The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance Of Horror by Thomas Ligotti

Human suffering will remain insoluble as long as human beings exist. The only truly effective solution for suffering is that spoken of in [Peter] Zapffe’s “Last Messiah.” It may not be a welcome solution for a stopgap world, but it would forever put an end to suffering, should we ever care to do so. The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and exsitence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real. – Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, 2010, p.75

Author Thomas Ligotti

I think it no accident that two of the most influential western thinkers arrived at similar conclusions regarding the status of existence, even though they began with very different assumptions. I also think it no accident that these conclusions were first articulated in the aftermath of World War I. The Second World War may have surpassed it in terms of global destruction and body count, but the horror of trench warfare, both in Belgium/France and Russia, and the destruction of European Imperial dynasties was a cataclysm from which millions never recovered.

In Marburg, Germany, a young Martin Heidegger insisted that at the heart of existence is “The Not”. This “Not” is not just the negation of all affirmations. It is the negation of all negations as well. Human existence, Heidegger understood years before Freud proposed something similar, is “a being toward death.” Dasein, that untranslatable word that refers to each and every being that finds itself cast into the world unprepared and even unawares, finds itself an actor in a play already in progress, doing the best it can with the tools it is given. What drives Dasein, however is not some metaphysical force, or the appeal of virtue, or God or Satan or angels. At the heart of all existence is this “Not” that creates for all being a “being toward” death, the pursuit of our own negation that is, paradoxically, negated by this very same “Not”. In short, there is no wizard behind the curtain because there is no curtain, no behind. There is “Not”.

In the same decade, young Swiss pastor Karl Barth insisted that the triumphalism of much western Christian theology rested on a false sense of our relationship to God. Having returned to study the Christian Scriptures closely, Barth understood that at the heart of the Gospel message was a Divine “No” that brooked no argument, that lay waste to any and all human claims to righteousness, goodness, and the eventual progress toward the Kingdom on Earth. While Barth also said there is a Divine “Yes” that follows that “No”, he was at great pains through millions of words to strip Christian theology of any notion that everything we humans have built, up to and including the Christian Church and its theology, stands under the final, cataclysmic verdict, Nein. Left to our devices apart from the divine activity of the Triune God in the passion of Jesus Christ, human beings are and will always be bound for destruction.

In the 9 decades since these thoughts were first offered, thinkers great and small have wrestled with them. To no avail. Stripped of the pretenses with which we console ourselves – even our biological name, Homo Sapiens sapiens, is a joke we play on ourselves – we human beings are little more than pigs rooting in our own shit and muck, devouring whatever enters our mouths, our genetic programming pushing us to rut with anyone available in order to keep the species going, then living out our days watching our bodies decay from the inside out, the pain of our long dying never matched by any real pleasure or joy by which we convince ourselves that, contrary to these naked realities, “we” really “are”. Consciousness, in whatever way we understand this particular word – and there’s not even a guarantee that it refers to anything at all, particularly something that separates us from other species on Earth – is the result of blind accident, a mutation like our opposable thumbs and upright posture that may, at one time, have offered a marginal survival advantage but now, after millennia of misuse has long outstayed its welcome. Through consciousness, most people assume, we “are” human. Except, alas, all “consciousness” has done is left us aware that we have not been, and will not be again, and that what happens in between those twin darknesses has no meaning whatsoever.

In a nutshell, the above paragraph summarized much of the description of human existence offered by Ligotti in his interesting, thought-provoking work. Rooted in the work of little-known Norwegian thinker Peter Wessel Zapffe, embracing the pessimism of Schopenhauer, and offering as our only hope for relief from suffering the extinction of the human race, Ligotti’s is not so much a “pessimistic” philosophy as it is one of horror and despair. Which is no surprise, considering Ligotti’s main claim to fame is as a horror novelist. How better to present the horrible truth at the heart of existence than through the symbols and conventions of weird fiction?

Reading Ligotti, you realize fairly early on there will be no life-line thrown to escape the bleak, frightening presentation of existence as, in his own words including capitalizations, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. We are offered no solace in love, no comfort in courage, no respite in family or community. We human beings are not what we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, the very notion of a “self” is just one of the many ways through which we attempt to console ourselves that being alive is a moral good. Our sense of ourselves as a “self”, a unique, contained, integrated individual is nothing more than the creation of a neurotic mind desperate to shield the harsh reality from breaking in and destroying our minds completely (Freud understood as much, yet counseled that in this case the illness was preferable to the cure). Heidegger’s “Not”, Barth’s Nein, these extend even to our very selves. We are uncanny to ourselves, little more than animated puppets with nothing pulling our strings yet never fully free to “be” as we would wish to be. This book is much as the reality Ligotti describes – barren of reason, hope, and any soft, mitigating consolation to make it more palatable.

I found myself intrigued as I read, finding much to commend in Ligotti despite the atmosphere of despair that hangs over the book. In stripping existence of any illusion, we come face to face with the real horror we have all too often converted into smaller, manageable horrors. Ligotti does so without apology. This horror, that we as creatures have become, through the paradoxical working of natural selection, the negation of creation, is the kind of thing H. P. Lovecraft considered in his stories of beings with unpronounceable names and terrible designs upon us and our world: enough to drive us mad should we see it or hear it in its terrible reality. As a “contrivance of horror”, the kind of cosmic nihilism at the heart of Ligotti’s presentation surely is the most frightening of all: That our existence is nothing at all.

For all I would commend this book as an important corrective to the flood of bullshit too often presented to us in the guise of “motivational speaking” and “Christian literature”, it is important to note that, even though they may very well be the consoling lies of those desperate to shield us from the terrible truth of our existence, the fact is there are things that make life not at all MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Among these perhaps comforting lies is courage: that virtue that pushes human beings to live through all sorts of horrors and pain, big and small. Whether it’s the courage of the soldier who steps in front of a bullet or jumps on a grenade meant for others; the parents of a child born with incredible deficits who nevertheless strive to give that child a life of relative ease; those who work to make our collective lives more humane; these things are as real as the horrors from which they might shield us.

