Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 8, Plato

     Now I've really gone off. I got a whole bunch of Plato on Audio CD: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, The Republic, and The Symposium. I've listened to all of it except for the end of The Phaedo -- oh, man, I think Socrates is in trouble... Plato makes a big point of disallowing poets, in particular Homer, from The Republic. It has been pointed out with tiresome frequency that the dialogues are themselves art, with the attendant questioning as to whether Plato is a hypocrite and with the answer that since his art is in the service of dialectic, it is not subject to the same objections as Homer. Plato has specific problems with Homer.  First, Homer represents unstable personalities in a heroic way. Homer's poetry does not do what the dialogues do, instruct. So is Plato agrees with Camus that Homer is a poetical rebel.
     The question is, what is the status of Socrates? Camus would likely say that Socrates was not a Rebel. In fact, Socrates' prime foe, embodied by the Sophists, is a kind of nihilism. What problematizes ( -- I love the fact this has a wikipedia page) Socrates' status is his questioning of authority, is being a gadfly( -- that's right, there's one for this, too) the same as being a rebel, or, a Rebel?
     But it seems to me that neither the sophists nor Socrates qualify as Rebels.  While the sophists might qualify as 'metaphysical rebels' in the sense that they relativize 'Truth' in much the same way postmodernism does, Socrates might qualify as a 'rebel' because of his commitment to ultimate Truth. But neither rebel against the established order: the sophists exploit the order of the day to teach other to do the same, Socrates, when given the chance to flee rather than die, reaffirms his allegiance to the social order and chooses to die. In this sense neither is really a rebel.
     Perhaps the Rebel is represented by Thrasymachus in The Republic, after all, he tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, which is a libertine story worthy of Sade. Callicles, from the Gorgias, also comes to mind. But Protagoras is not a Rebel, neither is Euthryphro. So, nihilism can take the form of extreme conformity for the purposes of gaining advantage; commitment to 'Truth' can be used for rebellion, but I think not as 'Rebellion'. In order to qualify as a rebel I would think it means, as Camus says, 'saying no'.  The 'no' can be to the universe or to a society. Rebellion(with a capital 'R') in Camus' sense might be more like the old Greek view of insanity: beating the sea with sticks. The Greeks saw this as insanity, the Romantics heroize it. Well, acting insanely(unless you're a government or multinational corporation) usually ends badly, so I can hardly recommend it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 7, Jim Morrison

     Alright, I know what you're saying, Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960, he couldn't have mentioned Jim Morrison. Well, I read the little section on Rimbaud and the surrealists and decided to write about Jim Morrison instead. Morrison styled himself a poet and seems to have had an affinity for Rimbaud. He was obviously a rebel -- I recently read a good biography of Morrison -- and he took bits and pieces of poetry and Nietzsche to help define the counterculture.
     At first, while reading the biography I felt very sorry for Morrison, but as the book progressed I felt increasingly sorry for the people who came into contact with him. In some ways Morrison was the perfect embodiment of Camus' and Nietzsche's rebel, in other ways he was a silly caricature. Interesting though his life was, he does not really present in any way a heroic life I would want to emulate. I know what I'm saying is heresy to a great number of people. Sorry.
     I've enjoyed The Doors music thoroughly, Morrison was obviously a great vocalist and certainly a much better than average lyricist, but it is also true that without the obvious talent of the other members, The Doors wouldn't have been what they were. And he ended up dead at 27, likely long before his real poetic maturity.
     There is in some of the rebels Camus discusses, a certain tendency toward self-indulgence that deflates their tragic status. In contrast to Oedipus, who rebelled against fate and ending up plucking his eyes out, or Beethoven, who suffered a traumatic early life, an encroaching deafness(with attendant tinnitus), a painful intestinal disease, and the knowledge that he was the greatest musician of the Europe of his day, Sade and Morrison seem like they were spoiled or just ill. Morrison's early death was indeed tragic, but it was the result of youthful excess, substance addiction, and a tendency that would be fixable with a good SSRI.
     This leads to the question, when is rebellion serious, something of cultural moment, and when is it silly self-indulgence or a tragic, but unprofound, mental illness? Those of you offended by any of my Morrison comments please feel free to comment.

