31 October 2012

Where I stand with regard to the game

[courtesy of CJM III]

At first I played the game
as I was given to play the game.
I played without grace, without pretense-
I played with pure joy, and with a brutality all my own.
I played the game without understanding
that there was a game.
This could not continue.
I could not help but be taken in by the other,
by the warmth of their casual concern.
I had great potential for grace, they said,
so I gave myself to them.
I learned how to hold a pretense,
how to hold myself in check,
and in my play there gradually arose
a kind of grace, a swift intelligence about the game.
This could not continue.
Pretense gave rise to grace, I gathered,
and so I held myself even more firmly in check.
I withdrew as powerfully as I had first played.
The game went on around me
and I taught myself to keep out of it-
I taught myself to watch.
To demonstrate my decided detachment,
I began to describe the game.
At first, the lay of the field,
the way the weather came,
and how the light made the mood
in which the players were given to play.
Then i described the players themselves,
the waxing and waning of their graces,
and the shouts that seemed to be the glory
of certain residency, of certain vacancy.
The shouts, that is, that defied description.
I turned away from them-
turned away from my failure to describe them-
turned instead to the rules of the game,
which everyone had to admit
had never really been clarified.
How is the field of play bounded,
and how is this binding productive of zones within itself?
And the techniques the players make use of-
what is legal and what is not?
How should the children,
who soon enough will begin to play,
move out onto the field?
There was room for wisdom such as mine
to make itself known-to make fresh remarks.
In clarifying the rules of the game,
I no longer felt graceful, exactly,
but I did feel as though I was developing a clarity
in which the graces of the extant players
would have to be more apparent-
more accessible, if you will.
I also felt that, as long as I was clarifying
the rules of the game, I could not be blamed
for my failure to describe the shouts of the players.
As I worked, the game went on, of course,
untouched by my efforts.
As I poured forth my eloquent logics
and settled fine points never before addressed,
it was as though the players were not listening.
I felt, at first, that this was not of any consequence-
the players, in the midst of play,
could not reasonably be expected to listen to me.
I realized, however, as time went by,
and as my work became
an increasingly undeniable success,
that even those who were not playing,
those who, like myself, were content to watch-
even those were not at all interested
in making the amendments to the rules
that my hard and subtle work made prescient.
This irked me.
I began to ask myself why I continued with my work.
I began to write less about the rules of the game
and more about why I felt the need to clarify said rules.
The question of play arose-
the question, that is, of whether or not
I should have ever stopped playing,
and the question of whether or not
it would be possible to resume play,
to play now.
I began to speculate, from the incredible distance
I had worked years to create
about the potential benefits of a life of play.
Such speculation only proved the distance
I had worked so many years to create.
If I was to resume play-
if I was to abandon everything I had ever worked for
in favor of again embracing a life of play-
there could be no graceful approach.
There could be no speculation.
There would have to be something new,
something defying description.
There would have to be
a complete and hopeless destruction
of every grace, every distance.
And that is where I stand.

-Joe Wenderoth

21 October 2012

Thought Process Sample

1.  Thoughts about beginning, about the arbitrary assignment of "1" to this entry, about the triteness of these observations, about their circularity, about whether it is probable that I will ever get out of this loop of meditations on origin and stop trying to re-express the first line of Mann's Joseph und seine Brüder.

2.  Thoughts about German, about my inadequacy at speaking, reading, writing, understanding German, about the possible difference between my perception of my ability and the actual thing, that this difference might be, probably is a consequence of my lack of practice: the less certain my estimate of my german skills is, the more likely it is that they're worse than I think they are.

3.  Thoughts about the ground of probability, about inferences based on facts, about the way absolute limits shape dispersed fields of possibility, about the reality of possibility and its simultaneous lack of reality.

4.  Thoughts about whether I just heard a fire alarm go off, about whether the house is on fire, about what would happen were the house on fire, about the length of time it would take me to resolve to emerge from my room in the case of fire, to determine whether there was a fire, about whether I would be forced to jump from the window, about the height of that jump, about the difficulty of opening the window in the first place.

5.  Memories of high school and removing the cover from a fire alarm accidentally during gym class in a show of bravado and being relieved that the actual alarm had not gone off but only a local warning signal which stopped when I replaced the cover.  Memories of the pain of gym class, of the kid in my class who two years later was expelled from school...

6.  Pause for a moment to reread what has been recorded, to think about the rhythm of these lists, of the linear cohesion and diversity of the content of these thoughts, thoughts about self-satisfaction and how foolish it is.

7.  Memories of an earlier train of thought from today, in which I deliberated over the fine line between the worst vice and the greatest virtue.  About whether most people wrestle with the recognition of their own inadequacies, about whether my satisfaction at this thought was ironic...  Presently, whether I was conscious then of the recursion into which I was slipping.

8.  Memories of reading Kierkegaard and squeezing myself down into the infinite and infinitessimal tubes of self-consciousness, seeing how many layers I could maintain.  Thoughts about cabon nanotubes and that mysterious word beginning with "f" that describes the physical tube-structure I'm trying to remember.  Fus--? Fusil--?

8.  Exasperation at the stupidity of present thoughts.  Another pause to reread.

9.  Thoughts about scandal and the structure of scandal, about whether what the English Dominican Fathers translated as "shamefacedness" in the Summa is really a passion and not the act of a virtue?  About how pride can be an act of daring that banishes shame.  But perhaps this is called pertinacity and is not truly pride.

10.  Feelings of pervasive drowsiness, in my fingers, in my diaphragm, in the back of my neck.  Memories of a headache or the idea of a headache.  When?  Where?  Perhaps it was a dream.  Memories of the certainty of life in dreams that dissolves upon waking.  Thoughts about the effects of inebriation on the certitude one has with regard to one's present state.  Thoughts about the professions of happiness given by the drugged and how horrifying they are, how they disclose the danger of pleasure: that satisfaction in the flesh is a lie made possible only bye an extraordinary blindness of the mind.

