“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

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Monday, June 11, 2012

blank spaces on the map: the adventurer and the clerk

Simmel’s essay on adventure (1919) begins by considering the “double-sidedness” of events in a life. On the one hand, events fall into a pattern in relationship to one another, so that one can talk of a life as a whole and mean a unified thing – on the other hand, events have their own center of gravity, and can be defined in terms of their own potential for pleasure or pain. To use an example not mentioned by Simmel, but getting at what he means: Famously, Kant had a regular habit of taking a certain stroll each day in Königsberg. It was famous as a regular habit – it was an example of some craving for order in Kant’s life, which some have read into his work. Now, one walk was, intentionally, much like the other – and yet, they all formed a distinct sub-system in Kant’s life of Kant’s walks.

In ordinary life, we often talk about what we are “like”. If I lose, say, my wallet, I may say, I always leave it on the table. In so saying, I’m observing myself anthropologically – this is what the tribe of me is like. It has these rituals, these obsessions, these returning points. At the same time, there are rituals and obsessions I am not so aware of. I fall in love, say, with a certain type of woman. For instance, I always find myself in relationships with blondes who have father issues and like to exhibit themselves. How does my radar pick out these women? Why is it the same process? Here, things aren’t so obvious. Freud speaks of “fate” in the love life. Of course, fates preside over other things beside the destinies of our dicks and pussies. La Bruyere, for instance, outlines the characteristic of a man who is always losing things, bumping into people, misreading signs, mistaking his own house for somebody else's and somebody else's for his own. We might think that this state of confusion, in the extreme, is evidence of some pathological disturbance of the brain. However, there are a number of habits one "falls" into in one's life, resolves not to continue with, and still - falls into again.

Simmel speaks of events and their meanings in themselves and in relationship to the whole of life. Which can also move in the other direction:

“Events which, regarded in themselves, representing simply their own meaning, may be similar to each other, may be, according to their relationship to the whole of life, extremely divergent.”

Simmel’s definition of adventure is on the basis of this relationship of the parts of life to the whole course of life:
“When, of two experiences, each of which offer contents that are not so different from one another, one is felt as an adventure, and the other isn’t – it is because  this difference of relationship to the whole of our live is the way one accrues this meaning and the other is denied it. 
And this is really the form of adventure on the most general level: that it falls out of the connections of life.”

That falling out of the Zusammenhange – the “hanging together” of our life isn’t to be confused, according to Simmel, with all unusual events. One shouldn’t confuse the odd moment with the adventure. Rather, adventure stands against the whole grain of our life. There is a thread that spans our lives – Simmel uses a vocabulary that returns us to the “spinning” of the fates – and unifies it. Adventure follows a different course:
While it falls out of the connections of our life, it falls – as will be gradually explained – at the same time, with this movement, back into it, a foreign body [ein Fremdkörper]in our existence, which yet is somehow bound up with the center.
The exterior part [Ausserhalb] is, if even on a great and unusual detour, a form of the inner part. [Innerhalb]

As always in Simmel, there is a lot of sexy suggestion here, which clouds one’s questions – especially about the latent conflict between a thread spanning a life and a center. One recognizes the logic of the supplement here – an excess in affirming a proposition has the effect of making it less clear, rather than more clear.

Simmel’s ‘proof’ of this theory about adventure is that, when we remember these mutations in our life, they seem dreamlike. Why would the memory set up an equivalence, as it were, between a dream and an adventure? Because it is responding to the logic of the exterior/interior binary. Dreams, which are so exterior to our waking life that we cannot see them as playing any causal role in that life, are so interior that we share them with nobody else. Introjected – Melanie Klein’s word – wasn’t available in 1912 for Simmel, but something similar is going on.
“The more “adventurous” an adventure is, the more purely it satisfies its concept, the “dreamier” it becomes in our memory. And so far does it often distance itself from the central point of the I and the course of the whole of life consolidated around it, that it is easy to think of an adventure as if somebody else had experienced it.”

These traits – which are expressed, Simmel says, in the sharpness of beginning and ending which defines the adventures in our life, as opposed to other episodes – make adventures an “island” in our life. These traits too call up another in the chain of signifiers that are suggested by the dream – that is, the artwork. Adventurers are like artists in that the adventure, like the artwork, lies both outside of and deep within the whole of a life. It lies outside of and deep within from the perspective of memory – while the perspective that unfolds during the course of the adventure is one of presentness – this is why the adventurer is deeply “unhistoric”. That present is neither caused by the past nor oriented towards the future.

To illustrate this, Simmel uses the example of Casanova. What he says should be put in relationship to Moliere’s Dom Juan, who was always proposing marriage – to propose marriage was his compulsion, as he explains it to Sganarelle, just as Alexander the Great’s was conquest. A reading of the play, like Kierkegaard’s, that regards the marriage mania as a mask for the real seduction underneath takes the conjunction of marriage and seduction too easily.

This is Simmel on Casanova:

“An extremely characteristic testimony to this [the lack of a sense of the future] is what Casanova, as can be seen in his memoirs, so often in the course of his erotic adventurous life seriously aimed at – to marry the woman he loved at that moment. 
By his disposition and way of life, there was nothing more contradictory, nothing more innerly and outerly unthinkable for Casanova.

Casanova was not only a notable knower of men, but was maifestly a rare knower of himself; and though he was obliged to say that he couldn’t have held out in a marriage more than fourteen days, and that the most miserable consequences would inevitably attend this step – the intoxication of the moment so caught him up (by which I mean to lay more emphasis on the moment than the intoxication) that it swallowed up the future perspective, so to speak, hide and hair.”
Walter Benjamin was a very sharpeyed reader of Georg Simmel. It is Simmel’s essay on The Adventurer that unlocks Benjamin’s cryptic observation: “The intentional correlate of living experience has not remained the same. In the nineteenth century it as “the adventure”.In our days it appears as Fate. In fate is hidden the concept of the ‘total living experience’ that is completely mortal.” Benjamin’s periodization seems a bit off here – surely the nineteenth century fantasy of adventure was already thrusting it back into an earlier age? From Scott to Dumas, adventure was one of the monuments of the ancien regime, and its continued existence in the cities of the industrial era was uncanny precisely because it was marked by a time lag, a return to the primitive. Simmel instinctively falls back on the great 18th century adventurer.

But this is only one way to hold the kaleidoscope of the adventurer. Another way, which is perhaps closer to Benjamin, is to contrast the adventurer with the clerk. In fact, the great colonial monopolies: the English East India Company, the  Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the French Compagnie du Sénégal were organized in such a way that the clerk and the adventurer were sutured in one ‘venture’.

"I got my appointment—of course; and I got it very quick. It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go. It was only months and months afterwards, when I made the attempt to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven—that was the fellow's name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man,—I was told the chief's son,—in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man—and of course it went quite easy between the shoulder-blades. Then the whole population cleared into the forest, expecting all kinds of calamities to happen, while, on the other hand, the steamer Fresleven commanded left also in a bad panic, in charge of the engineer, I believe. Afterwards nobody seemed to trouble much about Fresleven's remains, till I got out and stepped into his shoes.

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