The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler

                        The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler

                No more wooing, voice you’re outgrowing that don’t let your cry

                                be a wooing cry even though it could be as pure as a bird’s

                                that the season lifts up as she herself rises nearly forgetting

                                that it’s just a fretful creature and not some single heart

                                to be tossed towards happiness deep into intimate skies.

                                Like him you want to call forth a still invisible mate

                                a silent listener in whom a reply slowly awakens

                                warming itself by hearing yours to become

                                your own bold feeling’s blazing partner.

– Rilke, from Seventh Elegy

            It is at once remarkable but also commonplace to understand great historical movements as being borne on the shoulders of specific individuals who themselves seem to be placed beyond history. This is misleading on the level of historical consciousness, wherein we come to understand our own times through the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ and the ‘fusion of horizons’, often aesthetic in character. At the same time, with the most superior visions of humankind, one finds culminations expressed by singular persons who have themselves been embraced by the entire history of their chosen art. In music, we have four such figures from whom everything else in their respective centuries followed; in the seventeenth century, Monteverdi, in the eighteenth, Bach. For the nineteenth century, it was Beethoven who gave birth to the ideas the rest of the music of that century took up, and in the following century, it was Gustav Mahler. That both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw competing and somehow ‘dualistic’ interpretations of these origins – Brahms versus Wagner and then Schoenberg versus Stravinsky – only suggests that there were at least two essential elements already present in the original. In Beethoven, the ‘classicism’ and the ‘romanticism’, in Mahler, the tonal and the ‘atonal’. But in fact these elements are mere glosses, refracting much more profound essences present in the art at hand. For music in our modern era has been about the disquiet distances with which contemporary humanity is both burdened and challenged.

            What do I mean by this ‘distance’? We have a longing, expressed in the gap between self and other, individual and society, mind and body, spirit and nature and so on, which is unique to our modernity. Less profound, but still profoundly disturbing, are the distances that separate the genders, citizen and State, nation and nation, rich and poor. All of these distances combined are said to produce in us a kind of subjective alienation, that which Durkheim referred to as ‘anomie’. At the heart of this unease, communicating itself to us as an inability to bridge this or that gap and the corresponding assignment of blame for such ongoing failures, is the very sense that I should be myself and no other. This selfhood, this ‘fretful creature’ is indeed no ‘single heart’. And we are not so much thrown up as of our own volition, but rather, as Heidegger proverbially and repetitively states, thrown into the arc of worldhood. We are thrown beings, and our being-thrownness declares to us both our birth and death. We glimpse this existential caveat through the sense that much of ‘life’ is beyond our daily control. Certainly the machinations of nations, the coruscations of corporations, even the emotions of one’s beloved, lie elsewhere than within my grasp. We are responsible for these ‘events’ and acts only insofar as we act in concert with them, abet them, or ignore them. Yet ultimately, even with the deepest compassion and most critical voice, they escape our possession. This is the distance of distanciated being, which is necessary to the modern person given his existence as an individuality.

            We would likely not trade in that kind of self-consciousness for other versions of being human, embodiments we associate with previous ages or cultures past. On the one hand, this may serve as a salve, a tool by which one might reconcile one’s sense of thus being ‘stuck with’ oneself as one is. Even so, the shared consciousness of mechanical solidarity escapes us, the idea of becoming an automaton rightfully revolts us, and the sensibility that, though a self, our whole reason of being is to exist for the other, is a difficult ethic. Indeed, we might well suggest that a neighbor figure who was always in the mode of ‘being neighborly’ could no longer distinguish herself from the socius of normative daily life. In a word, the radical act of the neighbor would be no longer available to us if the neighbor itself became a social role. So distanciated being is the lot of we moderns, if for no other reason than there are no other models that appeal to us.

            Given this, the dual complexes of elements that we harbor within our individuated breasts must somehow be reconciled. The individual may engage in all sorts of activities that promote ‘wholeness’, including forms that often hail from a metaphysics different from our own, such as meditation. Within Western consciousness, however, it has been the role of art to transcend opposites and oppositions alike. And when this transcendence appears to not merely overlook the structure of existence, its birth and its death, its light and its dark, but to actually combine the two essences into a new element, we are in the presence of the greatest art of all. This is the case in the music of Mahler.

