The Proffered Refuge

Further to kick-starting having some material here – here is the start of the current preface to my research.

I am, I say, convinced that these manifestations do not correspond to a false curiosity in us, but in fact indescribably concern us and (if one were to exclude them) would still be capable of making themselves repeatedly felt at some place. Why shouldn’t they, like everything not yet recognized or indeed recognizable, be an object of our effort, our amazement, our perturbation and reverence?

I was for a while inclined, as you now seem to be, to assume “external” influence at these experiments; I am no longer so to the same degree. Extensive as the “external” is, it scarcely bears comparison, for all its sidereal distances, with the dimensions, with the depth dimensions of our inner being, which does not even need the spaciousness of the universe to be in itself almost immeasurable. If then the dead, if then those to come are in need of an abode, what refuge should be more pleasant and more proffered to them than this imaginary space? – Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Letter to Countess Nora Purtscher-Wydenbruck’ August 11, 1924

Of all of the Copernican Revolutions that marked the 20th Century, evidence of one of the least discussed or acknowledged can be found in Rilke’s comments on séances in his letter to Countess Purtscher-Wydenbruck. While we might tend to associate the passion for spiritualism among the “respectable” classes with the 19th Century and figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Charles Dickens, the great popular flourishing of séances actually came in the wake of the Great War:

For the war stimulated a desire, almost a desperation, in the general public to know whether those who were absent, fighting, were alive or dead, and if dead, to establish contact with them again. (Maxwell-Stuart, 2006)

This was also a period when a series of scientific breakthroughs seemed to offer the possibility of a concrete method of communication with the spirit realm, one that not only bypassed the clergy but that was unrelated to any established religious perspective. From Thomas Edison to Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell to Logie Baird, almost all of the major innovators in the field of early telecommunications technology made attempts at extending the range of their capacity to receive and communicate pulses, sounds and images beyond spatial distance and into the realm of the dead.

With this great intensification of public interest came a parallel intensification in charlatanism, rapidly followed once the war was over by the field losing its scientific and theoretical legitimacy. Amongst philosophers, a group rarely slow to dismiss a popular craze, the two major schools of thought born during the post-war period firmly rejected such beliefs as either themes that philosophy had nothing to say about and that should be passed over in silence, or judged them as an inauthentic evasion of the finitude of the human condition. There was no equivalent bubble of interest in spiritualism during or following the Second World War.

Yet perhaps we can partially attribute the dwindling of serious interest in a concrete method of communication with “external” dead spirits to another source. As we have seen, Rilke maintained his interest in occult phenomena after the war, yet he suggested that rather than the dead persisting either in a spiritual space beyond the limits of physical space or within extended space as a subtle form of matter , the realm of the dead might rather be the “depth dimensions of our inner being”. Under such a hypothesis, such instruments as the pointer on a Ouija board might remain a legitimate instrument for receiving messages from the dead. However, rather than depending on the quasi-physical presence of an airy spirit blowing the pointer, the participant carrying the ghost within the vast compass of their inner space might, though various involuntary spasms, bring forward a message from “the dead within them” that was entirely inaccessible to their conscious mind.

To begin to understand Rilke’s inspiration, it suffices to remember his affair with the psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé and through this his friendship with Sigmund Freud. If ever more sensitive recording and telecommunication technology had suggested the possibility of contact with the “external” dead through Edisonian “Spirit Phones” , the emergence of psychoanalytic “technology” brought a similar promise of contact with the “internal” or rather “internalised” dead. Both might be seen as technologies of amplification: the Spirit Phone attempting to amplify the small physical motions of airy spirits to a noticeable scale; the psychoanalyst’s method drawing attention to apparently incidental details of dreams or slips of the tongue, things that would have previously been passed over unnoticed yet that now became a focus of serious interpretative attention.

While more traditional accounts of human psychology might have reduced any notion of the persistence of the dead within the living psyche to an archived series of inert, accessible and transparent memories of past times spent together; the psychoanalytic account of the unconscious and the return of the repressed suggested far more dynamic possibilities with regard to the deads’ “survival” within the living. For Freud himself, the dynamics first established in Ferenczi’s 1909 account of introjection led to a theorisation of Mourning and Melancholia that would eventually attain such centrality in Freud’s thought that, by 1923’s The Ego and the Id, a melancholic internalisation of an absent or dead other’s voice became the basis of moral conscience and with it civilization and its concomitant discontent. Not only the Super-Ego, ethics and politics, but even the Ego as the basic pole of conscious self-identity came to be seen as partially constructed through mourning lost objects of libidinal attachment.

