Monday, November 29, 2004

Week 15, Baudelaire, Nietzsche

Notes on Charles Baudelaire and Friedrich Nietzsche

General Notes on Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life

We can use Pater’s impressionism to draw out Baudelaire. It’s only the roughness of the eye that makes two things look identical. The point of Baudelaire’s ideas about art is that it’s getting harder to perceive anything in a fresh, accurate way. The artist’s task is to defend that capacity without rejecting modernity. To lose this ability is to lose your soul— Baudelaire borrows a lot from Christianity (original sin, the fallenness of perception, etc.) So he employs technological metaphors for moral purposes. Seeing is itself a moral act for Baudelaire. The Greek middle/passive verb Aisthanomai means “I perceive for myself” (not as others try to make me perceive or understand). Expressive poetics aside, this is not unlike what the romantics argued when they said it was vital to clear or strip away the ”film of familiarity” so that we might see things anew.

But Baudelaire doesn’t tell us to desert the urban site of spiritual corruption. Rather, he says we have to begin by seeing clearly what is all around us in our cityscapes. Artists should wrest from the Parisian boulevards with all their businesslike evanescence something of permanent value, something that will make them see what is all around rather than accept stale, conventional perceptions. Denaturalization is the key term here: art denaturalizes us to our surroundings, makes us see them as if we were wide-eyed, highly intelligent children with fine expressive capacity.

Baudelaire’s dandy does something different from the flâneur: he rejects life in order to maintain a perhaps archaic, but nonetheless valuable, principle of excellence. One can either embrace modernity or remain dispassionate and understand it, and the dandy does the latter in a somewhat haughty way. Here, the goal seems to be to maintain a sense of permanence and quality even as one is surrounded by the temporal and the evanescent. The flâneur's aim is to obtain clarity for an instant and to make art register that clarity in a clear thought or image. Impressionism in painting explains much in this regard; see also Pater’s literary impressionism.

Baudelaire captures the way modern art is of two minds about its relationship to the era. On the one hand, there’s immersion; on the other, there’s ekstasis. In neither case is there any question of simple realism. Even the flâneur as artist treats life as his raw material. It is a point of honor to create or capture beauty in the evanescent cityscape. It seems that Baudelaire’s “doubleness” would be a good way to describe modern art, its two tendencies: and literary modernism involves both of them.

Page-by-Page Notes on Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life

793. Artists don’t always have to privilege or represent the past, any more than they need to go back to nature and rustic language.

Beauty is a double phenomenon: an eternal element and a circumstantial element that depends on “the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” Beauty is both here and now, a kind of fashion and democratic realm, and aristocratic, aloof, ideal, standoffish. It is here for us but also leads us beyond the here and now. Artist experience themselves in dualistic terms—the pull of the body and the aspiration of the spirit.

794-95. The artist is a “photojournalist” and child. To make it new, you first have to see it new. Again, the artist’s task isn’t to abandon the present with disdain. the flâneur enters the hustle of modern commercial life, but keeps something, some portion of his or her being, always in reserve. This is not romanticism—individuals with their own “passions and volitions” coloring the world with subjectivity or rejecting it stormily. Rather, it is closer to the model of a roving, voracious photographer—the camera as “eye,” taking in everything as it is, this instant. To photograph is not simply to copy, and to repeat is not simply to copy.

Baudelaire is offering a new model of subjectivity that seems drawn indirectly from technology. The eye captures fleeting opportunities for clear images, the way a good photographer can catch the ineffable and render it permanently evocative in its ephemerality. Impressionism (cf the reference to Manet) is an enduring model. How does an “I” open to the world perceive the world just for this moment? Pater and Baudelaire are both insightful on this matter. And how best to “paint” my perception? Baudelaire posits a mind engaged with a modern, seemingly unaesthetic world, a world in flux yet entirely capable of offering up its beauty one instant at a time. Baudelaire’s “kaleidoscope” must be set over against high-romantic solipsism, the Byronic man.

