Archive for the ‘Literature Review/Analysis’ Category

Asking the Ashplant: A Literary Investigation into Stephen Dedalus’ Walking Stick

May 9, 2017

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The image of the walking stick manifests itself in seemingly all cultures, in religious ritual, and in rites of passage ceremonies. One can find the image of the walking stick permeating some of the oldest tales in literary history, including early Biblical tales. Thus, it is no surprise that the walking stick makes an appearance in James Joyce’s penultimate work, Ulysses. For Ulysses gives the reader explicit clarity that it recycles imagery, themes, tropes, and narrative voices from the Western canon (as contemporaneous with Joyce). The presence of the walking stick in Ulysses Stephen’s ashplant – is no exception. Yet, like many “recycled” elements in Ulysses, the ashplant takes on uncanny, surprising roles throughout the novel. Most critics, for instance, have assigned the role of Stephen’s ashplant to be a manifestation of his (lack of) phallus. This simple reading of the ashplant neglects its larger significance for the novel. Not only is the ashplant a crucial symbol throughout Ulysses, it also solves Stephen’s artistic troubles from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, threading the conceptual needle between two of Joyce’s major works. Without the ashplant, there would be no realization of Stephen’s artistic vision, nor would the climax of “The Odyssey” in Ulysses be possible.

Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant first appears in Joyce’s preceding work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. During a vision towards the end of the novel’s fourth chapter, Stephen picks up “a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks,” and clambers down the slope of the breakwater. This “salteaten stick,” though not immediately described as such, eventually takes the form of the ashplant that appears throughout Ulysses. The grasping of the ashplant in this scene coincides with some meditations of Stephen’s thalassophobia (fear of the ocean), and frustrated sexuality, as he gazes on the “birdgirl” in the water before him. As Benjamin Harder, in his essay, “Stephen’s Prop,” suggests, the salteaten stick, not yet an ashplant, is “a means of stability, a crutch,” which allows Stephen to navigate difficult terrain, both physical and emotional. Keeping in mind the title of the novel, Harder argues that the stick has incredible influence on the “young artist’s sight and self-image” throughout Portrait. For, in grasping this salteaten stick from the jetsam, Stephen begins his transition from boyhood into manhood. As Stephen develops into the “young man” that the novel’s title suggests, he must face the loss of his boyhood, the fact that he is now “alone.” Or, rather, the realization that Stephen was “unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life,” coincides with the consequence that he, with the aid of the salteaten stick, is on the cusp of achieving artistic and personal individuality.

The presence of the stick persists throughout the end of Portrait, entering into the final chapter when it finally changes symbolic form. Standing on the steps of the library, Stephen notices a flock of birds pass by, and is described as “leaning wearily on his ashplant.” Not a page later, this freshly described “ashplant” transmogrifies in Stephen’s imagination into “the curved stick of an augur.” This new form of the walking stick is described in Don Gifford’s book, Notes for Joyce, in which he adds the following description of what will later become, in Ulysses, the “augur’s rod”:

49:10 (48:19). Augur’s rod of ash – the Roman augur’s rod, the lituus, was a staff without knots, curved at the top. It was one of the principal insignia of the augur’s office and was used to define the templum, the consecrated sectors of the sky, within which his auguries (observations of the omens given by birds) were to be made.

The Roman connotations are not lost on Joyce’s character, Stephen, who makes innumerable references to Roman (and Greek) tropes, mythology, and history, throughout the novels. Nor is the aforementioned birdwatching simply an idle activity for Stephen. As Gifford notes, the “consecrated sectors of the sky” appear before him on the library steps. Another consideration for Stephen’s walking stick is the shift in diction across Portrait and through the narrative arc of Ulysses; tracing Stephen’s own growth, the stick evolves from the meager “salteaten” stick to the proper “ashplant.”

The transformation of Stephen’s ashplant into the augur’s rod brings with it some additional implications of potential violence. Harder elucidates these implications through an earlier scene in Portrait when Cranly snatches the ashplant from Stephen’s hand and chases Temple away with it. Harder writes, “Stephen’s prop, when appropriated by another, is susceptible to violent scenes. The question is whether Stephen can control his own use of the staff.” Harder’s suggestion that the ashplant develops pernicious symbolic potentials in the hands of other characters will become of greater concern in Ulysses, in which the character, Leopold Bloom, briefly handles Stephen’s abandoned walking stick. Not long after this exchange between Stephen, Cranly, and Temple, Portrait comes to a close.

It is curious that Joyce specified the nature of Stephen’s walking stick as an “ashplant” in these novels, for the botanical sources of walking sticks have varied greatly throughout human history. Materials such as bamboo, maples, hickories, walnuts, oaks, cedars, pines, cherries, rhododendrons, and so on, have been more common sources of walking sticks in adjacent cultures. The ash tree of which Stephen’s ashplant originates is a plant whose roots grow at such an oblong and horizontal direction that, when dug up from the ground and clipped back, makes for a perfectly shaped walking stick. The horizontal root serves as a smooth handle. One can see how Joyce’s choice to place Stephen’s walking stick within the roots of Ireland is, in fact, a pointed gesture, as Joyce would be well-acquainted with Ireland’s tallest, most common native tree: the ash tree. Thus, upon further reflection, Stephen’s ashplant seems to serve as an embodiment of Ireland (and Stephen’s Irish identity) itself.

The ashplant makes its first, rather innocuous, appearance in the opening chapter of Ulysses, entitled “Telemachus.” As Stephen and Buck Mulligan prepare to leave their living quarters for the day, Stephen takes his ashplant from its “leaningplace” (U 1.528). The walking stick isn’t mentioned again until Buck, in the middle of a chant, “tug[s] swiftly at Stephen’s ashplant in farewell” and exits the scene, leaving Stephen and Haines alone. Joycean critics have all seemed to neglect the bird imagery cloaking this exchange with the ashplant, however. Taking a look at the diction surrounding Buck in this scene, one can’t help but wonder if the “bird” elements are present to suggest that Buck’s “tugging” of the ashplant is also, in fact, a birdlike gesture (that of attempting to build a nest with sticks). For, he is described as “fluttering his winglike hands,” with “birdsweet cries,” and so on (U 1.600-02). This connection might be worth exploring further. The silence by literary critics on this matter, however, suggests that the connection between the birdlike elements of this scene and the tugging on the ashplant is not as strong as it might be.

As Buck leaves, Stephen and Haines continue discussing theological concerns, and here the ashplant makes yet another peculiar appearance. As the characters walk, Stephen’s ashplant is “trailing […] by his side” (U 1.627). Its “ferrule” – the end cap – is described as following “lightly” on the path with the characters, almost like a pet dog walking alongside them. Yet the ferrule’s light contact with the path produces a “squealing” sound, which generates the following moment of Stephen’s inner monologue: “My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen!” (U 1.628-29). Again, the descriptions resemble something pet-like. Furthermore, the ashplant’s presence in this scene produces psychological absence – it takes Stephen out of the scene. The connotations of the stick’s sound being “familiar,” like an old friend, following “after me,” as though it were evoking memories from the past, and the childishly embellished “e” sound in Stephen’s name all suggest a youthful quality about the ashplant. The “youth” of the ashplant, in these descriptions, manifests itself as an inherited quality from the “youth” of Portrait, one which remains rather implicitly acknowledged throughout the progression of Ulysses.

The ashplant disappears from the novel until the third chapter, “Proteus,” in which its role in the novel is first properly explored. This monologic scene in which Stephen plays at being blind allows for the ashplant to take on multiple symbolic functions at once. Stephen thinks, “I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do” (U 3.15-16). The “they” in Stephen’s interior monologue is undoubtedly the blind, as Stephen mimics the act of finding one’s way around with a probing cane. Harder notes how there is a symbolic tension within these few lines, in how the ashplant is plainly described as a weapon (“my ash sword”), and yet is “plainly a compensatory tool of vision.” And yet, one might suggest, there is no reason to suppose that either of the ashplant’s dual functions need necessarily preclude one another. In any case, Harder proceeds to link this scene with Portrait in that the ashplant conveys “extraordinary sight, which elevates his station in a moment of wish fulfillment.” The ashplant clearly functions in the opening scenes of this chapter as a visual prosthetic for Stephen, both in terms of his physical senses (the “ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his mental faculties.

The ashplant also functions as a tool for Stephen’s self-defense and the overcoming of fears in the “Proteus” chapter. As seen in Portrait, Stephen’s thalassophobia remains present throughout his wanderings on the Sandymount Strand. Stephen takes special caution to distance himself from the waters throughout the chapter and, as he situates himself on a rock to take a break from walking, he thinks, paranoidly, “The flood is following me” (U 3.282). As Stephen climbs up onto his perch, he “rest[s] his ashplant in a grike,” temporarily abandoning his crutch, and allows his mind to wander away from the scene at hand (U 3.284-85). Harder suggests that Stephen’s ashplant here functions as “a comfort against falling into the ocean,” and even goes as far to consider this action of releasing the ashplant is “a protection against suicide, and a means of approaching the rushing, frightening jouissance that is just under Stephen’s consciousness.” The connection to suicide is not unwarranted, however, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter in which Stephen encounters figures of the dead, including that of his mother.

