Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Birthday & The Man

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

1.

- Correct me if I'm wrong, but we both really like the novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, despite not liking, or rather, not being interested in its author.
- Go on.
- Wilhelm believes in the romantic life of following desire and chance where they lead. To more responsible parties that involves treating unexamined desires as necessity, and letting chance lead you into radical improvidence, into failure to secure the minimum practical necessities of life.
- 'For if we do not know our environment, we shall mistake our dreams for a part of it, and so spoil our science by making it fantastic, and our dreams by making them obligatory.'  George Santayana.
- Interesting quote, but I don't want to go in that direction. Wilhelm's problem is not reality, or even fantasy.
- What is Wilhelm's problem?
- Whether there can be an art to life, whether life as a whole can be a work of art.
- In his other works Goethe suggests instead that life is a matter of will, of reiterated and left behind bouts of creativity.
- But in this novel things are more complex. The argument is made that a secure foundation, a family, or a patron, or a society of friends, is required to take care of necessities whereupon chance can be followed, and become the basis of creative response, whether in life or in art. Wilhelm's actress-mistress assumes such a necessity of secure foundation, understands the insecurity of Wilhelm's intended life in the theater, and at the end of the novel it is revealed that at least partly the romantic sequence of supposed chance events has been a secret society's show produced to educate Wilhelm.
- Educate him to the importance of security upon which rely episodes of creative response to life, with life not having meaning as a whole.
- Except that what is so wonderful about the novel is that it gives exactly the opposite impression, of the romantic life of chance having meaning. Wilhelm is, unbeknownst to him, living within a show put on by secret friends, but he, within that show, acquires for himself an adoptive family, a boy and a girl.
- Creativity is not just in responding to chance, but in choosing the conditions of necessity. The society of friends adopt him, he adopts the children.
- Yes. What do you think?
- I'm thinking.
- The question hits close to home.
- In my experience, in finding the chosen foundation in the midst of romance, and so solving the problem of arbitrariness of chance, practical necessity is neglected and the whole falls apart.
- Where does that leave us?
- In great difficulty. Wilhelm explains to busnessman Werther: 'How immensely, dear friend, do you err in believing that a work, the first presentation of which is to fill the whole soul, can be produced in broken hours scraped together from other extraneous employment. No: the poet must live wholly for himself, wholly in the objects that delight him. Heaven has furnished him internally with precious gifts; he carries in his bosom a treasure that is ever of itself increasing; he must also live with this treasure, undisturbed from without, in that still blessedness which the rich seek in vain to purchase with their accumulated stores.' A family or patron must be found to take care of practical necessity, on which basis you can seek your own chosen family, in relation to, love and care for which, your episodic creative use of chance has its meaning.
- Problem solved.
- If your problem is writing a novel in which these ideas are explored. If your life as an artist is a series of such willful acts of reiterated creativity.
- But that is not the idea in this novel.
- No. If your problem is putting these ideas into effect, not merely in art, but in your life, unless you were born to the necessary conditions you have to rely on chance to create them. You must become a romantic against your will.


2.

