Archive for the ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’ Tag

Egyptianism: Mummifying Dickens   Leave a comment

What is “Egyptianism”? It’s a word that Nietzsche uses in Twilight of the Idols to describe the way in which philosophers take an idea and “mummify” it by draining all the life out. He writes of philosophers:

“There is […] their hatred of even the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing honour when they dehistoricise it, sub specie aeterni—when they make a mummy of it. All that philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped their hands alive. They kill, they stuff, when they worship, these conceptual idolaters—they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship. Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections—refutations even.” (p.45)

Philosophers, in other words, rework concepts so that they reflect their own values and prejudices because they cannot stand the idea that things have changed and evolved over time in ways that contradict how they think the universe ought to work. As such, they find ways to paper over those changes, to hide the twists and turns of how something came into being so that it appears, falsely, to possess a clarity and purpose of which we can make sense. Don’t like that an idea or event doesn’t fit into your system? Then rewrite it according to your own simple prejudices – that is a common operation in philosophy, according to Nietzsche.

As usual, Nietzsche’s choice of metaphor is a multi-layered one. Not only is he talking about how philosophers “mummify” ideas in a generic sense, he also clearly has in mind a particular episode in the history of Egypt: the reign of Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV. Upon ascending to the throne, Amenhotep IV undertook a project that was common for all new rulers in the ancient world: he systematically dismantled the legacies of his predecessor in order to establish his own. This revisionist process went further than any previous pharaoh had dared, abolishing the powerful state worship of Amun-Ra in favor of a new monotheistic religion. Thus, Nietzsche’s sarcastic comment: “Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger-mimicry!” (p.45)

I kept thinking about these words as I was watching the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, a book that is fresh in my mind from having taught it to my graduate class last semester. Readers are almost invariably disappointed by how books are translated onto the screen, but I have to say that I am not a purist. I don’t expect a one-to-one translation, and it is understandable that some economies are going to be necessary in the process, but what really annoys me are the repeated ways in which these adaptations overlook key ideas that the author is looking to explore in a work.

Great Expectations is a novel about class, for instance, and while the adaptation hits us over the head with the way in which money draws barriers between people, the idea of class being entangled in notions of birth and nobility is completely eschewed. Of course it is: the culture of aristocracy has been so thoroughly exterminated that we have difficulty understanding its prejudices today, and so Pip’s journey is rewritten as simply a problem of social mobility. How very curious it is that aristocratic culture is only ever presented to us in a flattened, caricatured manner, in terms that only a bourgeois audience can understand. Is it only about understanding, though? Isn’t it that there is something inherently dangerous in having people learn that, until recently, there existed a social order that represented a genuine challenge to our bourgeois values? How insecure we must be, that we still cannot even acknowledge this past. In so doing, we turn ourselves, like Pip, into frauds, mere parodies of the sophisticated beings for which we mistake ourselves.

The irony is that Dickens, in his own time, was highly critical of the contradictory way in which English society related to its own ideals. Do you remember that scene early in Great Expectations – omitted in the adaptation – when Magwitch holds Pip by the feet, so that the church tower is inverted? This symbolic moment is part of Dickens’s larger critique of the gap between Christian rhetoric and practice, showing how Pip’s willingness to help someone lower than himself is reconfigured as a criminal gesture, not a Christ-like act of virtue. A similar seam runs throughout Dickens’s work: think of the way that Oliver Twist wanders from parish to parish, unable to find a single Christian willing to help him, instead finding greater charity amongst a group of thieves than in the church. None of these religious hypocrisies appear in the adaptation either. We may be living in an outwardly secular, enlightened society, but we continue to pay lip service to a sense of Christian charity that we do not practice , just as we continue, with a strange hysteria, to proclaim the essential goodness of the bourgeoisie, even as Dickens reviles the potential vulgarity of its mindset through such characters as Pumblechook.

So it is that, in this year, the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, we are predictably doing what we always have done to our cultural heroes: in the name of false piety, we mummify them by taking the critical essence of their ideas and hollowing them out until they become crude puppets for our own prejudices.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Love on Earth   Leave a comment

The historical persecution of the Jews delineated in Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio (2002), from forced conversions through to the Holocaust, is depressingly familiar to most readers. While doing research on this novel, however, I came to realize the importance of another, almost forgotten period of religious persecution that took place in the region of southern France where Pears’s novel is set: the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church ruthlessly exterminated the “heresy” known as Catharism.

While this period has become, in recent years, a popular setting for historical fiction, it seems to me that the fundamental challenge that the Cathar belief system presented to the Church has often been poorly understood. Ruthless and bloody inquisitions, after all, can be gruesomely entertaining without readers of historical fiction having to understand the deeper nuances of the victims.

