Saturday, September 18, 2010

on belief and practice

In the History of Oracles, Fontenelle – with his native deadpan delivery, a style that had more in common with Defoe than with the salon - describes Cicero’s criticism of the theory of sacrifice propounded by some of the stoic philosophers: that in the moment of sacrifice, the oracular portion – the heart, the liver, etc. – was changed by the god, depending on the sanctity of the sacrificer, or the favor a particular priest had with the gods. Of course, this passage contains a muffled echo of Fontenelle’s own times – it is the choked laugh that makes for the deadest of deadpan styles. Fontenelle indirectly acknowledges the obvious parallel between the stoic theory and the theory of the transmutation of the host only by making a point about Cicero’s ability to get away with criticizing the terms of sacrifice without being regarded ‘with horror’ by the people. “There is reason to believe that, among the pagans, religion was only a practice, to which speculation was indifferent. Act like the others, and believe what you wish. This is a very extravagant principle, but the people, who did not recognize its impertinence, were happy with it, and the gens d’esprit submitted to it easily, because it barely restrained them.”

Oh the deadpan regard that marks the witticism. Fontenelle, France’s most ardent propagandist of the new science, was aware – was more aware than perhaps he wanted to be, as Nietzsche later astutely understood – that the spirit of enterprise and science for which he stood was slowly but surely diverging from the croyance in the tenets of religion. The instant of their separation had suddenly become a speck, a distinct speck, a very distant point, on the horizon.

Yet, more than a polemical irony can be extracted from under the impenetrable mask. Fontenelle is making a real historical point, in line with his ambition to read history as the philosopher would read the results of an experiment. When a social fact presents itself that does not elicit the social reaction that the presence of such a social fact would cause in the historian’s own society, one can trace a certain lack – as Sherlock Holmes would put it, the significant fact is that the dog did not bark. And that lack of an expected fact must, itself, be subject to the same causal inquisition – the non-lieu is an effect in its own right.

Of course, the presupposition here – the White Mythology – is that the historian’s own society is, as it were, full – it is the most ‘advanced’ society. It would be easy, though, to turn around the historian’s assumption and ask about the lacks in that advanced society.

The lack of a certain collective passion, then, one that led, in Christian Europe, to the burning of Bruno, allows us to retrospectively suppose a certain tolerance. The indifference of the people that he condemns might, actually, be something he works towards.

But such is the dead weight of the masked language that this has to remain speculation.

Still, it is easy to assimilate Fontenelle’s remark to the coming program of the Enlightenment without really looking at its paradoxical nature. Surely, the idea that a collective practice does not reflect a collective belief is a startling anthropological speculation. It might have been devised precisely to counter, or at least question, the passage about divination in Vico’s New Science.

From Fontenelle again: “Thus we can see that the entire pagan religion only asked for ceremonies, and no sentiments of the heart. The gods are irritated, all of their lightning bolts are about to fall: how will we appease them? Do we need to repent of the crimes that we have committed? Is it necessary to return to the paths of natural justice, which ought to be among all men? Not at all: we need only to take a calf of such and such a color, born in such a such a season, cut its throat with a knife, and this will disarm the gods. And still you are permitted to mock the sacrifice inside yourself, if you wish. It won’t make anything worse. Apparently, it was the same with the oracles; let he who wished to believe do so; but one does not give up consulting them. The custom had such force on people that it had no need to be supported by reason.” [Chapter 7, my translations]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

superstition and its trace

“D.C. who, in his village in Romania, wrote his reminiscences of his childhood, having told his neighbor, a peasant named Coman, that he would not be forgotten in his book, the latter came to see him early the next day and said: “I know that I am not worth much, but even so I don’t think I have sunk so low as to be talked about in a book!”

