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Author: Svetlana Yefimenko

Lie, Don’t Stop

Lie, Don’t Stop

Truth is good.  Lies are bad.  Right?

Oh, sure.  But why?  Think.  Re-think.  What’s so marvelous and wonderful and magical about the truth?  Why do we prefer The Truth?  Why is everyone, from philosophers to physicists to husbands who suspect their wives of infidelity, after truth?  Why not rather masks, charades, illusions, deceit, dissimulation?  Why not lies?

lies-liesAs usual, Nietzsche knows.  As it typical of him, he makes a grand and sweeping claim: “The falseness of a judgment is… not necessarily an objection to a judgment.”  Of course, in making this pronouncement, Nietzsche is aware that he is undermining a venerable philosophical tradition: the pursuit of truth.  Let’s explore how Nietzsche regards truth, particularly the relationship of truth to its seeming antithesis, falsehood, and how the two flourish only in reference to the underlying force of the will to power.

The philosophical pursuit of truth is traditionally grounded upon the assumption that the value and desirability of truth are self-evident.  It is precisely this value that Nietzsche challenges and calls into question: “Granted we want truth: why not rather untruth?  And uncertainty?  Even ignorance?”  In other words, Nietzsche is wondering what is so special about the truth such that it is preferred over its seeming antithesis, falsehood.  This wonderment is particularly relevant in light of two possibilities:

  1. Our most fundamental conceptions of the world and how it functions might very well be predicated upon false notions which are nevertheless useful.  Mathematics and physics, burdened with revealing the nature of reality, invoke synthetic a priori judgments in their observations and conclusions.  Nietzsche points out that they may very well be relying upon inabsolute ground, and although such judgments must nevertheless be believed, they “might of course still be false judgments!  Or more clearly, crudely and basically: synthetic judgments a priori should not ‘be possible’ at all…”
  2. Our most fundamental conceptions of the world might be no longer useful and might actually have become bad for us.

Despite humanity’s inability to definitively determine the truthfulness of our judgments, Nietzsche insists that human life would be impossible without them.  If humanity were to somehow discover that synthetic a priori judgments were false, that the conclusions of mathematics were meaningless nonsense, it would not therefore mean that such concepts should be discarded.  Their value lies not in their correspondence to reality, but in their necessity for human life.  Thus, even if such judgments were determined to be false, they would simply have to be reinvented in a different guise, and believed in anew: “for the purpose of preserving beings such as ourselves, such judgments must be believed to be true.”

The second consideration, that certain fundamental conceptions of the world may have negative consequences for the welfare of humanity, develops directly from the first.  If mankind’s most cherished avenues of knowledge, such as science and philosophy, can be predicated upon usefulness rather than truthfulness, then there is no reason to privilege truthfulness when it ceases to be useful.  “Something might be true although at the same time harmful and dangerous,” Nietzsche warns. Let’s say Albert Camus has a profound connection to his sense of self, he believes in the value of his subjectivity, he thinks his individual life is significant, and it inspires him to write beautiful fiction.  Then he encounters a scientist and a modern philosopher at a dinner party, who convey to him the latest developments in their respective fields.  The scientist explains to Camus that he is little more than swirling atoms, that his sense of self is entirely illusory, while the philosopher contributes to the conversation by proving that Camus cannot possibly possess free will.  Furthermore, let’s also say that both the scientist and the philosopher are correct, that everything they have concluded is absolutely true, and accurately corresponds to factual evidence.


Perhaps inspired by this enlightening information, Camus will go home and shoot himself.  Or, perhaps he will suffer and write The Plague.  The knowledge he gained is true, certainly.  However, Nietzsche urges us to disregard the accuracy of the knowledge for a moment, and ask a different question, instead: is Camus better off now that he knows these things?  The intuitive answer is: of course he is!  Why?  Well, because it is the truth!  The truth is valuable because it is the truth.  This tautology, however, is meaningless.  When the truth is determined to be that human subjects are empty voids, that they effectively do not exist, that their absurd lives have no meaning, it is no longer possible to live according to truth: “Think of a being such as nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions… think of indifference itself as a power.”

Nietzsche suggests that we set aside the notions of truth and accuracy, and instead investigate the values prompting a particular truth claim.  All pursuit of truth, whether scientific or philosophical, is motivated by the moral state of the pursuer, revealed through psychological investigation.  The dichotomous and seemingly empirical claims of “The universe has a purpose” and “The universe is the product of chance” conceal entirely different perspectives upon life itself, and betray the moral values of its adherents.  Of course, this is a very radical way to approach science and philosophy, which purport to transcend moral or psychological prejudice for the sake of objectivity, and reveal the world as it really is.  Whichever claim seems most objective, most refined of bias, Nietzsche reveals as “a confession on the part of its author… the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy have every time constituted the real germ of life out of which the entire plant has grown.”  There is a value system at the heart of every truth claim.  When the value system privileges truth at the expense of life, when the price paid for factual knowledge is nihilism, Nietzsche contends that it is the result of a degraded, decaying, and sick morality.  If the truth is not valuable in itself, what should it be valuable for?  For life, Nietzsche assures us.  When truth is regarded not as a fact achieved through detachment but a profoundly personal judgment passed upon existence through suffering and passion, such truth is itself subject to evaluation.  Within the bounds of this strange, new language, a judgment is true inasmuch as it intensifies experience, increasing joy and power, and false inasmuch as it perverts and decreases the sensation of life: “The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding…”  It is in this sense that Nietzsche can be regarded as an unmasker of judgments.  He is not interested in discovering which judgments correspond to an external world – science has a monopoly on that activity, already — but rather to find which psychological values motivate claims to truth.  If he can expose the unhealthy, life-denying tendencies concealed behind certain species of thought, it is possible that the fruits of his inquiry will illuminate the monstrosity of nihilism behind humanity’s most modern and reverenced convictions.

A perhaps predictable question arises: does Nietzsche intend to imply that preservation of life requires us to turn from science and philosophy and to embrace religions which assure us of our value and significance?  Of course not.  Nietzsche’s solution is much more nuanced.  He is not rejecting truth.  He is questioning its value, and its application.  It is perhaps possible to know and recognize, as the scientist knows and recognizes, the void beyond every entity, the indifference of Dionysian unity behind every Apollonian individuation, and nevertheless affirm life with the power of false judgments.  It is precisely because of the propensity to nihilism engendered by such truth that humanity must tell itself myths and stories, must invent beautiful deceptions, must in fact live aesthetically.  “Everything profound loves the mask,” Nietzsche tells us, perhaps invoking the notion that it is possible to recognize the indifferent wastefulness of nature, and yet not live according to it.  Creating powerful illusions, inventing meaning in a meaningless world, is synonymous with making false judgments.  One can know truth and serve life through illusion, contributing to artifice with artifice, one is capable of double, even triple allegiances, of multiple masks.  “Why could the world which is of any concern to us – not be a fiction?” Nietzsche asks.  Here, we might imagine a masquerade, an endless procession of costumes for the purpose of creating a beautiful spectacle, a ball worth living for.  Such masquerades are lies thrown into the face of nature, religions and mythologies erected as protective barriers against truth.  Behind the mask?  Values, for psychology to unravel. Behind the values?  The will to power.

Nietzsche removes the will to truth from philosophy’s pedestal and places life there, instead, achieved and maintained through a will to power.  Thus, Nietzsche advances the hypothesis that the entirety of the world, including every act and every entity, is the manifestation of the will to power, a kind of willful energy which seeks to release itself.  Regarding “all efficient force unequivocally as: will to power,” Nietzsche locates the will to power even in those weak and depraved sciences and philosophies which claim the nothingness of existence.  The philosophers who deny the significance of subjectivity, who insist that self is an illusion, who clamor that the universe is essentially a void – such creatures who “out of cruelty against oneself worship… nothingness” are actually revealed to be strong enough to overcome the momentous will to power.  However, in a quest for truth which leads them to deny the will and subsequently themselves, these philosophers of nothingness become nihilists because they reject the necessity of false judgments.  Modern scientists and philosophers are denying life with the religious fervor of practicing Hindus and Buddhists, who also attempt to transcend desire and self for the sake of communion with blissful nothingness.  Perhaps some version of truth is maintained, but life slips away, and truth is meaningless to those who are unable to live.  The question of existence is of paramount importance, more important than the scientific commitment to the pursuit of truth.

Perhaps this is what Camus had in mind when he wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.  These are games; one must first answer.”  

For Nietzsche, of course, the answer consists of a resounding “Yes!”  However, maintaining this affirmation when tempted with Dionysian insight requires continuous artifice, continuous artistry, continuous deception.  The will-denying philosophers fling themselves into the Dionysian abyss, and in renouncing illusion, renounce life.

