Monday, July 8, 2013

Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness.

(The post's title comes from Franz Kafka via Matt Pianalto. I return to them below.)

I was surprised to read how much misunderstanding of "the banality of evil" there is, but there is more to this article in The Stone than that. Here's a key part:

Arendt concluded that evil in the modern world is done neither by monsters nor by bureaucrats, but by joiners.
That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.
If thoughtless joining is bad, as it certainly seems to be, then it might seem that being a thoughtful leader is better. But leaders require followers, and followers sound like thoughtless joiners, which are bad. There's also the danger of arrogance. In contrast to that is Kafka as quoted by Matt Pianalto:
One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait. Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.
There are echoes of Dostoevsky here, or rather Ivan Karamazov, it seems to me:
I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I've long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one's heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It's first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it's a most precious graveyard, that's what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I'm convinced in my heart that it's long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in my emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky—that's all it is. It's not a matter of intellect or logic, it's loving with one's inside, with one's stomach. One loves the first strength of one's youth.
Kafka and Ivan love spring, and see it expressed even in death, even in a graveyard. It is not always easy to see it there (to put it mildly), but it can be done. Kafka is oddly voyeuristic-sounding on how:
It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
Father Zossima is odd, too, but perhaps better:
“That life is heaven,” he said to me suddenly, “that I have long been thinking about”; and all at once he added, “I think of nothing else indeed.” 
“Heaven,” he went on, “lies hidden within all of us—here it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me to-morrow and for all time.”
“And that we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins, you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality.”
"[...] Believe me, this dream, as you call it, will come to pass without doubt; it will come, but not now, for every process has its law. It's a spiritual, psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to every one, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Every one will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through the period of isolation.”
It is the "fear-ridden I" (Kafka's words) that Zossima sees as needing to be overcome, the "terrible individualism" in which we "tremble in fear," as he puts it. Kafka's solution is love, which he also calls patience: "the barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. [...] Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true." Zossima also says that we must wait for the necessary psychological process to follow its law, and that the solution lies in overcoming egoism and realizing that, apart from our sins, we are "all responsible to all for all." 

Matt wonders [or rather, he raises the question] whether Kafka's patience might be boring or voyeuristic [which it might seem if you imagine Kafka sitting in his apartment or office patiently waiting for something to happen], but it's only going to be boring if the whole world does not take off its mask and offer itself to you, writhing in ecstasy. And then that is only going to be voyeuristic if you leave it writhing there alone. Kafka's words sound too pornographic, but I think his idea is that (again rather like Zossima) you have to actively love the world. It's hard to talk about that without at least sounding as though you have making love in mind. But of course he doesn't mean fucking the world in the sense of screwing it over, nor does he mean having a handjob while thinking of the world. I would say that Kafka's choice of words is unfortunate, but then I'd be giving advice on writing to Franz Kafka. 

I'm not saying that Kafka and Dostoevsky (who I think is pretty much speaking through Ivan and Zossima here) are right, but their ideas are both interesting and interestingly similar. 

There's a Wittgenstein connection too, since Wittgenstein was extremely fond of the Zossima parts of The Brothers Karamazov. And he has some things to say about the ego in the Tractatus. Concerning his own there is this:
the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am therefore of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved. And if I am not wrong in this, then the value of this work now consists secondly in that it shows how little has been achieved by the solving of these problems.
This sounds at least somewhat immodest, despite the last sentence of it. But I think it (immodestly again?) recalls Kant (Critique of Pure Reason. A xiii-xiv): 
In this enquiry I have made completeness my chief aim, and I venture to assert that there is not a single metaphysical problem which has not been solved, or for the solution of which the key at least has not been supplied.
While I am saying this I can fancy that I detect in the face of the reader an expression of indignation, mingled with contempt, at pretensions seemingly so arrogant and vain-glorious. Yet they are incomparably more moderate than the claims of all those writers who on the lines of the usual programme profess to prove the simple nature of the soul or the necessity of a first beginning of the world. For while such writers pledge themselves to extend human knowledge beyond all limits of possible experience, I humbly confess that this is entirely beyond my power. 
Speaking of the simple nature of the soul, Wittgenstein says this:
5.5421 This shows also that the soul – the subject, etc. – as it is conceived in the contemporary superficial psychology, is a nothing [Unding].
A composite soul would by definition [nämlich] be no longer a soul. 
Is Wittgenstein then a member of the kind of metaphysicians Kant criticizes? Does he profess to prove the simple nature of the soul? I don't think so. Later he writes:
5.64 Here one sees that solipsism, rigorously followed through, coincides with pure Realism. The I of solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point, and the reality coordinated to it remains. 
5.641 There is therefore really a sense in which there can be non-psychological talk in philosophy of the I.
The I occurs in philosophy through the fact that the “world is my world.”
The philosophical I is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul that psychology deals with, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit – not a part of the world.
The I is both an extensionless point and the limit of the world. But it is not a part of the world, and so cannot be talked about or thought of. It is inconceivable. There is a sense in which it can be talked of, but this is "through the fact" that the "world is my world" (note the scare quotes there). We talk of the I by talking of the world, then, and perhaps also of its being my world. But I think we have to drop the "my world" stuff because 'my' implies I, and there is no I to talk about here. The I of psychology is a nothing and the I of philosophy is nothing we can talk about. It is an idea to overcome.

1 comment:

  1. "nor does he mean having a handjob while thinking of the world"

    I just caught that. Funny. (Sorry I don't have anything more constructive to say in response.)