Mesocosm

History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

2001, Strauss, and Nietzsche

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2001

Note: spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen 2001 – but if you haven’t, for heaven’s sake, go see it at once.

**

If I ask you to think about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Chances are very good that the answer is Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and for good reason. Kubrick’s use of the piece is dramatically and conceptually impeccable, and points us toward Nietzsche’s work as the key to understanding much of the film’s enigmatic richness.

When you recollect the tone poem, you most likely hear it’s unforgettable fanfare-like opening statement. These opening notes encode Strauss’s musical conception of the revelation brought down from the mountain to ordinary men by Nietzsche’s philosopher-hero, Zarathustra, who teaches of a creative life that pours forth from our own souls, and does not come to us from outside, or from the heavens.

Strauss’s theme consists a procession starting at C major and then ascending by the most consonant intervals in Western harmony, rising first by a perfect fifth, then a perfect fourth, then a major third followed quickly by a minor third. The whole psycho-acoustical mystery of Western harmony which has dazzled great minds with its implications of an intrinsic natural order since the time of Pythagoras is stated musically in those notes.

I suggest that Kubrick intended that structure to serve as a musical counterpart to the monolith of his film. Remember that the monolith is described as extending perfectly in proportion of 1 : 4 : 9.

Strauss’s music is paired most effectively with the appearance of monolith in the film. So what connects the central mysteries of Kubrick’s film with Nietzsche’s great work?

I suggest the primary answer is to be found in the section titled “Of the Three Transformations of the Spirit.” In this short chapter, Zarathustra tells his companions a parable of the three transformations of the spirit, by which individuals become capable of truly creative acts. First the spirit becomes a camel, then the camel becomes a lion, and then the lion becomes a child.

In the first transformation, the spirit kneels down like a camel asking to be laden down with a heavy burden, so that it can exult in its own strength. It takes upon itself all of the tasks that it deems most difficult and speeds off into the solitary desert.

In the desert the camel becomes a lion, whose task is to “utter a holy No” when it encounters the great monster opposing creative work: a golden dragon with the words “Thou Shalt” written on every scale. The dragon embodies a thousand years of social and moral law.

“All values have already been created, and all created values am I,” says the dragon. “Truly, there is no more ‘I will,’ to be spoken!”

The lion is up to the task. “Keep your laws,” it says (to paraphrase Nietzsche), “I have my own vision of life and of value, and if you don’t like it, you can stuff yourself.”

When the dragon lies dead at the lion’s feet, then comes the third transformation, whereby the lion becomes a child, capable of its own creation. What is this child?

starchild

“Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a holy Yes-saying.

“Indeed, to play the game of creation, my brothers, requires a holy Yes.”

This is great stuff. I especially love this phrase aus sich rollendes Rad, a wheel turning out of its own center.

With respect to Kubrick’s film, I submit that it is divided into a prolog, followed by three primary movements. The prolog consists of pre-human anthropods doing their monkey business, until they stumble upon the monolith, that mysterious payload of transcendence, which either elicits or reflects their discovery of their human capacity to imagine and create.

Now human, they turn to their first creative task, building tools and weapons. This is the work of the camel, loosely associated with a lower order of creativity, and it lasts from the dawn of human history until our next encounter with the monolith, near Tycho Station on the moon.

Now we enter into the second phase of the film, aboard the big space camel speeding out into the solitary desert of outer space, driven by HAL 9000, the very embodiment of the law. A brilliant satirical statement by Kubrick, to depict the murderous inhumanity of human society as a computer. Joseph Campbell once observed that the god of computers is a lot like the god of the Old Testament – a lot of rules, and no mercy.

Our human explorers are in the hands of HAL, who is of two natures: paternal and mechanically-life-sustaining, but murderous when crossed. This is Kubrick’s conception of “Thou shalts,” and a similar concept of society may be seen in his other films such as A Clockwork Orange or Paths of Glory.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen his lesser-known Paths of Glory, I emphatically recommend it – it’s truly one of my favorite films.

But I digress. David’s task in this second phase of the human journey is to slay the dragon, as it were, which he does (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do….”), and then pilots the ship on to its destination by his own initiative and resources.