Another of Stephen’s grave fears makes itself known in the “Proteus” chapter as well, and is dispelled by the comforting presence of his ashplant. Continuing its “violent” function from Portrait, Stephen considers using it on the dog running around Sandymount Strand. It has already been made clear by this point in the novel that Stephen is a cynophobe (one who fears dogs). Thus, his first thought upon seeing the “live” dog running across the sand is, “Lord, is he going to attack me?” (U 3.295). Stephen’s impulse is to expect the dog to become violent with him, hence his instinct to protect himself with the ashplant. As with the ocean, Stephen keeps his ashplant close so as to defend himself at any time. But, in keeping with Stephen’s character, he does not engage with this dog. Rather, he reassures himself: “Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight” (U 3.295-96). Here the thought “I have my stick” could be interchangeable with “I have my sword” or any other means for self-defense. Without the ashplant, as Harder has suggested, Stephen would become unmanned and even  “unselved” by these encounters with his fears. Indeed, Stephen allows himself to sink into morbid thoughts once more towards the end of the “Proteus” chapter.

The notion that Stephen’s subconscious is magnetized towards suicidal impulses is reinvigorated when he thinks about the flowing waters of Cock lake. Stephen imagines the waters flowing in, “covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand,” perhaps even the very beach on which Stephen has been walking, taking him back out into the waters (U 3.453-54). “My ashplant will float away,” thinks Stephen, rather detachedly, and he continues, “No, they [the waters] will pass on” (U 3.454-55). The ashplant, as critics have argued at length, is in many ways a symbol of Stephen himself; the notion that his ashplant would “float away” like the bloated dog carcass from earlier in the chapter implicates Stephen’s own life. Furthermore, Stephen’s diction regarding the waters – the notion that they will “pass on” – is uncannily that of someone describing a death, as though Stephen, without his sturdy ashplant at his side, would soon “pass on.” Luckily, these thoughts are interrupted once more, and Stephen’s chapter comes to a close. As he gathers himself up to leave Sandymount Strand, he takes the “hilt” of his ashplant, and briefly swings it around like a sword (U 3.489). “Yes, evening will find itself in me,” he thinks, “without me. All days make their end” (U 3.490). The evocation of “evening” in connection with “end” yet again restores the suicidal impulse in Stephen’s mind. The ashplant, faithfully at his side, serves as an emotional crutch to these feelings as much as it supports and protects him physically.

Joyce also describes the ashplant in performative terms, as though it were merely one of Stephen’s “effects” of dress. It is as though Joyce deliberately downplays the ashplant’s obvious symbolic role as a means of confusing those who track the ashplant’s movement throughout Ulysses. After “Proteus,” the ashplant vanishes from the novel until its ninth chapter, “Scylla and Charybdis,” in which Stephen’s “ashplanthandle” is hung over his knee (U 9.296). Later on in the chapter, Stephen examines himself: “Stephen looked on his hat, his stick, his boots” (U 9.946). These simple images immediately transform into more complicated ones, however: “Stephanos, my crown. My sword. His boots are spoiling the shape of my feet. Buy a pair. Holes in my socks. Handkerchief too” (U 9.947-48). The shift in description immediately connotes a kingly image, with “crown” and “sword” being the lustrous features of Stephen’s appearance. Yet, these connotations are simultaneously undermined by the peasant-like “holes” in the socks and handkerchief. The double-image of Stephen’s hat/crown and stick/sword seems to undermine the larger significance of the hat and ashplant throughout the novel. Yet, as will be seen in the “Circe” chapter, that would be to misunderstand the ashplant’s role as more than a walking stick.

Though the ashplant does make a few cameos in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of the novel, its role is rather subdued. The ashplant properly comes to life – almost taking on the role of a character – in “Circe.” This chapter, written as though it were to be performed on stage, mentions the ashplant more than any other. The ashplant first makes its appearance in the chapter’s stage directions, where Stephen is described as “flourishing the ashplant in his left hand” as he chants with other characters (U 15.73). Once again, the ashplant’s flourish provides for a kind of performative quality on Stephen’s behalf. Indeed, drunk and showing off in front of the ladies, Stephen tells Lynch, “Hold my stick” (U 15.118-19). Lynch begrudgingly accepts – or, rather, “Stephen thrusts the ashplant on him” – though not without complaint: “Damn your yellow stick” (U 15.120). This exchange is described in Randall J. Pogorzelski’s book, Virgil and Joyce, as paralleling Aeneas’ golden bough from the Aeneid. Pogorzelski writes, “It is hard not to recall the ‘aureus . . . ramus’ [golden bough] that gains Aeneas entrance to the underworld.” There are undoubtedly many references to Virgil throughout Ulysses; whether this exchange is one of such references, however, is contestable. If, in fact, Stephen’s “yellow stick” is to be thought of as Aeneas’ “golden bough,” then it serves to explain the mythic, quasi-supernatural characteristics of the ashplant in this chapter.

As the “Circe” chapter continues, and Stephen becomes progressively more drunk, the role of the ashplant becomes more and more perplexing. Stephen thinks to himself that he is “out of it now,” presumably (but not limited to) his drunkenness (U 15.2535). Following this thought, the siamese twins, Philip Drunk and Philip Sober, appear to reaffirm Stephen’s thought: “Out of it out of it. By the bye have you the book, the thing, the ashplant? Yes, there it, yes. Cleverever outofitnow. Keep in condition. Do like us” (U 15.2537-39). These rather sing-songy lines aside, it seems that Philip Drunk and Philip Sober bring up the ashplant in passing, especially considering how it is named offhandedly, as though the twins Philip were trying to remember the term for the ashplant. However, their inquiry ceases once they find the correct word. The twins Philip proceed to affirm its presence, repeat Stephen’s “out of it” comment, and then advise Stephen to “do like us” by keeping the ashplant in good condition. This scene, taking place as though it were a hallucination, prophecies the later culminating scene in which the ashplant’s violent potential displays itself.

The ashplant retains (and develops) its sense as a mythical object when Stephen refers to it, not as his stick or ashplant, but as his “augur’s rod.” In a scene of dancing and festivities, Stephen says, “Quick! Quick! Where’s my augur’s rod? (he runs to the piano and takes his ashplant, beating his foot in tripudium)” (U 15.4011-12). Stephen proceeds to dance with Zoe and other characters in this scene, eventually announcing “Pas Seul!” (a dance for one person) to the group. As Stephen dances, the descriptions of his movements always reference the ashplant (U 15.4120-4129), and as his moves become wilder, the grammar breaks down: “Stephen with hat ashplant frogsplits in middle highkicks with skykicking mouth shut hand clasp part under thigh” (U 15.4123-25). These descriptions are curious for a number of reasons. First, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to infer, the ashplant serves as a walking stick for Stephen; presumably Stephen has a lame leg or needs the support when moving. Second, all of the dance moves described in this section refer to leg movements – “frogsplits,” “highkicks,” “skykicking.” The ashplant, acting as a kind of “third leg” becomes, for Stephen, a prosthetic device. For, with the aid of the ashplant to balance his movements, he performs more complicated dance moves than would otherwise be expected from a character carrying a walking stick.

The ashplant’s ultimate significance is brought about through visions of Stephen’s dead mother, towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Stephen’s mother proselytizes him, warning him to repent and to beware of God. In keeping with other religiously ambivalent overtones of the novel, Stephen attempts to rebel against his mother in this scene, replying “Non serviam!” (I will not serve) (U 15.4228). Harder suggests that this declaration mimics Peter’s denial of Christ, which is aligned with Stephen’s antipathy towards both religion and his mother’s death “No! No! No!” Stephen shouts, “Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!” (U 15.4235-36). And with this penultimate line, Stephen ceases to listen to reason; rather, he lashes out in an act of physical violence. “Nothung!” he shouts, and the stage directions describe the ashplant’s unforgettable apotheosis: “(He lifts his ashplant high with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time’s livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry.)” (U 15.4243-45). It is notable that Stephen challenges those in the room to “break” his spirit before proceeding to physically break the chandelier. Furthermore, Richard Ellman suggests that Joyce’s reference to Wagner – “nothung,” Siegfried’s sword – is also a parallel to Odysseus’ “Noman,” the identity he gives the Cyclops after blinding him in The Odyssey. It’s as though Stephen doesn’t know how to channel his emotions in this scene, which, compounded by his excessive drunkenness, physically escapes his body through this violent gesture. He is, in other words, blinded to reason. As Ellman suggests, Stephen channels his spiritual rebellion into physical rebellion. And yet, this isn’t entirely a destructive act; rather, this scene represents the fact that Stephen has finally graduated from the “young man” he was in Portrait. In this scene, Ellman writes, “ the destruction-creation at the centre of the artistic process is realized.” Despite the resounding drama of this scene, Stephen proceeds to “[abandon] his ashplant” after someone yells for the police (U 15.4255). Bloom, in a moment of lucidity, has the sense to collect Stephen’s ashplant before making reparations with the owners of the “tenshilling house.” Though, in so doing, he mimics Stephen (“he raises the ashplant”) and startles the ladies in the room.

Bloom’s involvement with the ashplant is a source of all kinds of scholarly intrigue.

The most extensive conversation surrounding this act is to be found in Mark Osteen’s The Economy of Ulysses, in which he argues that Bloom becomes a “transvestite” towards the end of the “Circe” chapter. Osteen writes, “by picking up the ashplant and preparing to strike the shade again, Bloom acts as Stephen as well as for him.” The ashplant, so central to Stephen’s identity, has the power to confer identity onto Bloom in this scene. Osteen argues that Bloom “becomes” Stephen through the final act of dressing and performing as him. This is borne out in moments where, for instance, Bloom “tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant” as he hears a dog bark in the distance (U 15.4945-46). But this reading goes against much of the overtones of fatherhood throughout the novel. That is, the paternal relationship of Bloom and Stephen is transfigured by this scene into a more homoerotic one. For, Osteen argues, this scene is the first in which Bloom intentionally touches Stephen (with concern), and calls him by his first name. These unique gestures are not repeated elsewhere throughout the novel. With these notions in mind, moments when Bloom “stands erect” with Stephen’s hat and ashplant further complicate their relationship to suggest something more overtly homoerotic (U 15.4946). Thus, between their newly altered friendship and Bloom’s possession of the ashplant – Stephen’s essential identity marker – this scene demonstrates how “extremes meet through exchange.” That is, the diametrically opposed dispositions of Stephen and Bloom are united through the act of dressing up in the role of the other character.

