Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Iraq and the Pottery Barn Rule: Don’t Break It Any More Please

As turban-wearing hordes ride down on their stallions from the hills, their sharpened scimitars gleaming in the bright Mesopotamian sunshine, threatening to add to the steadily growing mound of heads separated from their now-twitching bodies, should the United States saddle up, lock and load, and ride out to meet them? Should  it crush its enemies, see them driven before its eyes (and possibly, hear the lamentation of their women)? Should it, having broken it, now buy it?

Ja oder nein?

Ich glaube nicht. In the Middle East, the US is not just the proverbial bull in a china shop, it is a heavily armed and irresponsible member of Bos Taurus.  The last time the US went into Iraq, it was for an illegal war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; it set off a series of cosmic political earthquakes which sparked some of the most bitter and bloody internecine conflict seen in the region (and trust me, given that region’s history, that takes some doing.) The war criminals that conducted that war–George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–are now comfortably retired and unlikely to face charges in a court any time soon; the political pusillanimity of Barack Obama and many others has ensured their great escape. But their ghoulish minions and their associated sensibility would presumably like to run the highlights reel of the Iraq War in repeat mode, thus ensuring a particularly nightmarish version of the eternal recurrence for all concerned, whether they be Iraqis or Americans.

Genug ist genug. There are, quite possibly, some domains in which a judicious application of overwhelming American military force might work to bring about better political outcomes–though I have to admit, I’m having a hard time thinking of any off the top of my head. Still, even if the set of nations ripe for American military intervention is a non-empty one, its characteristic function would most certainly reject any member of the set {x: x is a Muslim country in the Middle East} as an element. The US did not seem to realize, back in 2003, that armed invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation was geo-political dynamite–the kind that blows off your fingers in the most favorable of eventualities. More often than not, it incapacitates you permanently, permanently foreclosing many future paths of action. As it has.

Whatever strategy the US adopts in its response to the ISIS, it should not be one that includes high explosives–whether dropped with laser-guided precision or merely steered into the arsenals of one of the combatants. These options will ensure–I find myself saying this with some mysterious foreknowledge–an even more catastrophic denouement than the one currently under way.

The United States is the mother of all superpowers; it should find ways to express that power through channels other than the military. We are often reminded of American ingenuity and innovation, its most distinctive features in a world populated by unimaginative copycats; now might be good time to dig into the stores and put some of those on display.

But no more shock and awe please.

Psychologizing, Immortalizing, and Unamuno Contra Nietzsche

As promised yesterday, here is Miguel de Unamuno on Nietzsche. In my first post on Unamuno, I had written that ‘there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche.’ The following is one such outburst. It occurs in the chapter that sets up Unamuno’s central thesis in The Tragic Sense of Life: ‘The Hunger of Immortality’:

There you have that ‘thief of energies’ as he so obtusely called Christ who sought to wed nihilism with the struggle for existence, and he talks to you about courage. His heart craved the eternal All while his head convinced him of nothingness, and, desperate and mad to defend himself from himself, he cursed that which he most loved. Because he could not be Christ, he blasphemed against Christ. Bursting with his own self, he wished himself unending and dreamed his theory of eternal recurrence, a sorry counterfeit of immortality, and, full of pity for himself, he abominated all pity. And there are some who say that his is the philosophy of strong men! No, it is not. My health and my strength urge me to perpetuate myself. His is the doctrine of weaklings who aspire to be strong, but not of the strong who are strong. Only the feeble resign themselves to final death and substitute some other desire for the longing for personal immortality. In the strong the zeal for perpetuity overrides the doubt of realizing it, and their superabundance of life overflows upon the other side of death. [Nietzsche is not named directly here but, instead, is footnoted via the ‘he’ in the first sentence above.]

Sympathetic readers of Nietzsche will find plenty to disagree here: the accusations of nihilism and self-pity, the claim that ‘his is the doctrine of weaklings’, the resignation of Nietzsche to ‘final death’ (this is especially an oddity as it occurs a few sentences after noting Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence).  But these criticisms of Nietzsche are not novel, of course; most arch-critics of Nietzsche have made them too. The irony implicit in a man perpetually racked by illness writing so eloquently on ‘health and strength’ has not gone unnoticed, for instance, and neither has Nietzsche’s religious upbringing, nor his anxiety over romantic failure (with Lou Salome) and publication and recognition. There is plenty in Nietzsche’s life to prompt such readings then. And because Nietzsche dished out so many dressings-down in his writings and suggested much philosophical theorizing amounted to involuntary autobiographies of its authors, he himself invites such polemical counterblasts built on relentless psychologizing.

It is not something that he would have minded, I suspect. The vigor of his polemics have clearly provoked Unamuno and shoved the proverbial burr under the saddle. Unamuno has been forced to admit he has read Nietzsche and found him a threat to the doctrines he aims to expound and defend in his book; he knows that unless Nietzsche is defused and defanged, his writing will continue to mock them.

For a man who feared lack of attention the most, this is not such a bad outcome. For the final irony is that Unamuno himself immortalizes Nietzsche by this attack.

The Eternal Recurrence and Rejecting Do-Overs

A little discussion on Facebook about Nietzsche’s remark that his greatest objection to the doctrine of eternal recurrence was that he would have to repeatedly confront his mother and sister’s existence serves to remind me of a tiny thought experiment I’ve often conducted: wondering about ‘doing over’ something in my life, of getting a chance to ‘get it right’ the second time around. Sometimes this is sparked by a mistake that has ruined my day: an angry, intemperate, careless remark; locking myself out of my apartment; not saying ‘no’ to another drink; and so on. At times like those and many others, I wish I could roll the clock back to bring about a different state of affairs. Sometimes my thoughts are a little more expansive; I wonder about my life’s trajectory, look at the many ‘mistakes’ made; perhaps I regret career decisions or personal choices, matters which affect my professional standing perhaps; sometimes I wish I had given up smoking cigarettes sooner; the list goes on. And on. Dreaming of make-overs like these might be one of the most common fantasies we indulge in. (It’s a common enough theme in movies and novels.)

A clear pattern emerges in my thinking; the further back I would have to go to ‘make things right’ the more my desire diminishes to redo things. Most promisingly and cheerfully, this is because of contentment: my professional and personal stations have much to them that strikes me as worth being happy and satisfied about. But this doesn’t fully explain the reluctance to go back too far in time. The reason for that lies elsewhere.

When talking about the doctrine of eternal recurrence in class, I have joked with my students that the reason for this is that I’ve screwed up my life enough as it is, and I have little desire to place myself in a situation where I might land up messing up things even more. (This invariably provokes a few titters from my audience.) This answer is obviously quite revealing of deeply held anxieties and fears about the terrible uncertainties of our life’s paths, subject to, and attenuated by, a multitude of forces beyond our control. Hence: Were I to take myself back in time in an attempt to do things over again, without the benefit of hindsight, who is to know that I would not make another mistake, possibly a worse one, perhaps compounded by the actions of those who also now need to remake their decisions? This worry then, about the finely balanced state of affairs that life is, one utterly indifferent to my happiness, acts as the primary reason for saying no to this opportunity to do over. From this perspective, my satisfaction with my lot in life is also an expression of relief, a grim acknowledgment that things could have been worse, given all that life could have dished out on my plate; the sweepstake numbers have been noted, and I’ve come out ahead; why would I want to roll the dice again? Better to forge on, hoping one’s luck holds.