06 April, 2007

Die Peitsche

Or, 'Would Schopenhauer have appreciated the Varieties?' A parable:


I had a dream. I was a youth once more: my hair was flaxen, and my heart full of yearning. The Pessimist was my lover, and often I would see him strolling the market and town streets. I plucked geeseblooms with my fingers, singing to myself the liebeslieder he had taught me. The Grillen, who were once men, but now chirred their seed into the ground, were humming volubly overhead. I sang:
For true culture in the humanities it is absolutely necessary that a man be many-sided and take large views; for a man of learning in the higher sense of the word, an extensive acquaintance with history is essential. He, however, who wishes to be a complete philosopher, must gather into his head the remotest ends of human knowledge: for where else could they ever come together?
He loves me. I beamed, and the sun flowered me with kisses.
A man should not read too much, lest his mind become accustomed to the substitute and thereby forget the reality. Least of all should a man withdraw his gaze from reality for the mere sake of reading; as the impulse and the temper which prompt thought of one's own come far oftener from the real world than from that of books. . . The man of books lets it be seen that everything he has is second-hand; that his ideas are like the lumber and trash of an old furniture-shop, collected together from all quarters. Mentally, he is dull and pointless—a copy of a copy.
He loves me not. At this I let fall silver tears, swiftly becoming a brook, in which I saw reflected my own verlorn countenance. The Pessimist awoke me from my dream. I consider this ironical, as he is known in these parts for his exaltation of slumber, and still carries on his person that enchanted chalice with which men are led so often to dream. The Pessimist was agitated—he swatted about himself, as if covered with flies. 'Whatever is the matter?' I asked him. 'It is all the noise that bothers me so,' he said, and—
I must denounce as the most inexcusable and scandalous noise the truly infernal cracking of whips in the narrow resounding streets of towns; for it robs life of all peace and pensiveness. Nothing gives so clear an idea of the apathy, stupidity, and thoughtlessness of men as their toleration of this whip-cracking. The short sharp crack that paralyses the brain, tears and rends the thread of reflection, and murders all thoughts, must pain anyone who carries in his head anything resembling an idea.
Just then the Pessimist's truant son danced by, splashing in a marble fountain with a young flirt garlanded in exotic scents. Overhearing his father's words, he called out to his tanzliebchen: 'You shall dance and also scream to my whip-crack's brisk tempo! I did not forget the whip, did I?—No!'

The pretty girl, whose name was Life, chided him—'Please don't crack your whip so terribly! For well you know: noise murders thoughts'. What a terrible turn of events, I remarked to myself—that Life should agree with the Pessimist! Down the street, just at that very moment, a landsknecht was seen flogging his horse—and the truant son, no longer laughing but now in anguish, raced towards the beast, flinging his arms around its neck with a sob. He, too, could not bear the noise. Was it only I—I wondered—who not only could bear the noise of the whip, but—enjoyed it? Do I not, after all, take a whip to my mistress on a frequent basis? How she craves its schnalzing crack! She grows more loyal daily, and now and then she returns my blow with a comment or two. Is it true, then, that all lumber and trash is dull and pointless, a copy of a copy?


John Cowan said...

Ray Smullyan once asked another philosopher why he found reading the great pessimists so enjoyable. The other replied that it was because Smullyan knew that what they said wasn't true.

Smullyan also distinguishes between essential and contingent pessimism, and says that Schopenhauer's essential pessimism would be a lot more convincing if he would shut up about his contingent pessimism.

Conrad H. Roth said...

How would you characterise the difference here between 'essential' and 'contingent'?

Anonymous said...

Just a brief note regarding your blog. Do you actually read the texts you discuss here? If so, methinks you read them quickly. I would like to see what you think of Avital Ronell's "Stupidity." And yes, I am being ironical - at least in part. And just so we're clear, an answer along the lines of "I'm not interested in 'Stupidity'" doesn't get you off the hook. Because it seems, in a certain sense, that you are interested in it. Or perhaps it's stupidity that is interested in you. It seems in any case to have you right where it wants you.

Conrad H. Roth said...

My friend, you have not quite mastered the arch style, a fact that your anonymity seems to acknowledge.

As to your questions, yes, I do read the texts I discuss here, and I read them very quickly, preferably too quickly, so as not to be overdetermined in the interpretation of them. Reading too quickly is the noble way to read, because it denies the text supremacy or even authority, reducing the text rather to a lied sung for your pleasure, easily assimilated or dismissed.

Thus, neither stupidity nor Stupidity have me where they want me.

In Stupidity, Ronell writes:

"The allegorical act, associated with the drive to translate and a struggle to establish cognition, involves an experience of loss and mourning. It is as if allegory were vainly trying to dress, or at least to address, the textual wounding implied by irony, offering, in Nietzschean terms, an emergency supply of meaning and cognition."

Like Schlegel and Bataille, Ronell evidently admires herself for her "rigorous, often courageous resistance to sense".

John Cowan said...

I see that I missed the opportunity to reply, and indeed I was far too brief in my original comment.

By essential pessimism, Smullyan referred to things like Schopenhauer's argument that wealth doesn't make people happy, because the more they have the more they want, and indeed increasing social wealth doesn't make a culture happier either, because people compare themselves to the winners of their own culture. That is, essential pessimism is the thesis that things are not only bad, they in some sense have to be bad.

Contingent pessimism is all that ranting S. does about how hypocritical people are. A consistently essentialist pessimist would take the view that hypocrisy, given the essentially bad nature of human beings, is in fact an unmitigated virtue.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"hypocrisy, given the essentially bad nature of human beings, is in fact an unmitigated virtue."

Once a friend of mine and I drew up a 'Hypocrisist's Manifesto'. I think one could make a good case for it.