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How Ancient Greeks Remember: A Thoroughly Unresearched, Unprovable, Untenable Hypothesis

How Ancient Greeks Remember: A Thoroughly Unresearched, Unprovable, Untenable Hypothesis

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” -Faulkner

Let’s pretend you misplace your car keys, your phone, your lip gloss. What do you do? Most likely, you pause and try to remember what you were doing, where you were, when you last used the missing object. You re-collect — collect again — relevant fragments of the past, bringing them into the present and thereby making the past present once more. Re-collect and re-create to re-live. This sort of remembering is an internal and solitary experience.

Now let’s say that you anticipate the possibility of forgetting something, so you make a note for yourself:

*pick up mangoes

*text Lina about project

*Zimri-Lim owes the city of Babylon seven hundred sheep

Such administrative reminders prevent the past from slipping away in the first place, keeping the relevant information in a perpetual limbo to be retrieved any time.

But the act of recollection is a historical phenomenon, which means that not everyone has always remembered the way that we remember. Premodern oral cultures, especially song cultures, recalled the past by means of metered verse. In Homer’s time, the song of the bard wasn’t simply entertainment or art, although it was certainly both of these things. Song was the means by which a community made the past present again. The singing bard invoked the Muses to guide him in recollecting the deeds of heroes, thereby reminding the community of who they were and are. It’s a public, shared, communal act wherein the song is more than the content of what has been recollected: the performed song is recollection itself.

So how did Homer’s songs recollect?

Let’s talk about memory, cultural identity, and heroes.

The Iliad makes the past present while simultaneously re-interpreting and re-imagining it, curating a historical vision which simultaneously conveys a sense of nostalgia for a lost social structure and subtly critiques the current one. It reaches beyond performance into the philosophy of history to facilitate collective remembering.


First, let’s lay our scene.

During the turbulent 12th century BC, the entire Aegean was deeply and brutally shaken by economic, political, and social crises which led to the collapse and disappearance of the gorgeous Mycenaean culture (my very very very favorite ancient civilization).

Hostile invaders from the north, environmental catastrophes, and a thousand causes scholars continue to debate saw site after site descend into charred ruin.

By 1000 BC, the stable, highly organized civilization of grand palatial complexes, warrior aristocracies, traditional wall-painting, ivory and gold-working, and sophisticated infrastructural projects had vanished.

This sudden, violent devastation ushered in centuries of depopulation, illiteracy, collapsed trade and administrative networks, and deep uncertainty. Imagine widespread draught, famine, and wars. Oh, things were grim.

This might be when the legendary and mysterious Sea People arrived, likely fleeing their own collapsing societies, invading and destroying struggling cities across the Mediterranean. The last communication from the doomed king of Ugarit, which made me cry the first time I read it, is a heartbreaking plea not for help but for acknowledgment of loss:

When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed.

Our city is sacked.

May you know it! May you know it!

Even if the recipient of this message can do nothing, the king nevertheless demands for someone to know, to bear witness, to literally bear the unimaginable burden of such knowledge, so that the monumental destruction of his beloved city will not be forgotten.

Worst of all? Four hundred years of illiteracy followed the Bronze Age collapse. Messages from desperate kings were no longer sendable or readable.

Imagine living in 8th century BC Greece, a world of illiterate peasants and rough wooden houses, occasionally stumbling upon the ruins of majestic and monumental palaces.

What on earth are these incredible places and who were the giants who built them? What sort of superior beings lived in them? Where did they go? How were they destroyed? What the hell happened here?

What prevails is the trauma of not being able to remember. You cannot know what happened, you have no means to recollect it. Your past is simply missing. Four hundred years of silence. It’s disorienting, at best.

Because Iron Age communities could not re-collect the the Bronze Age by reading about it, they crafted a different way to remember.

In the 8th century BC, tombs filled with Bronze Age weapons and treasure were discovered, coinciding with Greeks’ growing awareness of themselves as both distant and different from those predecessors who had built the awesome fortifications of Tiryns and Mycenae. This newfound interest might be regarded as an embryonic historical consciousness, a self-awareness situating itself into a temporal context, relating and comparing itself to non-mythological ancestors which became the source of the rise of tomb and hero cults.

While the discovered warrior burial customs and Bronze Age iconography seemed to confirm the existence of “heroic” predecessors and the recovered precious objects circulated in the Aegean through trade and gift exchange, a search for evidence began in earnest.

Such deliberate pursuit was coupled with received oral memories of remarkable people who lived at the end of the Late Bronze Age and this construction of the heroic ideal was also either preceded by, followed, or was simply contemporaneous with, the creation of the Homeric epics. Whether the epics arose as a response to the hero cults or vice versa is not as important as their interrelationship at a time when Iron Age Greece became conscious of the enormous loss it had suffered with the destruction of Mycenaean civilization and began healing the trauma of this loss by the creation of a burgeoning, distinctive cultural identity which took its measure from an illustrious and spectacular heroic race.

Evoking and concretizing this identity, Homer’s narratives spread. By the 8th century, writing had been rediscovered, and Iron Age Greeks could finally set down the epics, or portions of them, thereby ensuring their distribution to an even greater audience.

Centuries later, the revival of national feeling was again inspired by the epics’ panhellenic nonpartisanism. Not only does the Iliad not privilege the Greeks at the expense of the Trojans, but it also presents a reverie of inclusiveness wherein the perpetually squabbling city-states are unified by a common purpose and harmonious in their common culture in a way they never were or could be.

For the fratricidal Greeks, this fantasy of unity has a particular poignancy, and with the suppression of the Persian threat, it becomes political dynamite.

Of course, it was that same Alexander who claimed descent from Achilles, performed sacrificial rituals among the ruins of Troy, and slept with the Iliad under his pillow in whom the Homeric spirit of shared values inspired the most successful attempt to create a Greek identity that transcended all ethnic and cultural boundaries.

To summarize, then, the development of Homeric epic, along with hero cults, accomplished three things:

  1. Simultaneously facilitated consciousness of a sense of loss and provided a means for overcoming this loss by remembering the past and recovering a distinctive identity;

2. Legitimized the old elite vanguard and the new polis structure;

3. Created a sense of socio-political unity.

The latter two can be approached as deliberate and essentially political, possible because of the former, which stems from the very nature of epic as a mode that creates the conditions for a shared past which can then be wielded as an instrument. Iron Age Greece was writing history by rewriting it, attempting to control collective memory by appropriating Homeric epic which itself was a recollection and reconstruction of inherited narratives, proceeding by intuiting, expanding upon, and crystallizing a sense of loss into a sense of nostalgia for a lost civilization.

This is possible because the Iliad is not exclusively an epic if we understand epic as what Paul Merchant described as “a chronicle, a ‘book of the tribe,’ a vital record of custom and tradition, and at the same time a story-book for general entertainment.” This common-sense definition is an amalgamation of the literary, the mythical, and the historical which gets established into culture as a constant reference point. Certainly the Iliad is all of these things, but it is something else besides.

In Book VI, Helen tells Hector that she pities the two of them “on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.”

The song she means is, of course, the Iliad itself. This self-reflexive remark momentarily estranges us from the narrative to remind us, just as it reminded its Iron Age audience, that the present story is not present at all and that the “men of the future” are us, now, in the moment of hearing or reading.

Later in the same book, Hector tells Andromache:

For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.