Along with courage is the sense, an intuition that may well be rooted in biological imperatives, that human life, in and for itself, is valuable. Not just our own lives, for which we may or may not care much at all, but the lives of others. Human beings are valuable simply because they exist. They are that rare thing, indeed: another like us deserving of our care, our assistance, conspirators in our desire to keep the darkness at bay. The preciousness of human life may well come from our understanding that nothing lies behind what is, including ourselves as conscious beings. In our desire for the care of others, we are not only protecting ourselves from the horrors of our consciousness of our own nonexistence; positively, we are affirming that human beings are and ought to be creatures subject to care and concern.

Finally, there is love, a word absent from Ligotti’s work. For Karl Barth, at least, it is Divine Love that negates the negation at the heart of creation. Indeed, the first negation is not at all part of the Divine plan but rather the result of human being believing it possible to stare into an abyss from which God sought to protect us. Pushed to consider life in all its variety, most people conclude that, in whatever shape it makes itself known, love sits even more deeply in existence than the terrible “Not” that is so horrible it is its own negation. In the faces of those who often crowd our lives with their presence, in the feeling of a child’s arms around the neck, in that most precious encounter between human beings, an encounter that brings with it a kind of mindless pleasure, we understand we are in the presence of a mystery far more deep than the simple realities of a world stripped of pretense.

Ligotti muses at one point on the fleeting nature of beauty and pleasure. Whether it’s the horrible pleasure that comes from the use of some narcotics, or the transcendent pleasure of sex, Ligotti and I agree on this: At its most supreme, pleasure is a fleeting moment that all too often pushes us to an eternal pursuit for it to happen again and again. For Ligotti, the reality of pleasure is given the lie as something valuable in and of itself precisely because it is so fleeting. For me, however, those moments of sublime pleasure, however they’re experienced, are testimony to the fact that the truly transcendent pleasures in this life – the sounds of a musical piece that bring goosebumps; a vista of sun and land that overwhelms our senses; that moment of human union that we shroud with mystery yet sometimes disparage as little more than the result of biological imperative – must needs be fleeting. Despite Ligotti’s claims, the horrible truth that may very well be the totality of our existence, can indeed be seen without madness ensuing. A moment or two longer of some fleeting pleasure that pushes outside the experience of that pleasure, however, we are quite sure will destroy us. A marvelous ending, to be sure, but an ending nevertheless.

In other words, we can live – perhaps not happily, certainly never easily – with the idea that we are not at all what we believe ourselves to be and that the nothingness that sits at the heart of Creation is the final truth. I’ve known many, including myself, who have stared long into that particular abyss and come away more or less psychically intact. That with which we cannot live, however, is the truth revealed in moments of rapture that there is a blinding, all-enveloping promise of love, an affirmation of existence as, far from MALIGNANTLY USELESS, but rather something sublime to be defended at all cost precisely because the negation of the “Not” at Creation’s core is a pleasure beyond our mortal abilities either to comprehend or sustain. These are no more “illusions” than are our intuitions that we hear a transcendent Nein to all our pretenses and neuroses that would deny that very same No. To claim otherwise isn’t so much pessimism or nihilism as it is a denial of the reality of all our experiences and intuitions, including those that lie at the heart of Ligotti’s desperate view of existence.



Dialectic Of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”

[E]nlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, the decomposition through which reflection, as its Romantic enemies had maintained from the first, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged. When in mathematics the unknown becomes the unknown quantity in an equation, it is mad into something long familiar before any value has been assigned. Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically: even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced in the mathematical theorems. In the preemptive identification of he thoroughly mathematized world with truth, enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical. It equates thought with mathematics. The latter is thereby cut loose, as it were, turned into an absolute authority. – Adorno & Horkheimer, “The Concept Of Enlightenment”, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.18

Max Horkheimer is on the left, Theodor Adorno on the right.

In 1922, Karl Barth published the (massively) revised Second Edition of his Epistle To The Romans. Even more clear and to the point than the original, 1919 first edition, Barth took aim at those targets he believed had been part and parcel of Protestant Europe’s complicity in the destruction of the First World War. In this book, often cited without actually being read, Barth did the very thing his Seminary teachers had insisted was impossible – he presented St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Church as a contemporaneous document, the audience being European Protestants struggling to understand what has happened to a civilization both sacred and secular thought had declared above the barbarisms of the past. He didn’t engage in the kind of historical criticism that had been the norm for nearly a century in German-influenced Scripture study. He did not treat the epistle with the proper respect due an historical document; rather, by doing, he through down a gauntlet to the liberal theological establishment in the German-speaking and -influenced world, declaring both their too-clever-by-half assumption of supremacy and their much-vaunted intellectualism as having utterly failed to control Europe’s decent into mass death.

The explosion this book set off, making of Barth – at the time a parish minister in Switzerland, known mostly as a supporter both of Christian Socialism as well as active in his support for local unions – something of both a theological celebrity and pariah. His great teacher, the single most learned church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack, was scathing in his dismissal of his former student’s work. In response, Barth noted that von Harnack had written the infamous “apologia” speech Kaiser Wilhelm II had given, defending Germany’s declaration of war, and thus was a main target of Barth’s polemics.

Love him or hate him, Karl Barth was among the first to understand that, as a cultural force in western life, the Enlightenment had created its very own end precisely by its inability to protect the west from its own worst inclinations. Barth knew well, while never articulating very clearly, that the Enlightenment was like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his own children. Rather than something liberating, it was a horror that led to its own inevitable destruction.