Again, a predictable question arises: does Nietzsche intend to imply that a complete submission to the will is superior to denying the will?  And again, Nietzsche’s thinking is more subtle than any straightforward binary.  “Asceticism and puritanism are virtually indispensable means of education and ennobling if a race wants to become master over its origins and the rabble, and work its way up toward future rule” he asserts.  Presumably, this formula can also be applied to the individual.  By taming the will and instigating a necessary modicum of self-denial, it is possible to spiritualize the instincts and enhance experience.  We ought not simply deny the will to power, nor should we surrender to it, as animals do.  Rather, we must use the will to power in the name of the will to power, exerting tyranny against the self to become master of the self and thereby become freer and more spiritual.  Reason, beauty, the Egyptian pyramids, all the greatest accomplishments of humanity have been possible only inasmuch as denying the will is possible: “all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance and masterly certainty… has evolved only by virtue of the ‘tyranny of such arbitrary laws.’” Thus suspended between submission and denial, the noble human exists in a state of perpetual tension, both manifesting the will to power, and bending its greater will to his own.  The psychological investigation will reveal whether the self is subjected to tyranny and cruelty in the name of something powerful and beautiful, or for the sake of nothingness. Thus, denying the will is both good and bad, and can lead to danger or salvation, depending upon how its possibilities are applied.  It is essential to note the double denial functioning here, leading away from and then back toward the same source: the noble human being denies the will to power to some extent for the sake of gaining spirituality, reason, and truth, but then subsequently denies to some extent spirituality and truth for the sake of the will to power.  Both denials manifest the reliance upon false judgments.  First, the will is denied to obtain spirituality, reason, and morality – for the sake of enhancing life.  Then, spirituality, reason, and morality must be denied – for the sake of enhancing life.  If the first denial fails to occur, the human being lives like an animal, blindly submitting to his instincts.  If the second denial fails to occur, the human being becomes the slave of spirit or reason — a monk or a modern philosopher.  Since, in the noble human being, both denials function in the name of empowering life and intensifying experience, their movement is not guided and evaluated by their correspondence to facts for the sake of truth, but by their ability to contribute to life.

Since it is in the name of the will that the human being pursues spirituality and reason, there is no binary established between the will to power and the desire for truth.  Rather, reason and truth blossom from the will to ignorance, which are both manifestations of the underlying will to power: “the will to knowledge on the basis of a far more powerful will, the will to non-knowledge, to the uncertain, to the untrue.  Not as its antithesis but – as its refinement!”  Nietzsche’s radical insistence that the will to truth is a refinement of the will to ignorance seems to suggest that artifice, or aesthetic considerations, underlie worthwhile philosophical and scientific pursuits.  Immature philosophers martyr themselves for the truth, interrogating reality to reveal its secrets, demanding absolute answers.  However, more mature thinkers cultivate a taste for truth that is more nuanced, more aligned with aesthetic tendencies, and this veil of artificiality adds a profound subtlety to truth which immature thinkers miss entirely: “A man learns to introduce a little art into his feelings and even to venture trying the artificial: as genuine artists of life do.”  Artifice and truthfulness are revealed to be not enemies, but unified expressions of a deeper will, like the communion of Apollo and Dionysius.  When faced with a truth that must lead to lies or suicide, the immature thinker chooses suicide, martyrdom, suffering, but the mature thinker transforms the vicious truth into a perfected version of its former self.  This transfiguration, this inhering of truth and falsehood within the same noble will, does not grieve the mature philosopher, and he falsifies with a clear conscience.  He realizes that truth is not a goal, but a tool in his hands in the service of life.  This dynamic is well-exemplified in Section 230 of Beyond Good and Evil, where the will to knowledge, to learning, to expansion, “the arrangement of new things within old divisions – growth, that is to say” is suddenly restrained by “an apparently antithetical drive of the spirit, a sudden decision for ignorance, for arbitrary shutting-out… a kind of defensive posture against much that can be known.”  Of course, the point Nietzsche is making is that the will to ignorance is not antithetical to the will to knowledge, that they are both manifestations of the deeper will to power, and fuel its expansion in different ways, employing various disguises, masks, and fictions.  “It is here that there also belongs the occasional will of the spirit to let itself be deceived, perhaps with a mischievous notion that such and such is not the case… the spirit enjoys the multiplicity and cunning of its masks”. Such an approach to truth functions similarly to the tactic of strategic essentialism, whereby the falsity of essentialist thinking is acknowledged, and then applied anyway because a particular situation is somehow benefited by an essentialist perspective.  The question, then, is not whether essentialism is true or false, but whether it is capable of enhancing or improving the situation wherein it is applicable. Truth, as a refinement of untruth, as an epiphenomenon of aesthetic impulse, becomes itself more lightly held, more playfully regarded.  After all, if truth is a woman, a noble philosopher must not become her slave, for that is the surest way of losing her.


It is interesting to speculate on an alternative possibility.  If tension between truth and falsity, both ultimately unified by a striving for power, characterizes the state of the noble character, is it possible to conceive the transcendence of such tension as having achieved an even higher level of nobleness, or would it signify a symptom of decay?  For example, 1945 saw the fruits of the secretive Manhattan Project: the first detonation of the first nuclear weapon.  Since such an experiment had never been undertaken before in history, the results were not entirely predictable, and the risks were enormous.  Famous physicist Enrico Fermi made bets with other physicists on whether the atmosphere above the test site would ignite and lead to the incineration of the entire planet; a dramatic expectation, certainly, but also not entirely impossible.


Such an overpowering drive toward scientific truth, leading to such carelessness for the welfare of the species, can be an example of modern sickness, the martyrdom of truth-seeking.  However, it could also be regarded as the overflowing of such enormous health and power, that even life itself seems petty and insignificant in comparison to one’s desires.  After all, preservation does not necessarily entail preservation of organic life: “Physiologists should think again before postulating the drive to self-preservation as the cardinal drive in an organic being. A living thing desires above all to vent its strength… self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of it.”  In other words, Nietzsche is telling us there may very well be other consequences to the venting of strength, which materialize less frequently than the preservation of life but are nevertheless possible.  Let us again imagine the scientist, who when faced with the potential destruction of the entire planet, is cheerfully playing games and making bets, who chooses to push the button because he just has to know: “He who has seen deeply into the world knows what wisdom there is in the fact that men are superficial.  It is their instinct for preservation which teaches them to be fickle, light and false.”  In the case of the Manhattan Project, for the sake of which an entire humanity might be sacrificed, what is being preserved?  Not life, certainly.  This drive to truth, to knowledge, sometimes overwhelms the drive to life perhaps because there is such enormity of strength in the scientist that he is willing to sacrifice the entire world for his single desire.  Perhaps it is a symptom of such uncurable sickness, that life is no longer an argument.  Or perhaps it is such strength, that self-preservation becomes inconsequential in comparison.  If it is true that such a being has seen the scientific, philosophical, Dionysian truth and cheerfully lives according to it anyway, rather than relying on masks as the other noble beings do, then is it not possible that it is because he has overcame the need for falsification?  Is this possible?  We can conceive of a human being whose hands are so rough that he can handle mercury and any other toxic substance without gloves.  Perhaps Fermi and Oppenheimer were able to face the truth without a shudder, without a false judgment, without the need for masks, because the truth did not drive them to despair, and they overcame even the need for preservation and actively lived against the truth, just as the gods who cheerfully destroy entire populations and have little regard for life, but only because they know themselves to be immortal.  Well, perhaps.

…and sometimes I pretend it was me Nietzsche was thinking of when he wrote, I don’t remember where: “But who is willing to bother with such a dangerous Perhaps?”


Nietzsche’s Justifications

Nietzsche’s Justifications

Art is mysterious.  It isn’t just something we go and look at.  It’s something we do.  Human beings have engaged in creative, and seemingly purposeless, acts for thousands of years.  “Why purposeless?” you might ask, with a suspicious mouth.  Well, because pots and quilts aside (art is not craft, no matter what Plato said), artistic objects do not contribute to survival and seem to have no purpose external to themselves.  Well, Nietzsche doesn’t think that human survival and art are disparate fields at all, going so far as to claim that the former is predicated upon the latter.  Boldly, Nietzsche declares that “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”  Wow.  That’s a staggering claim.  First of all, why does existence need justification?  And if it does, what does art have to do with it?  Well, come on, let’s talk about it.


There is something inherent in the very structure of existence, Nietzsche insists, which longs for the redemptive movement of art.  It is the purpose of this paper to explore the metaphysical order underlying the human world of appearance and to suggest that truth and illusion can be reconciled only through an eternal tension, the fruits of which redeem suffering humanity and render its activities and possibilities meaningful.  Furthermore, the relationship of metaphysical reality and illusory appearance will be considered through a dialectical lens, despite Nietzsche’s admonitions to the contrary.

For Nietzsche, the seemingly stable world of appearance, brimming with humans and buildings and goals and forests, conceals an underlying reality.  Within this more fundamental order of existence, the “Truly-Existent and Primal Unity,” a primordial indifference reigns.  The dark heart of life is eternally striving, pulsing, aimless, and utterly unconcerned with finite human beings.  Because the underlying reality is formless, there can be no place within it for distinguishable entities, and consequently, it dissolves the particular human form into nothingness.  There is a monstrous cruelty in this sublime and savage indifference to individual life and dignity, and beholding it with human eyes is terrifying.  Nietzsche recounts the myth of Silenus, who laughed at Midas and cried, “What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best for you – is quickly to die.”  Since the world of particular entities is merely an appearance cast upon a ceaseless, formless unity, all individualizing concepts are doomed to failure.  When, armed with the tools of reason and science, humanity interrogates reality to reveal its secrets, it discovers that objectifying knowledge is powerless to grasp ultimate reality, which resists fragmentation into concepts.

The fundamental essence of reality is best exemplified by the drunken god Dionysius whose dangerous wildness conveys a primitive, metaphysical terror.  His eternal counterpart is the proud god Apollo, who represents the ordering and organizing principle of humanity.  Apollo’s cool hand tempers Dionysian ecstasy just as human reason imposes structure upon, and refines, an amoral and undifferentiated reality.  The Apollonian tendency presents the world as if it has an objective order, a separation between good and evil, and, perhaps most importantly, as if individual beings have a meaningful identity and function within it.  So, if life is inherently terrible and meaningless, and reality is ultimately unknowable, what response or course of action is possible?  There are several.  The first is, of course, suicide.  The second is perhaps even more dangerous and is what Nietzsche terms “negation of the will.”  Gazing into the Dionysian horror of life, the spectator is paralyzed with disgust.  Realizing that all human endeavor is ultimately meaningless, that even the greatest accomplishments are doomed to obscurity, he recedes from activity and life itself.  How can one take the details of his own life seriously, a life of mortgages and dentist appointments, when even the glory of ancient Egypt is doomed to nothingness?  Paralysis ensues.  How to disentangle the nauseated, paralyzed being from this cruel vision?  “Art saves him,” Nietzsche tells us, “and through art life saves him.”

