Introduction, and Baudelaire

yes, I’m aware that this manages to say both nothing and yet all too much

goya the dog

I

I’ve tried and failed to write several essays (one on ethics, one on consequentialism specifically, and one on adaptive traits in religion) at this point. I needed certain tools to explain my point of view, ones in books that I haven’t written about.

I tried to write the essays without referencing these writings. They became incomprehensible. Worse: they were boring.

It’s time, then, to clear the ground.

The next [number] of posts will be about four books. Theoretically, there should be five posts – one per book and then a conclusion – but things don’t always go according to plan.

These four books represent the external side of modernity. This is not an authoritative account of the books themselves, nor of “politics”, nor of “human beings.” It’s an attempt to establish a baseline of communication. In that sense, they do make up something like an “ideology”, with two notable differences: 1) I take all four of them to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. 2) None of them examine the underlying causes, the internal structures, whatever those are (whether metaphysical or theological or psychological).

So far as I know, none of the works explicitly draws on another. One can take that in several ways: It’s possible that they managed to arrive at similar conclusions, which I take to be a strong indication of some truth. But it’s also possible that I’m contorting their meanings to fit together. I don’t much mind either way – the reader is advised to read the books themselves regardless.

The four books which present the political or ethical aspects of nihilism are these:

Seeing Like a State – James C. Scott
The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
The True Believer – Eric Hoffer
The Culture of Narcissism – Christopher Lasch

This list (and the accompanying introduction) will, of course, become a table of contents in the future.

II

About the “similar conclusions”: The World as Will and Representation is a truly systematic philosophy, divided into four sections. One might imagine that each section builds on the other, which is to say, there is a clear beginning or axiom in Part I, which is developed throughout Parts II and III, before the author completes it in Part IV. This is, indeed, how normal non-fiction is written. And yet Schopenhauer describes his work not as a process of developing a system, but rather of the system hacking up a unity. His work is one single thought viewed from four angles. The same “thing” underlies each section, but it’s impossible to communicate it all at once. In Schopenhauer’s terms: a book must have a first line and a last line.

My project is not nearly as systematic as Schopenhauer’s, but I do adopt his stance. The four works selected are (in my view) attempts to communicate one central problem, although they only do so from a political and an ethical perspective. It’s not that I deny the metaphysical, the ontological, or the epistemological, but they aren’t nearly as likely to persuade at the moment. I do mean to persuade you to act in a certain way, which means I need to speak in a certain “pragmatic” language. Also: the metaphysical is much harder.

The problem, that which they all get at, is nihilism. I’m somewhat hesitant to adopt the word – like all words it has baggage – but not to do defeats the project. Bear in mind, though, that what I call “nihilism” is much broader than it’s normally considered: anti-natalism, Lovecraft, materialism, etc. are symptoms of it, not its standard-bearers. Nihilism is the default of society, not a theory adopted by its outcasts. Indeed: many of those outcasts who most loudly proclaim their nihilism are, in the final analysis, reactions against it.

How and why I use that word will become apparent as this series progresses into its second stage, which will be much more focused on actual philosophy.

III

None of what I say here is original, nor is it limited to these works. It’s not even limited to writing. Studying the paintings and etchings of Francisco Goya should have the same effect, provided you take them seriously.

“So why are you writing this?” Because I can, and someone has to.

“No, but I mean: what’re your politics?” The first question on everyone’s mind. Scott is a left-anarchist (sympathizer, at least). Polanyi was a socialist. Hoffer was a conservative. Lasch was… either a paleoconservative or a communist, depending on who you ask.

“But which do you agree with the most?” All of them. They’re saying the same thing.

“That’s not possible.” It is, I promise you.

“I mean, are you on the right or the left?” Why does it matter? What would you do with that information if I provided it?

“Is there a TL;DR so I know if you say something I like?” Yes.

Charles Baudelaire invented the word modernity. He wrote extensively (exclusively?) about it. One thing he wrote, a prose poem, serves as a nice little TL;DR to my politics. Be careful: it’s a koan, not a treatise. Interpret it not as you will, but as you should.

It’s titled Assommons les pauvres, or – “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!”

IV

Assommons les Pauvres! (trans. Edward Kaplan)

“For two weeks I had shut myself up in my room, and I had surrounded myself with the books fashionable at that time (sixteen or seventeen years ago); I speak of books dealing with the art of making nations happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours. I had thus digested — swallowed, I mean — all the ramblings of all those managers of public happiness — of those who advise all the poor to become slaves, and those who persuade them that they are all dethroned kings. — It will not be considered surprising that I was then in a state of mind bordering on vertigo or idiocy.

Yet I thought that I sensed, shut deep within my intellect, the dim seed of an idea better than all the old wives’ formulas I had recently perused in the encyclopedia. But it was only the idea of an idea, something infinitely hazy.

Then I went out quite thirsty. For a passionate craving for shoddy books begets a proportional need for the open air and refreshments.