We read this from a vantage point of advanced knowledge, already knowing Troy’s fate. Homer’s audience, acquainted with Mycenaean palaces ruins, knew it, too. Hector’s prophecy has, for the audience, the quality of lament which arises from and is made possible by the self-consciousness of the text.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the passage in Book XII which describes the destruction of the Greek wall, emblematic of Greek strength, by referencing the future explicitly:

So long as Hektor was still alive, and Achilleus was angry,
so long as the citadel of lord Priam was a city untaken,
for this time the great wall of the Achaians stood firm. But afterwards
when all the bravest among the Trojans had died in the fighting,
and many of the Argives had been beaten down, and some left,
when in the tenth year the city of Priam had taken
and the Argives gone in their ships to the beloved land of their fathers,
then at last Poseidon and Apollo took counsel
to wreck the wall, letting loose the strength of rivers upon it…
where much ox-hide armour and helmets were tumbled
in the river mud, and many of the race of the half-god mortals.

The demise of the wall and the heroic race is described by once again removing us from the narrative. This collapses the aesthetic distance between ourselves and the present moment, replacing it with a historical distance between ourselves and the heroic race. We’re transported beyond the immediate, here-and-now immanence of the text’s temporal horizon and reverted to our own here-and-now, forced to reflect upon the narrative as narrative.

We are no longer spectating an imaginary story — we become aware of ourselves as the inheritors of historical ruin. This melancholy self-consciousness transcends epic’s status as “vital record of custom and tradition” and certainly that of “story-book for general entertainment.”

Everybody, this isn’t a story. This is a memory.

Such transcendence is further emphasized by the diction used to describe the half-god mortals who fell in the river mud: ἠμίθέων γένος άνδρῶν. Here, the Hesiodic hēmítheoi, demigod, unusually replaces the conventional Homeric hērō. Cataloguing the fourth of the five Ages of Man, Hesiod names the heroes who were destroyed at Thebes and Troy, describing only this fourth race as hēmítheoi.

Hesiod’s chronicle of the successive generations of humanity, contemporary with Homer, is historically regressive, beginning with a distant Golden Age, passing through the Silver Age to the Bronze Age, with the Age of Heroes preceding what he describes as his own cruel and brutish Iron Age: “For now the race is indeed one of iron. And they will not cease from toil and distress by day, nor from being worn out by suffering at night… But Zeus will destroy this race of speech-endowed human beings too.”

Gregory Nagy interprets the Iliad’s shift in diction from Homeric to Hesiodic as indicative not only of the text’s awareness of a perspective which regards the heroes retrospectively, as Hesiod does, but also as an articulation which reaches beyond the boundaries of epic style: “Whereas hērōes is the appropriate word in epic, hēmítheoi is more appropriate to a style of expression that looks beyond epic… The diction of the Works and Days represents the Fourth Generation of Mankind in a manner that is appropriate to the heroes of epic tradition… and at the same time removed from the epic perspectives of the heroic age.”

Beyond epic – to what? Nagy does not specify. Before I suggest a possible direction, let’s look at another selection of passages from the Iliad.

Book I finds the wise Nestor advising the much younger Achilles and Agamemnon by comparing them harshly to the men of the past:

Yet be persuaded. Both of you are younger than I am.
Yes, and in my time I have dealt with better men than
you are, and never once did they disregard me. Never
yet have I seen nor shall see again such men as these were…
These were the strongest generation of earth-born mortals,
the strongest, and they fought against the strongest…
…against such men no one
of the mortals now alive upon earth could do battle.

Nestor is referring to heroes like Herakles and Theseus, who are so unimaginably superior that even the great Achilles and Odysseus wouldn’t be allowed to talk to them. While it’s certainly possible that this example is applied in a well-crafted rhetorical strategy to mollify the angry warriors, it’s altogether unlikely that the honey-voiced Nestor is simply fabricating the memory, particularly since this sentiment is echoed in subsequent passages.

When Phoenix rebukes Achilles’ pride, comparing his stubbornness to past heroes, he reminisces:

Thus it was in the old days also, the deeds that we hear of
from the great men…

Multiple sections gaze from within the narrative into the future, prophetically comparing the heroes with the men of Homer’s time, the latter summarily dismissed with the description as men are now:

Tydeus’ son in his hand caught
up a stone, a huge thing which no two men could carry
as men are now, but by himself he lightly hefted it.


It was Sarpedon’s companion…
whom he struck with a great
jagged stone…
…A man could not easily hold it,
not even if he were very strong, in
both hands,
of men such
as men are now.


Hector snached up a stone…
…two men, the best in all a community,
could not easily hoist it up from the ground to a wagon,
of men such
as men are now.

It’s significant that Homer does not merely tell us that Hector or Diomedes are strong in relation to other men, or even that it would take two men to accomplish what they accomplish. Homer contrasts them specifically with men “now,” men who cannot compare, not even if they’re the community’s best of the best of the best.

These remarks echo Nestor’s remembrances, but apply them to a span of centuries rather than just a few generations, resulting in a three-part regression in excellence: the men of Nestor’s youth were greater than the men who fought at Troy who were greater than the men of Homer’s time. This is obviously reminiscent of Hesiod’s formulation, since it is the Iron Age men whom Hesiod deplores who are the unfortunate men of the Homeric “now.”

The effect of these prophetic repetitions is to once again estrange the audience from the narrative with a self-conscious critique which itself prompts self-consciousness. The audience is reminded that it’s not only qualitatively removed from the heroic race, but also historically: this time was superior to our own and its men were better than our very best, but it is a vanished race, a lost society which has become, in Helen’s words, an object of song.

But what’s the purpose of this song?

Let’s now return to Nagy’s claim that the Iliad reaches beyond the epic. Beyond epic – to what? I would like to suggest that among the many epic, aesthetic, and cultural functions the Iliad undoubtedly serves, if we take into account both its emergence in relation to the rise of hero cults in the midst of the dawning 8th century recollection of a collapsed civilization and its self-aware critique of its own historical moment, what arises is a protean philosophy of history responding to the need for a collective remembering.

Homer’s historical vision is one of continuous regression, which is perhaps inevitable given the 8th century’s nascent awareness of the magnitude of what had been lost. One of several theoretical approaches to collective memory posits that a post-conflict society passes through the stages of memory and remembering, forgiveness, and acknowledgment. Here’s what I think:

The circulation and crystallization of the Iliad is how the 8th century first began to remember.

There are two bardic modes: the statement mode, which is a song that focuses on current events, and the possessive mode, a song of what has been that is preservatory in nature, working toward the possession of a commonly agreed past. The simultaneous rise of hero cults, tomb cults, and emergence of epic demonstrate the 8th century’s conscious need for such an explanation, and its deliberate search for heroes suggests not only the conviction that what has been lost was a more sophisticated society, but also that it is worth recovering.

Nestor’s description of his youth’s companions is not simply praise or recitation of facts; coupled with the evocation of the Greek wall’s demise, the Iliad acts as a sort of eulogy, mourning the vanished race.

The epics’ congruence with the rise of geometric art also attests to this memorializing tendency, since the geometric age was characterized primarily by its funerary application to amphorae and other grave markers. This style of vase painting, aptly described by Cedric Whitman as “death conscious,” both eulogizes and attests, guarding against forgetfulness.

The possessive bardic mode is a historical mode, reconciling the men “now” to this unfortunate epithet by awarding them with a narrative which

*demystifies the palatial ruins,

*illuminates dim memories of exceptional people and splendid palaces,

*organizes recollections of chaos, depopulation, and violence into a coherent structure,

*and explains why it had to happen in just this way in a manner that renders it congruent with the emergent geometric art, hero cults, and tomb cults.

