My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

My Encounter with Leni Riefenstahl

            The deep contempt with which the still noble world of antiquity treated the Christian belongs just where the instinctual repugnance for the Jews belongs today: it is the hatred of the free and self-confident classes for those who make their way forward unobtrusively and combine shy, awkward gestures with an absurd sense of self-worth. (Nietzsche, notebook 10, Autumn, 1887, italics original).

            In the spring of 1995 I shared some BC ferry seats with German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl and her long time partner Horst Kettner. They were simply two unobtrusive members of a large tour bus filled with Germans visiting Vancouver Island. What little of the language I had at the time told me they were discussing local scuba diving and underwater marine film, which was then the vogue in her varied film making career. We stared at one another for a few moments when we debarked but I was far too shy to say anything, assuming her English was as poor as was my French. I had seen, a few months beforehand, the documentary ‘Power of the Image’ which was an awkward biography of her professional life, though it allowed me to immediately identify them aside from the conversation at hand. Knowing who she was imparted to her a presence that no one else in my experience has possessed. Of course, this was as much a projection as anything to do with a larger history. I was so taken aback at this encounter that I spoke of it with no one for many years, and it faded from memory.

            But it ‘never goes away’, just as Sir Ian McKellen’s character in Stephen King’s ‘Apt Pupil’ reminded the young protagonist regarding fascist yearnings. That hour or so on the ferry was silently awkward and in the end, irrelevant to anything in my personal life at the time. Now, a quarter century later and some seventeen years after her death in 2003, I only find myself returning to it given my own recent work on the fascism of meanings in fantasy writing and in liberal humanistic philosophy. I never had agreed with Sontag, whom I use regularly as a source, that Riefenstahl’s directing somehow embodied the so-called ‘fascist aesthetic’. No, we do, as a whole, embody such a form. The sub-title to the 2-part ‘Olympia’, Riefenstahl’s film devoted to the 1936 Summer Games – the version that invented the torch run, amongst other ongoing things – is loosely given as ‘festival (or celebration) of peoples, festival of beauty’ which is essentially what the Olympics are and have always been. Riefenstahl nailed it because she herself as a youth had embodied these qualities, as judged by the esthetics of the time. Not, aesthetics, which is the more serious and formal term for the philosophical study of art forms. There is no fascist ‘aesthetic’, even as there remains an undeniable fascist esthetic – the look of beauty, its identity, its genders, its glamor and the ressentiment that attends to its every move. The supermodel of today is the Christian of the first century Levant, the fashion critic, the Jew.

            Nietzsche’s texts were notoriously reconstituted by the Reich, but not all his work needed such over-writing. Hitler was both shy, awkward, and oddly unassuming, in both his sensibilities and in his gestures. They come across today as absurdities, and John Cleese makes a better ‘Mr. Hilter’ than did Hitler himself. Daily overcoming social anxiety, Hitler memorized his speeches, endlessly practicing his body language and facial expressions in front of the mirror, and one can only imagine resenting his inconsequential stature, provincial birthright and all the rest of it. It is a feeling that many of us must also overcome, for who is born at the center of things who then seeks to become the center of everything?

            Man to woman, someone like Hitler could never have landed a date with someone like Riefenstahl, one of the dream-girls of her day. And yet history brought them together and sometimes in close quarters. Hitler, with just that ‘absurd sense of self worth’ imagined he understood art, and he certainly put much energy into what abilities he did have – his watercolor renderings were decent for an architectural student though very much out of fashion when in 1907, he was rejected in favor of Oskar Kokoschka in the entrance competition to the Vienna art academy – and ‘aesthetics’ dominated the Reich from its attempts at stolen nobility right down to its very uttermost depths of human evil. Yet this too, the ‘saving’ of the world by eliminating those who stain it, remains with us. In this current era of renewed naissance of nationalism and patriotism of party, are we not embodying something rather more than just the look of what is deemed to be beautiful?

            It almost seems that none of the larger geopolitical lessons of the second World War have stuck with us, and we are approaching a biographical threshold over which an absence proclaims itself: that no one living will have lived through that now alien period. It is a limen that creates history out of what was until that point still memory. It is, from the perspective of human experience that can be personally and intimately shared, a most dangerous moment. The only response we have to confront this aleatory lacunae is by way of art. Riefenstahl’s service was more than regrettable, but her films themselves remain as relevant as ever. But not in that they in turn served to help convince many Germans of the time that their path had become one of super-destiny and that the ‘natural’ form of response to any ‘lower’ form was contempt, just as Nietzsche had suggested some half-century earlier.

            Though in the intervening decades it was the German social scientist Max Weber who corrected Nietzsche’s perhaps metaphoric language regarding the origins of Christianity and its relationship with the ancient Hebrews – in the Roman Mediterranean, Christianity was actually sourced in the artisan classes and spread upwards from there, not downwards; it was not a ‘slave religion’ in any real sense – such an understanding could only direct further obloquy against the ‘pariah community’ of the nascent Jewish diaspora. With further irony, Hitler’s movement was limited to awkwardly skulking along politically for over a decade. Historically, one can as ever hope that the same may be said of it; a moment when human reason took a recess. But this is naïve.

            What are the movements of the margins in our own time? Who is attracted to them and why? Where do they arise and how? And are they merely nostalgic retreads of lost historical causes or are they rather symptoms of a society and a world that continues to structure its life and consciousness too closely to that which allowed fascism to grasp the center of things to its paltry self before being superseded by the slightly more subtle neo-colonial ambitions of the victorious powers?

