Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Death of the "Other" in Paul Celan (First After-Thought on the Ark)

"Todesfuge", 1944

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus und spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr anderen singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith


It is not simple to write musings on Celan under the present circumstances, for one would like after all, to subscribe to that philosophical consolation of old; yet the bridges have been broken, and with them Hegel and all possible "polis envy" have disappeared from sight as though they clouded in the snow and became faintly dim. Elsehow there's that primal need for an interlocutor, to summon Socratic conversations in which it is still possible to love the world unconditionally, it is a dialogue without partners and I cannot even rely on myself too much risking a certain touch of banality that has become a cluster in the everyday speech of our generation. Yet this everyday speech doesn't mean the language of everyday life, a distinction we owe to Rosenzweig and Rosenstock-Huessy in that language is distinct from world, even though by speaking we engage in a sort of world-building process, that altogether seems to be greatly hindered firstly since our expulsion from Paradise in the beginning of mankind, and followed by a deathly blow at a time when the world had been destroyed just as we knew it; despite everything things returned to normality, but this is only the surface... Hegel and Heidegger are very enlightening at this point when one says that as soon as you remove the "Grund" (foundation) of our freedom in community, which is communicability, we are immediately facing the "Abgrund" (abyss); because the freedom itself couldn't be the whole foundation for the world. The Jewish sages often said that the world was based on three pillars; in one account it is told they meant the Law, the Sacrifices (in the Temple) and Love (they actually meant "Charity", but this hardly holds the same meaning in the tradition of Christian thought that furnished us with the word "Charity", from the Augustinian "caritas" that in its alleged worldlessness comes rather far from the Biblical "Love Thy neighbour like yourself", beautifully expounded by Hillel, who was seemly uninterested in the ontology of beings and was perhaps in quoting this text, relating the life of the mind to the life of the community[1] - in a way similar to that of Hannah Arendt and Eveline Goodman-Thau).

Of course our tradition of continental philosophy (which I openly hold onto as my own, in the spirit of Karl Jaspers) since Plato (not Socrates or Jesus) emphasized the two-in-one (an innermost duality) causing a dichotomy in man's way of thinking (I shall not say mankind, for this is in itself a term as abstract as "everyday life" has been for Marxism) that set forth an incurable entimity between politics and philosophy, or between action and thought to establish a paradigm of generalization necessary for the sake of discourse. From the story of Plato's Cave and Diotima through Augustine and in our days with Gillian Rose's "Love's Work" and the Aesthetics of Lukacs, love has been mind-informed by philosophy whenever an adequate concept must be arrived at, whereas politics, namely the practical politics, has remained preposterously adrift from the philosophical conversations of our times; odd fact whose consequences can be seen clearly in the outcome of Western history for the last hundred years at least, the philosophical "error" that Hermann Cohen set to mend and that many others after him have followed, with a crucial junction in Hannah Arendt and her beautifully phrased "Politics is love applied to life". Such concepts which sprang from the "philosophical revolution of the 1920's" (to use Cassirer's wording) would have been entirely alien to the long centuries of Christian thought on the background of Aristotle, all the way down to Leibniz, Hegel and Fichte.