In brief, epic provides the community not only with a history, but also with a philosophy of history by means of which the Bronze Age collapse is recalled, forgiven, and acknowledged.

By thus informing its audience of how it stands in relation to its past, the Iliad performs the act of re-collecting, and in some sense even recovering what four centuries had obscured, healing the trauma of forgetting. This official history, established into Greek collective memory, can then be utilized for crystallizing and protecting Greek collective identity and furthering acts of socio-political import.

Of course, the history is as mythical as the validity of the political goals it gets appropriated by and the social structures it legitimizes, but as the manifestation of the spiritual allegiances of its culture, it is patently true.

You disagree? Go on, then.

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

That Tolstoy’s writing is influenced by Homeric epic has been remarked again and again, perhaps most famously by George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Tolstoy, the critical consensus declares, is Homeric.

For me, however, this wasn’t quite the case.

I read War and Peace when I was twenty-one, returning to it for both pleasure and wisdom again and again. Eventually, someone beautiful loaned me his battered, marked-up copy of Homer’s Iliad.

While reading it, I was struck over and over by how much Homer sounds like Tolstoy.

Because I read backwards, Tolstoy was not Homeric for me, but rather I experienced Homer as Tolstoyan.  Of course, the reality is that all of us are backwards readers. Nobody begins their literary education with the Epic of Gilgamesh and then reads chronologically through the ages.  For many, Homeric epic may very well be experienced as Tolstoyan, Joycean, or maybe even Jamesean. This is a phenomenological observation, and I’d like to use it to embark upon a brief thought experiment.

Before we do that, however, I’ll lay the groundwork by referencing two approaches to reading.

First. To escape the limitation of author’s biographies and ideologies, but at the same time avoid the other extreme of completely decontextualizing a text, let us consider a half-ironic technique Pierre Bayard terms mobile attribution wherein a work is attributed to an author who is not the one who wrote it – it’s a way of thinking that frees readers from the authority of a particular author or historical context.

If the Iliad, for example, were read as something composed by an Anatolian woman, our reading would be dramatically foregrounded by the text’s descriptions of femininity or its evocation of the non-Greek, eastern Trojans who have come to be associated with a Bronze Age Anatolian kingdom.

In other words, mobile attribution can bring a text’s themes and values out of the shadows, or displace prominent, canonical interpretations.

Second. Let’s consider Kuisma Korhonen’s concept of textual friendship. By looking at essays by Montaigne and Plutarch, Korhonen describes how the essay creates a relationship we can designate as friendship not between the writer and the reader, but between the reader and the text due to the assumed privacy of the essay form. This intimacy between the reader and a voice which might be the author’s, the narrator’s, or the writer’s creates a hermeneutical circle that links writers and readers across time and space. But this linkage is neither obvious nor comfortable, based not on proximity but on indecidability. Korhonen writes, “What is at stake in textual friendship is less a reunion of old mates than a step… into the uncertain, the unfamiliar, the unknown, toward the Other in its irreducible otherness… to strange landscapes where friends look less and less like friends, or even, for that matter, human beings.”

So, our two concepts are mobile attribution which allows us to edit and remix authors, and we have textual friendship, which links readers and texts on a path toward defamiliarization.

All set?  Let’s go.

In 1857, a 29-year-old Tolstoy read the Iliad, and this reading inspired him to rethink and rewrite the entirety of The Cossacks, his first novel. After completing the epic, Tolstoy writes in his journal: Читал Евантелие, чего давно не делал. После «Илиады». Как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь! [I read the Gospels, which I haven’t done in a long time. After the Iliad. How could Homer not know that goodness is love!]

Critics like Donna Orwin and Robert Jackson don’t doubt that in this passage, Tolstoy is lamenting the absence of true spiritual faith in Homer.  Jackson goes so far as to say about Tolstoy, “after reading the gospel, he is deeply pained like a man who has learned a very disagreeable fact about a friend.”

On this reading, Tolstoy has developed a friendship with Homer, a literary friendship, not a textual one, and we, as readers of Tolstoy’s allegedly private messages to himself, are drawn into a relationship with this journal which addresses itself to us and to our religious sense, if we have any, by exclaiming about Homer’s.

I read this passage of Tolstoy’s in conjunction with his other comments on Homeric virtue and his association of Homer with love, nobility, and the Bible, all of which are scattered throughout his short stories and nonfiction, and I come to the conclusion that как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь actually means, how could anyone possibly think that Homer was ignorant of this moral truth? Как мог Гомер не знать? Конечно он знал. I would like to suggest that, for Tolstoy, Homer did know that goodness is love, and we have all been misreading the Iliad.  The hermeneutical circle which includes Homer, Tolstoy’s journal, and me is an instance of friendship, of intimacy, which is not an argument, but an experience.

You’ll notice that in having this experience, I’m doing exactly what Pierre Bayard has advised us not to do: I’m picking through Tolstoy’s biography, relying on the authority of his other writing, and generally invoking Tolstoy’s authorial presence to legitimize my reading or, if you like, my misreading. However, if authorial authority is a too-limiting ground for my textual friendship with Tolstoy’s journal, then perhaps I can try mobile attribution. If we move chronologically, first Homer speaks in the Iliad, then Tolstoy responds not only privately in his journal but publicly in War and Peace and his other fiction which appropriates Homeric epic, and finally, with Donna Orwin’s reading, or my misreading, the hermeneutical circle is complete and the discourse of friendship is exhausted.

If only it didn’t end there. If only we could have Homer’s response.

Well, perhaps we do. Enter Petrarch.

Petrarch collected and edited hundreds of his own letters, some of which are addressed to ancient writers like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca. The epistles addressed to Latin authors end with some variation on the following lines: “from the land of the living, in the capital of the world, Rome, your fatherland, which has become mine, on 1 November of the year 1350 from the birth of Him whom I wish you had known” or “…from the birth of Him whom you might have seen or heard, had you lived a little longer.”

Petrarch wishes that Livy and Seneca had known the Christian faith, and obviously doesn’t doubt that if they had known of it, they would have been believers. With this backwards lament, Petrarch’s letters, supposedly private communication, come to stand in my hermeneutical circle beside Tolstoy’s journals.

Things get really interesting when we consider that Petrarch received a letter from Homer. We don’t know who sent it. Petrarch claimed not to know who sent it. Whether it was an anonymous correspondent, Petrarch himself, or, who knows, maybe even Homer – we don’t have the letter.

But!  We have Petrarch’s response. Remarkably, the manuscript of this response was folded in three, as he folded his letters to be sent, and an address written: Homero Meonio poete inaccessibili.  The folding, layout, and script is exactly like that of Petrarch’s authentic letters – it seems Petrarch anticipated and plagiarized Bayard’s dismissal of literary chronology, and fiction and reality became one.

So what did Homer say?  Well, he complained about the challenges of classical reception, criticizing his inheritors for attempting to imitate his epic style. Petrarch’s response is instructive: “As for imitators, what shall I say? … you should have foreseen that imitators would never be lacking …” After all, Petrarch tells Homer, to steal the staff from Hercules is a sign of great power.

If we widen the hermeneutical circle to include Petrarch’s letter to Homer, adding Tolstoy to the list of Homer’s undesirable imitators and attributing Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy, we have mobile attribution which results in a diological textual friendship.  Homer speaks in the Iliad, initiating literary friendship with Tolstoy, who crafts his own epic, and responds privately, in his journals, initiating a textual friendship with us.  Homer responds through a private letter: how dare you imitate and try to improve upon me?  Let’s attribute Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy: because I’m good enough to do so.

