“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

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transmigration of the fool

The Money. The narcissism. The Artificial human.

All these themes, and so little time to go through the woods.

After a preface, we begin, in Act one of the second part of Faust, in the throne room of the Imperial Palace. The king greets his retainers who have come from far and wide, but notices one is missing: where is the fool?

And here a substitution happens which is not simply a routine from stock theater. It is one of those substitutions that will become symbolic for the nineteenth century playbook, one of those gestures in which Mann saw Goethe the wizard. As one secondary character tells another, the old fat fool – Fett-Gewicht – collapsed on the steps, drunk or dead, and was carted away. And on those steps a new fool has appeared – this one dressed richly, and not fat at all – a stave, someone says, to the old fool’s barrel – although this skinny fool is ‘fratzenhaft’ – full of pranks. A skinny fool is a sinister fool. We cycle through the transfigurations from Sancho Panza to Rambeau’s Nephew – which Goethe translated – to this moment.

For as we know as readers – reading the names assigned to the speeches, which the speakers don’t see – know, this is the very devil, Mephistopheles. Come lose from his sage, his Faust. The old rule says that for every sage there is a fool. But the loss of weight and the rich clothes indicate that there has been a change somewhere, there has been a distinct change in class position, in worlds.

That the substitution occurs on that place of transition between the up and the down – the stairs – is no accident. Mephistopheles in this scene will be, as it were, the very spirit of the steps.

Whom does each hear gladly named?
What nears the steps of your throne?
What has exiled itself?

Wen höret jeder gern genannt?
Was naht sich deines Thrones Stufen?
Was hat sich selbst hinweggebannt?

The uncanny, if Freud is right, starts with the ‘who’ becoming a what – the human becoming a female doll, the doll becoming the “who” who reveals her ‘what’ to her addled lover, thus of course driving him mad. The King correctly recognizes that his new fool is speaking in the fool’s chosen idiom of riddles, but not the what propounding the riddles. In any case, he accepts the substitution:

Mein alter Narr ging, fürcht’ ich, weit in’s Weite;
Nimm seinen Platz und komm an meine Seite.

My old fool has gone, I fear, beyond the beyond
Take his place and stand at my side

And as this scene makes its turn towards Geist and Geld, I’m going to make a turn too. First to this quote from Simmel’s Philosophy of Money.

“The division between subject and object is not so radical as the practical scientific world would make us believe about these categories subject otherwise to this completely legitimate division. The soul’s life [seelische Leben] begins rather in a circumstance of indifference, in which the I and its object remain still undivided, satisfying the impressions or ideas of the consciousness without it being the case that the bearer of this content has divided itself from itself. That in the determined, momentary real circumstance he has a subject that is to be distinguished from the content, that he has, that is at first an affair of a secondary consciousness, an afterthought analysis. The development obviously leads pari passu into the fact that the person says I to himself, and that he recognizes independently standing objects outside of this I. If metaphysics so often likes to tell us that the transcendental essence of being was to be absolutely one, beyond the subject-object opposition, its psychological pendant is found in this simple primitive fulfillment [Erfuelltsein] with relation to an idea content, as it is with children that don’t yet speak of themselves as I, and in a rudimentary manner this is to be observed occurring one’s whole life long. This unity, out of which the categories of subject and object first develop in the face of one another in a as yet to be explained process, appears to us subjective only because we encounter it after we’ve developed the concept of objectivity, and because we have no correct expression for that kind of unity, yet are accustomed to naming it after one of the onesided elements the co-effects of which appear in our subsequent analysis.”

And now let’s think a bit about narcissism.

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