            Bernstein’s epic and deeply felt commentary on Mahler 9 is well known and well taken. He stresses the dualistic nature of both the man and his art. Yet what is left out is equally important, if not more so, and indeed supports not only the argument that Mahler was working with and working through the most basic elements and forces of life and Being, but in fact overcoming them, transfiguring them into a novel expression of human consciousness. Just so, the ability to do precisely this is the essence of the distinction we make between consciousness in general and that of which we, as human beings, are in possession. Mahler 9 has been iterated as being ‘about’ death and the ultimate inability of humanity to overcome its own innate mortality. Yes and no. As a set piece, the ninth is in itself a compendia of the past and future, of soaring transcendental, if also heartbreaking, tonality and searing unearthly dissonance and partial atonality; life and death in their mortal embrace. But as part of a life’s work, Mahler 9 is simply the sibling work to his previous symphony – though the cycle ‘The Song of the Earth’ was written in between them, almost as a chaperone of sorts, a liminality; a threshold into which one can step from both sides, as it were – and just as Mahler 8 expressed the inexpressible joy and verdure of the fullest life possible to human consciousness, so Mahler 9 provides us with the sorrow of that same life, equally overfull and too powerful for the quotidian senses of rational being. In Mahler’s own terms, it was never death per se but rather more specifically, the death of love, that imbricated the ninth. The death of love, inversing and balancing the Wagnerian paean which exhorts the love of death, is in fact the more difficult challenge for we humans. For all must die, and in that sense death is most impersonal and anonymous. But to face death in a more intimate and very much personal manner one has to lose love and when one does not desire to do so.

            The expression of transcendental love in Mahler 8 is simply balanced by that same expression of its absence in the ninth. There, we die whilst yet still alive, and yet life without joy has both no merit but also is no longer life. At this point another important ‘dualistic’ contrast should be noted: the eighth is arguably the greatest work of art ever created but it is tremendously difficult for the ensemble and conductor, whereas the listener is transported into 90 plus minutes of infinite bliss; contrast this with the ninth, which is easier on the musician – though by no means easy! – and correspondingly infinitely more difficult for the listener. If an ensemble can make it through Mahler 8 they can make it through anything. If the listener can survive Mahler 9 they can survive any other work. Perhaps there are technically more demanding works for both musicians and audience – Schoenberg’s Opus 31 comes readily to mind – but there are no more demanding works existentially than Mahler’s two final completed symphonies. Our very being is at stake, and we must rise to the occasion on both counts.

            With that in mind, it is also well to recall that Mahler himself, though he was, as Bernstein points out for instance, well aware of his imminent demise, did not throw himself over the cliff in any premature manner. He kept conducting, writing, mending fences with his estranged wife, teaching and promoting musical talent, and touring right up until close to the end. Mahler, in his ability to live the life he was granted, remains a role model for us no matter our relative talent. His own humanity, though somehow able to access the pinnacle of human achievement and recreate it time after time, remained both his own and thus also our own. Mortality can advance itself on the one hand as a personal threat, and this is the atmosphere of the ninth, wherein we feel every base emotion and existential fundament; the glaring, striding, unimpeachable power of the first movement, the risus sardonicus of the intervening scherzos, the shimmering otherworldliness of the final farewell, all of this in a dialectic which seems nothing human uplifts the light and dark into a chiaroscuro and in doing so, overcomes the very chiasmus that gave birth to humanity’s oppositional ‘nature’. But in the eighth, mortality is advanced as a creative force, that all life might well ‘become immortal’ through dying many times, as Nietzsche intoned. Mahler was a profound reader of Nietzsche, though of course they regrettably never met, in contrast to the fact that Mahler and Freud knew one another. Mahler 8 expresses first the previous understanding of existence, the Imago Dei of revealed religion at its most noble. In the second part, we have moved from God to Goethe, from the old metaphysics to that of our own age, and as murky as some of this millennial author’s metaphors can be, they nevertheless are themselves transfixed and transformed into an art that can be understood by all.