A generation later, living in exile in the United States, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno surveyed the barbarism that, at the moment they began working (1943) held the continent of Europe in its grip, and understood the Enlightenment, the cultural reflection of the age of bourgeois dominance in the economy, as having become precisely what its forerunners (they focus on Francis Bacon) had declared it was a liberation from: an age of myth and repression. To the rising bourgeoisie, Enlightenment thought was the cultural reflection of the emerging capitalist economy – an opportunity to free oneself from the shackles of slavery to nature and its cultural reflections in the magical thinking of religion. Now, in the middle of the 20th century, it was clear that the Enlightenment cultural project had come full circle, creating both the final expression of capitalist domination (fascism) with the tools of Enlightenment thought brought in as bulwarks against the new barbarians who would both destroy the west as well as the possibility of thought as an escape from the terror.

In the years since it was first published in 1943, Dialectic of Enlightenment has become one of those touchstones of 20th century thought. Like many such works, it is often mentioned without having been read. Because it is neither easy nor light reading (contemporaries made fun of Martin Heidegger’s odd, often impenetrable, writing style without noting that Adorno and Horkheimer had produced a book almost as unreadable), it is often misrepresented as both more and less than it was. I don’t believe the authors envisioned it as much more than a timely bit of philosophical reflection; the subtitle of the whole work is Philosophical Fragments, after all. Trying to make the essays within as something programmatic, I think, misses the simple point that the authors were answering for themselves the fairly simple question many had been asking since the rise of the Nazi’s: How did this happen? How did the most intellectually and culturally gifted people in western Europe sink into a kind of demonic barbarism from which there would be no escape except utter destruction?

Adorno and Horkheimer are associated with the so-called “Frankfurt School”, but I think even as a name with meaning anything more than the physical location of radical post-World War II thought it really doesn’t hold much weight. Both Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, although as Georg Lukacs noted, they were very strange Marxists. Far more interested in culture and its products than class conflict, Adorno in particular took aim less as capitalist society and more at the culture it produced, a culture as violent and barbaric as was the society it reflected.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, it was Bacon’s equation of knowledge as the power of domination and control over nature that is key to understanding how the end result of the Enlightenment project, much like the capitalist society of which it was both a product and defender, had resulted in the kinds of violence and a descent into barbaric primitivism it promised to rescue us. As the authors note several times through the essay, for Bacon the kind of deductive thought Bacon envisaged was a liberation from the control over knowledge that resided at the time as the purview of kings and priests. Because he naively expressed the hope that such knowledge would be available to all, there certainly seemed to be a liberating quality to Bacon’s project.

It was the introduction of power, however, as part of the larger project that subsumed the Enlightenment under the control of the rising capitalist class. Precisely because the bourgeoisie sought to control the growing proletariat, the kind of power Bacon presented as freeing became just another instrument in a long age of increasing instrumental control, both of humanity over nature as well as human control over other human beings. In so doing, they argue, the Enlightenment project had replaced the alleged arbitrariness of ancient power and control through the reification of nature with a priestly class who alone possessed the means for its control and propitiation with the very non-arbitrary power of the machine, of instrumental reason, with the bourgeoisie the possessors of the secrets of control and propitiation. Except what the bourgeoisie sought to control, the industrial workers. Such control was complete and absolute, rendering even thought subservient to the instrumentality of the factory.

Like Plato, contemporary rulers were distrustful of poets and artists, those who sought to express knowledge outside the limits imposed by capitalist means of production. As long as art laid no claim to knowledge, but only isolated aesthetic enjoyment, it was acceptable. Nevertheless, art in all its forms, with poetry at the top of the list precisely because of the danger inherent in poetry undermining the totalitarian logic of the factory and marketplace, were always suspect.

As was true in much of Adorno’s work, the dialectic presented creates a barrier both to clarity of expression as well as precision of understanding. Until one understands that this dialectic, which Adorno was always pushing to the extremes in order to demonstrate the extremity of culture under industrial capitalism, is part and parcel of the larger cultural critique underway, much of the work can seem nearly impossible to understand.

Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear. (p.11)

Or again:

Power confers increased cohesion and strength  on the social whole in which it is established. The division of labor, through which power manifests itself socially, serves the self-preservation of the dominated whole. But this necessarily turns the whole, as a whole, and the operation of its immanent reason, into a means of enforcing the particular interest. Power confronts the individual as the universal, as the reason which informs reality. The power of all the members of society, to whom as individuals no other way is open, is constantly summated, through the division of labor imposed on them, in the realization of the whole, whose rationality is thereby multiplied over again. What is done to all by the few always takes the form of the subduing of individuals by the many: the oppression of society always bears the features of oppression by a collective. It is this unity of collectivity and power, and not the immediate social universal, solidarity, which is precipitated in intellectual forms. (p.17)

Precisely because Horkheimer and Adorno understood the processes of history as dialectical rather than linear, it was necessary to present that reality in all its confounding complexity. Once grasped, this method opens up their work, qua literary productboth as a substantive instantiation of the very reality under criticism as well as a kind of poetic protest to the blandness (and falseness) of capitalist Enlightenment and its emphasis upon logic and its rules, a logic that (the authors note in the first quote above) allows nothing outside itself any claim to truth or reality.

A major criticism of much the work of the Frankfurt School has beyond positing a totalitarian intellectual structure that accompanies the totalitarian industrial capitalist structure of which it is both reflection and defender. By refusing to exempt even their own work from the limitations late industrialism imposes upon both culture and thought, some argue, isn’t the very critique offered self-negating? Adorno in particular was prone to argue it wasn’t self-negating so much as limited in scope and of little use programmatically (thus did Lukacs deride their work as a kind of armchair Marxism, a faux-radicalism that sits in its comfortable chair overlooking the abyss around them and commenting with neither experience nor an offer for release upon the chaos around them). Theirs was descriptive rather than proscriptive in part because capitalism and the Enlightenment project offered little in the way of substantive alternatives to their increasingly violent and anti-intellectual demands for rigid conformity.