I was struck by just how subversive the Cathars were, however, during a recent rereading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (1888). In that book, Nietzsche examines what he calls the “type of the redeemer,” a mindset he attributes to Christ and which, he argues, was subsequently distorted and twisted by St Paul (p.167). Christ’s message, says Nietzsche, has thus been profoundly misunderstood. The core of this message was that God has already forgiven humanity for its waywardness, and as such the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, at hand – not, as Christianity would later understand it, as a posthumous reward for faithfulness. Nietzsche writes:

“The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart – not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept – the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’.… The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ – it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere…” (p.159)

Christ posed an obvious threat to the Jewish religious establishment with this message, for its implication was that the priests, together with their Mosaic system of atonement through sacrifice, had fulfilled their purpose and were now obsolete. The Kingdom of Heaven is not to be found in external rituals, but in one’s heart, with life becoming an expression of this divine goodness in a way that abolished the infrastructure of symbolic atonement.

While Catharism borrowed liberally from other strands of religious and philosophical ideas – gnosticism, for instance, as well as the neo-Platonist thread that Pears identifies in The Dream of Scipio – what is particularly noticeable about its debt to this “type of the redeemer” is its joyful announcement that divine mediation is no longer necessary. The Cathars therefore also did away with the role of the priest, believing that its adherents could be “Good Christians” whose lives reflected the goodness and mercy of God. For the Cathars, this aspiration was not tainted and limited by the “fallen” nature of humanity. Forgiveness had been granted here on earth, and as such it was their duty to become a “parfait” (“perfect being”) who practices the divine principles here on earth, not after the purification of death.

The response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Catharism reads like a blueprint for the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Pharisees, like the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story, the Church rightly saw Catharism as a threat to its own political power. In the name of Christianity, therefore, they mercilessly hunted down and exterminated a movement that came closest to replicating the original teachings of Christ.

That ideal of a loving community has not been lost – think, for example, of the Abbey of Thélème that appears in Rabelais – but its conception has evolved in crucial ways since the time of Christ. While love is important, it cannot be the sole foundation for a community. “Love,” writes Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, “is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything” (p.145). Christ failed because his conception of love, in its refusal to draw boundaries, made him both inherently weak and unwilling to acknowledge the harsh political realities around him.

The contrasting idea of a strong love, one that understands politics and protects itself from its pitfalls, is what drives Pears’s investigations in The Dream of Scipio. Manlius fails because he is too hard, displaying political strength and acumen, but sacrificing his friends and family in the process, while Julien’s fault, by contrast, lies in his recurrent willingness to compromise and negotiate at those moments when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. Only Olivier understands that love must be forceful and effective, pragmatically cognizant of the political realities that impact on it, without ever losing the ability to be tender.

The source of humanity’s communal misery and inability to love thus arises from a double failure. The primary fault, as the story of the Grand Inquisitor illustrates, lies in our weakness, in our refusal to take responsibility for our own lives and freedom. This failing is then compounded by the way we rationalize our weakness. Our beliefs are built as a complicated excuse for why we cannot take action. This is precisely the deflective function of religious institutions: no institution has done more to put off the realization of Christ’s vision of love on earth than the church.

While I don’t subscribe to the creation of any kind of religious community, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from these earlier examples about the difficulties of putting into practice what we believe. The prevailing philosophies of our time actively discourage the cultivation of a personality that radiates power, and yet this strength is the basis on which true love is constructed. Any other kind, as the example of Christ demonstrates, is weak and ineffective, passively allowing itself to be tortured and even killed. True love must face up to the unjust realities of political power with intelligence and clarity, not moral illusions. There are a thousand excuses for not loving, for not putting into practice the principles that are closest to our hearts, but they inevitably begin from a place of weakness.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Outside the Institution   Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a piece of literary analysis published in an academic journal and felt moved and inspired by what it had to say? My guess is that, if you engage in this torturous exercise, probably not very often.

Most papers are written and published, primarily, out of obligation. Academics have to show the universities that employ them that they are active in their fields, and universities, in turn, are ranked according to the productivity of their faculty. Since the squeeze for academic positions has become tighter and tighter, the situation has become increasingly worse.

How perverse it is that we allow the humanities to proceed in this manner. In the sciences, one must follow the scientific method or else the work undertaken would be declared invalid. In the humanities, by contrast, people are encouraged to write in an inhuman way. Academics in the humanities seem to lack the courage of their convictions – this idea is interesting, they say, but usually neither we nor they truly believe it.

Perhaps the most honest and perceptive assessment of this scholarly problem appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts. […] If one takes hold of them, they involuntarily raise a dust like sacks of flour; but who could guess that their dust derived from corn and from the golden joy of summer fields?” (p.147)

Nietzsche wrote those words in 1883, before the academic field of English literature had even been founded, but the prevailing attitude toward intellectual activity is remarkably similar. The joy of learning is reduced to a mechanical exercise, a matter of pedantic precision, automatic rather than dynamic.

It’s easy to be negative. Anyone who has worked in academia knows that it can be a demeaning path, even when you are part of the lucky minority who manages to find full-time employment. It’s a structural problem in which people are intimidated into a particular way of thinking. If they don’t follow the rules in graduate school, chances are they won’t finish their degree. If they don’t write in the accepted style of their field, chances are they won’t be published. If they don’t meet the research quotas of the university, they won’t get rehired or tenured. And so on. It’s an endless cycle of intimidation that ends up creating a culture whereby most academics lose any of the radical visions or creativity they might once have possessed. They become, as we say of prisoners, institutionalized.

