Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)
The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties. Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins. No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.” Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred. That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.” In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell. Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself. Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers. Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued. These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work. With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, wrote The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame) in 1956. Dürrenmatt is a twentieth century Swiss playwright (1921-1990) who gets mentioned alongside Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht. Like them, he is interested in examining moral dilemmas with wider social import, bearing a tendency toward the nihilistic, and a “you just can’t win” attitude, such as can be seen in Sartre’s Men Without Shadows (Morts sans Sépultures), No Exit (Huis Clos), and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Visit is overtly “philosophical” in the manner of existentialism: a despairing morality play.
In The Visit, Claire Zachanassian has been wronged by the town of Guellen (Liquid manure town) located “somewhere in Central Europe,” and Alfred Ill, and she has returned forty-five years later to exact her revenge. Claire and Ill were lovers. Claire became pregnant but Ill wanted to marry someone else who had a shop and money. He bribed two witnesses to say that they had also slept with Claire. Claire’s paternity suit is thrown out and the town sniggers as she is forced to leave town for the life of a prostitute. In this capacity, she meets and marries a billionaire and a succession of other husbands until she is the richest woman in the world. In her capacity as such, she represents an all-powerful monster capable of bending the world to her wishes. A grotesque figure, two of her limbs have been replaced by protheses; an ivory arm and a leg. At one point Ill asks, “Claire, is everything about you artificial?” She uses a lorgnette. These spectacles with a handle held away from the face, suggests she has her own very particular outlook on things and creates a distance between her and the people she observes. Claire has returned to Guellen with a macabre retinue who include the false witnesses whom she has castrated and blinded, the judge who presided over her case and who is now her butler, a black panther, two bodyguards, her husband number VII, and a coffin. Continue reading →
Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.
Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
Social class, home environment, genetics and other factors all contribute to differences between individuals. People differ in looks, height, income, social status, morality, various kinds of intelligence and athleticism, musical ability, industriousness, discipline, and nearly every other human characteristic. Differences in culture, history, and geography generate differences between groups. Being born into a culture that emphasizes hard work, education, conscientiousness, and thrift is a tremendous advantage.
“Social justice” advocates describe the resulting disparate achievements as “inequalities” with the suggestion that these represent some kind of injustice. Unequal achievement is treated as though it must be the result of discrimination, “privilege” or some other unfairness, while it is in fact the inevitable consequence of differences between individuals and groups. These differences will exist no matter how a society is organized barring a race to the bottom where the laziest, least talented individuals set the bar and every achievement that surpassed that pitiful measure got confiscated and distributed – removing any incentive to do anything much at all. Continue reading →
In any population of evolving strategies for winning games (of any sort, no matter the rules (bearing in mind that the rules of such games are themselves subject to evolution)) with each other, imitation of strategies that win – or that have lately appeared to win under cogent criteria of local near term winning (bearing in mind that these criteria, too, are subject to evolution) – is a requirement of survival. Survival is the sine qua non of all other values; for, one must first be, in order then to realize any other value whatever; and so, no value is effectually valuable – is, i.e., valuable in actual practice – except insofar as it enables survival, which is the precondition of any other value.
If my group learns language, yours must do so too in order to survive against us. So for all other acts. If I attack you, you must attack back harder, or die. So human mimesis is a survival strategy for the individual within the group, and for the group as against other groups. Humans naturally imitate each other because that’s the only way to stay competitive, and so to survive.
Gifts are universal. Every culture on Earth has and will always exchange gifts. The effect of gifts is to tie people together; to connect them. This is their ultimate meaning and significance. Many features of gifts are immune from changes in cultural context and time. They stay the same in all circumstances. They are traditional everywhere.
Marcel Mauss’ The Gift is an anthropological study of gifts. He hoped to show that gift-giving precedes mere economic transactions in chronology and significance. Successful businesses often combine gifts with the more prosaic monetary exchanges.
Utilitarianism is a moral theory associated with the Enlightenment that attempts to provide a universal solution for dealing with moral dilemmas. It claims that the correct course of action is that which produces “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” The option with the best consequences, defined in this way, is the correct moral choice.
The Enlightenment was a period where many thinkers imagined that social progress was to be achieved through a heightened use of “reason,” and reason meant science. Emulating and trying to join in the prestige of science, utilitarianism focuses on quantitative analyses; what is objective and measurable, to promote the greatest happiness.
The more you can attribute blame for some bad thing to others, the less blame you need to shoulder yourself, and the less guilt you then need to suffer. And as guilt lessens, so does the costliness of the personal sacrifice adequate to its expiation.