It has always fascinated me that European Protestant radicals understood the moral vacuum that the Enlightenment had become a generation before secular radicals presented it as the source of its own destruction. In part it was the very division of labor, expressed in the University in the division of the pursuit of knowledge that led to this gap. Barth took a look at the reality of European society destroying itself in the trenches on the one hand, and the grandiose promises of liberal Protestantism as a source of universal brotherhood and peace and knew that one or the other had to be wrong. Barth was, however, focused (at least at that time) on the ways the Enlightenment project in Protestantism had failed in the practice of the actual churches who had, like the socialists in the warring nations, foregone their solidarity for a fervent and suicidal nationalism.

Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles in the United States from the horrors of Nazi Germany, saw the triumph of German arms across Europe as the final expression both of industrial capitalism and Enlightenment. Because they were Marxists (unlike Barth who, while sympathetic to socialism was hardly a secular political radical), they missed the dissolution of the Enlightenment in the horrors of the First World War because they understood that war as capitalism by other means rather some self-destructive impulse embedded within capitalism itself. It took the nightmares of fascism and totalitarianism to make clear that capitalism was nothing more than a degenerate shadow of its former self, the Enlightenment nothing more than an apologia for mass death.

Because of the division of labor, and the disdain with which theology was held (and is still held) by the secular University, the self-destructiveness of the Enlightenment either was missed or dismissed (as it was by von Harnack and others) as a return to an anti-intellectualism that reveled in myth and mystery. Thus is post-modernism still derided by those last, desperate believers in the Enlightenment project as a going concern in western society. Even as industrial capitalism is replaced by the service economy (which includes as its highest embodiment a group once understood as leeches upon the body politic, the investment banker), there are those who insist the Enlightenment is our only hope of escape, with post-modernism being little more than the old myth and religion gussied up in fancy words and phrases.

We live in an age in which the critiques of capitalism, its religious expression in western Europe in liberal Protestantism and cultural expression in the Enlightenment, have borne themselves out. We continue to scramble in the dust, understanding that ours should not be the creation of any edifice that upholds a society continuing its bent toward self-destruction. I believe that, while a creation and creature of its historical moment, “The Concept of Enlightenment” can at the very least offer us the possibility of escaping the traps that still exist in a capitalist society gone senile.

Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times

To put it bluntly, it would be as misleading today to recommend Walter Benjamin as a literary critic and essayist as it would have been misleading to recommend Kafka of 1924 as a short-story writer and novelist. The describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements, such as: his erudition was great, but he was no scholar; his subject matter comprised texts and their interpretation, but he was no philologist; he was greatly attracted not by religion but, “Walter Benjamin by theology and the theological type of interpretation for which the text itself is sacred, but he was no theologian and he was not particularly interested in the Bible; he was a born writer, but his greatest ambition was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotiations; he was the was the first Germ to translate Proust (together with Franz Hess) and St.-John Perse, and before that he had translated Baudelaire’s Tablueax Parisiens, but he was no translator; he reviewed books and wrote a number of essays on living and dead writers, but he was no literary critic; he wrote a book about the German baroque and left behind a huge unfinished study of the French nineteenth century, but he as no historian, literary or otherwise; I shall try to show that he thought poetically, but he was neither a poet nor a philosopher. – Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin”, Men In Dark Times, pp.155-156

The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs.  The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations.  At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.   It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258

Walter Benjamin at work

Walter Benjamin at work

Georg Lukacs wrote of some members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno in particular:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss” which I described […] as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

In much the same way, Adorno was critical of his mentor and friend Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Production”, “I am all too aware of the weakness of the work. And this consists, to put it crudely, in the tendency to engage in Jeremiads and polemics” (Quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Selected With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, p.249n78), a charge I find all the more fascinating and lacking in ironic self-awareness considering Adorno’s tendency toward the exaggerated statement for elucidating a far more mundane point (something Lepper, the editor of the above volume of Adorno’s writings on music, notes early and often as part of Adorno’s “style”). Indeed, “Art In The Age Of Mechanical Production” may well be one of the most positive statements regarding the revolutionary potential of popular art (film in this case) from a leftist perspective written in the 20th century.

Just as Lukacs became contemptuous of the kind of too-comfortable armchair dialectics of Adorno and his circle, Adorno’s rejection of Benjamin precisely because he was “undialectic” (quoted in Arendt, p.162) and spoke scathingly of Benjamin’s “attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were.” (Arendt, p.163), sprung both from a fairly meritorious critical eye which nevertheless missed the deeper heart of the one being criticized. While it may well have been the case that Adorno’s life was just a tad too comfortable for one claiming a mantle as a revolutionary, so, too, were Benjamin’s works, in Arendt’s words, the strangest kind of Marxism. For Benjamin, however, his dedication to the revolutionary cause, while certainly a vital part of the intellectual toolkit he brought to every task – he came very close to joining the party in the mid-1920’s – was nevertheless uncomfortable enough with Marxist dialectics and a materialism stripped of its spiritual dimension that even to call him a Marxist (Lukacs mentions Benjamin as among his circle of “comrades” for which he grew contemptuous) is a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his work.

Born in 1892, coming of age just prior to World War I, seeing little in Weimar Germany to recommend itself either to himself as critic or to others as a writer, finally trapped within the maelstrom of history in western Europe in the 1930’s, Benjamin took his own life after, having already made an arduous trek through southwestern France, precious papers in hand to allow him passage, he arrived at the Spanish border the day Spain closed its doors (albeit temporarily; no one, of course, could have known this at the time) to refugees from unoccupied France. His decision to end his own life, while certainly tragic (Berthold Brecht wrote that Benjamin’s death was the first real victory for the Nazi’s against German literature), was, given the circumstances, easily understandable. Not well known in his own time, his closest friends and supporters long since gone to the United States, and his physical, emotional, financial, and probably psychological resources spent, how is one person suppose to stand against the juggernaut of that moment in European history?