Humanity suffers from a metaphysical need for redemption.  Given the underlying structure of reality, human life is intolerable, and must be justified prior to being lived.  However, if reality is fundamentally meaningless, then redemption cannot come from reality, cannot arise from within the realm of nature.  Meaninglessness, after all, cannot beget meaning. Dionysius cannot beget Apollo.  Redemption, then, must come from a different source, from the opposite of reality and truth, which is appearance, exemplified in Apollonian repose.  If redemption is appearance, it is necessarily illusory.  It seems that Nietzsche defines art as a redemptive illusion.  Such an approach to artworks seems counter-intuitive, since it advocates not the mirroring or reflecting of nature, but rather a transcendence of it.  The horror of reality is not denied, but overcome, with the creation of redemptive illusions.  The first philosophical question, then, is not one of ontology but one of aesthetics, since prior to positing the nature of being, one must be alive to do so in the first place.

It is interesting to revisit the seemingly self-evident claim made above: meaninglessness cannot beget meaning.  But what if it can?  What if Dionysius can beget Apollo?  In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggests that knowledge is born of ignorance and uncertainty, and that truth can be regarded as a refined version of falsity.  Perhaps it is possible that meaning, too, is simply a higher, subtler, form of meaninglessness.  The underlying reality must be countered and redeemed not by its antithesis, not by its obliteration by an opposite, but by a dialectical movement between truth and appearance which preserves the qualities of both.  Art does not contradict nature, then, but rather echoes its qualities in a transfiguring gesture.  This transformative, and yet preservative, approach is precisely what Nietzsche admires in the Greek culture.  The Homeric worldview, with its glittering panorama of flawed and vengeful gods, enabled the Greeks to “endure existence.”  Significantly, their gods were not ideal, but cruel and destructive.  In deifying the angry Ares, for example, the Greeks were glorifying not only the virtuous and beautiful aspects of life, but its immoral and damaging elements, as well.  The Greeks, Nietzsche purports, glimpsed the terror of reality and did not turn away, but celebrated it, elevated it to sublimity, regarding the painful aspects of life as praiseworthy.  Thus, the Greeks were reconciled with nature without being overwhelmed by it, as the Buddhist is.  They were capable of transcending it without denying it, as science tends to do.  This transcendence reached its apotheosis in Greek tragedy.  The heroes upon the stage, their triumphs and sorrows, reflect the Apollonian principle of humanity, while the musical chorus embodies the intoxicating Dionysian truth which ultimately dooms the protagonist to a tragic end.  However, the spectacle creates a “metaphysical comfort… that in spite of the flux of phenomena, life at bottom is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.”  How is this comfort achieved?  Certainly not by denying Dionysius, but by identifying the self as flowing from communion with Dionysius and being reconstituted in the image of Apollo.  In other words, the subject is dissolved into primordial unity and then a transformed subjectivity is re-asserted.  The spectator descends into the nauseating pit of existence, and then identifies himself with the tragic hero who affirms his life, and in that affirmation, the spectator regards his own life as praiseworthy.

If tragedy’s heroes are suffused with Dionysian wisdom, if they are, in fact, begotten only by passing through a Dionysian experience, then a tragic Hamlet can be regarded as simply a mask Dionysius wears.



In other words, Hamlet is representative of the entirety of humanity, and is therefore universal.  The mask of Hamlet consists of the particular details of his life – his father’s murder, his love for Ophelia – but these details are not what the tragedy communicates.  The tragedy of Hamlet demonstrates not the plot of the play but the underlying structure of human experience itself, when the wisdom of Silenus is revealed behind Hamlet’s face.  This eternal wisdom is behind every human endeavor, beyond every disguise, and the message of Dionysian truth speaks through Hamlet’s story.  However, Hamlet does not affect a complete identification with Dionysius.  He retains his particularity as a human being who must make a decision and take revenge upon Claudius.  The Dionysian is a launching pad, not a dwelling place.  This tension between Dionysian understanding and subjective experience of an individuated self reaches its climax in proper art.  The redemptive act, then, is always fundamentally Dionysian.  To return to the notion that artifice may be a more refined version of truth, it becomes possible that the princely Hamlet is, similarly, a more refined version of drunk and sensual Dionysius.  The mask is an extension of the concealed face, illusion arises from truth, and redemptive art does not deny reality, but simply transforms it.

It is important to note that aesthetic justification is different from the justification offered by science, or political justice, for example.  In an effort to redeem existence, the scientific force seeks to render the world rational.  It tries to “make existence seem intelligible, and therefore justified” because its “belief in the explicability of the nature of things attributes to knowledge and perception the power of a universal panacea.”  Science seeks “panaceas” not in an effort to answer the eternal riddle of existence, but to compensate for its flaws.  Nietzsche contends that science is motivated by the clear light of reason because it fears the terror of irrationality, and it shrinks back from suffering because, ultimately, the drive toward reason is a symptom of weakness.  The democratic urge, too, is guided by a similar frailty, since it suffers from “a decline of strength… impending old age, and… physiological weariness.”  In an effort to avoid pain, science and democracy seek to redeem life through denying and dissolving its horrors.  Such a correction of life, however, prevents the reconciliation with the true heart of reality achieved by the Greeks.  Although science and democracy are also attempts at redemption, they are not responsive to health and strength, but to weakness and impotence.  Such correctives do not acknowledge the Dionysian core of existence because they are too weak to do so.  Corrective thought does not proceed dialectically, by preserving that which it transcends, but antithetically, by cancelling out or simply ignoring its contradiction.  If Hamlet were to deny his Dionysian understanding and completely embraced the particulars of his situation, his tragedy would no longer transcend nature, but would simply reflect it.  In turning from truth, the corrective tendency places the mundane upon a pedestal, denying the universal problem of existence.  Perhaps paradoxically, the scientific tendency turns from the Dionysian truth to embrace a scientific truth, comprised of objective facts and data.  In a perpetual quest for accuracy, science denies the value of illusion.  Some truths, however, have a nullifying effect upon experience, rendering the scope of human powers impotent.  Nietzsche declares: “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving…”  Here, Nietzsche is refusing to privilege the correspondence theory of truth, which renders something true inasmuch as it is congruent with reality.  Yet it is more important, Nietzsche argues, to determine how well truth corresponds to human experience.  Something which is factually false may be experientially true insofar as it benefits and intensifies life.  The tendency to disregard the value of illusion and neglect the Dionysian core of existence succeeds only in glorifying mediocrity: “The average man forced his way from the spectators’ benches on to the stage itself; the mirror in which formerly only grand and bold traits were represented now showed the painful fidelity that conscientiously reproduces even the abortive outlines of nature.”  The justificatory tendency which denies Dionysius must sweep aside the truth at the very source of human experience, thereby erasing universality from the arc of redemption.  But without the universal subject gazing from behind Hamlet’s mask, Hamlet is just a tortured young man in Denmark.  He is reduced to the mundane details of his particular context, and in this reduction, the spectator cannot approach transcendence.  To correct nature by denying nature is to mire the subject in eternal subjectivity.  If he cannot commune with the wild heart of nature, what is left?  To sign the mortgage check and drive to the dentist appointment.

Thus Nietzsche distinguishes between proper and improper illusions by unmasking their source, with the former being demanded by an overflowing strength, and the latter being grasped as concessions to feebleness and frailty.  The redemption of science is a poor caricature of the redemption of art because in erasing Dionysius, it fails to respond to the very problem of existence, it fails to even acknowledge it!  The corrective tendency of science or democracy refuses to accept that suffering is an intrinsic part of existence.  Great and noble souls are not spared this suffering – in fact, they court it in the very essence of their greatness.  The Greek tragedians knew that all creative activity is essentially cruelty because it displaces or destroys what came before.  Reason itself enacts violence upon the object of knowledge, appropriating it and objectifying it into thought.  Furthermore, since the Apollonian movement toward refinement, knowledge, or creativity is an artificiality imposed upon nature, the creator finds himself aligned against nature, straining against inevitable truth.  Rather than reclining into the tranquility of the animal, who is an inextricable part of nature, the human being opposes nature in every beautiful and powerful act: “How else could one force nature to surrender her secrets but by victoriously opposing her by means of the Unnatural? … the very man who solves the riddle of nature… must also… break the holiest laws of nature.”  All achievements of culture are paid for by inordinate suffering.  Again, redemptive art does not neglect or deny this dark truth, but defiantly celebrates it.  Only creations which preserve this darkness, while simultaneously transforming it with light, can truly redeem human existence.  Finding redemption in a trembling security, hidden behind the edifice of scientific reason or democratic justice, untouched by the harsh forces of reality, is not redemption but cowardice.  Thus, through acceptance of suffering does aesthetic activity contribute to the progression of a higher culture.