11.  Thoughts about sustaining thoughts, about the form of this record, about at what point pauses and edits become dishonest.  The coldness of my feet, the feeling of my lower back, the general sense of sinking that accompanies drowsiness.

12.  Pause to check facebook.  Flash of a remembered thought, which then vanishes.  Why I am not afraid of being like Charlie Kaufmann?  No.  The futility of trying to remember.

13.  Hints of the lost thought.  Memories of failed communication, of sadness, of anxiety. Memories fade away.  Memories of Ken Burns documentaries, of the music in The Civil War.  Thoughts about watching it again.  Unlikely.

Vengeance Trio

These must be my three favorite Wagnerian singers.


20 October 2012


How much of modern fiction is just a record of that middle section of life's journey where the true path is lost and we are hounded by disordered passions?  And where does it lead?

16 October 2012


[I wrote the following short story for a fiction class in college.  Though it is in many ways a mess, I think the ideas are solid and even, toward the end, well-expressed.]


Feb 7th
     Oh, Jeanne,  it's all a mistake.  Me, you, this letter.  Today I was walking home through the cold and I felt for once the absurdity of trying to escape it.  I am becoming a part of the cold. Even when I go inside and warm up with a cup of tea, it's still there deep down, resting against my diaphragm, giving its occasional groans and denials to all my livelier inclinations.
     I watch more and more television, Jeanne.  The people who lived here before didn't want to go through the pain of moving their old forty-inch TV, so it was left to me.  It probably weighs half a ton.  What a creature, this TV.  You turn it on and it gives out that high pitched sound that makes you feel okay.  I swear the thing has a personality and this is its way of saying hello to me.  The nights here are so desolate and sad.  The snow's been gone for a month now, but it's still only fourteen degrees outside, with wind chills below zero.  Sun sets before I get home.  I eat in darkness and watch Wheel of Fortune.
     I'm out of words.  I don't know if I'll mail this to you.  Maybe.
Feb 9th
     Considering we haven't spoken in about two years, I guess it was silly of me to start things up again with that letter.  I was in a bit of a funk, but your Christmas card was there in my mail, and I needed something to reply to.  Merry Christmas, anyway.
     Yesterday I overheard this girl Rachel at work talking about how she likes to light candles when she takes a bath and how warm and happy they make everything look.  So I decided to buy some candles.  The best they had at Walgreens were prayer candles, and I got a few.  (Francis, Michael, Jesus, Guadalupe)  They're a little odd, and I feel like an old Catholic lady, but it's surprising how much of a difference they make.  I'm not quite as cold, though I think the wind has found a way to get through my windows.  I made a big pot of chicken soup tonight (lots of carrots) and watched PBS.  They're doing fundraising and Anne of Green Gables was on for the fifth or sixth time this week. 
Ugh, Jeanne, I have a hard time believing that I'm not a fundamentally boring human being.  I bet you're never wracked with guilt over writing someone a letter.  I suppose that makes me crazy.  But I have to wonder, what do people write letters about?  Probably not about what they ate for dinner or how they bought some candles at the drug store.  My fingers are tired.  I'm going to stop now.


Feb 10th
Dear Jeanne,
    I'm going to continue writing, at least until you reply or I run out of things to tell you.  I took a little expedition today after work and went to the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue.  It's a very sterile building.  Ugly concrete face with a glass interior.  I don't have a computer at home, you know.  No, you don't know.  Well, I don't have one because about five months ago I realized the total futility of the thing.  I spend most of the day working in front of one, checking email, working on reports, etc.  When I talk to my family, I prefer the phone.  I don't bother with people from work outside the office much.  Which is to say, five months ago my crappy old laptop finally crashed, and the irritation of losing all the data I'd stored on it made me resolve not to get a replacement.  I told myself I was going to live a real (as opposed to virtual) life.  That's when I started watching TV.
     Back to the Apple Store.  It's a bit like a tomb, now that I think about it: a cold stone casing that encloses a mass of fleshless white fragments.  That's a stupid metaphor, though.  This is all stupid.  Why am I writing to you, of all people?  At this point I have to admit that you're little more than imaginary to me.  All my memories of our time together in college have crystallized into a little Jeanne figurine.  It's brittle and transparent and every now and then I take it out of the cabinet of memorial knickknacks and stare at it for a while.  You seem to shrink every time I think about you.  Or it's not that you're shrinking exactly, but that the number of cuts the artist made on the crystal decreases, so that you've become rougher and more caricaturish with time.  When I handle my memories, my fingers smear away the details.  (I'm waxing philosophical.  Ridiculous.)
     Ugh, but I can't escape it.  I might as well be writing to an imaginary friend.  This line of thought is becoming irritating.  Whatever the case, someone is getting these letters.  Well, after several months trying to replace the glories of glossy bright LCD screens with an old cathode ray tube and cheap antenna, I've noticed something.      I don't like the shiny candy machines.  They're creepy, to be direct about it.  (I can already tell this is going to take a while to explain.  But you can burn it all if you want.)  When you look at a Monet painting, there are a couple of great things about it:  first there's the color, but that's not so interesting.  The thing that really gets you is its suggestive power.  Here's a collection of colored strokes on a canvas that someone could never mistake for a REAL haystack or a REAL pond, but which capture something about seeing the haystack and the pond better than the most anal hyperrealism.  The messiness does something that sharp detail ruins.  There’s a story I heard once about a kid in the fifties who was asked what he thought about television, and he replied that he preferred radio, “because the pictures are better.” 
     That's not entirely what I'm getting at.  My sister started at Northwestern last fall, and she lives in these screens.  I visited her in October to see the trees shedding in Evanston and make sure she was settling in alright, and I'm now convinced that she experiences the world as a series of brief, highly coordinated emergences from a virtual sea.  She spent half of our walk along the lakefront staring down into her hands.  What did she miss?  The breeze in the trees, the colored leaves, the sound and sight of the lake.  What’s the point of all this nitpicky environmentalism if you’re just going to live inside a flat panel display? 
      In my own lifetime I've seen things change to the point where my friendships exist mostly through screens.  Seeing people face to face is awkward and somehow different.  There's a Henry Fischer I've been working with for several months now.  We communicate probably three or four times a day, but I've seen the man once in my life and heard his voice less than ten times.  I would barely be able to pick him out in an elevator.
     What's wrong with LCDs?  Have you ever noticed that when you're in a bar with people your eyes are always drawn to the screen?  But that's not all.  What I really felt today is how much these machines overflow with pretty possibilities.  I could live an entire, well-ordered, painless and enjoyable life in one.  Perfect independence.  No one could ever make me unhappy.  It’s horrifying. Who wants that?Martin
Feb 11th
Dear Wanda,
     Your name occurred to me earlier.  I thought to myself, "Oh, Wanda! How you delight me!"  We've never met, of course, but my name is Martinus Blibberus.  You, (Alas! A thousand sorrows!) don't exist.
With utmost sincerity,