All the same, I think Arendt’s inclusion of Benjamin in a volume dedicated to extraordinary people living through extraordinary times (essay subjects include Lessing, Pope John XXIII, Brecht, and Karl Jaspers along with Benjamin and a couple others) is more than a little misleading. Benjamin was, alas, no more a product and commentator upon his times than he was a “simple” literary critic or historian or theologian. Indeed, paying attention to Arendt’s descriptions of Benjamin’s work, the themes she emphasizes, and the examples she cites, it becomes clear that Walter Benjamin was far more a man of the 19th century, particularly 19th century Paris with its rich bohemian subculture, than of the 20th. He was well educated yet could not bear the thought of academe. Like many children of that first generation of German Jews to succeed at assimilation, Benjamin neither considered himself “Jewish” nor did he wish so to be perceived, yet he ran up against official and cultural and social anti-Semitism throughout his life, policies that restricted what he as an unbaptized yet also unpracticing Jew could achieve. Despite this, throughout his adult life, he flirted (at the very least) with Zionism, having made friends with Gerhard Scholem before the First World War broke out. He was constantly writing Scholem that he was considering emigration to Jerusalem, yet he could never quite make the leap precisely because it involved labeling both his person and his work indelibly as “Jewish”, something he didn’t care to do.

Like the description Arendt gives in the epigrammatic quote concerning Benjamin’s literary interests and output, Benjamin was also jealous of his own prerogative concerning the kind of man, the individual, he wished to be. Arendt uses a the French word flâneur as what best suits Benjamin. It is no surprise that part of his never-completed Arcades project saw light under the title “Die flâneur”. The flâneur were a type, not quite a class and certainly not a “community” as we would understand it, who had a certain presence in 19th century Paris. Often derided as bums, they were children of wealthy bourgeois homes who, having no responsibilities to themselves or others, would wander through the streets and arcades and boulevards of Paris, taking in what there was to see and hear, experiencing what there was to experience, without any particular rhyme or reason. Obviously there is something more than a little decadent (both in literal and political uses of the word) about such living. At the same time, there’s an attractiveness to the kind of freedom – freedom from financial worry; freedom from interpersonal responsibility; freedom from the any sense of a purpose or end to such activities – that still appeals. They were, in a word, bohemians, although perhaps without the aesthetic self-consciousness of some such.

Benjamin was comfortable in academic work (his Habilitationschrift was a study of German Baroque Tragedy), with the popular essay (“Unpacking My Library”), critical appreciation (essays on Brecht and Kafka), and even venturing a typically Marxist style and subject matter (“Theses On History”). He both desired the approval of academics, yet because of the demand that he be baptized before he could serve on a University faculty (that would have required him acknowledging his Jewishness as definitive, something he never wanted to do), was never really desirous of such a position. He could play with a variety of vocabularies – Marxist, theological, aesthetic, poetic – without either losing his distinctive voice; he could use these styles without ever becoming so immersed in them he lost his particularity. That particularly after the First World War Benjamin always kept his options open both with Zionism and Communism (two ideologies that vocally detested one another), he never concerned himself even with having to make a choice. He faced the criticisms of friends (Adorno) and mentors (Scholem) with a kind of equanimity borne, I think, from a kind of self-awareness that allowed him to know they just didn’t get him.

What to many might seem the inconsequential, perhaps even dilettante, concerns – his bibliomania, for one; an incident, highlighted by Arendt, of Benjamin becoming enthralled by two grains of wheat upon which a prayerful soul had inscribed the entire Shema Israel – and see in them an importance that others, far more concerned with the scope and sweep of History, not only wouldn’t see, but couldn’t see. This, too, is a kind of aestheticism, a very 19th century attitude toward life and the world that was very much out of place in a world riven first by tragedy in Benjamin’s early adulthood, soon to be destroyed completely. Most intellectuals considered the First World War, with its destruction of a species of European cosmopolitanism, a “turning point” in the most literal way: historical reality had invalidated the best hopes of the previous century and there was, thus, no going back. Yet it was Benjamin who wrote in his “Theses on History” that history was an Angel, her eyes turned toward the wreckage of the past, always being pulled backwards with the present moment. For Benjamin, that wreckage was both very real yet also still held the truth of what had constituted it in the very piles of dust and brick and bone and blood. Far happier in Paris than he ever had been in his native Berlin, far more attracted to the minutiae of life than to the grand sweep of History, quite happy to write quasi-Marxist cultural criticism or an appreciation of Brecht’s early works, Benjamin was far more a creature of an irretrievable past than he was the historical moments through which he lived.

We usually consider people to be products primarily of the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions within which they live. Benjamin, however, while never rejecting his own times, was nevertheless a half-conscious throwback. His “No” to his times – exemplified in his adoption of a Marxist vocabulary while never fully embracing either Marxism or the Communist Party – was as much a desire to reclaim a better past as it was a hope in a future no longer touched by the desolation of his own particular times.

There is something tragically heroic in such a stance, one which understands one’s own time only as a negation both of what has been and what will be. As long as life promises possibilities, it is easy enough to face adversity and continue to struggle on. Facing the full wrath of Historical forces beyond anyone’s ability either to withstand or even comprehend, however, that ghostly past and evanescent future can be crushed along with everything else. Thus was Benjamin’s end, death by his own hand, comprehensible. The gigantic machinery of mass death was pushing hard upon him, resisted by the equally strong forces of those who, acting out of fear, became its unwitting agents, would leave few of us the wherewithal to carry on. If the First World War had destroyed the 19th century, it is not hard to imagine one such as Walter Benjamin, believing the Gestapo was close on his heels and his only escape route now closed, to understand this new war, waged by demonic forces of anti-culture and anti-humanity, might well destroy not only the 20th, but perhaps the 21st as well.