As Bloom’s character changes with the ascertainment of the ashplant, so too does Stephen’s with the loss of his stick. This is evident in the stage directions surrounding the ashplantless Stephen, as he “staggers,” needs to be propped up by Bloom, “sway[s],” and “falls back a pace” (U 15.4428-31; U 15.4481). Eventually Stephen realizes that his “centre of gravity is displaced” (U 15.4434). The “centre of gravity” almost undoubtedly refers to his still-missing ashplant. Joyce even takes the opportunity for Stephen to drop the pun, “How do I stand you?” (U 15.4590). Of course, Stephen’s lack of balance all has much to do with the fact that he has been drinking. That aside, Stephen’s newly unbalanced characteristics wear off almost immediately upon regaining his ashplant.

As many scholars have argued at length, Stephen’s ashplant is commonly seen as a phallus. The connection is obvious, if not juvenile. What seems to be omitted from the larger discussion is the moment that Stephen regains his “phallus” from Bloom. Running up to Stephen, Bloom offers up the ashplant, to which Stephen rejects: “Stick, no. Reason. This feast of pure reason” (U 15.4745). Recalling the fact that Stephen abandoned his stick after his physically violent, hyper-masculine outburst, the ultimate reason for his attack on the chandelier was that Stephen was unable to reason with his mother. Through excessive alcohol intake, and through the stupor of the evening, Stephen could not summon his adept reasoning and thus resorted to brutish violence. Upon regaining the ashplant, now seen as the weapon for which it always had potential, Stephen rejects its role as a violent object. Hence his insistence on “reason” being in opposition to the stick. If other scholars are correct in deeming the ashplant as a phallus, it then becomes a vexatious problem of how to sort out Stephen’s preference for the intellect over brute force. Keeping traditional notions of masculinity in mind, the phallogocentric path would be to accept the ashplant. Stephen rejects it at first, realizing, as he did not in Portrait and thus far in Ulysses, that his path forward in life would indeed require a different understanding: one primarily imbued with reason.

Following the “Circe” chapter, Bloom is finally able to return the ashplant to Stephen, and it goes unremarked upon for the remainder of the novel. However, in Bloom’s chapter, “Ithaca,” the ashplant makes its final appearance. Stephen, leaving Bloom’s house, is described in similar stage directions to that of “Circe”: “Lighted Candle in Stick / borne by / BLOOM / Diaconal Hat on Ashplant / borne by / STEPHEN” (U 17.1023-28). The presentation of this passage is with centered texts, lines breaking in such a way as to suggest performativity. As Stephen now realizes, the ashplant is “a tool that must be borne as a burden or punishment.” Throughout the novel, he has carried the walking stick around as a means of self-defense, of prosthetic aid, and to continue with it further brings with it the memories of his violent, drunken outburst in “Circe.” It is probable to suppose that Stephen finally abandons his ashplant, having learned the lessons – lessons of his identity as a man, as an artist, and so on – along the novel’s course. The ashplant does not reappear in Ulysses.

The ashplant is an object within the text which offers a host of interpretations. This is in keeping with the rest of Ulysses, a text that defies scrutiny and yet offers endless possibility for such scholarly inquiry. At times, the ashplant appears as a force of good in Stephen’s life. It keeps him upright, it helps him face his fears, and assists him in carving out his identity as a young artist. That said, the ashplant also carries with it the potential for violent action, not to mention its role as a “crutch” in the truly deprecating sense (i.e. relying on something too much). The ashplant, in any interpretation, is the connecting object between Portrait and Ulysses. It walks the reader along, through the treacherous paths that Joyce has written, and allows the reader a sense of efficacy that they, too, can be aided in their journey through the life of Stephen Dedalus.

 

From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: The Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.

 

Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68., http://www.jstor.org/stable/441143.

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502., http://www.jstor.org/stable/309247.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.

 

Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017

godottree

“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?

 

Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016

 

dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.

Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016

Love-at-Last-Sight-Sermon-Series-Idea

The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.

Baudelaire’s Clock

March 10, 2016

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All of Charles Baudelaire’s writings stand on their own, but many of them bear nearly identical, overlapping titles (i.e. “Cats,” “Cat,” and “The Cat”). Though I am at the mercy of translation from French to English, I’d argue that these overlapping titles are conscious, calculated moves on Baudelaire’s behalf. On the surface, many of these instances of title duplication reveal little, if any, patterns across the source material of Baudelaire’s writings. But, in the following paragraphs, I wish to turn to Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” and use a reading of it to then scrutinize his prose-poem “The Clock.” These pieces appear quite different, yet many identical themes are evoked, which yield interesting insight into the mental machinations of Baudelaire. For the purposes of this essay, I will henceforth refer to “The Clock,” from Baudelaire’s Poems, as the “Midnight” version, and “The Clock,” from Paris Spleen, as the “Noon” version.

Before turning to comparisons, it would be wise to briefly unpack each poem individually, beginning with the Midnight version. This poem explores the obvious existential implications of “Time” in human life, and begins by characterizing the clock as an “Impassive god! whose minatory hands / repeat their sinister and single charge: / Remember!” Here, the movement of clock hands represent the passage of time; the clock serves as a mnemonic device of one’s ever-aging life. But Baudelaire characterizes this reminder as “sinister” which suggests something beyond the mundane: mortality. Or, in other words, “Remember!” your time is limited, and you are on your way to the grave. The poem continues with images of theatre and, implicitly, performance on a stage being the metaphor for one’s brief life: “One pirouette, the theatre goes dark.” And as this theatre goes dark–as time marches on, and death approaches–the poem’s narrator remarks how “each instant snatches from you what you had, / the crumb of happiness within your grasp.” No happy messages here. The clock is a mnemonic token of death to the narrator, moreso than the literal ticking away of one’s own life.

Perhaps the most profound stanza present in this Midnight version of “The Clock” is the third: “Thirty-six hundred times in every hour / the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies /in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past, / who passing lit and sucked your life and left!” The mosquito incarnation of the present moment–”Now”–is both hilarious and shudder-inducing; for time, as Baudelaire is presenting it, is always out of our “grasp,” it is beyond our control: “Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins / on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.” The narrator is frantically pointing to the Clock, impelling the reader to “Remember!” how fugitive each passing moment truly is. And there is some irony embedded in this Midnight version, given how, regardless of this apprehension of mortality-remembrance, “Time” defeats us in the end.

The “Noon” version of Baudelaire’s “The Clock” is, on the surface, a much more lighthearted departure from the menacing “Impassive god” of the Midnight version. This version, as a prose-poem, contains cats, a little boy, and notably takes place in broad daylight. It begins, “The Chinese can tell the time in the eyes of cats,” which is a very provocative and unscientific assertion. For who in the West has ever heard such nonsense? But the narrator, passively and credulously, observes a “missionary, strolling through a suburb [who] had forgotten his watch.” This missionary asks a little boy the time, and the “ragamuffin” (boy) darts off to catch a “very fat cat,” which correctly yields the time: “he declared without hesitation: ‘It’s not quite noon.’ Which was correct.” A surprising and accurate clock is revealed to the narrator in the form of a cat. This leads the narrator to reflect upon his own cat which, when he gazes into the “depths of her adorable eyes,” he always sees the hour “distinctly, always the same hour, an hour vast, solemn, and grand as space, without divisions into minutes and seconds–a motionless hour unmarked by the clocks, but light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye.” This “hour” the narrator describes has an uncanny quality about it, especially given our unpacking of the Midnight version of “The Clock.” That is, one can’t help assign this “motionless,” “solemn,” “unmarked,” time as something akin to death.

If Baudelaire’s intention is to divorce the Midnight version from the Noon version by setting up a bright sunny day with a children and cats, then he did an awful job. But Baudelaire was no fool; the prose-poem continues with a question to the narrator: “‘What are you looking at there so attentively? What are you seeking in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the hour there, you idle, wasteful mortal?’–I would reply without hesitation: ‘Yes, I see the hour; it is Eternity!’” The words “idle” and “wasteful mortal” suggest the connection between time and death as explored in the Midnight version. This hour, “Eternity,” may in fact be everything outside of “Now” (borrowing from the Midnight version).

The form of the Midnight version is that of linear quatrains, whereas the form of the Noon version is that of paragraphs. The Midnight version is constrained moreso to the realm of conceptual analysis and reflection, images and ideas, rather than narrative or plot. The Noon version, as a prose-poem, reads almost like a story, with time passing within the prose-poem itself. Baudelaire may have intended to embed the link between time and death, from the Midnight version, into the Noon version’s light-hearted imagery of the Orient. The “pretentious gallantry” found within the Noon version serves to mask these ideas within the setting and story of the prose-poem itself, whereas the Midnight version does not feign to do so; the Midnight version is explicit in its message, whereas the Noon version requires a more scrupulous reading.

