Becoming Attached to History
Science, along with rationalism, are the twin adulthoods of discourse. They are never free of their self-doubts, their experiential insecurities, but they must often appear to be thus free. Not only for and against youth, but all the more so against the aged. Indeed, in an ironic movement, adulthood adopts the old to protect itself against becoming aged. The era that invented youth also invented nostalgia. The two walk hand in hand, the first unaware of its effects on those older than itself, the second only too aware that it has not only objectified youth, often leeringly so, but sabotaged its own self-understanding. In other words, by desiring and aping youth, it has traded in maturity for adulthood. This may not be its intent, but it is its effect. Because the emotions are tender just at this point – loss, and the realization that in our experience of history, most especially one’s own, what is lost is lost for good – they are driven into action, called to action. For the most part, youth remain blithely ignorant of our prurient interest in them – the advent of the internet has only further insulated adults against potential obloquy in this regard – and when they become aware there is almost always some kind of blatantly criminal act occurring. Too late for both parties, as it were. Thus nostalgia, answering the call to action spurred on by a lack of experience – this is still different from the will to actually repeat something that has occurred in the past; we can and do fall in love again as adults, for example – shows itself to be in league with a kind of gentrified pedophilia. It is less barbaric than the euphemisms surrounding the physical assault of children, for instance, but it is nonetheless a veneer. Like science divorced from human intent, rationalism devoid of romance, adulthood without maturity – youthfulness is yet different from youth, as everyone knows even if they have forgotten how to speak it – nostalgia could be accurately defined as time without history: “The example brings to mind the remark of Claude Bernard that feeling always takes the initiative in thought. If so, it is a methodological error in the study of thought to disconnect it from feeling. It is an error characteristic of the obsessive mind which, by ignoring the affective sources of thought, renders its study an impossible task.” (Cohen 1960:548 ). Our desire for youth, shrouded in the sense that we only desire ‘to be young again’ and not at anyone’s expense – yet what should we be doing if we were once again to find ourselves incarnate as a past self? – is as callow as was our own youth, now distanciated from us and not merely distant. No, the qualitative distinction of adulthood – a social fact quality rather than a phenomenological essence, of course – is what provokes anxiety. It is real absence, and not just distance. One’s lover is not merely away for work but is truly gone, that sort of thing. So distanciation is a quality that is a phenomenological marker, just as is intentionality. Like the latter, it only begins the work at hand. The Wesenschau, or intuition of essence, is an idealized result of intentionality and categorical intuition etc., but it cannot be attained unless one is willing to replace one’s being with something other, something that one cannot be for it already was: “Dasein can never be past, not because Dasein is non-transient, but because it essentially can never be present-at-hand. Rather if it is, it exists.” (Heidegger 1962:432 , italics the text’s). Even death does not alter this existential circumstance. Objects, however, can represent what is past because that world itself no longer exists, it ‘had-been-there’, and in a manner quite different from how an ancient object’s presence illumines our own day (ibid). So Goethe’s formulation, his cry directed back into time and back into his narrator’s own biographical history, resonates not in the realm of objects but in that of the memorialization of memory:
Nothing I had, and yet profusion
The lust for truth, the pleasure in illusion
Give back the passions unabated,
That deepest joy, alive with pain,
Love’s power and the strength of hatred,
Give back my youth to me again.
