Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

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Georg Heym’s “The Thief”

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Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659-60

Not long after arriving in Berlin for the first time in 2011, I ran into the haunting poem “Ophelia” by the Expressionist poet Georg Heym (1887-1912), which captivated me with the dark power of its imagery.

Intrigued, I soon discovered his overwhelming short story “The Thief,” which is, I think, not well known to English-speaking audiences. This short excerpt from early in the story gives a sense of its feverish, vivid imagery:

And now he lived in a large guesthouse, buried in his small attic room, alone, known by no one, one of the many solitaries of this great city. 

He spent the evenings in the depths of his armchair, tracking the dwindling light and the cloud ships that sailed with their red keels on their voyage to new, mysterious lands. Or in late summer when the days of the north winds began with large, strange shapes in the heavens, he watched huge whales, giant camels, and the fleet of innumerable small fish that vanished over the ocean of the sky into the endless blue. 

He kept a record for himself of all the strange apparitions. Once he saw the devil before a wine-red ground above a pile of worshipful black bodies. Another time he saw a monstrous bat with outstretched wings that appeared to be struck to the heavens like farmers nail them to barn doors. Or a gigantic barque, or trees on mountains, or powerful lions, monstrous serpents laid on the shoulders of the sky, or a giant monk dragging his cassock, or men with strange, long profiles. One time he saw a fiery angel that rose with a great blaze above the steps of the aether. 

At times, everything was filled with a strange, nearly inaudible music, like the roar of the ocean in the darkness of endless grottos and subterranean cathedrals. 

I am pleased to share with you my full translation – you can read it in its entirety here: The Thief, by Georg Heym.

Translation © Barnaby Thieme, 2019. All rights reserved.

Written by Mesocosm

November 9, 2019 at 6:58 am

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Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

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Die Passion Christi – Hieronymus Bosch

Goethe’s final novel is often described as “experimental;” a description which, I think, primarily reflects its puzzling character. Like Beethoven’s late quartets or Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, it’s hard to know how to take it, or how it wants to be taken. Its readers have long struggled to articulate a coherent response to this book, and I daresay my own response – a mix of admiration, frustration, and confusion – puts me in good company.

Most of the action occurs beneath the level of story and must be extrapolated from the events. The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple. Eduard and Charlotte are a happily-married couple who live on an estate in the country. As part the leisure class, they have the luxury of pursuing their personal interests, which primarily consist of directing a series of continual and ever-incomplete improvements and modifications to the buildings and the grounds.

Like a Japanese gardener, they attempt to collaborate with nature, and to coax the world around them toward their ideals. The wanderer on their lands should have the experience of chancing upon inspiring, meditative vistas in a series of perfectly-timed disclosures as they move through a landscape of controlled epiphany. To this end, paths are modified or closed off, views are opened up through the pruning of trees or the removal of rocks, and buildings are reworked to provide rest at just the right point on a steep path.

Before long, Eduard and Charlotte are joined in their endeavors by an old friend of Eduard’s called “the Captain”, and later by Charlotte’s charming foster-daughter Ottilie. The newcomers take to the estate work with inspired passion, and quickly join the rhythm of the house.

One night in the drawing room, where they come together to read and to play music, Charlotte comes across the esoteric topic of “elective affinities.” She and the reader subsequently learn that this term refers to a theory in chemistry that accounts for the tendency of certain pairs of compound substances to break their stable bonds and “trade dance partners,” as it were. That is, stable compound AB is introduced to stable compound CD, and, after a sudden, destructive reaction, you end up with AC and BD, which are united by even stronger bonds.

The characters and the reader quickly pick up on the amusing possibility that such reactions could also affect human couples, and the author thereby sets the stage for the complicated emotional entanglements which play out for the remainder of the book. As Eduard and the young Ottilie become closer, so too do the Captain and Charlotte, which leads headlong into a conflict between two competing views of marriage – as a socially-recognized and regulated bond, and as the epitome of passion, intimacy, and choice.

