“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

how otherwise was the living thing to the molded stone


Derrida begins the White Mythology with an excerpt from Anatole France’s Garden of Epicurus. In that essay, a dialogue takes place about metaphysics, in which one of the interlocutors, Polyphile, makes a suggestion that should sound familiar to those who’ve read the German ideology: the abstractions of metaphysics are all, in fact, images borrowed from images of matter. The soul, for instance, if we dig our way through the tangle of etymologies, can easily be seen to derive, linguistically, from the word for breath. By an easy inference, we go from the abstraction to the living thing, breath. As France’s interlocutor makes his translations, he remarks that Western texts of metaphysics resemble the Vedas. This is no accident – there is quite a history, by the time France is writing, that attempts to demonstrate that our Western concepts came from India. India to Greece – this was the direction urged by Georg Creuzer in his Symbolik. So we have two scenes play themselves out: one is that materialist deduction which leaves the idea – and idealists – by the side, as poets at best; and we have a history, a past that we can go back to through the language we use itself.

Derrida sets himself the task, in the White Mythology, to investigation this double scene. He asks about the eclipse of symbolization, that process that seems to use the matter, the images of common things, until it erases their materiality. And he asks about this course from the East to the West. There is one thing that proceeds from the East to the West and is eclipsed – the sun. Yet to find the sun, here, is to use France’s method of scratching through the abstract. It is part of Derrida’s argument that the way in which the arguments take sides, here, corresponds to a certain systematic impulse – one that he calls the White Mythology. When, in the seventies, James Scott talks about the Great Tradition of the urban elites, with their abstractions and the Little Tradition of the Peasants, with their materialist practices, he is (although doubtless he has not been influenced by Derrida) going in the same direction – or at least concentrating on the social processes that bring about the White Mythology.

Of course, Derrida’s interest is not those social processes so much as the system itself. I should remark that the American reception of Derrida often makes him out to be Polyphile, whose interlocutor leaves him unconvinced, because he has not “argued within the rules.” But Derrida is not Polyphile, far from it; his argument is founded on showing that the divisions between disciplines, between the idea and the thing, between metaphor and metaphysic, are not given naturally, but are treated as though they are given naturally, thus setting up a semantic “bank”, so to speak, that is always loaning from one account to another, on the supposition that somewhere there is an asset that is worth what it is – an idion, a thing that is properly itself. I risk the metaphor because, indeed, it is a question of economics, taken in several ways: as a science of pleasure, as a science of circulation and production, as any science having to do with value, as a system of household management. There is also the verb form of economize, meaning to spare one a long story – for instance, the story of symbolization which takes us from matter to abstraction. It is economized, shortened, bracketed, left out as irrelevant.

Derrida makes clear that this is not another metaphilosophy, nor a study of the rhetoric of philosophy. Rather, it is a grapple with those systematic concepts that have guided our notion of the metaphor and of metaphysics, which have determined the fields that would study them – rhetoric, or some impossible philosophy of philosophy.

I think of the White Philosophy as I think of what Goethe, in Italy, is trying to accomplish – for surely he is going through the stages of just that kind of estrangement from the system in which he can no longer live, the system of the proper in Weimar, and like Polyphile, he is using a method to scratch through the surface and get to the savage past. In Goethe’s case, the method is a planned alienation from the proper that he must know is right out the adventurers tool kit – the use of the Incognito. By shucking his name, Goethe hopes to slip the yoke and turn the joke – he hopes to see anew, afresh. To see “alone the things he had never hoped to see.” And that refreshment is a journey that not only reproduces a journey taken in the past by others, including his own father, but is a journey continually coming upon the past, from the stone age hovels of certain of the Italian peasants to the mode of transportation via mule cart – a bruising transport over the roads that, as Goethe notes, was replaced in the North centuries ago.

When Goethe gets to Rome, this doubled sense of himself and his object is projected in a classical metaphor:

“When Pygmalions Elise, whom he had formed wholly according to his wishes, and had given her as much truth and being as any artist could, finally came up to him and said, I am here [ich bin’s], how otherwise was the living thing to the molded stone.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

an ancient jug

In 1918, Ernst Bloch published his first edition of the Spirit of Utopia, beginning it with an observation on an ancient jug – Krug. The pitcher had been dug up from some place in the Franconia region. Bloch tells us that it brings a strangeness with it – Fremd fuehrt er hinein. It isn’t exceptionally beautiful – in fact, one could doubt it was beautiful at all, compared to other jugs from ancient times. Yet he likes it. There is something about it that has an Italian mood – perhaps it is roman. Yet its décor shows a very northern thing, a wilderness thing – from the Urwalde. It shows a bearded, savage man holding an uprooted pine sapling. He can imagine Tenier like peasants with big noses holding it and similar pitchers in their fists and drinking wine from it, “until they with the others had to disappear, as all good grounded handwork – bodenstandige Handarbeit - disappears.” He sees the wild man on the front of it descend, in the land, to the escutcheons of the nobility and the signs on taverns – a mysterious descent of the race of the savage in the heart of the Rhine country.

“Yet here, on our jug, the bearded man gazes immediately out of the shadows of the woods, the moist and dark wilderness of the oldest times approach all around, quite near, the head of the giant troll distributes his faunal, amulet-like, alchemical gaze. The speak out of a time, the old jugs, when the floppy ear and the fiery man could be seen in the evening fields in the Frranconia region, and havc kept the old man – das Alte - without allegory, literally, in peasant guise.”

1918, of course, saw the entire collapse of the Wilhelmine order. And this context is important enough that I am aware, even as I bracket it, that I cannot bracket it. But I bring up this ancient jug of Bloch’s because of the connection – the thread, as he puts it – between the savage, the troll, the peasant, and the Roman, the South. The pitcher is a pioneer, came north to the wilderness where one could still see the wood people in the evening fields. Tacitus mocked the Germans for being so barbaric that they didn’t know about agriculture – they were complete meateaters.

The question of frontiers, and of time, was one that kept coming up, in 1783, for a certain Leipzig merchant, Jean Phillip Moeller. He was traveling through Italy without any servants. Noticing that in certain Italian towns his German boots were attracting attention, he changed to shoes and socks – evidently trying to fit in with the people. He spoke Italian. He toured the great sites, or some of them – he only spent a few hours in Florence. Later he wrote that his course, which took him from Dresden across the Brenner pass to Venice, and then to Rome, seemed like an “underground” journey. In Rome, he met his friend, an artist, who reported that certain artists had spread the rumor that the merchant was really Goethe. This was shot down by a man who said that he knew Goethe, and Moeller looked nothing like him. This made Moeller laugh.

Because, indeed, he was Goethe. If Italy were an already ‘discovered’ country – Goethe’s father had made the grand tour of it – one way to remake it a frontier, one way to make it something new, was to make oneself an undiscovered person, an incognito. Goethe, on his trip to Italy, is not just escaping from his situation with Charlotte von Stein, with whom he was in a frustratingly chaste relationship, and the whole of Weimar’s claustrophobia, but he was escaping the very bonds of the eighteenth century. In a sense, in his person, Goethe was doing what Kant, at the same time, was doing – starting from the very ground of possibility and working on up. Like Kant, Goethe did not want his understanding to get in the way of what was there.