Albert Camus’ opening sentence to his work The Myth of Sisyphus, unmistakably emphasising the eminence of the topic at hand, is a fitting start to the thoughts and considerations to follow. For this sentence imbues the reader with an ethical dilemma: it confines suicide to the philosophical realm, thereby negating manifold alternate reasons which necessitate its rumination. How does one decide how to act if one’s reasoning is philosophically incoherent yet psychologically lucid? Or philosophically incoherent yet circumstantially logical?

In this essay I seek to trace the lines of suicide through small excerpts of literature from the past century which grasp the zeitgeist of post-war peace; a century in which individualism, elsewhere favourably labelled self-determinism, has been reproachfully dismissed as the crude fetish of several generations. Finally, in assembling the loose ends, I will seek to rethink suicide in times of technological advancement, consequently liberating it, as an autonomous act by a self-determined agent, from philosophical, moral and medical chains of restraint. Herein I will come to a different conclusion to Camus, and ultimately reject his call to refuse suicide2 on the basis of revolt: an individual’s perpetual confrontation with their own absurdity, which is in essence an eternal, futile search for clarity and worldly meaning of the human condition.3

Consciousness and revolt, these rejections are the contrary of renunciation. Everything that is indomitable and passionate in a human heart quickens them, on the contrary, with its own life. It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will. Suicide is a repudiation. The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth which is defiance […] One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt […] Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.” 4

Contemporary discussions on suicide are often limited to assisted suicide or euthanasia: (assisting in) ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal somatic illness. It is commonly accepted that such a somatic illness liberates the individual from upholding the aforementioned responsibility — what difference do a few more weeks make? Envisioning a bedridden person gasping for breath and wincing with discomfort, I believe many will be able to identify with the words of Wolfgang Herrndorf, a German author diagnosed with glioblastoma (a very aggressive, incurable brain tumour) in 2010. He documented his last years on a blog:

What I need is an exit strategy. With Cornelius I had already begun, but that was in times of mania, where I was completely sure that it could only be a weapon […] to be able to put it behind me not in a moment of desperation, but euphoria — and without problems. The condition was that no more than a tenth of a second could lie between decision and execution. Even a hand grenade wouldn’t have been possible. The fear of that three-second delay would have killed me. Likewise pills, with their protracted procedure of swallowing and waiting. For at no point did I want to die, nor do I want to die now. But the assurance of having it in my own hands was an essential part of my mental hygiene from the start. I find googling unspeakably difficult, a practical know-how nowhere to be found. Friends be informed: in case anyone knows of ways and means or is in possession of such things — the first MRI is on 21st June. By then I need something here. Whether I have the discipline to actually go through with it at the end is a different question entirely. But as I said, it is a matter of mental hygiene. I need to know that I am the master in my own house. Nothing more.

[…] Meanwhile, the solved exit strategy has such a resoundingly calming effect on me that it is unclear why my health insurance doesn’t pay for it. Globulins yes, bazooka no. Idiots.(tr. MR) 5

Three years later Herrndorf decided to act upon this exit strategy. The epilogue to his blog was concluded with the following:

Wolfgang Herrndorf did it how it should be done. At around 23:15 on Monday 26th August (2013) he shot himself in the head with a revolver on the bank of the Hohenzollern canal. He aimed at the brain stem through his mouth. The weapon’s calibre was 9 mm. Herrndorf’s personality had not changed as a result of the illness, but his coordination and spatial orientation were impaired towards the end. It was probably one of the last days on which he was capable of the act. (tr. MR) 6

Suicide as a means to ending chronic suffering due to terminal somatic illness merely scratches at the surface of the discourse to follow. Yet even here, in the shallow waters of debate, public outcry against suicide is not uncommon. Arguments range from fears for the social climate — in that the acceptance of suicide initiates a ‘slippery slope’ for greater pressure on those notseeking to end their life, despite individual circumstances which may be deemed unworthy of continued life by others — to a cardinal opposition to anything besides natural, non-induced death. The latter can be traced back to the Christian doctrine of life as something that is given, datum, “over which we have the right of use, usus, but not governance, dominion.”7 These tensions shine a different light on Herrndorf’s plight. Do the arguments against suicide in the case of a terminal somatic illness such as glioblastoma constitute a universal philosophical, if not moral opposition to his act?8 An act which did not just alleviate his suffering in the final instance, but served as a pivotal aspect of his mental hygiene in his final years of life?

And Herrndorf’s case leads to another consideration: No matter how one may judge his decision, what about those suffering from an equally chronic and incurable, yet by no means terminal somatic illness? Or an illness not primarily somatic, but psychological? Or, extending the argument to the other extreme, an individual not suffering from an illness at all, but merely voicing a wish to die; a wish to be in control of oneself as a self-determined agent? There are no simple, universal answers to these questions. To inhabit this void the immanent nature of suicide requires reflection. Consider this passage from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

As every strength may become a weakness (and under some circumstances must) so, on the contrary, may the typical suicidal person find a strength and support in his apparent weakness; indeed, does so extraordinarily often. The case of Harry, the Steppenwolf, is one of these. As thousands of his kind do he found consolation and support, and not merely the melancholy play of juvenile fantasy, in the idea that the path to death was always open to him. It is true, as with all men of his kind, that every shock, every pain, every unfavourable predicament at once gave rise in him the wish to withdraw himself through death. Out of this tendency, however, he gradually fashioned himself a philosophy that was actually conducive to life. He gained strength from the idea’s familiarity that the emergency exit stood always open; it made him curious to savour his suffering and dire circumstances, and if he felt miserable he would sometimes experience, with a grim, malicious pleasure: ‘I am curious to see all the same just how much a person can endure! If the limit of what is bearable is reached, I have only to open the door to escape.’ There are many suicidal people onto whom this thought imparts an exceptional strength.” 9

Hesse’s protagonist inverts the negative connotation habitually associated with suicidality. In doing so, he liberates it from a long-standing societal taboo. Proceeding along these lines: is it not the very capacity for suicide that makes us human? Building upon ideas of Jean Améry, Edouard Levé and E. M. Cioran, Simon Critchley highlights the following:

To be human is to have the capacity, at each and every moment, of killing oneself. Incarceration, humiliation, disappointment, disease — the world can do all of this to us, but it cannot remove the possibility of suicide. For as long as we keep this power in our hands, then we are, in some minimal but real sense, free. 10

This capacity, this freedom, of autonomy’s jurisdiction to extend to the outermost seconds of life, namely death, is an innate part of humanity and thus consciousness. At this point it seems instructive to divert from a discussion solely on suicide as an inducer of death, to likewise consider death as such. In his seminal work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger reflects on ‘Dasein’ as Being-towards-death:

The more authentically Dasein resolves — and this means that in anticipating death it understands itself unambiguously in terms of its ownmost distinctive possibility — the more unequivocally does it choose and find the possibility of its existence, and the less does it do so by accident. Only by the anticipation of death is every accidental and ‘provisional’ possibility driven out. Only Being-free for death, gives Dasein its goal outright and pushes existence into its finitude. Once one has grasped the finitude of one’s existence, it snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities which offer themselves as closest to one — those of comfortableness, shirking, and taking things lightly — and brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate […] If Dasein, by anticipation, lets death become powerful in itself, then, as free for death, Dasein understands itself in its own superior power, the power of its finite freedom, so that in this freedom, which ‘is’ only in its having chosen to make such a choice, it can take over the powerlessness of abandonment to its having done so, and can thus come to have a clear vision for the accidents of the Situation that has been disclosed. 11

Heidegger’s understanding of death brings the discussion of suicide as an inducer of death full circle.12 Accepting death as a possibility embraces the finitude of our existence. Thus Heidegger propagates a way of living in relation to the conscious prospect of the certainty of death, while simultaneously accepting an indefiniteness of its time point. Herein lies the meaning of the phrase anticipation of death. The value of this is highlighted by Heidegger’s use of the term ownmost possibility: In anticipating and ultimately accepting indefinite death, and thereafter, in light of this prospect, Being-towards-death, the integrity of an individual’s life is initially tangible. Death is the one aspect of life that cannot be delegated. For the same reason, it is the one aspect of life in which the totality of all of my possibilities and consequent undertakings can be given a finitude of meaning by myself; it is the one aspect in which I may appropriate the public meanings of all of my actions in an integrated and coherent way.13 This one aspect of life cannot be delegated to another individual. Consequently, as Heidegger claims, death individualises Dasein.

Being and Time was published almost a century ago in 1927. In this past century humankind has been obsessed with the overarching aim of technological advance. As a result we are now the first biological (organic) species that populates the face of the earth capable of creating a technological (inorganic) civilisation — and appear determined to do so.14 Regardless of whether this postulate is realistic or far-fetched, whether it arouses fear or excitement of the unknown; the constituents and conditions for life, and in particular death, are changing, with unprecedented consequences for suicide. Yuval Noah Harari briefly foreshadows this development in Sapiens:

[According to the myth] when the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it […] Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures — a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution […] True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish [death…] The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life […] How long will the quest for immortality take to complete? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? […] Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells and even reverse ageing processes. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).” 15

The premise introduced through Harari’s discussion of the quest for eternal life engenders a paradigm shift with a bleak outlook: What if we are heading towards a future in which we must all choose the time and place for our own death? A future in which Camus’ demands ironically require infinite revolt ad absurdum; a future in which the Heideggerian anticipation of death is no longer innate, and thus fails to serve as a liberator from the ‘they’ 16 in favour of the eminent possibility of oneself as an individual — of one’s ownmost being. Hence, a future in which suicide is the only path to the ‘natural’ end17 of life, that has remained as the limiting constant for all of humanity’s biological past thus far, and is only now, in the potential wake of a technological civilisation, conceivably blocked. Must we oppose suicide? Or rather embrace it as our final freedom; as the last inducer of death?