796. Modernity? Well, it is the mutability of one’s age, one’s social life, and so forth, that matters. There is a modernity to be captured in every society: the ephemeral. Ignore it and you lose the chance to capture beauty whole, like a portrait of a nineteenth-century person in seventeenth-century dress. Only if you capture your era accurately in all its fleeting details and qualities will it pass into eternity, and become a worthy and true “antiquity” in its own right. Rejecting the present as one’s element is a mistake, just as surely as vulgar realism or mere copying would be. Beauty needs context; it isn’t a mere ideal. As Blake says, “eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

798-99. Dandies like Beau Brummel are a product of their times who seek to transcend them by imitating certain aspects of them in concentrated form. Dandified self-commodification is an attempt to keep the principle of aristocracy alive, to maintain the effect of distance from the crowd. Birth and wealth once afforded this, but “fashion,” a commodity realm, now generates the effect of aloof individuality and uniqueness. How utterly utter! Even today, we can’t stand to see someone else wearing exactly the same article of clothing as we are wearing. Imitation, yes, but not simple copying or homage. Self-commodification or dandyism is also a mode of criticism. When Brummel quipped in response to someone who asked him about his favorite lake in Wordsworth country, “I say, Robinson, which lake do I prefer?” he criticized the aristocracy’s belief that one could farm out one’s aesthetic judgments to a trained lackey, just as we pay people to make our clothing and other useful items.

800-02. Oscar Wilde is obviously on the same page as Baudelaire on many issues. On art’s relationship to nature, for example—Wilde, like Baudelaire, places art higher. That is a defiant posture, but it retains a tie to Schiller’s tradition of culture as an improving power. It also remains tied to romanticism’s emphasis on self-consciousness, even if the model of the self is not that of the romantic expressive individual. Wilde also writes that artifice is a virtue—it is natural for human beings to be “as artificial as possible.”

Page-by-Page Notes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Crisis in Poetry”

Mallarmé is anti-utilitarian and anti-instrumentalist: poetry is an encounter with language as language. We might, of course, ask whether or not this Mallarméan scheme takes anti-instrumentalism and impersonalism too far. It amounts to a complete divorce between ordinary language and poetic language, and perhaps therefore repeats on the level of pure language the isolation of the romantic poets from their society. At least, that’s one way of looking at the matter.

Music, for Mallarmé, is orderly and yet liberatory. We align ourselves as listeners with its successive notes, with its unfolding, and we should experience music as pure play. We should not reaffirm our personal or “tribal” power over nature, but instead connect by means of music and poetry with something beyond ourselves. Mallarmé refers to this realm as “impersonal,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is devoid of passion. Poetry is a supplement—it supplies a lack in the ordinary.

845-47. The “French Revolution II” is the movement from the Alexandrine verse of Racine and Corneille to free verse, vers libre. This change is no doubt allied with a shift in social and political arrangements from monarchical, semi-feudal to modern, parliamentary, commercialist nineteenth-century society. Mallarmé isn’t in favor of middle-class vulgarity and self-satisfaction, but the breakup of the Alexandrine is an opportunity not to be missed. It’s an opportunity for poetry to become what it ought to be—both sensuous and ideal, an order that liberates all who come to it. It ought to be personal and yet lead us beyond personality.

The Alexandrine imposed a false decorum and order upon language, taming and imprisoning it. Language was therefore used to ratify conservative French values. Mallarmé’s poetics are anti-instrumentalist, just as he is anti-Cartesian more generally—against the preeminence of mind as opposed to matter, reason as opposed to passion. As for ordinary language, we “use” it to express our feelings and ideas (romanticism) and to refer to things in the external world (realism, everyday living). Both uses are instrumental, and they falsify experience and even the meaning of being human. Language thereby becomes a mere tool shed full of implements, not the House of Being.

But Mallarmé considers language more worthwhile than the fake “autonomous individual” who supposedly uses it to shore up a narrow sense of self and world, more worthwhile than the everyday business that can be transacted with it or within its sphere. This anti-middle-class sentiment makes language the new principle of aristocracy, the ennobling force, the power that lets us keep contact with mystery, with “play” (jouissance, as in Barthes and Derrida) and with the holy (Heidegger). Yet, the realm of Language isn’t an empty externality, a metaphysical far-away place we can command. The goal isn’t facilely to get there from here since that would be to commit the same error as instrumentalists commit.

848-49. As the Beckett character says, “what matter who is speaking?” Ordinary speech disappoints us because it doesn’t correspond to real-world qualities when we expect it to. We aren’t gods and cannot achieve a one-to-one correspondence between words and things. (Perhaps this is what Paul de Man refers to when he says that even Mallarmé leaves the supremacy of nature untouched.) But poetry liberates us from such selfish demands for pedestrian intelligibility; it’s an impersonal language where the Ideal is at play. It creates an order that we can enter, a sort of mystical realm. There is no need, as far as Mallarmé is concerned, to turn to the “author-function” (as Foucault calls it) as a principle of interpretive stability.