- Happy birthday.
- Thanks. Sometimes after passing through periods of your life when you hardly recognize yourself you wonder if it is your life you are leading and not a set of inconsistent lives going on under your name.
- Certain philosophers say that ego or sense of self is an illusion; we are in constant change; we are like a nation, citizens of which change constantly. What gives us an idea of self is no more than physical and mental continuity.
- And you believe that?
- No. You don't either.
- Then what do you believe makes a self, allows a life to have consistency, even in periods where your life hardly can be recognized?
- Consciousness.
- Consciousness comes and goes with sleep and accident, and has different degrees.
- Comes and goes, yes; no, different degrees. Degree reflects only how far consciousness has gone, or not.
- Explain.
- Computer scientists look for consciousness on the model of one part of the brain looking on and modifying another, but that's not it. Consciousness is a relation of rest to activity; a standing outside of time and space, looking down on the actions of the past.
- The "Knower of the Field", as the Bhagavad Gita has it.
- Yes. Unlike the self, which is nothing but a mix of experiences, perceptions, and desires, a special kind of consciousness, the consciousness of good, immediately reestablishes connection after a break.
- How exactly?
- You know Kant's way of founding morality?
- Remind me.
- Being moral is doing what we all, if we were rational, would agree to do.
- And why should we care to follow that rule?
- Because we want to more than anything else. Do you know why we want to? (This is not Kant anymore.) Because it places us, in relation to our fellow human beings, in the same relation we are to ourselves in consciousness.
- Again, explain.
- I'm not sure how much I can. You take over.
- You assume I agree with you.
- You do.
- When, knowers of the field, we're detached from desires impelling us to action, the world we see is beautiful, people's action good, statements true; such a world is like the universality of reason in moral judgment that is able to include everyone in its overview. Even in periods like the year I'm coming out of all can be brought together, even if it is related and included only by noting the love that conspicuously was lacking.
- Everything is brought together, seen under the sign of eternity.
- And that is where consciousness goes, when it lessens in degree? Into eternity?
- It comes from nowhere at the beginning of life and goes to nowhere at the end; why not travels also in the middle?
- Are there places of return in nowhere, and other places of no way back?
- 'Places in nowhere!'
- A strange combination of words, but maybe not stranger than the statement we can conclude with: that we are most ourselves when are in agreement with all.


3.
But use of reason, as a means, is compatible with any end, no matter how irrational.*
- I've been reading, thinking. Consciousness, in the perception of beauty, goodness, and truth, solves the problem of seeing ourselves as disparate collections of parts. But, as Hans Jonas* says, isn't consciousness itself what leads us into seeing separate things in relation to each other? Sight, Jonas says, gives to us an instantaneous assembly of different parts ranged from near to far and right to left. Those assemblies of parts are then what science uses experimentally putting them in different relations and giving them a push to see what happens, looking for a regular relation between the assemblies, and that regular relation allows predictions of perceptions. Science comes out of an understanding of what perception is that only the collecting together, seeing all at once, and then standing back from, of consciousness makes possible.
- Science beginning in consciousness of perception. What conclusion do you draw from this?
- First, it was already clearly seen at the beginnings of our civilization in the myth of knowledge bringing a fall, and in Parmenides' view that knowledge of things was an illusion but necessary to be acquired.
- Is there no other way to acquire knowledge?
- There certainly is. It is the way an artist learns to use materials by the use of them, building up habits which bring regular results.
- How is that different from what is done in science?
- It is the thing itself that is being learned, not how arrangements of different things can be made to change. If I want to see whether heavier things fall faster than light things, I put a heavy thing a yard above the ground and let it fall, then do the same with a lighter thing, and see if the elapsed time is the same or not. I haven't learned anything about any individual thing that fell, except that it is a part of a large collection - that of all things - that fall at the same rate.** There is beauty in scientific, artificial perception let's call it, in its truth. But this truth involves the falsity that isolated things exist separate from one another. In fact we learn about the world through intimate repeated contact with it,*** culminating in a sense of beauty which removes the 'thingness' of its parts. Things we learn in this way we resist being destroyed. No so the objects of perceptions that science puts in relation to each other. We do not form bodily habits in responses to classes of things like 'things that fall', they do not build up into a natural perception. The beauty of scientific truth is derivative, resides in its power of recalling to mind actual perceptions of beauty.
- Consciousness gives us the things of science and suggests what to do with them. Scientific perceptions are different from personal perceptions: they aren't beautiful so we don't inordinately care about them. Is that a problem?
- Absolutely! Because, as we talked about last time, personal knowledge and perception easily take on the form of scientific perception. And then we don't know any more who or what we are.
- Then we need only keep the two apart.
- Only! Do we even know if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture? Once hierarchical relations**** are established, nothing is more useful or rather essential than maintaining the priority of artificial perception.*****


4.