The title of this essay is hereby acknowledged. If death’s certainty as a ‘naturally’ attainable end disintegrates, then an individual is no longer Being-towards-death. Yet if death remains the desirable, natural end to life, then this may only be reached for an individual Being-towards-suicide.

To conclude, the argument being made is not one which holds only if the premise of a-mortality is perceivable. Rather, it is the deliberation which this premise necessitates that is primarily of use, for it rescinds the aforementioned anticipation of death. By consequently distancing ourselves from the obsession around naturalis — death pertaining to nature — as the only point of reference for a legitimate inducer of the natural end to life, self-determination shifts into focus. Thus it is not a matter of finding a philosophically or otherwise coherent answer to the fundamental question of whether life is or is not worth living. It is another question that must be answered: Does the state have a right to override an individual’s basic convictions about the meaning and facticity of life and death?

I believe that the only point of relevance is the personal and autonomous wish to accept or else induce death at any given time. I sympathise with Herrndorf’s need for mental hygiene and the Steppenwolf’s utilisation of suicide as a personal aide imparting strength. Further, I agree with Critchley’s belief that the capacity for suicide is inherently human. This does not make suicide a necessity, for one is always free to choose, but legitimises it as an individual recourse. For any remaining doubt, let me conclude with this comment by Ronald Dworkin:

Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious form of tyranny. 18

Being Towards Suicide

  1. Albert Camus — The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, translation by Justin O’Brien, p. 5) 
  2. Camus distinguishes between physical suicide, i.e., clinical death, and philosophical suicide, i.e., a ‘leap of faith’ embracing religious or other metaphysical ideas and hopes. I am referring to both forms here. 
  3. This is a stark simplification of Camus’ ideas, sufficing for the purposes of this essay. For a more detailed exposition I recommend both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel as primary literature, or David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 139-144) and Introduction to Camus: The Absurd, Revolt, and Rebellion as secondary literature. 
  4. Albert Camus — The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, translation by Justin O’Brien, pp. 40-48) 
  5. Wolfgang Herrndorf — Arbeit und Struktur (Rowohlt Berlin, 2013, pp. 50, 79) 
  6. Ibid. p. 445 
  7. Simon Critchley — Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2015, p. 21) 
  8. In addition to the legal formalities which make a dignified suicide very difficult. 
  9. Hermann Hesse — Der Steppenwolf (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., 1975, pp. 53-56). Note: the translation by Basil Creighton and Joseph Mileck has been used as a template here, although I have slightly altered certain parts for better readability. 
  10. Simon Critchley — Notes on Suicide (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2015, p. 72) 
  11. Martin Heidegger — Sein und Zeit (Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 2006, p. 384). Note: the english translation by J. Macquarrie and J. Robinson has been used here (Blackwell, 1962) 
  12. For a detailed discussion of these concepts see David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 112-116 and 133-139) 
  13. Ibid. pp. 137-138. Here Cooper also quotes from Charles Guignon. 
  14. I discuss this in an earlier entry on (1/2018 — ‘On the perils of an artificial superintelligent species’). 
  15. Yuval Noah Harari — Sapiens (Vintage, London, 2015, pp. 297-302) 
  16. The ‘they’: anonymous, communal character of society; the political and social conditions, the ready-made, widespread schemes of beliefs and values prevailing in societies, exerting power over an individual. See David E. Cooper — Existentialism: A Reconstruction (2nd Edition, Blackwell Publishing, 1999, pp. 109-116). 
  17. Disregarding the discussion on the possibility of afterlife for this essay. 
  18. Ronal Dworkin — Life’s Dominion: an argument about abortion, euthanasia, and individual freedom (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993, p. 217) 



Witcraft by Jonathan Rée review – The Sunday Times

Do the English have a genius for philosophy? A vast study celebrates philosophy in English, from the Pilgrims on. Review by John Carey

The Sunday Times June 9 2019

In the introduction to Jonathan Rée’s huge new book, he explains how he came to write it. He recalls, as a teenager, being repelled by the “condescending complacency” of the histories of philosophy he came across. They concentrated on the big names and ignored the many ordinary people who had “tried to understand the world in the light of philosophy”. His book aims to put that right. The title is taken from a treatise by Ralph Lever, an obscure 16th-century clergyman, who proposed Witcraft as a native English alternative to “philosophy”. In the same spirit, Rée undertakes to show that “philosophy in English contains far more variety, invention, originality and oddity” than we usually think.

That is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Rée does not exclude famous continental philosophers such as Descartes and Rousseau. English translations of and commentaries on them count as “philosophy in English”. At the same time, he extends the debate to include a rich selection of English speakers not primarily thought of as philosophers. One of them is George Eliot who, before she became a novelist, edited the Westminster Review, which the pious denounced as “full of awful blasphemy”. Another is the American psychologist William James, brother of Henry, and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who once started a lecture with the question: “Is religion a nervous disease?”

Discovering how English speakers “tried to understand the world in the light of philosophy” over the course of four centuries would obviously be impossible, and Rée is inevitably selective. He picks what he admits are eight “arbitrary” dates at 50-year intervals from 1601 to 1951, and each chapter jumps backwards and forwards in time from these starting points. The locality of the narrative keeps shifting. In early 17th-century New England, Puritan settlers debate Christianity with sceptical native Americans, and translate the Bible into Algonquin. In the 1640s, royalist exiles host a sumptuous philosophical salon in Paris. Towards the end of Rée’s book, adoring students in mid-20th century Cambridge gather round Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is common gossip that they imitate their idol by not washing and affecting a neurotic stammer.

These frequent scene-changes are often vividly evoked. Eighteenth-century Glasgow, for example, where Adam Smith studied, was, according to contemporary accounts, a fragrant city of flower gardens and orchards. “Tobacco lords”, enriched by the Virginia trade, sauntered along the quays in scarlet cloaks, often attended by a liveried African slave.

Rée enlivens his story with anecdotes, and with descriptions of how the philosophers talked, dressed and behaved or misbehaved in private. Shadowy figures become human when he supplies details of their early lives and extra-philosophical interests. We learn, for example, that William Hazlitt’s philosopher father would meet John Wilkes, Benjamin Franklin and other friends of liberty on Thursdays at a coffee house near St Paul’s to discuss politics over “Welsh rabbit (sic) and apple puffs”. He took his family to America, and as a boy William ran wild in the New England forests with foxes, snakes, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. Back in England he accompanied Coleridge and Wordsworth on long walks while they expounded their views on philosophy and chanted their poems to the hills.

People who are just names, if that, to most readers are fitted out by Rée’s research with memorable identities. John Chapman, later George Eliot’s publisher, was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Nottinghamshire. But he ran away when he was 17 and took a free passage to South Australia where, while supplying clocks and watches to fellow colonists, he helped lay out the plots that later became the city of Adelaide.

A few readers might recognise George Berkeley as the philosopher who denied the existence of the material world — an idea that Dr Johnson dismissed by kicking a stone and declaring: “I refute him thus.” But it turns out that there is much more to Berkeley than that. He invented a vile-tasting antidepressant drink called tar water, made from pine-tree resin, which later became the bane of little Pip’s life in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Berkeley started as a poor Protestant boy from the south of Ireland, but he was admired for his charm and good looks, wrote a book of philosophical advice for ladies and became tutor and companion to several wealthy young men, escorting them round Sicily, Italy and other Grand Tour destinations. In the 1720s he sailed to America with his wife, planning to found an American university in Rhode Island. It would be open even to “savage Americans”, though he realised they might have to be forcibly detained while acquiring a taste for learning. But funds ran out and he returned home.

With all this colourful material, Rée’s book should be a joy to read. But it is not. It is rambling and diffuse. The narrative keeps plunging down side turnings that lead to other side turnings in a seemingly endless maze. New names keep appearing like the jumbled contents of a biographical dictionary. The lack of any sense of direction is bewildering, and might be deliberate.

Rée makes it clear in his introduction that he does not regard philosophy as a progress towards any kind of truth, and Francis Bacon, the apostle of science and progress, gets scant attention. Instead, Rée’s introduction suggests, we might do better to regard philosophical texts as individual works of art, as intricate and unpredictable as “Yoruba sculpture, Chinese poetry or the classical string quartet”. That might not be helpful, but at least it is a viewpoint, whereas an authorial viewpoint is almost entirely absent from the book itself. It consists essentially of paraphrases of items from Rée’s impressively vast reading. Readers should also be warned that unless they can take philosophical language (“Kantian transcendentalism”, for example) in their stride, some sections will pass them by in a fog. For non-specialists, a wise preliminary to tackling Witcraft would be to read one of the short introductions to philosophy that teenage Rée despised.

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée
Allen Lane £30 pp768

Oh dear! That review took a turn I wasn’t expecting. I rather like the sound of the book. I love rambling and diffuse. Yes! Give me a narrative that “keeps plunging down side turnings that lead to other side turnings in a seemingly endless maze” — like life, and thus philosophy, itself!

Encounters With The (Post) Sublime

Philosophy Now
Issue 132

Siobhan Lyons asks where we can find the sublime in the modern world.

Imagine watching a storm at sea. Imagine standing on a towering, vertiginous mountain peak. ‘The sublime’ refers to an experience of magnificence that nearly, but not quite, invokes fear. Does the sublime still exist in the twenty-first century? Or have we become desensitised to the very concept in a post-nature, mediated world?