Evocation and suggestion are better than fact. In somewhat plain terms, we might say that they lead us to a better realm than the everyday one we usually inhabit. Mallarmé might be described as a Platonist, but again that would be rather misleading. He isn’t really pushing a movement from a deluded “here” to a metaphysical “there.” In his view, it seems, language itself is the realm of purity; language is a here-realm of pure play, not a beyond of the sort that philosophical realists posit. Even so, it seems that Mallarmé invests a great deal in this order of language. The Symbolists generally treat language as having magical incantatory power, and (following Schopenhauer), as a refuge from human will and strife. Yeats describes the city of Byzantium in this manner; the holy city disdains “All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.”

851. Mallarmé’s flower example implies that what Nietzsche calls the abstraction-making power of language (its tendency to lie about the referential world), ought to be turned to account as music, as suggestibility that creates its own order. Mallarmé is not out to shore up the triumphant individual ego, the narrow shopkeeper-self in us all. Instead, he wants to see the triumph of language with a capital “L,” language as its own order, one that liberates us into what Heidegger will later call “the light of Being.” Language isn’t a tool shed; it is the dwelling-place of all that is most valuable in humanity.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

Page-by Page Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (870-884).

874-75. It makes sense to attend to Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy. He begins with a question: given our dissimulative, self-important ways, where does anything like a “truth drive” come from? But as we might have guessed, Nietzsche’s goal isn’t simply to hand us “the truth about truth,” and by 878 he has more or less finished with that question. He’s interested in something anterior and more fundamental about us, something more unsettling and yet also, perhaps, more worthwhile—something that he will explain most fully at the bottom of 881 and onwards.

876-77. At the top of page 876, we are told that the process whereby the conceptual twins “truth/lie” are born begins with “the Social Contract.” As Nietzsche explains, “necessity and boredom” ( a need for peace and for community) lead to the tacit invocation and acceptance of this contract. Afterwards, “that which is to count as ‘truth’ . . . becomes fixed, i.e. a way of designating things is invented which has the same validity and force everywhere, and the legislation of language also produces the first laws of truth….” This development doesn’t in itself account for the acquisition of an interior drive towards “truth,” but it’s the beginning of the process. People desire “the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth,” and whatever doesn’t produce such consequences is designated by common consent as untruth. At 876 middle, Nietzsche raises one of modern philosophy’s most basic questions: regarding linguistic conventions, “Is language the full and adequate expression of all realities” To put this question another way, are words and the material world commensurate, or are they completely different orders? In a sense, the question is unanswerable since, after all, we would have to know exactly what “the world” is in order to say whether or not language can describe it fully. Even so, Nietzsche’s analysis of the movement from sensory perception to speech is compelling and comes close to a firm “No.”

Let’s look at how this movement occurs: “What is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds,” writes Nietzsche. As he describes this “copying” process, “The stimulation of a nerve is first translated into an image: first metaphor! The image is then imitated by a sound: second metaphor! And each time there is a complete leap from one sphere into the heart of another, new sphere….We believe that when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities.” So whether or not language can correspond to the material realm, the empirical facts of perception show that it doesn’t. Well, we’ve all been told not to mix our metaphors – only Shakespeare was supposed get a free pass there, right? It turns out that we’re all sinners against the light in that regard: we can’t perceive and describe anything without performing what Nietzsche classifies as a fundamentally creative double-metaphorizing operation. What we call perception and experience are, to borrow a phrase, “always already” (immer wieder, toujours déjà, and all that jazz) The point he makes on 877 has some affinity to what romantic philosophers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Sage of Highgate, say: all perception is active, creative. The empiricists’ claim that we are passive recipients of the sensory perceptions that then (in their scheme, at least) become the basis of our knowledge-systems is a pure fabrication, and really quite an admirable one in its way. And what’s in a concept? Why, nothing. Nietzsche’s explanation here is incisive: “Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent.” Just as it is certain that no leaf is ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept ‘leaf’ is formed by dropping those individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be ‘leaf,’ a primal form, say, from which all leaves were woven.” But that’s crazy Cloud-Cuckooland talk straight from the Thinkery of Aristophanes’ Plato: there is no LEAF-of-which-all-individual-leaves-are-copies. In nature, as Nietzsche reminds us on 878, there are no species, forms, or types—therefore, the individual entity in the usual sense arises from a distinction we cannot prove to be legitimate. And much as we love Dr. Johnson, we really can’t be with him on his character Rasselas’ demand that artists shouldn’t streak their tulips. Johnson’s neoclassical “general idea” of a tulip, which is supposed to “recall the original to every mind,” does no such thing. It is a useful abstraction, a “concept,” that makes us suppose we’ve comprehended something universal and orderly about nature when in fact we haven’t. Nietzsche’s point isn’t that our metaphoric translation of stimuli into images into sounds is unnecessary; it’s that it has nothing to do with TRUTH.