            At once, we can do two things, each of us: one, the next time we are tempted to look with contempt at another human being, step back from doing so. No one person can be the lightning rod for historical ressentiment. Riefenstahl neither as an artist nor as a person can be accountable for the way that I might stare down my nose at the so-called ‘ignoble’ of humanity. And two, we must recognize that our shared contempt for those whose marginal existences has driven them to entertain the worst of our humanity can only aid their cause. Instead, we can yet take both core principles of Judaism and Christianity to be our guides; the one, that we as a species are and remain the ‘chosen people’, and the other, that we are thence placed in the existential position of having to choose one another through the act of the neighbor. It is only through this act, the ‘libertinage of compassion’, that our world will survive itself, let alone its lack of memory of the chance encounters through which historical consciousness is in majority made.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

           “The will to pleasure and the will to death also live with one another, even within one another. Is one only angelic and the other only demonic? Hardly so. Pleasure induces a great suffering, second only to that of love, and death could well be its a merciful release. She is an angel, yes, but angels too have needs. They are not exactly human but all this presents to me is a challenge.” (from Loewen 2020c).

                A cursory view of the fantasy genre suggests a puzzle which might engender a quest of its own: which is more phantasmagorical: The reality from which we desire escape or that which we use as an escape? On the one hand, the novels, the cycles, the screenplays, the scripts; on the other, and adding to their simultaneous simulacra, the actors, the directors, the producers, the publishers. Akin to Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, fantasy as entertainment and escape present to society a massive decoy game which outlasts political regimes and the ebb and flow of wealth. Yet this kind of fantasy is not ancient in the manner in which religion, for instance, is understood. We moderns have replaced deistic religion with that civil, but the State remains all too real, in spite of its presentation of self as our guardian angel. So the enchanted element of religious belief, its sheer demand for a faith rather than for a proof – there can be no ‘proving’ magic, as it were – is left to the culture industry.

            The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. Not only by virtue of modern redefinitions of what constitutes ‘production’ – something that generates capital directly; and yet how can a Tolkien or a Rowling not be seen as producers of impressive capital? – but as well by equally contemporary aesthetic standards; culture as Kultur or Kunst cannot be ‘produced’ in this way. Art either transcends the mundanity of productive history or it presents itself as an horizontal egress from it. The one is sometimes still referred to as ‘serious art’ and the other correspondingly ‘popular’. Fantasy writing etc. occupies the latter, and hence – or is it thence? – so does fantasy itself.

            With approximately 55% female readership, fantasy writing nevertheless has been historically written mostly by men (though one study states that in the first quarter of 2019 female authors accounted for about 60% of the more current publications). Of the women writers covering the last fifty years or so, bracketing possible pseuodonymy either way, about 80% of publications etc. which contain female leads have as their plot a romance centering around that heroine who is from the beginning already fully equipped for the task at hand but has been unfairly denied the opportunity to press on with the necessary quest. She may have been betrayed by her mentor (Sarah Maas’s eight volume cycle is likely the most known example), or she is absented from an important male who actually turns out to be the rightful heir dispossessed (Crusader Kings 3 and other such digital media), or her love interest is driven by the desire to wield power from behind the scenes (Game of Thrones). The ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope dies hard, and that amongst women who should know better.

            Even where ‘enchantment’ in the purely phantasmagorical sense is irrelevant, the fantasy itself continues apace. In the recent Millie Bobbi Brown affair ‘Enola Holmes’, the teenage heroine is again a displaced genius with all of the skills of an unlikely Ninja but with none of the opportunity. Yet the already famed Holmes brothers’ much younger sister, in spite of her tactical heroics, ultimately favors the conservative path of lesser resistance, in disregard of her mother and mentor being a political radical. What the heroine does resist is love, for it is, though authentic, apparently too paternalistically in the way of her chosen vocation. She tells the camera that her name spelled backwards is, after all, ‘alone’, and thus she follows in Sherlock’s footfalls, alone and aloof if not entirely inhumane. The message for youth, especially for young women, is to simply get your due piece of the action as it is, and not to alter anything structural about the system of belief or of production as it is. The unreality of the heroine’s skill set is only matched by that of the plot – there is a moment where she could have, given her martial arts abilities, simply thrown Lestrade out of a third story window and thereby taken her cause into the authentically political; another wherein she is slapped in the face by her oncoming finishing school governess and then cowers before her instead of snapping her neck, and so on – which hurtles along its ludicrous path while purporting to inspire young people to ‘become who they are’. The individuated sense of heroism overtakes the social reforms that occur through her saving of the rightful male (again), a young lord whose vote facilitates a progressive bill for the era, and this in a currently neo-fascist UK that remains nostalgic for empire and tirelessly promotes its historical literature, both serious and popular, as part of its equally tired civil religion. Where female youth continue to attend schools in pleats and where corporal punishment in the home has yet to be outlawed. One is tempted to reply to the Russian minister of defense when he commented that the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II was ‘simply a large target’, that England itself is in fact a much larger one. The fantasy of Britannia as the ocean-ruling-sword-wielding Atlantis is also ‘simply’ the expensive version of Hogwarts. It is furthermore a masculine fantasy that itself wields the topless pale nymph upon its nautical escutcheon as a kind of ironic talisman. Fittingly, we do not see even a hint of Ms. Brown’s cleavage let alone the other, setting the tone for a church-mouse chastity that reminds one of a Victorian Emma Peel. Dame Diana Rigg, herself schooled in a harsh religious institution which she later felt ‘built her character’, resigned from the projected panache of sexualized violence of ‘The Avengers’ after only two seasons. No doubt the role clashed with her own sensible sensibilities which are after all, also Britain’s very own. Male viewers of the time were nevertheless transfixed.

                Male readers of fantasy as revealed by social media studies complain that fantasy heroines are ‘too perfect’ and ‘unrealistic’, though it should be immediately noted that there is no such concern if the leads are male (‘The Witcher’, for example). But patent sexism aside for the moment, the vast majority of fantasy heroines are indeed portrayed as if they were members of some occluded suffragette movement with the quest to take back the prematurely gifted grail of ‘just give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job’. In fact, in the scripts at least, they are already well in possession of the tools. What they lack, so we are told, is the job, any job.

