Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism

In light of Jeffrey's recent trip, avec petit fils, to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and with regard to our recent discussions on the links between human-ness and animal death, and on the curatorship, or is art?, of the dead bodies of the past, I thought I would share here an excerpt from and link to the complete essay, "An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism" [forthcoming in BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory] written by my colleague and great friend, Michael Moore, who is a scholar of early Frankish history. As I was undertaking the final copy-editing of this issue, I could not help but stop and be astonished, at more than one moment, in my re-reading of Michael's essay, which is both breathtaking in its elegance and poetry, and brave for its courage in advancing a defense of forms of medieval and early modern humanism that many would like to see put to rest forever. Which is not to say that Michael's argument in his essay represents some kind of unreconstructed and nostalgic bid for a traditional and "old" humanism that would never be able to account for or own up to its "evils" ["evils," moreover, which Michael purposefully confronts in his essay]; rather, his objective in wishing to revive certain "old" humanisms by way of the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, stems from a concern with the ethical relationship between the singular self who is always held in singular present [modern] moments and the memory of others always already lost to the past. As he himself writes, "The defeat of the opalescent notion humanitas threatens to leave us without a legal subject of rights, and perhaps without a subject of history or literature as well. The problem is acute for historians, who want to validate their continued moral and intellectual preoccupation with the dead, their constant efforts to handle their belongings and books, and their efforts to preserve and understand their ephemeral voices."

Although BABEL had what might be called its "official" founding moment at the Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2004, and its earlier more "unofficial" beginning at a bar in Asheville, North Carolina in the fall of 2003, it was being propelled even before that in my conversations with Michael, who inhabited the office next to mine in the basement of Peck Hall at Southern Illinois from fall 2003 to spring 2005, and who was always urging upon me the importance of a medieval studies that would be more contemplative and ethical with regard to what might be called the "dignity" and "freedom" and "happiness" of individual persons, and that would also focus more intently on friendship and amity as a disciplinary concern. Indeed, in the essay he contributed to our Palgrave volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [which looks at the Bush White House legal memos on the torture of "enemy combatants" in light of medieval laws of outlawry] he wrote,

The poet Goethe once declared that national hatred has a peculiar quality: "You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture." Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. Nationalism has formed the crucial backdrop to the legal atavism and return to more primitive forms of law described here. The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. While pondering the theme of this essay, I went on retreat to the monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the peace of the monastery to study torture and terrorism inside the walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame. We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, "to which the whole of political life seems directed." In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then "new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality."
It would be impossible to overestimate the influence which Michael's thinking has had on my own these past few years. There has definitely been no love lost between Michael and "high" postmodern theory, and he can be unswervingly sentimental [he has been known to cry when reciting Milosz's poetry by heart to his students]. For these reasons, I initially worried that we would never be able to agree on our approach to medieval scholarship [except for the sentimental part, to which I say for myself as well, "guilty as charged"], but happily, I was so wrong. I would have to credit Michael for demonstrating to me, that in this "work" we do, whether of a more traditional historicist or postmodern theoretical bent, we should not be reticent about making claims for the value of the study of the dead as a mode of affective contact across time, and also as an aesthetic art that aims at a type of beauty in the present that could be said to be recuperative of persons both living and dead, however silly that may appear to some. I wonder, too, in my most recent reading in the most recent books in medieval studies but also more modern studies--including work published by Steven Kruger, Carolyn Dinshaw, JJC, Jodi Enders, L.O. Fradenburg, D. Vance Smith, Leo Bersani, Jorge Estaban Munoz, Elizabeth Grosz, John Caputo, Judith Butler, Michael O'Rourke, Michael Uebel, among others--if that idea of that kind of scholarship hasn't already begun to take root in a more widespread fashion. In any case . . . .

I leave you here with an excerpt from Michael's essay, and if you are smart enough to know you want to read the whole thing, go here.

* * * * * *

Humanism and the Flowers of Evil [second section of Michael E. Moore, "An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism"]

In 2000, the critic George Steiner was invited to look back over the twentieth century, in an interview with the French weekly L’Express. He pointed to the barbarism of a century marked by death camps, torture, deportation and famine, extending from 1914 to the terror-regime of Pol Pot and the Rwandan genocide. The twentieth century proved to be the defeat of civilized culture, according to Steiner: “Education: philosophical, literary and musical culture, did not impede the horror. Buchenwald was situated a few kilometers from the garden of Goethe” (qtd. in Simonnet). Jorge Semprun, who was himself interned in Buchenwald, later remarked in his memoir Literature or Life on the geographic and moral irony of this conjuncture. Semprun observed the terrible coincidence that brought Léon Blum, socialist, Dreyfusard, and author of the Nouvelle conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann, as a prisoner to the Ettersberg forest: “the quirk of fate that led Blum as a prisoner of the Gestapo to the very place where the conversations between Goethe and Eckermann occurred” (96; see also Blum).

