Friday, June 11, 2021

children of the homunculus


 John Maynard Keynes famously remarked that Newton was the last of the magicians. He was referring to Newton’s fascination with alchemy and the book of Revelations. Keynes was, of course, wrong – there were certainly magicians after Newton. But he was right in the most important respect, which was that the Whiggish history of science, in which Newton figured as a hero of positivism, was founded on a fiction. And it was not an unimportant glossing over of minor Newtonian penchants – according to Dobbs in The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought, one of the great books in the science wars, Newton took his notion of force from the alchemists. In fact, although the positivists still seem not to recognize this, the father of positivistic physics, quite purged of alchemical crap, is Descartes. The only problem with Descartes notion of vortices is that they are, mathematically, crap, as Newton proved. In place of the vortices – which at least adhere to the old materialist image of one thing causing another by means of contact – we have the mathematically proven magic of attraction at a distance.

When Goethe started reading the alchemists in the 1770s, preparting to write Faust, alchemy was good and dead – but only in the sense that psychoanalysis is good and dead. While alchemy seemed, especially to the 19th century positivists, to have been overthrown as a rational task by scientist, in reality its concepts became part of the background of natural philosophy, aka science.

Which brings us to the homunculus. Goethe’s critics claim that Goethe first read about the artificial manniken in a dialogue written by a Dr. Johannes Praetorius, a prolific seventeenth century popularizer of wonders, against Paracelsus. Gerhild Williams, in his book on Praetorius, summarizes it as a very curious dialogue, in that Paracelsus never claimed to have made a homunculus. Like Praetorius, Paracelsus believed in the elemental spirits literally. Praetorius, however, claims he instructed his disciples in how to create chymische Menschen – literally, “chemical people”. You needed wine, yeast, sperm, blood and horse dung to do the deed. ‘When he is done, you have to watch him very diligently. Though no one will have taught him, he will be among the wisest of men; he will know all the occult arts because he has been created with the greatest of skill.”

In one way, we are the children of the homunculus. We are certainly chemical people. Our environments consist of synthetics absolutely unknown in this solar system before we began to produce them – and now, of course, they wrap about us, a giant oil-n-corn slick, and we rarely touch dirt, or unprocessed wood. If by some magic I waved a wand and wished away all the synthesized chemical products in my nearest neighborhood, the stools on the sidewalks outside of the cafes would collapse, the cars would vanish, the plants would wither (fertilizers gone), the food in the grocery store, what was left of it, would immediately start to grow rapidly stale.

None of which were things foreseen by Goethe, Newton’s fiercest enemy, in 1769.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

poison and writing

“- When do you write?

- Not all the time.

- So you aren’t a writer?

-I am a writer just as a venomous beast stings at some time or another, when it is provoked, when it is stepped on, when it is attracted. The venom can be an erotic juice.”

This note, in Hervé Guibert’s  journal, The mausoleum of lovers, seems to me an antidote to the Stendhalian model of the mirror. As is usual with Guibert, it puts a premium on the body as an endless source of secretion and excretion – among which we can count writing, writing in the animal life.

Socrates compares himself with a gadfly or horsefly in the Apology: his sting is to arouse the listener from his torpor. And yet, in the Meno, the sting does other work: there, Meno compares Socrates to the narke, a fish with the power to diffuse the water around it with a charge, so that in its neighborhood, or even touching it, a person is shocked and numbed.

“And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me.”

I imagine that Socrates was too Athenian to play with the idea of being stepped on – that is a bit slavish. Yet it is surprising how Guibert’s notion of the writer as the poisonous animal lines up with the Socratic notion of the philosopher as horsefly. To compare oneself to a horsefly is an odd thing – it seems an especially degrading image, not an image to preen over. At the same time, Hera, who was divine, sent a humble gadfly to torment Io, that much beset cow, the former lover of Zeus.

To compare oneself to a venomous beast, or one with a stinger, is definitely part of the field of analogies for a kind of art, if philosophy comes under that compass. Socrates, in reply to Meno, says that he is as torpified as anybody he supposedly torpifies – but in the Apology he tells the truth – perhaps – and comes out from behind the curtain with his stinger. One that does not torpify, but hurts like hell. It wakes you out of the torpid condition.

Guibert had a relationship with Foucault – the unknown philosopher. It isn't unlikely that they may have discussed Socrates Apology, as this was during the last stage of Foucault's career, when he returned to Classical Greek society for material about self care and the ethos of sexuality. Foucault's death, it could be said,  had something to do with suc amoureux, at least in Guibert’s view.  The horsefly, as the Greeks knew, was found around the horse’s eyes – and rear end.

In Greek Love Magic, Christopher Faraone writes that oistros “ranges in meaning from the  gadfly that infests bovines or “goad” to “madness or frenzy, often of desire” and eventually the “mating madness” of female mammals in heat...” Socrates actually uses muops – horsefly - to describe himself, but Plato’s texts include oistros according to Nass and Bell in Plato’s Animals, and the terms were basically interchangeable.

(Although there is discussion among scholars on this topic. Did Socrates in the Apology mean to say he stung, or that he “stirred” the horse of state? And how would a horsefly stir a horse, save by stinging it?)

There’s a story at the very beginning of Guibert’sMausoleum. It concerns M.F. – an easy to see through initials. Here poison and desire, the experience-limit, come together in an anecdote:

“Saturday night around 9 p.m. the doorbell rang at M.F.’s, he was alone. He thought it was me, or T., a ‘familiar’. Two boys entered, their faces hidden, pushing him inside they slapped him, knocking off his glasses, with a blow they opened his nose, he fell to the ground, they pummeled him with kicks, he lost consciousness. They didn’t ransack the apartment, they didn’t pull out the telephone cord. When they left, he got up, blood pissing abundantly from his nostrils. Several days earlier someone had told him the story of a man who had died within eight days of a cerebral hemorrhage provoked by an emotion, a disagreement with his wife. Seeing the blood run abundantly like this from his nostrils, he thinks: “I, too, am having a brain hemorrhage, I’m going to die in the night.” He doesn’t think to call someone, not the police, not a friend, no one. He cleans up, puts everything away: he wipes the blood stains from the floor, he puts the books back into piles, he changes his shirt, and he goes to bed. He didn’t leave a note, nothing. In the morning, he wakes up with black crusts on his nose and skull, a bump on his cheek, astonished to be alive.



  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...