Do we even know 'if the relation master to slave, dominance to submission isn't the product of consciousness discovering the artifice of scientific perception, perhaps with the beginnings of agriculture?'
- We don't know, but we have good reasons for thinking so. Pre-literate societies were in general not hierarchical: roles complemented roles, things were directed to those who needed them, people felt connected to each other. One suggestion is that the hunting male's aggression was turned against the female, the old's insecurity and fear against the young. But fear and aggression breaking out when the communal form of society made them unnecessary is what we need to explain, and can't be its cause. Another suggestion is that an inner will to dominate always has been present but repressed in human nature, generating fear of its imminent escape. But again: why this break out when domination had been effectively controlled by the rules of communal society?
- Then perhaps we, like some animals, started practicing dominance rituals, impelled by that inner darkness.
- Same problem: why regress to dominance rituals, when ritual had been turned to sympathetic imitation of nature spirits, making us feel secure by alliance to regularities of nature and seeming by the strength of our security to hold nature to continuing that regularity.
- So what happened?
- Resident, settled agriculture. The practices of hunting and gathering are occasional: they come and go with time of day and season. Resident, settled agriculture is present to us all the time. Technique can be applied continuously.
- And that is like the cycle of modern science, where knowledge gained is immediately applied, observing the results of which new knowledge is gained.
- Yes. Also, hunting and gathering take us to different places, but our action on the field is on the same field. We see the results of applying the last perception in what we see now before us.
- And that is Jonas' consciousness of perception that makes us aware of parts.
- Yes. The field is no longer something independent, with its own characteristic events, but a thing with separate parts enmeshed in the cycle of our perception and applied knowledge.


5.

- All this about science, individuality, society, is putting me out, putting me off. I can't even talk.
- Sure you can.
- An individual's life ought to be naturally, reasonably, intelligently worked into society. Making the different parts involved and how they relate to each other the subject of conversation doesn't begin to tell me how to do that.
- What does?
- Stories of people trying.
- I'm listening.
- We've looked at Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Goethe's last novel, according to him his best and requiring three readings for full comprehension, was Elective Affinities. The title refers to an account of the way two chemical elements that are compounded together, in the presence of another compound of two elements, each of the two joined elements separates, and each of the two parts of each compound joins instead to one of the two parts of the other compound.
- The compounds separate only to combine with the separated elements of the other compound.
- Yes. At the beginning of the story the chemical dance of changing partners comes up in conversation, with obvious application to present company: the rich aristocrat Eduard, his wife Charlotte, the Eduard's friend the Captain who's come to stay, and his wife's absent, but under consideration for invitation, protege Ottilie. Charlotte immediately observes such application would be an unrealistic simplification.
- Which is Goethe's position?
- We'll get there. An aristocrat, it is said in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, must make a show of good breeding, but need not actually have it and consequently usually doesn't. Eduard and his wife in Elective Affinities had both made previous marriages of convenience, though they were in love with each other even then, and only the death of both their spouses allowed them ten years later to marry.
- Marriages of convenience evidence of living more for show than natural impulse.
- Yes. Now it comes to pass that Eduard falls in love with the invited Ottilie, his wife to a lesser extent with the Captain. All four characters have the syllable 'ott' in their names: the Captain's name is Otto, that is also one of Eduard's names, his wife's name is Charlotte, and then there's Ottilie. We said about science that it relates classes of parts of things to classes of parts of things. The parts of things in the class are treated as if they were identical, varying from each other only in place or movement. In tableau vivants organized at the castle living people enact famous pictures, according to the narrator improving upon them but leaving an uneasy feeling in the audience: the living have become 'elements' in the picture, parts of themselves that have their being among parts of other people and the background of the scene presented.
- What's Goethe's point? Eduard and his wife were proper aristocrats, making a show of good breeding. Then, when opportunity arises and love interests more to their taste arrive, they - again? - in acting on their passion are merely putting on a show, they've lowered themselves to the status of elements of a picture? They're all instances of "otts", are drops of chemicals, dabs of paint?
- So it would seem. The prime activity of Eduard, his family, his friends, and employees is remaking the extensive grounds of the castle into parkland, drawing out its beauty, making it a show of itself. The characters live in a strict hierachy: Eduard is served by his wife, she by her protege Ottilie, Ottilie by her own protege and numerous servants, and below them all: the poor. Special police are employeed to keep beggers away from the family and friends' elaborate celebrations of birthdays, that is, their shows to the glory of themselves and their 'quality'.
- How does the story end?
- To be guilty of a simplification like the analogy of elective affinities itself: Ottilie and Eduard each die of being unable to accept appearances of themselves. Ottilie resists breaking up Eduard and Charlotte's marriage; taking on the daily care of the newly delivered, surprise child of that marriage, her carelessness leads to its accidental death by drowning. She stops talking; then stops eating and dies. Eduard, seeing himself without her as permanently bereaved, is found dead in his chair.