A concept widely discussed by philosophers from Burke to Kant, Schopenhauer to Hegel, in recent years its linguistic potency seems to have become diluted through misuse of the term, as ‘sublime’ has been used increasingly to refer to something that is simply beautiful. But the sublime, distinguished from beauty, carries with it more negative connotations of awe, terror, even the threat of death, often at the hands of a savage natural world. As the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, “compared to the pleasure of the beautiful, the pleasure of the sublime is (so to speak) negative… It involves a recoil, as if thinking came up against what precisely attracts it” (The Postmodern Condition, 1994, p.68). But as we continue to endlessly colonise the natural world, becoming more comfortable with the image and the spectacle, the sublime experience itself appears fragile.

As Matthew Flisfeder says, the sublime “exists outside language: words fail!” (The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film, 2012, p.123). Andrew Slade goes further: “These [artistic] presentations seek an idiom to articulate the impossible, the unpresentable” (Lyotard, Beckett, Duras, and the Postmodern Sublime, 2007, p.14). The concept of the unrepresentability of the sublime has its origins in Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the mathematical sublime refers to the imagination’s capacity, through reason’s superiority, to comprehend the magnitude of something empirically great or even infinite that would otherwise lie beyond comprehension. He writes: “Because there is in our imagination a striving to advance to the infinite, while in our reason there lies a claim to absolute totality… the very inadequacy of our faculty for estimating the magnitude of the things in the sensible world awakens the feeling of a supersensible faculty in us” (Critique of the Power of Judgement, 1790, p.134). Kant argues that the source of the sublime is never an object or a painting, say, but is our mental representation of what he calls the thing-in-itself (ding an sich, which is his name for the world as it exists beyond experience). So this experience can be known only in the intellect – that is, beyond pure sensation. “We express ourselves on the whole incorrectly if we call some object of nature sublime…” he writes: “We can say no more than that the object serves for the presentation of a sublimity that can be found in the mind; for what is properly sublime cannot be contained in any sensible form, but concerns only ideas of [abstract] reason” (p.129).

For Slavoj Žižek, this presents the paradox of the sublime – that in our experience of the sublime, we are able to experience the thing-in-itself – the world as it exists independent of our experience. Through its very impossibility it is made possible. As Žižek notes:

“In principle, the gap separating the phenomenal, empirical objects of experience from the Thing-in-itself is insurmountable – that is, no empirical object, no representation of it, can adequately present the Thing; but the Sublime is an object in which we can experience this very impossibility, this permanent failure of the representation to reach after the Thing. Thus, by means of the very failure of representation, we can have a presentiment of the true dimension of the Thing… This is also why an object evoking in us the feeling of Sublimity gives us simultaneous pleasure and displeasure: its gives us displeasure because of its inadequacy to the Thing-Idea, but precisely through this inadequacy it gives us pleasure by indicating the true, incomparable greatness of the Thing, surpassing every possible phenomenal, empirical experience… [It is] nature in its most chaotic, boundless, terrifying dimension which is best qualified to awaken in us the feeling of the Sublime: here, where the aesthetic imagination is strained to its utmost, where all finite determinations dissolve themselves, the failure appears at its purest”
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989, p.203).

We are meant to be more intelligent and aware of the universe than our predecessors. But if we are more aware than ever, and as Kant contends, reason is linked to the sublime, why are we having fewer sublime experiences? Logically, we ought to be having more.

Perhaps the sublime may then be better located in a profound sense of the incomprehensibility of the world’s vastness. This idea is found in Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime, in which the sublime is generated through obscurity and ignorance. As he writes: “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions… The ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have” (The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory, 1996, p.135). It is my sheer ignorance of the machinations of the world, from the stars to gravity, that produces in me some sense of the sublime, rather than my knowledge of these things.

A defining image of the sublime is Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer over a Sea of Fog (1818), depicting the titular nomad atop a deep abyss. In his book Reinventing the Sublime (2014), Steven Vine analyses the painting, which, he says, tells us something useful about the Kantian sublime:

“While, in one sense, the solitary figure dominates the scene and dwarfs the rising mountains and plummeting trees with his body, in another sense he is diminished and reduced by the landscape – standing minute, precarious and vulnerable above an abyss into which, with one false step or slip of the rock, he might plunge to annihilation.” (p.2).
Our relationship with nature is, indeed, ambiguous.

The Cinematic Sublime

The notion that nature could provide sublime experience was prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but a direct experience of nature was replaced in the twentieth century by technology. Particularly in twenty-first century cinema, the sublime functions in place of the Thing-in-itself as one of Žižek’s paradoxical representations of that which cannot be represented. Many recent films have focused on the human in the harsh wilderness, including The Revenant (2015), The Grey (2011), Wild (2014), and Into the Wild (2007). More often than not (spoiler alert) these films culminate in the death of the protagonist; although both The Revenant and The Grey feature more ambiguous endings about the fate of the main character up against the odds of the natural world. Despite the popularity of the survival film, of the beautiful tyranny of the natural world, some theorists suggest that sources of the sublime in nature are becoming rarer. As Temenuga Trifonova notes: “Nature proves less and less likely to provide us with sublime experiences – the disappearance of savage landscapes leaving only Deep Space as the Sublime’s last refuge” (The Cinematic Sublime, 2016). The spate of deep space films in recent years is evidence of this, including Interstellar (2014), Gravity (2013), Moon (2009), and The Martian (2015). Indeed, when we witness the collision of planets or a fierce dust storm on Mars, it is as frightening and compelling as anything on Earth and takes us out of the domain of our own world.

Pushing even further, past the celestial sublime, is the ‘apocalyptic sublime’, seen in movies from Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Melancholia has garnered particular attention for its hauntingly beautiful portrayal of a world ending, said to perfectly accommodate the concept of the sublime. For instance, Margaret Pomeranz from the Australian TV show At the Movies claimed that Melancholia is “a sublimely beautiful film that begins with a ten minute sequence of astonishing images of horses falling, of a bride being weighed down by vegetation clinging to her wedding dress, of a woman carrying a child through what seems to be quicksand to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde” (2011). Similarly, film critic A.O. Scott describes the film as “an excursion from the sad to the sublime by way of the preposterous… it nonetheless leaves behind a glow of aesthetic satisfaction” (New York Times, 2011). On the other hand, for Joshua Gunn and David E. Beard in ‘On the Apocalyptic Sublime’ (2009), the apocalyptic sublime relies on ‘non-linear temporality’ – the narrative jumping around in time. This fits the surreal experience of Donnie Darko as he time travels and hallucinates the world nearing its end.

The apocalyptic sublime accords well with Lyotard’s concept of the sublime. For Lyotard, the sublime is “a sudden blazing, and without future” (The Postmodern Condition, p.55, my emphasis). The lead characters in both the films mentioned, Donnie and Justine, are without future, and accept the end of the world; Justine impassively accepts it, while Donnie laughs maniacally moments before he sacrifices himself, supposedly to save the world from annihilation. In these ways they come to their own respective understandings of the machinations of the universe, comprehending the incomprehensible – so fulfilling Kant’s estimation of the sublime.

In both survival and apocalyptic films, the sublime appears to involve an encounter with death. Donnie is quite literally crushed by a falling jet engine, while Justine is killed along with everyone else when the planet Melancholia collides with the Earth, in a dizzying yet moving display of carnage, light and terror. Melancholia is perhaps the ultimate estimation of the sublime here, rendering it through the utter destruction of the Earth, suggesting that the sublime cannot be found most purely in the world, but at the world’s end.

Although these films represent the sublime, Patrick Fuery suggests that the medium of cinema is itself a sublime experience because it submits us to an experience of the world which we do not control:

“Here, then, is our first proposition of sublime terror and cinema: that our engagement with ‘reality’ (be it objective, textually construed, cinematic, psychical, and so on) is mediated, but in this mediation is the underlying terror of losing the capacity to be the active agent in the processes of perception and interpretation.”
(Terror and the Cinematic Sublime, 2013, pp.183-184)

Can we claim then that the sublime is now rendered purely imaginatively? One may think of the phenomenon of post-Avatar depression in 2009, when James Cameron’s CGI-infested film left such an impression on some viewers that they were despondent about returning to the real world after seeing the graphic delights of the imaginary world of Pandora. Have we exhausted the natural world of its sublime capabilities? Can we no longer rely on our own imaginations to the point that only a Hollywood director’s will suffice?

The Post-Sublime?

2016 was the centenary of the American national park. As David Quammen notes in ‘How National Parks Tell Our Story – And Show Who We Are’ (National Geographic, January 2016, p.31): “Our national parks… inspire active curiosity as well as passive awe. They help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads and automobiles and motels existed. Repeat: They help us imagine.”

Yet several theorists have recently discussed the nature of the sublime in a culture in which image and spectacle reign and nature per se has become less important. Clare Martin asks: “If the sublime was natural in the eighteenth century and technological in the twentieth century, how might the post-natural’s synthesis of nature and technology create a new aesthetic tradition, new conditions for the sublime?” (‘Uncanny Nature: The Post-Natural Sublime’, 2011). In her article, ‘The Twenty-First Century Sublime’ (2014), Amy Scott argues that conceptions of the sublime constantly shift to fit new ideas of how the natural world suits society, noting that “the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape.” Jos de Mul similarly links the contemporary sublime with technology: “Have our sense of awe and terror been transferred to factories, war machines, and the unknowable, infinite possibilities suggested by computers and genetic engineering?… Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the main site for the ambiguous experience of the sublime has gradually shifted from nature to technology… Our current period is viewed as the age of secularization. God is retreating from nature and nature is gradually becoming ‘disenchanted’ in the process” (‘The Technological Sublime’, 2011).