            In spite of the compelling necessity to exeunt from the penury of wage-slavery as well as from the equal pressures of familial piety, consumers of fantasy, no matter the media of presentation, succumb to narratives which only reinforce the very systems from which they seek relief. And within competing brands of fantasy there is also to be found the fraudulent Sturm und Drang of male heroes who exude a toxic masculinity (James Patterson’s ‘Harry Bosch’ must be the recent paragon of this vile type, to stick within the detective genre for a moment; a ‘man’ who threatens to assault his handsome adolescent daughter, perhaps in lieu of having actual sex with her) as if to provide a bellicose balance to the heroines who in their turn exhibit a strangely disloyal selfishness. The customary sensibility that women should be automatically altruistic and engage in self-sacrifice is at first subverted. These ready-made legends carry all before them but even so, their entire redemptive purpose is to restore the male to his rightful place. This too is a tired real-world fantasy that many women have found, with experience, to be both unworthy of whatever skills they do in fact possess, but also, in these days of dishonor and unchivalry, with most men, quite impossible.

            The other 20% of female-authored fantasies which also have female leads are, however, much more realistic. Here we find the young women ill-prepared for the task at hand, unknowing of either the goal of the quest or of the skills necessary to undertake it. This is the model I use in my own epic, by the way. These superior plots recognize that the phase of any quest which is at least of equal importance to the epic action is the learning curve itself, taken on without promise and sometimes even without premise, for the mystery only gradually unfolds before her as she becomes more of an initiate into the other world. Indeed, there is much less fantasy overall in such texts and thus, correspondingly, much more reality, the kind within which persons are faced with in the day to day. Rather than abruptly excerpting the consumer from their sordid mundanity, they impress upon the reader the necessity of self-understanding, which is a form of love, and which as well can only arrive at some kind of authenticity from within the call of conscience. What inhibits this human process is precisely the fascist fantasy we make daily of social reality as it stands, and which has a far greater consumption rate than do even the most famous fantasy cycles or series. Almost all of us consume it, and any escape therefrom – given that it mostly occurs not by virtue of virtuous wizardry but rather through a doubled-over expanse of distracting entertainment ‘events’, from sports to politics to parenting and ‘even’ to education, voluntarism and worship, all hard-ruled by fascist forms and norms whose goal is control Über Alles, and that together seek to define what the human being is and thus what we are capable of being – is had at the cost of changing that world which is at present our own into one more humane in both its scope and meaning.

            My sense of a true heroine who learns to love herself outside of the objectification of ordered obsolescence (James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’), outside of the glare of glamorous Glasglocke (Plath’s self-portrait), and eschewing the too-educated senses of an Austen or a Bronte, the duet of female fantasists of the preceding age, is one who first overturns filial piety, through parricide if necessary, then overtakes the lead male and cuts him down from behind, unexpectedly, ruthlessly, but also with pleasure, the undressed redress of all ‘discipline’ that has been suffered upon young women as the theatre of surrogate sex. My invocation of the true heroine of the nearest future is an orison not to the beyond but to the coming birthright of the days of decision, wherein humanity as a whole will be forced to confront the effects of its own self-made cause. For

                “The unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood. If it must be spilled, then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary and not a reactionary. Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul. Let her joyous judgement be the compassion of our call to conscience. Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance. Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat”. (from Loewen 2020c).

                Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

A musical virtuoso whose shared humanity came across in every note, Edward Van Halen 1955-2020.

In Memoriam: Edward Van Halen

                                    Turned out the simple life, weren’t so simple

                                    When I got out on that road. (Van Halen 1978).

            In his Smithsonian Institution interview, Van Halen spoke of the immigrant story, of a family thrown into an alien world, back in 1962 when the to-be-virtuoso guitarist was a mere seven years old. Not speaking English was the greatest barrier at first, but there would be others. A study in contrasts that nevertheless ended up making eminent sense, Van Halen’s life was defined at the outset as an American dream; unlikely, hard-working, persistent, celebrated, resented, and ultimately cut short by the perennially pallid penury of professional entertainment. He spoke of their debut album, which went on to sell more than ten million copies and usher in a new kind of popular music that blended the angst of punk and the romance of the dance floor, as being the beginning of experience, of lost innocence: ‘we cut a best-selling album, went on a sold-out tour for a year, and when we got back the record company told me, congratulations, you owe us a new album and three million dollars.’

            No life can be said to be simple, no matter what it might look like from without. A musical hero, however brilliant and with an impulsive and improvisatory genius however breathtaking, remains human. And yet that is what I always felt was so compelling about Van Halen’s guitar playing; its resonant humanity. Hendrix was god-like, and one could be forgiven if one imagined that he was something more than human. Howe is distant, unforgiving, beautiful in the way great art is and yet oddly removed from the heart of things. Clapton guttural and bitter, abrasive and sometimes even smug. McLaughlin a single strike through the conscience of consciousness, transporting the listener quite literally to ‘visions beyond’. Metheny cool, even chill, the perfection of a sculptor who renders his music as if it could retain its sonic solidity indefinitely. Of all the virtuosos that come easily to mind, only Eric Johnson, like Van Halen, comes across as a great human being first, his humanity guiding the music and creating an over-souled bond with the listener.

            But Van Halen’s perfection came in the midst of mayhem, banality, and a musical form that would not, at first glance, be a likely birthplace for virtuoso genius. Compared with the other great electric players in the above paragraph, Van Halen as a band was the bread and butter, meat and potatoes variety of music. This too made Edward Van Halen stand out without forcing him to stand apart. Millions showed to see him first, as the feature, the lead, the hero, the star. In the most unlikely of places we are struck by the exactitude of his solos – perhaps the most obvious example would be the utter perfection exhibited in ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ (1979) wherein we are transfixed by seemingly the only series of notes that could elevate a throw-away song into something we would play over and over again; but there are many others – and if Van Halen as a performing act often came across as rock and roll’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, its bombast always had the good graces to never take itself so seriously as to vanish up its own posterior, as did many – if not all – of the biggest acts previous to them.