So begins the third and final stage of the film, corresponding to the third transformation of the spirit. The Star Child that ends the film doesn’t seem quite so enigmatic now, does it?

Written by Mesocosm

April 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Film

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Heavens of Space, Heavens of Time

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Prayer Niche, 7th century Persian, Pergamon Museum

Persian, 7th Cenutry
Pergamon Museum

I’ve been reading a copy of Henry Corbin’s Histoire de la philosophie islamique that I picked up in Paris on my honeymoon, and my initial impression is that it fully lives up to its towering reputation.

In the introductory pages, Corbin lays out what he takes to be essential differences between Christian and Islamic hermeneutics, in an effort to clear away typical misinterpretations of the latter in terms of the former. While Biblical exegesis is primarily concerned with a historical unfolding of revelation in time, moving from the creation of the world through the Incarnation and toward the omega-point of the end of history, Islam is basically concerned with a trans-historical, eternal domain of truth disclosed by the Qu’ran into the field of time.

As a consequence – and this is where things became very interesting to me – the focus of Christian exegesis is primarily temporal, with an emphasis on reading religious symbols in terms of historical events. By contrast, the emphasis of Islamic scriptural hermeneutics is spatial, and its symbology emphasizes the hierarchy of the cosmos. The spiritual journey of Islam is presented as an ascent in the actual present, as opposed to an evolution from one state to another divine order that is remote in time.

My mind turned at once to Dante, whose Commedia was heavily influenced by the mystical cosmology of Sufi mystics of precisely the pedigree that most interested Corbin – especially the Andalusian master Ibn al-Arabi, whose layered models of the heavens were known to Dante. The Commedia is a journey in space, moving from the bottom of the cosmos to the top. I realize at once, both how peculiar Dante’s rendition of Christianity was in that sense, and how much his conception owes to the Muslim influence.

Written by Mesocosm

April 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Difference Between T. S. Eliot and James Joyce

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…in a nutshell. For Eliot, the thunder said:
Da.

For Joyce, the thunder said:
bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!

Written by Mesocosm

April 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm

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Witch’s House to be Dismantled

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IMG_6943

I’m sad to report that the “Witch’s House”, a unique repository of folk art in Wisconsin, is now to be dismantled by its owner, the Kohler Foundation, and shipped in its entirety to nearby town of Sheboygan.

The Kohler Foundation struggled for years to make the site available to the public, battling neighbors reluctant to open their idyllic stretch of Beach Drive to tour buses and “weekend gawkers.” The village of Fox Point, where the house is located, previously took the Kohler Foundation to court to block use of the site as the museum.

“I’ve been trying to save Mary’s environment for 27 years,” Ruth Kohler, director of the arts center, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“We’ve worked with a lot of art environments, from as far away as New York and Louisiana, and we’ve always been able to change the minds of the village or town that the site was in. We’ve never had a complete stalemate like this before.”

Those of us who have known and loved the site for many years are saddened to see it torn from its setting, which is integral to its effect and an organic part of Nohl’s imagination. Many of the pieces were fashioned from driftwood taken directly from the beach abutting her property.

I began my previous post on the Witch’s House by quoting the artist, Mary Nohl, who observed that “Being conventional is worse than all other sins.”

Written by Mesocosm

March 27, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Penguin India’s Betrayal of its Authors and Readers

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I was shocked to read that Penguin India has capitulated to a lawsuit charging that University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus; An Alternative History should be withdrawn from print (see the New York Times coverage here). Doniger is a prominent and sympathetic scholar of Hinduism whose works include the best (partial) translation of the Rig Veda published in the last century.

After four years of litigation pushed by Hindu fundamentalists, Penguin India voluntarily agreed to cease publication, and will most likely destroy unsold copies of Doniger’s book.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Doniger’s book was targeted under a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” (Tribune article here). That the courts should entertain for these long years the premise that Doniger’s scholarship constitutes a “malicious act” that is “intended to outrage” speaks extremely poorly of their interest in allowing competing but well-intentioned versions of history to be told.

Today I stand with Wendy Doniger, as should all people everywhere who love free expression and the pursuit of truth, and call on Penguin India to reverse their disgraceful decision. For shame, Penguin India.