This is a particular mode of thought which still puzzles most of us today, specially in the light of our present circumstances under which nothing could pose more of a threat to the actual live of denizens in democratic states than the making of actual politics; altogether Arendt also wrote to Scholem in the 1960's (as well as in different articles addressing issues of the Blacks in the USA) that love is something that must be kept for the private, because the love of people is usually an oppresive affection on the basis of qualities which are akin only to oppressed peoples indeed, and that do not survive the momentum of their liberation even for five minutes. But this is not a simple riddle, as Kafka in "The Castle" is keen in letting us see how in his expulsion from Paradise, man has lost his name (his characters go mainly by initials), his language (there's no real communication) and his love (only sex remains); only to be reinforced by Foucault, who speaking the language of modernity says that in our times the clusters of judgement have become rather blurry, therefore good-bad-evil has been replaced by normal-abnormal-pathologic. It doesn't come willy-nilly of course, but as Arendt and Heller have expounded, it is the result of "science" becoming the winner "world-view" of our times, and religion (altogether with the traditions bound with it) the defeated one. In the light of this loss, which is experienced in its raw form by modern men and women, it is no longer possible to seek alternative refugee in a metaphysical sort of existence, neither to destroy the space for reflexion altogether; for in doing so one would do away with both reality and essence, which is actually what has happened in the last phase of "modernity", which I would dare to call "modern postmodernity". Yet in this very age, the concern with both "exile" ontologies and the realities of reality, has never been greater. Paradoxically enough, it is all within the discourse of a quest for meaning, which for Gavriel Motzkin is in fact, a denial of human freedom. It seems that the death of the "subject" preached by some of our "postmodern" philosophers sounds indeed like a hoax, for concern with "Selves" and "Beings" couldn't be any greater, both of which fail to address the actual needs of modern men and women, that can only be addressed through a "modification" of the conditions under which the yoke of everyday life is lived, so that eventually a social change could be effectuated under non-totalitarian means, namely without the secularization of old myths and their messianic elements that have promised heaven on earth, of course on condition of the elimitation of certain "others" that are not Selves or Beings but people of flesh and bones. Stalinism, Nazism and Islamism are only the modern ambassadors of such threats that have visited Western mankind since the earliest beginning, not to mention Anti-Semitism, which demands a much more intrincate discussion of religious, political, social and cultural concepts. "Interesting times are always a curse", so goes the Chinese adage, favourite to Arendt.
Beings and Selves have not actually sprung out of these interesting times (despite Heidegger and his followers magicians), but have remained at the backbone of our historical memory. Beings are actually a Platonic cul-de-sac and the philosophical beginning; one can see for example no such a concept existed in Judaism until the Hellenistic age and the Rabbis seemed to have been more interested in practical politics than in metaphysical divagations, in fact the Romantic idea of this unphilosophical religious canon was the strongest motif behind Harvey Cox's "The Secular City". Some scholars have argued that the "Self" is a cultural invention as old as the Biblical and Classical canons, and "Being" a more contemporary philosophical heritage; in my humble opinion they're utterly wrong, for philosophically speaking I cannot locate the "Self" (not in the context of "Beings" but of "Individuals") earlier than Kierkegaard, who in fact was responding to Hegel's totalized view of man that continues the monistic tradition that to holds so little interest for philosophers concerned with the issues of the day, those I shall refer to as "existential phenomenologists of politics". By this I mean thinkers concerned with concrete worldly artifacts whose description entails such a complex interweaving of concepts (genealogy) that eventually leads them to develop fragments of philosophy, there're actually, let me say, existential epistemologists of politics as well. As much as they differ in opinions I would place Arendt, Goodman-Thau and Jonas with the former, and Heller, MacIntyre and Bloch with the latter. Juncture at which I am again able (despite myself) to turn to Goodman-Thau and Heller, in my musing about Paul Celan's poem. Not without saying that the foundations of hermeneutic philosophy as it stands today with its major thinkers has an underlying motif at the core, in exercising a radical critique of Hegel in particular and of Historicism in general; namely the divorce of philology and the cultural sciences from philosophy, which has in fact turned philosophy into a rather sterile discipline and at the same time has left the cultural sciences bereft of any philosophical heritage that could prove itself fruitful in the quest for enabling political action through thinking, once again relating the life of the mind to the life of the community.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

On Decent Philosophy and the Pride of Thinking

A lot of pivoting questions have arised as of late, questions that evidently bear the stamp of an after thought - namely of something that hasn't been thought of ex nihilo but rather bears the weightful chain not of the tradition but of the experience in everyday situations; to use the better refined language of Jaspers: "borderline situations". I'm certainly interested in philosophical questions, but not those that belong in the realm of philosophy but rather those that border on "philosophizing" - as an activity, a process; namely a mode of action for philosophy, that of exercising a critique of culture in the sense of Lessing: a world-building activity that prescribes modes of political action, especially the judgement in everyday situations, either borderline or not, and the existential choice of oneself for a decent person.

Roseznweig wrote to Mennecke, expressing his growing interest in "questions asked by human beings", instead of mere intellectual discourse... that as in Jaspers, is unable to pose questions in the language of necessity (and here we have to return to Marx a little bit only to leave him altogether for good) and doesn't enable the "communicability" necessary to establish the language of judgement and responsibility that can safeguard the course of Modernity; in general philosophy even lacks the "attitude" to be this-worldly and in a sense the old dogmas of myths and fantasies have only become secularized by the Godess-of-Reason, which as someone pointed out, had been already buried by Kant before the French actually heard of her at all.

This convinced me even more than before that the next school of Existential Philosophy will be that of "Hermeneutics of Everyday Life", a subject that has been in public discourse perhaps since Weber but that actually no one had formalized or coined before my teacher and my own person. A philosophical revolution that started with the Exodus philosophers (this term belongs to Gillian Rose), Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (specially the latter, even though I'm particularly closer to the former) and was "completed" (only in the sense that its ideas became de-radicalized) with Cassirer and then officially with Jaspers, despite Heidegger's contribution to the discussion which is secondary to none, for it was him who shifted the attention of thought from Existentialist philosophy (which to this idea remains a French school of literature and philosophy without much influence in history of ideas - other than the recognition of a break in the tradition that happened sidedly with the Enlightenment and saw its peak in a negation of itself in the most Hegelian fashion: The Holocaust) to Existential philosophy.