It has been the work of many to resurrect Benjamin’s life and work, reconstitute his correspondence, and try  best to explain this one individual, lost in his own time, to those who have come after who, perhaps, feel more than a little affinity for one who just wasn’t completely at home in his own times. His subject matter might seem to be inconsequential. His style might seem eclectic, even precious on occasion. His scope of interests  are not quite as clear if we consider only what was published in his lifetime. All the same, this incomplete life (Benjamin was three years younger than I am now when he died) and his incomplete work together demonstrate that even fragments can be meaningful.

After all, someone once wrote the Shema Israel on two grains of wheat. In the scraps of life we might yet find the whole of history, if we are willing to look with enough care.

Richard Rorty, “Texts And Lumps”

The pragmatist concludes that the intuition that truth is correspondence should be extirpated rather than explicated. On this view, the notion of reality as having a “nature” to which it is our duty to correspond s simply one more variant of the notion that the gods can be placated by chanting the right words. The notion that some one among the languages mankind has used to deal with the universe is the one the universe prefers – the one which cuts things at the joints – was a pretty conceit. But by now it has become too shopworn to serve any purpose. – Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1, p. 80

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990's.

The late philosopher Richard Rorty in the early 1990’s.

This is less a “review” of the article in question than it is an appreciation for a piece of writing that changed the way I think about all sorts of things. Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics; the short novel Waiting for the Galactic BusStephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – I encountered Rorty’s essay at precisely the right moment in my life. Oddly enough, it was because I didn’t have much of a background understanding either of philosophical vocabulary in general, or the particular issues with which Rorty engages in this essay that I found something revolutionary here.

First, a brief sketch of the essay is in order. After an introduction in which he signals his major intention or erasing the assumed boundaries between the general disciplines of the natural sciences and the humanities, Rorty sketches a brief understanding of pragmatist theory regarding words such as “truth” and “objectivity”. In the course of the opening few pages, however, Rorty offers a reading of the late Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that I have since come to understand doesn’t exactly portray Kuhn’s thought so much as Rorty’s reading of Kuhn in the light of his understandings of William James and John Dewey. This, however, is less a weakness in Rorty’s larger presentation than it is a demonstration of one of the main themes of the essay: that rather than think of particular interpretations as “good” or “bad”, it is far more useful to consider interpretations as serving particular functions within a larger story one wishes to tell. To that end, Rorty’s reading of Kuhn, being not completely wrong, serves the purposes to which Rorty wishes to put it.

The bulk of the essay is a friendly discussion with E. D. Hirsch over what Hirsch insists are the clear distinctions of “meaning” and “significance”. As Rorty writes on p. 84:

. . . I think [Hirsch’s] distinction between “meaning” and “significance” is misleading in certain respects. My holistic strategy, characteristic of pragmatism (and in particular of Dewey), is to reinterpret every such dualism as a momentarily convenient blocking-out of regions along a spectrum, rather than as recognition of an ontological, or methodological, or epistemological divide.

Rorty goes on to develop this reinterpretation, using Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” to tell a story of people looking at two unknowns, one a previously unencountered text, the other an unknown lump. What distinguishes how we come to understand what is in front of us isn’t something that inheres in either the text or the lump. Rather it is our choice of a particular set of tools for undertaking the task of understanding what it is we are encountering. One of those sets of tools might be called “chemistry”. Another might be “anthropology”. Perhaps “literary criticism” works well. It may well be the case that we choose “chemistry” to understand something we encounter because we are (a) chemists; or (b) we hold the belief that chemistry is the best method for such understanding. This no more privileges “chemistry” as a way of understanding than does the belief that “literary criticism” is not fit for our encounters with unknown lumps mean that literary criticism isn’t a source of human understanding. Encountering a text and insisting that “chemistry” is the best tool for understanding it isn’t being wrong; it’s picking up a welders mask and torch to do carpentry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rorty’s larger philosophical project is to reinterpret the philosophical project in light of certain realities we understand to describe what it is to be human. First, we understand ourselves as radically contingent creatures both in terms of our restricted lifespan as well as in evolutionary terms. There is no reason for our existence, evolutionarily speaking. Yet precisely because Homo sapiens sapiens is a successful evolutionary species (so far) we have particular endowments that make us both survive in the competition for food and resources and thrive by continuing to reproduce. That some of these endowments include a particular set of tools we have come to call “knowledge” or “understanding” or “language” does not make any of these more interesting than, say, our upright posture and gait or our opposable thumbs. That some human beings wish that it were so and have constructed elaborate stories about why this is so does not make it so. Doing Rortian pragmatism, whether anti-epistemology or ethics, is nothing more or less than trying to find a place for philosophy in the wake of the radical understanding of ourselves as contingent creatures.

This same sense of radical contingency is present in late medieval nominalism, particularly its Ochkamist variety. Emphasizing the absolute supremacy and freedom of the Godhead, Ockham stripped the realist philosophy and theology of the High Middle Ages of its most powerful tool: It’s insistence that things that exist do so either because they reflect something Real (Plato) or because they participate in some Realness that connects like objects to like (Aristotle). Ockham would argue this is not only putting the cart before the horse; it’s assuming there are things calls “carts” and “horses” about which we can know anything prior to encountering particular instances of them (thus the term “nominalism” – it is in our naming of things they become real, rather than being real and the name being something that exists prior to our acceptance or even encounter). Because there could be nothing restricting or binding or otherwise creating necessity in the actions of the Divine, how is it possible that there might be “cartness” prior to the actual existence of the variety of things for which the word “cart” more or less fits well? Rorty is little more than a nominalist in a leisure suit.

