Freidrich Hebbel’s ‘Profound Question’

In ‘Notebook 11, February 1817’ from Writings From The Early Notebooks (eds. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009, p. 81), Nietzsche cites “a profound question of Friedrich Hebbel” [link added]:

If the artist made a picture, knowing that it would last for ever,
But that a single hidden feature, deeper than any other
Would be recognized by no man living either now or in the future,
To the end of time, do you think he would omit it?

Well? Do you write for an audience or do you write for yourself, to bring ‘a work’ to fruition, whether or not anyone reads it? I write because I like to write; because I like to express, verbally, on the written page, thoughts and ideas that seek expression; because I enjoy watching the written word appear on the page and screen; and so on. But I like readers too–and their responses to what I write can affect what I write, in both form and content. I’d like to think this is not the case, but I’m not sure I’ve always resisted this pressure. I do not disdain the praise and appreciation some readers occasionally send my way; I might even ‘crave’ it, turning it into a stimulus for writing. And of course, I make efforts to secure readers for what I write: I send links to posts I write here to folks who might be interested (and in this desperate world of social media ‘promotion,’ I hope they ‘pass it on’); I participate in marketing efforts for my books; I am disappointed by poor reviews and sales, by the lack of critical attention sent my way by those well placed to ‘promote’ my writings; and so on.

Still, to address Hebbel’s question, which is more narrowly pitched than my question above: I would incorporate that ‘single hidden feature’ into a written work, even if I was sure that it would never be read by anyone till the end of time. This is because, more often than not, I write simply because I want to, because I have convinced myself that I am ‘a writer,’ and thus, I must write as often as possible. Whether or not anyone reads what I write. Bizarrely enough, I do not always hate what I write, and sometimes even do enjoy reading what I’ve written. (Yes, I know, this is terribly arrogant.) The presence of that ‘single hidden feature’  provides, crucially: a sense of completion, because that piece might be ‘incomplete’ without it, and the knowledge that it has found its ‘appropriate’ place within a larger whole, a sensation familiar to all kinds of creators, ranging from those who paint to whose who write computer programs. This could give me all the pleasure I might want out of a piece of writing–readers or not.

Note: Characteristically, Nietzsche precedes the lines quoted above with “[W]ho would doubt that the world of the Greek heroes existed only for the sake of one Homer?” and follows up with “All this clearly shows that the genius does not exist for the sake of mankind; although he is definitely the peak and the ultimate goal of it.”

Conversations (Brief Ones) With Richard Spencer, Neo-Nazi

A few years ago, while working out at my gym in Brooklyn, I was paired with a young man named Richard Spencer for a ‘partner workout’ (I learned his first name during our pre-class introductions; the rest followed once we began our workout.) We took turns performing the assigned exercises at intervals, encouraging the other one as we rested in between our turns. After we worked out, Spencer asked me what I did for a living; he was intrigued to find out I was a professor of philosophy. Spencer said he was interested in philosophy, and had taken some classes while he was a student at the University of Chicago a few years previously. (Indeed, his MA might have been in philosophy; I cannot now remember.) Spencer asked me who my ‘favorite’ philosopher was; I said I did not have one but found much of interest in a motley crew I had grown fond of over the years. Spencer said he was interested in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche; I said I was too, and hoped to teach a class on his provocative doctrines someday. I do not know if our conversation flourished over this point; I’ve often found conversations about Nietzsche frustrating because, all too often, I find my interlocutors honing in on doctrinal points–like the Übermensch, for instance–that are far less interesting to me than many other more interesting aspects of Nietzsche’s work. In any case, Spencer said he was interested in Heidegger too; I said I found Heidegger quite inscrutable at the best of times. Our conversation floundered at this stage; Spencer wanted to talk a bit more about Heidegger but I could sense his understanding of Heidegger was minimal, and given my own lack of interest, did not feel I could meaningfully engage him in a conversation about Heidegger. (I’ve had similar conversations with many folks who want to talk to me about Heidegger; they are intrigued by Heidegger–or at least, they feel they should be; they ‘read’ a bit of Heidegger; they imagine they have figured out enough of the language to start using it to indicate they have read Heidegger. )