Such arguments seem to suggest that secularization and an awe inspired by pure nature cannot co-exist and that the sublime is reserved for religion. Have we so exhausted the world through economic, social, and touristic over-use, that any promise of the sublime is reserved only for cinematic and mediated experiences? Philosopher Siegfried Kracauer certainly thinks so. In The Mass Ornament (1995), he explores how the notion of the wilderness is increasingly slipping away: “This relativising of the exotic goes hand in hand with its banishment from reality – so that sooner or later the romantically inclined will have to agitate for the establishment of fenced-in nature preserves, isolated fairy-tale realms in which people will still be able to hope for experiences that today even Calcutta is hardly able to provide” (p.66). This, perhaps, is why the cinema has proved a popular alternative source of the sublime.

There is clearly a problem with this dynamic away from nature and towards technology – one that appears to have little resolution. But in years to come we may see a dramatic reversal of this formula. Perhaps we will tire of the technological prominence of the contemporary age and find solace once again in open nature. Or perhaps it’s something that can be found internally, without the catalyst either of the natural world or of technology.

Because the sublime is a subjective experience, it’s difficult to argue whether or not it can exist in a given way. It functions a bit like the Matrix: nobody can be told what it is, you have to see it for yourself. But recent films tell us that we are still interested in the natural environment, as well as the extraterrestrial environment, as much as we are in awe-inspiring architecture.

However, whether the sublime is achieved by gazing up at redwoods or skyscrapers seems beside the point. Given that the sublime is a subjective experience, arguably it cannot be located in any one place. This suggests that we have not exhausted its potential yet.

© Dr Siobhan Lyons 2019

Siobhan Lyons is a writer and media scholar who earned her PhD from Macquarie University.

Radical Contingency

Marjan Slob

VK 30 december 2018

Een treinkaartje regelen in ­Kolkata is pittig. Eerst bracht de Uber ons naar het station. Bij een loket vulden we op aanraden van behulpzame Indiërs een formulier in; de beambten waren voor onbepaalde tijd met pauze. Na hun terugkomst bleken we in de verkeerde rij te staan. Bij het andere loket keek een bebrilde Indiër ons aan en concludeerde: buitenlanders. Die horen hun kaartje te kopen in een heel ander station. Daar kregen we een nieuw formulier. Wij waren nummer 125 van die dag; nummer 101 was in behandeling. Het was ­inmiddels al halverwege de middag en op een bordje stond duidelijk dat men hier om 5 uur ophield met werken.

Dan krijg je een oefening in gelatenheid. Wat valt er te doen? Wachten en hopen. Het verdragen van de gestolde gang van zaken. Zo gaat dit hier nu eenmaal. De klok tikt. Een treinkaartje verstrekken duurt minstens tien minuten, ook al werken er twee beambten tegelijk aan. Een simpele rekensom leert dat we het in dit tempo nooit gaan halen. Wacht: er komen een paar nummers niet opdagen! Wie weet… en ja, we worden opgeroepen. Een dame schrijft het formulier over dat wij ingevuld hebben, waarna haar collega die gegevens nogmaals intikt in de computer. Zo bemachtigen we het laatste treinkaartje dat die dag wordt uitgegeven. Het Nepalese stel met nummer 126 heeft het nakijken.

Zodra iets tegen de verwachting in toch lukt, gebeurt er veel in een mens. Een tergende middag wordt plotsklaps een verhaal waarin wij ­figureren als de bijzondere hoofdpersonen die dit natuurlijk moest overkomen. Iets valt je toe en binnen een mum van tijd denk je: ik zal het wel verdiend hebben. Zo’n verhaal laat geen ruimte voor het Nepalese stel, of voor toeval, of voor reflecties over rechtvaardigheid of efficiëntie. Verhalen zijn geen analyses. Verhalen zijn in hun aard egocentrische constructen waarin de wereld draait rond de verteller.

Veel rijke Amerikanen schijnen te beweren dat hun rijkdom bewijst dat God van hen houdt. Dus hoeven ze in principe geen poot uit te steken naar arme Amerikanen van wie God – om ondoorgrondelijke maar dus wel goddelijke redenen – kennelijk minder houdt. Zou het niet juist ­hovaardig zijn om tegen Gods oordeel in te gaan? Om de wereld ­anders te maken dan God haar bedoeld heeft? Het is deze manier van redeneren die ik hier in India te veel om me heen voel. Sommige mensen bezingen de spiritualiteit van dit land, maar het is net of ik er geen ­toegang toe krijg. Ik voel me vooral opstandig.

Ik weet dat religie mensen kan helpen om de schoonheid van het leven te ervaren. Daar wil ik niets aan afdoen, en ik wens dat vooral de ­Indiërs in benarde omstandigheden van harte toe. Maar verder gaat mijn eerbied voor religie niet. Al die aandacht voor het hogere, voor de verticale lijn, leidt tot een soort mechanisch wereldbeeld, waarin mensen volgens een gegeven orde om elkaar heen draaien zonder zich werkelijk met elkaar te hoeven engageren, want alles ligt toch al vast. Die houding leidt ertoe dat mensen wel kansen pakken, maar geen alternatieven zoeken. Het staat waarlijk burgerschap in de weg. Die nadruk op de godgegeven orde maakt India tot de droom van Thatcher: there is no such thing as society.

Je verbinden met een maatschappij vraagt iets moeilijks en tegennatuurlijks van de menselijke psychologie: het waarlijk accepteren van het idee van willekeur. We maken ­liever een spannend verhaal van onze voor- of tegenspoed dan dat we het toevallige van ons eigen plekje onder ogen zien. Want toeval gooit ons uit het centrum van het verhaal.

De filosofie heeft een woord voor het besef dat de wereld om je heen net zo goed anders had kunnen zijn dan hij feitelijk is: radicale contingentie. Het begrip vraagt van je om toeval en willekeur te accepteren en biedt bar weinig troost, want er is nergens voorzien in een vast plekje voor jou. Maar het schept wel ruimte voor verandering. Voor opstand in plaats van lijdzaamheid. Voor betrokkenheid in plaats van acceptatie.

Anders gezegd: ik kan ze even niet meer zien, die heilige mannen met hun eeuwenoude teksten en hun kosmische orde. Ze doen me aan Thatcher denken.


Interview with Simon Critchley


Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

With the publication of his new book The Faith of the Faithless , I spoke to philosopher Simon Critchley about why a counterfactual faith is so important to modern politics, why it offers an “archive of possibilities” for those involved in political transformation, why there is still an obsession with “big men”, and what the the true political terrain is today…

STIR: It has been reasoned that the recent theological revival is because of a “theoretical deficit, not a theological need” (Alberto Toscano). Are there more reasons for this unexpected if not unusual upturn in interest in political theology than the catastrophic failure of the communist projects of the previous century?

Simon Critchley: The interest in political theology comes out of a dissatisfaction with liberalism. The notion of political theology as a category or term actually originates in Bakunin. So, it originates in Italian thought in the mid-nineteenth century and is also first used as an abusive term. And when Carl Schmitt picks it up in the 1920s he gives it a different valence but the object of attack for both Bakunin and Schmitt, on the left and on the right, is the same liberalism.

Periodising that, you have the aftermath of the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union, and the period in the early 90s when there is a lot of optimism about the potential within democracy for emancipatory energies that then quickly exhausts itself. Then, there is a return to the theological concerns at that moment, which isn’t so much a return to communist ideas as an attempt to find something at the level of the deep motivational structure of what it means to be a human self and what selves might be together. If you are interested in that question then the history of religious thought is really a place to look — maybe the place to look.

For me, I’ve never been a particularly secularist thinker and I’ve never had a strong faith in the ideas of secular modernity. I’ve had a huge interest, as long as I’ve been aware of such things, in religious thinkers like Paul, Pascal, Augustine and many others. It seems to me that if you start from some idea that philosophy or theory has to do without religion then you are cutting yourself off from that incredibly useful archive of possibilities. So, I think that philosophy is inconceivable without religion, or shouldn’t be done without religion as it shouldn’t be done only with religion. I am not a theist in that sense. It means using the best and most powerful ideas in that tradition for other ends. Of the people who have gone back to using religious sources to think about politics, then I would say that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul is the most powerful.

The question for me is two-fold. Firstly, it is diagnostic: to understand the nature of political forms is to think of them as different forms of sacralisation. In my view, I have this idea that the history of political forms — fascism, liberal democracy, Stalinism — is different forms of the sacral. There is always some sacred object: the nation, the people, the race, or whatever it might be. So, rather than seeing the history of politics as the movement from the religious to the secular, I see politics as a shift in the meaning of the sacred.

For me, that is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool when you are, say, looking at political forms in a country like the one I am living in (the US), where an incredibly powerful political theology exists in terms of American civil religion which is able to exert a unusual power over citizens and using that to find out how that works. So, there is a diagnostic category that is very important, and then there is a more normative one.

Politics for me, to put it in a crude formula, is “association without representation”. I adapted this from Rousseau. The notion of association for me is not just, but nonetheless still, a religious idea. Religion is linked to the idea of Renegare who asks what is it that binds fast? What is it that binds fast an association? For me, that is a question that the left has been grappling with for the last couple of centuries. So, I don’t think you can just slough off the religious tradition or say it’s just nonsense. That is a philistine gesture that is counter-productive in all sorts of ways.

S: Many of Terry Eagleton’s forays into political theology have been to argue that faith is performative rather propositional. Does this chime with your claims in the book about the nature of faith?

SC: I am very close to Terry’s concerns and maybe as time goes on I will get even closer to them. His trajectory is one where he started off as a radical catholic and then became a Marxist. In a sense, nothing has really changed because the object of critique is the same: liberal democracy and the secular theology that underpins it – human rights, freedom, individuality, and so on.
Faith, for me, is not theistic. It does not require a belief in some metaphysical entity like God. Faith is a subjective proclamation. It is a proclamation in a relationship, in my jargon, with a demand. It places a demand on you so that you can bind yourself as an ethical or political subject. That is the way it works.