            I was one of uncounted teenage guitar players fascinated by Van Halen’s technical innovations, attempting to mimic them and feeling inordinately proud when I even came close. And though we are aware that both Hendrix and Hackett regularly used the right-handed ‘hammer-on’ move, for instance, it was Van Halen who perfected it and let it transform the guitar into a broader musical palette. His instrument was inseparable from his person, prefiguring the relations of production in the as yet mythical communism of Marx and Engels, when they speak of the ‘authenticity of the product of labor’. In this too Van Halen was a visionary, and the intriguing mix of juvenilia and critical politics to be found in the actual song-writing of the band is suggestive of a manner of speaking to youth of the difference between things that matter now and those that matter for all time, of some things that matter as much to a mature human life as we as young people might imagine does romance, sex, relationships, money and fame. The band and its blueprint appear to be an essay in confrontation, but by now, after long having the entirety of their catalogue within easy grasp, the whole of what Van Halen was really about appears without such blur.

            And what this whole is, is a kind of freedom from needless and mindless restraint, rule, form and norm. It isn’t simple, just as a human life can never be. To attain a sense of one’s life is to have the courage to get past what has been the past, something that Van Halen never ceased to accomplish. This is the greater freedom of historical being; that history is not yet done. It is a freedom that celebrates its true cause by singing the praises of its passing effects. A freedom that speaks to each generation when it is most receptive of listening, but one which also hopes that in a more sober stage of existence all of us will begin to heed its call and take life itself to be the open and powerful instrument of popular art that Edward Van Halen took to be his own.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The New Mythology is Demythology

The New Mythology is Demythology

     “Life as a whole appears as a fragment insofar as each particular piece of it is naturally only a splinter relative to its form as perfected in autonomous creativity. From this comes the further fact that we can speak of defective art in two entirely different senses. There is defective art, insofar as the work is indeed entirely formed for the sake of the artistic invention and remains within the strict bounds of autocratic artistic forms  – but does not satisfy that immanent demands of art, and is uninteresting, banal, and powerless. And there is defective art, when the work, though perhaps not showing the latter impairments, does not yet fully free its artistic forms from their existence as means to their existence as values in themselves has not yet taken place in absolute measure. This is the case where a tendential, anecdotal, sensually excitative interest resonates as one somehow decisive in the presentation. Here the work may be of great psychic and cultural significance, since for this it need not be bound to the conceptual purity of a particular category. However as art it remains imperfect as long as its formative elements still display something of that significance with which they fit in with the currents of life – however deeply and comprehensively they may have assimilated these currents.” (Simmel 2011:48 [1918] italics the text’s).

            Kristen-Seraphim is defective art. That is, the second of Simmel’s categories. It is so because it does not, and cannot, stand alone as a work of art or as an aesthetic object. Nor was this ever my intent. On the one hand, the conceptual impurity of the work – falling as it does across the fantasy, science fiction, adventure, quest saga, thriller and even romance genres – was only what was necessary, not for the sake of literature, certainly, but for the sake of what Simmel refers to as ‘psychic and cultural significance’, however great or nominal. And second, my sense has always been that adventure fiction can never be art. By definition, because even the idea of adventure itself is bound to content and does not elevate its form beyond itself. Long before I ever sought to become a writer I knew this given my own youthful reading, Enid Blyton, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan-Doyle, C.S. Forester, Jean le Carré, Arthur Clarke, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut and others. Excellent writers all, but not artists. Then again, matriculating a little later later to Balzac, Dickens, Lawrence, Twain, Stendhal, Cervantes and de Sade et al, I didn’t really understand why these guys were somehow better than their middle-brow cousins.

            I do now. After having completed a work which ran through some six thousand pages, none of them literary – there may have been a few good paragraphs here and there – it is precisely Simmel’s distinction that may be applied. If the agency in one’s work is to address the world, then once again by definition it cannot be art. Yet the older and seemingly very dated wisdom ‘art for art’s sake’ is not quite what Simmel is getting at: “Art is our thanks to the world and to life. After both have fashioned the sensory and spiritual forms of our comprehension, we thank them for it as we create a world and a life with their help.” (ibid:164 [1920]). This realization helps immensely with the at first puzzling issue that is contained in great literary works as the discourse defines them. For they too, including all of the authors mentioned in my second list above, sought to address, redress, expose, explain or even resolve worldly problems and contents. Dickens, for example, is famous for it, but so is Lawrence. And when I had the privilege as an illiterate human scientist to teach Cervantes, Shakespeare, De Sade and others in a Great Books Canon program in the USA, I haltingly gained the understanding that while at once did the work hail squarely from within its historical epoch it also overleapt the ‘bounds’ of its respective period, and in so doing, enacted the incipience of what was to come. No more so than Cervantes, whose ‘errant’ hero invented the picaresque, a genre type that lives on today in popular culture protagonists such as Don Draper of Madmen. It would be a stretch, for example, to call Oedipus ‘picaresque’.

            It’s stock to have stand-up characters juxtaposed with dubious ones, a greying of the simpler design of hero and villain. Even the most ruthless of the heroines of Kristen-Seraphim, Seraphim herself, is in love with more than one other person, balancing out her narcissistic love for herself. More current is the idea of having standpoints; asking the question, ‘who is standing for what, where and when and why?’, and so on. Can this character be relied upon in this situation, under these conditions, in the company of these others versus those? The answer must be given situationally, and in this the work is a refraction of the world at large. In adventure fiction, the heroes are inevitably larger than life, as they exist in their own world, the one we have created with the help of the factical life of the world as it is, as Simmel stated. But this alone does not make them party to the aesthetic object. Their fictional lives, in other words, are no closer to art than are our own.