Not only Greek tragedy, but Greek civilization itself was able to redeem existence aesthetically.  This implies that the aesthetic gesture is irreducible to traditionally recognizable forms of art, such as painting, music, theatre, or sculpture.  Aesthetic creation resides in all redemptive illusions begotten by a strength that is capable of serving life without denying truth.  A philosophy which recognizes the underlying Dionysian structure of reality with symbolizing Apollonian concepts, and yet conveys a reason to celebrate life as it is, is an aesthetic philosophy.  A society which, like Greek civilization, was able to capture and convey the horror of reality but still rejoice in existence, is an aesthetic civilization.  But how does an individual accomplish the aesthetic act in his own life?  Perhaps by accepting suffering and engaging in creativity which takes the form of forceful crimes against nature committed for the sake of human culture.  The individual Hamlet must strain toward universal experience, to create a meaning that all humanity can participate in: “In the heroic effort towards universality made by the individual, in the attempt to penetrate beyond the bounds of individuation and become himself the one world-being, he experiences in himself the primordial contradiction concealed in the essence of things, that is, he trespasses and he suffers.”  An aesthetic life remakes nature, presenting the world as if it were dependent upon human freedom and activity, precisely because no such dependence objectively exists.  In acting out this beautiful masquerade, the suffering human artist almost makes it true.  The meaning he has created becomes established into culture, which subsequently influences the aesthetic activity and redemption of others.

So, artworks are illusions which respond to truth while promoting and intensifying experience.  The metaphysically true and the experientially true are not contradictions, but exist simultaneously, without denying or cancelling each other out.  There is a tension between underlying reality and the transformative aesthetic gesture, but this tension is the very essence of redemption.  Overcoming this tension in a complete submission to truth would result in suicide or Buddhistic denial of the will.  Overcoming this tension in complete submission to illusion would result in the cowardly and sterile world of the democratic scientist.  Both truth and illusion are necessary, preserving one another in an eternal and dynamic conflict.  But the nature of this conflict is not reserved for the metaphysician, to be contemplated in solitary splendor from the air-conditioned comfort of academia.  Rather, it must be quite literally taken “to the streets,” applied to everyday life, utilized in social and cultural contexts.  To achieve and maintain this tension, to create its concrete self as a transformative response to truth, rather than as its denial, is the proper metaphysical goal of humanity.  Art has been removed from museum walls and the heights of ivory towers and has found itself in the hearts and minds of human beings who must create a practical reason to live.  Will this reason be Really Real, in a metaphysical sense?  Well, sort of.  If falsity begets a truth which is a more subtle version of falsity, and meaninglessness begets a meaning which is a more subtle version of meaninglessness, then should not we be able to step back from redemptive illusion and find its source not in redemption’s opposite, but in redemption’s echo?  Perhaps.

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Rather than creating two opposing values, such as truth and artifice, meaning and meaninglessness, or good and evil, Nietzsche seems to explore their interdependence.  Art and nature, or illusion and reality, then, are not dichotomous.  They do not simply contradict and deny each other: X or Y.  They inhere in, and presuppose, one another, maintaining an allegiance to one another: X from Y, or X as response to Y.  Although Nietzsche rejects a dialectical reading of The Birth of Tragedy, is not this movement profoundly dialectical?  This vacillation is itself redemptive: “at this divine counterpart of dialectic we are filled with a profound human joy.” It is not truth alone, nor illusion alone, but the tension in the spaces between them which redeems and justifies human life.




Hermeneutics and Art

Hermeneutics and Art

When approaching an artwork, we recognize its situatedness in a particular sociohistorical, cultural context.  In some sense, this helps us interpret its meaning. Perhaps in other ways, interpretation obscures or conceals meaning.  Either way, interpretation’s important.

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So, let’s talk about the art of interpreting art (I am impossibly clever), and refer to Freud, Adorno, and Nietzsche in the process.  Freud, because he’s occasionally insightful, but usually crazy. Adorno, because no matter how carefully I study him, he gets deeper, changes, and betrays me, and because he so effectively puts Freud in his (father’s) place. Nietzsche, because he belongs everywhere, he’s really never unnecessary.  Mostly because these gentlemen are useful lenses through which to investigate the process of interpretation, especially its application to art.

As the nineteenth century recuperated from the enormous impact of Kantian idealism, the predominant response emphasized a movement away from transcendental and abstract explanations of phenomena.  While many philosophers and scientists embraced empiricism, for thinkers like Freud and Nietzsche, the rejection of idealism culminated with a turn inward, to the very source of perception and understanding.  Ever skeptical of appearances, instead of interrogating observable, external reality, they sought to understand the relationship between that reality and the mind, with the assumption that the latter modulates experience of the former.  As the early twentieth century ushered in a reliance upon abstraction and symbols, which were thought to capture reality more faithfully than perception or experience alone, the Freudian “hermeneutics of suspicion” became ever more relevant. It is illuminating to explore how the discourse of suspicion regards human ability to symbolically convey or experience truth, particularly through the medium of art, and what alternatives are suggested within the thought of Adorno. 

The intellectual atmosphere of the early twentieth century was characterized by brilliant innovation, rapid progression, and substantial transformation.  Exciting new technologies, scientific and mathematical advances, and the developments in modern art all seemed to point in the direction of a new reality and a new understanding.  Space and time, seemingly such concrete notions, were shown by Einstein’s relativity theory to be nebulous and relative, and the realm of sense perceptions ceased to be a reliable arbiter of certainty.  As the invisible reality, laden with x-rays, electrons, and the secret truth of objects was gradually revealed, it became more and more apparent that the five senses and confined, positivistic schemas were impotent in the face of such an amorphous dynamic.  New instruments were needed to capture it and a new language was needed to communicate it.  Since nothing representational or experiential was capable of conveying reality, its expressions had to become entirely symbolic.  To access the nature of space and time scientifically, it was necessary to rely upon mathematics, of which the elegant and abstract symbols presented reality more faithfully than perception ever could.  However, mathematics was not reserved for science, since art, too, learned to approach nature “in terms of geometric forms, such as the sphere, the cone, the cylinder”.  Eventually, even geometry became too representational, too bound to form and object, and the first entirely nonfigurative painting was created in 1910.  The goal of nonfigurative art — representative of philosophy itself — was to rise above the distractions of mundane narrative to a more universal, more objective, vantage point.  Once abstract enough, the artwork breathes a purer air, visually revealing not, let’s say, a flying bird, but the very essence of its lightness.  If the artist’s intention is to visually evoke something approaching a universal truth, then a sophisticated and disciplined understanding of the artwork requires deciphering and translating visual content into meaning.  Reliance upon symbols, then, is itself a reliance upon hermeneutics since the task of accessing what the symbol points to, whether mathematical or aesthetic, is an interpretive one. 

Approaching art in this manner, by taking for granted that its goal is truth and its tools are symbols refined of personal narrative, is to conduct the hermeneutical enterprise by faith.  This type of interpretation aims at restoring meaning to the symbol, treating it like a deliberately crafted message, even if the message lies beneath the surface of the symbol.  The symbol, in this case, is a manifestation of the message.  A different interpretive approach, however, is characteristic of Freud and Nietzsche, who conducted a hermeneutics of suspicion, a “tearing off of masks, an interpretation that reduces disguises”. 

Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest un-masker of all, demonstrated that what seems most natural and self-evident is actually the result of a particular way of approaching and experiencing the world.  Intellectual formulation is, for Nietzsche, a quest not for truth but for values motivated by the will to power which is itself motivated by terror of nihilism.  This perspective mistrusts the symbol that is “there” but sees the underlying content which is “not there” and aims to unearth that which underlies and constitutes the symbol, to ultimately hold up the symbol as an illusion, as a manifestation of forces which it is not privy to.   Freudian psychoanalysis is the most disciplined example of the discourse of suspicion, and it regards most symbolic content as a manifestation of a concealed content.  Dreams, for Freud, are collections of symbols requiring interpretation to reveal how they are substitutive of the thought process and operate as wish-fulfillments, enabling the dreamer to continue sleeping by generating within him the illusion that his desires have been obtained.  Such wishes may be obvious or repressed; the latter require the transformative power of the dreamwork, which conceals the latent content behind the cleverly constructed manifest content, allowing them to slip into conscious awareness.  The result is often obscure, and analysis alone can interrupt the masquerade to reveal the latent content of a dream.  The artwork functions the same way as dreams do, and is to be interpreted the same way dreams are.  To apply the hermeneutics of suspicion to an artwork is to approach deciphering it with the prior understanding that the work is a visual representation, a projection, of the artist’s interior world.  However, it is not the internal vision that comes into question, but rather the recounting of it through an aesthetic medium.  As soon as the artwork comes into being and begins to communicate, it becomes an unintelligible disguise not for truth, but for the unconscious.  Intelligibility is achieved not through a grasping of a truth, but through a substitution of attempt at truth with concealed desire, or, in Nietzsche’s case, with the will to power.  

Clearly, this constitutes an enormous challenge to modern art’s attempt to move beyond the biases of personal narratives and internal states toward essential truth.  To thus undermine the symbol’s ability to point beyond itself to something more universal, to demonstrate that symbolic abstraction shines a light onto little more than its own constitutive foundations, is to revert the symbolic discourse into narrative, except of a trickier kind.  Of course, the Freudian approach is not satisfied to merely tear off masks.  Once the relationship between hidden desire and external manifestation is apparent, it becomes easier to apprehend understanding itself.  Perhaps paradoxically, undermining the pursuit of truth brings us closer to truth.  By revealing the hidden dimensions of the mind, psychoanalysis aims to overcome neuroses, and the Nietzschean mode of suspicion aims at “the increase of man’s power, the restoration of his force”.  However, what of the man who does not seek either power or freedom from neuroses but, in the simplest terms, pursues not self-improvement but access to truth? 

