Robert Morrison And Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche And The Buddha

Two recent books on Nietzsche and Buddhism–Robert Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, and Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy–do an exemplary job of examining, sympathetically and rigorously, some related questions of enduring philosophical interest: What is the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism? What were Nietzsche’s views on Buddhism? Was he grossly mistaken in his reading–if any–of Buddhist texts?

The answers these two texts provide are roughly similar.

First, Nietzsche had mixed views on Buddhism: he praised it for sounding the same alarm he was to a decadent culture confronting the loss of its most cherished ideals and ‘fictions’; he criticized it for what he saw as its nihilistic, world-denying aspects. This latter viewpoint, as both Morrison and Panaioti are at pains to point out, rests on a systematic misunderstanding of key Buddhist concepts and theories. Nietzsche was handicapped in this regard, ironically for someone who was a philologist, by his lack of fluency in the Indian languages–Sanskrit and Pali–essential for reading original Buddhist texts; he had to rely, perforce, on indirect access to the Buddhist corpus. Some of this indirect access, notably, was provided by Schopenhauer, who extracted from Buddhism a pessimism that Nietzsche ultimately found untenable and defeatist.

Second, Nietzsche and Buddhism share points of resonance or ‘affinities’ at several points: they both are committed to: a no-self theory of the self that denies the substantiality of an enduring self, a theory which they describe as a ‘delusion’ and which serves to underwrite many other species of pernicious theorizing; a metaphysics that eschews ‘substance‘–indeed, the no-self theory of the self serves to underwrite a no-object theory of objects or no-substantiality theory of substance (Buddhism employs the notion of “co-dependent arising” to deny independent, non-contingent existence to any thing or substance); a rigorous practice of self-overcoming or self-mastery, a key component of which is the mastery of perspectives that are free of the various illusions and delusions that contribute to ‘world weariness’ or ‘pointless suffering.’ Moreover, both can be understood in ‘medical’ or ‘therapeutic’ terms; they both aim, through their philosophizing, to ‘cure’ a certain kind of perplexity that has led to intellectual and physical ill-health. And they both do it with an emphasis on practice, on modifying and altering the very ways in which we think and live.

Both Morrison and Panaioti know the relevant literatures exceedingly well; they’ve clearly mastered the Nietzschean corpus, and engaged rigorously with original Buddhist texts. (They both seem to be fluent in Pali and Sanskrit and often contest older translations of technical terms in these languages.) They write clearly and do a wonderful job of making difficult Buddhist material more accessible. Morrison does this to a greater extent as he engages in several attempts to provide new interpretations to Buddhist terms and theses–not all of which will find approval with scholars of Buddhism, but they will applaud the attempted rigor of his interpretations anyway.

Much academic writing these days is sterile and unreadable; these two books provide a much-needed counterpoint to that claim.

F. O. Matthiessen On ‘The Value Of The Tragic Writer’

In The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (Oxford University Press, New York, p. 107),  F. O. Matthiessen writes:

The value of the tragic writer has always lain in the uncompromising honesty with which he has cut through appearances to face the real conditions of man’s lot, in his refusal to be deceived by an easy answer, in the unflinching, if agonized, expression of what he takes to be true. The effect of such integrity is not to oppress the reader with a sense of burdens too great to be borne, but to bring him some release.  For, if it is part of the function of every great artist to transform his age, the tragic writer does so not by delivering an abstract realization of life, but by giving to the people who live in the age a full reading of its weakness and horror; yet, concurrently, by revealing some enduring potentiality of good to be embraced with courage and with an ecstatic sense of its transfiguring glory. Through the completeness of his portrayal of the almost insupportable conditions of human existence, he frees his audience from the oppression of fear; and stirring them to new  heart by the presentation of a heroic struggle against odds, he also enables them to conceive anew the means of sustaining and improving their own lives. Only thus can he communicate both ‘the horror’ and ‘the glory.’

