October 18, 2013

1. Miscellaneous

A. I saw a movie called Searching For Sugar Man, the true story of a Mexican-American singer, Sixto Rodriguez, who was unknown in the U.S., but a superstar in South Africa. He didn’t know about his popularity in South Africa, and South Africans were under the impression that he was dead. Finally some South African “music sleuths” discovered him, still alive, living rather happily in a Detroit ghetto, and they brought him to South Africa for concerts, etc. He’s alive today, still living in the ghetto. He has a philosophy degree from Wayne State University. He’s involved in various community causes, and even ran for mayor of Detroit. He writes his own songs, he has a good grasp of language, and he seems sincere, seems to believe in what he writes. I strongly recommend the movie, and I also recommend the sound track.

B. When I told my daughter that my father had died, she had no reaction. But when she went to Nantucket, where he had always been present, and he wasn’t there, she cried for a long time. Death is an abstraction until something concrete brings it home to us.

C. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I rented a canoe on the Concord River. I paddled with my late wife, who was of Chinese descent. We passed another canoe, and it was also paddled by a Caucasian man and an Asian woman. We passed a third canoe, and a fourth, and they were all paddled by Caucasian men and Asian women. Is this just a coincidence? Or are men who have an interest in nature, who have some education, more likely to connect with Asian women? Do such men have a certain hesitancy, a certain timidity, with women of their own race?

The Jewish poet Heine never had a Jewish girlfriend, perhaps because Jewish women were associated in his mind with his mother and sister; all his girlfriends were from a different ethnic group.1 D. H. Lawrence wrote about an educated young man, Paul Morel, who’s still a virgin at 23. Lawrence describes Paul and his friends as educated and “sensitive”; with women they’re “diffident and shy,” “bound in by their own virginity, which they could not break out of.... For a woman was like their mother, and they were full of the sense of their mother.”

2. Erich Heller on Goethe

I recently looked at a book called The Disinherited Mind, by Erich Heller; it consists of essays on German writers — Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, etc. Wikipedia calls it “a seminal work” that “earned [Heller] a following among intellectuals.” Heller has also written a book on Nietzsche, a book on Mann, a book on Kafka, etc. Heller is a great critic; like G. Wilson Knight, he raises criticism to the level of philosophy.

Heller’s background was similar to Kafka’s: Heller was born into a Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic, and he earned a law degree from the German University in Prague. Wikipedia says that Heller “studied at the same university, in the same department, and took the same degree as did Kafka, 29 years before him.” Heller spent his career as a professor of German literature, chiefly at Northwestern University, where he was a colleague and friend of Joseph Epstein. Wikipedia says that Heller’s real interest was in larger philosophical questions:

For Heller, German letters as an academic discipline was something of an avocation, a marriage of convenience to supply a vehicle for the conveyance of thought of a wider scope. He kept a certain distance from the scholarly community around him, believing (with Jacob Burckhardt) this community’s pedantry and unremitting quest for precision to be “one of the most cunning enemies of truth.”

Heller communicated with many leading intellectuals, including Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, and T. S. Eliot. Heller was interested in Heidegger’s writings, and knew that Heidegger had given some support to the Nazis. So Heller visited Heidegger, and asked for an explanation. He received only “stony silence” from Heidegger.2

Why does Heller call his book The Disinherited Mind? It’s a rather cumbersome phrase, as many of Heller’s phrases are. Heller writes like an academic — that is, he writes badly.3 The origin of Heller’s title can be found in two quotations — one from Rilke, one from Kafka — that Heller uses as epigraphs. The Rilke quote is

Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited children,
To whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs.

This quote suggests that the people of Rilke’s generation were disinherited — that is, cut off from the traditions of Western civilization. And they hadn’t yet developed new traditions, a new civilization. The Kafka quote has a similar despairing tone: “I felt no certainty about anything, demanding from every single moment a new confirmation of my existence... in truth, a disinherited son.”

Kafka and his contemporaries find little meaning in life, little value, little beauty. Heller says,

I have stressed what appears to be one of the distinctive symptoms of modern literature and thought: the consciousness of life’s increasing depreciation. If Thomas Aquinas saw the link between poets and philosophers in their preoccupation with the marvelous, their modern successors seem united in the reverse... the predominance of the prosaic.4

I read the first chapter of Heller’s Disinherited Mind, and found it most interesting. It’s called “Goethe and the Idea of Scientific Truth.” I had long known that Goethe had a keen interest in science, and spent much of his career in scientific pursuits, but I didn’t realize that Goethe’s attitude toward nature was very similar to mine.