The parallels, however, between the Noon and Midnight versions of “The Clock,” provide some synthetic reading regarding the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry, his prose, and even his conceptual positions, are implicated by, and are found within, each of his poems. By name, by time, or by theme, Baudelaire’s inner turbulence, regarding his own antagonistic relationship with death and time, spills onto all the pages he penned.

No Preamble: Eating Animals

February 29, 2016

Eating-Animals

I have struggled with the ethical dimensions of eating animals for most of my life. It first came to my attention when my high school crush, Katie Loughran, shared PETA’s “Meet Your Meat” video. I was appalled, like most who see the short (horror) film. Thus followed nine months of capricious veganism, and then many years of relapse. Even yesterday, my boss cooked up turkey chili in the breakroom and brought me a bowl: I ate it with relish, as he is a fantastic chef. But in the back of my mind lurks the ever-growing concern: The question of what kind a person I am in eating animals.

I write this brief reflective essay regarding a book I just finished, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Speechless, or rather, so full of words I can’t contain them, I write this rambling account of the ways in which his book moved me; personally, socially, ethically, etc. the depth of Safran Foer’s argument cuts right through me. Personally, I’ve acted via the “conscientious inconsistency” Foer evokes regarding vegetarianism. Socially, I’ve found myself accepting meat from my manager/coworkers because they’re proud of their cooking and want me to share in their delight. As Safran Foer notes, it’s often more rude to turn away the meat than it is to stick to my principles. Ethically, I vacillate between thinking (1) it’s wrong to kill animals, and (2) it’s not inherently wrong to kill animals for consumption, but it is obviously wrong to kill animals in the manner of the factory farming system; this book does wonders to complicate that picture even further, as the author repeatedly suggests that there is indeed genuine ambiguity about killing for necessity. The list goes on ad nauseum, but Foer’s mantra that “Stories about food are stories about us” rings true for my own life.

The brief section titled “Battery Cage,” early on in the book, startled me to my core. Until reading that meager little page, I surprisingly hadn’t performed the thought experiment of being, myself, an animal confined to a cage for slaughter. The horror had gripped me in the studium (intellectual life), but never heretofore in the punctum (emotional life). The way Safran Foer turns the second person into a reinvisioning of the hierarchy between humans and animals is unnerving, to say the least. This is the first motivator for my now vegetarian/vegan-leaning ethical stance (if not yet in practice).

The section titled “Environmentalism” also shook my foundations, in the sense that my higher education is aimed towards Applied Environmental Ethics. In the light of his analysis, I must conclude that being a “casual omnivore,” as Foer puts it, is environmentally inexcusable (again, that difference between the studium and the punctum). It’s one thing to read about the environmental degradation resulting from our agricultural practices and, implicitly, my food choices. It’s another thing to see it phrased so bluntly: “omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” I don’t want to say something cheesy and (temporally) insincere but, in reading this book, my turbulence about the question of eating animals was absolutely slaughtered (pardon the pun). I can intellectually commit to reducing my meat intake–perhaps to zero–but habitually retraining myself and, in some cases, going out of my way and others’ to behaviorally commit, is another matter.

And, though Safran Foer doesn’t outright name it, his provocation for a “democratic” farm system reminds me much of what I’ve explored this semester regarding Food Sovereignty. I hadn’t heretofore transmogrified that movement into political terms (surprising considering how often I bloviate about American politics). To do so would require replacing “corporate” concerns with “civic” ones and, thus, extremely effort exerting. But, as with the work of John Dewey regarding the philosophy of education, redirecting the means and aim of any system towards democracy seems–to me at least–a noble, fruitful, optimistic endeavour.

I only maintain one worry regarding Safran Foer’s compelling narrative/argument: I find it interesting–if not frustrating–that Safran Foer neglects to mention artificially grown meat. For those unfamiliar, we are now on the cusp of scaling up meat tissue, grown without any animal to raise or kill. If our concern is, as Safran Foer writes, “all of the time […] between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals,” then I wonder how our concern would change regarding this “animal-less” (for lack of a better term) meat. That is, if we eliminate the suffering and killing of animals, but still eat “meat,” do we still have an ethical travesty on our hands? The only foreseeable objection to this innovation would be akin to arguments against homosexuality, one of squeamishness: “That makes me feel uncomfortable/That is unnatural, thus, wrong.” If this harmless new method of growing meat becomes scaled in the way the innovating company wants it to be, then how does Safran Foer’s argument shift?

(Link to a podcast in which “Meat Without Misery” is discussed at length: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/meat-without-murder)

In any case, I highly recommend this book, Eating Animals, to all. It’s the kind of book I had to read in one sitting, the kind of book that is a perfect storm of the personal, social, and the ethical. Give it a read, and see where you stand in regards to the question of eating animals.

I’ll tempt you with this brief excerpt: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?

Reviving a Conscientious Conservatism

December 28, 2015

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In regards to Christopher DeMuth’s piece in Imprimis, titled “Reviving a Constitutional Congress,” I propose the following analysis and evaluation. I find this brief essay to be wrong in many ways, but not in its reasoning. I write a lot from an admittedly “liberal” point of view, so I am attending to a conservative writer who makes some good points, for a change. I shall give no summary, rather, I will assume my reader to be one who has read his article.

DeMuth makes some assumptions at the top of this piece regarding the nature of preference for Americans: We have a “distrust of power,” and a “taste for competition.” I squint at both of these assumptions, because I can think of everyday examples where we worship power–or at least covet it–and cases where we wish competition would evaporate–for selfish reasons. I don’t think these two qualities are generalizable like DeMuth wants them to be.

He writes that “A well-led government can present, at least for a time, a unified, dignified, self-confident public face.” I circled “well-led” here because, at the present, virtually none of our congressional representatives have any integrity. They are often bought-and-paid-for clowns in suits, vomiting vacuous rhetoric. Despite this, I, personally, have faith in the ability a “well-led” government can play. DeMuth, on the other hand, seems to have a suspicion of government entirely on principle.

I agree with him that we need to increase the visibility of political competition. In fact, this is one of my gripes with the fact that most Americans only vote once every four years. When I voted for Mayor this past year, there was virtually no depth, substance, or difference between the two candidates for office. One had an R, one had a D. If government is to have the optimistic role I wish it to play, then DeMuth is absolutely correct that we need to “expose” competition for all to see.

Furthermore, I think DeMuth is correct in that “checks and balances are important means of policing the corruption and abuse that arise whenever power is monopolized.” Of all politicians, I think Bernie Sanders pays most lip service to this issue, particularly in his incessant perseverations on the urgency with which we need to overturn the disastrous Citizens United supreme court case (allowing unlimited lobbying and money in politics). Unlike DeMuth, my view is that money in politics is what has effaced the checks and balances system. Power is now monopolized by the top 1%–I really believe this–and, thus, our political system has been transmogrified into an oligarchy. We can bicker across the political aisle all we want, but until that legislative embarrassment is rectified, nothing truly integrous will follow.

I diverge again with DeMuth’s assumptive tendencies when he asserts that Americans especially care about “limited government” and “humble leaders.” Again, obvious counterexamples arise: Limited government translates to lower taxes, a concern of the Republicans. But a single-payer healthcare system, for example, run by the government is extremely more cost-effective than the current mayhem we have (and had before Obamacare). Take the UK, for instance; they pay 33% of what we pay and report better health outcomes. Privatizing healthcare is, ethically and economically, as bad an idea as privatizing police officers, to my mind. DeMuth’s second assumption, here, is that we praise humility in our leaders. If this were true, we would not see Tuesday night’s GOP debate full of war cries and threats to “carpet bomb ISIS…to see if sand can glow” (Ted Cruz). Donald Trump would not be dominating the presidential field and the news media if we loved “humble leaders,” as DeMuth assumes. Thus, I think we have reason to ditch the generalizability of his claims, once again.

I agree that we are losing a balance of power. But, unlike DeMuth, I think civil liberties are only exercisable insofar that economic security is achieved. By that, I mean retaining jobs in America with higher wages, stronger unions, and pay grades reflective of production-progress. That being said, we are the richest nation in the history of the world for a reason: We can outsource labor for the jobs we don’t want to do. I don’t know how to solve this seemingly aporetic economic issue, but I don’t think concentrating the top 90% of wealth in the top 1% of earners–who mostly either inherit it or just move it around to make more money–is a good idea.

I’ll assent to DeMuth’s criticisms of the “executive usurpations” of President Obama. Though I agree with the main thrust of the Affordable Care Act, it is cumbersome and not Obama’s place to be installing. I would agree to this much, but again I am coming from the position of considering healthcare to be a fundamental human right, as FDR once did. I look back to the New Deal with relish. That was the path I wish America was still treading.

DeMuth’s distrust in government betrays ignorance of the significant work the EPA and OSHA are doing in American Society. They are not perfect, but they are necessary. I would not agree with his snide criticisms that these organizations are not involved in “real policy.”

I agree that we are in an era of congressional “self-enfeeblement” in which nothing is getting done. I regularly watch C-SPAN’s live coverage of various voting decisions and debates in congress, which reveal the incredibly capricious arbitration and clunky system we have. Instilling seniority in Congress is an interesting proposal that DeMuth makes, but I maintain my suspicions. We have seen, too often, threats of government shutdown over petty, fatuously misguided issues (Planned Parenthood comes to mind, which is an issue in which DeMuth is obviously ignorant).