            The ‘marriage of light and dark’ is a hallmark of modernity. Yes, the twentieth century, so absolutely foreseen and understood by Mahler the aesthetic prophet, was indeed the century of death. Mahler 9 expresses this horrifying vision to us, but not as an acceptance thereof. It is a warning, an enlightenment or ‘Aufklarung’, an alarm bell, a Tocsin. It does not warn us of the imminence of death, for we already understand this condition as our own. It rather provides a caveat that tells us ‘do not make death into an immanence’. That is, do not allow death to ascend any higher than does life, do not let it attain an immanent domain into which we as a species-being would be swallowed. And though we have been on that brink more than a few times in past one hundred years or so, we have retained the sensibility that life should be ‘about’ joy, love, and even transcendence of itself, as contradictory as that may sound. If death is then somehow more ‘real’ to us, it bespeaks first of the distance between our realities and our ideals. The rationalization that one ends a life to save another is also real, if ethically strained. What is at stake is a conflict which remains at the horizontal level of the elements Mahler uplifted and combined. Differing opinions, beliefs, genders, cultural communities, competing nations, the perennial war of classes, all of these and others gainsay their very vocation through the medicated brevity they provide to their actors; ‘actors of their own ideals’, to once again reference Nietzsche.

            Mahler’s art speaks differently to these regards. Though the dialectic of elemental forces culminates in his final works, it was always present, something that commentators have sometimes forgotten. The contrast between distraction and focus, folk art and transcendental art in Mahler 1. The overcoming of death through love in the second and the dialogue between nature and culture in the third, Mahler’s ‘most personal of works’, as he himself put it, and the one in which Nietzsche’s work is most directly used. The dangerous decoy of feeling and atmosphere in the fourth, where we are placed on a too sunny shoreline, our backs turned to the conflict of interpretations by which human life lives its days, and the first signs of the ultimate dialectic between death, including the death of love, and life triumphant in the fifth. In the sixth, the death of the hero, the soteriological compassion and passion combined of the hero’s beloved companion, the menace of a too gendered socialization – in the third movement of Mahler 6, his own children, an older boy and a younger girl, play with one another and yet also play with the elemental forces of life and death corresponding to their essential Goethean ‘natures’ – and finally, just before we are taken into the depths of the very cosmos Mahler has opened up for us, the interplay and contrast between animal nature and the civil humanity of the salon culture in the seventh. Bird calls punctuating a forest trek, and yet chamber music to soothe an after dinner digestion, nothing escaped Mahler’s musical lens. That we are in his debt regarding our very understanding of the modern condition which is our shared predicament is an ongoing understatement.

            Even so, the towering figures of art, to a person, would not have suggested that their accomplishments represent the end of anything. Mortality as a creative force, life as the interregnum wherein creative work may be sought, and all of this as an unending principle of existence, this is the message of dialectically transcendental art. Mahler expresses this aspect of universal consciousness to us, through his singular works which retain their absolute relevance more than a century later. Who will be the next singular figure, the one from whom our own century’s music shall proceed apace? Perhaps it will be a woman this time, which is one important part of this intriguing question. But whomever it will be, the same forces will be at work in her efforts, and the same dialectic of transcendence will need to be accomplished. For us lesser beings, we too must come to grips with the polar forces animating our existence as both individuals and as a culture history writ into the wider, if still woefully provincial, consciousness of our time. If we take just one step in each of our lives to broaden that view, we will have advanced the maturity of our shared species and will have made ourselves more worthy of the gift that the art of ages has bestowed upon us.

            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 f the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In Defense of Pornography as a Theater of Human Freedom

Senator aims to curb ‘violent’ porn, pitches mandatory age verification for online sites | CBC News

In Defence of Pornography as a Theatre of Human Freedom

            In the Mad-TV satire ‘What Men Want’, a woman steps into the original Mel Gibson role as the gender-reversed script ambles along its expected course, this time with the woman being able to hear the men’s innermost thoughts in her own head. The answer is simple, and in one scene, where the narrator says farewell to her dying grandfather, she intones: ‘I’ll miss you grandpa’. He replies, ‘I’ll miss you too, sweetie – (then silently) But not as much as I’ll miss porn!’. For men in particular this could be interpreted as a ‘me too’ moment, but however that may be, I will argue in the following why society as a whole might well miss pornography and erotica more than we may at first imagine.