These remarks by Matthiessen express quite succinctly, I think, the heart of the best possible response to the charge that the ‘tragic’ or ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ attitude leads invariably to nihilism. (It is visible quite clearly, for instance, in Nietzsche’s amor fati, in his ‘joyful pessimism,’ in his rejection of Schopenhauer‘s grim view of the insatiable will: the unflinching life is only possible if imbued with a refusal to look away from the particulars of our lot; it may be seen too, in Sartre‘s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’) The ‘heroic struggle against odds,’ the ‘ecstatic sense,’ ‘the transfiguring glory,’ that is present in the tragic writer’s vision of life suggests that there is a romanticism here too, one that will not be satisfied with the easy consolations to be found in systems that explain all, in ‘abstract realizations’ that render everything reasonable and comprehensible.

The tragic writer brings a new mythology to life, placing by dint of artful location, the reader at its center (you may, if you like, cast your mind back to Joseph Campbell at this point); our onward journey now bears the possibility of meaning, because we venture forth into physical and psychic landscapes that await our presence and interaction with them for further definition and clarification. This world is not ready-made, oppressing us with the burden of matters predetermined and foretold; it awaits ‘completion’ at our hands. And that notion of the self as creator, of itself, of the world around it, is the tragic writer’s greatest value; if he or she displaces divinity from the world, it is only to place it within us.

Julian Young on Schopenhauer on Suicide

In his concise introduction to SchopenhauerJulian Young notes he considered it “incumbent on any ‘ethical system’ to commit suicide.” Indeed, that Stoicism fails to do so, and indeed, even recommends it “in cases where  pain is intolerable”, is for Schopenhauer, proof of its “intellectual bankruptcy.”

Young rightly makes the obvious point: this seems like a strange view to be professed by someone who considers birth a terrible tragedy, existence a state of unmitigated misery. Wouldn’t such a conception our state of being entail a moral duty to bring this state of affairs to an end, to bring our consciousness to a merciful conclusion? (Yes, I know, this does sound a bit like Rust Cohle of True Detective.)

The problem is that the suicide is “ignorant of the truth of philosophical pessimism”; he has come to believe that his suffering is solitary; he has been picked out for a special dispensation of misery and pain; were he to be disabused of this notion and come to realize all around him are equally condemned, he would not count himself so unfortunate. As Schopenhauer pointed out:

We are not usually distressed at evils that are inescapably necessary and quite universal such as old age and death.

(On a related note, Montesquieu noted: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”)

Knowing the “universality of pain” makes a crucial difference: the potential suicide who is able to identify with the suffering of his fellow companions comes to realize  suicide is “futile”, an ineffectual attempt to cure an incurable affliction. More damagingly, as Young notes, it is “an act of extreme egoism, the most extreme failure of emotional identification with others, extreme lack of empathy. If I care equally about me and you…then my suicide is a complete irrelevance to solving the problem.”

Young then concludes:

There seems to me something insightful about this picture of the suicide as exceptionally self-obsessed; as someone who has become so isolated from the rest of the world that it seems to them that only their own pain matters, indeed that only their own pain exists. This is, I think, particularly true of men who commit suicide on account of business failures. The relative triviality of the motive requires that the suicide has become absolutely insensible to the vastly greater suffering of millions of others.

This condemnation of the act of suicide is interesting, of course, because the suicide’s death causes pain to others. Not just loved ones like fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, friends, but also those that might depend on him or her for aid and succor of all sorts: a doctor’s patients, a teacher’s students, a lawyer’s clients. The suicide might have realized all of this but perhaps have pressed on anyway, knowing his act will bring an end to the pain caused by this knowledge.

A broader point to be derived from this view of Schopenhauer (and Young) is also of interest: we are not isolated and alone, but inescapably linked to many others through a complex set of inter-relationships. We cannot coherently imagine our actions affect only ourselves; a diminution of us is a diminution of others.

True Detective: Eight Points of Contention

I finished watching True Detective last night. I found the finale deeply disappointing but I can’t say that I was surprised; the show had seemed incapable, over the last few episodes, of sustaining the portentousness it had built up in the first three or so installments. I still think the show was outstanding, but I don’t think it delivered on the promises it held out as it began (and it especially did not capture the tragic mood of the haunting title sequence; see #1 below.)