Feb 11th
Dearest Jeanne,
     I'm back.  Unfortunately I purchased a rather large number of stamps.  Notice the nifty latin quotations on the envelope?  I took some time off to look them up at work today.  I've just finished writing to my new friend Wanda.  I'm nuts, I know it.  But the idea of writing to someone totally imaginary was too much to pass up.  I'm including the letter for your amusement. Yours, lovingly,

Feb 12th
     What I really like about my TV is how bad the image is.  You have to fight to watch anything other than PBS and ABC.  And even when I've got a perfect image, it's still clearly just a TV.  The technological frailty of the thing makes me remember that somewhere someone is sitting awkwardly in front of a camera in order to communicate this worthless information about school closings.  And with the snow tonight, they're almost not getting through.
So, I've got a story to tell again today.  Let's hope it turns out better than my last one. 

ACT I (Scene:  Martin lives in a reasonably posh neighborhood just north of downtown Chicago.  The apartment he occupies alone consists of two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and three other rooms of varying size.  We can see the kitchen only through a doorway upstage.  A stove is in view, behind a small table.  To the fore we have the main living space, filled with various small tables, an easy chair, a desk, and a large old TV, manufactured sometime in the early 1990s.  Overall, the place is poorly furnished.  Aside from the easy chair and television, which are undeniably solid, everything exudes an air of frail ephemerality (without being ugly).  Plain, spindly coffee tables, the odd magazine on the floor, etc. Tall, white candles in jars of various colors are scattered throughout the room on all surfaces.  About half of them are lit, but all have been used.  Several stand atop the TV, each with an image of some saint on it.  Martin sits at his desk, writing.  He is in his mid-thirties, shriveled and pathetic except for his body, which is clearly over-nourished and well attended to.  He is wrapped in a synthetic fleece blanket, back to the audience.  The TV is on, but too low to hear.  It is the primary source of light in the room, and its flickering colors complement the candles.  Martin clears his throat, as if preparing to speak…)
That was fun.  But I won't write it as a play.  It doesn't happen here anyway.  After I wrote to you the first time, I decided it was time to give in and start taking the train to work.  I'd been walking all the way between Lincoln Park and the Loop twice a day.  It's about a mile and a half.  Sometimes my face would get so cold that warming up just made it feel colder.  Anyway, my passion for braving extreme weather finally died sometime in early January, and since then I've just kept going out of habit.  Until three days ago.
I hated the El when I first took it because it's dirty and loud and full of nutjobs who urinate on the seats regularly.  Maybe they don't, but the thing reeks for some reason or another.  Aside from these facts and its particular inefficiency, the CTA is like any other major transit system.  You sit down and do your best not to stare at people who are doing their best not to stare at you.  All but a few ears are plugged into deafeningly loud hip-hop music.  A dozen men in suits clutch at their blackberries like manic squirrels.  Toothless man sitting in front of me is muttering accusations at the empty seat in front of him.  Despite my complaints about Toothless's bladder control issues, he's kind of amusing.  I like him better than the twitching berry-pinchers, at least.  Eh, I've lost the thread, and I'm getting tired.  
I'll finish tomorrow.


Feb 13th
Dear Jeanne,
Just did some grocery shopping, and I've decided on a way of telling you my story without getting distracted.  Oh, but it's too late already.  Telling a story efficiently is almost impossible.  There are too many details to get lost in, too many ideas and problems that get in the way.  Let me try it in five simple sentences.
1.  Yesterday I bought a magazine.
2.  A woman sold me the magazine.
3.  She is...
4.  Once I went to church.
5.  It's the same way.
Now here's the full thing.  I once read somewhere that reality is iconoclastic.  That's nonsense, Jeanne, and today I know why.  Yesterday I bought a magazine.  I needed something to stare at on the El, and there's a newsstand on North Avenue that I walk by on my way to the train.  Whenever I'd taken the train in the past, this newsstand was inhabited by a half deflated old black guy with a voice I could barely understand.  Yesterday I bought some reading material to stare at on the train, but my withered friend had been replaced.  A woman sold me the magazine instead.  I'm guessing she's his daughter or something, but the replacement struck me.  And not just the change, but the girl.  She is...
How do I explain it?  A few years back, when I was still living in Cleveland, there was an old Russian Orthodox church on my street.  I used to drive past it all the time.  Well, one week I went inside.  There was a lot of incense and chanting, like something out of the middle ages.  When I think back on it, it was beautiful, Jeanne.  Those people belonged there, and there was a kind of seamless unity to what they were doing, though at the time I felt confused and felt out of place.  I remember that whenever anyone came in, they always went up to this little icon of Jesus and kissed it.  Everyone did it, even the little kids.  It was just an icon, a really unrealistic looking painting of someone they'd never met.  So, what am I going to pull out of this?  Well, I don't know.  Back to my newsstand girl.  She asked me what she could get for me, gave me a copy of LIFE, and returned the change from my ten.  And I thanked her.  I guess that's the whole story.  Somehow it reminded me of that time in church.  The dots remain sadly disconnected.  Tomorrow I'll try again.