The discourse of suspicion has a “suspicious” similarity to the Kantian idealism Freud rejected – it, too, employs a totalizing gesture when it reduces symbols to subjective desire.  Psychoanalysis grounds art firmly into the social sphere, preventing it from evoking universal notions, and in its reductionism, belittles the communicative power of the artwork.  Such is the essence of Adorno’s critique of Freud’s conception of art: Freud’s over-emphasis on unconscious drives denies the artwork elements of autonomy necessary to transcend local contexts for the purpose of critically reflecting upon, or polemicizing against, those contexts.  “In the process of artistic production, unconscious drives are one impetus among many,” Adorno tells us, because the crafting of symbols is a dynamic process, not merely a result.  The symbol, then, is not only the reflection of the structure which constitutes it, is not only a disguise; it is also a meaningful engagement with objectivity, possessing revelatory power which can be extended beyond the latent desires of an individual subject.  If one wishes to preserve art’s autonomy, one must either afford the dream symbols a larger scope, or suppose that the artwork does not function as the dream does, is not purely psychic phenomena. 

Perhaps, as is so often the case, truth dwells somewhere in the middle.  Perhaps the hermeneutics of suspicion and of faith are not doomed to be antagonists, wherein one or the other method prevails, but may rather become the guardians of an inner tension that includes, and whose conclusions are superior to, either approach alone.  To restore meaning to the symbol with one hand, and to sweep aside its illusions with the other, is not a gesture of contradiction or of cancelling out, but an inclusive, dialectical movement of reconciliation and evolution.  The enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile need not be understood only in terms of Leonardo’s relationship with his mother, the legitimacy of which does not preclude its evocation of something more essential and universal, something that had nothing to do with Leonardo’s personal history and which the symbol is nevertheless able to glimpse. To continue with Adorno’s perspective, since an artwork can never be fully deciphered, since its language cannot undergo complete substitution by a different text, there is a limit to the hermeneutical project.  Deciphering must end where the aesthetic experience begins, delimiting for art an autonomous space where interpretation and substitution cannot follow.  However, hermeneutics can absorb this limit into itself and make the aspect of uncertainty a part of its processes.   

James Joyce and Aesthetics

James Joyce and Aesthetics

I don’t like James Joyce as much as I ought to.  It might be because he’s too earthly, too real, too human.  Every time his language lifts me into the sky, he’ll say something ordinary or mundane or cheap and I’m back on the ground, wondering why he bothered. But that’s just how humanity is, right?  Alternately ennobling and degrading itself.  

Anyway, the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains a very, very, very insightful conversation between Stephen Dedalus and his friend, Lynch.  They’re talking about art and beauty, and it’s cold, and they’re smoking, and I’ve often flipped the book to that chapter to follow them along foggy and curving paths, waiting for my turn to speak.

Let’s talk about art.




To be fair, this isn’t Joyce’s philosophy of art, but his protagonist’s.  Stephen’s aesthetic theory is unraveled and developed while he and Lynch wander around campus, talking and smoking (without me).  The sources of the theory are anticipated earlier, when Stephen tells the dean: “For my purpose I can work on at present by the light of one or two ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas.” Stephen reveals that he intends to utilize the two philosophers as a launching pad for his own thought.  Later, with Lynch, Stephen begins by claiming that pity and terror haven’t been defined by Aristotle, for whom these emotions are integral components of tragedy.  Stephen defines pity as “the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer” and terror as “the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”  In other words, the observer is moved to pity when presented with suffering which relates him to the sufferer, and he experiences terror when he relates to the cause of suffering.  In both cases, the observer understands that he, too, is capable of suffering so.  Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that Stephen points out that tragic emotions must be invoked by “whatsoever is constant and grave in human sufferings” – they cannot, and will not, be summoned by chance accidents.  Pity and terror, then, are experienced only when the observer relates to timeless, essential human experiences which are manifested by the very nature of the human condition. 

For Stephen, pity and terror are the essence of “proper art” because they are what he terms “static” emotions: “You see I use the word arrest.  I mean that the tragic emotion is static.”  Static emotions are contrasted with what he terms “kinetic” emotions: “The feelings excited by the improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing.”  Desire and loathing inspire movement toward or movement away from an object; when we desire, we go toward, and when we loathe, we move away.  Such emotions are brought about by the “pornographical or didactic” arts which are improper because they encourage a physical, instinctual, self-aware, response.  Stephen is after the type of art in which the physical and petty self is transcended for the sake of the contemplative self.  Upon achieving stasis, the observer is lifted out of himself and remains suspended in a sort of trance: “The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”

This spell is eventually broken by the “rhythm of beauty… rhythm is the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part.” 

Lynch, however, is unsatisfied with this explanation, and demands to know just what beauty is.  Stephen returns once again to the notion that the aesthetic experience is static and cognitive, comparing the apprehension of beauty to the apprehension of truth: “…the true and the beautiful are akin.  Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible: beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible.”  We realize that it is within these “satisfying relations” that beauty dwells.  Why is it, Stephen asks, that different cultures all propagate differing versions of female beauty?  Is there an overarching quality that all cultures notice and admire?  Of course, it is possible to go along the route of evolutionary psychology, which suggests that the survival of the species is hiding behind aesthetic understanding, but Stephen dislikes this route because “It leads to eugenics rather than to esthetic.”  The alternative, wherein Stephen begins to define beauty itself, consists of finding “certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension.  These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty.”  The apprehension of “relations of the sensible” is what the rhythm of beauty consists of.  Thus, Stephen has posited a profoundly cognitive, almost mathematical, approach to aesthetics insofar as beauty is to be found in particular formal relations of shape and structure, which are perceived by the mind.  There remains to describe how these formal relations correlate to the stages of aesthetic apprehension to achieve an understanding of “the qualities of universal beauty.”

Aquinas’ three prerequisites for beauty, as translated by Stephen, are wholeness, harmony, and radiance, and these prerequisites correspond to the three steps of aesthetic apprehension.  To demonstrate, Stephen asks Lynch to look at a basket.  Stephen tells him that in order to see the basket, one’s mind “first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket… the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it.”  In other words, in perceiving, the perceiver selects the aesthetic object, thereby differentiating it from the rest of the world as separate and complete in itself.  This stage of apprehension corresponds to Aquinas’ first requirement of wholeness.  Simple enough. Second, one’s mind perceives the aesthetic object “as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure… You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable… harmonious.” The perceiver analyses the separate parts of the aesthetic object and concludes that they are balanced, symmetrical, and congruent with one another.  This second stage of apprehension corresponds to Aquinas’ second requirement of harmony.  So far, the stages of apprehension are almost reminiscent of Hegelian dialectic, although they follow a completely different chronology.  Instead of moving from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, Stephen has the perceiver begin at a synthesis wherein the aesthetic object is apprehended completely, then move to an analysis of its constituent parts. 

The final stage of apprehension is not quite as straightforward.  Stephen dismisses the notion that, by “radiance,” Aquinas could have meant a Platonic idealism wherein the aesthetic object is beautiful because it is a shadowy imitation of the transcendent real: “Aquinas uses a term which… would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which  it is but the symbol… But that is literary talk.”  For Stephen, the aesthetic experience is possible only here, on Earth, and the aesthetic object need not depend upon a transcendent realm to be legitimately beautiful.  Radiance is contained within the object, not beyond it, and is approached with the understanding that it “is that thing which it is and no other thing.  The radiance… is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.”  Quidditas, or quiddity, is the very essence, or nature, of a thing.  Consequently, the essence of an aesthetic object is that which gives it its radiance.  The third and final stage of aesthetic apprehension is the static, still, moment of revelation when the essence of an aesthetic object is beheld.  Interestingly, we have arrived at yet another synthesis, but of a different kind.  Now, instead of merely seeing the complete form of the object – the “synthesis of immediate perception” – we see its very heart, but this sight must be reached only after perceiving its wholeness and the relations of its parts: “When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible.  You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing.”  In this instant, one stands entranced within “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state…”

Finally, Stephen describes beauty as it is understood “in the marketplace,” where the image of the aesthetic object is “set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others.” Here, Stephen makes the delineation between any perceiver of beauty, and the artist.  The artist, who presumably exists “in the marketplace” because he is a producer, must re-create the tripartite aesthetic experience for an audience.  This re-creation can take three possible forms: “the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.”  The lyrical form of art is simply an expression of individual, personal experience, or “the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion.”  The epical form of art expands upon the lyrical; after critical reflection upon himself as the center of an event, the artist distances himself from the event such that its “emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others” and the audience, too, may be emotionally affected by it.  The dramatic form of art is achieved when the vitality of the artist grants each fictional character a life of their own until “the personality of the artist… finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself… The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished.” In other words, the artist assumes a godlike role, who ultimately becomes and remains detached from his creation.  


Derrida, Language, Context

Derrida, Language, Context

Someone much cleverer than I am once said that thinking about the entirety of the enigmatic, mysterious, elusive philosophy of Jacques Derrida is just about impossible.  It’s much better to think about it in pieces, to manage the details, and try to be satisfied if that leads to anything at all.

So, let’s talk about a little piece of Derrida.

d_jaques_derrida_15281830The first part of Derrida’s Signature Event Context outlines what he considers to be the essential aspects of any form of writing and, by eventual extension, of all communication. Firstly, a written sign can continue existing as itself with or without the subject who produces it. Secondly, writing possesses meaning even if it is removed from the context from which it originated. Thirdly, the written sign is constituted by its separation from other written signs, which then enables it to be removed from its original contextual structure. The second “rule” is, perhaps, the most debatable, and therefore, worth exploring. Since, for Derrida, writing is representative of communication in general, then any expression or statement ought to be removable from the context that produces it and insertable into an entirely different context without wholly losing its meaning. This results in the inevitable conclusion that any particular communication is not, as it has been traditionally thought, primarily the representation of the event which constituted it in the first place. In simpler terms, communication is not the movement of a meaning from one subject to another. However, this does not always seem to be the case. There seem to be occasions in which expressions cannot survive without their constituting context.