A vast number of congressional representatives run unopposed and, thus, remain in office, largely because most people don’t even know when to vote. Most Americans can’t name their home state’s own representatives. That is a scary reality. Not only are our politicians bought out, they actively gerrymander voting districts and precincts, insulting democracy. At every turn, politicians make it harder and harder for democracy to be enacted. I consider myself to be Independent or, more specifically, a classical liberal/libertarian. It is an outrage that we have become a two-party system in which smarmy slimeballs such as Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, are seriously being considered for office. As DeMuth is pointing out, this is a fundamental, across-the-aisle issue.

Given this, I think the Senate has no role in regulating the internet, for example, nor even slightly veering from the constitution to justify their lobbyists’ ends. I think, like DeMuth, I am a civil liberties fundamentalist–a constitutional absolutist. If you throw away basic rights when they’re inconvenient, then you never really believed in them. That being said, I think DeMuth is wrong in arguing that the Internet is something we should have regulatory policy over. If our politicians were integrous, virtuous, and wise, I might change my mind; but, in the pockets of big business, I don’t trust them with my freedom of expression on the Internet.

When DeMuth criticized the admittedly abysmal approval rating of Obama (low 40s), I think he was unwise to ignore the fact that Bush, for instance, had an even lower approval rating (low 30s). Both parties are disappointing the majority of everyday Americans. But the heavy-handedness in which DeMuth uniquely besmirches Obama is hard to swallow.

 

The Five Step Plan:

  1. Congress retrieve its delegated powers, subjecting them to annual appropriations.
  2. Congress should exercise its appropriations power.
  3. Congress should relearn the art of legislating
  4. Congress should reconstruct an internal policymaking hierarchy
  5. The Senate should cut back to near abolition the filibuster and the hold.

 

1) I think my digressions above adequately address this point. Cure corruption, fix the news media, and then we’ll talk. Until then, this only treats the symptoms, not the illness.

2) Agreed.

3) Agreed.

4) I am suspicious of this premise, but I will grant that, if DeMuth’s proposal were to be implemented, we need to reestablish “devotion to broad political principles…and skill at articulation, debate, and the arts of legislative negotiation.” There, I could not agree more. We have lost democracy in this country precisely because of people’s unwillingness to be vigilant in the democratization and problematization of societal issues and structures. It is now socially acceptable to be politically uninformed and apathetic. One does not breach the topics of politics, sex, and religion, at the dinner table. I think this is unfortunate; they are cavernous topics. Given this, a true democracy would not need representatives and gradations of hierarchy. A truly democratic society would have legislators who simply carried out the wishes of the people. We somehow have abandoned the conversation and left it up to the echo-chamber of congress. That is a shame, to my mind. Thus, I don’t know if a “reconstruction” is what is needed, so much as a revitalization of Critical Pedagogy in public education, and a reinvigoration of political philosophizing among the general public.

5) The filibuster is something I don’t know enough about to claim anything authoritatively. I have seen a few filibusters–some long ones, I might add–and they are sometimes ridiculous. Sometimes they are important and dense with data, however. I’d have to read more into the filibuster to say more. But I agree with DeMuth that “government growth [has been reduced to] executive lawmaking, punctuated by spasms of legislation.”

 

Funnily enough, DeMuth calls attention to the criticism I would offer his piece, which is that our government functions so poorly precisely because of “extreme partisanship and Republican disarray.” But he tries to defend conservatism from a historical lens, which I think isn’t reasonable to add to his argument: our government structure is inherited by a long line of tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, etc. That’s a red herring if I’ve ever seen one; not to mention the fact that the Greeks would not recognize our government as “democracy.” It has evolved quite a bit from 2,500 years ago.

I think the importance of secular, peaceable, legitimate, representative government, reflexive to all citizens, is far too understated in DeMuth’s piece. He resists the merits of compromise, which, fairly, give neither party what they truly want. I have more faith in the good nature of compromise.

There is indeed a power imbalance between “identity over locality, rationalism over representation, and decision over deliberation.” I think this goes back to education, again. Politicians are appealing to everyone, including the least educated, most credulous of us all. That is a little scary when stepping back from our place in society. I try to fact check every claim made by a political candidate. The failure to both politically and morally triage issues is egregious in America and, thus, the problems DeMuth is illuminating arise. I would object to his piece on principle: There is a reason European socialist countries report happier lives; I am not so arrogant as to disavow something because of the “infallibility of democracy and capitalism,” echoing Cold War propaganda and red scares.

I think the fundamental disagreement I’d have with DeMuth’s argument is that it is one from tradition: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I deplore all insipid, lazy deference to something because of tradition alone. Tradition is the mechanism through which Progress is shackled. We, in our society, are terrified of being wrong–it’s embarrassing and leaves us vulnerable–but making decisions, especially political and ideological ones, based on fear, is an awful idea.

But, this being said, DeMuth also is advocating for a “classically liberal” government, which I am, in some sense, in favor of. I am currently reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which is a foundational philosophical-political text for classical liberalism and libertarianism. I find myself agreeing far more with Mill than with DeMuth. But, I don’t think DeMuth is coming from an unfair place or making a bad argument. I happen to have different assumptions than him about the role of government, but I think we are both trying with each breath to ensure democracy and liberty.

 

“…and the Clock strikes the Hour of Drunkenness.”

December 5, 2015

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A fear of time and death is the fuel for many aspects of human behavior; they are the two inexorable adversaries of life. Both death and time loom in the background of our minds, repressed, flirting with the periphery of conscious thought. In the mind-altered states of intoxication, however, these notions of death and time take on a new shape. Nearly every single author we’ve studied this semester has encountered or investigated their idiosyncratic relation, through intoxication, to time and death. Frequently in the drug experience, eternity and infinity are evoked; they give rise to our two main themes of time and death. But the question I want to keep in mind throughout this paper is as follows: What significance does an altered experience of time have on one’s own notions of death (and vice-versa)?

Time dilation is most profoundly present in writings of Henri Michaux’s experiments with mescaline. Michaux describes how, in mescaline, “time is immense…it is supreme.” Time, for Michaux, has adopted a deity-like status in his experience of mescaline. In fact, Michaux goes as far as to blasphemously declare that, “Pullulation and Time” have taken over the roles inhabited by god; he writes that the altered experience of time on mescaline is “the kind of time God would inhabit if he existed.” Not only is there a god-like manifestation of time in Michaux’s writings, but there remains a shadowy implication for the kind of time we experience in sobriety. That is, Michaux’s writings of a consecrated, sanctified time seem to profane our sober experience of undilated time. The regal, mescalinian time of Michaux’s writings renders our clock-time paltry in comparison. Michaux, in fact, even proclaims that the mescalinian time he is describing, alone, is natural. Our everyday concepts of time, then, is implicated as something unnatural and lacunary. In this case, Michaux might argue that this implication is due to the truncated, pigeonholing tendency of clock-time; we have profaned the infinite by chunking clock-time into symbolic segments.

Further on in Michaux’s writings, he provides us a more unequivocal account of his dilated mescalinian time. It has abandoned the profanity of our customary clock-time: “I have once more become a passage, a passage in time. This then was the furrow with the fluid in it, absolutely devoid of viscosity, and that is how I pass from second 51 to second 52, to second 53, then to second 54 and so on. It is my passage forward…I feel nothing now but the going forward.” Here, one can feel the tedium of clock-time through the lingering of seconds. Clock-time, here, feels unnatural, which explicates Michaux’s earlier description of mescalinian time as “true time rediscovered.” The mescalinian experience of time seems to violently tear apart our (false) divisions of time into seconds, minutes, and hours. Rather, Michaux appears to be experiencing time in all of its fullness. If we are to trust the sanctity in which Michaux ascribes to mescalinian time, then it seems something worth experiencing.

Michaux, furthermore, presents us with a “new time,” in which one’s minutes are made up of “three million instants,” in which one will “never be in a hurry” with one’s attention; in “new time,” attention becomes “superdivided” and never “outdistanced.” Mescaline, in other words, functionally acts as an “infinity mechanism” which drags the intoxicated person to the margins of madness. The only difference between the intoxicated and the mad, in Michaux’s writings, is that, because of his sense of infinity, the madman “offers no resistance.” The mescaline user, ceteris paribus, does. To reinforce the maddening quality of this “new time” Michaux’s writings are supplying, he describes the typical madman as a “brave fellow” who, on his own, tries to cope with the “destructive phenomenon” of an infinite sense of time; the mescaline user, on the other hand, cannot endure the “destructive phenomenon.” The mescaline experience–regardless of subjective alterations–is temporal, fleeting, and will end.

Mescaline’s effects, according to the writings of Aldous Huxley, can be quite different from Michaux’s account. In fact, unlike Michaux, Huxley writes of having a “complete indifference to time.” This complete indifference comes from, what Huxley admits to be, a completely absurd place. He continues, very matter-of-factly, that, “‘There seems to be plenty of [time],’” as though that statement was supposed to help his interlocutors understand his experience. The peculiarity of Huxley’s statement is only rivaled by the way in which he acknowledges his capability to have looked at his watch; he writes that to check his watch would be to dive into “another universe.” So, we are already beginning to see the antipodal effects on time that Huxley’s writings emanate, as opposed to Michaux’s utter submersion in it. But, despite Huxley’s initial “complete indifference” to time, his subsequent experience is described as “an infinite duration…of a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.” This seems to entirely contradict any “indifference” Huxley had initially proclaimed. Thus, it isn’t too crazy to suppose that Huxley’s indifference to time is very similar to Michaux’s. That is, both authors have invoked the “infinite” in considering the manner of time; they both seem to resist the segmenting of clock-time.