Feb 15th
There's an excellent story I remember from when I was little.  A prophet is tired of preaching and he goes out into the desert to complain to God.  He wanders for a long time and ends up in a cave.  Then God passes by the cave.  First there's a powerful wind that tears the rocks and fills the air with dust, but God is not in the wind.  Then there's an earthquake that shakes the whole region, but God isn't in that either.  Last there's a whisper, gentle and barely audible, and this is the voice of God.  And the prophet goes out and speaks with God.
She wears large hoop earrings and a white puffy coat.  There is an excess of eyeshadow.  Two-inch nail extensions on each index finger.  Jeanne, nothing is happening in my life.  My candles are burning, the TV is playing.  Local news anchors are droning on and on.  I'm powerless to make anything happen in my life.  Just too tired.


My TV broke today.  This leaves me with none of the usual modern modes of entertainment.  I took all the candles and set them in a circle around me on the floor and lay face down for a while.  There aren't any images left to stare at except these letters I'm writing to you.  Jeanne, I don't want to burden you with my stupid thoughts, but I guess I'm going to anyway.
I love the girl at the magazine stand.  Not erotically, but because of the way she sees me, as if not distracted by my swollen settled look.  I'm not the insane guy who has a hazardous number of devotional candles burning in his living room or who writes boring, self-obsessive letters to people he's barely friends with anymore.  She sees me and I think she must love me too.
That's not what I was getting at before with the icon story from Cleveland.  Those kids didn't just see a poorly-done painting.  The real meaning of it is whatever shone through the image.  That's what the children encountered when they kissed it, not a bunch of pigment on a wood panel.  What really got me Tuesday morning was how, on the edge of becoming merely another crystal figurine, she hovered for a moment and came back.  Just as I was about to see her the way I see every stranger, I saw her seeing me.  It's so cheesy, Jeanne, it's about to kill me.  But somehow she was intensely there in that moment; we were in life together.  I don't know this girl, just like I don't know the berry-pinchers on the train or that irritating cashier in Walgreens who smirks at my purchases.  But, for lack of a better expression, we saw into each other.  I walked the rest of the way to the train that day with a rare sense of the crispness of life.  It vanished pretty quickly, but I've been buying a magazine every day since.


P.S.  Knowing people.  Is  that it?  No, that's not it.  The weird thing isn't that you can't love the people you know, but that it could be possible to see as a person someone you don't know, and miss out entirely on the people you know well.  Does that make sense?

     I've started boiling water in a pot, to replace the TV-sound.  It warms things up a little and makes me feel like I've got company.  Somehow my companions are becoming more primitive:  Laptop, TV, now plain water.  If you ever write back, I bet you'll tell me I need a girlfriend.  That's easy enough to say.  Show me someone who's willing to put up with my whiny self-absorption all the time. 
     I mentioned that your letters are the only images left, but that's not quite true.  There are still the candles with their little saint pictures.  I wonder if anyone's ever thought of the possibility that people themselves are images.  That's more or less what I wanted to say about my magazine girl.  She is just an image, but an image that points to something hidden and unfathomable.  When I tell her I wish I had her coat and she smiles back, something much more alive than mascara or nail polish is bubbling up from the depths and moistening the dry Chicago air. 
I keep saying these letters are images, and somehow I've been thinking of them as images of you, Jeanne.  It's stupid of me, because obviously they're images of me.  I can't see myself in them because everything I say about myself is obvious, and therefore even more transparent than what I say about you.  I no longer have any notion of what it would be like to read these letters.  The figurine of myself has been worn down to nothing from all my handling of it.
    But what is it that's boiling up when I see her?  Right now she's the best part of my day.  If only I could see everyone else this way.  I wish my life were filled with this mysterious thing.


I received the volume of Kierkegaard today, together with the matches and the Don Paterson poem.  Given the cold, I'll obviously burn the former (a single sheet of paper wouldn’t warm me much, and it’s too fine a poem to burn).  I'm taking your package as a reply. It’s a good one.
With love,

12 October 2012

Nietzsche's Self-Critique

[The following was written for a seminar on Nietzsche with Karsten Harries in late 2010.]

Modern philosophy is fraught with methodological problems. This is evident even from the beginning of the enlightenment, in that text which established the problematic which was to govern the development of European philosophy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Descartes’ Discourse on Method.  Descartes’ primary question—how should I use my reason to discover the truth?—haunts us even to this day.  This question develops and is transformed throughout the early modern period, but perhaps its most striking transformation—a transformation therefore of the very method and form of modern philosophy—is undertaken late in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s stylistic development from his early to more advanced works reflects a shift in his methodology. Thus, to see why Nietzsche disapproves, in his “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” of the form of The Birth of Tragedy, calling it “an impossible book” and leveling against it a number of criticisms including that it is “image-mad” and “disdainful of proof,” one must examine Nietzsche’s methodological development in the context of modern philosophy at large.  In this essay we will see how Nietzsche’s shift in method reflects an abandonment of the Cartesian problematic and a rebellion (perfected in the later works) against the standards of enlightenment rationalistic inquiry.

We begin with Descartes.  It is quite clear from his works and the scrupulosity with which he sought approval from Church authorities that Descartes did not see himself as a rebel.  His seminal Meditations on First Philosophy claims in its Introduction to be merely a compilation of existing arguments for the existence of God and immortality of the soul.  However, it is highly tempting for us to read Descartes as a philosophical counterpart to Martin Luther, i.e. as an intellectual rebel.  In a way, the association between Luther and Descartes is highly appropriate, because they share a similar set of problems.  Luther’s proclamation at the Diet of Worms, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders,” establishes the same transformation in Christian theology that Descartes inadvertently establishes in Christian philosophy.  Through the history of Christianity, it had been standard practice to appeal to the Church Fathers for support in one’s arguments, just as it had become customary in Scholastic philosophy to appeal to Aristotle as an ultimate authority.  All appeals to authority, however, have now been ruled out.