6.

- What we said about Goethe's Elective Affinities, that it was the opposite of the romantic call to accept passion as opposed to reason I always thought it was, I have to admit is hard for me to accept. I looked back at Goethe's views on nature, and found, in fact, they were in accord with our dismissal of thinking of ourselves as things moved by things, parts moved by parts. For him science was or ought to be like perception: seeing things as a whole, seeing how things were composed. But -
- Yes?
- In Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship there are major religious and mystical elements: a whole separate novel is inserted of a woman who wishes to live entirely in religious feeling; and in the main story there is another woman who has an intimate relation with astronomical movements, with the stars and the planets, with the Cosmos. What do you make of this?
- I'm afraid you'll think I'm joking.
- 'It seems my fate to be in the wrong with you about the smallest things. I must be very good-natured to overlook such an unfailing superiority as yours.' ******
- Fine. Jonas, you remember, the author of The Phenomenon Of Life, describes life as an interrelation with the world, involved in the world by feeling its intrusions, and willing in turn to intrude on it, in a constant movement that retains the form of life, with the goal of self preservation through constant remaking of itself. 'Will' and 'feeling' are not, he says, facts about the world: they are not parts of things put in movement against other parts. They involve a sense of direction. That is, they involve a selection between possible arrangements of the world. Freedom of how to speak of the world, how to see the world, arises out of the fixed 'vocabulary' of things come to be known.
- We respond to the world, we feel it, and willing it to take on a preferred arrangement we act on it.
- Yes. The character who is detached from the world in religious feeling can be seen to be, by an act of will, standing back from the world, being 'the knower of the field'. And the character who's in intimate relation to the cosmos, and can perhaps act on it to make it better, that reflects the capacity life has to will the world into shape. Well?
- Here's the thing. Brain scientists, neurophysicists, whatever they are calling themselves now, they imagine they don't feel and don't will. They call mental states epiphenomena. That is, things in a world of parts moving parts but which themselves don't have parts therefore can't be anything. How can people be so stupid? They say they know how to talk about the world and if some part of the world doesn't let them talk that way they say it must not be in the world. Where is it then?
- A good question. Do you know, I think the reason, as you put it, they can be so stupid is that they know the experience of making an error in their conclusions, dumping the bad idea, and backtracking.
- But dumping a bad idea, a logical progression or scheme of classification, is not the same as dumping knowledge of your own experience.
- It is, if you never consider these kinds of questions.
- And they don't.
- They never consider these kind of questions because they can't imagine how the freedom that comes of not having parts acting on each other is related to the lack of freedom in having parts acting on each other.
- Can you?
- Has Goethe given you any ideas?
- Yes and no. Sometimes he seems to believe in meaningful coincidences, fate, a personal destiny, the world taking on a form that suits our will; other times he seems to be making fun of the idea, for example showing that when Wilhelm thought he was pursuing his own way in life actually a secret society had been guiding his fate.
- Try putting that together with Goethe's views on nature.
- The science he said he wanted to do was of making representations, rather than explanations.
- Yes. We know that when science looks for a relation of explanations to each other it looks for whether the parts in one move the parts in the other. What is the relation of representations to each other?