All sorts of fine things can be done with substantive lies (i.e. nouns)—above all, they serve as false but compelling “causes” for natural actions, as in Nietzsche’s famous deconstruction of causality in The Genealogy of Morals: I say “lightning flashes,” and think I’ve explained something about nature. But really what I’ve done is invent an abstraction, a noun (a substantive, a substance, an essential thing), to account for “flashing” or “flashes.” What I’ve done is produce, ex post facto, a tautological expression that explains precisely nothing. Language isn’t caused by the external world, at least not directly. The same remarkable fiction governs statements connecting “doers” as the source and cause of their “deeds.” The “I” who is said to do the deed is just as much a fiction as “leaf” or “lightning.” (All honor to Lord Krishna in The Baghavad-Gita, who says much the same thing about the illusion of selfhood. Of course, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in Krishna, who attributes all actions to himself as “Doer in Chief.”) Again, none of this has anything to do with truth. It’s much closer to everybody’s favorite right-wing parodist Steven Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.” “I,” “leaf,” the “general tulip,” and “lightning” are truthy—they’re useful and they make us feel good.

878. But if we really want to know where the drive to truth comes from, explains Nietzsche, we must bear in mind that we aren’t even aware that we perform the above-described metaphoric and creative translations to produce language and conceptual systems. Like Colbert, we love truthiness, but unlike him, we perceivers and speakers are always on the air, deadpan, completely ensconced in our rock-solid Colbert-World. If it feels right, believe it, we might say. At 878 middle we find the heart of Nietzsche’s explanation of where that mysterious “truth-drive” comes from: “[people] lie unconsciously in the way we have described, and in accordance with centuries-old habits—and precisely because of this unconsciousness, precisely because of this forgetting, they arrive at the feeling of truth. The feeling that one is obliged to describe one thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth…. As creatures of reason, human beings now make their actions subject to the rule of abstractions; they no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions….” There you have it: forgetting makes important things happen—a theme Nietzsche returns to again and again in his texts: “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions….” Underlying grand illusions like truth, good/evil, civilization, science, the autonomous individual self, event, causality, god, and so forth is this capacity to forget how such concepts were first articulated. We’re all “salespeople” for such illusions, and, as an old friend of mine likes to say, “In the end, salespeople are the biggest suckers for the sale.” Why? Because, to borrow a line from Hamlet, “they [do] make love to this employment”; they’re enamored of the idea of the sale far more than the goods to be sold. If lying centers and grounds us, how can we be expected to give up such a fruitful occupation? As Nietzsche says, “Everything which distinguishes human beings from animals depends on this ability to sublimate sensuous metaphors into a schema, in other words, to dissolve an image into a concept” (878). And what accompanies this “humanity” of ours? Why, “the construction of a pyramidal order based on castes and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, definitions and borders, which now confronts the other, sensuously perceived world as something firmer, more general, more familiar, more human, and hence as something regulatory and imperative” (878 bottom). In a few words, the allied principles of rank and regularity. In sum, we acquire a taste for truth, an inner need for it; an unconscious manner of “lying” leads to a “feeling for truth.”

879. Paul de Man generally defines “ideology” as the confounding of words and the world. We seem to do this inevitably, and are most confounded of all when we think we are most certain of ourselves and our world. At 879 bottom, Nietzsche says much the same thing: our whole web of understanding is a product of anthropomorphization; “forgetting that the original metaphors of perception were indeed metaphors, he takes them for the things themselves.” Notice his near-simultaneous comic buildup and takedown of this process: first he says man is to be “admired” as a “mighty architectural genius who succeeds in erecting the infinitely complicated cathedral of concepts on moving foundations, or even, one might say, on flowing water.” Shades of “Kubla Khan,” no? And then he says of these concepts we reasoning creatures have spun out of ourselves, “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about….” In Civilization and Its Discontents (1939), Freud would later poke fun of scientific endeavor (as Nietzsche does in the present essay’s Section 2) in similar terms, comparing its great discoveries to a man sticking his leg out from the covers on a chilly evening so he can feel warm and comforted when he puts the leg under the covers again. Marx’s great line comes to mind in this regard, too, although the context is different: “Mankind . . . inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (“Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).