What is this transformation that eliminates all authority?  For Descartes (we must leave Luther behind), it grows out of a fairly small and simple argumentative trick.  Warming himself by his fire, it occurs to him that perhaps there are substantive claims which even the most radical skeptic cannot deny.  Perhaps, thinks Descartes, if we isolate these indubitable truths, we can use them to erect a new philosophical system, one with greater precision and clarity than the old Scholastic labyrinth of his Jesuit schoolmasters.  And so he sets up a method for doing philosophy.  First, accept the skeptic’s challenge and sift away all but the most necessary, indubitable truths.  Second, once these truths have been isolated, develop and extend them into a system.  This is the project of modern rationalism: to find an adamantine foundational principle and build upon it stone by stone until one establishes an indestructible belief system.  It is a new understanding of Christ’s idea of building upon the rock.

Descartes’ project faces problems from the beginning.  His reasoning from dubito to sum does not satisfy the skepticism that precedes it, and his arguments for God and the external world are far from indubitable.  Moreover, the task of encompassing the entire world through a logical extension of sum seems as difficult as erecting a pyramid upside down so that it rests only on the capstone.  Mere logic and appeals to “self-evidence”, “clarity” or “distinctness” seem insufficient to bind one stone on the next and prevent the whole structure from falling apart.  And indeed it does fall apart.  The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are littered with philosophical systems based on this Cartesian methodology, each different in some way from the last.  Even the empiricists begin (as their name indicates) with a skeptical outlook on the world, and though when they are finished they reclaim far less of our old knowledge than the rationalists, the only forms of evidence they admit are reason and sensible intuition.  Dubito and cogito are the first principles of enlightenment philosophy, and both verbs remain solidly in the first person singular.

With Kant, however, the broadest ambitions of the rationalists are reined in and the Cartesian project begins to lose sway.  Where his predecessors saw philosophy’s task as systematically rediscovering the world, Kant sees the fundamental project of philosophy as determining the bounds of reason.  In his “Transcendental Doctrine of Method” at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason, he places “What can I know?” first among the three fundamental questions of philosophy.  His system still takes shape as an answer to the skeptic’s challenge, but he ends up surrendering the Ding an sich, the world as it is in itself, to his opponent.  Kant claims to prove that the skeptic is right to a significant degree: we can never really know the world of mere things; all we have access to are phenomena.  After Kant, the fruitfulness of the Cartesian approach to philosophy is open to question and much of the nineteenth century in philosophy is spent testing and re-imagining the limits of reason and its relevance to human life.

Into this post-Kantian world falls the young Nietzsche.  Nietzsche, unlike Kant and his successors, is not a professional philosopher, but a philologist, and so his work does not begin as a systematic philosophical construction but as a historical-critical analysis.  It is clear that Nietzsche considers himself separate from the body of philosophers, but also that he is universally recognized today not only as a philosopher but as one of the most influential in the past two centuries.  But what sort of philosopher is he, and how does his work relate to the philosophical problematic of his predecessors?

We should note first of all that Nietzsche enters the philosophical scene obliquely.  He does not enter by the gate of metaphysics or dialectic, but takes a particular lesson from history and draws out of it a diagnosis for his own time.  In The Birth of Tragedy we see the roots of the famous Nietzschean “genealogy”, which was to achieve its greatest form in the Genealogy of Morality and later to be revived and developed by Michel Foucault.  However, The Birth of Tragedy is not yet a proper genealogy, since it examines something Nietzsche thinks the West has lost, rather than deconstructing a dominant concept or aspect of our mores.  Here Nietzsche celebrates the achievement of the Greeks in its own right, and suggests that tragedy is being reborn in the work of Richard Wagner.

To understand why Nietzsche was later dissatisfied with this “impossible” book, it is important to consider the task of The Birth of Tragedy as it finds its place within his corpus.  It is quite clear that the purpose of the book is not to explore the historical origins of Attic tragedy.  In other words, it is not properly a work of philology.  The ideas it stirs up in its deepest moments go far beyond the scope of classical history or even German high romantic opera.  They strike against the very core of European bourgeois culture, of Christianity, of western self-understanding during the modern era.  But what is the form of the book?  It is an academic essay made up of about two dozen chapters, each of which moves through some aspect of the subject--a book with so much energy and passion that it thrusts well beyond its ostensible purpose and into an ill-defined void of metaphysical inquiry.  But where does the excess fall, if not in philology?  If we understand The Birth of Tragedy instead as a work of philosophy, it is a strange one.  It lacks an argument, not only logically, but also in terms of its final message.  What are we to take from this short essay but the music and images of its rhetoric?  Certainly not just a deeper understanding of the Greeks.  But how could it claim to give us some greater vision of ourselves either?

Thus Nietzsche critiques his early work, calling it “badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof … an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude  … the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk.’”  Much emphasis is placed on the lack of logical cleanliness, which extends to The Birth of Tragedy’s “image madness” and “disdain of proof.”  And yet, when we look at Nietzsche’s later works, works written close to the composition of the “Self-Criticism” and even those written later, we see a similar disdain of proof, a similar preference for image over argument.  Zarathustra, after all, is merely a collage of highly metaphorical sermons and aphorisms about man’s place in the world.  How, then, are we to understand this critique? Is Nietzsche simply inconsistent?