Huxley’s contribution to our budding taxonomy of time comes to fruition in his writings of how, under the influence of mescaline, one is “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception,” in which the hours spent on the drug are “timeless.” Huxley writes of an experience, like Michaux, that is “beyond time, of union with the divine Ground.” Here again, transcendent time has been evoked. Time, through mescaline, has become “divine”; ground, furthermore, has been capitalized. By taking care to ascribe those qualities to time, Huxley seems to be referring to time as the ground for experience itself. Time just happens to be the vessel through which all of our transactions with the world are made. He further characterizes mescalinian time dilation to be of “inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.” Huxley, as a naturalist, is pointing to something truly spiritual about human experience: the temporal contingency of our being.

Amidst further material is a smattering of thoughts about death and time, which return us to the core relationship of our initial concern. Theophile Gautier, for instance, equates death with a plunge into a “frozen eternity,” which has temporal traces of Michaux and Huxley. Furthermore, in Gautier’s writings on hashish, he describes his experience of a “temporary demise.” Within this phrasing, both death and time are evoked. But, although phrases like “frozen eternity” and “temporary demise” don’t conjure up rosy, joyous images, Gautier argues that these are a “necessary apprenticeship for one’s definitive death.” Gautier’s use of the word “apprenticeship” is peculiar, suggesting a teacher-student relationship between the hashish and himself. He seems to be suggesting, here, that intoxication is a pedagogical strategy in which one temporarily encounters one’s own mortality. The regions of space-time, as we’ve seen above, are distorted and deranged in various states of intoxication. This distortion might be the way in which a “temporary demise” can be achieved. And, by calling this encounter “necessary,” Gautier is implying that there is a moral/psychological benefit in this brief death.

In addition to Gautier’s linking of death and time, Mary Hungerford’s An Overdose of Hashish provides similar insights. For example, after ingesting far too much hashish, Hungerford writes how her body transmogrified into a “living temple of flesh in time.”Again, the word “temple” conjures up a religious encounter with time; life is the gift from, and the payment for, time. Hungerford’s writings on hashish explore, not only wild distortions of time, but a lucid, hallucinogenic encounter with death anxiety. She writes of being filled with a “bitter, dark despair” with a “wild, unreasoning terror.” One can almost feel her pen trembling on the page underneath the horrific gravity of this encounter with death. In her intoxication, “the door of time seemed to close on [her]” such that she was “thrust shuddering into a hopeless eternity, each time falling…[into] the dread of the unknown.” This vision, in which Hungerford is thrusted into the unknown, is beyond her own descriptive capacities.

Like Gautier, there is a temporary demise at play in Hungerford’s writings. Hungerford, petrified, plummets into the realm of the unknown, a place with no time. But, in addition to these fears, she is also–in her hallucination–forcefully propelled towards a great black ocean, bounding the “formless chaos” where “each tiny drop of [ocean] spray was a human existence which in that passing instant had its birth, life, and death.” Not only has Hungerford experienced a kind of deified time, she is seeing from above–like a god herself–the fragility and futility in the brevity of human existence. To this end, she indignantly exclaims, “How short a life!” to which a formless, faceless voice unexpectedly replies, “Not short in time.” Here, Hungerford obtains insight regarding human existence: It is all a part of a “universal system” which is, invariably, “reabsorbed into infinity.” Like our other authors, Hungerford, too, sobers up eventually and these proportions of the infinite lose their supernatural qualities. But her encounters with the great black ocean, the door of time, and the infinite, all seem to reflect Gautier’s “temporary demise” and “frozen eternity.” It seems there is much to be learned from the extremities of intoxication.

We should now spend some time on the author who first formulated my correspondence between intoxication, death, and time: Charles Baudelaire. Both his poetry and his writings on intoxication repeatedly evoke their interdependence. Specifically, in his poem titled “Poison,” Baudelaire writes how “Opium can dilate boundless space / and plumb eternity, / emptying out time itself” to which he concludes, “my soul…sinks / unconscious on the shores of death!” Both time and death are implicated in Baudelaire’s writings of opium’s effects, in addition to his writings on other intoxicants. The “emptying out” of “time itself” through opium is suggestive of Huxley and Michaux’s dismantling of clock-time. That is, by “plumbing time”–emptying it out–it loses the rigid quality that clock-time imposes upon the kind of time these authors are describing. And, as these effects progress, Baudelaire’s narrator ends up on the shores of death itself, further motivating intoxication as a “flight-from-time.” So, there is obviously a deep-seated coupling of time and death for mescaline, hashish, and opium users alike. These three drugs are all quite different, but the motif and recursive meditations of their mutual relationship reveals that death and time are not only evoked by intoxicants, they are the static furniture of our psychological landscape.

I first paid deep attention to the links between intoxication, death, and time, when I read Baudelaire’s poem titled “The Clock.” The clarity of this link can only be explicated by taking a look at this poem in its entirety:

Impassive god! whose minatory hands
repeat their sinister and single charge:
Remember! Pain is the unfailing bow,
as arrow after arrow finds your heart.

Pleasure fades and dances out of sight–
one pirouette, the theatre goes dark;
each instant snatches from you what you had,
the crumb of happiness within your grasp.

Thirty-six hundred times in every hour
the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies
in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past,
who passing lit and sucked your life and left! 

Remember! Souviens-toi! Esto memor!
(My metal throat is polyglot.) The ore
of mortal minutes crumbles, unrefined,
from which your golden nuggets must be panned.

Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins
on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.
The daylight fades…Remember! Night comes on:
the pit is thirsty and the sands run out… 

Soon it will sound, the tocsin of your Fate–
from noble Virtue, your still-virgin bride,
or from Repentance, last resort…from all
the message comes: “Too late, old coward! Die!”

Baudelaire’s “The Clock” flagrantly, and without remorse, draws together the notions of death and time. The invocation of a clock as an “impassive god” is particularly provocative, considering our earlier discussion regarding the profane qualities of clock-time. Baudelaire’s clock is deified, the arbiter of time itself. Death is also heavily intertwined, both implicitly and explicitly, in this poem. It is unclear how Baudelaire, the man, thought about time. But Baudelaire, the poet, is paying attention to the importance of keeping time in mind with regards to death. They are intimately connected for the narrator of this poem.

There is also Baudelaire’s formulation of “your still-virgin bride,” in this poem, which I interpret as the life you’ve been afraid to live or the body you’re afraid to push to its limits. Keeping time and death in mind as “fate,” the narrator is urgently trying to keep the reality of one’s own death in plain sight. Using one’s own death as motivation in defiance of time’s “impassive” nature seems to be the narrator’s purpose for the poem. To this end, the poem succeeds in that I, personally, will never forget the fact of thirty-six hundred seconds passing with every hour.

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Finally, we would be remiss to gloss over Baudelaire’s prose poem which inspired the theme of this class: “Be Drunk!” In this poem, the narrator declares that “One must always be drunk; That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as to not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.” This poem’s opening gambit is a clear nod towards the link between intoxication and time, which are further intertwined with death. The act of getting drunk, in this poem, is recalcitrant to the oppressing forces of time and death. Getting drunk, as described in this poem, is a dulling of, or escape from, “Time’s horrible burden,” namely, death. Yet, Baudelaire muddles up this clean connection of intoxication, death, and time, with his following paragraph: “But [get drunk] with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”  Here, “drunkenness” is much broader than chemical intoxicants which we have been exploring thus far.

In considering the urgency of Baudelaire’s poem “The Clock,” this poem, “Be Drunk,” too, echoes similar themes of the severity involved in linking intoxication with time, and death. There is even a familiar character invoked in “Be Drunk,” namely, the clock. Baudelaire writes, towards the end of this poem, that “the clock will reply: ‘It is time to get drunk! So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk.’”As we saw in “The Clock,” it is vital that we understand the power of intoxication so as to flout the eventual victory of time and death over our bodies. By considering us the “martyred slaves of Time,” intoxication is being poetically prescribed–not just by Baudelaire, but by all our authors–as the way to make the most of our mortal situation.

Thus, we must return to our initial considerations. We saw, through Michaux, the divine presence of time in our lives. His mescaline-driven dilation of experience reminds us that there is but an eternal–an infinite–now. Our dissection of “now” into clock-time has severely sculpted our sentiments of, and sensitivity to, time. Through Huxley, we saw the deep profundities of time as a precondition to our being. His writings not only reinforce Michaux’s, they build off of them so as to ground the holiness of time in a secularly-oriented life. The writings of Gautier and Hungerford serve as our bridge between time and death; intoxication exacerbates one’s awareness of time, and of one’s own mortality. And Baudelaire’s writings most plainly illustrate the relationship intoxication has with time and death. There is a vital connection, for Baudelaire, between the act of getting drunk–on wine, poetry, or virtue–and the temporary escape from time and death. These authors, all functioning in concert, provide us a palliative prescription to the aporetic despotism of time and death in our lives. Their imposition are to be rebelled against, or so we must conclude, by intoxication. Following the sagacity of Baudelaire’s broad definition of intoxication, we might have something to learn, in fact, by turning to the bottle.

 

Works Cited:

Baudelaire, Charles. Poems. New York: AA Knopf, 1993. Print.

Gautier, Theophile. Hashish, Wine, and Opium. London: Calder and Boyars, 1972. Print.

Hungerford, Mary. An Overdose of Hashish.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Print.

Michaux, Henri. Miserable Miracle. San Francisco: City Lights, 1963. Print.