The Rebel, Entry 6, Nietzsche part 2

     Camus moves from Nietzsche's assault on Christianity to his assault on socialism. Unfortunately, his assault on socialism bears some superficial commonality with the attitudes of the Randians. But Nietzsche was anything but some capitalist. He had Homeric heroes in mind, not dull boardrooms.

"Socialism is only a degenerate form of Christianity. In fact, it preserves a belief in the finality of history which betrays life and nature, which substitutes ideal ends for real ends, and contributes to enervating both the will and the imagination. Socialism is nihilistic, in the henceforth precise sense that Nietzsche confers on the word. A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who does not believe in what exists. In this sense, all forms of socialism are manifestations, degraded once again, of Christian decadence."(pg. 69)

Socialism is committed to values of equality which ultimately derive from a religious root. It is therefore just as nihilistic. But Nietzsche prefers the 'great spirited' overman to the capitalist rule follower. Nietzsche's modern hero is Goethe, an artist who actualized himself. As Camus says:

"Nietzsche clamored for a Roman Caesar with the soul of Christ."(pg. 77)

Camus asserts that Nietzsche fails to realize that "socialist emancipation must, by an inevitable logic of nihilism, lead to what he himself dreamed of: superhumanity.(pg.78) I'm still thinking about this. Socialist emancipation, I take it from capitalist domination, according to Camus, is a road to Nietzsche's ideal? Camus goes on to say that Nietzsche's philosophy leads, in concert with Marx, with politburos or capitalists with a Caesar complex:

"The great rebel thus creates with his own hands, and for his own imprisonment, the implacable reign of necessity. Once he had escaped from God's prison, his first care was to construct the prison of history and of reason, thus putting the finishing touch to the camouflage and consecration of the nihilism whose conquest he claimed."(pg. 81)

Well, I'm still thinking this out and I'm not sure I understand this passage. What I can say is that rebelling against humanitarianism and the freethinkers, which Nietzsche most certainly advocated, leads to domination by a few 'supermen' who are not, I assume, what Nietzsche had in mind at all. Rather, they are the same corrupt politicians and business leaders Nietzsche surely disdained in his own day.

     I suppose I have to say here that I've always thought of Nietzsche's ideal as the ravings of someone who read too much romantic literature or poetry. Such things/people are not part of the reality in which we find ourselves. In the long run, the humanitarians, the Bertrand Russells and E.M. Forsters of the world, are more on the right track. That's right, I've come full circle to advocating Russell, whose work on happiness I said read like a Disney script.  So it goes.

Next, the poets...

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 5, Nietzsche part 1

     I figure it will take me more than one entry to handle what Camus says about Nietzsche in this section of the book(still 'Metaphysical Rebellion'). In the popular mind Nietzsche is a god killer who went crazy; others try to turn Nietzsche into a thinker with political views commensurate with contemporary liberalism. The main thing to understand about Nietzsche is that he accuses Western culture of being nihilistic -- he's not a proponent of  nihilistic resignation, he is a diagnostician.  Camus writes:

"Nietzsche never thought except in terms of an apocalypse to come, not in order to extol it, for he guessed the sordid and calculating aspect that this apocalypse would finally assume, but in order to avoid it and to transform it into a renaissance. He recognized nihilism for what it was and examined it as a clinical fact...He said of himself that he was the first complete nihilist of Europe.  Not by choice, but by condition, and because he was too great to refuse the heritage of his time. He diagnosed in himself, and in others, the inability to believe and the disappearance of the primitive foundation of all faith -- namely, the belief in life."(pg. 66)

The problem is how to live without replacing primitive beliefs with other gods. Here Camus says, and I think this is very powerful:

"...Nietzsche did not form a project to kill God. He found Him dead in the soul of his contemporaries. He was the first to understand the immense importance of the event and to decide that this rebellion on the part of men could not lead to a renaissance unless it was controlled and directed."(pg. 68)