**

One of the core concerns of this book is the irreconcilable conflicts that result from regarding the same situation from competing systems of values. Take, for example, the theory of landscaping which preoccupies the protagonists. On a superficial level, their work celebrates the Romantic ideals of free wandering and the unadulterated experience of nature. Someone walking through their grounds is meant to feel the wonder of vistas encountered by chance.

Ironically, we know that the landscape is highly controlled, with the heavily-planned paths subtly directing the wanderer to the illusion of happenstance. Choice only plays out within an invisibly-regulated landscape.

On one level, this is presumably a critique of the Romantics, who may conceal their own elaborate techniques for producing the controlled aesthetic effects which are celebrated as the experience of natural spontaneity.

On another level, this is an arresting image of how people shape their lives, acting not just on the level of conscious choice, but working in dialog with their inner selves, and with their societies, to affect the context in which they live. It is probably worth noting that this, in the language of the book, is the prerogative of the leisure class.

The book is fundamentally concerned with the hidden rules that shape choice. Through altering the landscape, as in altering their relationships, the characters shape their own context for action, and thereby experiment with the possibilities of life.

The book functions as a kind of scientific experiment or laboratory in which the mechanics of human choice become more visible. Here, the fact that the landscaping is always a work-in-progress becomes significant. We follow as the characters experiment with the very framework for their own action and experience, just as people build their lives: gradually, playing out different possibilities, and then course-correcting, in a never-ending process of trial and error.

The link between this work as an examination of human nature and as a kind of laboratory experiment is called out by the title. This laboratory provides indirect access to the characters’ inner lives, which can only be extrapolated, just like the bonds that unite various compounds. The governing patterns that regulate the dynamics lie under the surface.

In another sense, the book functions as a laboratory by presenting life on a remote estate as a microcosm of their society as a whole. The use of a mini-society as a device for depicting core dynamics of human interaction has a long tradition. It has been pointed out, for example, that nearly every comedy of Shakespeare’s involves some version of characters going outside the city walls and creating an alternative social order.

The link between the language of chemistry and the language of the unconscious tells us this is a sort of alchemical laboratory. We have known since Carl Jung that when the alchemist speaks in a hybrid language of chemistry and metaphysics – describing, for example, the mystical marriage of chemical substances that unites and reconciles opposites – they present an image of their own unconscious process of psychic integration, using the vocabulary of the natural sciences, which is noticeably hijacked by the twilight language of dream and myth.

The question posed by the motif of elective affinities, then, is to what degree our choices are free, and how do we gain insight into the invisible rules. I see this as a kind of naturalistic antetype to the modernist use of myth, such as we find in Wagner, Joyce, Eliot, or Thomas Mann. For these great artists, myth sheds light on the hidden patterns that shape conscious action and intention.

Thomas Mann described “Elective Affinities” as “a perfect book,” and its profound influence on his own work is readily apparent. In “The Magic Mountain”, for example, we also find characters trapped together in a miniature world, which functions as a microcosm of society and nature, and as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. The ordering patterns of life are examined as if in a Petri dish or alembic, where they are reduced, extracted, and sublimated to an archetypal plane.

**

Green Man, Bode Museum

It must be noted that the character Ottilie is the chief catalyst for the action that drives the plot forward. Eduard is the principle agent of action, but he is motivated by his passion for Ottilie, which she elicits through the unique qualities of her character. It is no surprise, then, that we find her at the heart of the book’s pivotal events.

Ottilie embodies on the level of character the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the co-occurrence of orders of value. She drives the action, but indirectly; she is both conscious and unconscious of the economy of passion she is inscribed within; she is both guilty and innocent of transgression. She guarantees the contradictions that come forth from the collision of passion and social regulation, but by her being, not through her action or choice.

One can say much about this special status, but what most illuminates her function in the novel is knowing that Goethe had a daughter-in-law named Ottilie, with whom he was much enamored. As Rüdiger Safranski notes in his recent Goethe; Kunstwerk des Lebens: “It should here be remembered, without making too much of a fuss over it, that in 1816, Goethe pushed hard in support of the liaison between his son [August von Goethe] and Ottilie von Pogwisch, so that he should have this fetching and clever young woman in his vicinity” (pg. 579, my translation). Ottilie and August would marry a year later.