            Critics speak of the ‘identification factor’, suggesting that a good read allows a reader to identify with the hero or someone important within the narrative, at least some of the time. The response to this for those like myself who do not and likely cannot write literary art is to have many characters, some forty plus in Kristen-Seraphim, so that one can cover the bases regarding the widest plausible readership. Even so, the principals in any narrative must be polymythic enough to appeal to anyone who has lived just enough to understand that, as Goethe noted, ‘the devil is quite old’. Another formulaic trick is to extend the narrative over a goodly portion of the life course in order to chart the career of the characters through different phases of their own created existence. In this, the work takes on a life of its own, but it still does not approach art. But unlike in Gogol or Faulkner, for instance, we do not need to repeat indefinitely generational conflicts and lineage bigotries, cultural customs and the unending circuit of the peasant. Could it be that what once was art descends, given historical prejudice, into mere story, mere image, mere content, ‘mere’ history? The general argument runs that ‘once art always art’ but this is clearly not necessarily so, given the discursive careers of figures such as Vermeer and much of contemporary art from the impressionists onwards. And though it is no doubt correct to levy against philosophy and related work that it so seldom ascends the other way, becomes art in itself, one must resist the inevitable resentment that, as a social philosopher myself, for instance, one feels against the defining character of great art. But if the novelist has the daunting task of facing up to Middlemarch or Don Quixote, then writers like myself have the equally intense gaze of Thus Spake Zarathustra or Being and Time eyeing us and finding us more than wanting.

            What can one do in the face of such works, the work itself, world, life, and an understanding that art is at once from the world and yet overcomes that very world to herald the new and to grasp the as-yet-unknowable, just as science is charged with doing the same to the as-yet-unknown? Simmel again:

     “…that one seeks to give his own life a value such that this value may be something subjective, without any real or ideal connection back to the Ego. This is the practical application of the purely spiritual fact that man can make himself into his own object. When we first regard ourselves objectively, we reach the bridge by which to extinguish the Ego altogether and to exist only for the object. The highest intensification of this is creativity. Here, the Ego has not only repressed and forgotten itself in order to exist in and live from the object, but it is metamorphosed into an object. Its powers have themselves become the object – it is now no longer Ego and yet has left nothing of itself behind. In creative achievement, spiritual objectivity has overcome its opposition to the subject – it has absorbed the subject into itself.” (ibid:172-3).

            The idea of a ‘legacy’ is the lesser part of this process. Minkowski (1933) has reminded us that to dwell within the ambit of the creative work, once concluded, is to kill both it and ourselves. One cuts off the future and with it the next world, the one that must come, for the old world now contains that which was once new to itself. ‘Moving on’ is the casual if not causal casualty of loss. Indeed, there must be art ‘out there’ that has as yet gone unrecognized, originating in any time period, coming from any culture. New worlds, in other words, are already extant even if their existence in the old world is as yet part of the radically unknowable. So one cannot truly refer to this or that work as ‘radical’ as well as being ’defective’ as art. Such works that address the world and have the fate of the world as their chief content are rather revolutionary, and not radical. The revolution in Kristen-Seraphim consists of the new mythology being in fact a demythology, which in itself can be radical only in the worldly sense. Not only do we find that the definition of fantasy departs from utility into principal – until now ‘fantasy’ has described means and not ends, for instance (the modus operandi of such adventure fiction never attains its own metaphysics, let alone threatens it; phantasmagorical means and characters alike are there merely to either defend or attack the good-evil spectrum) – and thus the ontotheology of the fantasy genre, from Lewis to Pullman, is overcome, we also find that the social order defended therein is itself dismantled. If metaphysics requires of us radicality, then it is the lesser, revolutionary mode that is needed in the face of cultural institutions. Ideas cannot be killed in the same way. Demythology is the halfway house of revolution. Kristen-Seraphim brings home a new world and makes one at home within it, but it cannot claim to have utterly understood ‘nature’ or to have overleapt it. What it has accomplished is to have understood – and vanquished – the nature of morality as one literary genre has supplied it.

            The heroines and heroes of the new mythology are hardly upstanding in the usual sense. Their nobility is restive, their rest unquiet, their deaths equivocal and their resurrections awkward. They eventually triumph, but what is the true nature of their collective victory? “Who claims to recognize surely where the truth of my nature lies?” Simmel asks us. “Perhaps it becomes visible only in one single hour of my existence.” He is here speaking against the usual differences that are connoted by good and evil, and as did Nietzsche before him, senses that our new world, and thus our new myths, must leave them behind: “This whole distinction is most problematic. The person is at one time thus and another otherwise, and only optimism or pessimism about our own value moves us to conclude merely from the more frequent appearance of a specific quality that one resides in principal in a different characterological or metaphysical layer than the other. That this possibility of life, to be really entirely good or really entirely bad, exists; that we are not inwardly divided into layers of different ethical-metaphysical depths of being so that one act falls unalterably into the fundamental, the other into the superficial – this is human freedom.” (ibid:132-133 [1918], italics mine).