Written by Mesocosm

February 14, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Todtnauberg, by Paul Celan

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Marc Chagall

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Marc Chagall, 1931

My friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg, author of the outstanding poetry collection The Opposite of Work, tagged me in an online game, so now I must write a brief comment on the poet Paul Celan, and refer interested readers to a representative poem. I decided to take the opportunity to do an original translation of Celan’s difficult poem “Todtnauberg,” which is presented below.

This autobiographical work refers to the poet’s visit to the cabin retreat owned by the great philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now, Paul Celan was a Romanian Jew whose parents were killed in an internment camp during World War II. Heidegger, on the other hand, was an outspoken advocate of the Nazi party, who wrote in the early 40s about Germany’s “special destiny” and urged his students to think in service of the Nazi state.

After the war, Heidegger said nothing in public about his involvement with the Nazis for the rest of his career, with the exception of giving a long interview with the premier German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1966, which he gave on the condition that it be published posthumously.

The truth is, it is not at all clear how to take Heidegger’s silence, and this has posed a serious problem for many important Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, including not only Paul Celan, but the noted psychologist Viktor Frankl as well, who is best remembered for his account of his own interment at Auschwitz in the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Celan was impressed by Heidegger’s philosophy, which, like Celan’s poetry, is deeply concerned with history, knowledge, anxiety, death, and the darkness which surrounds the ground of our being. It is by virtue of his fluency with these very themes that Celan was uniquely able to express in the ineffable horror of the Holocaust in much of his work.

This poem describes his one personal encounter with Heidegger, who invited Celan to visit his forest retreat, and to sign his famous guest book. Celan, a student of botany, sets the scene for us by identifying two herbaceous flowering plants they saw on their walk, arnica and eyebright.

Like its subject, the poem speaks in evocative fragments that defy attempts to synthesize them into a unified image. Vivid impressions flash from out of the darkness, and end with a sense of … what? Disjunction? Futility? Defiance? It is difficult to formulate a clear response, and I get the sense that no particular meaning was intended. Perhaps, as with Heidegger’s silence, he believed there was nothing to say.
 

Todtnauberg

Arnica, eyebright, the
draught from the well with the
star dice above,

in the
hut,

in the book
(whose name is recorded
before mine?)
the written line
in the book
speaks of hope, today,
about a thinker
arriving
word
in the heart,

forest grass, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, separate,

crude things, later, in passing,
clear,

he who drives us, the man,
he who overhears,

the half-
trodden beaten
paths in the high moor,

moist,
much.

Now that the prayer benches burn,
I eat the book
with all its
regalia.

Written by Mesocosm

January 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in Translations

Tagged with ,

How many are there, anyway?

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The other day I was trying to remember a pluralization rule in Tibetan when I started to wonder if there could be a language that had no concept of plurality. The concept of individual instances of general types is so deeply ingrained in my concepts and language, I can’t conceive outside of it.

In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche reflected on the formation of abstract concepts on the basis of individual unique experiences:

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted – but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. (1)

If this is so, where does this idea come from, this phantom “leaf” concept that seems so compelling? What is it in our experience that so persuades us that there exist, in the world, many instances of particular kinds of things?

Thinking about experience, and perhaps influenced by my long familiarity with Nietzsche’s fine leaf example, I think about the biological world first – we encounter many apples, but they are all so similar by reason of their biological similarity, that they vividly give the impression of all being the same thing.

But a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s more than that, because long before there were apples, there were galaxies and stars, which exist on a continuum, but there are a great many stars of similar size, composition, color, and life cycle. Trillions of stars, stars without end.

So what is it about our universe, that things are organized in this way? Things are composed of atoms, which are more or less the same. And I wonder, are they identical? That is, if you take two helium atoms and compare them, is there any way whatsoever that they can be differentiated from one another, other than, say, their temperature and location? What about electrons? Do electrons have hair? I have no idea.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya “How many gods are there?”

Yajnavalkya replied, “Three thousand, three hundred, and six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One.”

References
1) Nietzsche F. trans. by Daniel Breazeale. Philosophy and Truth; Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Humanities Press. 1979. p. 83.

Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Ephemera

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