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.

Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past: Continue reading

‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.

Jean-Paul Sartre On ‘An Odd Moment In The Afternoon’

In Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Nausea, Antoine Roquentin offers us a characteristically morose reflection about a very particular hour of the day:

Three o’clock. Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. An odd moment in the afternoon. Today it is intolerable. [New Directions edition, 2007; pp. 14]

Monsieur Roquentin is right. Three o’clock is a pretty terrible time of day.

Growing up in New Delhi, three o’clock very quickly became associated with the hottest part of the summer afternoon. (New Delhi’s summers boast of temperatures regularly rising to 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (434-46 Celsius).) Four o’clock, because of its proximity to five o’clock, which signaled the start of the evening (that’s when folks rising from their afternoon siesta drank their restorative teas) conveyed a slightly benign air; two o’clock, because of its proximity to one o’clock, inherited some of its life-giving and nourishing aspects. But three o’clock was equidistant from these temporal locations; it seemed remote, inaccessible, forbidding; it was the time by which the roads were sure to have emptied. The sun beat down; the hot winds blew; exposure was foolhardy. Best to hunker down at home and ride out the storm.

When I moved to the East Coast of the United States in 1987, I experienced the sharply diminished daylight of this northern latitude in my first fall, when the clocks were set back from the Daylight Savings Time I had been enjoying on my arrival in August. Now, three o’clock was again a zenith of sorts, but a rather depressing one. I could sense the weak, angular rays of the sun were doing little good against the encroaching cold, and I knew that by four o’clock, the dimness would be sharply pronounced. Night would follow all too soon. The fall and winter evenings where when the winds sharpened; three o’clock now became the last brief station of respite before the misery began. And because I was never much of a night owl, given to working late into the night, three o’clock also signaled to me that time was running out on opportunities to be productive. I do not think it is a coincidence incidentally, that Roquentin offers us these thoughts on Friday, 2nd February–a winter afternoon. All too often, like Roquentin, “I would know in advance the day was lost.” Though, unlike him, I did not ever think that “I shall do nothing good, except, perhaps, after nightfall.”

As may be evident from my notes above, I associate moods–almost personalities, if you will–with times of the day. Three o’clock has always had a bit of a hostile air to it. In my childhood summers, it evoked fear; in my adult winters, it signals a particular kind of despondency and melancholia. There is, however, a silver lining in all of this. Now that I’m a father, three o’clock has come to signal to me that time when, on the days that I work at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Library in Manhattan, I must put away my books, sit down for my afternoon meditation session, and on completing it, head to the subways to take a train back to Brooklyn and pick up my daughter from daycare.

Sometimes, I suppose, there still some things you can get done after that dreaded afternoon hour.

The Children’s Playground AKA ‘The Yard’

Parenting entails many unpleasant duties. Changing diapers and dealing with toddlers reluctant to eat, sleep, or behave like rational human beings–which they aren’t–are often ranked lowest on the scale of parenting unpleasantness. But for my money, little can rival accompanying your child to the playground.

Here it may all be found: a mixed-age, mixed-gender space for interaction, populated by children and their curiously disengaged parents, featuring aggression, rudeness, selfishness, and ample opportunity for traumatic brain injury. Here is a cauldron of class and ethnic interaction and mutual misunderstanding and confusion, of excessive parental protectiveness and its counterpart, malignant indifference.

I was convinced, long before my wife and I had our daughter, that children were not innocent, that they were not unsullied human beings waiting to be despoiled by maturity and civilization. There was always something of the monstrous in them, too many glimpses of the unrestrained Id were all too clearly visible. The memories of my childhood–its bullies, the brawls, the tantrums, the ganging up on the weak, the merciless hunting down of the quirky, the taunting, the teasing, the mocking, the clique forming and exclusions–were still clear; I have had no desire to ever revisit it. Adulthood was not degradation and descent; it was growth in both the physical and moral dimensions. Within reasonable bounds, of course.