The original Conversations with Eckermann are a monument of the maximal period of humanistic education and of a classicizing, humanistic love affair with the ancient world. The Antike was an ideal artistic realm that could be permanently reawakened and emulated. As Goethe remarked, commenting on the nature of Greek tragedy, its subject matter was “humanity in its whole extent” and so we should always study great writers, but “above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks” (149–50). For Goethe, as for Schiller, the world of classical Greece was a beautiful world. As viewed from Weimar, all things in ancient Greece sparkled and were more worthy (see Bruford 86). For Semprun, in contrast, the experience of radical evil cast doubt, not only on such enthusiastic ideals, but on the continued possibility of literature, and his memoirs record his endeavor to fight his way back out of these ruins.

George Steiner strongly implies that the proximity of Buchenwald to the Oak of Goethe was far more than a coincidence: this happenstance illustrated the fact that the ideal of humanity developed during the Enlightenment, and expressed in the political ideals of the Eighteenth century, had completely failed to humanize the world. The inhabitants of Weimar who became Nazis and built the camps were in some way the heirs of Goethe and Schiller. Moreover, according to Steiner, the so-called humanizing effect of the liberal arts also seemed doubtful in the extreme. The humanities have become an isolating preserve in which the real world is kept at bay. While reading King Lear or the Fleurs du Mal, Steiner remarks, “I do not hear the cry in the street” [“je n’entends pas le cri dans la rue”] (qtd. in Simonnet). His best student, Steiner declared, was the one who completely rejected his teaching and went off to become a doctor, serving the poor in China. The anecdote reflects the skepticism of an old professor whose life had been wagered almost entirely on literature, and who arrived at the end of a terrible century marked by a sense of futility about the isolated contemplation of the scholar in his or her study. But Steiner’s criticism of literature, in the course of his own profoundly literary life, also brings to mind a saying of the anti-modernist and aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila, that “there is no humanism that does not carry with it a critique of humanism” (197). No mature and fully developed humanism can fail to incorporate the edge of critique, or fail to examine its own false paths. We can reflect that Steiner’s criticism is humanistic in its deepest orientation, as well as in its sense of rebellion and disquiet.

The question raised here is whether it is possible to discover a path for humanistic scholarship adequate to contemporary existence, yet still capable of offering the ressourcement provided long ago by medieval and classical humanism. As Robert Torrance has noted, we live in an era that has been defined as “not only post-structuralist and post-modernist, but post-humanist and indeed even post-human” (168). The possible collapse of literature, experienced with a sense of horror by Semprun, has become for many scholars an occasion for playful adventures in the ruins of old systems.

Humanism has been criticized along the lines of Steiner’s views at least since the end of the Second World War, in a Europe which had seen, in Steiner’s words, “the triumph of the inhuman at the heart of the century” (xi–xii). Traditional ideals could be maintained only with tremendous effort, or abandoned as no longer pertinent to the human condition. As early as 1951, for example, the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss argued that Europeans of the Enlightenment, who often spoke of humanity, did little more than project their own values and aspirations as a universal ideal of civilization: “the concept of an all inclusive humanity, which makes no distinction between races or cultures, appeared very late in the history of mankind and did not spread very widely across the globe” (Finkielkraut 2000, 5-6; see also Finkielkraut 1995, 55). The ideal of humanity therefore, despite its universal claims, was destined to remain a narrow European concept with limited impact on world consciousness. This has been one of the most devastating arguments raised against humanist traditions. So now, in the cultural conditions of “postmodern pluralism” as Gianni Vattimo argues, the very concept of humanity and study of the humanities seems suspect, unphilosophical, or undemocratic (3–5). In the 1960s, the ideal of humanism (along with the concept of the Rights of Man) was dismissed as a feature of petti-fogging bourgeois ideology (Judt 565). Thus we arrive at Foucault’s derisive comment that “Man is an invention of recent date” (387). If the constraints and disguises inherited from classical thought could finally be discarded, the early Foucault believed, then the unwelcome notion of humanity would at last be “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (387; see also Nehemas 170–73).