Homer’s and Petrarch’s letters become part of the text with which we engage in friendship, many voices coalescing into one by the process of our reading. If we put together mobile attribution and textual friendship, we get a hermeneutical circle which includes multiple texts and which the reader organizes into one voice, one friend who is a unique amalgamation of the reader’s backwards reading. This friendship becomes a platform from which to glimpse how Homer’s inadequate knowledge of spiritual faith, or his inability to convey it clearly, achieves mature expression in the spiritual dimension of Tolstoy’s epic.

Do You Even History?

Do You Even History?

Among its many other virtues, history unifies.  A shared, agreed-upon past reassures us that we are exactly where we should be, indeed, where we must inevitably be, because things couldn’t have and ought not have happened any other way. 

Sargon of Akkad, who unified Mesopotamia by creating the very first empire in the 23rd century BC, became a beloved legend, celebrated as the greatest man who had ever lived.  Just as he unified, the historical vision of his achievements was unifying.

But if you read enough Foucault, you’ll see that this historical approach, too, has a history.  This method achieves historical continuity by means of recollection which proceeds by conscious forgetting, a way of speaking which insists on silence, a list characterized by what’s unlisted.

But what if the wild, wandering, tribal Amorites, whom Sargon subjugated, or the Elamite dynasty, whose land he conquered, had left us their memories of the Akkadian empire’s earliest days?  Would we hear lament, stories of violent resistance, political denunciation?  Would it change our reception of Sargon of Akkad?  Significantly, what would happen to the narrative continuity of the first empire’s development?  Counter-history, it seems, functions as memory which disrupts shared memory.

This is because every conqueror presupposes a conquered, every victory a defeat, and every acquired territory a lost homeland.  What’s forgotten is not only an object of knowledge, but a source of knowledge.  These knowledges themselves can smear on war paint to do battle with sovereign history, and with the rise of modernity in the seventeenth century, they do just that. It is not entirely clear if counter-history has always existed in silent, shadowy forms as the illegitimate progeny of sovereign right and only struggled into the light in the seventeenth century, or if it came into existence at that later date. In speaking at all, however, counter-history commits an act of aggression.

However, if history proper has traditionally been a legitimizer and intensifier of power, it seems reasonable to suppose that history improper has always seethed and simmered beneath the cool façade of sovereign right. In other words, this must mean that as long as history has existed, it has dutifully concealed subjugated knowledges of the oppressed and conquered. Furthermore, this act of continuous, permanent concealment and subjection implies history’s self-awareness of itself as unjustifiable on its own terms.

History, then, has existed as a question which it dared not ask.

Let’s consider Gore Vidal’s comment about Alexander the Great:

“Today when a revulsion against war is normal, the usual commercialite would be inclined to depict Alexander as a Fag Villain Killer, but… it needs to be borne in mind today that not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war.”

Aside from the complacency of ethnocentrism which Vidal aptly points out, it’s jarring to even consider that the great justificatory battle which sovereign history deploys against subjugated knowledges may, for the likes of Alexander, not have existed at all. The conqueror was not the guardian or recipient of any conqueror’s right because there was simply no such question. Alexander, who doubtless regarded himself just as modern and forward-thinking as we do ourselves, was doing what any man in his position would have done. If we could ask how he justifies his slaughters, it is likely that he would raise bewildered eyes and ask us what we mean.

Much later, with military tacticians such as Caesar and eventually Napoleon, history’s self-awareness as the defender of sovereign privilege and the right of conquest becomes more clear. Napoleon was extraordinarily conscious of his unique, singular position as brilliant strategist and conqueror, and certainly did not think that what he did was what anyone else in his position would have done. Only he, only a Napoleon or a Caesar, has such valor and ability and therefore is privy to the right and privilege which are for Napoleons and Caesars to enjoy.

I’m suggesting, rather less tentatively than perhaps I should be, that perhaps not only was the violence of conquest once a democratic, egalitarian phenomenon, natural and inevitable for anyone, but that it did not take the form of struggle between sovereign and subjugated truth. For example, Plato argues in the Republic that a victory of some over others, even in the name of peace, dissolves society, which must be founded on cooperation of one thriving social organism, utterly rejecting the Hobbesian notion of subjects voluntarily submitting to rulers, and explicitly denying the validity of conquest.  So, before counter-history challenged sovereign right in 1630 in the name of a more just past achievable through revolution, the status quo of ancient Greece rejected it outright.

When Sarpedon tells Glaucus that in battle they either win glory for themselves or yield it to other men, it’s not just a reiteration of the heroic code, but also a historical description: the ancients either conquered or were conquered.  It’s a cool, unsentimental truth, as implacable as a law of nature: today it’s us, tomorrow it’s them.  The vanquished, in another year or mood, may well become the conquerors, and this insight is precisely why Sparta maintained such rigorous control over the helots.  Anyone’s city might be sacked and burned, the doomed men killed, the wretched women and children enslaved — this roulette had nothing to do with “natural right,” skin color, or ethnicity.  If you had this opportunity for conquest and violence, you seized it.  If you didn’t seize it, it just meant you weren’t powerful enough.  It was a time of conquerors and possibilities of conquerors, nothing more.

History’s self-reflexive self-idenitification as ruse, as illusion, as a struggle with counter-history, is itself a historical phenomenon the origins of which are perhaps traceable to a time when violent conquest first began to grope about for a mask.

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

Perhaps the broadest nature of Foucault’s project can be summarized as an attempt to make us aware of the contingent nature of familiar and seemingly universal concepts.  The entire body of human sciences has historical antecedents which revolve rather predictably upon a very distinctive concept of the human subject.  Just as Foucault urges us to ask by what processes and under what conditions statements are made and taken to be meaningful, we can probe the processes and conditions by which subjects are made and taken to be selves.  Foucault writes: “The establishment of a complete oeuvre presupposes a number of choices that are difficult to justify or even to formulate.”

Strangely, so is the establishment of the self.

Just as the separation between a published work and a grocery list is precarious and vague, so is the separation between public and private selves.  There are intended, or official, statements, and unintended, or unofficial statements.

A scribbled confession, someone’s name on a napkin, the sketch of a profile – these are the unintended, unofficial statements of self which are excluded from the oeuvre of the self as unjustifiable and illegitimate, like bastard children.  The unity of an oeuvre, Foucault explains, is not given.  It is “the result of an operation.” Well, of course.  When the indomitable Thomas Cromwell arrives at the court of Henry VIII, he arranges his face.  He is suppliant, amenable, and this is not hypocrisy.  The face that he has arranged “can be regarded neither as an immediate unity, nor as a certain unity, nor as a homogenous unity.”  It is, perhaps, a strategic unity.

Whether deliberate or otherwise, the unity resulting from an operation delimits the edges of the oeuvre of the self.  Oeuvres are not stable objects but are situated in networks, and the meaning of an oeuvre is not found in its implicit and secret nature, but develops as a consequence of its location within a network.  The categories for such networks are continually shifting – upon what basis do such categories emerge?  If something is said at all and is constituted as meaningful, it is only because it emerges on a field in terms of which it makes sense – perhaps it is these very terms which constitute discursive formations.

Shakespeare famously declared that “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.”  In other words, we are ourselves only inasmuch as there is a stage for us to be on.  Indeed, our very status as players, as individuals, as subjects, is discursively conferred upon us.  We are not individuals a priori and continuously, but a posteriori and discontinuously.  Our being is not composed of unities, but by systems of dispersion – our exits and our entrances, our many parts.  As objects of discourse, roles are defined by exterior relations, not interior properties.