- I don't know.
- What about when we talk?
- Yes, you already said that with a fixed vocabulary we have infinite freedom in ways of combining words into sentences. Representations are kinds of symbols. But how does that solve our problem?
- Our feeling of the world is a perception of the world, of how what we see is composed as a whole, and this knowledge, coming about through our body's response to the world, is unfree, part acting on part. But the will's use of that perception, how it puts it together with other perceptions, is unlimited, like the unlimited way of combining words into sentences. That perception, knowledge, feeling all arise together gives will something to grab hold of, without being tied to, or determined by.
- I can't say I'm convinced.
- Then let's return to Wilhelm Mesiter's Apprenticeship and the strange confusion of fate that is being followed and directed at the same time. The coincidences that occur in the story and Wilhelm thinks are fate but may really have been staged by the benevolent secret society: the staging can be like feeling, the act of the world on us, that is also perception and knowledge, and his impression of fate is his will to make his life his own.
- And why the coincidences?
- They are like words in a sentence that seem to go together, to be representing the world, but where the sentence goes, how it concludes, is up to him. I'll tell you something that happened last night in the courtyard up the street. A very well dressed woman in her late 60s sat down on the bench next to me, first time anyone had done that in the month I'd been going there. I strike up a conversation with her: she takes out a notebook and starts writing down words - in Catalan, French, English - suggested to her by the objects nearby, the color of my thermal flask, the name of the man on the cover of magazine in her lap, the words or subjects from our conversation struggling through bits of many languages. Separating parts of words from each other, these parts she then interpreted and connected to the other words, or their parts. And these words and suggestions were related to her recent experiences, places she had been and the words associated with them or seen there. She makes sure, she says, connections lead her in a positive direction. This was a first coincidence: I'd hours before finished reading Pullman's new fantasy La Belle Sauvage, in which a clockwork (but mysterious exactly how) device, the alethiometer, in response to questions, reads out symbols that yield layer upon layer of interpretations. The elegant woman tells me she wants to write to Amazon, the internet retailer, about something she's discovered. She takes out a metal box of pastilles, on the lid the brand 'Bezos', also the name of Amazon's founder. I tell her that Amazon's grocery delivery service I briefly worked for in L.A. has its Barcelona warehouse occupying the next block's interior courtyard, the block where I'm staying. Another coincidence. And then she, on the subject of these courtyards inside residential blocks, tells me the drug company Beyer which she once worked for, and I too once worked for in Budapest, used to be here in this courtyard before the city cleared it out to be reopened to the public. There I sit every day using the wifi from the Toyota showroom along one side.
- Good thing you don't write novels.
- You'll have to excuse me if my coincidences don't stand up against Goethe's. Like the times we live in they are mostly commercial: objects exchanged as if people involved don't matter, rather than the reverse, exchange of objects that don't matter except in their bringing people together.******* But that only makes it clearer, doesn't it?
- What clearer?
- That the coincidences are objects, parts of things tied to parts of things, meaningless in themselves, freely made use of to make our relation to people better.


7.