Now, if we have a strange situation where there are people, like myself for example, who are faithless but have an experience of faith in relationship to an infinite demand, say, the prohibition of murder or the furthering of equality. Then there are people where that faith is underwritten by some theistic reality in their worldview. My view is that it makes no difference at the subjective level: the belief in God is neither here nor there. It is a useless distraction. It does not matter what you believe but rather how you act. I am interested in all of those religious projects that are concerned with doing, action and practice like Black Christianity in the US, for example.
I agree with Terry that faith is on a performative plane rather than a propositional plane — I believe in X and so on. S: In Jean Luc Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure he turns to James rather than Paul for a militant figure. Instead of the fragility of the will that we find in Paul, Nancy turns his attention to James where he says, “Faith without works is dead”.

SC: It is an idea that keeps popping up. It is what the Janists believed in seventeenth century France and who were a totally persecuted religious minority. They were faith as action in the world.

There is a distinction to make between faith as action and spirituality. There is an ideology of spirituality that has grown-up in various forms around what we can broadly see as new age belief. Where, in a sense, spirituality becomes that turn inward in order to find something blessed or divine about yourself, which you can cultivate in a world that is horrible, chaotic and blowing itself to pieces. For me, faith turns outwards and spirituality turns inwards. I’ve written about this on Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism, where I argue that there is an ideology of Gnosticism when it is accepted that the world is shit, a kind of matrix: a dream factory that is governed by evil corporate powers or whoever it might be (gnostics called them the archons), but that there is a pure divine spark within us.

I think all interesting forms of spirituality are forms of passive, nihilistic withdrawal from a world that seems to be out of control. So, I am opposed to that but also think that we need to understand it because when you are dealing with different forms of spirituality, the most general form is the one that has no belief at all. This is why Buddhism seems so amenable — you don’t have to believe in anything. You can cultivate practices of perfection or vacationing and it allows you to deal with the world that is out of control. I don’t just dismiss that. I think passive nihilism makes sense as a response to world, but I think it is the wrong response and that there is a lot of it about.

S: In The Faith of the Faithless you quote Gramsci as saying: “For socialism to overcome Christianity, it has to become a religion”. What does it mean for a political endeavour or project to become a religion? and why is it important for its success?

SC: It is important for its success because it can be that thing that touches people whose interests are not directly affected by the problems of a movement. It could touch them and motivate them to act in a certain way. By religion, I am thinking about what it means to bring human beings into association, into a common front.

Now, Gramsci as a figure has always interested me, more than Marx and more than many contemporary Marxists who still have their over-weaning belief in the socioeconomic. Not that the socioeconomic isn’t important, that would be ridiculous, but for politics we have to learn common fronts, or what Gramsci called the activity of hegemony, where people with divergent interests and commitments can come together into a common front, a historical bloc as Gramsci called it. If you exclude religion or religious people from that, you’re missing the point. In Gramsci’s day what he is talking about, for the most part, is that the Catholic Church is a retrograde reactionary force, but it’s a left Catholic tradition that can be activated; but more generally, to baiting people into a sort of commonality. It is the formation of some kind of structure that is poetic or religious in that broad sense. It requires an activity of political imagination.

In The Faith of the Faithless what I talk about is in relationship to what I call the supreme fiction, namely that we live in a world where the realm of politics is a realm of fiction. It’s a realm of what Hobbes called the artificial man and the artificial soul. But to expose those fictions as fictions — so the fiction of popular sovereignty, the idea that we the people actually govern things or that we don’t live in a plutocracy or an oligarchy — it doesn’t mean we go from fiction to fact but that there can be this other idea of which I call a supreme fiction, which we knew to be a fiction yet we still believe. That in many ways is a way of formulating what might be a kind of political, poetic, and religious project.

There are two elements: a kind of romanticism, and also a kind of pragmatism. The romanticism is the idea about the supreme fiction; the pragmatism is the idea that movements are formed not by exclusions or by the cultivation of vanguards but by a construction of an association that motivates people to join it. I think that’s one of the things that we can say Occupy did for a period of time — there is the open question of what is happening with that right now.

S: When the facts are against us and the continuation of the unipolar world of capitalism is considered the only credible and plausible political choice does faith become a more urgently needed political resource than knowledge?

SC: We need both but in many ways, yes, it does. To put this in a kind of formula, the Situationists were talking about ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’. There is that sense in which to be on the left — whatever that means — is to exist counterfactually. The force of ideology is such that in the regimes that we exist, the position that there are alternatives, is one that is perpetually laughed at and scorned. One has to make do with the way things are. Capitalism is the way things are. Get used to it.

S: Mark Fisher calls this capitalist realism.

SC: The point is that there is no alternative and that we have to pragmatically accept it and modify our demands. So to that extent, any leftist project, any emancipatory project requires a counterfactual faith: a counterfactual and utopian faith in the plausibility of an alternative way of arranging things. Another thing that I try to pick up on in The Faith of the Faithless is the way in which forms of utopians are still out there and we cannot simply reject utopian tradition as an era or a deformation or as a kind of nonsense position.
So to come to knowledge, it’s not that we don’t need knowledge — that would be ridiculous — but that knowledge is sustained by a form of faith. You could also say that about some forms of scientific knowledge. We have this sort of crazy idea of science as an accumulation of knowledge of things. Science is a form of faith. Science is sustained by faith, and it’s sustained by a form of faith whose enemy is certainty rather than doubt. So to put the idea at its most extreme: we live in regimes where what counts as knowledge is framed and organised a certain way, and the alternatives to that are simply seen as ridiculous. To sustain such an alternative position is to occupy a position of faith.

S: Your debate with Slavoj Zizek has at the very least helped to clarify two different political positions: anarchism and authoritarianism. While both socialism and anarchism pursue the end of the state, how it will be achieved is fiercely disputed. Why is there, as Gabriel Kuhn points out, still such a curious obsession with “big men”: Lenin, Mao, Castro?

SC: It’s a good question. It’s this kind of fantasy of political heroism. It’s a politics of virility. I find this all alarming and disgusting. I think the only interesting thing about the debate between me and Zizek, and why it is a worthwhile debate, is that it focuses that distinction between authoritarianism and anarchism on the left, and it shows how there are still in the left forms of authoritarian Leninist nostalgia for a vanguard or a politics of heroic violence. I find that misguided, naïve, and stupid in the sense in that it reminds me of young men sitting in rooms playing video games and listening to heavy metal and dreaming of some cataclysmic event.

The first thing to say is there is an anarchist tradition. Many people think that a certain Marxist or Leninist communism is all that the left can manage. There is anarchist tradition that goes back to Godwin, to Bakunin, to Kropotkin and also Malatesta, amongst other figures, and then through a whole English tradition of people like Colin Ward and other figures that really interest me. And it’s much lower level; it’s much less heroic and dramatic. It begins, arguably, with the diggers in the early years of the English revolution planting carrots. Taking back land, taking back the commons and growing vegetables is not as romantic as the storming of the winter palace of St Petersburg. I think there’s a kind of nostalgia for a kind of phallic, heroic politics, which I for one want nothing to do with particularly.

Politics is a different activity. As evidence of that, I point to the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement was not an authoritarian, heroic, virile, vanguardist idea of politics. It was a well-organised but loose set of people with sets of various influence. When you went down to Zucotti Park, the thing that was most palpable was how many different groups were there, how many different people. Everybody had their little placard saying whatever they wanted to say — and some of that was really quite wacky — but that’s great! Democracy sort of looks like that. The idea of organised, disciplined revolutionary elite, I think, is a bit laughable. It’s simply a way of alienating. It’s simply a way of the left perpetuating its own romantic failure.

S: Anarchist ideas, or at least those associated with or adopted by anarchist groups, have been central to the political and social movements of the last twenty years: the alterglobalisation movement, and now most recently, the Occupy movement. Anarchism as a tradition has not been domesticated and institutionalized in the ways that Marxist thought has. Is it for this reason that it suits the spontaneity of political practice and is more adaptable to radically different situations than the “principled abstractions” and “programmed political action” that you criticise?

SC: I agree with all of that. I wish I’d written that myself, it’s perfect! Anarchism is about practice, it’s about doing, and if it has a weakness, its weakness is theoretical. It has a suspicion of theory whereas Marxism by contrast begins with a big thinker with a big beard who does a big theory of everything, and it lends itself perfectly to a certain western idea of scholarship. This is why so many academics are Marxists: it’s always been good business. Anarchism has always been suspicious of theory and suspicious of that kind of totalising view. I think things have changed a lot in the last 10 years, and maybe there are plenty of anarchists in academia now, or a few, but there didn’t use to be. It used to be very marginal. Now people like David Graeber are really central and people like him have been arguing this for years.

But there’s also a problem with anarchism’s suspicion of theory. So what you say is right: Its opposition to the principled abstraction of a certain Marxist world view I think is great, and its orientation to practice is the way politics should be done. It can adapt to different situations in different ways, so it has an adaptability that is incredibly important. I sometimes wish there were a little bit more interest in the theoretical underpinnings of anarchism. For example, David Graeber, who I like a lot, helps himself to very classical ideas of freedom and consensus and all the rest, which really requires a bit more pondering.