Now, some people reading this may be believers: I'm not here to tell you God is dead for you, just that this is how Nietzsche diagnosed the Europe of his day. He believed there was no turning back to God and wants to propose ways forward without regret or regression. Nietzsche proposes the rejection of all traditional values as decadent and replacing it with more 'Homeric' values. Nietzsche rejects Jesus' words as the opposite of rebellion. Jesus, so Nietzsche says, supports nonresistance rather than rebellion. This is more or less what Nietzsche refers to as 'slave morality'.  Nietzsche further accuses Paul and the Church as adding Judgement, reward and punishment etc.. to the mix.

Camus writes:
"Christianity believes that it is fighting against nihilism because it gives the world a sense of direction, while it is really nihilist itself in so far as, by imposing an imaginary meaning on life, it prevents the discovery of real meaning..."(pg. 69)

In the next entry on Nietzsche I'll take on what Camus writes about Nietzsche and socialism.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 4, From Sade to Dandies

"You're a rebellious soul in a good-looking body." -- my first therapist, c. 1986

     Well, I'm not as good looking as I used to be... which brings me to Camus' presentation of the Marquis De Sade. I am not familiar with the writings of Sade and I think I'm going to keep it that way.  Apparently Sade spent many years in prison and had time to dream up all kinds of wacky fantasies. Mainly, Camus is giving Sade as an example of complete negation. In his imagination Sade wants to dominate and then destroy the universe, or something. Sadism sounds exhausting.
     Camus portrays Sade's work as ending with all the victims dead and the executioners are left to turn on each other:

"The most powerful, the one who will survive, is the solitary, the Unique, whose glorification Sade has undertaken -- in other words, himself...He is in fact alone, imprisoned in a bloodstained Bastille, entirely constructed around a still unsatisfied, and henceforth undirected, desire for pleasure. He has only triumphed in a dream and those ten volumes crammed with philosophy and atrocities recapitulate an unhappy form of asceticism, an illusory advance from the total no to the absolute yes, an acquiescence in death at last, which transfigures the assassination of everything and everyone into a collective suicide."(pg. 45)

Camus says that Sade equated 'freedom' with 'crime'.  He was a proponent of a free republic where freedom seemed mixed-up with degradation.  Camus writes:

"The history and the tragedy of our times really begin with him.  He only believed that a society founded on freedom of crime must coincide with freedom of morals, as though servitude had its limits. Our times have a limited themselves to blending, in a curious manner, his dream of a universal republic and his technique of degradation."(pg. 47)

Devastatingly, Camus concludes:
" Crime, which he wanted to be the exotic and delicious fruit of unbridled vice, is no more today than the dismal habit of a police-controlled morality.  Such are the surprises of literature."(pg. 47)

I watched 'The Daily Show' today and it had some professor talking about drones.  Far from crime being erotic it'll be some workaday operation.

     After, I'm sorry, an unenlightening passage about how the modern rebel begins in the romantic movement by siding with Satan in "Paradise Lost', he takes on the dandies.

"The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition."(pg. 51)  I guess by wearing a loud sweater I, too, can be a rebel.

"He[the dandy] plays at life because he is unable to live it.  He plays at it until he dies, except for the moments when he is alone and without a mirror.  For the dandy, to be alone is not to exist."(pg. 52)

I'm actually a big fan of Oscar Wilde, but it's hard these days to take too seriously the mannered rebellion of a late 19th Century upper-class Londoner. And I can't help quoting Billy Joel:

"How about a pair of pink sidewinders
And a bright orange pair of pants?
"You could really be a Beau Brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance"
--It's Still Rock and Roll to Me