The oral world, how superior it was to our own! Beings (I mean, the people) only lived in the true as long as they had a horror of writing. As soon as they caught the prejudice, they entered into the false, they lost their ancient superstitions in order to acquire a new one, worse than all the other ones combined.” - Cioran

LI has been madly pursuing a small point in Vico, from which we would like to grow a larger point about the belief system of the culture of the limited good. But we don’t ourselves quite understand our point, since it concerns a separation between the significance of ‘creation’ and that of ‘nature’ that may seem too thread subtle to make a real difference, or too idealistic to describe the real change in the routines of work and passion that lead us ever onward towards the Eldorado of all the young dudes, Synthetica.

Changes in the weave, changes in the sewing. We pick up our pins and needles from their allotted paths in the forest, we set to work.

In a 1971 article about the tense of popular belief by Nicole Belmont, The Function of Belief, Belmont remarks about a persistent connection in stories about popular belief between belief, practice, and the authority of the past. Often, when asked about the truth of this or that belief, the anthropologist is given a story about the past – either embodied in old people (the old people know about such and such a belief and its expression in practice) or in a story about some founding hero or god. It is in relation to this theme that Belmont cites a passage in Emile Beneveniste concerning superstition that I want to translate here, and comment upon in another post:

Beliefs are often given the pejorative name of superstitions which, curiously, leads etymologically to this question of projection (rejet) into the past. It has been studied by E. Benveniste, who sees in superstitio the abstract correspondent to superstes, “survivor”, and which thus signifies survival: “Superstitio indicated thus a ‘remnant’ of an old belief which, in the age in which is it envisioned, appears superfluous.” Benveniste sees there a historical countersense: we loan to the ancients an attitude taken from the modern mindset and the capacity to discern in religion the survivals of a distant epoch. But this is not a very credible objection: the ancient Romans could very well distinguish, in their religion, diverse strata of belief and ritual. The proof is in the existence of the terms religio and superstitio.

“Super” – Beneviste notes – “signifies not only above, but also beyond: superstare is to keep oneself beyond, subsist above… he who has gone through a danger, a test, a difficult period, who has survived it, is superstes. Another sense thus branches out: he who has subsisted beyond an event and become the witness of it.”

One thus sees clearly the double character attributed to popular beliefs: they are present, but in the guise of witnesses of a past. Why this ambivalence?”

Monday, September 13, 2010

a small displacement...

And so LI moved to Paris…

Lucretius might have been a hard taskmaster when it came to superstition, calling upon man to surpass the “flaming limits of the world” and not to piss himself before the vain phantom of the angry gods – but he did have a fearful appreciation of the power of love, with its invisible, hounding movement. “Hence into the heart distilled the drop/Of Venus’ sweetness, and numbing heartache followed./For if what you love is absent, none the less/ Its images are there, and the sweet name/Sounds in your ears.”

Amen to that! Lucretius, drawing an ascetic’s conclusion from the naturalist stance, taught us to resist the drop of Venus’ sweetness – or so some claim. LI, however, drew the opposite conclusion – we have had more than enough of numbing heartache in our life, and so we didn’t hesitate to follow A. to Paris, merrily throwing away clothes and books, giving away our paltry possessions, and in general reducing the hurly burly of our, shall we say, middle aged existence to the order of two packed suitcases, plus a laptop in a knapsack purchased from Target for thirty nine dollars.

And so the city I have imagined, the exemplum of the artificial paradise, Baudelaire’s cite des reves en plein jour, is a place I casually get ripped off in, purchasing meatballs from the Italian deli down the street.

It is here, I hope, that I will get much more done on the Human Limit, as well as making a superhuman effort to edit many many more papers and books – for the prices of Paris truly are beyond the flaming limits of the world.

On the other hand, what price could possibly be attached to biking, on a lovely autumn afternoon, with my love through the streets up to Paris-Bercy and the BN – observing the absurd names that are attached to things (Simone de Beauvoir’s passerelle, Josephine Baker’s piscine – heartbreakingly, some restaurant that calls itself Jules et Jim (o the exploitation!) in a complex of cinemas, MK2.

And so I have arrived...

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...