To whatever extent Freud attempted to legitimise psychoanalysis as a serious medical discipline through an account of pathologies, symptoms and cures modelled on physiological disorders, it is difficult to avoid the thought that the real underlying schema for his account of mental psychic disturbances was the kind of spiritual, psychic disturbance found in ghost stories. A traumatic, unresolved event from the past returns after a period of latency as a symptom that “haunts” the living; it continually makes itself known in the present through uncanny, repetitive and apparently meaningless actions; through analysis, these actions reveal themselves as having a secret significance relating to the past event that is their origin and whose occurrences they have symbolically encoded; this significance might point towards a debt that demands resolution, often itself rooted in a thwarted desire held by one who is now absent or dead yet whose due continues to manifest through the living who have unknowingly inherited this debt, at times becoming a kind of intergenerational family curse that will continue down the generations until it is dealt with; and laying this “ghost” to rest will demand the painstaking investigation of a nocturnal and almost inaccessible realm, guided by an expert in such “hauntings” who through a combination of natural gifts, training and experience has learnt to hear and see things coming from this realm that others would simply fail to perceive.

Dancing to Death

This relatively long opening update offers a general orientation to some of the themes that will hopefully be addressed in the future in this blog.

Socrates: The story goes that the cicadas used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat and drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the cicadas came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her. To Terpsichore they report those who have honored her by their devotion to the dance and thus make them dearer to her. To Erato, they report those who honored her by dedicating themselves to he affairs of love, and so too with the other Muses, according to the activity that honors each. And to Callipoe, the oldest among them, and Urania, the next after her, who preside over the heavens and all discourse, human and divine, and sing with the sweetest voice, they report those who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life. – Plato: Phaedrus (259b-d)

This will always be one of my favourite passages in Plato for placing thought and discourse – philosophical or scientific – alongside dance, music and love as overwhelming passions. In this we can hear the origins of philosophy as philo sophia, the love to wisdom – in Nietzschean terms at least as much a Dionysian frenzy as an Apollonian detached study. Perhaps philosophy, and once again we can include science under that banner, can only be truly approached in passion and love. Yet there nevertheless seems to be a mark of restraint here. One might even read the tale as a kind of warning against excess: the men who forgot to eat and drink died without realising it and only divine intervention stopped this story being an absurd tragedy. Yes, the cicadas remain, gifted to sing all day; however, we are clearly not cicadas: we must live alongside them in the forest glades, living “a philosophical life” in its more traditional common-language meaning, a life of restraint and moderation. We can honour their music, but only at a distance, only as men paying tribute to their semi-divine song.

Yet as is so often the case in Plato, surrounding details cause us to wonder. After all, wasn’t Socrates’ life precisely one of a cicada-like excess? We encounter him in the Symposium walking with Aristodemus to the house of Agathon for a meal followed by drinking, yet he suddenly stops walking in a fit of abstract thought. When Aristodemus arrives at Agathon’s house having lost Socrates on the way, Agathon sends servants who find him sitting under a portico in a trace, unresponsive to direct calls of his name. It is not until the meal is almost finished that Socrates finally appears at the party. While he then eats and drinks, he seems profoundly indifferent both to having almost missed his food and to the effects of the alcohol – while everyone else either becomes intoxicated or sensibly leaves when the party starts to descend into raucous drunkenness, Socrates himself calmly stays until the next morning, drinking more than anyone and yet apparently without effect before going straight about his daily business the next day without even sleeping until the following evening. Socrates apparent detachment from either the need for or the effects of food, drink and sleep seems to mimic the cicada. In the texts that centre on his death, whether the speech given in court in the Apology, the refusal to escape jail in the Crito or his reflections before drinking the hemlock in the Phaedo, he continues to show, and thus to exemplify to us as the model philosophical life, a life that is not designed to impress the cicadas who will report back to Callipoe and Urania, but to become one. Perhaps it is from this that we find in the work of Jacques Derrida the following pronouncement:

“I philosophize” can mean that as a man I am a cicada, I recall what I am, a cicada who remembers having been a man. – Derrida: The Animal that Therefore I Am

Yet can we really maintain such an attitude before death? A perhaps melancholic certainty informs us that the most inescapable fact, perhaps the only inescapable fact, is our death. Even the grandest post-human prophets of man’s impending digital or genetically modified immortality must admit that in a universe of expansion and entropy we can only defer the inevitable.

The most obvious question that suggests itself to us might be “Can we accept the inescapable fact of mortality?” This question actually hides two rather different concerns: firstly, can we accept that we will die, are we capable of really processing and internalising this fact as a fact? Secondly, can we find this acceptable – does it render existence itself objectionable or absurd? Do we depend, as so many philosophers have believed regardless of their religious convictions, on some notion of posthumous survival to render life worth living? However, perhaps a more productive angle from which to approach this inescapable fact is the question of the cicada – “Can we forget it?”