As I was about to enter a tavern, a beggar held out his hat, with one of those unforgettable looks that would topple thrones, if mind could move matter, and if a hypnotist’s eyes could ripen grapes.

At the same time, I heard a voice whispering in my ear, a voice I knew well; the voice of a good Angel, or of a good Demon, who accompanies me everywhere. Since Socrates had his good Demon, why shouldn’t I have my good Angel, why shouldn’t I have the honor, like Socrates, of acquiring my certificate of insanity, signed by the insightful Lelut and the sagacious Baillarger?

The difference between the Demon of Socrates and my own is that his would appear to him only to forbid, warn, suggest, and persuade. That poor Socrates had only a prohibitive demon; mine is a great approver, mine is a Demon of action, or Demon of combat.

This is what its voice whispered to me: “He alone is equal to another, if he proves it, and he alone is worthy of freedom, if he can conquer it.”

Immediately, I pounced on the beggar. With a single punch, I shut one eye, which became, in a second, as big as a ball. I broke one of my nails smashing two of his teeth, and since I didn’t feel strong enough to beat up the old man quickly, having been born fragile and not well trained in boxing, with one hand I grabbed him by the collar of his outfit, and I gripped his throat with the other, and I began vigorously to bounce his head against a wall. I should admit that beforehand I had examined the surroundings with a glance, and I had ascertained that in that deserted suburb, for a long enough time, I was beyond the reach of any policeman.

Having next, with a kick directed to his back, forceful enough to break his shoulder blades, floored that weakened sexagenarian, I grabbed a big tree branch lying on the ground, and I beat him with the obstinate energy of cooks trying to tenderize a beefsteak.

Suddenly, — Oh miracle! Oh delight of the philosopher who verifies the excellence of his theory! — I saw that antique carcass turn over, straighten up with a force I would never have suspected in a machine so peculiarly unhinged. And, with a look of hatred that seemed to me a good omen, the decrepit bandit flung himself on me, blackened both my eyes, broke four of my teeth, and, with the same tree branch beat me to a pulp. — By my forceful medication, I had thus restored his pride and his life.

Then, I made a mighty number of signs to make him understand that I considered the debate settled, and getting up with the self-satisfaction of a Stoic sophist, I told him, “Sir, you are my equal! Please do me the honor of sharing my purse. And remember, if you are a true philanthropist, you must apply to all your colleagues, when they seek alms, the theory I had the pain to test upon your back.”

He indeed swore that he had understood my theory, and that he would comply with my advice.”


top image: Goya’s The Dog

Author: Lou Keep

samzdat.com

8 thoughts on “Introduction, and Baudelaire”

  1. Omg. You sound like me. I am eagerly await Ing your posts and the upcoming book.

    You pretty much said and or touched upon everything that I say too, for examples, descriptive rather than prescriptive, and, they are all saying the same thing.

    I think you are touching upon something that in standing back from reveals kind of two ways of approaching situation, that I also talk about in my works.

    One of the most difficult things to get across to anyone, and in fact I’ve pretty much given up on trying to get it across to anyone, is that a certain group or bracketed set of authors are talking about “the same thing” . I’ve come to a certain conclusion in my efforts to describe how this is the case to people that will continue to Way up the various authors arguments which has the most merits which can be argued against in particular ways etc.; but then I say they’re all talking about the same thing, and that same person who is been weighing up all the various arguments of various authors will say no they’re not seven so I was talking about this and so and so’s talking about that. And so then I say then how the hell are you comparing them with one another? It’s like saying this person is talking about plants and that person is talking about bridges; how can you even bring those two authors into the same discussion if they are not overlapping in some sense in talking about the same aspect of plants and bridges. At that point I pretty much lost whoever it was that I was trying to talk with.

    Anyways I will look forward to your posts and your book.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I should have the first posts coming out in a week or so. At least that’s the plan. As for the unity: A helpful metaphor is the way that all the sciences, whether chemistry or biology, ultimately collapse into physics (which in turn collapses into pure math), but of course that can also easily be misunderstood.

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      1. Even so, it’s important to note that there are real and important differences between the subfields, just as my brother and I are not the same person for all that we’re closely related. I’m just reiterating the ease of metaphorical misunderstandings, I suppose, but the null hypothesis must always be that different authors at least disagree and may not even be talking about the same things. It’s certainly not impossible to reject that null hypothesis, in some cases it’s so easy as to be almost automatic, but the time must be taken to do so properly.

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        1. Oh, yeah. Definitely. I don’t want to imply the, like, bad reading of Hegel-ish view that “everyone is saying the same thing heading towards this one truth”. All I mean is that there are a few books (the ones I’m currently writing about) that happen to be, even if it’s not explicit. Much easier to argue for the concordance of four books than all of them.

          I am sticking by the “epistemology, metaphysics, and ontology are the same” line, though.

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  2. …and that i say nothing new, and that i should be ready to get beaten to a pulp just as i do not hold back in confronting the eyes that appeal to me to comply.

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