Derrida states: “By virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely.” He qualifies by adding, “One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it… onto other chains. No context can entirely enclose it.” Thus, a communicative expression, no matter how specific and seemingly context-dependent it is, ought to have some ability to function in other contexts. What is important to consider is to what extent such a removed expression can survive the stripping away of its context in order to function in other contexts. Is it just words that can function in other contexts, or the expression itself?

Let us consider expression A, which is constituted by context X. Let us then place expression A into context Y. If all the expression retains is some semblance of correct grammar, is that proof that the expression itself is indeed functioning as expression A, or does it merely point to the universality (and subsequent recognizability) of grammar itself? If the latter is the case, then all one can say is that grammar is an example of a structure by which we recognize the fact that an expression exists, and no more. This, however, seems to be such a small remainder of our original expression A, that it seems almost negligible. But it seems that if Derrida’s second rule means an iterability, or a survivability, of the expression, it implies that any particular expression can maintain some measure of its integrity beyond the borders that constituted it, which suggests that expression A can maintain some of its “A-ness” even in context Y.

Perhaps some examples are in order. Derrida briefly considers the ceremony of marriage as an example of a performative utterance. He maintains that it exists as such a performative primarily by virtue of the fact that, for example, the phrase “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is citable, or iterable. However, to what extent is this repeatable in other contexts, without referencing its original context? If one examines the “performative” aspect of the expression, then one might argue that in contexts other than marriage ceremonies, the expression does not perform the act of marrying anyone, and therefore, is no longer performative. But perhaps this is because the expression did not survive the displacement from its original context, and is therefore prevented from performing as itself.

One could say that the expression “I now pronounce you husband and wife” would still function in other contexts because words such as “pronounce” and “husband” possess recognizability even in the absence of marriage ceremonies. But let us imagine that a new marriage law is passed and “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” which is indeed a collection of recognizable signs that are capable of functioning separately, were to be changed to the phrase, “Blook.” Ministers or government officials who perform marriage ceremonies no longer say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” but rather they begin to say, “Blook.” This becomes an expression that pertains only to the conclusions of marriage ceremonies. After this expression is used for a while, it is easy to imagine that it would be mentioned in casual conversation and not solely during marriage ceremonies. However, the only way that “Blook” would make sense in such a casual conversation is by an instantaneous and even unintentional reference to marriage. If one of the participants of the casual conversation were out of touch with the times or ignorant of the shifting of legal practices, one would be quick to ask what “blook” means. He would be told that it is an expression utilized to grant credence to marriage ceremonies. After the explanation, the previous conversation would then make sense to him. But the explanation necessarily involved a pointing towards the originating context of the expression. Without such a pointing, the expression would be recognizable only as a word, and nothing more.

Perhaps the imaginary legalization of “blooks” is entirely unnecessary. The expression “I now pronounce you husband and wife” itself references a specific constituting context, even if it is uttered in an entirely different context. If one wanders into a room full of strangers and declares, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” nobody in the room, of course, could understand precisely what the speaker meant. Nevertheless, the phrase would carry recognizability by virtue of the listeners’ automatic reference to marriage ceremonies. The declarer need not add, “That phrase regards marriage.” The expression carries the context of marriage as inextricable from the phrase itself. If, within the room of strangers, one had never heard of marriage, he would recognize the expression only as a collection of recognizable words. In such a case, as far as the ignorant listener is concerned, they could be absolutely any words in a grammatically correct chain, because the expression does not mean to him what it means to everyone else in the room. Without the context of marriage, he hears only a grammatically correct sentence. He could accidentally substitute “platypus” for “husband,” and it would make very little difference to the listener. Of course, one may well point out that a platypus is certainly not a husband. Certainly not. Nevertheless, without any reference to a context of marriage, none of the integrity of the expression remains. The expression of marriage does not survive without the constituting context. All that remains is an expression. Is this enough for an expression to be considered iterable?

It is likely that many would assert that the force of Derrida’s claim lies precisely, and only, in that. An expression always remains an expression. But if this is the case, the insight is obvious, at best. It is a little bit like saying that an object which possesses physical properties will always be an object, even if it is moved from room to room. Heidegger explores the scenario of himself and a Senegal Negro gazing at the same lectern. If Heidegger were to conclude that both he and the Senegal Negro, despite their vastly differing contexts, both see an object, there would be very little to say about the scenario. There is no denying that both viewers see a physical shape, which subsists regardless of context. Heidegger seems to suggest, however, that their differing contexts alter the meaning of the object so much, that the object itself changes. It is easy imagine someone interrupting with, “Aha! You misunderstand! You’ve just proven Derrida’s point, because you’ve shown how the lectern has different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, meaning is not derived from the expression, but from the context in which one encounters it.” If this is the case, it shows only that in each different context, the object is different. Or, to return to communication, in each different context, each expression is different. Then, it is not the same expression. In which case, nothing survived. No expression is re-iterated, nothing survives, other than a recognizable alphabet and the rules of grammar. All that remains is an expression which is still an expression, but this means that it can be any expression possessing alphabetical marks and the rules of grammar, and not the survivor of the original context.

But if Derrida’s claim lies only in the fact that an expression is still an expression, regardless of where it’s placed, there is nothing to think about and explore. One will say, “Sure,” turn out the lights, and go home. But Derrida goes further. He suggests that because of this ability of expressions to endure context-swapping, communication is then not primarily a transmitter of meaning. No matter the context, and therefore no matter the meaning, the expression remains the same, and can bear the weight of an infinite number of meanings in an infinite number of contexts. But in some cases, the expression does not seem to remain the same. It is still a collection of symbols, to be sure. But the fact that they are very specific symbols occasionally gives rise to the question of whether or not, in certain cases, the specificity of the expression perhaps relies so much (not completely, but so much) upon the originating context, that unless one performs great feats of mental acrobatics, the expression cannot function in other contexts in any meaningful way at all, and the likelihood of its doing so is so small, as to be negligible.
Other examples may prove useful. To borrow an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky , let us consider the expression “frumious Bandersnatch.” If one is wandering down a city street and accidentally overhears this expression from a window, several things may occur. If one is aware of the poem, the expression carries meaning, and one perhaps thinks, “Ah, what a lovely book.” One references the context in which the Bandersnatch originated, and makes sense of the expression. If one is not aware of the context in which the Bandersnatch originated, one cannot possibly begin to grasp any meaning in the expression. One might conclude that he overheard a different language, or simply nonsense.

Here, perhaps, Derrida might suggest that “frumious Bandersnatch” is an example of agrammaticality which nevertheless can be cited, or put between quotation marks. This action will then “engender an infinity of new contexts.” However, the very act of putting “frumious Bandersnatch” into quotation marks references a context which, although possibly unknown, then lends meaning to the expression. The quotation marks seem to say, “We are here because this expression is largely inaccessible within this particular context, but there is a context somewhere from which this expression originated, and within which it makes complete sense.” So the agrammatical expression, even if within the confines of quotation marks, is still tied to a meaning-engendering context, and it is by virtue of this tying that the expression makes sense. There is also the example of highly complex and remote expressions, such as those encountered in abstract mathematics. Mathematics is itself a strange and complicated language, featuring expressions such as “holonomic” and “quaquaversal.” Within the context of abstract mathematics, these expressions carry the weight of very specific meanings. And to those who are deeply engaged with abstract mathematics, or, in more relevant words, to those who operate within the context of abstract mathematics, such expressions are quite usual and useful. To return to a previous example, if one walked into a room of non-mathematicians and announced, “Quaquaversal tiling of Euclidian 3-space,” nobody in the room would understand the expression. However, if the announcer then added, “From the Abstract Mathematics Handbook,” the listeners would be provided with a context in which such an expression holds meaning. They would require no further explanation. They need not learn what the definition of “quaquaversal” is. A context is enough to provide the listeners with meaning and subsequent understanding. Only reference to a context would preclude the expression from becoming nonsense.

A very useful illustration of context-dependency lies within the domain of art. In a very popular television show, Gilmore Girls, the main character is assigned to write a newspaper article covering the grand opening of an art exhibit. In the midst of the exhibit, she gets thirsty and approaches a drinking fountain. Just as she is about to take a drink, a girl suddenly appears and cries, “Don’t touch my artwork!” The main character steps back, puzzled, and the “artist” laughs, telling her, “I’m kidding. It’s just a water fountain.” Although, in this particular case, the water fountain was only a water fountain, it is completely conceivable that a water fountain may be an installation in an art exhibit. Within the context of the art exhibit, it is not a water fountain but a work of art, not to be touched, only admired from a respectable distance. But let us imagine the exact same object in the hallway of a university. Suddenly, it is back to being merely a water fountain. Of course, the object is recognizable as a water fountain, but it is no longer recognizable as art. In order for it to function as an expression of art, it must be placed within the context of an art exhibit.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain, a signed urinal, to the Society of Independent Artists. It is hardly possible that, in the 1600s, such a submission could have been conceived as a work of art by anybody, no matter how revolutionary. The urinal, in order to engender the controversy it did, had to be constituted by the cultural Dadaist context of the early 1900s to exist as an expression of art. If it is removed from this context and placed, instead, into the 1600s, it loses the expression of controversial-potential-work-of-art and becomes, instead, a urinal. Without the context that transforms water fountains and urinals into expressions of art, they remain water fountains and urinals. Of course, they are still capable of being recognized as objects. But this is obvious. Is this, then, enough to constitute iterability, and the ability to survive outside their contexts? They function as objects, certainly, but the object that is a work of art, and the object that is a drinking fountain, are two such distinct objects that it seems they are not the same object at all. In other words, the work of art does not seem to survive the displacement of context and emerge as a new potentiality. It is not the same object that emerges. An expression of art is transformed into a mundane object. Surely, this does not constitute survival, or iterability?

