myth as a way of forgetting. Though I am still not sure quite what Eliade (or Nietzsche) is getting at... -- and sorry, yes, about posting such cryptic notes on my reading of this book -- I am finding it kind of mystifying. In particular I can't really get a sense of the book as an essay -- he is cataloguing a lot of disparate observations that seem somehow to be related but is not (as yet) doing the work of pulling them together in a way that I can recognize. But perhaps in the last half of the work it will start to cohere. I do find the disparate observations quite intriguing.
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.
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