What I try to do in Infinitely Demanding, and in a new book as well, is try to think about some of those concepts in a different way, and try to think about what I was calling a few years ago a ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility,’ as opposed to a classical libertarian anarchism. I think there’s been a shift in anarchism from the 60s idea of anarchism where it becomes simply a question of liberation, in particular, say, sexual liberation, to a position where anarchism is a response to a role and is taking responsibility for a role. The Occupy movement is a very good example of that. What’s been so fascinating about Occupy is the way in which techniques that have been used and laughed at, scorned, considered to be impractical and crazy — people have seen how this works in practice. In Zucotti Park you have 400 people having a general assembly with no amplification and no obvious means of authoritarian control. It’s fantastic. And people can do that. People acting in concert on the basis of goodwill can do amazing things. So I agree with you.
Also, the attempt to co-opt the Occupy movement for some idea of communism just strikes me as a misunderstanding. It’s a sort of broad, direct, democratic action with a whole complex set of threads and clusters.

The overwhelming effect of the Occupy movement for me is that people know, pretty much, what to do. In the right circumstances they can take possession of it. They can self-govern. The goals of the Occupy movement, and indeed the Arab Spring as well, are really socialist in the sense in which it’s about taking back from those who have financial capital power in the interest of people. And in the Arab spring it’s a question of programs of renationalisation, of reclaiming that which seems to have been taken away. That’s a socialist agenda. The tactics used to obtain it are anarchist and people have now seen how affective they can be. The next spin of this wheel is going to be an interesting thing to think about. What happens next? I’m not exactly sure.

S: While the debate about the possible instrumentalisation of the state continues, the increasing boldness of neoliberal privatization is already withering away the state and delivering it into increasingly fewer hands. While it would be fallacious to claim that there is no such thing as state power and that the nation state is now politically irrelevant – activists are turning their focus towards the financial institutions and corporations that they believe to be responsible for economic and ecological crises. Where do you see as the true political terrain today?

SC: Zygmunt Bauman has this lovely image of people being in an airplane and being comfortable in the airplane, going somewhere, watching a movie or reading a book; and then you’re told that there’s no pilot flying the plane; and then you’re told 10 minutes later that the airport that you’re meant to land at is not only not open but hasn’t even been built because planning permission hasn’t been granted and so on. This is an image of our time. We’re moving along comfortably so we think that no one’s in charge: there’s a separation of politics and power. So I think we begin from the idea that there is this separation of politics and power in the sense in which we still think — and maybe this is our residual romanticism or cowardice — that we still think that politics has power, and the location of the unity of politics and power is the state. So we still want to believe that the government actually does things when everything is pointing in the opposite direction.

It would seem that the way in which the oligarchicisation or whatever we call it — the plutocracy that liberal democracy has become over the last 30-40 years, gradually under Reagan and Thatcher and the rest, released the conviction that politics is at the service of a power and that it has no political accountability. So, all that the state is, and is to be, is to serve the interests of capital, which is not located in any state, it is a trans-state, nomadic form because you can take your factory and take it elsewhere if you threaten to tax them.

So the political terrain is firstly to create a political terrain, to put it in a slogan, would be ‘there’s no politics without location.’ Politics is about location, there has to be a place. Living in New York and the US, the awful thing about the Republican candidacy and the Democratic Party and all the rest is that there is no location. One is just a spectator upon a scene, and where one has views this way and that way, which the best candidate is. What Zucotti Park was all about was location. Here’s a terrain of resistance, a terrain of resistance organised around a series of really quite vague and fascinating infinite demands.

For me, the political task is the construction of a terrain. I think that is the case in many contexts, perhaps clearest in what’s going on in Europe at the moment. Particularly what’s happening in Greece where the government exists only to serve the interests of international financial institutions and the EU. So any possible claim or pretention of Greece to be a democracy has been rendered absolutely invalid, no question about that.

The question is: what’s the objective? Well the objective is to establish a terrain — to make a terrain. I’d go back to another element in anarchism, which is its strong Federalist credentials. Anarchism is an opposition to the state, but not in the name of disorder, but in another notion of order and organisation, which is about forms of local autonomy. What I would like to see — and this is not wildly unrealistic I think — is that if all of the states in the EU disintegrated in the next 10-20 years and people in those territories were able to establish forms of federal autonomous control — that would be something.

If there’s no politics without location, the goal of politics is the ownership and control of where one lives, thinks, works and eats. It’s about the establishment of a terrain. However, we live in a world, in a sense, where there is no terrain. The terrain is denied to us because we have ceded power to representatives who do not represent us. I think the entire existing political system is simply redundant, and the sooner it disappears, the better. I suppose what the last year has shown in the most splendid way, starting with the Arab Spring and the rest, is that once you stop fearing it, or once the many begin to articulate themselves over against the few who govern them, then the game is up.

In Britain, it could happen very easily. It could happen because who cares about political parties in Britain anymore? I used to be a member of the Labour party in the 1980s with people that came in from the extreme left and worked in the Labour party because we had to remove Thatcherism. But at that point the labour party was still a socialist party with a broad appeal, Clause 4, and all the rest. It just seems that these political parties are husks, memories of something that no longer exists. So why not just take the bold step and get rid of them altogether?

S: When people speak of apathy, I think that people are looking in the wrong place: they just look at parliamentarianism and trade unionism. And if you don’t participate in that then you’re apathetic. They’re not seeing the low profile, grassroots, political activity that is present everywhere.

C: That’s apathy with regards to normal government or politics.

S: It’s a divestment from party politics but also a reinvestment into local actions and community-based political activities.

C: And that other form of politics is all about pathos. It’s about, as you were talking about, anger and all the rest. A line I borrowed from Jean Luc Nancy at the end of Infinitely Demanding is ‘anger is the first political emotion’. And, it is. It’s a complex emotion. And Occupy was an articulation of the pathos of anger. But, so was the Tea Party; and so were those people that vote for the Freedom Party in the Netherlands — they’re also angry. So anger is a pathos that gets a subject riled up in order to act, but then it requires a discipline of analysis. Anger isn’t enough — but it’s a start.


Liefdeloosheid in kapitalistische tijden – Byung-Chul Han

Vrij Nederland

Het kapitalisme werkt narcisme en depressie in de hand, en het verlies van kunst, vertrouwen en liefde. Een middag somberen in Berlijn met filosoof Byung-Chul Han.

De filosoof Byung-Chul Han houdt niet zo van interviews, maar hij houdt wel van meer dingen niet. Loom komt hij aanfietsen, op deze warme middag in juli, en terwijl hij zijn paardenstaart uit zijn nek zwiept, gebaart hij dat hij liever binnen in de airco van het café zit dan buiten onder de parasol. Vluchtig geeft hij een hand, oogcontact mijdt hij, vooral aan het begin van het gesprek, en als hij praat, kijkt hij geconcentreerd naar een punt op de muur.

'We zijn allen depressief. Ik kan mezelf niet uitsluiten.' Foto: S. Fischer Verlag‘We zijn allen depressief. Ik kan mezelf niet uitsluiten.’ Foto: S. Fischer Verlag

Zo veel mogelijk informatie

‘Wat anderen niet van mij weten, daar leef ik van’ – dat citaat van Peter Handke is het motto van Hans boekje De transparante samenleving en misschien ook een beetje het motto van zijn leven. Tot voor kort was zelfs zijn leeftijd een raadsel; Han is 55 en geboren in Seoel, waar hij afstudeerde in de metallurgie om vervolgens, begin twintig, naar Freiburg af te reizen om literatuur en filosofie te studeren. Hij doceerde aan de Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, waar Peter Sloterdijk de scepter zwaait, en is sinds twee jaar professor aan de Universiteit voor de Kunsten in Berlijn.

In 2010 werd zijn essay De vermoeide samenleving een bestseller in Duitsland en Zuid-Korea en daarmee was zijn naam gevestigd. Er volgden essays over digitale media, liefde en transparantie. Deze week komt in Duitsland een boek uit waarin hij die thema’s verbindt, genaamd Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken; in Nederland verschijnt een essaybundel.


Volgens Han leven wij in een samenleving waarin wij worden gedwongen zo veel mogelijk informatie prijs te geven. Dat geldt niet alleen voor overheidsinstellingen of goede doelen die worden geacht transparant te zijn, maar ook voor individuen. Alles wat eigen is, zou daardoor verloren gaan.

Transparantie wordt toch verlangd om corruptie en vriendjespolitiek te bestrijden? Dat klinkt als een goede zaak.
‘Dat ontken ik ook niet, maar de totalitaire vorm die de roep om transparantie nu aanneemt, baart me zorgen. In een transparante samenleving moet alles direct toegankelijk worden in de vorm van informatie. En dat maakt bepaalde zaken kapot.’

‘In de politiek zijn er zaken die langzaam moeten rijpen. Als de politiek gedwongen wordt geheel transparant te zijn, dan richten politici zich alleen maar op de korte termijn, de snelle winst. En sommige dingen moeten worden bekokstoofd in donkere achterkamertjes zonder dat iemand er lucht van krijgt, anders kunnen politici en beleidsmakers nooit ongeliefde onderwerpen ter sprake brengen.’

De hel van het gelijke

Karl Marx ageerde tegen de uitbuiting van de arbeider door de heersende klasse, maar tegenwoordig is het niet meer een ander die ons gebiedt wat we moeten doen. De mens voelt zich geen subject meer, niet meer de onderworpene, speelbal van omstandigheden, maar een project dat kan slagen en mislukken. Hij is wat hij er zelf van maakt. Het lijkt de ultieme vrijheid, maar volgens Han is deze vrijheid een wolf in schaapskleren.

Wij moeten onophoudelijk en op elk gebied onszelf dwingen, aansporen, optimaliseren. Er zijn geen grenzen meer aan wat wij zouden moeten kunnen bereiken. Han beschreef eerder in zijn essay De vermoeide samenleving de gevolgen van deze exploitatie van het zelf: de mens wordt er vooral heel erg moe van om de hele tijd ‘jezelf’ te moeten zijn. Psychische aandoeningen zoals depressie, burn-out en ADHD zijn het gevolg. ‘De prestatiesamenleving baart depressieven en kneuzen.’