Youth says: ‘no one loves as I do’, and this is true insofar as it also must say to itself that no one can hate as fully. But mature being knows that compassion is more authentic, if not more ardent, than mere passion, and that love and hate can become virtually interchangeable, as anyone who has lost love can duly if wryly attest. And the ‘nothing’ of which Goethe speaks is of course the very opposite of that which invokes in us the existential anxiety the onset of which is dread and angst combined. For youth, nothing really is to be taken literally; one has not yet done anything or become anyone. There are no accomplishments of note, and there has not been time to understand the world around one, stretching out ahead and beyond, giving one the best and to a certain extent, lasting, impression that in fact the existential horizon does not approach us. Even our current cosmology reflects quite poignantly our sense of horizontal shifting that occurs to living human beings sometime in middle-age. The expanding universe of youth, a moment where gravity overcomes mass and pulls back on it, and then the universe contracts once again into itself in preparation for the next big bang. The fact that there is some debate regarding this aspect of contemporary cosmology suggests that we now have an inkling about indefinite human life. And we, of course, do have just that. The combination of stem cells, artificial prosthesis, the so-called AI and even, more outlandishly, contact with the very extraterrestrials we presume, somewhat romantically, to have themselves overcome human tribulations, point in this direction. But all of this is, so to speak, nostalgia in reverse. Unlike Binswanger, whom Needleman suggests is not analyzing in merely an ontic manner because “…his analyses refer to that which makes possible the experience of the particular individual.” (1962:125), Adorno’s concern for the eroding of praxis caused by the feelings we bring to it not only are generalizable on the positive side, but may also be implicitly fatalistic. There is, in mourning the loss of a critical and radical praxis – of late turned to an extension of hexis, once again – a kind of latent nostalgia. ‘Give back to me my praxis again!’, one might cry. And perhaps this sensibility is also there in Goethe’s verse. After all, both love and hate can fuel the action of getting action and carry it forward.
Nostalgia is also, in this sense, a fatal error with regard not only to history – it ‘laicizes’ it in the worst way – but also to memory and yet more: “Our entire theology will, by an unconscious and fatal complicity, itself have had to prepare the laicization of which it is the victim. The meaning of history: no longer need a God be born in the flesh to reveal it.” (Corbin 1957:xviii ). If the death of god no longer provokes a conscious anxiety – after all, the idea of judgement, perhaps first understood to be the key to the afterlife in Egyptian mythology, must have had some anxiety attached to it, though our record of this is, as need be, a record of those with the most to be anxious over – and rationally speaking, death itself cannot be by itself anxiety producing – one either dies or something of one carries on; either way what is to be anxious about? – we are left with the possibility of having to mourn or having to lose in the first place. What is to be lost? Why history, of course. And not merely history but, as Corbin stated, its meaning. And this meaning is new, in the light of the ‘deincarnation’ of deity, and more than this, ever new. Thus “For Heidegger, as for Nietzsche, the past supplies the ways in which we understand ourselves, and it is in the light of these ‘possibilities of being’ that we project the future. It is this necessary historicality that makes possible the thematic study of history.” (Wood 1989:154, italics the text’s). Note immediately that history needs now to be studied. This is precisely because it cannot now be ‘revealed’. Learning something through patient study is the very opposite of revelation, where the all in all is suddenly and radically laid open before us. Its very suddenness, to borrow from Kierkegaard, has an evil about it, mainly because we are suspicious of rapid change. The radicality of revealed meaning disavows the human need to make something meaningful. Either way, it is clear we are much more comfortable with the study of history as long as it does not get in the way of making our own history in our own time. Yes, to a point. For history is also a reminder of one’s own humanity seen over eons, and we would like to also believe in our freedom from precisely that: “Above all, they believe that America constitutes an exception in the course of human history and will always be exempt from the usual limitations and calamities that shape the destinies of other countries.” (Sontag 2007:115). Any state at its zenith willed itself to believe this, from Athens and Rome to Venice, France, Britain and the Third Reich. Any revolution proclaims this new destiny made ‘manifest’ much in the same way that a God used to be made incarnate. At this level alone the state replaces the church but avails itself of its narratives. Our entire auto-cosmology has this sensibility: history is a burden from which we must free ourselves. Psychotherapy says the same thing to us at the individual level that the new state – a newly elected government assuming power by means quite gentle compared to revolution will speak this language as well, though we are, for the most part, wise to it – and at its most base, even baser than politics itself, the shameless shill of the advertisers heralds the ‘revolutionary’ change brought into your household by this or that improved product. Such a sham cannot be imagined by any ethical being, and yet it is a daily occurrence. And yet perhaps this is not the most base after all. What of the parents and teachers who tell the failing young person that they must ‘clean up’ their lives? What of the ‘boot camps’ for teenagers whose parents simply do not wish to work with them or have semi-consciously admitted their incompetence for doing so? What of the abusers who, under the guise of a ministry now decayed beyond mortal recognition, decoy souls into their lurid embrace? A ‘new teenager by Friday’, one popular book assures its would-be audience. This very Friday? In the time of a blink of an eye, the thief in the night, and all of that. No, suffer the ‘little’ children might be a more apt expression for all of this utter nonsense and worse. Why expect such changes in such a short time? And why would one want this for one’s own children in any case? What is so bad, so evil about our charges that we, as presumably mature beings, imagine that they are destined for a place that also no longer exists? Speaking of projected anxieties.