In fact, one could even go on to suggest that all abstract art is constituted by the creation of expressions that have meaning only within a very specific original context. Beyond the context of abstract art, the works become either nonsense, decoration, or simply mundane objects. For certain works of art to function and be understood as works of art, the background of abstract art is required.

In some cases, if no reference to a constituting context is possible, it seems that the expression is recognizable only as an expression, surviving with none of what made it that expression, and not any other. To return to an earlier example, the expression A does not, in fact, retain any of its “A-ness” beyond its context X. Therefore, the expression A does not survive, and is not iterable. If all Derrida’s second “rule” implies is that such expressions survive with only their existence as an expression intact, the insight seems slightly obvious for some cases.

Overall, the above examples could mean several things. Perhaps one would say that the examples provided are not examples of communication. Or, perhaps, in certain cases, context, and therefore intentionality, is an irrevocable aspect of communication.


Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

In twelve words:

It is not possible to summarize this book in twelve words.  Sorry.


I think:

Whenever someone asks, “What’s this book about?” they expect an answer like “Character X does Y and then Z happens.”  Like, Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, but then Harry’s disarming curse killed Voldemort and all was well.


In other words, they want the plot.

When it comes to good literature (and no, that doesn’t include Stephen King or Harry Potter or even Twilight — hate me, I’m snobby), the plot is never what the novel is “about.”  Death in Venice is really, really, really not about the plot.


Though short, it’s an extremely complicated, lyrical, philosophical exploration of the nature of art, tumblr_inline_mrqlttt5q41qz4rgp beauty, passion, and the role of the artist in society, and it’s brimming with intertextuality. <—this is a fancy term for “references to other literary works” and although it makes you sound really smart, don’t use it often because it only impresses literature grad students, and who wants to impress them?

So, once upon a time (what time?  I don’t know.  Early 1900s), there lived a writer named Gustav von Aschenbach.  He’s proper and virtuous and solitary and dignified and has an excellent work ethic and is, in other words, unforgivably dull.  He’s also extremely successful – his books sell, he’s respected, he’s well known, he’s a big deal.  He writes about characters who are as moral and uptight as he is.  You know, virgins, saints, Superman.  Anyway, on a sudden, mad whim (and it isn’t like Gustav to have any kind of whim, ever), he travels to Venice, Italy where he encounters Tadzio, a beautiful young boy.  At first, he is enamored with Tadzio’s beauty since it inspires his writing. Regina-George-obsessed-with-meBut theeen, our Gustav becomes obsessed rather than just inspired, and begins stalking Tadzio and fantasizing about his boyish sexiness in all sorts of inappropriate ways.

Creepy?  Disturbing?  Disgusting?  Of course.  That’s the point.  In the meantime, a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice, but the Italian government officials and business owners conceal the danger from tourists because, you know, they’re ruthless capitalists and it’s all about the money, honey.


Ashenbach finds out about the cholera, and briefly considers warning Tadzio’s family.  In a burst of dishonorable cruelty, he decides against it: if Tadzio’s guardians find out about the epidemic, they’ll take him away from Venice and then he’ll have no one to stalk.  Unthinkable.  Aschenbach understands that Tadzio might die, but at this point, he’s so obsessed and twisted and perverted, he doesn’t even care.  He just runs around the diseased city, daydreaming about Plato, getting his hair curled, and eating strawberries.

He also has inappropriate dreams: one night, he dreams of a chaotic orgy, with hordes of screaming, nude women and swarms of men beating drums.

la_jeunesse_de_bacchusThis is not your typical Playboy pool party.  This is perverted and disturbing and violent and dark.

Finally, one morning, while staring at Tadzio and pretending they have some sort of romantic thing going on, good old Gustav dies.  That’s how it ends.  He indulges in one last, dirty fantasy for the road, and then kicks the bucket.  Just like that.   So, that’s the plot.

However, next time you’re at a cocktail party and the guests are being sophisticated and pedantic and brilliant and someone asks, “What’s Death in Venice about?” thou shalt not say “A disgusting old dude who wants to screw a young kid.”  That will not impress anyone who isn’t stupid because that is not what the book is about.


So what is it about?  Well, in figuring that out, the first question one might ask is, why a young boy?  Why couldn’t Aschenbach fall in love with a nice lady his own age and have a healthy relationship with a consenting adult?

Significantly, Mann said: “In Death in Venice I wanted to present a man who at the summit of success, fame, and fortune finds no refuge in art but instead runs around, physically and psychologically, on an insurmountable passion… Only to make the plunge from the summit into the depths appear as fateful as possible did I choose for my hero homosexual love.”

So, the creepiness and inappropriateness and pervertedness of Aschenbach’s obsession is exactly what we’re supposed to be noticing.  Wow, Mann wants you to say, this guy is really, truly, super-duper nutty.  He was all monkish and boring and then, wham, bam, thank you ma’am (who doesn’t love a Bowie reference?), he’s a pedophile!  But why did Mann want that to happen?  Well, hold your horses, I’ll get to that.  Let’s explore some of the general ideas, themes, and allusions in the book.

  1. Dionysian and Apollonian Opposition.

So, a fabulous thinker named Nietzsche (the indisputable rock star of philosophy who cannot be categorized) described the world and the fundamental nature of the human condition as consisting of two opposing elements: the Dionysian and the Apollonian.




Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, intoxication, and ecstasy –he’s associated with music.



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Apollo is the god of the sun, dreams, and reason (think of light and order) – he’s associated with sculpture.



More importantly, the Dionysian is reflective of the amoral, eternal, chaotThermally_Agitated_Moleculeic, dark heart of nature itself.  Life, Nietzsche thinks, is a primordial, willful striving, but it doesn’t strive for anything.  It’s aimless.  It just strives.  Keep in mind that “life” here needn’t be carbon based.  Nietzsche means anything that exists.  Rocks, meteors, hydrogen molecules… just the stuff of the world.

In this forceful aimlessness, all distinctions and particulars are swept into the eternal movement of life itself.  It’s not confusing, I promise.

Think of it this way: you’re born, you go to school, you stress over which career to choose, decide you want to be a doctor or a criminal or a priest.  Then you’ll have three children or a BMW M3 (these are mutually exclusive categories), and your colleagues will think you’re swell and you’ll think you’re amazing!  And you are amazing!  You received the Nobel Prize for inventing the CCD image sensor!



And then… you’ll die.  And it won’t matter.  Sure, some people will remember you, and some will even cry.  But then, they’ll die, too.

Forget the Nobel Prize.  Let’s say you’re Augustus himself and you stand at the founding of the Roman Empire.  Guess what?

Augustus is dead.

The Roman Empire is gone. 

The continuous force of life has swept one of the greatest civilizations into oblivion and, eventually, all civilizations will fade away and humanity itself will disappear and life will go on blindly striving, pushing, pulsing, aimlessly, eternally.

Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

It’s a sobering thought.

Fundamentally, there’s only a blind totality and it’s an undifferentiated totality, where no individual entity or person or flower actually exists.  At bottom, it’s all the same stuff, it’s all life just moving and moving and moving.  Sound depressing?  It is.  It’s supposed to be.


BUT here’s the good news: we have the Apollonian!  The Apollonian can be thought of as humanity’s response to the aimless indifference of nature.  In spite of it all, humans can create distinctions between things, like good or bad, and they act as if individuated entities exist.  We build monuments and shrines for Augustus and Homer and insist that heroism and achievement is important, that it’s a big deal that you became a doctor and that your daughter took her first step and that your wife left you last Saturday.  We know we’ll die, we know it’ll all come to an end, but we go on and plant roses and study medicine anyway.  Why?  Because of the Apollonian force.  The Apollonian is an illusion, but a beautiful, noble, necessary illusion.


If it weren’t for the Apollonian, we’d be nauseated at the thought of striving for anything in the face of the blind indifference of life.  We’d be paralyzed and deny our will and do nothing, ever.  Nietzsche thinks that’s very bad.  It’s why Camus and Sartre smoked so much.


We have Apollonian illusions to counter the terrible Dionysian truth that nothing we do actually matters.

Now, for Nietzsche, the best art requires the precaribalanceous balance of both forces. Too much of Apollo, and your work and your experience become stilted and formulaic and regimented and too serious – lacking life force.  Too much Dionysius, and your work risks becoming incomprehensible, chaotic, meaningless.  Both are necessary.  Both are wisdom.


So.  Back to Ashenbach.  He’s organized, moral, hardworking, solitary, over-achieving… he’s boring!  He’s waaaay too Apollonian!  He needs to lighten up, man.  So what happens?  He gets the sudden, random urge to travel.  Suddenness, spontaneity, irrational whims?  Dionysius was here.  Then, Aschenbach falls for a child.  Inappropriate and overwhelming sexual forces?  Dionysius was here.  In other words, Dionysius has come to reclaim the unbalanced Aschenbach from his entirely Apollonian existence.


Balance must prevail.  Aschenbach – and indeed any human – cannot get away with masking from himself the true nature of reality for too long.  The art Aschenbach creates must reflect the Dionysian force.

Remember Aschenbach’s dirty dream, with the mass orgy?  It symbolizes the Dionysian Mystery cults of ancient Greece, where participants used intoxicants and music to deliberately induce trances and overcome societal limitations.


It’s kind of like a rave, but more philosophical.  The point was to effect a dissolution of the self, to commune with the god.  However, Nietzsche explains, the Greeks had such festivals precisely because they were carefully regulating the Apollonian-Dionysian balance.  They didn’t want to be overly Apollonian.  They understood the danger of becoming too reasonable and sterile.  So, they indulged Dionysian urges, but they did so wisely and thoughtfully.  Had they completely submitted to Dionysius, their culture would crumble beneath the chaotic violence of an existence without organization or obligations.