I met and worked out with Spencer a couple of more times. On each occasion, he was unfailingly courteous and friendly, and always keen to strike up conversation with me. He clearly considered himself an intellectually inclined person, and conversations with a professor of philosophy seemed to fit into his conception of what a good workout at the gym should include. A month or so later, he shook my hand after a workout and said he was going to say goodbye; he was leaving New York City. He bade farewell to the coaches at the gym and was gone.

This past election night, while watching the results come in with a pair of friends–who coach at the gym I work out at–I learned that the young man I used to work out with was a Richard Spencer who has acquired some recent notoriety as a prominent figure on the American ‘alt-right’, as “an American white nationalist known [who] is president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank, and Washington Summit Publishers, an independent publishing firm [and] describes himself as an identitarian.”

In an article on Spencer (written back in 2010, the year after I met Spencer), Alex Knepper wrote:

The ‘Alternative Right’ most diverges with American conservatism in the way that it takes a sledgehammer to classical liberalism. A crude ‘might is right’ philosophy is applied to human action, with the understanding that group loyalty and self-preservation within the collective is the only way to prosper. Richard Spencer seems to have picked at least part of it up after a hideously poor reading of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche — he is a self-proclaimed Nietzsche fanatic (although, like most wannabe-ubermensches, Spencer is little more than a scribbler).

I did not talk for long or deeply enough with Spencer to figure out whether his reading of Nietzsche was a “hideously poor” one or not; (Spencer clearly  imagines himself a romantic Nietzschean figure of sorts; this hokey article, titled “Facing the Future as a Minority” features Caspar Friedrich‘s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog–of course.) I do find it interesting, in retrospect, that the two philosophers Spencer wanted to talk about are both associated with Nazism: unfairly in Nietzsche’s case, and appropriately so in Heidegger’s. Now I wish I had inquired further, but back then, our conversations simply did not go far enough. There wasn’t enough there to engage with.

Fascism In American Iconography

As the United States of America prepares for the eventuality that on 20th January 2017, John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, could swear in an orange-haired fascist with a tiny penis as the US’ next President, it is worth reminding ourselves that the aforesaid toupeed individual would take the reigns of power in a nation whose iconography bears testimonial to an older and perhaps abiding fascination with the kind of strength and valor that his ostensible political philosophy claims to embody. By the end of the Trump presidency, it is entirely possible that this body of work will be enhanced by similarly inspired works of art–commissioned, of course, by the White House.

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‘The Spring is The Autumn’

In ‘Henriette Wyeth: Scenes from a painter’s life’ (from A Certain Climate, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988, pp. 164) Paul Horgan makes  note of, and subsequently quotes Wyeth on, the wellsprings of her work:

Ideas added to feeling, then, inform both her still lifes and portraits, and the most constant impulse is the desire to record that which must change and go.

“The reason I paint flowers is that I see them fading. This reminds me of the eternally renewed, the spring time, all of that, because I feel death and disaster lurk right behind them.” Her work is testimony to the enduring power which abides strongly in certain forms of fragility. In a flower detail of a still life, in a child’s wrist, she makes a little essay on mortality, but one reclaimed from morbidity by its celebration of present beauty.

Shortly before my mother passed away after a five-year encounter with breast cancer, she began writing small bits of poetry: fragments of poems, solitary lines, couplets. She wrote these on scattered pieces of paper, sometimes the pages of a notebook, sometimes the margins of a magazine–as and when thoughts, reflections, came to her. She wrote with pen or pencil, as either came to hand; she wrote in English or Hindi, retaining the form in which these thoughts were cast. She told me she did so without ever directing me to read anything she had put down on paper. I did not ask to look at her work, presuming she wanted to keep her thoughts to herself; she, for her part, gave me no indication she wanted me to do so. We might have collectively presumed–at some only dimly sensed level of intersubjective awareness–that I would read her work ‘later.’