In my opinion, in the context of “Elective Affinities”, it would actually be difficult to make too much fuss over this fact, which is the single most important key we have to understanding what happens in the novel and why. I have been genuinely surprised by how gingerly this is held by many interpreters, who sometimes give the impression that it would be in poor taste to recognize it. But Goethe could hardly have called more attention to this point than by naming this key character after his daughter-in-law.

It would be a mistake to reduce the entirety of this complex book to an autobiographical study of the author’s obvious infatuation with his son’s wife, but it would also be obtuse to fail to recognize that the book reproduces the same logic of ambivalence that Goethe presumably felt. By this reading, Goethe blames her for his own attraction, yet cannot find fault with her, because he is the agent of his own passions, even if she is the catalyst. He wants her and cannot have her, and he feels trapped between the irreconcilable dictates of the logic of passion and the social code of marriage and fidelity. Ottilie von Goethe, like Ottilie in the novel, embodies the conflicts that governs this novel.

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June 7, 2019 at 2:45 am

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Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

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October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

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Trolling Higher Education

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There’s an article in the Atlantic Monthly called “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia” which is making a stir, and I want to take a moment to respond to it. Three scholars wrote a series of fake jargony papers and submitted them to various gender theory publications to prove how intellectually bankrupt they are, and to illustrate that the underlying disciplines are likewise baseless and stupid.

Yascha Mounk, the author of the Atlantic Monthly piece, is strongly in support of their project and compares it to an earlier stunt by Alan Sokal, who got a piece accepted in the journal Social Text which included statements such as:

Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’ It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.

Mounk does not cite a similar project by three MIT students, who used an AI to generate gobbledegook papers for submission to a for-profit conference on “Informatics.” Presumably what he approves of here is not the criticism of academic resources with lax standards, but the attack on gender theory, which is a frequent whipping boy for self-styled rationalists who deride the putative relativism of the humanities, while generally lacking even a rudimentary acquaintance of what they’re dismissing.

There is a word for what our scholars did: trolling. Like all trolls, their project was successful largely because they exploited a key feature of public discourse: the presumption of good faith.

Have you ever seen Ali G or Borat, and asked yourself how people could be so stupid as to go along with the crazy premises he puts forth? The answer is they’re not (always or merely) stupid, they are operating under the substantial pressure exerted by the presumption of good faith, and the attempt to act accordingly deforms their interactions. This is a function of how communication works.

People are not taken in by trolls simply because they’re stupid or because the systems they represent are uncritical. Civil discourse presupposes that all parties are representing themselves honestly. That is why trolling has a systematic advantage in humiliating the opponent. It is a dishonest and misleading form of critique, and it highlights nothing so much as the arrogance and contempt of its practitioners.

We cannot create a society in which we all must ask ourselves at all times if the other party in a transaction or debate is simply trying to make us look stupid. That would be a hateful degradation of the entire enterprise of higher learning, and an incredible waste of time.

But there are more important reasons to reject this project.

I have a friend who is a professor of medieval French literature, who wrote a meticulously-documented dissertation on gender and sexual identity construction in the Romance of the Rose, and he at times used the specialized terminology of his discipline, which, like many forms of technical discourse, can appear to the non-specialist as nonsense.

Why did he do that work, and why did he employ those conceptual tools? Because in the last few decades we are seeing, literally for the first time in human history, an opportunity to methodically and analytically reflect on the social construction of gender identity, and the way these identities are often constructed through a collective process of ideology formation. These processes are not value-neutral, but reflect the implicit or explicit presumption of the superiority and dominance of male heterosexuals. What we call gender deconstruction is nothing more than a specialized analysis of the process by which this identity formation occurs, with a goal to freeing individuals from having their identities determined for them, in advance, as lesser, from without.