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 3, The Greeks

     Camus begins his 'Metaphysical Rebellion' section, first by saying that the rebellion he is describing does not predate the enlightenment, then by saying intimations of it are to be found in the ancient tragedies.  Obviously, Prometheus is the first case that comes to mind.  He is in rebellion to the Gods and is heavily punished for it.  In a certain sense, bringing fire to humans can be taken as a rebellion against the inequality between humans and gods.  But Camus goes deeper into the Greek notion of Fate.  I can't help at this point quoting  Greenberg in his lectures on Beethoven, when Beethoven began the romantic movement in science Greenberg says he assumes his new 'artistic self image, that of a hero, battling, and finally triumphing, over Fate itself.'  I heartily recommend any of Greenberg's lectures from the Teaching Company, especially those on Beethoven.
     Metaphysical rebellion is characterized by a rebellion against the human condition as such, what with the pointless suffering and the death and the yada yada yada. Metaphysical rebellion

"presupposes a simplified view of creation -- which was inconceivable to the Greeks.  In their minds, there were not gods on one side and men on the other, but a series of stages leading from one to the other.  The idea of innocence opposed to guilt, the concept of all of history summed up in the struggle between good and evil, was foreign to them. In their universe there were more mistakes than crimes, and the only definitive crime was excess. In a world entirely dominated by history, which ours threatens to become, there are no longer any mistakes, but only crimes, of which the greatest is moderation."(pg. 28)

One is reminded of the 'Great Chain of Being' I used to hear in lectures on Shakespeare. I do often feel that we live in an all or nothing world.  The recent inability of our government to act is an example, as are political correctness on the one hand and neoconservatism on the other. Even in my own mind I can feel the pull against compromise sometimes.  But I identify this pressure as social, rather than intellectual. It probably doesn't compute for some that I can like both Charles Kors and Noam Chomsky at the same time. Camus is right, especially thinking in terms of 1956, that the world is divided by ideologies.  I've been to lectures, say between Dershowitz and Chomsky on Israel, where the audience was clearly on one side, when, on the basis of what was actually said, no decision could be made(I didn't observe either side not distributing a middle term or anything).
     Of course I can't leave the Greeks without talking about Oedipus. Oedipus, I can only feel with a kind of arrogance, rebels against nature to know the truth, discovers he is the cause of the plague, and it is the search itself that is his undoing. I read Oedipus The King at about the same time I read 'Heart of Darkness'; the parallels are hard to miss. Searching for the truth one finds out something tragic at the end of it.  So, does this mean we should leave these kinds of searches to the gods?  Are we better off not knowing?  Is it our 'place' to know?  Eventually, Oedipus and family discover that Fate cannot be avoided, Beethoven's self-image notwithstanding, and Marlowe discovers the 'horror' and all that(a view much more like that of Camus').

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Rebel, Entry 2, Solidarity

     The title of the short first part of The Rebel is, called, well, 'The Rebel'.  He deals with rebellion in the forms it took since the 18th Century, where some group demanded its rights.  Camus argues that in a society that holds a sacred view of the world and social order, there is not the same type of rebellion.  He says:

"The spirit of rebellion can only exist in a society where a theoretical equality  conceals great factual inequalities.  The problem of rebellion, therefore, has no meaning except within our own Western society."(pg. 20)

I think that he, well, equates Western society with certain notions of human equality.  In a society whose view of reality denies this, there is not the same potential for rebellion in the sense Camus is describing.  What is interesting to me is that it is against this very society that some are rebelling for the sake of returning to a 'sacred' world(I used to belong to a religious group that possessing this type of solidarity).  I suppose Camus would not call this the same type of 'rebellion'.  The solidarity these groups feel among themselves replaces Camus' notion of solidarity, which is in terms of humanity in a non-sacred world.  Finally, Camus writes:

"...the first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all men and that human reality, in it entirety, suffers from this distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single man becomes a mass plague.  In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the 'cogito' in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence.  But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the whole human race.  I rebel -- therefore we exist."(pg. 22)

Camus constructs a simple picture, we 'Westerners' experience the strangeness of things because we are mature enough to have disposed of the sacred, this common experience of strangeness and our notions of 'common humanity' produce solidarity.  Now the individual experiencing the absurd is not rebelling alone against the depersonalizing forces of modernism(or postmodernism).  The question is, would Camus say that those living in the sacred world are somehow living in a kind of Kierkegaardian/Sartrean 'bad faith'? If so, Camus is no relativist.  If not, then the 'universality' of the experience of the absurd is called into question. My bet is that Camus is no relativist.  His  rebellion is quite metaphysical in this sense.  Oh, wait, that's the name of the next section, 'Metaphysical Rebellion'.

