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Sunday, January 28, 2007

the disconnected giant

In the chapter on the "metaphysics of the beautiful and aesthetics" in the second volume of the Parerga and Paralipomena, Schopenhauer discusses history. In 1851, when the essays came out, Schopenhauer's stance against the philosophical importance of history made him seem, pleasingly, like some archaic remnant of the eighteenth century. He was willing to suffer this reputation, and even enlarge on it. History at this time is, of course, associated with Hegel, and even if Hegel did not recognize, in Schopenhauer, his unmasker and foe, Schopenhauer definitely took Hegel as the touchstone of what Leon Daudet later labelled "the stupid 19th century" - the stupidity being, at its very beastly heart, the idea that there was a dynamic axis to history.

In the essay on history, Schopenhauer casts himself as a moralist, an intemporal observer, a user of classical exempla. And he comes up with this image:

He who, like myself, cannot help seeing in all history the same thing over and over again, just as every turn of a kaleidoscope continually reveals the same things, but in different combinations, will not be able to share all this passionate interest; nor, however, will he censure it.


According to the toy historian Paul Hidebrandt, the kaleidoscope, which was invented by the Scottish scientist David Brewster in 1817, aroused “such enthusiasm among all social circles that the victory of the kaleidoscope over the Chinese puzzle or tangram game was even celebrated in Paris with an engraving: the goddess Kaleidoskopia, with her emblems, a tube and a pattern sheet, stands on a Chinese person crawling on the earth, before whom lies his board game on the ground.” However, supposedly the Chinese became enamored of the ‘tube of ten thousand flowers” themselves, and began to manufacture them en masse.

Borges notes Schopenhauer’s kaleidoscope comparison in "the Wall and the Books" in Other Inquisitions, and writes of it: “For if the world is the dream of Someone, if there is Someone who is dreaming us now and who dreams the history of the universe (that is the doctrine of the idealists), then the annihilation of religions and the arts, the general burning of libraries, does not matter much more than does the destruction of the trappings of a dream. The Mind that dreamed them once will dream them again; as long as the Mind continues to dream, nothing will be lost…”

A quick search through a couple of Schopenhauer biographies has not brought me any information on when the great man collided with the kaleidoscope. But it would be easy to believe that he saw one early on, perhaps in 1817, because it was at that time that Schopenhauer was most closely involved with Goethe's optical work. Goethe was a friend of Schopenhauer’s always fearsome mother, Johanna, and Johanna wanted her son to get into Goethe’s good graces. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer deviated from the anti-Newtonian program on color laid down by Goethe – he rationalized it into a system having to do with the sensitivity of the retina. Goethe was particularly infuriated that Schopenhauer betrayed him on the issue of “white” – which, as Newton said, contained all colors, and which, according to Goethe, did no such thing.

A stronger metaphor using another children’s toy is employed by Lorenz Oken. I image Schopenhauer knew of it. Oken is writing in 1805, before the kaleidoscope. This is from his Physiophilosophy:

“All things are created in time; for time is the totality of Singulars. Time is no stationary quantity, which is always changing itself into something new during its progressive flux. It is not a continous stream, but a repetition of one and the same act, namely, the primary act, like as it were to a rolling ball, which constantly returns upon itself. There is no endless, still less an eternal thing; for things are only positions of time. Time itself is, however, only repetition…”

Two children’s toys, two similar points about time - except that Oken’s is a more radical stance. Schopenhauer was stuck, due to his system, with defending some version of Kant’s notion of the aprioris of experience. Myself, what I find interesting here is the connection between seriality and eternal repetition. The notion of a repetition that creates a difference connects Schopenhauer and Oken to a passage in De Quincey that you would not normally put in this association. It comes in the section of the Opium Eater entitled The Pains of Opium. The text wavers between a description of the hallucinatory pains of opium and a lingering repetition of them, arousing the suspicion that pain and pleasure melt into each other in ways that are going to elude classification.

“Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.”

When I started this thread, last week, I was trying to distinguish two types of giants. One type, as I said, was chased from Europe by a mode of thought not that different from the very different giantkilling promoted by the Daoists in China. This was the homogenous giant. There is a different type of giant, though – Don Quixote engages a premonition of him in the battle against the windmill, the romantics filled the city of the dreadful night with him, and he exists – if I, a total amateur, can rely on the construction of Indian myths in Roberto Calasso’s Ka - in depths in the Indian sacred books. This is the disconnected giant – he exists in the amniotic depths, precedes contradiction itself, and has that power of endless growth and self-reproduction that leads us, like our tutelary nightmare, through the money economy – for in my opinion, this is what the money economy is all about, its cosmological significance. for in my opinion, this is what the money economy is all about, its cosmological significance. And that, I'll grant you my lovelies, is not be the most obvious of connections. I should draw it out next - the relation of these passages to the nests within nests in Georg Simmel’s philosophy of money. Ooh, and then how this is like the ball, the kaleidoscope, the hallucinatory image of Piranesi multiplying, and the first man, Prajapati, who was made by the gods from seven men, impregnated the waters and was born out of the golden egg produced by the waters, and then created the Gods – for of course, in the first moment, the law of contradiction cannot apply, else the law would precede itself.

O, the amniotic tangle of it all, the amniotic tangle, and me at the bottom of the world doing a crossword puzzle.

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