I would note that this is largely what Sokal’s putatively “gibberish” quote above says, and say that I would actually more or less agree with it. Whether or not you believe that the construction of reality by the individual merely reaches the level of social values or touches our fundamental sense of what reality is in itself, well, you can disagree, but it is not a stupid claim, and it has had important support not just in philosophy but in the sciences

The development of gender theory as a discipline is exactly contemporaneous with an unprecedented movement toward political acceptance of non-normative gender and sexual identities, and this is not a coincidence. I will not assert a causal relationship, but I will say with certainty that they are part of a common historical moment.

So what I want to emphasize is this – we’re talking about communities that have literally had no voice ever in the European tradition, and they don’t need this shit. They need space to think through some of these problems and develop their own language and conceptual vocabulary without self-styled guardians of the Western Enlightenment, which has been so goddamned enlightened for most of its history with respect to, say, gays and lesbians, holding them up for ridicule. 

Update Oct 16: This month, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary became the first EU country to bar universities from issuing degrees in a specific subject: gender studies.

Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2018 at 1:48 am

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Light is Calling

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Watch and listen to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon:

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August 2, 2018 at 5:32 am

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Leipzig Bach Fest, 2018

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thomas2This past weekend kicked off the Leipzig Bachfest 2018, which features performances of dozens of major works by Bach and other one-time Leipzig residents Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Many of the concerts were performed at historic venues, including the churches where Bach premiered the bulk of his sacred music, and the Mendelsssohn House, where that composer lived until his death in 1847.

Leipzig is a beautiful and storied city south and west of Berlin in the federal state of Saxony. Situated at the crossroads of important trade routes, Leipzig boasts centuries of prosperous Bürgerlich culture and a fine university – Germany’s second oldest, founded in 1409.  This is where the young Goethe studied law – at least, when he wasn’t carousing at Auerbach’s Keller, a local tavern that he praised for its excellent wines and used as a setting for an episode of Faust:

keller2

Mephisto:
Above all else, it seems to me,
You need some jolly company
To see life can be fun – to say the least:
The people here make every day a feast.
With little wit and boisterous noise,
They dance and circle in their narrow trails
Like kittens playing with their tails.
When hangovers don’t vex these boys,
And while their credits holding out,
They have no cares and drink and shout.
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The establishment is still running today, though it’s now more of a high-end tourist trap than Bohemian student waren. 

Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked for 27 years in Leipzig, where he wrote music for several churches, including the two large Protestant churches that still flank the east and west ends of the Old City: the Nikolaikirche in the east, and the Thomaskirche in the west.

bach

I had an incredible opportunity to hear my two favorite Bach ensembles perform cantata concerts in the “Cantata Ring” ten-concert series: Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan at the Thomaskirche, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir at the Nikolaikirche.

The Thomaskirche is a beautiful late-Gothic-style building with a superficial exterior resemblance to Chartres. The interior is fairly sparse in traditional Protestant mode, with minimal decoration that could seduce the heart to an impure love of beauty. The Master himself is interred in the choir.

Mrs. O’Cosm and I sat toward the rear of the nave, while the Bach Collegium Japan performed in a balcony directly above and about 10 meters behind us. It was an interesting effect, hearing the music without being able to see the musicians – I was reminded a bit of Freudian therapy where the therapist is to be seated behind the patient and out of their field of view.

I wonder if this is how music would have been performed during services in Bach’s time. The invisibility of the performers highlighted the liturgical and sacramental qualities of the music.

I also experienced the invisibility of the performers as an extension of the ego-decentering effect I have often felt listening to Renaissance and Baroque polyphonic music. In contrast to the classical and Romantic ideals of virtuosity, with their emphasis on concerto soloists and coloratura arias, Bach’s music presupposes constant virtuosity by all musicians and singers, who are rarely singled out or brought into individual focus. Instead of the individualistic classical and Romantic celebration of the musician as a Promethean hero-creator, the complex, shimmering weave of polyphonic sacred music evokes a distributed, patterned, cosmological order, and immerses the listener within it.

thomas1

Thomaskirche

One intriguing component of the Bachfest Canata Cycle was that the appropriate Bible readings were read aloud before each piece was performed, which illuminated the ways the texts commented on the liturgy as a kind of musical sermon.