Shakespeare’s characters are not to be sought in the biographies of actors, but in the relations among costumes, props, scenery, exits stage right, and the anonymity which allows replacement by an understudy.  In an unexpected way, this analysis is nearly Kantian: we encounter an object as the object that it is only inasmuch as we have categories in which to experience it as such.  This ought to imply that anything which is within the bounds of such categories is a possibility of experience.  Yet this is not so.

Tantalizingly, Foucault introduces the mystery that there are many statements which are grammatically and logically acceptable but which are never, ever uttered.  There are many roles which are not acted, realized, or even scripted.  Obviously, there are rules besides logic and grammar – epistemic rules, perhaps – which delimit the possibility of what can be said, acted, or even thought.

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

When we think of Socrates, we usually imagine a sandaled martyr of democracy, a radical thinker sacrificed to the caprice of the uncomprehending mob. Admired by dissidents like Gandhi and Tolstoy, Socrates was the inspired enfant terrible of the polis, a poster child of free speech who dared to ask the difficult questions, troubling the status quo and undermining authority. This, at all events, is the popular vision of him, expressed very beautifully by Joyce’s paraphrasing of Maeterlinck, who contrasts the benevolent Socrates with a legendary traitor: “If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas goes forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.”

But is this version completely balanced? We’ll get to that.

First, some background.

After the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, a 30+ year conflict waged between Athens and Sparta from which Sparta emerged victorious and cocky, a 30-man squad of oligarchs took over Athens. Imposed by Sparta, these guys were complete jerks.

Brutal and repressive, they slashed democratic laws, murdered around 1,500 Athenians (which was about 10% of the population), stole everyone’s property, and sent into exile thousands of others who opposed them. Lots of people fled. Needless to say, the Thirty Tyrants’ savage reign dissolved in just a few months the hard-won and precious Athenian democracy.

Here’s the thing: two of the Thirty Tyrants just happened to be Socrates’ former students, Critias and Charmides, and Critias was one of the government’s most ruthless leaders. This didn’t exactly make Socratic teachings look good. More damning, however, was that not only did Socrates not leave Athens with everyone else who opposed the reign of terror, but he wasn’t exiled with the other democrats, either. The Thirty’s harsh laws didn’t touch him or his property.

One day, the oligarchs decided to execute Leon of Salamis and take all his stuff. They turned to Socrates for help, asking him to bring the luckless Leon in. Socrates refused, something he proudly brought up during his trial, saying “That government, as powerful as it was, did not frighten me into any wrongdoing. When we left the Hall, the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home.”

Well, ring-a-ding-ding, Socrates, your fearlessness just blew our minds.

What can we say? He didn’t help arrest the guy, sure, but he also didn’t exactly go to the mattresses to oppose the bloodthirsty dictatorship. He didn’t even protest the order. He could’ve at least warned poor Leon. What’s weird is: why did the Thirty ask Socrates to carry out the cruel mission in the first place? Did they expect him to cooperate? None of the ancient sources tell us that the sharp rhetorical rapier Socrates so famously deployed against power was ever wielded against the Spartan dictatorship, in word or in deed.

Anyway, after the Thirty were finally overthrown and Athens was left reeling from the wave of assassinations and abuse, it’s pretty logical that anyone who’d been tight with the despots was looked upon with suspicion. This alone might have been enough for Athenians to mistrust and persecute Socrates.

The perception of Socrates as an educator of tyrants reached its apotheosis fifty years after Socrates’ execution, when the orator Aeschines reminded the Athenians that they “killed Socrates the Sophist because he appeared to have taught Critias, one of the Thirty who put down democracy.” Put that together with his totally inegalitarian politics, and what you get looks a lot like unequivocal support for the unchecked power of wealthy aristocrats. So much for the revolutionary spirit of a political dissident.

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?


Have you ever heard someone say that Twilight is a terrible movie because it presents stalking and emotional co-dependency as desirable? Or that 50 Shades of Grey is an awful book because it eroticizes abuse? I have. Every time someone criticizes such pop culture phenomena on ethical grounds, they’re making the assumption that good art has to be good for something — in most cases, that something is morality.  But what’s this assumption grounded on?

Let’s talk about Noel Carroll, a philosopher of art, and the 20-year-old dispute he started.

The debate, politely confined to academic journals, was initiated by Carroll’s explication of his position as a moderate moralist. Here’s what this means: Carroll begins with the observation that many artworks inspire moral responses in their audience, thereby encouraging interpretation and evaluation of themselves in moral terms. For Carroll, such responses are often not prescribed by the work, but already present in the minds of audiences. Numerous presuppositions are required of spectators and readers, who arrive with assumptions and then utilize them to complete narrative gaps. For example, Shakespeare needn’t explain why Hamlet is outraged at his father’s murder. King Lear’s disappointment in Regan’s ingratitude is taken as a matter of course, since ungrateful children are tacitly understood to be disappointing. In fact, narratives are often unintelligible without the audience’s preconceptions: unless one finds the social ostracism of Anna Karenina both inevitable and distressing, Anna’s suicide becomes incomprehensible. Thus, Carroll explains, it is a typical element of artworks to “activate” existing moral emotions, without which the work will be inaccessible to the viewer (whether some works deliberately strive for inaccessibility is a related, but separate, notion). Given sufficient moral flaws, Carroll posits, the activation does not take place, and the work remains beyond intelligibility. Since an antecedent moral understanding is a prerequisite of art’s audience, Carroll concludes that moral evaluation is implicit in aesthetic engagement.

Carroll’s second bulwark for moderate moralism relies upon an Aristotelian conception of proper tragic character. In his Poetics, Aristotle proposes that the plot tragedy offers “must not be the spectacle of a … bad man passing from adversity to prosperity … it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear.” Moral defectiveness, in other words, must not be presented without its just punishment, or, what amounts to the same thing, without a moralizing message. Without it, the audience cannot sympathize with the artwork. If a work strives to arouse pity and fear, as proper tragedy should, the substance of the work must be morally sympathetic.

Venturing where Aristotle points, Carroll introduces the uncontroversial thesis that achieving the desired audience response is an integral feature of successful artworks. However, if a work which aims at the audience’s pity is so ethically inappropriate that it prevents emotional “uptake,” it cannot achieve the desired pitying response because it has “invited the audience to share a defective moral perspective.” Thus, the portrayal of certain unethical attitudes, since it precludes the hoped for aesthetic response, forces the artwork to fail qua art. Invoking the incorrect “bad man passing from adversity to prosperity” formula, Carroll imagines a dramatic representation of Hitler as a sympathetic character. Such a representation must founder in its own emotional inaccessibility, Carroll argues, because the audience cannot summon the necessary sympathy for such a morally objectionable figure. In the simplest terms, the artwork remains beyond sympathy because the audience “doesn’t get it.” For Carroll, emotional remoteness occasioned by the “failure to achieve uptake” is an aesthetic failure precisely because it is a moral failure. Linking the capacity to achieve uptake with his assertion that audiences complete works by contributing an implicit ethical understanding, Carroll concludes: “Securing the right moral response of the audience is as much a part of the design of a narrative artwork as structural components like plot complications. Failure to elicit the right moral response, then, is a failure in the design of the work, and, therefore, is an aesthetic failure.” With this elegant formulation, Carroll defends a moderate moralism which guards the inextricability of ethical from aesthetic value.  In other words, if we think that stalking or sexual domination are unethical, then Twilight and 50 Shades fail aesthetically by failing ethically.