Here are some observations, in no particular order, that attempt to sustain that claim:

1. I understood True Detective to not be a murder mystery but rather a tragedy about two deeply flawed men; given that, the ending was hokey and cliched, descending into Hollywood-style redemption, sweetness and light. The finale should have ended with the ‘final showdown’ in Carcosa. This failure was made even more acute with the contrast provided by the opening few minutes of ‘Form and Void‘, which were absolutely chilling and showed True Detective at its best.

2. There was a brooding Gothic atmosphere in the first four episodes that faded away in the last four; from the moment the show jumped to 2002, it lost its distinctive mood and became more conventional.

3. Matthew McConaughey‘s acting intensity started to diminish; I think he was struggling with maintaining the Cohle facade and the strains of that showed in the last couple of episodes. By the end, even his make-up mask seemed like it was fading and slipping.

4. The show’s template was a little well-worn: angry, violent, male detectives, serial killers, female victims, abusive families, small-town USA as locale for horror. (I hope that in its forthcoming seasons we see interesting and distinctive variations on these, including some different periods as well.)

5. Cohle‘s invocation of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche–among others–was well-done in parts, but also felt forced at times.

6. Disappointingly, nothing was ever made of Audrey Hart‘s drawings; this was a strange red herring to throw into the mix. Especially because Mart Hart consistently showed himself to be such an unhinged, violent protector of his female ‘property’: his assaults on Lisa‘s date, Cohle, Audrey’s boyfriends.

7.  The epic six-minute gunbattle in ‘Who Goes There?‘ A wonderful, dramatic, action-packed sequence that wasn’t all that consequential in the ‘resolution’ of the plot. It didn’t have to be; but it would have been nice to have had that scene invested with a greater importance.

8. The detective work that Marty puts on show in the season finale could have made more appearances; all too often, the clues that came Hart and Cohle’s way were all too easily obtained. Two classic instances of this: a) Charlie Lange provides valuable clues on three separate occasions; each time, he is abruptly drafted in to provide these and then shunted out, his task of providing momentum to the show’s narrative accomplished b) we are asked to believe that a geriatric lady, living in an old-folks residence, not only remembers a paintjob from many years ago, but also the color of the paint used, and a distinctive facial feature on one of the painters.

In the end, True Detective was still a very good television show, but the promise it held out initially wasn’t realized.

Schopenhauer on Revealing Our True Feelings

Thus spake Schopenhauer:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹

Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.

First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses.  Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us.  We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)

Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.

Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.

Notes:

1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.

Schopenhauer on the Pernicious Influence of Copyright on Writing

Modern debates on the ‘intellectual property’ front involve several, overlapping, recurring themes. One persistent pair of inter-related concerns is: How are creators, authors, artists, ‘content producers’, and the like to be compensated for their ‘contributions’ to our commons? and, How indispensable are the protections of the various legal regimes that are termed ‘intellectual property’ (and its related economic arrangements) for the continued sustenance and facilitation of ‘artistic production’? The answering of these questions almost invariably involves a reckoning with fundamental issues of artistic motivation and innovation. The pedigree of those kinds of debates is, of course, older than modern Internet-related intellectual property disputes, and unsurprisingly enough, the pronouncements of those who have approached the puzzles of artistic provenance in the past are relevant for them. Sometimes those pronouncements can be especially, pointedly, on target and serve as useful reminders that skepticism about ‘intellectual property’ predates the Internet.

From Arthur Schopenauer’s “On Authorship and Style” (from Essays of Schopenhauer, University of Adelaide E-books repository):

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognised by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

Consequently, it is soon recognised that they write for the sake of filling up the paper, and this is the case sometimes with the best authors….As soon as this is perceived the book should be thrown away, for time is precious. As a matter of fact, the author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money and preservation of copyright are, at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay….The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day…is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.

Incidental aside: The indictment of writing-as-if-paid-by-the-word is pungent and on point; the wisdom of “I coulda written less but I didn’t have the time” lives on.