The acoustics in the Thomaskirche were echoey with fair amount of reverb – not like what you would get at Notre Dame in Paris, but there was a noticeable blending that was different from the clear, crisp disambiguation of voices you would hear in a studio mix.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed with their customary virtuosity, clarity, and beauty. For years their recordings of Bach’s cantatas have served as my standard edition – for my tastes, they are simply perfect. Melodic lines rendered smoothly, untroubled by the anachronistic ornamentation of vibrato and rubato that sometimes bog down Bach interpreters like Otto von Klemperer. In my mind such an approach is wholly unsuited to Baroque polyphony. Give me clarity of line, and save the throbbing vibrato for Mahler.

The Monteverdi Choir concert I attended in the NIkolaikirche was the final concert of the ten-concert Cantata Ring, and, as principle organizer of the cycle, Gardiner saved for himself the best for last. In his selection, he took the audience on a splendidly-conceived journey, opening with two dark, chromatic cantatas that plumb the depths of spiritual anguish and uncertainty.

The first piece, “Es erhaub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19) (follow link for Ton Koopman’s interpretation), followed a weekly reading from Revelation describing Saint Michael’s defeat of the celestial dragon in the war of heaven (Rev 12, 7-12):

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

nikolai2

Nikolaikirche

The cantata beings with a thrilling chorus depicting the battle in heaven with a densely-saturated tableau of melismatic agitation. It resolves into simpler lines, but uses chords built from disquieting, sour intervals that would sound perfectly at home in a work of Carlo Gesualdo. The battle of heaven is thereby internalized into inward spiritual distress. 

My favorite moment of this piece was the moving tenor aria “Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir,” in which a disconsolate singer calls to the angel to remain by his side.

The mood of the concert gradually ascended, like Dante in the Comedia, from the depths of despair to the heights of spiritual exultation, concluding with the jubilant “Wachtet Auf, Ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140) (follow link for a recording of Gardiner’s interpretation). One of the the unquestionable highlights of the concert was the gorgeous soprano/bass aria “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?”, a dialog between spirit and Christ in which the spirit, evoking the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, longs for salvation:

Seele: Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?
Jesus: Ich komme, dein Teil.
Seele: Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.

Soul: When are you coming, my salvation?
Jesus: I am coming, your portion.
Soul: I wait with burning oil.

nikolai

The drama of this duet is unsurpassed in Bach’s oeuvre.

The concluding “Gloria sei dir gesungen” is a splendid apotheosis of harmonization – a sonic image of the realization of Jerusalem and the reunion between the sinful soul and the loving father. 

The Nikolaikriche was a bit muddier in its acoustics than the Thomaskirche, but the interior is rather lovelier, done out in a gorgeous, gentle pastel botanical motif with the columns flowering in the upper reaches. It may be the most beautiful Protestant church I’ve ever been in.

It also has powerful contemporary resonance in the global story of nonviolence, having served as the epicenter for peaceful candlelight vigils calling for an end to Communist rule in the late 1980s. These demonstrations are now remembered as some of the pivotal events that led to to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification.

The Monteverdi Choir performed to perfection. The setting and selection of compelling and dramatic top-tier works from Bach’s legacy combined to provide one of the finest evening’s of music I’ve been able to attend.

Written by Mesocosm

June 12, 2018 at 1:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Dialectical Analysis of Myth

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The abject failure to understand mythological thinking is one of the most serious problems of our age, politically, culturally, philosophically, and spiritually. Irrational forces drive individual behavior and collective action, and the failure to understand and live in productive dialog with the energies of the psyche leaves reason vulnerable on several fronts, and cedes a deep matrix of human motivation to noxious and self-serving ideologies.