All of this is so commonplace that a noble philosophy might wash its hands thereof. Even so we must also question, in leading ourselves to confront the structure of anxiety, how we could turn away from these iniquities and speak in an airy manner of ethics and nobility itself. Surely these projections are only the observable aspect of a larger whole. As Binswanger suggests, this is not a matter for either organism or instinct. There can be no ‘partial’ reaction from either or both, to such a ‘falling’ (cf. 1962:198). This ‘giving way’ – and Needleman notes that in English the metaphoric sky is reserved for those with phantasmagorical dreams while in German it is usually a place for those with hopes ‘deeply felt’, though the expression ‘cloud cuckoo land’ tempers this sensibility somewhat (ibid: 222) – is something that is experienced as reality: “The nature of the poetic similes lies in the deepest roots of our existence where the vital forms and contents of our mind are still bound together. When, in a bitter disappointment, ‘we fall from the clouds’, then we fall – we actually fall.” (ibid:223, italics the text’s). The ‘Fall of Man’ is but one sequence of this anxious longing, its cycle pronouncing upon us a judgement in kind. Not necessarily from ‘on high’, but precisely at the point at which we are now. The judgement may be stentorian, encouraging, gentle, heraldic, but it appears before us and thence within us at the moment of self-realization that says, ‘I am now here’. I may be where I wanted to be or not, where I thought I would be or not, but in any case, I must confront myself as I am and not as I would be. This is the more humane and existential meaning of psychotherapy, apart from its more dubious exhortation to transfigure oneself as if one were a God in the making. Depth analysis most specifically recognizes both the immediacy and the profundity of language to this regard, and “…that language of itself, in this simile, grasps hold of a particular element lying deep within man’s ontological structure – namely, the ability to be directed from above or below – and then designates this element as falling.” (ibid:224). So history’s meaning, shorn of any revelatory source but not necessarily bereft of revelatory qualities, becomes that of the day at hand first, and only after which a matter of record and objective discourse. Its own judgement arcs with the living. To be ‘effectively historically conscious’, to borrow from Gadamer, is to be aware of the relationship between one’s own existence, furtive yet fulsome, fretful but also flying – and yes, also falling – and thus is also to attain a certain distance from the sway and swell of the historical tide: “…a neutral sympathy becomes attached to history; engagement and the risk of being mistaken becomes associated with the search for truth.” (Ricoeur 1965:49 , italics the text’s). Here, for the first time, ‘truth does not involve belief’. But just so, Ricoeur is quick to state that history may also be understood as an ‘evasion of the search for truth.’ Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the self-recognition, radical and also even absurd, that we must make our own truths without regard for either belief or yet believers, including ourselves. ‘Belief in oneself’, no doubt another slogan of decadent religiosity lurking under the sly guise of popular youth development tracts, is at best trite, at worst, some rationalization for narcissism. There is a suggestion of shunning others, of distrust, and in no way can such advice promote a healthy confrontation with anxiety. Yet it is also not the case that just because the thinker is charged with the search for truth, whatever it may consist of, does that mean that history’s meaning will be fulfilled if and only if all the rest of us similarly engage. This would be overstating the human case, at least to a certain degree. Rather, an analysis of the relation that holds between myth, the poetic, and the everyday use of language – simile, idiom, euphemism included – reveals even to the casual thinker something that might after all be cautiously understood as revelatory: “…as the power of the historical Dasein, which we ourselves are condemned or called to be.” (Heidegger 1992:131 ).
from Blind Spots: the altered perceptions of anxiety, remorse and nostalgia forthcoming in 2019.