Imagine what would happen if you didn’t have concepts such as “good” or “evil”, if there was nothing that you felt was unacceptable, if you recognized no distinctions or individuals or limitations.  What would you do?  Well, like Oedipus, you might sleep with your mother and murder your father.  Quit your job?  Sure.  Crash your car? Why not?  Rob a bank, set fire to your house, throw yourself from the roof a skyscraper.  Whatever.


You see, recognizing that you can’t fly, or that killing is wrong, or that sleeping with your family is gross, is always a recognition of a limitation, or an ethical norm, or rules like cause and effect.

For Dionysius, there are no such distinctions or limitations or norms.  Everything is permitted.  Consequently, everything is destroyed.

But, remember, that’s not a problem for the god!  The pulsing force of life will go on.  Whether you are dead or alive, it’s no concern of the sublimely indifferent Dionysius.

So, essentially, that’s what’s happening to Aschenbach.  His culture – his stature as a successful writer, as an ethical and regimented human being – is unraveling.  And the god does not care.


  1. Greek Idealization of Male-Male love.


It’s not what you think.

Let’s return to the Greeks.  Once upon a time, it was completely normal, particularly for purposes of education, for young teenage boys to engage in erotic relationships with much older men (thus demonstrating the social constructedness of sexual desire, but that’ll be a different post).

Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio reflect this tendency.  Tadzio plays the role of the young, objectified erômenos.  He is not a human being.  He is a beautiful object, existing not for his own sake, but for the use and pleasure of others.


Initially, Tadzio serves the purposes of inspiring Aschenbach’s writing – he’s an aesthetic object.  Then, Tadzio becomes the source of Aschenbach’s fantasies – he’s a sexual object.  But as far as Tadzio’s basic humanity is concerned, Aschenbach absolutely doesn’t care.  The boy might die from cholera.  Hey, man, whatever.


  1. Platonic Theories of Beauty.

Sorry, more Greek stuff.

Plato, to whom all of Western philosophy is but a footnote, has a crazy and beautiful conception of truth.  For Plato, true knowledge is gained by progressing from shadows and copies of things to the original things themselves, which are essences.

So, for example, you see a basketball, an orange, and a clock.

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What do they have in common?  Well, obviously they’re all round.  To sound a bit more academic, they all possess the property of roundness.  Plato would say that roundness itself is an actual thing which exists in a separate realm.  This applies to all properties of things. So, tableness and squareness and deliciousness and catness all exist in that separate dimension, and it is by virtue of this dimension that we find objects with table-like properties (tables) and objects with square-like properties (boxes, let’s say) and objects with properties of deliciousness (sushi) and objects with properties of catness (cats, usually).

Does this sound strange?  If it does, it’s okay. It means you’re getting it.  Plato is supposed to seem strange.  It’s part of his charm.


Anyway, if you seek knowledge, Plato tells you, begin with contemplating an orange.  Then compare the orange to the clock, then to the basketball.  Recognize that they all share in the concept of roundness.  Recognize that oranges and basketballs are imperfect manifestations of the essence of roundness.  Now, abstract from the separate objects and think about roundness itself.  In other words, intellectually ascend to the separate dimension and hang out there for a bit, among the essences and properties.  Check out tableness and catness.  Dwell on their abstractness, their completeness, their sublimity.

Can you do that?  If so, congratulations!  You’re a philosopher.

Can’t do it?  Enroll in business school.


The same process of abstraction applies to beauty.  Physical, sensual beauty is a manifestation of the eternal essence of beauty.  Tadzio, then, is the imperfect copy of the essential form of beauty in itself.

Beauty itself is but the sensible image

In the super-cool dialogue Symposium (yes, I do think Plato is “super-cool” and yes, as a matter of fact, I do have friends), Plato describes the Ladder of Love, the ascent of which becomes increasingly more abstract.  It begins with sensual love of a body and ends with beauty itself.

There’s the problem: Aschenbach begins AND ends with Tadzio’s body.  In other words, instead of progressing from Tadzio’s particular beauty toward the essence of beauty (which is hanging out with the essence of roundness, remember), Aschenbach gets stuck in the physical plane.  He doesn’t abstract from the roundness of the oranges and basketballs, like Plato advises.  He just stays grounded, making orange juice and shooting hoops.  Getting stuck among objects, rather than contemplating their eternal essences, is the opposite of knowledge.


And that’s what the novel is trying to tell us.  Rather than being purified and ennobled by his love, Aschenbach is degraded and belittled by it.  What should he have done?  He should have applied Tadzio’s beauty to his art, moving from physical properties to aesthetic elements.  For Plato, sensual love is a stepping stone on the way to something higher.  But Aschenbach doesn’t get higher.  That’s the point.  He’s stuck.

  1. The Role of the Artist.

So, at the beginning of the novel, Aschenbach’s art behaves as the detached arbiter of morality.  The heroes he creates are famous for their perseverance and self-command.   However, as Aschenbach suffers the throes of erotic love and succumbs to Dionysian forces, his aesthetic views change from stoic reserve to passionate, chaotic freedom.  He comes to realize that artists live in a world of the senses.  The artist is a bohemian, an amoral libertine.

Think of a rock star.  His tastes, his activities, his life. Does the rock star live in seclusion and peace, somewhere where the air is fresh and the water is chlorine-free?  Does he wake up early and take a cold shower?  Does he drink warm milk before bedtime and swallow two gummy vitamins with each regular, plant-based meal?



The rock star is unshaved and unwashed, sleeping with everybody, taking drugs and risks and names, contemplating suicide, destroying guitars, refusing no poison, hating the world.  All these behaviors are permitted to him because he is a rock star (oh, Kurt Cobain…).  In fact, these experiences tend to emphasize the intensity and power of his music.

Aschenbach has been living in sterile and unnatural seclusion his entire, Apollonian life.  But it’s time for him to throw on Converse and a ripped pair of jeans, seduce some groupies, climb in a spray-painted van, and hit the road.  He must learn desire and joy and suffering.

Does this mean that Mann suggests that artists are necessarily passionate, immoral sinners?  No.  Remember, Mann punishes Aschenbach for his perversion.

Does this mean that Mann suggests that artists ought, instead, to be reserved and detached moralists?  No.

Perhaps it means that art demands both detachment and passion, both intellect and profound communion with life, to flourish.

So, there you are.  It’s a lot, I know.  And it’s not easy, I know.  But I’m suspicious of simplicity as a regulatory ideal in writing or thinking.  I see no reason to put simplicity on a pedestal, and I distrust simplicity for simplicity’s sake, especially where the subject matter is complicated and subtle.  A straightforward explanation would neglect an enormous remainder, even as the above summary does.  So, in simple terms, what’s the point of the book?  Aesthetic decline, I think.  But what do I know?


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A Room With a View

E. M. Forster

A Room With a View

E. M. Forster

In twelve words:
Lucy doesn’t know what she wants, but then she figures it out.


I think:
There’s a reason why Dorothy Parker once said, “Why, I’d go on my hands and knees to get to Forster.” So would I, Dot, so would I. Forster writes oh, so cleverly! With his light touch and excellent timing, this novel is young and spring-like. Everything blooms. But the blossoms don’t lack insight. They teach you, even while they laugh at you. They teach you because they’re likely more alive than you are, they’re intensely living things, the characters in this novel are some of the livingest creatures in all of literature.

HotelDegliOrafi_RoomWithAViewLucy begins her growing up in a hotel in Florence, Italy. When we meet her, she’s complaining that the rooms she’s been given overlook the courtyard rather than the river Arno.

Mr. Emerson, an old man also staying at the inn with his son, George, offers to exchange rooms, reasoning that “Women like looking at a view; men don’t” (I, too, like my maxims short, true, and sexist). Feel free to skip ahead here, but this point is crucial for those who care about themes in books: the narrator wants us to know that there are different “views” upon the world. Some are narrow and stifling, others more expansive, facing rivers and pieces of sky. But… is there a perfect view? Suspense!


Lucy is pretty and charming and certainly a little stupid. But we’re persuaded to forgive her because she plays the piano really, really, really well.

In fact, she plays it so well that her talent may take over her entirely and free her from the confines of Edwardian England wherein she finds “most big things unladylike”… UNLESS she marries the wrong guy. Then she’s stuck forever. More suspense!

And there’s George, who is brooding, moody, dark, mysterious, disillusioned with life… yes, yes, yes, he’s the Byronic hero.



He’s in love with Lucy, although I’m not sure why, since he’s never heard her play the piano, which is the only “big thing” she’s got going for her.

thoreauIt’s no coincidence that George’s last name is Emerson. Why? Because he’s a Transcendentalist, of course! The Transcendentalists were into nature, spirituality, independence, and building really small cabins in the middle of forests.  George tells Lucy, very prettily, that “there is only one perfect view – the view of the sky straight over our heads, and… all these views on earth are but bungled copies of it.” Lucy’s brilliant response? “What a splendid idea,” she says. Yes, Lucy, it is a splendid idea. Go play the piano.

So, because George is progressive, liberal, unpretentious, and passionately devoted to truth and because Jesus, who wouldn’t, Lucy falls in love with him. But she doesn’t know it, so she tortures him, herself, the reader, and everyone in the book until we, in frustration, almost stop caring altogether.


But George knows better, so he waits. And waits. And then waits some more. While he’s waiting, there’s a really beautiful chapter, in which George, Lucy’s brother, and a rector swim and play in a lake. It sounds unremarkable, but oh, that chapter is flooded with sunlight. If you have even a little imagination, you’ll want to fling off your clothes and prejudices and to dance, innocent and sublime, on the edge of some abyss or other. Or, at the very least, it’ll inspire you to pick up a copy of Walden. Read it. Do.