The essay that follows, I must emphasize at the onset, is not a critique of science or an endorsement of myth; rather, it is a dialectical analysis of the interplay between both.

ernst

The Cages are Always Imaginary, Max Ernst, 1925

We live in an age of reason – at least, if we confine ourselves to the dominant intellectual cultures of Europe and the United States. Science, as reason’s totalizing exemplar, is widely accepted as a method for interpreting nature and history and the sole source of intersubjective legitimacy – so much so that we increasingly look to scientists to address social and cultural problems that were once the domain of philosophers, historians, and poets.

In common usage, “myth” refers to superstition, false belief, or dangerous ideology. Mythological thought as such is rarely an object of critical reflection, and is generally posited and valued in a purely negative mode as the antithesis of reason. It is cloven from reason in a dichotomy that on one side includes myth, superstition, tradition, barbarism, and authoritarianism, and on the other includes science, fact, modernity, civilization, and democracy.

Science and myth are not mutually exclusive; they are both essential features of modernity. There is no human society without myth, and no human being who does not engage in mythological thinking, which, properly understood, accompanies and structures all thought. Nor does myth itself lack a rational structure. Myth renders concrete images of the operations of the mind, the world, and the understanding, and contains within itself the essence of critical reason in the Kantian sense.

A structure of critical rationality is not an accidental or occasional feature of mythological thinking, but its deepest meaning – at least, according to the perennial view espoused by its elite interpreters the world over. The central mystery of all major mythological systems consists in a dialectical analysis of the relationship between the knower and the known, between time and eternity. This can be clearly seen in every religious tradition I have encountered, from Black Elk to Thomas Aquinas, from Al-Ghazali to Lao Tsu.

If we look to mythology itself for its essential character, we find that mythological thought consists of two complementary movements. First, experience is posited as a totality, by virtue of which its individual elements have meaning, such that they may be understood and valued. Elements of the world-system posited by the understanding are grasped, both semantically and existentially, in terms of their relationship to the other parts of the system, and to the system as a whole. This corresponds to what Joseph Campbell called the cosmological function of myth.

This function, which is prerequisite to the experience of the world as a domain of meaning, is integral to the vitalizing and redemptive character of mythological thought. I would refer the interested reader to Daniel J. Siegal’s book The Developing Mind, which chronicles years of research inspired by a developmental psychology study which found a strong relationship between mental health and an individual’s ability to articulate a coherent, meaningful narrative of their lives. Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, a cornerstone of the field of narrative psychology, also sheds much light on this important topic.

In its second movement, mythological thinking self-reflectively recognizes that this very experience of meaningful totality has a merely provisional character. It is a necessary condition for all sensible experience, but lacks any ultimate or transcendental basis.

Dogen expresses the character of this dialectic with beauty and elegance in his masterpiece Genjokoan:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only look circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Dogen characterizes liberating insight as an understanding of the mutual constitution between interaction and interpretation. Our field of activity determines the domain of our concern. Our ontology, or the way we posit the basic elements that make up the system of interest, follow from that.

For one illustration of this issue, consider the coastline problem. Lewis Fry Richardson found that the perimeter of Great Britain is described by textbooks with a high degree of variability. Upon investigation, he found that the differences in measured length was a result of the fact that different surveys used different “yardsticks.” If you measure the shoreline with a mile-long “yardstick,” than inlets, outcroppings, and other features that are smaller than a mile are disregarded. The smaller the yardstick, the longer the coast becomes.

adameve

Adam and Eve, Augusto Giacometti, 1907

So what is the “real” length of the shoreline? There is no such thing – the very concept is incoherent. The measured perimeter depends on the scale of your analysis. In other words, some elementary physical properties of the world follow directly from how we frame or measure. Additional analysis is always possible, and there is no ultimate framework from which the entities we posit cannot be deconstructed by a reconsideration of the basic terms.

That is not to say the shoreline has no perimeter, or that it is all up to us in any simple sense – rather, the very concept of a perimeter is contingent on how we frame the problem. When we change our scope, the terms of our analysis have to account for different interactions, and different classes of interactions, and those modified dynamics are themselves the framework by which we posit the very elements of the system that we analyze.

When the Madhyamaka philosophers of India state that no entity can ultimately withstand analysis, this is what they mean. They have conventionally valid attributes, but there is no ultimate framework from which they can be experienced or described. All things are like this.