The key is in noting the shift in Nietzsche’s project between The Birth of Tragedy and the later works.  Here the essay is ostensibly the work of a classical philologist, a young professor attempting to contribute to his field.  This is not a book primarily concerned with philosophy or philosophers, and though it engages Schopenhauer on many points, it is still (imperfectly) centered on the Greeks.  The later works focus much more on the present day, the west in its modernity, issues of morality and truth at the hands of the philosophers and priests.  And so we should not confine our understanding of Nietzsche’s criticisms to a narrowly “Analytic” or even Enlightenment conception of logical cleanliness or order of imagery, especially since it is clear from the beginning that Nietzsche believes the logic of modernity to be fundamentally life-denying.  Rather, logical cleanliness is to be understood as the adherence to an ordered mythos which is capable of structuring the observations and evaluations given in a text.  Successful argument (here Nietzsche rescues argument from the paradox of analysis and restores it to its roots in rhetoric) is the successful incorporation of phenomena into a conceptual scheme.  When Nietzsche suggests, in On the Genealogy of Morality, that we must reexamine the value of our values, he gives us access to the secret of his method.  This question of the value of values, just as his critique of the deceptiveness of truth, reflects a volatilizing activity which sees no deeper ground beneath the questions and answers given.  To put into question the very significance of transcendental concepts like truth and goodness is to laughingly throw away the phantom of the Kantian noumenon and self-consciously to break up and reconstitute the very order of things.  It is in this sense that Nietzsche is anti-metaphysical, as Heidegger would say.  He stands apart from entities in a solitary clearing where the evaluative role of language becomes evident and man’s dwelling in language itself becomes open to modification.

Nietzsche sees the possibility of transforming the mythos of the West, and thus the fault of The Birth of Tragedy is not that it has fallen short of being a stereotypically German philosophical essay, nor that it has somehow failed in an attempt to form proofs according to the standards of Descartes or Russell, but that the images and ideas, the mythic tendencies and overall the musicality of this little book are too unrestrained, too young and passionate, that they do not cohere and cannot adequately understand themselves.  In Zarathustra we learn the Overman; Zarathustra knows what he does in his sermons, sees how it is his own life which tears away at the structures of being, truth and value, and does not need to appeal to a god for it.  In the later works, Nietzsche has thrown off the weight of his academic appointment, expanded his critique of modernity, philosophy and Christianity, and has transformed his method accordingly.  He no longer writes essays, but aphorisms.  He no longer stands with any (Wagnerian) party against the main, but simply alone.  The critique of The Birth of Tragedy is a master’s critique of himself for ever allowing himself to have been an apprentice.  

It should be clear then, now Nietzsche’s methodological development completes the rejection of the Cartesian project of enlightenment epistemology.  Where the early moderns attempted to suspend reality and recover it, and Kant surrendered reality altogether, Nietzsche knows for his own part that the great man fashions reality himself, and, tearing apart the values and truth of the West, laughs as he performs his task.

10 October 2012

Truisms about Love

0. I love you because of who you are.
1. I love you despite your faults, because of your strengths.
2. I love you not despite your faults, but because of them.
3. I love you without reasons, beyond reasons.
4. I love you as the term of all desiring.
5. True love knows the other.
6. True love always discovers the other.
7. True love allows the other space for self-disclosure.
8. True love awaits the other without expectation.
9. True love is ignorant of the other, does not presume to know the other.
10. True love has as its object neither qualities, nor nature, but an unspecified supposit.
11. True love has no object.
12. True love is rapt.
13. True love, letting the other be, is disinterested.
14. True love lets the other be, as radically other.
15. True love is receptivity without reception.
16. True love is solitude, is the felt absence of the other.
17. In love the self is vacated.
18. In love the self goes out to join the other.
19. In love the self is dissolved.
20. In love the self welcomes another into itself.
21. In love the other is dissolved into the same.
22. In love there are no selves.
23. Those who love become one subject.
24. Those who love become the same subject.
25. Those who love are, separately, incomplete.
26.  Love is brutal acceptance.
27.  Love is total submission.
28.  Love is blind.
29.  Love is an emotion.
30.  Love is not an emotion.
31.  Love is sacred.
32.  Love should be spread around.
33.  etc.

[For the record, I think many of these are disordered, if not explicitly then in the pathos that underlies them.]

09 October 2012

Old Reflections on Eternal Sunshine

[I wrote the following for a seminar on Time in Spring 2010.  Mostly it's a tapestry of thoughts and citations.]


Before the beginning, there is a certain degree of indecision and anxiety.  Or perhaps we simply expect and receive.  In any case, depending on how we reckon time, or exactly what event rests under our consideration, Kant seems to have won from the start.  I am holding in my hands a plastic disk.  In my mind it is thoroughly atemporal, since it does not visibly change unless I act on it.  It is simple, revealing very little information.  I place the disk in my DVD player and begin.  A droning, untravelled voice comes out of northern Poland to ask about the conditions for the possibility of movie watching.  The spinning disk invisibly turns its perpetual return into a sequence of colors and sounds that have apparently nothing to do with that piece of plastic I held a moment ago.  Somehow the DVD player and television have joined together, have found in this sandwich of plastic and foil a memento of some event, and spend the evening mulling over the past.  I watch.

    Kant has won because we think of our movie watching equipment not as a group of reminiscing old men who have a story to tell, but as a collection of machines operating according to set parameters and algorithms.  Kant triumphs because the disk is το νουμενον, a non-movie which acts as the secondary, invisible cause of every event we see on screen.  Kant triumphs because this equipment has certain faculties, schemata, principles and synthetic functions through which non-visual, atemporal data — we must remember that the entire film can be represented as a single integer, an incredibly long sequence of 0s and 1s — is organized and systematically transformed into something capable of being intuited.  After all, intuition is that “to which all thought as a means is directed” (Critique of Pure Reason, ###), and intuition is what comes out of that disk in a surprising and abundant way.  Space and Time are merely the forms used to represent a number as something other than itself, and time is composed of a predetermined succession of phenomena — frame after frame — which are determined in their succession not only by the necessary coherence of the film itself, but also by the arrangement of data on the disc, which is not made up of frames, but which produces them according to the forms set out in advance for it to fill.  Kant triumphs quite easily over the question of movie watching, and with time to spare for his 4:15 stroll.