880-84. By now, the question about the origin of the truth-drive has come to sound a bit too truth-driven. Nietzsche is interested in leading us to consider a more fundamental “drive.” At 881 bottom, he writes, “That drive to form metaphors, that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves, is in truth not defeated, indeed hardly even tamed, by the process whereby a regular and rigid new world is built from its own sublimated products—concepts—in order to imprison it in a fortress. The drive seeks out a channel and a new area for its activity, and finds it in myth and in art generally.” In so far as we want to keep using terms like “humanity” and distinguishing ourselves from “the animals,” it is this drive—something which really does (unlike the truth-drive, which is acquired and derivative, a necessary bad habit) appear to be primordial and innate. We don’t pick up or learn how to perform the multi-step metaphoric translations previously discussed; we just do it. That other kind of dull-making creativity—the building of a stable sense of self and society—indeed builds upon this metaphoric drive as that which is to be “forgotten.” But what is forgotten, in Nietzsche’s scheme, doesn’t simply go away; the metaphoric drive is no more eradicated than Freud’s later “libidinal energy” disappears when it is repressed. In Nietzsche’s perceptual-instinctive economy and in Freud’s psychic one, what is repressed will return. And here, the return takes the form of artistic process, a process that seems to delight in making a break from the prison-house of concepts and staying close to the chaos and instability of raw perception. It isn’t that the artist returns to a time when “people saw things as they really were”: that is a ridiculous formulation because there never was such a time. No, art is a kind of “pretence” that seems most proper to “the intellect” (882 bottom paragraph) and gives the pretence-maker a sense of mastery.

With this exuberant praise of the artist, the person of intuition, we come to that all-important Nietzschean issue of attitude or style. What happens when we consistently admit to what Nietzsche has confronted us with about our sense of self and our security in language and the world’s truth? What attitude shall we strike up? Do we make like the Stoic who, “If a veritable storm-cloud empties itself on his head . . . wraps himself in his cloak and slowly walks away from under it” (884)? Do we engage in what Nietzsche calls Christianity’s “denial of life,” insisting to the bitter end on moral observance, on renunciation, from each believer and yet demanding an endlessly deferred, otherworldly security and justice because none is really to be had in this “valley of the shadow of death”? (Nietzsche interprets Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as part of the denial of life since the offer of redemption makes human suffering unnecessary: there’s a clear path out of the woods, so to speak, and no inherent need to get lost in them, unless it be from willful perversity.) It seems that Nietzsche instead urges us to be more like the ancient Greeks, who (at least before that decadent character Plato got hold of them) did not believe they could demand that the cosmos or universe yield them justice, security, or peace. As in their great tragedies, suffering is shown to be necessary, and we dare not demand that the gods be just. They are what they are. At 883 first paragraph, Nietzsche describes the “liberated intellect’s way of thinking and living: “The vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions.” He goes on to suggest that Greek culture established “the rule of art over life” where humanity’s “neediness” was persistently denied and where “the radiance of metaphorical visions” prevailed over reason. The Greeks had a tragic vision of life, then, and they were open to suffering, open to experience without the props of intelligibility. Consider Sappho’s fragment on love: “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” She wouldn’t be open to erotic experience if she weren’t strong enough, like the rooted oak braving the wind, to withstand the sway of her own passions (which the ancients figure as a god, an external force not unlike a great wind or storm). Ultimately, I think that’s Nietzsche’s vision of life, too: openness to experience, staying “true” not to “the Truth” but rather to the intuitive and metaphoric quality in human perception and thought. There is, again, no question of a return to truth; there is only the possibility of awakening to a sense of deception’s heady immediacy rather than moving ever farther away from it. Both the society-building “distortion” and the artist’s “pretence” and deceptiveness are, at base, creative—the first is creative in a constructive, comforting way, while the second is creative in a destructive, challenging way. Perhaps these two modes of creativity, like Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus in another early text of his, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, are so intimately sourced and related that we can’t “think” them rightly in isolation from each other; perhaps they both need each other.