This is directly contrary to the way the understanding pre-reflectively takes itself to be, which is always accompanied by the intuition of its own basic completeness and sufficiency. Physical qualities occur as entirely given by the external world, and one’s frame always occurs as adequate to analysis. There is no age which has lacked confidence in the sufficiency of its analytical framework to account for the basic facts of the world, whether it has accepted four naturally-occurring elements or 91.

There are likewise very few individuals who doubt the comprehensiveness of their own analytical tools, except in rare moments of critical reflection. The understanding posits itself as always already sufficient, except when it encounters experiences which are unresolvable by its ontology. Then, as Jean Piaget described, we try to account for new experiences either through assimilation, whereby unfamiliar phenomena are explained with our existing concepts, or through accommodation, whereby the conceptual schema itself be revised to account for some new fact that it can’t explain.

Accommodation is experienced as a minor correction or modification to the existing scheme, not as indicative of a general lack of comprehensibility. Similarly, I learn from Jerome Bruner that deliberations about the world are experienced as subjective or internal, while the outcomes of those deliberations are experienced as objectively-established fact, things that we perceive, not that we posit.

The psychological tendency to mischaracterize the sufficiency of the understanding is what Buddhists call afflictive ignorance – or in the language of contemporary theory, one might call it reification.

We spoke above of the two essential movements of mythological thought – positing experience as a meaningful whole, and reflectively realizing the provisional nature of any such frame of experience. A severe misunderstanding of mythological thought comes from the pervasive failure to recognize these two movements, but to interpret mythological thinking as though it is merely an impoverished form of proto-science. The conscious mind, in over-identification with its own rational faculties, sees its own shadow in mythological thinking which occurs as destructive, superstitious barbarism.

That this misapprehension is widely shared by religious people does not make it any more accurate. In the case of evangelical Christianity, for example, the literal interpretation of the Bible is not consistent with the core teachings of the tradition itself. Augustine argued in Confessions in the fourth century, for example, that the creation of the world obviously did not occur in seven days. Rather, it is a way of understanding that the process by which the universe took shape occurred successively in time. Or consider Thomas Aquinas, whose deep devotion to the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius may have led him to utterly abandon work on Summa Theologica at the end of his life, and to keep noble silence until his death.

No one who confesses the Nicene Creed could plausibly maintain that its doctrines of Christ or the Trinity can be resolved with the ordinary operations of logic. These are not statements of fact in the same way “Sacramento is the capital of California,” is a statement of fact – they are images rendering an understanding of the intersection of time and eternity.

serpent

“I am crucified with Christ”, Paul wrote to the Galatians; “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” To interpret this as an empirical statement would be imbecilic. To fail to recognize that there is a different kind of truth at work here is pedantry. This is a symbolic statement – Christ is an image of the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, and its relationship to the world and to the absolute ground of all being.

This is not a historical essay, so I won’t swell its length by exploring the countless ready-to-hand illustrations of analogous images drawn from the very heart of a dozen major living traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and First Nations beliefs spanning the globe. We see it in the mystery of the Quran, the Law, the doctrine of the two truths, the union of Atman and Brahman, the Tao, the Way of Heaven, and the character of sacred story, respectively.

In positing mythological thinking as its own negative image, the understanding disregards the compelling problems that are addressed by mythological thought. In so doing, it simply repeats the basic error of assuming its own self-sufficiency, leaving the deep human questions addressed by mythology unanswered.

The loss of a viable image of the world as a meaningful totality has led to an existential crisis in the United States and Europe. Near the end of his career, Carl Jung wrote that a large number of his patients had no psychological pathology to speak of, but were simply afflicted by a sense of meaninglessness, which he called “the spiritual problem of our age.”

It is often reported that two centuries of “disenchantment of the world” have produced psychological and social turmoil, but what has been less analyzed is the failure of reason to confront that turmoil. As analytical reason always operates within a field defined by a provisional ontology, it is not in itself competent to posit a whole of which it is itself part, in terms of the understanding, and it never will be.