In any event this Divine freedom precisely highlights the kind of God we Christians claim to encounter in the Incarnation: A God of love, of infinite patience and grace, the God of Election who in Jesus Christ pays the price necessary for reestablishing the creature’s relationship with the creator. Belief, then, isn’t a question of “truth” (“truth” for Christians is the person and work of Jesus Christ) or the proclamation of something eternal. On the contrary, belief is the possibility offered to we radically contingent, finite, limited, and sinful creatures. Whether it is in our proclamation, our confession, or our discipleship, we must face the reality of all our limitations as creatures.

The doors and possibilities this particular philosophical essay opened for me is difficult to describe now after so many years. When I first read this particular essay – certainly not understanding all of the references even as I understood the overarching concern – it was as if words were being given to me to say what it is I thought about the world, about our human place in it, and even about our faith as Christians. Over the decades, I have certainly become far more critical of particular parts of Rorty’s philosophical project; at heart, however, this particular essay opened up the possibility of speaking and living with a particular kind of integrity, best expressed in Karl Barth’s dictum that while we should never claim to know the truth, we should always live as if we did know the truth.

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics Of Space

The Poetics of Space is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It is to be taken slowly – the author’s primary idea is that people crave spaces that inspire them to daydream. The style of the book is one that inspires daydreams itself; you will suddenly find that you have placed the book in your lap and you were off daydreaming! Poetics of Space is a methodical, carefully argued book which tells us that we read spaces like we read a book. There is a distinct psychology to each type of space – attics, cellars, the forest, and nests are just some of the spaces examined. The author was chair of the Philosophy department at the Sorbonne. For most of his life, he examined the philosophy of science, but in his later years he turned to artistic reverie as his main subject. The book is written with thought, love, and passion and is a tour-de-force. Highly recommended to those who enjoy poetry, philosophy, architecture or art. – Matthew Belge, review of The Poetics Of Space

I'm sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard's book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’m sure I had this expression on my face after reading the first 15 or so pages of Bachelard’s book, having prepared myself by reading the above review before purchasing.

I’ve been trying to decide  if I should offer a long apologia for my review or not.

My review: Facile, purple-prosed gobbledygook. (I was going to use the word twaddle, but discovered another Amazon reviewer had stolen it)

So I guess I’m just going to leave this here.

Ernst Bloch On The Appeal Of Donald Trump

Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What is it with mid-century German philosophers and theologians and their pipes?

Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What is it with mid-century German philosophers and theologians and their pipes?

So I’ve decided to try once again wading through Ernst Bloch’s massive, 3-volume The Principle of Hope. It’s been a couple decades since I read it all the way through, contenting myself with re-reading a chapter here, a section there. It was gratifying to find, very early on, a marvelous description of how it is possible someone like Donald Trump seems to appeal to so many. At least, appeal to many who are vocal in their appreciation of his atavistic call to be “great again”. The following is from pages 30 and 31, a single section/paragraph entitled “Night of the Long Knives”:

Not so far from here are the various dreams that are fond of getting their own back. They are particularly delicious, revenge is sweet when merely imagined, but also shabby. Most men are too cowardly to do evil, too weak to do good; the evil that they cannot, or cannot yet do, they enjoy in advance in the dream of revenge. The petit bourgeoisie in particular has traditionally been fond of the fist clenched in the pocket; this fist characteristically thumps the wrong man, since it prefers to lash out in the direction of least resistance. Hitler rose out of the Night of the Long Knives, he was called by the masters out of the dream of this night when he became useful to them. The Nazi dream of revenge is also subjectively bottled up, not rebellious; it is blind, not revolutionary rage. As for the so-called iron broom, the hatred of the immoral life of the hooknoses and those at the top, middle-class virtue, as always in such cases was here merely betraying its dearest dream. Just as, with its revenge, it does not hate exploitation but only the fact that it is not itself an exploiter, so virtue does not hate the slothful bed of the rich, but only the act that it has not become its own and its alone. This is what the headlines have always aimed at in those papers which to love to see red, the gutter-press. ‘The truth, latest news: Broiler at Wertheim’s store – The harem in the Tiergarten villa, sensational revelation.’ But they are only revelations concerning the outrage of the bourgeois conformist himself, both regarding Wertheim raking in the shekels and regarding Jewish lechery. Hence the immediate impulse to set oneself up in place of the eliminated Wertheim, after an act of retribution which, in the supposedly detested fraud, merely replaces the subject which is practising it. The malicious and brutal aspect of this, the repulsiveness of this kind of wish, as pervasive as the smell of urine, has always characterized the mo. This mob can be bought, is absurdly dangerous, and consequently it can be blinded and used by those who have the means and who have a real vested interest in the fascist pogroms. The instigator, the essence of the Nights of the Knives was, of course, big business, but the raving petit bourgeois was the astonishing, the horribly seducible manifestation of this essence. From it emerged the terror, which is the poison in the ‘average man on the street’, as the petit bourgeois is now called in American, a poison which has nowhere near been fully excreted. His wishes for revenge are rotten and blind; God help us, when they are stirred up. Fortunately though, the mob is equally faithless; it is also quite happy to put its clenched fist back into its pocket when crime is no longer allowed a free night on the town by those at the top.

For clarity’s sake, the seemingly anti-Semitic references are meant as parodies against the slanders of the fascists who used the alleged vileness of the Jews as a pretext for unleashing the violence of the mob. Indeed, change the ethnic character of the one slandered by fascists from the Jewish people to Muslims and it’s almost uncanny.

Which only proves the explanatory power of Marxism . . .