There will always be a minority of academics – including, I hope, myself – for whom no amount of institutional pressure will change our approach to the humanities. Yes, the university will continue to require us to publish, but we write and teach and read, at base, for the love of it.

But it’s not enough. Society needs the humanities because they are the foundation of its emotional maturity, but the contemporary trend is to restrict such benefits to the elite classes. The emphasis on technical and vocational skills is the increasing curricular emphasis at your average low to middle ranking university at the expense of a liberal education, but the humanities will never disappear, for instance, from the Ivy League.

There is a surprising number of people outside that privileged elite, however, who are open to the idea that literature and the humanities have something to offer them. It is for that reason that humanities needs to consolidate its future by establishing roots outside the institutional tentacles of the academy.

Over the last few years, I have seen this approach work, for instance, with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. The MSCP was founded in 2005 by a group of thinkers – some of them my good friends – as a way of promoting a neglected area of study about which they are passionate. While they rely on the local university for certain practical support for some things, the MSCP is able to run courses and seminars entirely on its own terms, without interference from the institution. Hopefully this autonomy is allowed to last.

The great challenge, as always, is economic. To work outside the institution inevitably means little or no remuneration. It also carries with it the possible future challenge of becoming institutionalized oneself, and thus closing down the openness that formerly drove the mission. But this step, I believe, is a necessary one for the future of the humanities. We must take the future into our own hands.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

On the Contrary   Leave a comment

My mind keeps on coming back to this passage in W.B. Yeat’s A Vision (1925), in which he talks about how his reading of William Blake helped him to understand the difference between a contrary and a negation:

“I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict – Specter and Emanation – and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation. ‘Contraries are positive,’ wrote Blake, ‘a negation is not a contrary,’ ‘How great the gulph between simplicity and inspidity,’ and again, ‘There is a place at the bottom of the graves where contraries are equally true.'” (p.72)

It returns to my mind not as a vague philosophical problem, but as a difficulty related to the puzzle of my own life. You see, I, too, understand Blake instinctively. He means that it’s uncreative, lazy thinking simply to negate. You like white? Well then, I like black. You love something? Well I hate it. You believe in God? Well, I’m an atheist. Negation is banal because it masquerades as something different, when all it has done is to rearrange the surface of something rather than its fundamental, underling mode of existence.

I remember an instance that took place while I was at a conference held at Georgetown University in 2007. The conference was on Australian literature – Georgetown and UT-Austin being the centers of study for Australian literature in the United States – and I was feeling a little overwhelmed and alienated by the presence of so many other Australians. I had been having lived in the States for about six years at that point, having left my past in Australia behind me like a bad dream. Over lunch, an older Australian woman started asking me about religion.

“So, Peter,” she said. “Are you religious?”

“No, I’m an atheist,” I replied.

“What about your family?”

“Very religious. My father is a Protestant minister.”

“Oh,” she said. “So your lack of faith is a reaction formation. You’re rebelling against your upbringing.”

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said these words. It was an expression that combined triumph, self-righteousness, arrogance, and smugness into a single expression, as if her diagnosis had pinned me down as a simplistic fool who knows no better than to negate. With a little wisdom, a little experience, her face intimated, I would see the error of my ways and return, like her, to the religious fold.

“No, I’m not rebelling against my father,” I replied. “In fact, I have come not to negate my father’s words, but to fulfill them.”

Despite making what I thought was a pointed and clever reply – it amused me to echo the words of Christ in my affirmation of atheism – the woman was clearly unconvinced. She had placed me in her simplistic category, and there was no getting out of it. Thankfully, the conversation ended soon afterward, and we did not get to discuss whether my decision to leave Australia was, like my lack of religious belief, also a reaction formation. That would have been a rather more complicated matter.

Like Blake, I was convinced of the superiority of the contrary over the negation. For years, I ensured that everything in my life carried with it a texture of thoughtfulness and complexity. I was open-minded. I carefully exhaled the last vestiges of racism, sexism, and homophobia that one inevitably ingests when enveloped in a cloud of conservative thought, and instead engaged in a new and critical way of approaching the world that was full of consideration and responsibility.

It didn’t matter that my mindset was a contrary and not a negation. It didn’t matter that how I thought and acted was complex and philosophical, that it bore an ethical relation to the other. It got me nowhere, as the last few years have shown. My marriage, in particular, faltered, and this approach for dealing with problems was perhaps the worst I could have taken. I tried to talk through things. I forgave when I should have walked away. I was understanding when I should have been angry. When it was over, I remained friends.

Sometimes, I have come to realize, you need a little negation in your life. Sometimes simplicity is better than complexity. Hatred can be like a spice that burns your tongue, pleasant only if it is in small enough quantities not to overwhelm the taste of the food. It feels good no longer to be friends with my ex-wife, to admit that I hate her for the things she did to me.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter all that much whether you choose the path of complex contrariness or simple negation, for they are both negative modes and equally destructive in their own ways. I would prefer to echo Nietzsche’s greatest desire: “And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” Learn from your enemies, is the logic behind this wish, but don’t waste your whole life negating – at some point, forget your hatred and create the life that you want to live.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 29, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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