The expectation of happiness in life is an attitude whose costs might outweigh the benefits. We tell ourselves that we can be anything we imagine, but this could be an increasingly cruel notion. In each phenomenon, we see what something is and also what it is not. Although thought may detect glimmers beyond the immediate, the practical path to thought’s realization is blocked, and only disintegrating images of other worlds linger before fading. It is painful to hold onto those fragments, and a meager defense offers itself to the injured: disregard anything that stirs the heart so that you might avoid the accompanying sadness. Is not blindness better for this life?1 Of course this is a Romantic reaction. Perhaps downcast eyes are more merciful, but such a resignation does not absolve us; it only defers our self-imposed suffering.
1. Nietzsche explores a similar question in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.
Art by Andy Goldsworthy
Paul Celan’s “Psalm”:
“Praised be you, noone.
Because of you we wish
Thought’s movement begins from the contradictions of the world,2 even from the non-identity of interior and exterior. There is something unsettling in the understanding that nothing will ensure that thought realizes itself. Any talk of the inevitability of a free society necessitates the progression of history, but history might have stopped short of its promise. The severe trauma of the 20th century attests to this. “Psalm” asks if there could be anything in an imposed nothingness so total that negation has no foothold. Maybe. Nietzsche wished to push ascetic ideals through itself: “a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!.”3 There seems to be a recurring motif in Celan’s poems of making unlikely things bloom. Nietzsche also uses a motif of a crown or flower when describing the culmination of ressentiment.
Consciousness would have to begin from its regressed state. It can’t afford to forget its losses. Acknowledging defeat can be a victory, and for us it is the only starting point. The fragments of the individual, which might first appear as memorials, point beyond themselves. An adequate approach would have to see them as critical.
1 Paul Celan, “Psalm,” in Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 78.
2 Herbert Marcuse, “A Note on Dialectic” (1960).
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 163.
Contentment with life cannot be reduced or found only in the practice of having the right thought.
Adorno and Horkheimer noted that today’s anti-intellectualism can in part stem from resentment of perceived happiness that the intellectual appears to have achieved mentally. This appearance of happiness, which isn’t true, raises such ire because it is a reminder of the question of the crisis of society, a reminder of an unfree society, which one even unknowlingly participates in its reproduction.
And speaking of that reproduction, even thought participates in labor that is the total mediation of society. There are those who can trace the movement of Spirit to trace its trajectory, to see how the crumbling totality is sick, but—as Nietzsche points out—its sickness is pregnancy, and it is pregnant with a classless society. The problem is that such an outcome requires the overcoming of this sickness. Either that or barbarism. Perhaps the intellectual is discontent because of a more acute sense of the latter.
At the end of the work-day, how many scholars close their books, turn off their computers, and leave their thoughts until the next work day? Sometimes I wish I could live like that. There are professionals who turn thought itself on and off. This is a symptom of the proletarianization of intellectuals.
The lack of personality always takes its revenge: A weakened, thin, extinguished personality that denies itself is no longer fit for anything good—least of all for philosophy. “Selflessness” has no value either in heaven or on earth. All great problems demand great love, and of that only strong, round, secure spirits who have a firm grip on themselves are capable. It makes the most telling difference whether a thinker has a personal relationship to his problems and finds in them his destiny, his distress, and his greatest happiness, or an “impersonal” one, meaning that he can do no better than to touch them or grasp them with the antennae of cold, curious thought. In the latter case nothing will come of it; that much one can promise in advance, for even if great problems should allow themselves to be grasped by them they would not permit frogs and weaklings to hold on to them; such has been their taste from time immemorial—a taste, incidentally, that they share with all redoubtable females.1
The time where philosophy should be mere intellectual work—if it ever existed—is long gone. Not only that, but philosophy itself requires its own self-overcoming. Where must it go? The world! “The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards.”2
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 283 (§ 345).
2 Karl Marx, “To Make the World Philosophical” (1839-41), in The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 10.
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
Countless things that humanity acquired in earlier stages, but so feebly and embryonically that nobody could perceive this acquisition, suddenly emerge into the light much later—perhaps after centuries; meanwhile they have become strong and ripe. […] ¶ All of us harbor concealed gardens and plantings; and, to use another metaphor, we are, all of us, growing volcanoes that approach the hour of their eruption; but how near or distant that is, nobody knows—not even God.1
In “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin writes:
Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history; thus, he blasts a specific life out of the era, a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method, the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.2
The pairing of these two might initially seem out of place, but Benjamin was well aware of—and inspired by—Nietzsche’s work.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 ), 83-84.
2 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940), in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al., eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massechusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 396.
It is the most unjust condition in the world, narrow, ungrateful to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a little living whirlpool in a dead sea of night and forgetting: and yet this condition—unhistorical, contra-historical through and through—is the cradle not only of an unjust, but rather of every just deed; and no artist will paint his picture, no general achieve victory nor any people its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in such an unhistorical condition. As the man of action, according to Goethe’s phrase, is always without conscience, so he is also without knowledge; he forgets a great deal to do one thing, he is unjust to what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of that which is to become.1
It is obvious that the standpoint of the museum is primarily retrospective—that of maintaining the past in the present. How daunting such a place is for today’s artists. Comparing the grandeur of the works of the Ancients with those of a 21st century art-student is clearly unfair. The entirety of the past is weighing upon the scale in favor of the Ancient, even if we know it too once was new. But now it stands before us, ready to affirm our self-doubts. In hindering today’s student this way, Art History damages the work of the budding artist. And yet the new and the different ought to come about. The student must have the resolve to forget, so that becoming be allowed to come forth into the world through new work.
The sphere of Art History often confuses itself in its perspective, getting lost in its own methodology and the fruits of its investigations. The reified appreciation of art becomes stretched backward in time so that the unique position of today’s artists loses its quality.
It should be noted, of course, that we can’t completely forget history. To do so would be to regress to the level of the animal. Playing with history and one’s own place within it may be another art in itself. When history might affirm your efforts, then look back and pull from it the potential in it.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980 ), 11-12.
The back cover of the CD case of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2002)
Despite the present conditions, you remain important. Experience of the world bounces off of you prismatically, even if you don’t want that.
You are particular, fragile prisms. Even your most melancholic allow light through. You’ve seen the glow illuminating Mark Rothko’s paintings. But sometimes I worry you might break if presented with the wrong world. There is a necessary nostalgia you’ve held for so long. It was with you in the furnace, imbued in you like an alloy—strengthening you in some ways, and weakening you in others. That alloy is the residue of Romanticism.
Nietzsche saw this in you. His admiration found those fragile points:
Of course, the philosophy of an artist does not matter much if it is merely an afterthought and does not harm his art. One cannot be too careful to avoid bearing any artist a grudge for an occasional, perhaps very unfortunate and presumptuous masquerade. We should not forget that, without exception, our dear artists are, and have to be to some extent, actors; and without play-acting they would scarcely endure life for any length of time.1
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 ), 155.