Here the philosophical tradition is divided into firmly opposed camps. On the one hand, there is the chain that flows from the Ancient Greek Epicureans to the Roman poet Lucretius, onward to Spinoza and right up to contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou. These thinkers broadly proclaim, in the words of Lucretius, that “Death is nothing to us”; or in Spinoza’s words that “A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” Whether it is a task that is regarded as easy or difficult, one of the promises and aims of philosophy would then be freedom from an obsession with mortality – in its extreme form we come to identify ourselves precisely with that which is immortal, with truth itself, and thus perhaps to repeat with Corithians 15:55 “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?”

Yet on the other hand, a very different tradition also emerges from Christian reflection in which our mortality is instead the most easily forgettable thing. For these thinkers, while we never escape the fact that we will die, we have a tremendous capacity to ignore it, to distract ourselves from it, or to actively flee it (frequently fleeing it through acts of apparent bravado such as the confident dismissal “Everything dies, get over it”). We require then the momento mori of a well placed skull adorning our desk or the weekly reminder of the skeletons’ message in the ossuary of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be”. Through such reminders to constantly think on one’s death, on the fact that it could strike at any moment, one will hopefully rectify one’s life – where life itself remains the greatest distraction from the far more substantial issue of death. In philosophy, Heidegger is perhaps the most famous inheritor of this tradition. In his philosophy our finitude is the most easily forgettable thing, the thing constantly fled from in our idle talk in which we only thinks “everyone dies” and never really process that “I will die”. We might think here of the famous lines from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych:

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

Yet for Heidegger it is precisely an acceptance of the temporal structure of our being-towards-death that can form the central pillar of our authentic singular existence. An existence that wouldn’t merely be the everyday existence of the crowd but that would be truly our own.

In short then, it seems that the Spinozist camp is telling us to become cicadas – to forget mortality in favour of the passionate pursuit of immortal philosophical truth; while the Heideggerian camp is telling us that a cicada who has forgotten the finite nature of his existence through being immersed in such immortal projects has actually fled his own nature and cannot be doing philosophy properly understood. One of the aims of this blog will be to show that this apparent division between two camps is in fact superficial and misguided.

We can hopefully approach this through a particular puzzling case – while Derrida is in the Heideggerian rather than the Spinozist camp on the matter of death (this is a simplification to which I’m sure we’ll return), he nevertheless refers to the philosopher as a cicada. If for Derrida philosophy itself is a meditation on mourning, a constant inheritance and respectful concern with the work of the dead, then how is it also simultaneously a forgetting of death, a transcendence in passion of mortality in favour of a kind of survival. Our suggestion is that Derrida’s work can function as a hinge that will show that the apparent positions of those who say we should never think about death and those who think we should constantly meditate on it are far closer than it might superficially appear.

Upcoming paper in Cyprus

While I’m generally writing up my doctoral thesis and have therefore put a total halt on giving conference papers, I’m nevertheless very excited to be making a one off exception for The 13th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas at the University of Cyprus, Nicosia from July 2-6. My paper will be part of the ‘Phenomenology towards the Crisis: Philosophy, Science, and the Call for a New Epoch.’ workshop, chaired by Tziovanis Georgakis and my good friend Christos Hadjioannou.

My paper is entitled ‘Geometry and the Bed of Non-meaning: Nicolas Abraham’s Science of Sciences’, in which I’ll be attempting a project that perhaps verges on madness – bringing together Abraham’s reflections on the anasemic nature of psychoanalytic language with the Husserlian account of geometry. For a long time this has struck me as one of the most important yet distant targets to grasp for a general project of an account of the dynamics of the material trace. Whether it can be done, and done convincingly, remains to be seen.

Denken ist Danken

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger frequently made use of the Pietist mantra that “denken ist danken“, that “to think is to thank”. Even if this etymological connection only holds in languages with Germanic roots (for example, there is no such connection between the French penser and remercier), it seems quite appropriate to begin this new blog with not only a wish of good luck to all my second-year BA students as they take their ‘Conceptual Foundations of Modernity’ exam tomorrow, but also with a gesture of thanks to you all. I know I’ve gained a lot from the unit, from your questions and from the essays you’ve produced over the last two terms.

There is a famous academic joke that consists of responding when asked if you’ve read a certain book with the line “Read it? I haven’t even taught it yet!”. Putting aside the jokes hyperbolic excess, we can perhaps reinterpret it as stating a basic truth that one doesn’t really even begin to understand a text when one first reads it, when one is taught it, but that truly starting to grasp it comes some time after you’ve explained it to someone else, after you’ve shared it and then returned to it once more. All of these classic texts we’ve been discussing in class, from Spinoza’s Ethics to Hobbes’ Leviathan remain very much “to be read”, by me as much as you. So, it is right to start this blog, which will hopefully touch on beginning once more to return to and read those very texts, with a thanks to all those who through helping to begin their task of reading and thinking have helped me to begin mine.