To conclude with a thought about philosophy and “theory” after Nietzsche, that grand concept humanity itself is just the sort of conceptual sham whose deconstruction (since Nietzsche’s way of handling his subjects is fairly labeled proto-deconstructive) such an attitude or style is meant to embrace, isn’t it? It, too, is a product of the distortional truth-drive Nietzsche has been examining. We don’t simply propagate ideology in the everyday sense—we are ideological constructions. Other modern authors have taken up an attitude, so to speak, about this great deflation of human puffery and certainty. Michel Foucault writes with antihumanist brio in The Order of Things (in French, differently titled Words and Things—Les mots et les choses), “it is comforting . . . and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” (xxiii). Martin Heidegger is also instructive regarding the gist of Nietzsche’s deconstructive and antihumanist efforts. In his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger suggests that humanists have reduced thought itself to a kind of techne or instrument, one which entails a permanent split between subject and object. Mind comes to know “world” through the instrumentality of thought, thereby shoring up its own firmness at the expense of authenticity. This kind of “thought” has surely stepped away from all that is proper and worthy of “thinking.” Much of Heidegger’s project involves the destruction of this humanistic, philosophical imposition upon thinking. De Man, while in dialogue with Heidegger’s texts, counsels something like perpetual vigilance when it comes to the question of ideology. Jacques Derrida, as a thinker and stylist, has a strong affinity with Nietzsche, insisting as he does on rigorous, yet somehow cheerful, deconstruction of anything that appears likely to set itself up (and of course without acknowledging what it’s doing) as the newest latest metaphysical grounding of certainty. In Derrida’s view, structuralism—of which the notes of Ferdinand de Saussure the linguist and, later, the published work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, serve as prime examples—is just such a back-door metaphysical center, the unquestioned principle of intelligibility of what might as well acknowledge itself as a new version of a systemic philosophy, with its drive either to dismiss the world outright (some have said de Saussure’s emphasis on the synchronic dimension of language does that because he dismisses the troubled word-world connection issue out of hand) or to account for it altogether, as, say, the sophisticated Idealism of Hegel or the thoroughgoing materialism of Marx might be said to attempt. In a strong sense, both Nietzsche and Derrida and others who think along the same lines reject the notion (so pervasive here in America, by the way, with our move-it-along-now logical positivist tradition) that we can either simply accept or simply dismiss the ontological and epistemological concerns of traditional western philosophy. As I mentioned regarding de Man earlier, just when we have made a clean break with the past and its concerns, that’s when they have the most power to script and dominate what we do in the present. The one who thinks he or she has dismissed ideology (or Dame Philosophy) with a contemptuous wave of the hand is almost surely the biggest dupe of all. So when structuralism develops into the robust semiological adventure it becomes in the 1950’s and 1960’s (mostly in Europe; it never fully caught on here in the States), when what Derrida himself calls “the hyperinflation of the signifier” takes hold and everyone tries to explain everything after the manner of the structural linguist’s mode of analysis, it is then that the unexamined principle of “structure” should disturb us most of all. As the French saying goes about love relationships, “ni sans toi ni avec toi”: to paraphrase, “I can’t live without the other but I can’t live with the other, either.” I can’t even really decide the issue one way or the other, because if I do, it’s nearly certain that the troubles I’ve repressed will come back to haunt me when I least expect them to. Well, structuralism proper isn’t exactly in vogue nowadays, but such observations never really go out of style since they apply with equal force to anything that comes along (cultural studies, feminism, neo-formalism, whatever) and becomes the fashion in academic fields. Given that it is difficult today to distinguish between “literary theory,” philosophy, social theory, and so forth, it’s good to keep in mind this complex of concerns as you move forwards to a consideration of contemporary theory.

General Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (884-95).

Here the focus is on a genre (tragedy) from an ancient culture (the Greeks) that both produces and unsettles the Apollo/Dionysus split. Apollo is the god of light, reason, the lovely dream of order, justifying life’s tribulations in a purely aesthetic way. Dionysus is the god of wine, intoxication, and surrender of the calm, self-contained ego to forces both within and beyond that ego. But both gods are necessary to each other and cannot be kept separate. If tragedy can lead us to this insight, art is very significant, and in no way inferior to philosophy or theology.

At base, Greek tragedy offers a way to embrace one’s fate as a human being; it justifies suffering by creating beauty from it that does not simply disown the process of generation (of that beauty). End note for 894—together, Apollo and Dionysus account for the acceptance of life, amor fati, as opposed to Christianity’s supposed “denial of life.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch.
New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.


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