            The new demythology is dedicated to human freedom in all of its uncertainty and aspiration, its doubts and its hopes. In book seven, the second Kristen reflects: “For life was not meant to be lived as such. Life not only wasn’t art, as many an artist himself had discovered over time, it also wasn’t meant to continuously be larger than itself, as many a politician and the like had discovered. No, life was meant only to be lived, but in that word ‘only’ lay the secret of the good life. ‘The demands of the day’, she quoted again.” Simmel interprets this proverb of Goethe’s to mean much more than whatever the material day brings to us. It ‘proceeds from the deepest inner life’  which tells us of the next step, and then the next, without revealing what is to come before this point (ibid:109). It is the ‘life of the Ought’, and in this all of us live like heroes. For the Ought is larger than our own life and directs if not our actions per se, then the obligatory nature of the meaning we understand from taking them. Early on in book six we find the same character given pause by her community’s potential complacencies: “The heroes themselves turn into those they destroyed because of their self-centered adoration of the unthought freedom of the present.” Like ourselves, the fictional characters are not always prepared to meet the demands of the day, either on the surface of the world or in the depths of being. Their own beings. Even so, one of the hallmarks of heroism is that when the bell is rung, they do respond because they know, if not the full meaning of their actions to come, horrifying as some of them turn out to be, where meaningfulness must be found in life. In book seven the first Michelle intones: “I can tell you this: we are here in Paris by happenstance, mimicking the great chain of non-being that has brought every one of us to live a human life. Deny that, in any way, shape, or form, and you are denying the basis of life itself, the essence of all life.” Just so, our birthright and our demise is of the moment, a demand of this day like any other. We neither ask to be born nor ask to die, Gadamer reminds us, and it is this combination, to which philosophers refer as being part of the essence of human finitude, that impels the heroic figure to impale herself upon the day, so that what is at hand can be taken into one’s human hands and given both form and meaning.

            If not, if we do not act heroically in spite of the fact that life can never be by itself either art or myth, we are left with musings alone, realizations that limit not only action but living as well. Life remains merely a dream, and as we read in book eight: “Not many people yet realized that the self who dreams is not the same self who then wakes and lives out the day, day after day. And in such dreams from which we do awaken – and indeed, there are those additional to the unconscious from which we never again emerge – what, perchance, remains of the days within which all dreams come to grief?” The heroes are, of course, about to find out, but what certifies their heroism is that they bear up the fear associated with ‘being the new’. This is also what takes them ‘beyond good and evil’ and into the truer, if still human, nature of freedom itself.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty-five books in ethics, religion, education, and aesthetics. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades in both the USA and Canada.

Learning how to be Properly Anxious

Learning How to be Properly Anxious

Anxiety proper is part of our core being, just as is care, resoluteness, and the ‘being-ahead’ which orients us to the future and our own singular finitude. It must be separated from anxieties, plural, which have to do with the concerns of the day. It is an alert mechanism, can initiate the call of conscience, and mediates between the unconscious surreal language of dreams and the like and our conscious self-understanding. It is the personal ‘effectiveness’ of historical consciousness insofar as it can be relied upon to make us more aware of our present situation.

Just as an existential analysis prefers the present in understanding the state of being, the consciousness of ‘Dasein’ – being-there or being-in-the-world –  and its possible entanglements, so does any phenomenology of the altered perceptions anxieties, remorsefulness, and nostalgia brings about within Dasein. But what is the present, after all? It cannot be summed explicitly, for any attempt to do so, somewhat proverbially, takes us into the realm of reflection upon something that has already occurred. Danto suggests that we live in a ‘posthistorical’ period because we no longer possess a ‘narrative of the present’ (cf. 1993:138), but I think also in part this sensibility subsists because of a sensitivity we maintain regarding the ‘just before’ or the beforehand. Such a sensitivity is also ironically present and maintains its presence in part because of the prevalence of both anxieties and nostalgias in our social world. Not enough remorse, to be sure, but otherwise a fair display of remorsefulness, for the benefit of others and the looking-glass selfhood. If anxieties are distractions, they at least have the merit of drawing our attention to an ad hoc concernfulness which might lead to the more authentic variety. But nostalgia is just plain ugly. Even so, just as there may be no beauty to be discovered either by science or philosophy, (cf. Heidegger 1992:152 [1925]), we cannot simply rest with such a casual judgment upon what appears as its opposite. And if the social world is often ugly, the world itself is not. Nor is it, as the supposedly heroic thinker or scientist  might imagine, ‘apathetic’ (cf. Binswanger 1963:171). Though Lucas speaks here of the lost moments of ‘personalist idealism’, including most famously that of Lotze, it is in principle better to have one’s thought ‘examined and refuted’ rather than simply fading away to be mentioned only in arcane and advanced histories of one’s respective vocation (cf. 1993:112). This kind of apathy we can ill afford. Better to restate and defend the idea that “…all modes of human existence and experience believe they are apprehending, something of the reality of being, in the sense of truth, and do so, indeed, in accordance with their own proper ‘forms of reason’, which are not replaceable by or translatable into other forms.” (Binswanger, loc. cit:173, italics the text’s). Binswanger is lauded by Fromm-Reichmann, who states that the former applauds the ‘constructive aspect of anxiety’, and the ‘tension aroused’ in a person who is determined therefore and thereby to ‘face the task set by the universe’, the universal task and the ‘action’ that is called forth by it (1960:139 [1955]). This is itself resoluteness guided by care. It is not only authentic to the Dasein it is how Dasein must needs ‘apprehend’ the world. One must beware the ‘temporalization of counterconcepts’ so that one does not ‘abolish’ otherness (cf. Koselleck 1985:165 [1969]), and phenomenology is not immune to such ‘temporal loading’ in its exploration of the reciprocity of perspectives. It may also be the case that entropy itself, seemingly non-reciprocating and ‘one-way’ is neither isolated or of course, ‘perpetual’ (cf. Horwich 1988:65). Nostalgia attempts to arrest entropy inasmuch as it desires to do the same for history. Remorse does so in a more ’subjective’ manner, whilst everyday anxiety disregards the temporality of the act and thus hamstrings our own ability to both react and to take the kind of action resolute being must engage in.