I took notes on the movie the last time I saw it.  Here are a few of them:

Eternal Sunshine    first viewing    he wakes    car drives off    headache  
strange pajamas    car dented    but he has his notebook
Impulsiveness as a yearning for the familiar in the unexpected
    first journal entry in two years    a lacuna in the journal
voices echo around the house he doesn’t remember        he knows none of her names
    The idea of these notes is to provide a map that would help me navigate the intellectual structure of the movie and find my way back to ideas I had once encountered.  I am a stranger to my own thoughts, since they exist for me only as I think them out.  We will return to this thought again in due course.

Kant breaks down the moment Patrick enters the film.  We have hints of the unexplainable already, as Joel knows no constellations and has never heard the song “Oh My Darling, Clementine”.  As soon as the Lacuna technician asks if he can help, the mood changes.  We are unsettled and confused, and suddenly it is dark outside and Joel is sobbing at the wheel of his car.  The viewer doesn’t know what the time relation is between the scene outside Clementine’s apartment and the one he is watching now, but Joel’s position is continuous between the two, suggesting that the one follows the other directly in time.  We find out only in the course of the film that the fade to black outside Clementine’s also takes us back more than two days.

The choice to erase Clementine takes place at the moment Joel swallows Mierzwiak’s sleeping pill.  From that point he has physically accepted the medicalization of his past and signed away his rights to the surgeon.

The erasure of memories seems at first to move in reverse temporal succession, but we quickly notice a few attributes of the process.  First, memories are deleted as isolated events.  The process of deletion is not like cutting portions of an audio tape (the way Kant would have us say), but like playing a very slow game of whack-a-mole.  Memories are always experienced running forward in time and they are always grouped in clusters.  These clusters are internally structured in a variety of different ways.  Sometimes they flow temporally from one major event to the next (with gaps), sometimes they follow causal chains backward or forward through time, and often the links are merely links of relevance: some feature of the current memory makes it similar in content to those near it.  Within a cluster, the transitions are generally as smooth as the relations between them are clear.

Mierzwiak’s explanation of the process captures correctly only the principle according to which memories are deleted.  We should keep in mind how he has experienced the procedure he performs.  His experience has been objectively distanced, and his description of the results of the procedure is a mix of poetry and good advertising.  The Lacuna technicians encounter memories as clusters of dots on a brain scan, and are able to associate these dots at best with a few mementos and anecdotes.  Hence they fail to understand the complexity of each cluster of dots in terms of its lived significance.  For Mierzwiak, the procedure is merely a matter of the targeted destruction of brain cells, each of which makes up part of the “emotional core” of a memory.

Heidegger says there is no possibility for singular equipment, because all equipment is interrelated to other equipment that forms an environmental structure for the working out of ends. We can think of memory deletion in the same way.  What if there were a single tool within an equipmental structure such that the elimination of that tool would render the rest of the structure insignificant?  Or a single element of an environment whose erasure would cause the entire environment to collapse?

The main links between memories are temporal.  We are always moving backwards from one major memory to the next, but in between these landmarks on the path through Joel’s past, there are detours.  Frequently a major memory will implicate half a dozen other memories, each of which is then targeted for deletion.  Stan, the primary Lacuna technician, sees these connections as lines drawn from one central dot to radiating dots at other locations in Joel’s brain.  Thus the movement for Stan from one memory to the next is smooth only insofar as it involves crossing a set of preestablished coordinates off his list.  These movements are the ones that are unsettling and sudden for Joel.  They are always cued by a short beep and involve an instantaneous change to a new environment, often bringing along now out-of-place remanants of the last memory.  However, between these major items on Stan’s list, there is the deletion of the pieces which constitute a memory cluster.  These are chaotic and unpredictable for Stan, and his computer has to direct him to the relevant areas of the brain in order for the work to continue.  So Mierzwiak’s description of deletion is ultimately incorrect, since it isn’t merely the “emotional core” which is being deleted, but the entire complex of memories, which are implicated by that core according to their meaningfulness for each other.  These relationships are very Heideggerian, since we frequently see Joel returning to the core memory during and after its deletion, and he can continue to do so as long as the set of related memories remains.  However, this is not completely evident until he begins to resist the procedure.

Deletion is frequently accompanied by a distortion or decay of the memory in question.  Sound and image fail to line up, images are blurred, lights shut off, particulars are whited out.  Each context is gradually wiped away until there is no longer a context for Joel’s mind to occupy, and he is forced (along with any remnants) into a new memory.

Outside of Joel’s head, another narrative develops.  Patrick is manipulating Clementine, voltage troubles, etc., but the narrative becomes really engaging only when Mary Svevo enters.  “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.”  What perfection we miss when we fail to recognize that this quote, section 217 from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, is followed immediately Joel’s paraphrase of section 169: “Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.”  The sarcasm latent in both of these thoughts is missed by each of the characters sharing them.  Mary sees 217 as pure optimism, while Joel is simply struggling to speak at all.

Joel paraphrases 169 — unintentionally, it seems — only in order to defend his inability to grasp and explain his life, to share it verbally and emotionally with Clementine.  What Clementine, whose very personality is the enacting of a crisis of self-consciousness — as revealed not only by her changing hair color, but also by her perpetual need to explain herself, and her concern that she is failing to take advantage of every available opportunity — misses in Joel is precisely what his experience of the operation proves to him, namely that his emotional life has consisted, for the better part of two years, in sharing his everyday existence with her.  Clementine’s need to reflect on the relationship shows a deeper uncertainty about that stability of others, which is reflected in her own instability.

“Isn’t it amazing what Howard gives to the world?  To let people begin again.  It’s beautiful.  You look at a baby and it’s so pure and so free and so clean; and adults are this mess of sadness and phobias; and Howard just makes it all go away.”