I have two principles: everything is connected, and everything is alive. I think Goethe would find these principles congenial. I’m critical of Newton, and fond of quantum physics. Goethe was definitely critical of Newton, and I think he’d be fond of quantum physics. So I find “Goethe the Scientist” to be a kindred spirit, a champion of Hermetic science and an opponent of Newtonian-mechanical science.

Heller is aware of Heisenberg and quantum physics, and he’s aware that Goethe is in harmony with quantum physics; Goethe would be receptive to the occult aspects of quantum physics, he has the same anti-mechanical tendency that quantum physics has. Heller says that Goethe was critical of contemporary science; Goethe realized that the mechanical explanation of nature would ultimately fail.5

Goethe had a special interest in plants. He tried to understand them “in their wholeness,” and he tried to understand them “as manifestations of something within.”6 Surely Goethe would be intrigued by Freud’s notion of a life-instinct, and by Jung’s notion of synchronicity.7

Goethe seems to have understood evolution:

The plant forms which surround us [Goethe wrote] were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form. They have been given... a felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.8

But while many passages in Goethe remind one of Darwin, Heller says that Goethe would have opposed certain aspects of Darwin’s work. Goethe would have opposed Darwin’s emphasis on change and becoming, and his neglect of “all creative interest in what this, that or the other are and mean.”9 Darwin supported what Heller calls “The Creed of the Ontological Invalidity,” which “dismisses a priori as invalid all ontological assertions, i.e. assertions about the nature and meaning of Being (as different from the laws governing the processes, connections and interconnections of the phenomenal world).”10 Heller says that when modern man shrinks from the “ontological mystery,” then he’s condemned to “spiritual death.”11

I believe that the Philosophy of Today no longer shrinks from this mystery; it’s comfortable making statements about Being, such as “everything is connected, everything is alive, everything has a mysterious energy or consciousness, everything has a capacity for synchronicity; living things have a life-instinct and a death-instinct.” I’ve often argued that Darwin doesn’t tell the whole story, that synchronicity probably plays a role in evolution.

The mechanical universe of Newton is unpoetic, but a living, inter-connected universe presents many opportunities for the artist. Goethe’s universe is more poetic, more mysterious, more interesting, than Newton’s. Heller says, “The anxiety that the world, in the course of its increasing analytical disruption, may approach the point where it would become poetically useless, and a barren place for the human affections to dwell in, informs Goethe’s scientific motives.”12

Goethe lamented the emphasis on analysis and experiment. He was a champion of intuition and imagination. He was “engaged in a campaign for restoring the balance of power between analytical reason and creative imagination, between the ‘merely concrete’ and the ‘idea.’”13

Heller says that William Blake was “unknown to Goethe, but his brother-in-arms against Newton.” Blake viewed Newton as “party to a conspiracy of spiritual sin... the second person in the Trinity of Evil, flanked by Bacon and Locke.”14

Goethe scoffs at modern scientific method, at the lab experiment. He calls it “a strange aberration of the human mind, a rather perverse marriage between the crudest empiricism and the most abstruse mathematical abstractness.”15 He says that it “puts nature on the rack.” We see best with our naked eyes; “microscopes and telescopes merely confuse the pure human vision.”16 We should approach nature with our whole being, including our intuitions, dreams, hunches, etc. Isn’t this how primitive man approached nature? And isn’t this how primitive man was able to grasp that everything is connected, and everything is alive? Didn’t primitive man attain a deeper understanding of nature, in some respects, than the modern scientist in his laboratory, the modern scientist who puts nature on the rack?

Heller says that Goethe’s History of the Theory of Colors “may well be the first history of scientific method.”17 According to Goethe, a scientist isn’t a neutral observer who conducts experiments, and then lets experiments dictate theory. A scientist approaches nature with certain presuppositions, certain beliefs about the nature of the universe: “Every scientific theory is merely the surface rationalization of a metaphysical substratum of beliefs, conscious or unconscious, about the nature of the world. [These beliefs] live and prosper for vast stretches of history.”18 When these beliefs finally change, there’s a new world, and even the past changes: “The history of the world must be rewritten from time to time,” Goethe wrote, “not because many events of the past are being rediscovered, but because new vistas are opening up, new ways of looking at things, which show the past in a different light.”19 The Newtonian-mechanical worldview lived and prospered for centuries, but is now giving way to a new worldview that sees the universe as a living organism, an inter-connected organism.