My experience at children’s playgrounds has given me ample opportunity to confirm this gloomy diagnosis of mine. Children are monsters. And in a space featuring everyone from pre-walkers to fleet runners, from those wearing diapers to those free of them, the range of interactions on display frequently show them off at their worst. You want your child to learn ‘the ropes’, the ‘tricks of the trade’; you want to be suitably disengaged and yet protective; you want children to ‘figure it out by themselves’ without adult intervention or supervision; and you cannot bring these competing desiderata together into a coherent vision of how to conduct yourself at the playground.

Sometimes you want to tell a parent to stop checking their phone and do something about their child’s selfishness; sometimes you want to tell a child (and his or her parent) to look a little closer at the misanthropic tendencies on display; sometimes  you want your own child to provide a better representation of your parenting abilities. Sometimes you want to make a hard right turn and avoid the playground altogether.

At the playground, you find your vision of the correct moral upbringing of your child dashed against the hard rocks of those Sartre called ‘hell’: other people. They will rapidly reconfigure it all; they will make you say things–if only under your breath–like ‘well, perhaps you should have pushed your way to the front; perhaps you should have shoved that other kid aside; the next time someone blocks the slide, just slide into them.’ Here, it all comes apart; here, you realize where the sophomoric theorizing about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the invocations of ‘its a jungle out there’ come from.

Many years of this lie ahead. Some kinds of time should fly.

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.

Beware the Easily Defined Philosophical Term

Over the course of my philosophy career, I’ve come to realize I sometimes use technical philosophical terms without an exceedingly determinate conception of their precise meaning. But I do, however, know how to use them in a particular philosophical context that will make sense to an interlocutor–reader, discussant, student–who has a background similar to mine. (Perhaps this is all that is required with just about any word? What more could be required after all? But I digress.) Thus, I muddle through, talking about philosophy, writing on it, teaching it, debating it. Heck, I’ve made a career out of it.

A classic example of an ambiguous, yet useful and widely used term is ‘humanism.’ I made heavy use of it in the first paper I wrote in graduate school, in a paper on Marx and Feuerbach‘s views on religion. I described Marx and Feuerbach (and possibly Hegel) as humanists, referred to the Young Marx as an arch-humanist in distinguishing him from the Later ‘Das Kapital‘ Marx, and so on. Over the years though, I’ve come to sense that I don’t have a real handle on the term other than to say it refers to ‘human-centered philosophies.’ When asked to explicate that term, I launch into various examples: early Marxism, existentialism, secularism–stress its affinities–philosophical naturalism, for instance–and point to other schools of thought that employ the term, like, say, renaissance humanism. Within the context of these examples, I am then able to try to clarify what is meant by ‘human-centered.’ This past fall, when introducing students to existentialism via Sartre–besides the obvious import of the slogan that ‘(human) existence precedes (human) essence’–I stressed his claim that Sartrean existentialism is humanism because it emphasizes, centrally, the human freedom and ability to make choices. And as I’ve mentioned affinities above, it is worth mentioning humanism’s affinities with pragmatism. In particular, William James, who took ‘humanism’ to describe his pragmatism, offers us some wonderful characterizations of it:

[I]t is impossible to strip the human element out from even our most abstract theorizing

[T]o an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products.

The ambiguity of philosophical terms should not be too shocking: many philosophical terms have been employed in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts; they have extensive histories of usage and thus resist precise definition (as Nietzsche usefully pointed out a long time ago); they are used to clarify, extend, and resolve philosophical debates in more than one arena of disputation; sometimes, they are drawn from different languages and then encountered in translation; they often enjoy extensive deployment in non-philosophical contexts, and thus create ambiguities between antecedent and  current usage. Furthermore, philosophical traditions that stress conceptual analysis can sometimes exacerbate the confusion: by emphasizing necessary and sufficient conditions for usage, they risk smoothing out, by force and fiat, the rough, serrated edges of meaning that make the term as useful and ubiquitous as it has been.

A philosophical term that is all too easily defined should make us just a little suspicious about its  usefulness.