Mary has purchased wholesale Dr. Mierzwiak’s poetric vision of his work, according to which the operation allows one to begin again, completely from scratch.  What both of them miss is that the connections between memories are not exhausted by the neural scans performed during the procedure.  A whole part of someone’s life cannot be told in an hour or two, nor can it be sufficiently captured by a few mementos and journal entries.  There are no lone contexts, no isolated memory-clusters that stand independent of the rest of a person’s life.  As Heidegger says, Dasein is always already in the world, always already endowed with a facticity, and these vertical and horizontal super-contexts force relationships between every particular and every other.  When an arm is amputated, there is still the occasional tingling of the missing limb, projected out by the nervous system through our remaining flesh.

    Concerning Patrick’s strategy for winning Clementine’s heart.  There is a core of idiocy in imitating the actions of a man your girlfriend apparently disliked enough to have erased from her memory, but Patrick’s strategy fails in more interesting ways as well.  Whenever he brings some memento of Joel’s into use, Clementine gives him a glance of suspicion or irritation.  Something doesn’t make sense to her; something is missing in her understanding or herself, and her self-consciously tenuous grip on her identity magnifies this problem tremendously.  We compare Clementine’s post-operation behavior to Joel’s and notice that he wakes up feeling moderately depressed and confused, while she seems to be having a full nervous collapse.  Patrick’s imitations of Joel are disturbing to her not at all because they don’t fit him, but because they remind her of something she cannot remember, so that time spent with him is a forceful indication of that unnamed absence which threatens to undermine the overall coherence of her past.  He would do better not to remind her.

The rebellion against the procedure begins exactly half way through the movie.  53 minutes from the beginning, 53 minutes from the end.

    The way to thwart the procedure is to take advantage of its shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the procedure are the same as those of the man who devised it.  Mierzwiak does not understand the essential connectedness all memories, and hence doesn’t allow for the possibility of movement beyond those memories immediately evoked by the mementos and the oral account of Clementine.  Thus Joel can escape the reaches of the computer, and in the same way Clementine can still be plagued by feelings of confusion when according to Mierzwiak the destruction of the “emotional core” should have wiped away any sense that Joel ever existed.  When they meet again, something attracts her to him that was never present in any of the erased memories.  She knows him already, and their reunion is merely a continuation of what had already begun.

    One of the first things worth noticing in the movie is that, even though Joel cannot remember having written in his journal in two years, he still automatically brings it with him when he leaves for work in the morning.  What does this mean?  It’s a sign that our lives are constituted not only by specific memories, but also by habits.  We move not merely out of a conscious assessment of our position and history which directs us to act, but also out of habit.  It is the habit of knowing and loving Joel that cannot be fulfilled in Clementine after the erasure, and it is Joel’s longing to fulfill his habit of loving her that drives him out of the ordinary to Montauk on a snowy winter morning.  Impulsiveness in both of these cases is a quest for the familiar in the unexpected, driven by the failure of available mental structures to fill out one’s average everyday existence.

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
  The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
  Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
  Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd;
  Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
  "Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;"
  Desires compos'd, affections ever ev'n,
  Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav'n.
  Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
  And whisp'ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
  For her th' unfading rose of Eden blooms,
  And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
  For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
  For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
  To sounds of heav'nly harps she dies away,
  And melts in visions of eternal day.

    The quote from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” is a complaint on the part of Peter Abelard’s former lover Eloisa that she cannot forget him — that even though she is in a convent her love for him lives on.  She compares herself to a vestal virgin, who is able to abandon the world and forget everyone, and imagines the total freedom and happiness that would come from dedicating one’s life solely to God, detached from everyone and everything.  Mary Svevo’s appraoch to the procedure falls along similar lines.  She sees it as a restoration of innocence and freedom to lives burdened with the guilt of a past.  The approach is very Heideggerian, since Heidegger associates the past or “having-been” with guilt.  However, Heidegger would object to Mary’s idea of restored innocence precisely because it is necessary for human beings to have a past, since they are always already in the world.  In other words, we are not born innocent, but are born with death already looming ahead of us, and because of that fact the call of care (Schuldig!) isn’t far off.

    There is an obvious pessimism in Mary’s thought, as well.  She forgets that people grow from their trials, that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance hope.  The obvious reply to Nietzsche is “Woe to the forgetful, for they never learn from their mistakes.”  Better yet we might say

    But if Eloisa and Mary are right, if forgetting others is a good thing, then people are dispensible to a greater extent than ever before.  Lacuna represents the final invasion of the assembly line into our lives.  Not only are the parts of my computer replaceable, the computer itself, not only am I replaceable in my menial work which any of a million other people could do just as well, but even in my private life, the people I love are replaceable.  They cannot leave indelible marks; history is not set in stone; nothing has guaranteed significance.

    Of course, Mary changes her mind once she finds out about her own past.  Mary’s own life is a demonstration of the principle shown in Clementine’s post-operation difficulties.  Even when the memories are gone, something unexplicit remains which inclines us toward what we abandoned.  She in habitually inclined toward Mierzwiak, and furthermore is likely to develop another infatuation with him if she is denied the ability to learn from her experiences and left in the same situation in which she first became interested.

    The question of repetition arises.  The question arises — because the whole movie is a repetition, because memory is a repetition, and because we have to wonder whether the second time through things will be the same as they were before.  After all, how could they be different?  They even begin at Montauk again.

    They are different.  The second time around, Joel picks up Clementine for a ride even though she seems crazy.  He sticks with her, comes up for a drink, and calls her back when he gets home.  The second time around, Clementine switches from having the two of them pretend to be a married couple (which fails when he leaves), to telling him that they’re going to get married (to which he ultimately replies “I do.”)  The second time around is no mere repetition, but a continuation.  They meet each other in Montauk, just as planned in his dreams.  The erasure of their memories was no end to the relationship, but a lacuna in a much longer text.  We recall that passage from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, about how love abides:
Can anyone determine how the long silence must last before it can be said that now there is no more conversation?
Love abides.  In this way we see at the very end the joyful repetition of the same as the two leap happily along the beach at Montauk.  The get further away, and then suddenly are close again, but even though they backtrack a few times, they make progress.  The past is indelible, no matter how our memory of it may change.