But Goethe’s grasp of the history of science, his grasp of the rise and fall of worldviews, doesn’t lead him to abandon his belief in Truth, doesn’t lead him “to any historical relativization of the idea of truth.” Goethe has faith in “the intuitive, indeed visionary faculty of his genius.” I think it’s important to believe in Truth, it’s important not to let skepticism corrode our belief in Truth. I agree with Goethe that intuition/genius is a road to Truth. But perhaps we should take another approach, too; perhaps we should embrace contradiction (as we have so often before), and say, “Yes, Truth changes over time, and no theory lasts forever, but nonetheless I believe in Truth, absolute and eternal Truth. If this is a contradiction, so be it.” Perhaps the “Adventure of Reason” means living with this contradiction.

The modern scientist stands apart from nature, observes it from a distance. But Goethe believed that man and nature are one. Heller speaks of,

that faith which forms the core of [Goethe’s] spiritual existence: the faith in a perfect correspondence between the inner nature of man and the structure of external reality, between the soul and the world.... a pre-established equation between subject and object.20

We can know nature because we are nature; “knowledge is only through the response of equal to equal.”21 Goethe agreed with the Hermetic thinker Plotinus, who said, “If the eye were not sun-like, how could we ever see light?”22 The maxim of the Hermetic school is “as above, so below.” The magician is often depicted with his right arm pointing skyward, his left arm pointing downward. Every level of reality — galaxies, people, particles, etc. — has the same inner nature.23 Unus mundus, one world. “The macrocosm is as the microcosm and vice versa; within each lies the other.” Know yourself and you know the universe.

But the modern scientist, instead of identifying with the whole, and seeing himself as part of the whole, separates himself from nature, stands aloof from nature. Goethe regarded modern science as a “self-assertive campaign against nature.... cosmic impiety.”24 Modern science tries to make nature serve man, instead of trying to understand nature as it is; modern science, according to Goethe, is subjective rather than objective.

As Goethe rejected modern science because it separates man from nature, so he rejected tragedy, “for tragedy results from a fundamental misunderstanding between the human heart and the order of the world.”25 If we see man as part of the whole, in sync with the universe, then we overcome tragedy, and what remains is positive and affirmative. According to Goethe, Truth is “a synthesis of world and mind, yielding the happiest assurance of the eternal harmony of existence.”26

Thus, Goethe saves the world, the object, and makes poetry from it, instead of rejecting the world, as the Romantics did, and making poetry from inner experience. Goethe criticized the Romantics, regarding them as excessively subjective. What would he have thought of the Symbolists, who were even more subjective? “The Romantics whom Goethe rejected seem almost Realists compared with the later excesses of inwardness perpetrated by the Symbolists.”27 Modern poetry, according to Heller, emphasizes “the superiority of the inner vision as against a spiritually barren external world.”28 Goethe is the last champion of the world, the object; he’s the last affirmer, “the last great poet who lived and worked in a continual effort to save the life of poetry and the poetry of life.”29 Since we’re reviving Goethe’s attitude toward nature, perhaps we can also revive “the poetry of life,” revive a positive attitude toward the world.

Goethe was born in 1749, so he came of age before the French Revolution, before the advent of modern genocide, atheist-genocide. Goethe is known for his positive attitude, his optimism. But he perceived how atheist-genocide cast a shadow over the world, he perceived that Robespierre’s Reign of Terror “had so deprived the world of any sense of joy that nobody felt like rejoicing even at the downfall of the tyrant.”30 Modern man became estranged from the world partly because of political developments (genocide), and partly because of the Newtonian-mechanical worldview.

Heller’s essay on Goethe whetted my appetite to learn more about Goethe. I found that one of the leading Goethe scholars of our time is Cambridge professor Nicholas Boyle, who has completed two volumes of a Goethe biography, and is working on a third.

Another contemporary Goethe scholar is Rudiger Safranski, author of Goethe: Life As A Work Of Art (Goethe: Kunstwerk des Lebens), and Goethe and Schiller: The Story of a Friendship. Safranski also wrote Schiller, or the Invention of German Idealism, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, and Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil. Though Safranski writes in German, many of his books have been translated into English. But his books on Goethe and Schiller aren’t available in English, perhaps because they were written quite recently. Safranski’s biographies have a high reputation, and they aren’t very long (about 400 pages). [Update 2017: Safranski’s biography of Goethe is now available in English.]

Another contemporary Goethe scholar is T. J. Reed, author of The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar 1775-1832. The Jewish-Danish writer Georg Brandes wrote a biography of Goethe, as well as biographies of Shakespeare, Voltaire, Michelangelo, Caesar, etc. Brandes was an influential critic in the late 1800s, and wrote studies of Kierkegaard, Ibsen, and Anatole France.