The Rebel, by Camus, Entry 1, The Introduction

     Well, the Sandel book was not all that interesting, and I think I've grown strong enough to take a chance again at reading this book by Camus. Albert Camus is one of my favorite authors. I first read Camus as a teenager and found that among 20th-Century writers he was the one who spoke to me the most.  I put Camus' writings in the category of the works that have set the agenda(or non-agenda) for much of my mental life.  One can ask which direction the causality went: did my tendency to be deeply morose come first and cause my resonance with certain works, such as Ecclesiastes, or did this exposure cause my tendency.  I'm certain now that the causality ran in the first direction. But, once I read Ecclesiastes, it was done. Then came Macbeth, then Camus.  Camus is, for me, far more affecting than, say Sartre, with whom he is, I think unfortunately, connected.
      As a philosopher, Camus is uninterested in the usual problems of epistemology.  This is possibly why he is often referred to as an 'existentialist', though, from what I can gather he had no set position on free-will.  Philosophy of Science as such is no interest to him, nor is metaphysics, really.  Obviously I have an interest in these but Camus can make me feel like I'm wasting my time(note this book was published in 1956; Camus seems to characterize this era as one of 'ideology'):

 "The important thing, therefore, is not, as yet, to go to the root of things, but, the world being what it it is, to know how to live in it.  In the age of negation, it was of some avail to examine one's position concerning suicide.  In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in relation to murder. If murder has rational foundations, then our period and we ourselves are rationally consequent.  If it has no rational foundations, then we are insane and there is no alternative but to find some justification or to avert our faces."(pg. 4)

It seems to me we still live in a world, somewhat surprisingly if you had an early-in-life belief that progress would cause so many of these problems to simply dissolve, divided by religion and ideology.  Humanistic optimism seems no more justifiable now than in previous decades.  How is this possible? How is it possible that 'market triumphalism', to borrow a phrase of Sandel's, could continue to be so influential? At the same time, how could the academic left still present as alternatives economic models that are so obviously untenable(federated anarcho-syndicalism, simplistic versions of democratic socialism etc..)?  Sometimes we seem to be getting nowhere and the romantic fears about science seem quite justified(I just read a couple of great stories by Hawthorne: 'The Birthmark' and 'Rapaccini's Daughter').

     I bought this copy of The Rebel only a couple of years ago. I found I did not have the strength to make it through this work -- as I proceed through this book now those of you who know me will see why.  Now, the book is a pretty dense read, but that is not the problem, the problem is passages like this:

"In a way, the man who kills himself in solitude still preserves certain values since he, apparently, claims no rights over the lives of others.  The proof of this is that he never makes use, in order to dominate others, of the enormous power and freedom of action, which his decision to die gives him...Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide.  It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others...Here suicide and murder are two aspects of a single system, the system of a misguided intelligence that prefers, to the suffering imposed by a limited situation, the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated."(pg. 7)

This is the voice of a man who has been there. This whole topic is difficult to bring up with the hysteria over mental illness now sweeping across the media -- saying that the issue is really gun control(by the way, I'm in favor of banning guns altogether, period. And, yes, frankly, I agree with those who say that violent video games, movies etc... do put ideas in the minds of those already predisposed.) does not go to the heart of the matter; this is because the matter he describes goes to the heart of what Camus thinks are the ultimate questions.
     Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus I believe, puts suicide as THE philosophical question, not just a matter of emotional exasperation[Russell once said somewhere that existentialism was based intellectually on errors of syntax and emotionally on exasperation, but reading his 'Conquest of Happiness' is like reading the text of a Disney movie.]. Nihilism, taken seriously, leads to the total destruction Camus refers to here, but optimism of any kind seems frankly silly.

Enter the REBEL...