            My experience with pornography-erotica, call it what you will, tells me I am consuming an aspect of base culture. As theatre, mostly plotless and with acting culled from an underground high school yearbook activity, it receives a solid ‘D’ rating. As sex itself, it is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and attempts to win one over – whatever that may entail – with grandstanding (mostly) youth showing off. It is no surprise that, as with athletics, anything that so intensely involves the body as a physical vehicle should be the basic preserve of youth. And sadly, in our society, this is mostly what youth have to offer; their pristine and charming physiques. Pornography is in all aspects juvenile, from its representations of youth by those far older to its motives. It is at source about money and not about sex, so it is also essentially dishonest. Given this, why defend it at all?

            Though it cannot be defended as an aesthetic object, I suggest that it must be defended as an ethical one. At first, this seems a contradiction. While art is likely the highest expression of human freedom, attaining a status that transcends even history by communicating perennial truths of the human condition to and from diverse periods and variations thereof, the portrayal of sexuality alone speaks at best only of desire and passion. What is missing in pornography is the Gestalt of humanity; its passions, some certainly present, but also its compassions, which are wholly absent; its desires yes, but also alongside, its anxieties. It is therefore also not an ethical ‘object’. But what pornography does contain is a potent ethical objection to the self-imposed limitations we humans have a tendency to exert upon ourselves and others. Working from the simple premise that if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out – turn off the e-device but only for thine own self – any ethical objection to that which serves to place social norms and institutional orders into perspective must be applied first to one’s own self-understanding. As soon as it attempts to dictate what others shalt or shalt not do it strays over the line of ethics and into the space of fascism. And this is precisely the line that any call for the policing of the viewing of pornography based on age-related limits is doing.

            Creeping fascism always plays the same tired game, and it is astonishing that, given recent history, we are still attracted to it. ‘I’m not trying to shut the porn industry down, I’m only trying to protect our children.’ In Canada, anyone twelve years old and above is legally entitled to have actual sex. There are a few reasonable age restrictions between twelve to fifteen, but the principal is clear. Youth (12-17) is its own category under Canadian law, as distinct from children (2-11). The fact that youth are no longer subject to being forced into surrogate sex with adults through corporal punishment underscores this separation. France remains a rare European country that has not banned this practice, so is it surprising that it is one country cited in the above article that seeks to ban viewing of sexual material by minors? For the French, apparently, youth are to remain sexual objects in the service of adults and can have little or no sexual agency of their own. Canadians are better than that, and by ‘better’, I mean, more ethical. The call to criminalize youth sexuality is both a regression and an expression of adult ressentiment specifically against the hard fact of the loss of our own youth and the future of humanity more generally. But by calling attention to the nostalgic and altogether deliberately naïve idea that young people are somehow not sexual beings and need to be ‘protected’ from sexuality until they are eighteen, the fascist attempts to take on the guise of guardian angel. ‘Save the children!’ He cries, from themselves, from evil adults, from evil itself!

            Anyone who agrees with this kind of suggestion is committing the ethical error of projecting one’s own vain desires onto young persons. Pornography too exhibits these desires – ‘discipline’ sites are the most obvious expression thereof; why else would we be attracted to the idea that youthful looking actors should portray the very minors we are supposedly seeking to protect? Why would such roles always be those that require such discipline: physical, sexual, and political? – and in so doing it provides young people with an important insight: we adults want to harm you because you represent all that we have lost, including beauty, guilelessness, openness, and spirit. We might even hate you, but alas, direct hate crime is already illegal in Canada and thus we must express our dark passions in another way: limit your freedom, your sexual liberation, your mischievous fun. Portray you as disobedient pests who, if you can no longer be beaten in reality, at least you can be allegorized as being beaten in virtuality. Just so, to suppress your knowledge of how we actually think of you is one of the core reasons for banning youth access to pornography.