But all of this is given the lie by an examination of our shared condition and the experience thereof and therein. Part of our existence is ‘strange’, is even strangeness itself, since we are the sole creature known to have lost our ‘nature’, in both the sense that we are no longer apart of the wider natural realm as well as seemingly having departed from any sense that we can come home to ourselves in a manner bereft of culture or cultures. As Puech suggests, the presence of this sense of Ungeheuer tells us that we have not always been what we are at present (cf. 1957:73 [1951]). But what is revealed by this disconnect is our ability to ‘have conscience’, to ‘choose the presupposition of being of itself’, or more simply, ‘choose itself’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:319). Running along towards death, this ‘forerunning’ is in fact “…the choice of willing to have conscience.” (ibid). This is a momentous discovery. Not only does it allow human reason to engage in itself, it contravenes and stands against all forms of entanglement and regression. Its ‘care’ does not stand for it, and thus it becomes resolute. It may not be “…the final trace of the ontological proof of God…” (Adorno, op. cit:133), but it most certainly is the core of being human as well as the ethical essence of becoming humane. The call of conscience is a reveille that enacts Anxiety proper. We do not at once care, but we can do so given the Aufklärung that is at once an enlightenment. Just as all great art begins in scandal, so “The law of scandal answers the law of the ‘false consciousness’.” (Ricoeur, op. cit:281). The scandal of art, of thought, even its evil, according to convention at least, must be present as a manifestation of Anxiety proper and as a bulwark, chiding, mocking, satiring, but most of all, critiquing, anything that would backslide into a regressed state; nostalgia, remorsefulness or regretfulness, and the decoy of anxieties. It too does not rest with a pedigree that culminates in an origin myth. Archaeology exposes what is left of the truth of things, both psychoanalytically if taken within the fullest light of the recent, as well as more literally; the history of humanity as buried but still grounded nonetheless. These spaces, subterranean and occlusive, are indeed what contemporary art, in all of its scandal, represents: “If modern art is characterized by the disintegration of external reality and an activation of the transpersonal psychic world, it becomes understandable that the artist should feel a compulsion to depict the powers in their own realm…” (Neumann 1957:31 [1950]). This is a kind of externalized ‘disposition’, a finding of Dasein in its own being and in its ‘own there’ (cf. Heidegger, loc. cit:255). The psychic realm is often unobservable in any direct fashion. Aside from jokes and linguistic ‘slips’, dreams known only to the sleeper, and other faux pas, art is the most potent expression of a shared subjectivity which has overcome the bonds of an also shared subjection. In literature, the new mythos evolves in a similar manner: “Once the hero is no longer an innocent child, but a young adult fighting for values not yet socially accepted, the plot can finally dispense of its fairy-tale-judicial framework.” (Moretti 1987:215). Such values can of course ‘become nonsense and even outrage’, “…but it also forces us to seek a new meaning, to revive our scale of values.” (Dardel 1960:587 [1958]). This is, by definition, the necessary counterpunch to any form of regression: “…that the experience of loss of self and loss of the sense of subject-object relations is a loss of a certain kind of anxiety generated self-consciousness; it is a creative rather than a regressive movement.” (Fingarette 1960:576 [1958]). This is obviously more than the acceptance and even slight fatalism suggested by Shaw’s famous quip regarding ‘making the family skeletons dance’ (cf. Erikson, op. cit:41). In fact “It is not an anxious interrogation on our discouraging historicity, on our way of living and sliding along in time, but rather a reply to this ‘historical’ condition – a reply through the choice of history…” (Ricoeur, op. cit:25).

The outcome of this ‘choice’ is crucial, for we can choose an end due to the wrong means, or one can reverse the two of them, or yet engage in tasks that make them seem co-extant or even identical. Unethical means are said to ethically affect the end, as well as perhaps more logistically, effect it. But unethical ends that look like means are surely the more dangerous: “One wants to break free of the past: rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.” (Adorno 1998:89 [1963]). So the hero, the being who is still young but may be socially considered an adult even so, must not only root out what is hidden in her inherited world, but must hide herself within that world as if it were both cloak and cape at once. The ‘when and how’ of means and ends within this quest may not even be visionary or epic, allegorical or mythic, or all of these at once. They may exact their truth of both departure and terminus in the smallest moments of self-realization, of a Dasein which cares with each step of its being. There will always be resistance, but most heroic quests do not involve the ‘Worldcraft’ of a total transfiguration. And if it is in the very ‘nature of crises’ to go unresolved, at least for an indeterminate amount of time, what cannot be predicted as a future outcome knows still that such a crisis will itself end, one way or another. (cf. Koselleck 1988:127 [1959]). And we also know that “In the form of memory and hope, for example, past and future consist in the fact that something other than natural change takes place in the now, namely, reflection.” (Lampert 2012:87). And finally, as Wood reminds us, though judgments may emanate out of both recollection and retrospection, the ‘horizon they celebrate is that of the future’ (1989:89). We have in fact overcome something, mostly ourselves, no doubt, but also a piece of the world of action and the world that has engaged us to ourselves engage in inertia-defying action. Our heroine may make a fool of herself during her quest, and this is indeed inevitable, but its necessity rests as well upon the perception of the others to whom she must communicate the new tables of value: “The spontaneous, unreflecting attitude of the young fool enables him to maintain himself in the heart (center) of time.” (Wilhelm 1957:222 [1950]). Certainly, one must ‘accept one’s life’ in order to exercise a ‘genuine freedom in the present’ (cf. Shabad, op. cit:124), but equally so, the ‘anxiety about remaining normal’ must be overcome, overleapt, even transcended (cf. Canguilhem, op. cit:286). Indeed, “The menace of disease is one of the components of health.” (ibid:287). For a society, the menace of insurrection, subversion, scandal and yes, even evil, are necessary features that youth, especially, bring to the historicity and facticity alike of both being and world. The ‘sociality’ of this mediative limen, that which must be crossed – in the sense of ‘no crossing at this point’ versus the heroine’s ‘don’t tread on me’ – is a fulfillment on the order of the momentous forerunning.