But she did tell me about a line that ran through her head once, as winter rolled away and spring moved in, as her treatments for a metastasized cancer entered their fifth month. Then she had seen, on one of the short walks she took in the early evening, glimpses of the coming full bloom: buds and blossoms making their first tentative appearances. In response she had written a single line: ‘the spring is the autumn.’ (The emphasis on the assertion of identity is present in the original formulation–in Hindi.) As my mother put it, at that moment, as she saw a fledgling leaf pushing its way up, poking its head out, she saw it too, as fully grown, and then again, a little further on, she saw it change color and form, yellowing, wrinkling, and falling, drifting down; the new leaf wore its life on its sleeve; the inevitability of its eventual fate was present at the moment of its birth. That, or something like it, was what she wanted to say as she wrote that line down.

I never saw that line written down in her handwriting. But I still remember it–in both its original and translated forms–as it was said to me that day.


Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.

William James And The Pre-Raphaelites’ Influence

This morning, for no particular reason, or perhaps because I’ve been reading Becoming William James, Howard Feinstein’s excellent psycho-biography of William James, I posted the following on Facebook:

William James was a better, more interesting, writer than Henry James.

These are, as my friend Margaret Toth pointed out, “fighting words.” But of course, as I noted in response, “That’s why I put them in a status. To get one started.” An entertaining and edifying one so far.

One of the defenses I mounted of William James–in response to Bryce Huebner saying that “Henry may have been the better philosopher”–was that I considered that William’s better writing made him a better philosopher too. (Just because I find the distinction between form and content a spurious one.) I then went on to say that William “certainly comes across as the wiser, the one with better insights into the human condition.”

Now, one aspect of a philosopher’s wisdom may be found in their work; another may be found in what they themselves found to be influential and important in their intellectual and psychological development.

A good example of this is the influence that the Pre-Raphaelites had on James. Their “aesthetic embodied tendencies that would emerge in William’s later work as a pyschologist and philosopher.” They:

[E]mphasized a psychological element in subjects that had hitherto received symbolic, allegorical treatment. Observation of the people around them was as important as learning the painter’s craft….[their] use of color and emphasis on realistic detail gave their painting a characteristic hard edge, creating a visual world of shapes with impermeable boundaries, like so many pieces of stained glass.”

Later, William James in his psychological work  “would prefer minute, phenomenological descriptions of minds in action.” In his philosophical pluralism, “he explored the relationship of personal worlds, he, too, emphasized the hardness of edge that divides human experience as decisively as lead separates the fragments of stained glass.”

But perhaps most impressively for me, James took the most inspiration from John Ruskin‘s views on artistic creation, on “the relationship between effort and talent.” For Ruskin had written:

It is no man’s business whether he has genius or not: work he must, whatever he is, but quietly and steadily; and the natural and unforced results of such work will always be the things that God meant him to do, and will be his best. No agonies nor heart-rendings will enable him to do any better. If he be a great man, they will be great things; if a small man, small things; but always, if thus peacefully done, good and right; always, if restlessly and ambitiously done, false, hollow, and despicable. [John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851, pp. 12]

There is a simple and acute wisdom here, one that might be discerned quite clearly even as we disregard the predestinatory  note, and Ruskin’s belief–expressed elsewhere–about the great men being able to do great things “without effort.” For the injunction here is clear, one we find expressed in modern homilies too: do your work as best as you can; put the hours in; be steady and steadfast in your efforts; care not for rewards or recognition; do not torment yourself with anguish about whether your work was meant to recognized or valorized. The doing of it–and the staying with it, and enjoying the time spent on it–is ample reward.

Note: All quotes other than the ones from Ruskin are taken from Becoming William James, pp. 108-110.


Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.