Linguistic Limitations

November 26, 2015

 

In the information age, many people appear to have forgotten the analogical limitations of language; culture now incessantly produces and reproduces new information such that it seems to have an infallible apprehension of the world. Language has convinced us, in short, that words can be taken at face value for truth. Because of this, many of the fundamental questions about language have started to collect dust on the shelf. I think it’s crucial to continue an exploration as to the functions and limits of language, particularly in the face of inundating information. Alan Watts and Friedrich Nietzsche present views on language that appear to both question and cripple the assumption embedded in Western culture–if not all cultures–that language maps onto reality. Watts and Nietzsche resist the tendency of language to dissect the world apart; drawing from Eastern philosophy, they view the universe as being one, indistinct, chaotic process. If they are right in their assessment of our language and its misrepresentation of reality, then what does that mean for us?

Language, according to Watts and Nietzsche, falsely fragments reality. By the very act of labelling things, it ascribes distinctions that aren’t necessarily representative of reality itself. The cultured Western mind will inevitably want to resist this claim insofar that our experience of the world is, in fact, comprised of individual and separate objects or actions. To this end, Nietzsche rejects the distinction between “perceivable appearances,” on the one hand, and a “concealed, underlying reality” on the other. Nietzsche, here, is undermining one of the foundations of western philosophy, Platonism, the view that appearance and reality are at odds. Nietzsche’s rejection of Platonism is contingent upon one’s perspective, however; but one’s perspective is drenched in metaphorical potential.

Nietzsche examines, in The Gay Science, what it’s like to be us. He posits that our experience in the world is primarily mediated by our individual perspective. This view gets built into “Perspectivism,” which Nietzsche considers as the fundamental condition of all life. To unpack this, perspectivism arises from our “take” on the world, so to speak. We’ve been thrown into the culminating world of human culture; thus, we inherit the language, symbols, values, and beliefs of our ancestry. This inheritance greatly, if not primarily, shapes our understanding of reality. At birth, we get taught “one, two, three” and “A, B, C” until we successfully prattle the terms back at our parents. However, they soon start to mean something to us. So, our perspectives are individual at the literal level but become collective at the symbolic level. All of this has two major implications for us: (1) The fact of multiple perspectives problematizes the concept of an “objective” take on the world, and (2) otherwise epistemic peers can disagree on their interpretations about the world.

Watts further problematizes this idea of Perspectivism by picking apart the way in which attention interacts with reality. Attention, at least the way we speak of it, is noticing things. The consequence of Nietzsche’s view of Perspectivism, according to Watts, is that our perspective and, thus, our attention, are mediated by the intervals we ignore–what we don’t notice. We experience all kinds of things that we don’t notice (i.e. radiation, microbial life, the hum of the AC, etc.). Watts proposes that more of our life is like this than we’d care to admit.

To demonstrate how language is a corollary of attention, Watts asks us to consider the act of driving. Driving is a case, he argues, where we multitask, usually at the expense of our attention to the act of driving itself. As I listen to audiobooks in my car, I somehow make it from point A to point B without colliding with another car or killing a squirrel. In this example, behavior has been automated. Thus, attention seems to be predicated on the degree to which an activity is automated for us. This example of driving applies to language. The extent to which we have automated language–from childhood onward–is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible to break free from its shackles. In some real sense, language has been automated such that I don’t consciously control the linguistic tendencies I have internalized. Watts goes further to suggest that this automaticity of attention is in large part due to the main function of language: The symbolization of our world. It has compartmentalized phenomena into words, numbers, notations, etc. all of which facilitate the classifications of perception. Language, as a function of both Perspectivism and attention, “pigeonholes” our experience into easily classifiable bits for our memory to store and sort. But, the implication of this, as Watts notes, is that we have a really hard time noticing things for which we do not have the words.

This “pigeonholing” is evident in Watts’ example of Eskimos vs. Aztecs: The Eskimos have five words for different kinds of snow, whereas the Aztec language has only one word for all forms of precipitation. This is evidence for how our perceptions and, thus, our words, reflect what we value. The Eskimos value snow because they live in it, whereas the Aztecs did not. And you can see this today with the rise of internet culture, where the hashtag has sprouted organically from our minds. Words like “selfie” wouldn’t even be comprehensible to someone living before the age of cameras. But as we now have cameras in our pockets, it has become important to us and, thus, we now have a range of words to grapple with “selfie-culture.” With this in mind, there appears to be a kernel of truth to the quip William Burroughs once made when he wrote that “Language is a virus from outer space.” Or, at least, the “virus” part seems true; language inexorably infects our thoughts. It seems Watts and Nietzsche are in agreement here that our language distorts–and reflects the short-sightedness of–our immediate experience.

Now that the relationship between perspective, attention, and language have been problematized, one might object to Watts and Nietzsche here. It seems necessary that we filter out parts of our experience to hone in on fragments of reality. But Watts accounts this immediate impulse, however, by agreeing: “To perceive [everything] at once would be pandemonium, as when someone slams down all the keys of the piano at the same time”. So, what’s the problem? Frankly, just because language is necessitated by our culture doesn’t mean we can’t scrutinize it. If our perspective and attention filter reality and, thus, the language we use, then this has severe implications for the way we experience life. These implications, according to Watts, present us with two functional failures of language: (1) We mistake antipodal concepts like black and white, on and off, etc. as opposites, and (2) we really think that the world is an assemblage of separate, discrete, individual objects.

The world Watts and Nietzsche are presenting is one not full of separate, individual objects and actions. They see our common notion of reality as a byproduct–a mistake–of our language. We have rendered everything into symbols, but we forget that symbols can never be what they signify. So, instead of seeing these antipodal concepts as going together, as a part of the single thing (the Universe), we see these opposites as pitted against each other. Hence, concepts like Good and Evil. We see these oppositions as battles and, thus, we really believe they don’t necessitate each other by their very existence–that we can get rid of the Evil while keeping the Good. Both Watts and Nietzsche reject this perspective on reality. Watts goes as far as to say that, as far as language is concerned, “the logic of thought is quite arbitrary…it is a purely and strictly human invention without any basis in the physical universe”. In other words, the symbols we have to represent reality are just capriciously chosen placeholders. Yet, though I think Watts is incontrovertibly correct about this position on thought and language, everything about my subjective experience wants to reject this view. The ontological structure of our language is such that I can’t help but think of things in terms of objects and actions. It is incoherent to our systems of logic to cease compartmentalizing aspects of our experience. But, as Watts argues, there is no way to draw the line between subject and object, cause and effect, etc. without that line being mercurial. This is because each distinction we make necessitates, by implication, two opposites. Watts attempts to palliate this issue by interjecting a new, admittedly clumsy, word into our language: “Goeswith.”

Goeswith is a way of rectifying the failure of our grammatical structure. We break things (nouns) and actions (verbs) apart into distinct words that “go with” each other. Objects and actions are spoken of as separate and distinct from one another but, in reality, neither can exist without the other. The implication for our own experience is that, because of our language, we forget that these patterns of noun/verb do not reflect the patterns of nature. This is no new insight, but our culture seems to have forgotten it. This is bizarre because, for decades, anthropologists have espoused the incongruities of languages around the world. Color, for example, is expressed in some languages as a verb as opposed to an adjective (i.e. a painting is not “red” to these cultures, it is “redding,” and so on).

The very fact that there are other, seemingly coherent, languages which treat the world differently than we do begins to reveal how tremulous our linguistic distinctions really are. Returning to goeswith, the failures of our grammatical structures become clearer: It’s not that “the plant is growing” but, rather, that “the plant goeswith growing.” Again, Watts is careful to underscore how cumbersome this word is; but, conceptually, he’s putting us back on the right track in terms of accurately describing the world. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that there can be no plant without the action of growth, and no growth without the object of the plant. Not only are our linguistic distinctions fragile, they’re objectively incoherent and patently false. Language represents, rather than reflects, reality. And yet, our linguistic distinctions seem internally consistent; in dividing up the world piece by piece we form a coherence of our own.

In terms of our language’s “coherence,” consider a spider-web. No thread of spider silk does much, or holds much weight, on its own. But as the spider weaves together strand after strand, each piece ends up supporting the rest and, thus, they are much stronger together than any individual thread alone. This spider-web analogy is, in my view, the way our language functions; together it all coheres, but is individually meaningless. Watts wants to further pick apart this collective coherence to investigate which ways language can be fixed so as to be independently coherent, instead of relying on the whole web of meanings.

By no means am I in a position to pontificate about the ways in which we can fix our language. In fact, the problem appears to be intractable. But one such solution can be revealed, through Watts: Everything in existence is a process. This process understands the subject/object, noun/verb, distinction as a false one. Watts says that these conceptual categories exist primarily because we are still operating in the language of “Newtonian billiards.” But it’s easier and more accurate to regard all situations, not as active agents and passive objects, but as processes. Borrowing again from Eastern philosophy, Watts notes how everything in the world acts like a magnet, both entailing and attracting its opposite, only more complexly patterned–like the spider-web analogy. As our language exists now, we never allow ourselves more than a “sketch” of a situation. But, if we are to aim our efforts towards rectifying the errors in our conceptions of the world, we must begin to understand that nothing exists independently, and nothing acts independently, of anything else.

Furthermore, we as human beings are a process not apart from our actions: We are what we do, and what we do is who we are. By dividing our experience into symbolic parts (words), we have fallen prey to, what Watts calls, “fictions of language.” If Watts is correct that dividing the world into words is fictive, then this seems to put to bed the age old questions such as the nature vs. nurture debate (gene-environment interactions) in biology. That is, if our polar divisions are false, then it’s incoherent to posit that an organism could be independent of its environment and, conversely, that an environment is independent of the organism. This returns us to our initial concern, Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, in that we only understand our environment in terms of our perspective or, rather, our perspective is mediated by our environment. Using Watts’ language of goeswith, we goeswith our environment as much as our environment goeswith us. To speak of either as distinct from the other, according to Watts, is make-believe.