De prestatiedwang die het vrije ‘ik’ zichzelf oplegt, wordt nog verhoogd door volledige transparantie. In een kantoorgebouw met tweehonderd afzonderlijke kantoortjes kan iedereen uitspoken wat hij wil. Als je de wanden uit het gebouw weghaalt, kijkt iedereen naar elkaar, controleert elkaar en conformeert zich aan de rest.

De mens heeft een akker nodig waar niet direct geoogst moet worden, een speelruimte waar je je ook kan ophouden zonder winst te moeten generen’

Bovendien is het de aard van informatie dat het behapbaar en makkelijk verteerbaar moet zijn. Op Facebook moet je in één oogopslag kunnen zien of je iets wilt liken of niet. Andere opties zijn er niet, en zo wordt alles oneindig afgevlakt en gelijkgeschakeld. Er is niets wat anders kan zijn, niets waarbij je iets langer kan stilstaan. Han noemt dat ook: de hel van het gelijke.

‘De hoeveelheid informatie die nu over ons op tafel ligt, was tien, twintig jaar geleden alleen voorstelbaar in een totalitaire staat. Nu geven wij haar vrijwillig prijs.’ Stel je Facebook voor als een leenheer, schetst Han, die ons een akker in pacht geeft. Wij verbouwen die akker als bezetenen en Facebook krijgt de oogst in de vorm van alle mogelijke informatie over ons, over onze vrienden, onze gedachtes en interesses.

De Amerikaanse schrijver Jaron Lanier (van o.a. You are not a gadget) bedacht hier iets op. Hij stelt een systeem voor waarin wij telkens een klein bedrag terugkrijgen van sociale netwerken als Facebook op het moment dat zij van onze data gebruik maken. Voor elk brokje informatie krijgen wij dan een paar cent op onze bankrekening gestort. Lanier kreeg kort geleden de gerenommeerde Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels.

Het klinkt niet als een systeem waar u een voorstander van zou zijn.
‘Het is een aanfluiting dat men hem die vredesprijs heeft gegeven. Zo wordt alles totaal geëconomiseerd! De mens heeft een akker nodig waar niet direct geoogst moet worden, een speelruimte waar je je ook kan ophouden zonder winst te moeten generen.’

Toch is het moeilijk voorstelbaar wat de mens drijft als er niet in de een of andere zin sprake is van ‘voordeel’.
‘Een paar maanden geleden is er iets voorgevallen in Griekenland waaruit blijkt dat het wel degelijk denkbaar is. Kinderen vonden in een vervallen huis een pot met geld, ongeveer veertigduizend euro. Zij speelden ermee, maakten er confetti van. Het is een voorbode van een wereld die vrij is van kapitalistische doeleinden.’

‘Kijk’, begint Han, ‘ik kan u geld uitlenen hoewel ik niet weet wat uw financiële situatie is, omdat ik u vertrouw. Ik weet niet waar u vandaan komt en wie u eigenlijk bent en wat u denkt. Toch laat ik u een stuk over mij schrijven omdat ik u vertrouw. Als ik alles over u zou weten, dan zou dat niets meer met vertrouwen te maken hebben want dan ben ik gewoon goed geïnformeerd en stem ik mijn handelen daar op af. Totale transparantie draait het vertrouwen de nek om.’

'Het kapitalisme creëert behoeften die van de mens zelf lijken te zijn maar er in werkelijkheid niets mee te maken hebben.' Foto: S. Fischer Verlag‘Het kapitalisme creëert behoeften die van de mens zelf lijken te zijn maar er in werkelijkheid niets mee te maken hebben.’ Foto: S. Fischer Verlag

Wat doe je daaraan?
‘Eerst het probleem analyseren, en dan… Het is een taak voor de politiek, maar de moeilijkheid is dat politici er baat bij hebben om het systeem in stand te houden. Politici hebben iets aan de controle, de bewaking. Dus je zou wat van de burgers verwachten. Maar wij zijn geen vrije burgers meer, want die zouden kunnen kiezen wat zij willen. We zijn consumenten die iets voorgeschoteld willen krijgen. We zitten op een dood spoor.’

Buiten poedelen kinderen in teiltjes in het park, mensen drinken witte wijn met ijsklontjes in de schaduw en de eerste barbecuewalmen waaien door het open raam naar binnen.

Volgens mij zou het gros van de mensen hier beamen dat ze vrij zijn.
‘Vrije burgers zouden een vrije keus moeten hebben. Consumenten hebben geen vrije keus, ja misschien in welke kleren ze kopen, maar dat is geen werkelijke keus. Een keus te hebben, betekent dat je voor een andere levensvorm zou kunnen kiezen. Maar wij zijn voor het karretje van het kapitalistische systeem gespannen en er wordt ons geen alternatief geboden. We zijn knechten van het kapitaal en van de consumptie.’

Hoe ben ik een knecht van de consumptie?
‘Heeft u ook Primark in Nederland? Ja? De mensen die daar heen gaan en voor twintig euro met tien kledingstukken naar buiten komen, maken inderdaad geen ongelukkige indruk. Maar vergis je niet! Het kapitalisme creëert behoeften die van de mens zelf lijken te zijn maar er in werkelijkheid niets mee te maken hebben.

De consumptie is volledig losgezongen van het gebruik. De spullen bij Primark zijn gemaakt om één, twee keer te gebruiken en daarna kan kunnen ze in de prullenmand. En wat doen die mensen met de kleren die ze kopen? Ze maken er reclame voor. Ze maken filmpjes van hun nieuw aangeschafte broeken, truien, hemden, uploaden die op YouTube en krijgen een half miljoen kijkers.

‘Met de share-economie worden deugden als vriendelijkheid en gastvrijheid volledig geëconomiseerd’

Primark hoeft zelf allang geen reclame meer te maken, want dat doen de consumenten zelf. De consumenten kopen om reclame te maken en genereren zo nog meer consumptie. Kopen, reclame maken, weggooien. Consumptie die alleen op het gebruik ervan berust, is te langzaam. Als ik de dingen daadwerkelijk zou gebruiken, zou ik niet zo veel hoeven te kopen.’

Er zijn toch steeds meer initiatieven die overconsumptie tegen willen gaan, platforms via welke je auto’s, boormachines, et cetera kan delen en lenen van buurtgenoten?
‘Dat soort initiatieven hebben wij in Duitsland ook. Deze share-economie is juist een voorbeeld van de extreme vorm die het kapitalisme heeft aangenomen. Zelfs de community wordt uitgebuit. In Duitsland hebben we Wundercar, dat is een online carpoolcentrale voor ritjes binnen de stad. Je bent niet verplicht te betalen, maar als je tevreden bent over de chauffeur kan je die een fooi geven en vijf sterren op de website.

Wundercar laat zich erop voorstaan dat het de gemeenschapszin vergroot en dat tijdens de ritjes nieuwe vriendschappen ontstaan, maar in werkelijkheid gaat het hier om geld verdienen en goede beoordelingen krijgen zodat je de volgende keer in je vrije tijd onder het mom van gemeenschapszin weer wat extra zakcenten kunt opstrijken.

Zo zijn deugden als vriendelijkheid en gastvrijheid volledig geëconomiseerd. Het kapitalisme heeft zijn hoogtepunt bereikt nu het zelfs de gemeenschap, de community, de commons, de grondslag van het communisme heeft weten in te lijven. Dat wat een tegenpool van het kapitalisme was, is er onderdeel van geworden. Het communisme en alles wat daar op lijkt is het nieuwe gat in de markt.’

Madame Bovary

Als alles open en bloot op tafel ligt, als er geen geheimen zijn en niets verborgen blijft, gaat dat ten koste van het verlangen. Han verwijst naar een scène uit Flauberts Madame Bovary waarin Emma en Léon met elkaar in een rijtuig door de hele stad rijden. Flaubert beschrijft minutieus de straten en de pleinen die de koetsier kiest, maar besteedt geen woord aan wat er in het rijtuig gebeurt. Op het laatst steekt Emma haar hand uit het raam en strooit papiersnippers als vlinders over een klaverveldje uit. ‘Die hand is het enige naakt in de scène. Verder zie je niets, en juist daardoor is het zo’n erotische passage.’

‘Het kapitalisme leidt tot een narcistische fixatie op het zelf, en de depressie is het gevolg daarvan’

Een ander motto, uit een ander boek van Han: ‘Protect me from what I want’. Het is een tekst die de Amerikaanse kunstenares Jenny Holzer in ledlampjes op Times Square installeerde. De steeds terugkerende vraag van Han is hoe je weerstand kunt bieden aan iets waar je zelf middenin zit, hoe je kunt opstaan tegen iets dat je niet tegenover je kunt krijgen omdat je er deel van uitmaakt.

U schrijft: ‘Het wilde dier kan zich niet verdiepen in de ander tegenover hem, omdat het gelijktijdig de wijde omgeving in de gaten moet houden.’ Schaadt de techniek de menselijke verhoudingen?
‘Je hóéft je niet met drie iPads, een computer en vijf smartphones te omringen. Maar het systeem vraagt ons voortdurend te multitasken omdat we voortdurend moeten presteren.’

Uw kritiek doelt niet op de techniek?
‘Het medium is het probleem niet. Het is niet de schuld van de techniek dat die nu wordt ingezet door het kapitalisme. Elk heersend systeem wil de belangrijkste media naar zijn hand zetten en dat is het kapitalisme in het geval van het internet meesterlijk gelukt. De techniek an sich heeft de potentie om hele werelddelen te emanciperen. Nu wordt hij alleen voor andere doeleinden ingezet.’