But is it convincing?

Let’s begin by examining Carroll’s first supposition: artworks “activate” existing moral emotions, and if the activation doesn’t take place, the work remains inaccessible. One must understand Hamlet’s outrage at his father’s murder, for example, in order to understand the play. If one believed that murdering fathers was a common or even a cheerfully encouraged practice, Hamlet’s plot would become nonsensical.  Thus, Shakespeare activates our ethical sense by summoning the common knowledge that murder, particularly when applied to family members, is wrong. Very well. But doesn’t Hamlet also activate our biological sense by relying upon our common knowledge that humans are mortal? Is not this sense further activated by Shakespeare neglecting to mention that his characters drink water and use the restroom? The audience is not surprised when Hamlet does not sit down to a single square meal for the long months of the play’s action because the fact that he must be eating is implicitly understood. In fact, there is a myriad of implicit understandings with which an audience arrives at an artwork – biological, historical, cultural, psychological, and even scientific. If the activation of ethical norms is a standard feature of artworks, then so is the activation of biological and historical norms, without which the work may be incomprehensible. This is true, but trivially so. Unless, along with ethics, we are prepared to admit biology, history, and science into the summary of aesthetic value, such implicit understandings, while necessary, are nevertheless not aesthetic features. But wait, an attentive objector might cry, Carroll’s formula regards ethical norms as aesthetic features only if eliciting such norms is part of the design of the work. Again, this is only trivially true. If it’s essential to the design of Hamlet that we reject murder, it’s equally essential that we accept mortality or the undesirability of death because, without them, the plot’s design is not possible. Surely, we are not prepared to admit “moderate biologism” or “moderate psychologism” along with Carroll’s moderate moralism into the scope of art critical standards.

Now let’s consider Carroll’s second supposition: achieving the desired audience response is a standard feature of successful artworks. While this seems self-evident, it does not follow that if the desired response is an ethical one, the artwork’s failure to achieve it is also ethical. Invoking Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, Carroll recounts that it was intended as a satire, but the coldly disturbing descriptions of murders were regarded as so morally offensive, that audiences were unable to see the novel’s ironic elements: “American Psycho’s failure to achieve uptake as satire is attributable to Ellis’ failure to grasp the moral inappropriateness of regarding his serial killer as comic.” Carroll argues that such works fail because they ask the audience to “share a defective moral perspective” where the nature of the work itself calls for a proper moral perspective. However, this contradiction lies not in ethics, but in aesthetics. When Hamlet’s dead father appears in contemporary productions of the play as a transparent phantom, the audience is asked to entertain an unscientific point of view. Ghosts, common knowledge tells us, do not exist. The play asks us to temporarily believe, for its sake, that they do. Despite common knowledge, the audience plays along.  If the scene’s special effects become excessive, with, say, transparent sheets flying to and fro, the childish absurdity of believing in ghosts might overcome the power of the play to move us. In such a case, it would not be the unscientific nature of ghosts, but the way ghosts are presented, that prevents tragic uptake. It would not be the content, but the form, of the work that would become objectionable. These would not be scientific defects, but aesthetic ones. Similarly, if the audience does not play along with American Psycho’s killer, it is not a moral failing, but an aesthetic one. It isn’t that the novel portrays a killer, but rather that it does so badly. Killers need not be justly punished for a novel to “work” at securing uptake, but they must be presented in ways which accord with aesthetic sensibilities. Had Ellis been a stronger artist, the immoral content of his novel may have been transcended by its aesthetic form. Shallower works sometimes founder in the gap between form and content which powerful works are capable of reconciling.  After all, great works ask audiences to identify with rascals and villains very frequently. Let us consider the icy cruelty of Iago, whose soliloquy nevertheless manages to elicit empathy, or the pickpocketing Artful Dodger, whose criminality seems comical. Since Iago is one of the coldest villains in literature, it’s certainly not his congruence with ethical understanding which encourages “uptake” of Othello, but rather Shakespeare’s aesthetic choices which move us despite, or perhaps because of, their disturbance of implicit moral knowledge.

To illustrate this further, let’s imagine the feminist philosopher Marcia Muelder Eaton lingering near a lake in Minneapolis. Beside the water, the loose strife flower blooms. Frothy purple blossoms cling to slender stems. The flower, Ms. Eaton thinks, is beautiful. Then, she recalls that the exotic plant invades wherever it takes root, swiftly ruining water purification processes for other plants and animals and destroying the delicate ecosystem. She writes, “I know that it is a dangerous, even evil, plant … But I cannot prevent myself from finding the plant quite beautiful.”  Despite its ruthlessness, the flower is beautiful, and its destructiveness perhaps only makes this conflict more pronounced and therefore more aesthetically forceful. In Carroll’s parlance, the purple flower contradicts implicit moral knowledge. Nevertheless, it achieves uptake in Ms. Eaton’s mind. This ethical dilemma of beauty in evil is at the very heart of Carroll’s critique. It is, however, an ethical dilemma. American Psycho is unlike the loose strife flower because it lacks aesthetic, not moral, goodness.

Perhaps the most notorious example of an “evil” artwork is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a glorification of Nazi Germany which enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception, though certainly not because it was more moral than American Psycho. The film, made at Hitler’s request, focuses upon the 1934 Nuremberg party rally sponsored by the Nazi Party. Brilliantly orchestrated montages of thousands of troops, marching bands, parades, and speeches flowing to the cadence of Wagnerian music create a stunning spectacle.

The film was successful not only in Germany, but won the Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, and is still regarded as a supreme cinematic achievement. The controversy, of course, is explicit. The representation of ecstatic crowds adulating Hitler, who is portrayed as a redeeming figure graciously accepting bouquets from laughing children, culminates in a vision of Nazi Germany as desirable and, quite simply, good. The Triumph of the Will is also unlike the loose strife flower, but not because it lacks aesthetic force. Unlike the flower which prompts us to set aside its destructive nature for the sake of appreciating its formal beauty, the glorification of Nazism structures the work as a whole. Content and form merge: we cannot set aside the content of a messianic Hitler because that content is precisely what forms the film into the kind of film that it is. Here, Carroll would likely insist that when content becomes paramount, aesthetic evaluation is helpless and ethical evaluation must take the reins. However, this is misguided. A purely formalistic survey, wherein we are asked to bracket the film’s veneration of Hitler in order to appreciate only its stylistic features, is not the only aesthetic approach. Form and content are reconciled in exploring how stylistic features convey substance, such that the entire expression of the work is included in aesthetic evaluation. Instead of setting aside the vision of Hitler’s goodness, we assess how that vision is communicated. Much like Othello is canonized not in spite of Iago’s treachery but partially because of it, the film succeeds aesthetically not in spite of its message, but partially because of it. Asking whether the historical Hitler is as messianic as he is represented is like asking whether space travel really occurs as instantaneously as it does in science fiction novels. The magical realism of Borges, wherein tigers are willed into existence and dead men play the gramophone, asks us to transcend the experience of waking reality – we leave the real behind eagerly because Borges is a master artist. We needn’t accept the validity of manifesting tigers for his stories to achieve “uptake,” and we needn’t accept the validity of Hitler’s goodness for a controversial film to achieve “uptake.” Of course, this doesn’t preclude moral critique of the film, just as science fiction novels do not preclude scientific critique. The provocative film promotes ethical questions and fears – as it should. Such critique, however, is nevertheless not aesthetic in nature. Nazi Germany remains despicable; the film remains a masterpiece.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that it is sometimes the very purpose of artworks to elicit moral disgust, it’s important to note that Carroll’s supposition that artworks which cannot achieve their desired responses fail aesthetically is simply not borne out in art history. It is doubtful that Manet painted his Olympia, depicting a nude prostitute, with the anticipation that its spectators will respond with inordinate hostility.  At its first 1865 exhibition, the most famous art critics were scandalized into a brutal disparagement which echoed the public’s immediate rejection of the painting. One critic depicted “the crowd thronging in front of the putrefied Olympia as if it were at the morgue,” another declared that “her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous,” a third declared that “she does not have a human form.” The disturbed public was even less generous with its praise than the critics. In such a case, the achievement of desired audience response figuring as an implicit feature of aesthetic merit begins to seem much less self-evident. Many artworks shared a similar fate. Sargent’s Madame X and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon were scorned by an offended public, and Modigliani and Keats famously languished beneath the weight of critical rejection. Melville’s Moby Dick profoundly disturbed implicit ethical understanding, as well, but it would be difficult to argue that these works were therefore aesthetically defective. Similarly, Carroll’s thesis fails to account for historical shifts in what counts as ethical, and therefore what becomes implicit. While Petronius’ Satyricon roused its Roman audience to laughter, a typical contemporary reader may find nothing amusing in its explicit narration of sexual abuse. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the Satyricon was a good artwork in the first century, but is a defective artwork now. This is partially because the Satyricon is not read for its morality, but for its aesthetic virtue, which retains its hold on us despite changing ethical norms.