The most negative and vitriolic statement of this anti-ideal is that of Lacoue-Labarthe: “Nazism is a humanism in so far as it rests upon a determination of humanitas which is, in its view, more powerful” (95). Torrance is right to remark that nothing could be more anti-humanistic than this phrase. Lacoue-Labarthe’s strange saying was not intended to decry Nazi ideology so much as to sweep away the last crumbs of humanism from the respectable tables of the intellectual world, thereby to create more room for Heidegger and Heideggerian anti-humanism. Lacoue-Labarthe thus evidently shared Foucault’s revulsion at “the moralizing swamp of humanistic sermons” to be heard in post-war Europe, and Foucault’s anti-humanistic reaction to those sermons (Finkielkraut 2000, 28). It is equally interesting to note, in this connection, the contemporary turn from humanism in the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, in favor of what Barth termed the “humanism of God,” meaning “God’s friendliness to man as the source and norm of all human rights and human dignity” (125). In contrast, however, Foucault’s perspective neither provided for a heightened awareness of justice, nor awakened energy for a greater engagement with the world, nor offered a defense of human dignity. There was an element of dandyism in Foucault’s reaction against what appeared to be a thoroughly exhausted humanism. Postwar efforts to pick up the threads of humanism often seem feeble in retrospect.

In his desire to find a path back from the horrors of the twentieth century, the Prussian historian Friedrich Meinecke famously suggested that “Goethe Communities” should be created in postwar Germany, so as to encourage the reestablishment of the spiritual life of Germans by “turning again to the altars of our fathers” in respect to religion. Meinecke hoped to bring about for his fellow Germans “an intensified development of our inner existence,” by looking back to the period long before Hitler’s Germany, when the generation of Goethe “strove for and to a large degree realized the ideal of a personal and wholly individual culture. This culture was thought of as having at the same time a universal human meaning and content” (113, 115). Meinecke’s humanist project is so well known in part because it appears so woefully inadequate to the situation of post-war Germany, and because it suggests a feeble and unrealistic reply to the monstrousness of the war and the radical evil unleashed by the Nazis. Moreover, German high culture and Bildung were not above reproach, since these values were held up as a fetish even by the Nazis, whose officer corps continued to wipe tears from their eyes at productions of Beethoven in the wartime concerts of the conducter Wilhelm Furtwängler.

So the question remains: is it still possible to explore “the opalescent notion humanitas” in the phrase of Ernst Kantorowicz, by means of deep study in the human tradition (1957, 451)? As the Carolingian scholar Alcuin explained, when we turn our attention to mankind, we discover a complete amalgam of dignity and abjection. If we wish to understand why humanity was created, the repulsive side of man should be put to one side, and “we should consider the nobility of the interior man” (col. 1101). Alcuin, the illustrious scholar of Charlemagne’s court therefore imagined a transcendental, universal human identity, based on the concept of the invisible soul and its likeness to God. The medieval and Christian roots of the figure of humanity are evident throughout the periods of scholarly and theological transit from late antique to later Renaissance and Enlightenment images of humanity. However, in the modern era, even long before WWII, such ideas began to lose their lustre. Under the impact of anthropology, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the wide examination of human types and human cultures had begun to dethrone those venerable medieval assumptions. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, for example, after comparative research on the mentality of archaic societies (which he ordinarily termed “primitive”), concluded that there was no “identity of human nature” (75–79). According to Lévy-Bruhl, “since we have rejected the philosophies of history which provide a unifying principle in the form of theological or at least teleological ideas, the conception of humanity as a whole escapes us” (qtd. in Cazeneuve 24). Thus we really must ask whether it is still possible, or meaningful, to propose a humanism in the absence of a clearly defined essence of humanity.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Especially powerful to me -- post-Holocaust museum visit -- were these lines:

a view of literature and scholarship as the deliberate unfolding of dimensions, and the search for possible connections to various traditions of the human past as part of our own efforts to achieve personal liberation, “penetrating this forest of ruins,” in the phrase of religious historian Gershom Scholem, who sought to rescue the Jewish past from oblivion, and thereby to find a foothold in a terrible present time—for Scholem, the 1920s. .. Any humanist approach that would be valid today must greatly expand the range of literary traditions and antiquities under study, something that has recently been called for in an admirable essay by Milan Kundera, “Die Weltliteratur.”

I was also moved by your frame narration, Eileen. Something about Moore's tears while reciting Czeslaw Milosz's poetry in class sticks with me (though I don't see how it is connected to a potential rejection of theory; I never see the coldness in, say, Foucault that some who declare themselves against theory impart to him). But about those tears, there's something in their intimacy that stays with those allowed to glimpse them, especially when that person is not an intimate, or is on their way to becoming one (e.g. a student). When I was an undergraduate, I had a political science professor known for his excellence in teaching. One day he arrived in our class of 300 students and was visibly agitated. He had been in the midst of outlining the history of the British parliament when he stopped, apologized, and said that he had just before class had a student confront him about a poor grade given his exam by a TA. He said he did not know the student, and when he defended the bad grade, the young man declared him -- well, some dismissive and insulting term or other. As the professor related the story, he had to hold back tears ... and I thought, here is someone who cares so much about being an intellectually generous, inspirational teacher that one student in 300 against him makes his heart ache.