Wat doet het systeem dan met onze relatie tot de ander?
‘Het systeem maakt iedereen narcistisch. Een ieder is de ondernemer van zijn eigen ik, iedereen is alleen nog maar met zichzelf bezig. Vroeger waren het bedrijven die onderling met elkaar concurreerden, nu zijn het individuen. Maar het is doodvermoeiend om telkens maar jezelf te moeten zijn, jezelf te moeten uiten, je eigen potentieel te moeten waarmaken.

Zo leidt het kapitalisme tot een narcistische fixatie op het zelf, en de depressie is het gevolg daarvan. De ander is concurrentie, of een seksueel object dat geconsumeerd kan worden. Het is nauwelijks mogelijk uit het narcistische moeras van het ik getrokken te worden. Alleen de ander kan dat doen.’
Het is de liefde die een mens uit zijn depressie kan bevrijden – zo gesteld geen wonder dat Han maar weinig echte liefde bespeurt in onze maatschappij.

Liefde, schrijft Han, ‘is niet een mogelijkheid, want ze is niet te danken aan ons initiatief. Ze is zonder grond, ze overvalt en verwondt ons.’ Binnen het berekenende zelfbewustzijn van de moderne mens is voor die irrationele, allesverslindende liefde geen plaats. Aan de hand van de film Melancholia van Lars von Trier probeert Han dit uit te leggen: Justine is depressief en niet in staat lief te hebben, omdat zij in zichzelf verwikkeld is en de ander alleen nog kan waarnemen in haar eigen schaduw.

Volgens de interpretatie van Han is het de planeet Melancholia, die de aarde dreigt te raken, die de vorm aanneemt van de ander en zo Justine uit haar narcisme kan bevrijden. De ander, die moet onrust betekenen, onberekenbaar zijn. De catastrofe van de naderende planeet rukt Justine uit haar in zichzelf verzonken staat.

In de hel van het gelijke kan geen begeerte zijn, want er is geen werkelijk andere op wie de begeerte geprojecteerd zou kunnen worden. Als alles om jezelf draait, is het onmogelijk een ander lief te hebben. De liefde van nu noemt Han ‘gedomesticeerd’ en doet alleen nog maar dienst om onszelf in ons ego te bevestigen.

Er kunnen toch ook andere zaken zijn die ons onszelf doen vergeten, waar we geheel in op kunnen gaan? Werk, kunst, muziek?
‘We leven in een cultuur van het behagen. Alles moet ons steeds in ons ego bevestigen. Kunst moet behagen, muziek moet behagen, we moeten alles kunnen “liken”. Iets kan ons alleen maar uit onszelf losrukken zodra het negatief is, verstorend, erschütternd, waarvan je niet kan zeggen: dit vind ik leuk!’

En u?
‘Ik ben ook deel van deze wereld. En we zijn allen depressief. Ik kan mezelf niet uitsluiten. Ik ben net als iedereen verweven in het net, ik ben net als ieder ander depressief, en…’

Maar als u zich hier zo bewust van bent, dan moet u toch maatregelen kunnen nemen?
‘Het is moeilijk om uit het gelid te stappen. Het zijn de idioten die er buiten vallen. De idioot is diegene die zich bevrijdt uit het web, die niet communiceert. Hij hult zich in stilzwijgen. Kijkt u eens de film van Lars von Trier, The Idiots. De idioten staan op zichzelf.’

Bent u hier de idioot?
Ik… iedereen kan een zeker idiotisme praktiseren, maar het is moeilijk. Het is bijna onmogelijk om een buitenbeentje te zijn in het conformistische web waarin wij leven. Niemand wil opvallen. Maar de enige manier om weerstand te bieden, is om voor idioot te spelen. Het probleem is niet langer dat wij onze mening niet kunnen of mogen uiten, maar dat we de hele dag móéten communiceren.

Wat een bevrijding is het om eens niets te hoeven zeggen en te kunnen zwijgen. Alleen dan hebben we de mogelijkheid om iets steeds zeldzamers te bereiken, want alleen dan is het mogelijk te zeggen wat werkelijk waard is gezegd te worden. Wij moeten ruimten creëren waar je eenzaam kunt zijn en kan zwijgen. Er moet een manier worden gevonden om ons te bevrijden van het conformisme, de heerschappij van de totale transparantie. Dat is onze opdracht voor de toekomst.’

Zojuist verschenen bij Van Gennep: drie gebundelde essays van Byung-Chul Han onder de titel ‘De vermoeide samenleving’, 168 p., € 16,90

Nietzsche in tien vrolijke lessen

Deze week verscheen een nieuwe vertaling van Nietzsches belangrijkste boek: De vrolijke wetenschap. Ruim een eeuw oud, maar ook de moderne mens kan er nog een hoop van leren.

De Volkskrant
Martine Prange

Liefde: leren liefhebben van de omgeving – Heb de ander lief. Nee, niet als Bijbels gebod. Niet al je naasten, niet heel de mensheid. Dat is voor Nietzsche een te abstract fenomeen. Anderen en je omgeving liefhebben is een kwestie van dagelijkse training: probeer met een warm oog je omgeving te beschouwen en lief te hebben (VW 334). Ook beter voor de wetenschap (zie onder).

Wetenschap: wetenschap moet niet bedreven worden als iets koels en ernstigs, maar met warmte en betrokkenheid. Wetenschappers moeten zich laten leiden door hun intellectuele geweten (VW 2; VW 335) en vrolijk zijn.

Kunst: goede kunst is de stilering van een overvloed aan levenslust en de botsing van verschillende artistieke opvattingen (VW 370). Zie ook: Dionysisch pessimisme en stijl.

Stijl: ook je eigen persoonlijkheid moet je stijl geven, als ware je zelf een kunstwerk. De uitdaging voor individuen is de overvloed aan levenslust en de strijd tussen verschillende culturele normen en opvattingen (wat Nietzsche later ook ‘wil tot macht’ noemt) te stileren tot een eenheid, een nieuwe stijl die als standaard en toetssteen zal fungeren van alles wat daarna komt (VW 290).

Dionysisch pessimisme: versus Romantisch pessimisme. Het Romantische pessimisme wijst het leven af. Het Dionysisch pessimisme weet ook wel dat het leven absurd en zinloos is, maar stelt dat de uitdaging voor de mens is het desondanks te omarmen en lief te hebben (zie: amor fati).

Amor fati: ‘houd van je lot’ of ‘de liefde tot het lot’ (daar zijn hele discussies over in de Nietzsche-literatuur). Het gaat niet om het accepteren van je leven, alsof je je fatalistisch neerlegt bij je lot, want het is nu eenmaal wat het is, en beter zal het niet worden. Het is je leven omarmen alsof je het zelf zo gewild hebt (VW 276). Zie ook: eeuwige terugkeer van het gelijke.

Eeuwige terugkeer van het gelijke: dit is geen metafysica (althans, niet in dit boek, in Aldus sprak Zarathustra wel), maar een ethische imperatief: leef je leven zo dat je op de vraag of je het precies weer zo zou willen, hartgrondig ‘ja’ kunt zeggen. Dat wil niet zeggen dat je alles even leuk hebt gevonden, maar dat er in elk geval één ogenblik in je leven was dat al het andere (dat er nu eenmaal noodzakelijk aan voorafging en er noodzakelijk uit voortvloeide) de moeite waard maakte (VW 341).

Dood van God: God is dood – we ervaren een terugkeer van religie in deze neo-Romantische tijd, waarin iedereen weliswaar met zijn blote voeten in de aarde wil staan, maar ook met zijn hoofd in de hemel wil zweven, het liefst de zevende. Maar God is echt dood. We zullen er dus zelf iets van moeten maken. Daarover niet getreurd: het is inderdaad zeer tragisch, maar het opent ook nieuwe horizonten en een grote vrijheid, bijvoorbeeld om zelf te denken (VW 125, VW 124, VW 343. Zie ook: denken).

Denken: kost tijd. Tegenwoordig denkt men met ‘het horloge in de hand’, schrijft Nietzsche. Ofwel: men denkt niet meer, er is alleen nog verstrooiing. Filosofie en wetenschap moeten weliswaar vrolijk zijn voor Nietzsche, maar de lichtheid die hij bepleit is gericht tegen de ‘geest der zwaarte’ van Kant, Schopenhauer en Wagner, die een knieval maakten voor de moraal en daarmee uiteindelijk ‘het morele geweten’ voorrang gaven boven het intellectuele geweten. Vrolijk- en lichtheid betekenen ‘lichtvoetig’ en niet ‘leeghoofdig’. Pak dit boek op, voor een dosis vrolijke, humorvolle, speelse doch ernstige filosofie als otium en bellum (VM 329. Zie ook: Vrolijke wetenschap).

Vrolijke wetenschap: kun je alleen ontwikkelen door ‘als een hagedis’ in de zon te luieren aan de Middellandse zee. Véél otium dus. Gooi De vrolijke wetenschap in een koffer en ga als de wiedeweerga naar Genua, waar Nietzsche dit boek schreef. De vrolijke wetenschap is namelijk ook een ode aan de Mediterranée, een echt ‘zuidelijk’ boek, geschreven ‘in de taal van de dooiwind’ (zie voorwoord).

Martine Prange is hoogleraar filosofie van mens, cultuur en samenleving aan Tilburg University en Nietzsche-kenner. Over Nietzsche schreef zij de boeken Lof der Méditerranée: Nietzsches vrolijke wetenschap tussen noord en zuid (Klement, 2005) en Nietzsche, Wagner, Europe (Walter de Gruyter, 2013).

Friedrich Nietzsche: De vrolijke wetenschap
Uit het Duits vertaald door Hans Driessen. Vantilt; 352 pagina’s; € 22,50.