This is not to suggest that a “re-enchantment of the world” by the resubscription to pre-modern religious belief is either possible or desirable. We cannot ignore the findings of science, or disaster will quickly follow. Any progress with respect to the crisis of meaning must be commensurate with what we now know to be true, or else we cede the field of semantic totality to dangerous reactionaries who negate scientific discovery out of hand for petty reasons of naked self-enrichment.

There is no necessary relationship between engaging deeply with mythological thought and rejecting the findings of science. As Joseph Campbell astutely pointed out, every religious system is scientifically accurate from the standpoint of the time in which it was initially formulated. This cleavage between myth and reason is a spurious, modern construction, and it is extremely harmful. It is no more legitimate for reactionary ideology to claim spirituality as its exclusive possession than it is for it to claim love of country.

Instead of quixotically walking backwards into an imagined golden age of the past, these problems must be taken seriously as such, and a new and more sophisticated understanding of mythological thinking is necessary. Whatever form the new mythological taking assumes, it must allow for the validity of other forms in its essential character, or the project of globalization will fail. 

With regards to the second movement of mythological thinking, the self-reflective discovery of the provisional character of the understanding’s own sense of comprehensive totality, this is frequently lacking in unsophisticated advocates of unilateral rationalism or naive realism. All too often, scientific discourse is regarded as legitimate as such, merely by virtue by using its tropes, and by uncritically carrying over a reception of a popular interpretation of its findings.

But science is a set of tools, and adopting its mode of discourse does not guarantee legitimacy and rationality. We now have decades of research since Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and we have learned something of the ideological, cognitive, social, analytical, racial, and financial factors that help determine how scientific research is conducted and disseminated. These are the practical limitations of its actuality, and no “pure science” is conducted in a cloud-cuckoo land where these constraints are not at play. 

It is worth noting that some of the branches of science that are most directly constrained by empirical results show the deepest agreement with mythological thought as I have characterized it. Particle physics, among the hardest of the hard sciences, has been mired in ontological chaos for over a century, lacking the barest capacity to express what their basic objects of study actually are. Among actual physicists, in my experience this often results in an ontological position of pragmatic agnosticism, or in extreme cases, a denial that science can and should describe the world at all. 

Quantum mechanics does not have the luxury of fudging its ontology with imprecise language to account for the problems described above. Its objects of study cannot withstand analysis, and that is why it has the least to say about what things actually are. The problem of emptiness, the lack of intrinsic existence of all phenomena, is not a metaphysical argument about the transcendent beyond, it is a practical recognition of the actual limitations of the understanding with respect to how it posits its own basic terms. For one fascinating discussion of relevant issues, see the recent Scientific American article Quantum Mechanics May be Even Spookier Than you Think, which explores an extension of John Archibald Wheeler’s “Delayed Choice” experiments.

These issues are well known to some of the greatest physicist of the last two hundred years. For example, Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

Erwin Schrödinger:

The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]

Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions.

The understanding, and any possible human discourse, cannot function without acceding to provisional assumptions about the structure and origin of the world. That is no less true for the scientist than for the Tlingit shaman. Mythological thinking surfaces an image of that structured cosmos, which is a condition for the understanding. Upon analysis and reflection, it imbues that image with the special transparency that comes from the recognition that its terms have validity merely from the conventional perspective of ordinary transactional usage, and lack ultimate or transcendental status.

The failure by those who posit mythological thinking as the negative image of rationality is a failure of dialectical reason, and like all such failures, the end result is that it becomes the very thing that it critiques. By rejecting mythological thinking, the hyper-rationalist unwittingly posits their own archaic, unreflected mythology. They take themselves as a rational hero, engaged in mythological combat with their own shadow, projected on the religious figure, who appears as an image of barbarism, darkness, and violence. This is not the culmination of reason, but its antithesis – a naive accession to terms that are drawn not from analysis, but from a set of prejudices and reified conclusions. Reason becomes its opposite.

hodler

The Truth, Ferdinand Hodler, 1902

Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2018 at 12:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized