Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation. Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence. Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s. In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal. These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.
Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has entered popular consciousness. It names the tendency of boys to become romantically infatuated with their mothers, and girls with their fathers, then called the Electra complex. The notion is scandalous but the phrase provides a certain scientific sounding emotional distance while also connoting messy depths of neuroticism. Incest and cannibalism are so taboo in most societies that in lists of things not to do, they are frequently omitted, so excluded from polite society, that most people forget they even exist most of the time. Classes in ethics will often mention abortion or euthanasia, but never even mention sleeping with your relatives, or eating people. That is a sign of a powerful taboo – so strong that the prohibited activity gets excluded from awareness.
A significant portion of René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred is devoted to a critique of Freud. Continue reading
I just an hour ago learnt from his son – an erstwhile orthospherean, as it happens – that one of my early mentors in business died a few years ago. He had long since retired, and we had lost touch.
I find myself horribly grieved at his passage. Yet I rejoice; for, he was overall a most good man, especially to me; so that I harbor high hopes for his everlasting salvation, and for our eventual reunion, should I be so fortunate as to merit the same.
Easter is the only reason to be optimistic. If the Resurrection didn’t happen, then no man can be resurrected. In that case, death will certainly and totally consume all the things we care about. Life might go well for a time, to be sure. But it will all end in sorrow; and that end, that sorrow and pain, will be permanent, and incorrigible, and total. It will take all of us, and all our works. None of it will come to anything. All will be lost.
The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i] Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too. He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii] Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity. These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present. What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication? Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.
In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii] Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.” But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action. Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist? Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv] Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944. He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]
A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:
We think of worship as something we do mostly in church. It is time we dedicate especially to God. But every moment of our lives is dedicated to something or other; and we would not be doing anything we do if those things to which they are dedicated were not important to us; if we did not think them worthy of our attention, and of our effort.
Mimesis and scapegoating
Humans are intensely mimetic. We learn to talk, walk, and nearly everything else by imitation. But because we also imitate each other’s desires, other people become our rivals, as we compete for the same things. Taboos and prohibitions can be sufficient to mitigate this problem much of the time, but when there is a crisis, such as a flood, famine, plague, or war, and the social structure based on rules and hierarchies collapses, we find ourselves in a state of horrible equality. The natural hierarchy between a parent and a younger child, or between humans and animals, high status and low status individuals, reduces conflict. In a crisis, each person becomes another’s rival, chaos ensues, and violence breaks out. It is a war of all against all. Without a public justice system, each of us wants to retaliate for the latest offense. If not against you, then against a family member. There is no logical end to the conflict. A common resolution is if we all agree that a single person or a group of people are to blame. This is the scapegoat. We are scandalized by the scapegoat. A “scandal” is etymologically a stumbling block. Continue reading
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the putative “Sage of Königsberg,” in a rare moment of lyricism states “Two things fill the mind with ever new and ever increasing admiration and awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Like the laws of physics governing the heavens, Kant’s “moral law” is to apply universally and without exception, and both are discovered via reason.
Kant has a “duty” theory of morality called “deontology.” His moral philosophy is explicitly antagonistic to utilitarianism and Aristotle, the other main moral theories taught in most contemporary English-speaking university departments.
With regard to Aristotle, what analytic philosophers have come to call “virtue ethics,” Kant objects that Aristotle’s traditional view of ethics as a theory about how to live a flourishing life – eudaimonia – literally having a good indwelling spirit – is incompatible with morality. Kant radically reduces the scope of “ethics,” life and how to live it, down to “morality,” the right treatment of oneself and others narrowly conceived. Continue reading
No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.
When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.
Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these. He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading