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Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow

Orhan Pamuk

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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.

posted evening of July 23rd, 2004: Respond
➳ More posts about Friedrich Nietzsche

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.

posted evening of July 6th, 2004: Respond
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Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

Phrasing the question

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.

posted evening of June 29th, 2004: Respond
➳ More posts about The Myth of Eternal Return

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.

posted evening of June 24th, 2004: Respond

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.

More later.

*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.

posted evening of June 22nd, 2004: Respond

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.

posted evening of June 18th, 2004: Respond

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