What is at stake here is not a mere philosophical system, but the whole existence of modernity at large and per se the political consequences of thinking, which has hardly been considered a too respectable object of inquiry for modern philosophy, even despite the progress achieved in the fields of political and moral philosophy. There are no longer issues of Thought separated from Action, the old Cartesian model has been long dead altogether with the totalized view of Idealism and its imaginary flights that caused the "philosophical error" on which the Enlightenment had been built creating the most lonesome of all possible existence for men under the yoke of everyday life. This philosophy can only that of the decent type, boasting more than philosophical discourse the mere pride of thinking, unburdened and without a bannister. No other people I've heard of who embodied this decency than Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas and Karl Jaspers; while at the same time no other people whom I've known have embodied this decency more than Eveline and Agnes, my teachers.

"Was ich bei Ihnen gelernt habe und was mir in den folgenden Jahren half, mich in der Wirklichkeit zurechtzufinden, ohne mich ihr zu verschreiben, wie man sich frueher dem Teufel verschrieb, ist, dass es nur auf die Wahrheit ankommt und nicht auf Weltanschauungen, dass man im Freien leben und denken muss und nicht in einem noch so schoen eingerichteten "Gehaeuse", und dass die Notwendigkeit in jeder Gestalt nur der Spuk ist, der uns locken moechte, eine Rolle zu spielen, anstatt zu versuchen, irgenwie ein Mensch zu sein."

Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers
"Sechs Essays", 1948

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ich weiss


Ich weiß, daß ich bald sterben muß
Es leuchten doch alle Bäume
Nach langersehntem Julikuß –
Fahl werden meine Träume –
Nie dichtete ich eine trüberen Schluß
In den Büchern meiner Reime,
Eine Blume brichst du mir zum Gruß –
Ich liebte sie schon im Keime.
Doch ich weiß, daß ich bald sterben muß.
Mein Odem schwebt über Gottes Fluß –
Ich setze leise meinen Fuß
Auf den Pfad zum ewigen Heime

-Else Lasker-Schueler

I don't know when this poem was written and I'm tempted to try and find out, with the only hope it wasn't in Jerusalem a few months before the end of the war, the poem is actually a rather beautiful musing and an embracement of something I cannot describe, that most often is related to childish imagination and cold memories; like escaping into a forest next to that enormous cold lake and breathe in the venomous clean air on a certain day when my cousin ran after me. The poem has a little modernist vagueness which I like, especially because it's charged with humour. I shall not write too much in the forthcoming months, fearing to lose sight of myself.

I just know with some vague certainty that the obssessive imagination of death, perhaps not of your own, but of death in general is the founding principle of any possible philosophical reflection; just like the painter imagines his death on the canvas, the philosopher cannot but return to this idea as though he knew the exact moment of his departure. It is pointless to escape the Platonic reflection that teaches one that the only possible aim of philosophy is to teach man the wisdom of death, namely to learn how to die. This is only under the assumption one would believe there's anything to be learnt at all and whether this has a connection at all to our worldly experiences.

Not sure if this discussion is entirely relevant in the secular philosophies, that have for long lost sight of their own objects of description, and the subjects themselves are everything but dead. We take a slight distance from the pivoting point of our thoughts in order to create worldly spaces and as Bloch said, to establish the unparadoxicality of philosophizing namely in intimately tying our critical philosophy to the political action of the everyman. It is my opinion that it is only possible in critical philosophy and deconstruction, as to build the bridges destroyed by the decline of the Greek world and the deadly blow set on the forehead of dialectic philosophy.

Here I return to my communist painter in that "you've become the eternal motif of all my paintings", shifting my attention towards the poor sad Morgenland. It's a life of eternal moral conflict, in which everything you can ever teach or learn in the Socratic way can only tear you to pieces. But that's what you've chosen for yourself, the paradox of being a modern man... The ethical murderer, and the ethical dyer.

Philosophy needs an addressant, like you have in letters, it needs a thorough humanization and personification that can distance us a little bit from Kant's sad world. It doesn't occur to me at all how this can become possible other than re-poetization. Ofer insists that my thoughts on freedom remain extremely Protestant and Puritan, because a certain portion of everyday life can in fact be chosen - which is true, nevertheless there is no rationale for it in the traditions of philosophical discourse except in that you can actually choose to end your life, both knowingly and unknowingly and this could actually prove not rationally but hermeneutically that Agnes Heller got it right when she spoke about the spiritual center of modern life, specially when addressing the question on how something so fragile and with so little spirituality can survive; that more than often becomes a theoretical question because this is in fact the only strength that modern life really has, even though this has to be refined and de-Hegelianised in order to become a value, in that it can only be relativized.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Diary of Shame

O reckless traveler, have you exchanged your shame afresh?

Perhaps also your creatureliness and otherness for a chemical mirror?

You shall no longer fall under this spell

Or believe their lies

It is necessarily sad

You cannot choose yourself for world-survival

For it then dawns upon you one day

When no one glimpses into you

And the fear of immortality

Seems rather unbearable

Untenable, unmiserable and unchoosen

You wish to paint a black spot on your eye

That encounters more than it searches

Right in the middle

Desirably estranged by pangs of birth

That bring no thing into the world

But transform you

Into the nightly navigator

No longer able to locate Orion

Or Aurora