This self is the sun, the very center of man’s personal solar system, around which revolves his whole existence. The understanding of self causes all the other worlds of human experience to assume an orderly relationship.
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision: Against the Modern Failure of Nerve by John A Ruprecht, Jr.
This wide-ranging meditation combines several elements: a rehabilitation of the concept of tragedy, a condemnation of the “tragic posture” as a feature of modern reflection, and theory about continuity and discreteness in religion. Author Ruprecht first sets himself against his contemporary theorists Alasdair MacIntyre and George Steiner, whom he takes as exponents of the (false) tragic posture of fatalistic pessimism. Then, in order to clarify what he understands as the (true) tragic vision, he begins with the classics, focusing especially on Sophocles’ Antigone as an exemplar. He moves from there into Hegel’s ideas about tragedy, and then to Nietzsche’s. He is not in perfect concurrence with either of these thinkers, but he sees their ideas as a tonic against the tragic posture, even if Nietzsche seems to court it in his later works.
Finally, Ruprecht takes issue with Nietzsche’s “Dionysus versus the Crucified” motto, postulating instead (like some of the Romantics whom Nietzsche criticized) that Jesus was a sympathetic development of Dionysus rather than an oppressive reaction against the pagan tragic ideal. He makes his case by championing the gospel of Mark as a tragic “performance,” focusing on the garden of Gethsemane, and indulging in a full comparison of the four canonical gospels with respect to this episode. In this longest section of the book, Ruprecht conspires with Frank Kermode (whose Genesis of Secrecy he repeatedly cites, though not always in agreement) to get me to view Mark as the best of the four Evangelists, whether or not he is the most “primitive.”
Particularly in the chapter on Nietzsche, and in a related appendix regarding the history of the Parthenon, Ruprecht insists on continuity over discreteness in religion and human experience generally. His opposition to the “tragic posture” is in large measure an objection to a modern exceptionalism (even if what is supposedly exceptional about modernity is its suckitude). I am rather sympathetic to this argument, without taking it to perennialist extremes — and Ruprecht doesn’t — but he also seems to want to view the question of technology (yes, he’s read his Heidegger) as a more peripheral or even cosmetic aspect of the modern condition, with its most significant consequences in degradation of the natural environment. This attitude makes me want to protest: Moore’s Law isn’t just a river in Egypt. [via]
Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley’s forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher’s blurb told me that it was a book about “a disabled man…among a crowd of women” at “the height of World War II.” It didn’t seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author’s AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn’t have worried.
The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there’s no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel—unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt—he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing’s “Bestopianism” is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in “Passionate Series” generating “Harmony” through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.
The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier’s earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The movements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic—in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The “we” narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a “Temporary Harmonious Zone”—cousin maybe to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone.
Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers’ attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a “great recession” or even “greater depression” that seems bound to displace what “postwar” generations have been taught to consider the American “way of life.” A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.
I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there’s a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure—both efficient and beautiful—and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.
Crowley’s AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on “neurodiversity”: the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions. [via]
Present Shock Philip K Dick is a video from Imperium Pictures with Douglas Rushkoff speaking about Philip K Dick.
“Philip K Dick got, almost like an Escher painting, you know, this kind of feedback loop between ourselves and our reality and our observation, and this kind of snake-eating-its-tail quality of human experience; and, then, how that would be amplified or realized by technology … to the point where, if you look at him optimistically, it stops mattering.”
“Emotionally, hypersensitivity may result and an over identification and sympathy with the world’s pain. The peaks and depths of human experience can become difficult to bear if not recognized as being part of humanities’ cycles of evolution. Hypersensitivity can also result in the belief of having ‘found it’ and being insensitive to the needs of others to find ‘it’ on their own.” [via]
“Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics” by Joseph P. Duggan is a recent post over at The American Spectator which discusses a modern ‘techno-gnosticism’ while imagining a scene at the pearly gates made possible by the recent synchronous deaths of Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il. This article is ostensibly about one of the people I’ve personally considered one of the great modern minds, and a definite influence for me, but I think it also has value for those interested in “scientific illuminism” as a potential warning to avoid a scientific attitude, or scientism, or techno-gnosticism, or, if you allow, a scientific management of humanity; that devolves into merely another superstition or fails to be life affirming or supportive of the overall human experience, or ignores illuminism.
“Most recently, this conscientious thinker was preoccupied with a disorder of the mind and soul as old as Descartes, vexing contemporary civilization no less today than it did during the Communist era. This is a mindset I call ‘techno-gnosticism,’ more or less the same ideology of scientism that Walker Percy and Neil Postman eloquently criticized. Among the consequences of this mindset are the global financial crisis and the collapse of post-Communist hopes for a ‘Europe whole and free’ into the reality of a Europe fractured and bankrupt.
One of Havel’s final testaments was his lecture at the Prague Forum in October 2010. He lamented ‘the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful.’
With an intimation of immortality, Havel observed: ‘With the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness, there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.’
Who can say God lacks a sense of humor? Not the honest searcher Havel, sometimes agnostic but always a friend to religious believers. He finds himself in the queue in the celestial waiting room on the same day as atheist gnostic know-it-all Kim Jong-Il. If St. Peter likes a good laugh, he will grant Christopher Hitchens credentials to report on the scene for media fleeter than Fleet Street’s.” [via]
“Deep in reflection in the city that gave us Kafka and the Golem, Havel said at the 2010 Prague Forum: ‘I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.'” [via]
“Two decades ago, Neil Postman saw things going not well at all. In his book Technopoly he described the metastasis of technology’s relationship to man from usefulness to power (technocracy), thence to a sort of totalitarian monopoly of the mind (technopoly).
Postman dissected scientism and technopoly into three ideological components. First is the idea that “the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior.’ Second is that ‘social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis.’ The final pillar of technopoly is that ‘faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.'” [via]