The Stakes

Why did I request that UM Insight stop republishing my work? I did this because I think much of what is published on UM Insight is unhelpful to anything like meaningful conversation, and I don’t want to contribute to a site that I disagree with so strongly in its basic philosophy of discourse. I simply got tired of ad hominem attack. I got tired of character assassination. I became weary of insult, the attribution of false motives, and bad argumentation. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “Disengaging?”, Musings And Whatnot, September 21, 2015


Contrary to what you tell yourself, you do not do that great of a job making dissenting views feel welcome. As “advocacy” (forget about the journalism), you aren’t under any obligation to give “equal time.” But, don’t pretend that you want the free exchange of ideas when you want to be an advocate for your perspective. Those are two different things. But, all too often, people want to consider themselves “tolerant” when they only tolerate those who already agree with them. – Creed Pogue, comment on “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 22, 2015


McIntyre would deny the efficacy of Steve’s faith, demonstrated in his life and work already accomplished in and for Cornerstone, the United Methodist Church, and the Church Universal. McIntyre would do all this for one simple reason – because Steve happens to be gay. For this reason, he cannot fully participate in the life and work of the church, he cannot have his relationships blessed by United Methodist clergy, and he could not, if he felt called, serve openly as a United Methodist clergyperson. McIntyre thinks this is OK. – My words quoted by Joel Watts as evidence of my having skirted “close to libel”, “An Open Response To UMInsight”, Unsettled Christianity, September 21, 2015

The flame of the Holy Spirit surrounds the cross of the risen Christ. This symbol and all it represents hangs in the balance.

The flame of the Holy Spirit surrounds the cross of the risen Christ. This symbol and all it represents hangs in the balance.

So yesterday I offered some thoughts on what constitutes an ad hominem attack, and why I think it is used just a bit too easily and frequently to bring people to stop talking to one another. Today, I want to take a few steps back and talk about the larger context in which all these conversations occur. It is impossible really to understand why things are so heated, why tempers are so on edge, and why there’s all this back and forth about how best to argue with one another.

Since 1972, the Social Principles of the United Methodist Book of Disipline has stated the following: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Over the ensuing four decades, the full meaning of this sentence has come to include not only denying sexual minorities a place in the clergy; it has also included denying church membership; it has come to include driving youth from the church and even being a factor in their suicides; it has come to include denying pastoral services, namely weddings, to faithful couples; it has come to include removing a faithful lay member of the church. Unable to state clearly that we agree to disagree about the meaning and implications of this sentence, congregations are withholding Apportionments and some congregations are trying to leave the denomination. Until next spring’s General Conference, we take out our frustrations and anger at one another in ways that hurt our churches, our clergy, and how the world sees us.

This is a very long, emotional, deeply theological, and – yes – very personal dispute, one that has hurt many while not at all contributing to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As I wrote elsewhere, we are once again – as we did in the years leading up to the Civil War – mimicking our dysfunctional secular politics, which is leaving us increasingly unable even to talk to one another. Warring sides and factions, unaffiliated groups claiming to speak for one “side” or another, and a burgeoning movement to create alternative structures in case real schism occurs only make matters worse.

Our online arguments and discussions are riven by these same factors no less than our larger gatherings. People feel passionately about this matter. They feel that adherence to our legal standards is a necessary part of keeping covenant with one another; others believe their pastoral duty, having been ordained to Word, sacrament, and order, makes their need to break the law of our church and face the consequences of their actions paramount. Some insist that those who do so should face the full force of church law – an ecclesiastical trial; others think the time for trials are over and any such actions be suspended until after 2016.

So this larger setting – decades of disagreement leading to the rise of unaffiliated groups within the denomination claiming loyalties of one part of our membership or another; people willing to risk their clerical orders to fulfill their ordination while other seeing only deliberate disobedience without consequence; people being hurt, removed from the pulpit, church membership, and even sexual minority youth being dehumanized by paid church staff – is that in which our discussions take place.

I think all folks would agree that what is at stake is nothing more or less than the continued existence of the United Methodist Church. Those are pretty high stakes. Furthermore, the reality that real people are being really hurt – to the point of depression and taking their own life – should at the very least give all pause as we try to be faithful as we are led by the Holy Spirit. I have always maintained that our lives as churches involve quite literally matters of life and death. That being the case, I also maintain that questions of how we talk to one another should matter far less than that we talk with one another, always remembering the discussions and arguments are not about us. Not really. I mean, should the United Methodist Church split, it will be an inconvenience to me. It would certainly impact our family life, leaving my wife’s future up in the air. It would also break my heart that we couldn’t put our mission and ministry ahead of all other considerations. The United Methodist Church does so much work, helping people around the world to live, to learn to be faithful, and even thrive – sometimes in places where even survival can seem an accomplishment.

Precisely for these reasons, I am no respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter that much to me if someone thinks arguments are “poor” or people’s character is assassinated. If someone gets their feelings hurt because of something I or others write, what is that to me? This isn’t about them. Or me. Or how best to conduct civil, intellectual discourse. It’s about the life and death of our Church; it’s about the life and death of people around the world; it’s about the life and death of people right here in the good old USA who hear us telling them their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching. Someone thinking that arguments are just too heated, just not intellectually sound enough, not “fair” enough to “all sides” . . . what is that when people live and die because of the decisions all of us in the United Methodist Church make?

I have lamented more than once not that people aren’t nice; rather, I’ve lamented the lack of adults in our conversations. Adults don’t let personal slights or hurt feelings interfere with what needs to be done. Adults recognize the full context and setting within which we live and move and speak and write and act, set their egos aside, and get busy for the good of the whole. That’s what this is about, after all. It isn’t about whether someone thinks something I wrote is potentially “libelous” or whether another person thinks arbitrary rules of civility should dictate how we carry on our discussions. It’s about the life and death of our church and people to whom we minister.

In all honesty, if people get their feathers ruffled or their feelings hurt and refuse to engage others, that’s a sign to me they prize their person and position and whatever abstract rules of discourse and argument to which they might adhere over the life and health of the church. Children pick up their toys and walk away when others don’t play by their rules. This, however, is no game. We should all suck it up, accept that we aren’t the center of this particular universe, and keep our minds and hearts where they belong.

The stakes are high. It might be nice if people acted like it.