            All fascists fear exposure of their true desires. These include ultimate control and the possession of a singular authority. They too know God is dead, but unlike more modest persons, they’re quite willing to fill in with the hope of making it a permanent situation. Hence the real ‘creeps’ in our society are not so much the relatively rare on-line child ‘groomers’ or molesters but rather the much less rare closet fascist who shows us just enough flesh so that we are distracted from noting the bones in behind him. He always begins with seemingly the most reasonable premise and this ‘foot in the door’ technique is also dishonest: ‘our children are vulnerable’ (And why so? Because we tend to control and baby them beyond their years lived). He uses seemingly reasonable analogies which turn out to be spurious: ‘films have limited access’ (In public only. Anyone can view an R-rated film without the fear of invasive criminalization in private and internet viewing is always already in private). He leaves out his true demands: ‘I’m only talking violent porn, here’ (in age-restricting porn sites you lose access to all porn, not just the minor percentage of it that might qualify as ‘violent’). He represents himself as reasonable: ‘I know this is a delicate topic’ (So was the so-called Jewish Question). The limits which are in place walk the actually delicate line between impinging upon hard-won and truly fragile democratic freedoms and the advice of child development experts and discourses: here’s some warnings and judge accordingly; some children might be disturbed by this or that material, others not, or yet some parents themselves might be warned off. Indeed, if I were to support age-restrictions on sexual material I would place them between the ages of 12 and 40. Anyone under or over those ages would not be permitted to view it. On the one hand because, according to the American Psychiatric Association, childhood ends at age 12 in important and specifically sexual ways – their definition of pedophilia, for instance, runs as ‘having a prurient interest in children under twelve’ – and on the other, mature adults need to focus on saving the planet and its life, including one another. Enough distraction, enough fantasy. Pornography is an education, of sorts, and it is at best trite to state that reality and fantasy are seldom the same thing. The world is in the shape it is in not because youth cannot distinguish between the two of them. Ask yourself why it took a sixteen year old with a disability to call our wider attention to the climate crisis? Ask your very much adult stockbroker, financier, captain of industry, or wonder of wonders, politician, why it wasn’t they who provided such an alert, amongst others. And then we can ask why yet other adults willingly take on the role of domineering Lydias – a role that is, with ironic relish, only barely admissible within the fantasy of discipline-oriented pornography – intent on correcting our bad habits without respect to our freedoms. An educative pornography might well include titles such as the all too obvious ‘Handmaid’s Tail’ by Marguerite Göttwood, in which such self-proclaimed defenders of ‘morality’ can bare yet more of their sorry selves.

            If one wanted to construct a genuine ethical argument against the decoys of contemporary social life, pornography included, I would be the first to entertain it. It would first have to outline the activities sanctioned by society that distract us from both the existential profundity of human life as well as the future of our collective existence. These are: organized sports (ironically a ‘must’ for youth, supposedly), all non-critical entertainment fictions and video games (Atwood not included), erotica/pornography, holidays both consumer and religious – and, speaking of reality and fantasy, is it really the case that we can distinguish such days? – conspiracy ‘theories’ of all kinds, obsessions with speculative, if, in principle interesting, topics such as extraterrestrial intelligence and ‘paranormal’ events, and the like. At the top of such a list of unethical attempts to divert our attention from serious global conditions would be our neurotic compulsion to rationalize our resentment of youth.

            If made, such an argument would be valid across the ethical board. But the message we send to both present-day youth and future society alike is that we, bereft of both conscience and foresight, have instead opted to suppress the curiosity, the spirit, the very existential verve of young people who, robbed of their nascent capacity to think for themselves through schools, media, and portions of the legal apparatus perhaps to be extended, will be unable to avoid the very fate we have already set out for them. This satisfies us as well, for it will not be we ourselves who have to live in the denuded future of a well-raped Earth. Youth will pay simply for being young.

            The call to limit youthful experience of the world in any way, no matter how juvenile the material or knowledge, only adds to the sense that we have given up on an ethical human future. Shutting it down ahead of time, exerting a pre-emptive strike against the coming freedom of world youth, is the evil privilege of adulthood. And adults are, in fact, old enough to know that we either use it or lose it. We betray our truer selves as maliciously resentful oversized children in its use.

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

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 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.