We have contextualized the relationship between perspectivism and goeswith, but we have yet to explore the severity of what this means for us. Consider the age old, eye-roll inducing, question of the philosophers: If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The clear answer, in this conception of perspectivism and goeswith, is no. Sound only would exist in accordance with one’s perspective. To make this conclusion clear, Watts describes how all of our “senses” (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing) are forms of touch: “All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons.” In other words, everything we experience is an environmental interaction with our bodies. If I goeswith hearing, then hearing (or sound) goeswith me. Sound cannot be produced without the interaction of the vibrating air, my cochlea, and my auditory cortex. Sound, then, is itself the interaction of these parts. These implications become clearer through Watts’ example of chasing a rainbow. Our language treats a rainbow as an object which, if it were an object, could be apprehended in space-time. But, like sound, the rainbow only exists in its interaction with water, sunlight, and one’s perspective. I think that “chasing the rainbow” is an apt metaphor for the way we experience the world through language.

Language leads us into conceptual wormholes that are equally fictive as the rainbow. We are lost in the illusion of things, primarily because our grammar necessitates illusion. In fact, all language boils down to metaphor. Watts goes as far as to call this metaphoric tendency a “mythology.” It would be intellectually dishonest to posit that, like the rainbow, things (nouns) exist (verb) on their own. This mythology of language leads us to believe that we are not really “in the world” in the way other things are. Rather, this mythology supports the illusion that we can observe reality–objectively and independently–without having an effect on it. Our language dictates that the world is “out there,” and we are “in here” in our bodies. We even have words for the experience of being in control of our bodies from just behind our eyes. But this illusory linguistic trick of being “confronted” by reality is clearly a misrepresentation of the way we and the world really are, according to Watts and Nietzsche. This is because our perspective has gotten in the way, birthed language and, thus, has restricted our access to the fluctuating fullness of reality.

Returning again to Perspectivism, it seems to be the case that knowledge is always obfuscated by us. But Nietzsche goes further than Watts with this claim, which I admire. Perspectivism is a claim about truth as well. Our access to truth is contingent upon our perspective, sure, but it doesn’t seem to follow that truth is itself ethereal. Perspectivism grinds up against our conceptual framework for championing the multitudinous successes of the sciences. But Nietzsche dismisses this urge to bolster science–as a counterexample–as a mistaken metaphysical presumption which is worthy of repudiation. Yet, we desire that everyone agree on truth; that is, our culture tacitly denies Perspectivism. Nietzsche, however, recognizes that there is no one “truth,” there are but many perspectives on truth. The degree to which we confer the value of “truth” to a perspective is another matter.

Watts’ view on truth, in contrast, appears to be at odds with Nietzsche’s inconclusive view. After all, if everything goeswith everything else, then there could, in fact, be a unified “truth” about the nature of things. Yet, I think Watts and Nietzsche are more in alignment than they initially appear. In fact, Watts seems to outright deny the importance of seeking an absolute truth about everything, or that we could possibly be arrogant enough to try and know it. Watts might agree that each perspective is different, sure, but each is as much a part of other perspectives as other perspectives are a part of it. Here, Watts and Nietzsche seem to agree that language is simply the way we communicate between perspectives.

To this end, Watts anticipates the question, “So what?” It might seem to the casual reader that Nietzsche and Watts are just playing semantic games in redefining language; that is, they aren’t really giving us anything to fix the problems with. But there is a psychologically important insight to these views: By making linguistic distinctions, we create antagonists and out-groups that are more destructive than we’d care to admit. We end up defining ourselves in terms of negatives, and unfairly excluding parts of experience from our lives that we might otherwise not feel so averse towards. Watts responds to the question posed above by saying that, regarding language, “the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves.” And this seems to be what Nietzsche is saying with his views on life-affirmation and the eternal recurrence of the same (which I will succinctly summarize, because these notions constitute another discussion entirely); we need to live here and now, without prejudice and regret.

This is all well and good, yet one might still be unclear as to how a better understanding of language could help us achieve this end. If Watts and Nietzsche are correct–which I think they are–then language prevents us at every turn from meeting these life-affirming conditions in the present moment. This discussion of language is so crippling for us precisely because it severely damages our capacities to enjoy life. Less melodramatically, the act of conceptually separating ourselves from the world–from objects, persons, actions, environments, and moments in time–limits our experience of it. We’ve seen, through Watts, how indistinguishable we are from the world. In its current incarnation, language wedges itself in between that fact of inseparability.

Another damning fact about language is to be found in the Library of Babel, an internet archive which, through an algorithm, has combined every possible arrangement of the English language’s letters, including the comma, space, and period. The implications for the existence of such a site are enormous. Compose any 3,200 character query and the Library of Babel will have already accounted for what you submit. The Library of Babel blurs the line–regarding the functions of language–between something we invent, and something we discover. You can find details of your birth, death, a love note you wrote in middle school, the emails you just sent, etc. Anything that could be said can be found–it just needs to be looked up. Because of this tool, all language starts to look a little suspicious, skeletal, and stale. But stepping back from the confines of culture, this quantification of language seems laughably inevitable. Yet, culture has convinced us that language is something we command with agency. The Library of Babel’s very existence poses a threat to that alleged agency over language. In fact, to undercut language is to undercut an essential feature of our humanity.

Are we to now abandon all thought and language, all the sciences, and the quest for truth? Surely not. The takeaway from Nietzsche is that language gave rise to consciousness in the first place; it was necessary for survival and is even more crucial today. The consequence here is that language doesn’t describe the world, as our culture says; language prescribes–it gives rise to thought, not the other way around. Given that we can only operate from our perspective, yet inherit the symbolic structure of other perspectives, we have to be vitally aware of when we’re passively accepting language as reality. A pragmatic solution to this problem of language might be easily formulated. But Nietzsche makes the effort of calling language into question–and its interpolating command on us as agents–precisely to illustrate how crucial this understanding is to living a good life. This conclusion reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s declaration that, “The limits of my language [are] the limits of my world.” Given this, I don’t think any self-respecting person would willingly choose a “limited” experience of the world; Nietzsche and Watts are providing an opportunity to reexamine the role of language in our lives. This examination of language is a step towards reformulating a life in accordance with the way the universe really is.

In addition to our considerations, Nietzsche proposes a solution to our linguistic problem: A “new science,” one which shakes us away from metaphor. This new science abandons the pretense and age-old notions of “hierarchically arranged oppositions” like Good and Evil, light and darkness, appearance and reality, fiction and truth, etc. This new science is content to live at the level of immediacy, of appearances.

A similar move is made by Watts in his conception of “IT.” To define IT would be to fall into the traps of language that we’ve been exploring. IT, if we are to try an explicate a meaning, is everything (Watts, 113). Nothing isn’t IT, including us. IT resists our dualistic tendencies of language in that there is nothing to define against IT. Watts goes further to suppose that IT entails all of everything such that IT can never become an object; Watts thinks IT is too central and basic to the totality of existence.

No wonder our language has such a hard time latching onto the facts of reality (can we even call them facts at this point?). According to Watts, there is no way to stand outside “IT,” and there is, in fact, no need to do so. He continues, rather profoundly, that “so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself” and, in doing so, am making a grievous error about reality. In essence, if Watts is right about IT, then Nietzsche’s new science succeeds. A new science taken at the level of surface appearances would more honestly reflect reality than the empiricism which has swept up the ideology of the western world. But at this point, haven’t we just crippled language to the point of paralysis? I don’t think so. In fact, there is some optimism embedded in this seemingly damning indictment. Here, I’ll quote Watts at length:

“the fact that IT eludes every description must not, as happens so often, be mistaken for the description of IT as the airiest of abstractions, as a literal transparent continuum or undifferentiated cosmic jello…Yet in speaking and thinking of IT, there is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze
idols.”

If I’m reading Watts correctly, here, then it seems that he’s giving us a pass on our linguistic representation of reality; it’s permissible insofar that we are aware of the fact that we are representing reality, not reflecting it. Language’s limitations become problematic when we treat them as a fixed truth about reality (or “IT,” to use Watts’ language). Watts is not turning us loose, lassiez-faire. He is bringing to our attention–which, remember, is vital to our language–to the fact that language doesn’t always get it right. Often, if not always, we are speaking relative to something else. To resist this view of language is to distort, diminish, and degrade, reality itself. Like all things, language is a temporal process contingent upon our perspectives on IT (pun intended). Language, then, is the story we are telling about our perspectives.

Finally, I defer to the great modern poet, Les Murray, who quite beautifully sums up a lot of the work Nietzsche and Watts are trying to do regarding the limitations of language: “Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence. / Trees, planets, rivers, time / know nothing else. They express it / moment by moment as the universe. / Even this fool of a body / lives it in part, and would / have full dignity within it / but for the ignorant freedom / of my talking mind.” Looking through these lenses, it seems crucial to me that we take time to absorb the world apart from our labels for it. If language has fundamental limitations and is always confined to the metaphorical, then it becomes all the more vital to open ourselves to the raw experience of “IT.” But, can we take hold of language such that we account for this in the way that Watts and Nietzsche are suggesting? Whatever the case, language must always be held accountable to its limits.

 

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude
in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.

Watts, Alan. The Book; on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon,
1966. Print.