Now, let’s hear from the opposition, and consider the moderate autonomist response to Carroll’s moderate moralist thesis. James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean begin their answer to Carroll by invoking the not infrequent tension arising between moral and aesthetic convictions. Recalling Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant Shylock, who is hilariously and yet prejudicially written, the very conflict between morality and art is cited as evidence that they are indeed separate values. This conclusion seems intuitive. Ms. Eaton’s hesitation beside the lake, suspended between appreciation and moral hostility for the purple flower, is perhaps symptomatic of a dissonance that exists at the very heart of art. Great art often troubles and disturbs, deliberately estranging its audience from normative experience. Ethical norms, like scientific or historical norms, do not occupy a privileged position by floating above the material that art transforms. Picasso’s simultaneity disturbs normative perceptions of temporality and Shakespeare’s ghosts disturb normative perceptions of mortality. Why, then, ought normative perceptions of morality – those which Carroll terms implicit — remain immune from art’s relentlessly questioning irreverence? We do not regard Picasso’s Still Life with Compote and Glass as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to proper visual experience. If anything, its strangeness is what makes the work vital, significant, and powerful. Why, then, must we regard The Merchant of Venice as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to a proper morality? It is possible that the inner struggle such works engender between aesthetic power and ethical conviction, whether intended by the artist or not, contribute to their greatness. An audience’s implicit understanding, whether moral or otherwise, is never secure within the domain of art, and this insecurity is precisely what contributes to art’s awesome power.

A consuming artistic experience may very well include the superseding of normative values. As we read great literature we find ourselves identifying with dubious characters and perspectives, cheering on liars, cheats, conquerors, maniacs, and “bad guys” who overwhelm us with their charisma or their power. Of course, such identifications do not discredit the ethical import of artworks – they are simply not reduced to them. Morality and politics, much like any aspect of sociality, are art’s raw material, not its goal. To strip art of its power to estrange, in effect to neuter it, is to strip it of its aesthetic function. Does this mean that an artwork cannot be motivated by ethico-political aims? Of course it can. Nevertheless, ethico-political aims, however they are deployed within the work, will not necessarily render the work aesthetically valuable.

This is related to Anderson and Dean’s critique of Carroll. Although ethical and political criticism of artworks is a legitimate and important activity, Anderson and Dean argue that Carroll hasn’t succeeded in convincing them that identifying with ethically reprehensible attitudes entails aesthetic shortcomings. Relatedly, an artwork’s representation of ethically commendable attitudes does not result in aesthetic merit. Art can seduce its audience into identifying with “bad guys” and, in some cases, even outright evil, because, Anderson and Dean insist, “an artwork will never be worse because of its moral defects.” They explain that American Psycho’s aesthetic failure stems from its inability to satisfy the Aristotelian demand for audience sympathy, while its moral failure stems from its endorsement of immoral perspectives. Since its moral and aesthetic failings have different causes, then an inquiry into the work’s moral value will not yield any information about its aesthetic value.

Carroll decided to meet the challenge and published a response. Once again returning to his claim that artworks are incomplete structures requiring audiences to arrive with certain prior knowledge, Carroll argued that works must be so structured as to invite audiences to complete them appropriately. Facilitating the improper audience response not only prevents understanding, but subverts the aim of the work. Since this address to the audience is part of the structural design of the work, the failure to elicit the desired moral response is a failure in design and, therefore, an aesthetic failure. Carroll’s response-dependent formula again neglects the shifting nature of audiences, whose responses are deeply influenced by ethical, political, social, and sexual mores such that an Olympia which offends ethical sensibilities in 1865 is incapable of evoking class distinctions a century later. If the representation of a sallow prostitute seems ugly because ethical norms deem her so, and years later the spell she weaves stems from her strange beauty, perhaps achieving undesired responses is a sign not of aesthetic failure, but aesthetic revolution. A moral rejection might seem, to later generations, as little more than puritanical blindness.

Does this mean that American Psycho, along with Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, might come to be regarded as a masterpiece a hundred years hence? Maybe! Certainly nothing in aestheticism’s reasoning would reject this possibility. More importantly, it means that rushing forth to disparage a work’s meaning by critiquing its moral content may not only prove to be historically misguided, but may negate the work’s offering of aesthetic power which is, amid today’s politicized debates, precisely what’s at stake.

Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible

Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible



Here’s what happens when you read too much Foucault: revolution appears pointless.  Not only explicit regime change with gas masks and molotov cocktails, but also implicit restructuring of thought and behavior, begin to seem utterly impossible.

It isn’t a coincidence that the rise of the modern state which, for Foucault, corresponds to a multiplication of social apparatuses for discipline and habituation, also marks the rapid decline of the public sphere, once exemplified by egalitarian social mingling in English coffee houses, squares, and literary salons, which encouraged deliberation and critique.  Perhaps this decline has something to do with a certain moral quietism which accompanies society’s internalization of what is presented as normal, natural, and necessary.  At the level of the state apparatus, which Foucault regards as a support structure for a much deeper power system, critique or transformation seems only to yield the multiplication of that ubiquitous system, though in a different guise.


Let’s consider two examples.

First, the process of habituation results in the neglect or destruction of that which cannot accommodate, or refuses to accommodate, normative categories.  This condition of marginalization exists where the institutions, responsibilities, and attitudes associated with the social apparatus cannot reach.  A contemporary example might be the social hysteria regarding, and eventual implications of, gay marriage.  Existing beyond the right to marry, some are condemned to live as second-class citizens, without access to certain forms of social capital, legal benefits, and social privileges.  However, when their right to marry is finally announced, to great fanfare and much rhetoric regarding social progress, they are rapidly assimilated into an extension of the state apparatus and the various obligations and regulations it imposes, such as family incentives, family values, tax codes, and so on.  What’s been won?  A simple reversal of surveillance.  Whether marginalized or integrated, whether excluding or including, the state apparatus preserves the web of regulation and punishment, though with a different face, under a different name, and with seemingly more progressive ends.  The passing from marginalization to assimilation, the fighting to achieve the right to be “plugged in” — whether by extending the right to marry or acknowledging the clamor of Iranian adolescents to connect on social media — can also be regarded as a wholly innocent but nevertheless invidious complicity in social surveillance.