- What are coincidences then?
- Reversals. Improbable events reversing expectation of the probable.
- If they are merely improbabilities, why do we feel like they mean something?
- Because we feel like we deserve to expect them.
- Expecting improbability? Improbabilities become probable?
- Yes! I mentioned Amazon last time. I'm want to tell you about my experience with that company. But first let me say I spent all my life avoiding the world Amazon typifies, all my life up until a few years ago. I got out. I ran away. I judged that a good life was improbable in the America of money and only money. And this is what I want to tell you: I was right. All those years of being out, now that I'm in, partly in, I look back on as a time of beauty.
- A time of beauty.
- You object to the phrase?
- How does coincidence fit in?
- Coincidence tells you that your decision based on probability, which after all is all we ever have to go on, was correct.
- 'They' tell you: who is that 'they'? How are coincidences a 'they'?
- We have to decide the must important things in our lives based on probabilities, and sometimes when we do, and are right, improbabilities start assembling themselves; and what I think is they are telling us things are different now, that turning our backs on, calculating probabilities in the world we knew, we were right in how we decided.
- 'They' are telling us?
- As beauty speaks to us: improbability, coincidence is the world getting our attention, notifying us in advance the probability of the return of love. You accept that the world can speak to us with its beauty?
- Yes, I think I do. Reversals of probabilities, when they involve our own lives, are somehow beautiful. Tell me about Amazon.
- A company about money and only money. A company that exists to provide quantities of things cheaper and monopolize markets. Quantity and cheapness has made them the world's largest retailer and granted them monopoly status. Like the products sold, employees are cheap and handled in multitudes. Employee costs in relation to profits are minimal. Computer programs record every movement of every employee, measuring efficiency second by second. But a surprise is in store for you when newly hired you show up to work. No manager is there. You are expected to train yourself by following around the other employees. Amazon has managers, but their salaries are so much greater than yours that it is not efficient for them to show up and manage you. In fact, the managers are managed in the same way themselves, their efficiency controlled by other managers whose own efficiency is monitored by other managers.
- Everyone is watching and no one is managing. How is that efficient?
- Without the monopoly profits it wouldn't be. But as this is a company about money and only money, management is not competent to do anything else. In its surveillance of employees by employees themselves surveilled the company never sees a human being, no manager ever decides like a human being. It's amazing. It's the end of the world. The employees hate the company, hate what they are doing, and have no interest in the other employees they immediately see hate the company and what they are doing. Why bother discussing it with each other?
- You misunderstood me earlier. I wasn't objecting to your 'time of beauty.' I was thinking rather that this kind of, as you put it, listening to the world is something entirely different from probability: it is all or nothing. Similarly, I think you're saying of our world of money it too is an absolute in the way it talks to us. Am I right?
- Yes. Beauty or its opposite: if they address themselves to us even for a moment they spread out in memory and imagination occupying everything there is.
- But still. If you had made an effort and talked to the employees maybe they'd have turned out to have lives just like yours.
- Unlikely. Probabilities are important. Time is limited. It was time to go.

Further Reading:
Killer Metaphysics
______________________
* The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Hans Jonas, 1966.
** "Organism is seen as primarily determined by the conditions of its existence, and life is understood in terms of the organism-environment situation rather than in terms of the exercise of an autonomous nature." Ibid, Second Essay, 'Philosophic Aspects of Darwinism'.
*** "Food cultivation, practiced in a truly ecological sense, presupposes that the agriculturist is familiar with all the features and subtleties of the terrain on which the corps are grown. He must have a thorough knowledge of the physiography of the land, its variegated soils’ — crop land, forest land, pasture land — mineral and organic content, and its microclimate, and he must be engaged in a continuing study of the effects produced by new flora and fauna. He must develop his sensitivity to the land’s possibilities and needs while becoming an organic part of the agricultural situation." (Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, Murray Bookchin, 1964.)
**** Seeing oneself as a thing in a world of things generates fear. As the thing you are is defined in relation to the things other people are, since you as an individual are never interacted with by others or known to yourself, when that relation to others changes, you become invisible to yourself. You have no idea what to expect; fear arises and leads to violent, passionate action on other people seen as things to reestablish relation and thus visibility. Hierarchy is established as other people seen as things are forced into stable relation to you, doing what you decide best reflects back your stability as a thing, your power to maintain relation. See: Noam Chomsky & Mental Things.
***** See: Leaders Who Betray
****** Denis Diderot, 'Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage' (1772)
******* See: Marcel Mauss