Dasein, before its own completion, has itself completed the death of an aspect of its world (cf. Heidegger 1962:288 [1927]). It is specifically through such heroic deeds that the Dasein becomes ‘ripe before its death’ (ibid). It is ontologically the case that ‘No one can take the Other’s dying from him’ (ibid:284). Why would we care to? The hero ‘dies’ before ‘his time’ in this way. He has taken his own death and run into it well before the horizon of the future has made its final approach. This is, subjectively, a scandal, but objectively, so to speak, an evil. It is the ‘art of dying’, the celebration of life at its most ripe. This fruit is sweet beyond words, and no aftertaste lingers to sully its sweetness. Since Dasein’s only ‘experience with death’ is as a ‘Being with Others’, (cf. ibid:281), this is ‘objectively’ the case for Dasein as well. But this is still not an experience of one’s ownmost death and can never be. To experience this one must become the hero first, to live as Anxiety and as the apprehending, while maintaining a disentangled being, for of course, the whole impetus to scandalous revolution and thence transfiguration is the realization that one is a prisoner, a slave, a servant, a maiden. It is a human realization because slavery is a human institution, a way of organizing our relationships and no one else’s. Just so, the ‘false consciousness’ that pervades species slavery is answered by ‘the law’ of a scandal that appears evil. But in fact it is beyond both good and evil at once, for it has acted consciously, perhaps for the first time: “Truth does not emanate from ‘the nature of things’; it requires a decree of the mind, a decision about life that runs a risk in order to partake of the truth.” (Dardel, op. cit:591). This risking is not only apparent in hermeneutically inclined dialogue, but in every ‘having of’ a new experience in an equally hermeneutic sense. The newness of this experience is a microcosm of revolution, just as every thought enacted and reflected outside the boundedness of the conventional and the slavish sensitivity to change is also radical to what has been. Anxiety proper overtakes anxieties plural, and the remorse momentarily present at the loss of the old life is itself overcome by resoluteness. There is no turning back, but there is also no need to do so. It is the very essence of the human adventure to leave all things behind it and to engage in all things that come to it, no matter their character. Only through this does the human character itself emerge and make the history which is its own. Here, the last word belongs appropriately to Kierkegaard (op. cit:255) himself: “I will say this is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing to anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, social philosophy and social psychology, religion and aesthetics.

To Still a Talking Turd? (maybe not); Peel School District and Harper Lee

I  was recently placed in the unenviable position of agreeing with an interpretation that was subsequently enforced by Draconian and anti-democratic measures. When Peel School District in greater Toronto announced that from here on in, the official manner of teaching Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mocking Bird would be lensed through an ‘anti-oppression’ rubric, I was both disconcerted and delighted. That the text appears to be some kind of ‘white man’s burden’ propaganda, dear to all liberal hearts who imagine that heroism comes from taking up a cause due to irrevocable deficits on the part of those so benighted  – from the cognitively disabled black defendant to the obsequiously slatternly and slavish servant; are these characters not metaphors for how white persons imagined blacks at the time and beyond? – that they require their very oppressor to free them from their bondage, and on his terms, presents a problem. The bravado masculinity of the lawyer and the cliché naivety of his daughter round out most of the narrative stage. In a word, the book stinks. And yet it still speaks to us. It is, if you will, a ‘talking turd’.

But to still its voices, to narrow the interpretive lens to such a degree that other things that just might be in this book somewhere, or any book, is to step uncomfortably close to the very social frameworks that are sourced in the attitudes the book seems to represent. One correct way, one lens. Beyond this, to attempt to enforce this through official suasion within a set of institutions dedicated to learning, consciousness, knowledge, and ultimately, human freedom, is ironic at best. Teachers who were interviewed fear that this is but the opening salvo in a war against the written word, cannons versus canons. I think this at least is premature. There is no evidence Peel SD is out for the lifeblood of the Western literary world. But their actions still presented a puzzle. Why not simply issue a statement regarding the text itself? It could contain what I think is a strong argument that the book is a piece of internecine colonialism and a decoy against structural change. That it was recently voted as the best American novel of all time is not, as one journalist had it, an indirect indictment against Peel SD, but rather is suggestive of the plausibility that racism in the USA has not altered much since c. 1960 as well as of a general illiteracy throughout the American public.

It is the scandal of art that evidences its relevance and its radicality. But popular art can play at scandal while in fact defending social institutions as they currently are. Much popular music charts this duplicitous course, its apparent critiques commoditized and glamorized in a way that serious art eschews. Not that we do not try to assuage the world in the face of thought and art. The art market, especially for paintings, has never been more lucrative. Even so, the effect of art, the aesthetic object, is to provide a consistent and even constant objection to the way things are. In short, it is its own lens. Very often, the content of such lenses are in themselves vulgar – Lolita comes immediately to mind – or they are sentimental – Romeo and Juliet – or are yet updates on ancient parables – East of Eden. Lee’s content is secondary to its quality as a cultural artifact, like these other works. But just here, we have to confront the bad conscience that the book avoids so scrupulously, just as Lolita, for instance, avoids the wider issue of age-related lust simply by having the protagonist, if he can be labelled such, a criminal.

The thoughtful response to any sign of the halting process of species maturity is to open these questions up as radically as possible. Works of would-be art that provide rationalizations for wider iniquities and disquiet can serve such a purpose, perhaps at most. Nevertheless, it is a noble purpose. This or that work can always be reduced to a precise if narrow editorial, popular or serious. Harry Potter? Arthurian romance meets the tuck shop. Narnia? Not-so-cunning soteriological sop. Or yet my own Kristen-Seraphim; X-Rated Enid Blyton. Surely there is more to it, and it is up to educators to discover that more, just as we charge our scientists to discover more of that cosmic truth in which all of us remain enveloped. So as with other discourses, the duty of educational administrators is to radically encourage their pedagogic colleagues to open up the texts at hand and to never shy away from scandal, even evil, for within the realm of the arts, both of these effects are salutary to an enduring human freedom.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books and is one of Canada’s leading contemporary thinkers.