The implication is that a state of marginalization is ultimately more free, or more subversive, than one of assimilation, even if it means the vagabond’s wanderings without recourse to legal or social rights.

Second, because power is not monolithic, instead perpetuating itself in a multiplicity of local struggles, it lacks a point of entry.  Like the Medusa, upon whose head a new snake uncoils when the previous one is sliced away, any challenge or change to elite interests only results in their quick readjustment and re-instantiation.  When the Russia of the early 1800s ensured that its golden sons, the young and ambitious aristocrats, had the finest of educations abroad, the country did not anticipate that these men would return brimming with ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The subsequent uprising they engineered, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, was a terrible shock to the old vanguard of political power.  When the revolt was brutally crushed, the nobility’s sons executed or exiled, it seemed as if the status quo reigned once more.


However, it was this clumsy effort, Russia’s first revolution, which inspired and ushered in the Bolshevik revolt.  This brief history illuminates the spontaneous and unavoidable breaks and re-establishments of power relations: who could have supposed that the Russian nobility’s privileging its elite with access to travel and books would have destroyed that same nobility, but not for the sake of something we might term progress, but for the sake of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history?  Then, in a strange paradox, the very act of maintaining power’s interests has the potential to undermine those interests.

But here’s the discouraging part: these historical lapses and reversals cannot be deliberately engineered because any such meddling only brings about a more intense fortification of the state apparatus, as the examples of Soviet Russia or Napoleon’s France demonstrate.  If the alternatives to the punitive society are marginalization or a struggle which must result in the deeper entrenchment of normalizing systems, moral quietism often takes root.  Why bother voting?  70% of the population has no impact on policy, and is effectively disenfranchised. Still, the lapses occasioned by history, those tiny chasms between surveillance and surveillance, might become the new public sphere, spaces of tension for critical thought, deliberation, and (dare I say it?) even democracy.


Knowledge as War Strategy: Ancient History with Foucault in Mind

Knowledge as War Strategy: Ancient History with Foucault in Mind

I’ve been reading too much Foucault.  So, let’s talk about barbarians.


Foucault develops a historico-political discourse which relies upon the seemingly uncouth figure of the barbarian.  The term has its roots in the Latin barbaria “foreign country,” in the Greek barbaros “foreign, strange,” and perhaps most significantly, in the Proto-Indo-European root barbar, which was intended to reproduce the unintelligible babble of foreigners.


Unlike the eighteenth century formulation, the ancient barbarian was not primarily identified with violent domination, but with linguistic ignorance.  Barbarians were outsiders who did not speak as we speak and whose speech was nonsense.  Inclusivity was a matter of communication, not proximity, as we come to know and are known through what we can convey and understand. There’s a sense of homelessness here, of not belonging, of profound strangeness: he doesn’t understand us, he cannot know us, and therefore he must remain a mystery.

When the ancient historian Herodotus attempts to trace the origins of the Greeks, he tells the story of the king Croesus who wonders which empire to align himself with – the Athenian or the Spartan.


Herodotus explains that the Athenians were descended from the indigenous Pelasgians, while the Hellenic Spartans had arrived in Greece much later: “And indeed these two nations had held from very early times the most distinguished place in Greece, the one being a Pelasgic, the other a Hellenic people, and the one having never quitted its original seats, while the other had been excessively migratory … The Hellenic race has never, since its first origin, changed its speech … The Pelasgi, on the other hand, were, as I think, a barbarian race” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 1).

In keeping with the ancient emphasis on linguistic knowledge and ignorance as indicative of barbarism, Herodotus identifies the Athenians as descended from barbarians who were nevertheless native to Greece.  The Spartans, who had always spoken Greek and were therefore not barbarians, had been “excessively migratory” and were not indigenous to Greece.  Here we find the eternal theme of ancient, original right, and it manifests itself in the investigation of who is more truly Greek.  In Herodotus, this is a significant reversal of the savage-barbarian dichotomy we find in Foucault’s analysis.  For the latter, it is not the barbarian but the savage who is native to the contested territory: “Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs.  He appears only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 195).

Through the lens of such analysis, the Athenians were noble savages who emerged naturally from the land, and it was the Spartans, who arrived as a later threat to the Athenian civilization, who were the barbarians.  Obviously, this difference stems from the fact that where Herodotus emphasizes language as isomorphic with barbarism, Foucault emphasizes physical domination.  However, Foucault’s text illuminates the possibility that, in some sense, the ancient privileging of language is a reflection of how knowledge is tactically deployed as an instrument of war and is therefore domination par excellence.


When Croesus hesitates between Athens and Sparta, the Delphic oracle reveals to him not only Athens’ barbaric origins, but also how the Athenians were easily deceived by a clever trick of a woman dressed as a goddess – the foolish crowds believed she was Athena herself.  Upon hearing these revelations, Croesus concluded that the Athenians were, quite naturally, rather stupid.  Understandably, he chose to ally with Sparta.  Foucault writes: “All the obscure processes that go on at the level where groups come into conflict … become history’s primary thematic … This is the dark history of alliances … the history of expenditure, exactions, debts, trickery … and of stupidity” (Foucault, 134-35, italics mine).  Barbaric origins and credulity are recounted in a counter-history which mocks the Athenians for lacking not physical strength, not original right to the land, but knowledge. This is how Herodotus establishes Spartan pre-eminence.  After all, they have always spoken Greek and they don’t fall for stupid tricks.  Thus, the Spartans possess knowledge. This conclusion seems counter-intuitive when we recall that Athens is credited with the creation of theater, philosophy, historiography, geometry, medicine, the peer jury, democracy, and just about everything else…


…while Sparta is not remembered for any orators, artists, or historians at all.

Indeed, the warlike people of Laconia were notorious for their brief, terse speech, for their disdain for intellectual pursuits, and for resenting what they regarded as Athenian effeminacy, treachery, and chattiness.  This is where the term laconic originates.

Even Plutarch relates that when Lysander defeated Athens during the Peloponnesian War, he sent a triumphant message to Spartan leaders: “Athens is taken.”

They responded with: “’Taken’ was enough.”

Like their swords, Spartan wit was short, sharp, and sure.

We see that knowledge as war tactic must not be reduced to knowledge as institution. What Spartans know is how to be silent.  Spartan knowledge manifests itself in their unwillingness to talk — they know, so they do not speak.  Athenians’ famous oration skills, so frequently employed in the clever tactic of sophistry (to the great lamentations of Socratic wisdom), struggles against the equally tactical Spartan silence.  In praising Sparta, Herodotus praises precisely those qualities which led to the ruin of the Germanic warrior aristocracy.


However, neither for Herodotus nor for the historical record do these competing knowledges result in victory for either Athens or Sparta as they did for the Gauls.  Since “historical knowledge … is both a description of struggles and a weapon in the struggle” (Foucault, 172), what is Herodotus’ contribution to the battle for pre-eminence?  In a way, his counter-history declares a stalemate.  In dredging up the ancient memory of Athenian barbarism, he not only denies the nation linguistic origins, but also challenges the politico-historical legitimacy of expelling the barbaric Pelasgians from Athens.  Simultaneously, he denies the Spartans their propagandistic self-representation as autochthonous to Greece. Croesus may align himself with proud, militaristic Laconia, but the Spartans have no songs.  


(or maybe this is all mere sophistry)


giphy (2)

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.