Heller’s Disinherited Mind has a chapter on the Jewish-Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Kraus was interested in a subject that I discussed in the last issue: commas. He was

convinced that every little error, albeit of an importance that was seemingly limited in time and space, shows the great evils of the world and era. Thus, he could see in a missing comma a symptom of that state of the world that would allow a world war.... Language was to him the most important tell-tale for the wrongs of the world. He viewed his contemporaries’ careless treatment of language as a sign for their careless treatment of the world as a whole.

© L. James Hammond 2013
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1. See The Secret Self: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Literature, by Theodor Reik, ch. 9, iii back
2. Wikipedia. “At an early stage in his life Heller, in a bid to ‘absolve’ Heidegger in his own mind, went so far as to undertake a special trip to post-war Germany to meet the renowned philosopher in person; but his ‘Why?’ was met by stony silence.”

Heller made some interesting remarks about the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch:
“[If] The Death of Virgil is his masterpiece... it is a very problematical one, for it attempts to give literary shape to the author’s growing aversion to literature. In the very year the novel appeared, Broch confessed to ‘a deep revulsion’ from literature as such — ‘the domain of vanity and mendacity’. Written with a paradoxical, lyrical exuberance, it is the imaginary record of the poet’s last day and his renunciation of poetry. He commands the manuscript of the Aeneid to be destroyed, not because it is incomplete or imperfect but because it is poetry and not ‘knowledge’. He even says his Georgics are useless, inferior to any expert treatise on agriculture. His friend the Emperor Augustus undoes his design and his works are saved.” (Erich Heller, “Hitler in a very Small Town”, New York Times, January 25, 1987.)

Broch’s aversion for literature reminds one of the aversion for literature that Tolstoy began to feel when he was about 50. back

3. As an example of Heller’s bad writing, I can cite the last sentence in Chapter One: “All searches, discoveries and inventions, thrust on a world which is through these very activities and achievements progressively alienated from that truth which resides in the imagination and in a precise vision rather than in abstract formulae of the fittingness, beauty and significance of things, would ultimately spend themselves, Goethe feared, in the vain and desperate fidgetings of the good intention to make Hell a better place to live in.” This is academic writing at its worst: complex and convoluted rather than simple and direct. back
4. Preface, p. ix back
5. See p. 8. Heller quotes Heisenberg: “The dangers threatening modern science cannot be averted by more and more experimenting, for our complicated experiments have no longer anything to do with nature in her own right, but with nature changed and transformed by our own cognitive activity.”(p. 33) Goethe would agree. back
6. See p. 14. These are quotations from Goethe, not Heller. back
7. Was Goethe familiar with Schopenhauer’s theory of the will? Schopenhauer published the first volume of his World as Will and Idea in 1818, fourteen years before Goethe died. Goethe was acquainted with Schopenhauer’s mother, and with Schopenhauer himself. back
8. Wikipedia back
9. p. 16. This is a quote from Heller, not Goethe. Goethe understood that change is the essence of life, but he also understood that at the root of change is stillness, being, nature. Change isn’t entirely the product of external forces, it’s also the product of internal forces — instincts, urges, energy. Life has a nature as well as an environment.

Heller’s view reminds me of Wyndham Lewis, who opposed Bergson’s emphasis on change/becoming. As I wrote in 2016, “Lewis opposed the view that ‘time and change are the ultimate realities,’ that the present is merely a way-station on the road to the future.” back

10. p. 16 back
11. p. 17 back
12. p. 20 back
13. p. 20 back
14. pp. 20, 21. This is a quote from Heller, not Blake. back
15. p. 29. This is a quote from Heller, not Goethe. back
16. p. 31 back
17. p. 25 back
18. p. 26. This is a quote from Heller, not Goethe. back
19. p. 27 back
20. p. 30 back
21. p. 31. This is a quote from Goethe. Here’s the full quote: “In his Theory of Colors [Goethe] praises the Ionian school for ‘repeating again and again, with so much emphasis, that knowledge is only through the response of equal to equal.’” back
22. Plotinus: Neque vero oculus unquam videret solem nisi factus solaris esset. back
23. Wikipedia quotes The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus: “‘That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing [Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius].” Thus, whatever happens on any level of reality (physical, emotional, or mental) also happens on every other level. This principle, however, is more often used in the sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm is oneself, and the macrocosm is the universe. The macrocosm is as the microcosm and vice versa; within each lies the other, and through understanding one (usually the microcosm) a man may understand the other.” In relation to galaxies and planets, man is the “below,” the “inferius,” the microcosm, but in relation to particles, man is the above, the superius, the macrocosm. back
24. p. 30. These are Heller’s words. back
25. p. 30. Heller’s words back
26. p. 31. Goethe’s words. back
27. p. 32 back
28. p. 32 back
29. p. 32 back
30. This is a quote from Goethe, not Heller. See p. 4. back