For me, a moment that always puts my raw emotion on display unfolds as I attempt to read an account of the massacre of the Jews of Mainz as a kind of final word in my class on Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. There is a moment in a section dubbed "Rachel and Her Children" when young boy named Aaron watches his brother Isaac ritually killed by their mother. Not understanding that what his mother is doing is supposed to a great sanctification of God's name, Aaron flees hos mother in terror: When the child Aaron saw that his brother Isaac was slain, he screamed again and again: "Mother, mother, do not butcher me,'' and ran and hid under a chest. Though I realize those lines are as literary as anything in any medieval chronicle, there is something in that child's horror that makes it impossible for me to read them aloud without my voice failing, without me apologizing to my students and backing up and trying it again.

Anonymous said...

Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

In a stunning essay - these were the most pregnant words for me - and are all I want to say at present about Lindow man, stonehenge, old people's care homes or holocaust memorials

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Very inspiring post, Eileen, and wonderfully bound up with the friendship panel topic. (FYI the info hasn't circulated yet but Eileen will be participating in a panel entitled "The Subjects of Friendship: Medieval and Medievalist" for the Medieval Club of New York on March 7)

Two passages stand out, from your intro and from the end of Michael's essay, respectively:

. . . a medieval studies that would be more contemplative and ethical with regard to what might be called the "dignity" and "freedom" and "happiness" of individual persons, and that would also focus more intently on friendship and amity as a disciplinary concern.

. . . to study and contemplate reality, and thereby to aspire to liberation from the bindings of history, and the lies of the community. Facing the world of passing-away and coming-to-be, we can aspire to knowledge of ourselves and our fellows, even across the boundaries of death

These statements do not simply glimpse the lovely possibilities of humanistic study. More importantly they contain a strong sense of what is at stake in it, and this is what I would like to try to articulate further. The crucial, operative words here, which joins the statements are 'contemplation' and 'freedom' or 'liberation'. And in a way the challenge of a medievalist new humanism seems precisely to lie within redefining, or rather living anew these words in a manner that understands and learns from their traditionary meanings without being bound by them. This means both owning, and thus holding against the forces of instrumentaliztion, our intellectual discipline as an intrinsically valuable ethical-spiritual practice, a contemplation that leads to freedom, and being quick to new ways of practicing it and new instrumentalities. What I think needs the most development for a new humanism to grow out of the old, what is most conspicuously lacking, is an understanding of the value of intellectual work as practical contemplation, as a working on the self, one's own and others'. Intellectuals and academics are very good at providing intellectual and academic justifications, often dressed up with ethical and political implications, i.e. without any real practical consequences, for what they do, but they aren't very good at demonstrating, intellectually or materially, the worth of their work's very nature, the work of their work so to speak, the phenomenal content of what they are doing (perhaps because intellectual work is too secretly or subconsiously prized as an escape from doing!). Contemplation, as a model for intellectual work, addresses this deficiency precisely because it fuses intellection with self-knowledge.

So what I take away from Eileen and Michael is that what is essentially at stake is consciousness itself, that the call for a new humanism is in essence a call for more conscious intellectual practice, not in the sense of more theoretically, socially, etc.-ly aware work, however important that is, but for intellectual work as a form of consciousness production, as the acting out of a will to wake up from habitual, unconscious modes of being, deceptions of self and others, traumas, failures, imaginary weaknesses, and to materially produce the durable liberating direct experience of oneself and the world as a wonderful, new and ancient, reality, in other words, to produce our very being here.

Two passages from _The Discourses_ come to mind:

"All life is an effort to attain freedom from self-created entanglement. It is a desperate struggle to undo what has been done under ignorance, to throw away the accumulated burden of the past, to find rescue from the debris left by a series of temporary achievements and failures."

"To penetrate into the essence of all being and significance and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the guidance and benefit of others, by expressing, in the world of forms, truth, love, purity and beauty — this is the sole game which has intrinsic and absolute worth. All other happenings, incidents and attainments in themselves can have no lasting importance."

Anonymous said...

I am writting -and daily reading your posts- from Jena (Germany). A few more than 200 years ago, Goehe lived here. Worked here. This is a few minutes far from Weimar; and Schiller, too, and Hegel, and Fichte, and Feuerbach, or Bach, and even Nietzsche or Marx lived around here, some time. But also Semprún and other thousands of people that walked along the "road of blood" to Buchenwald. And even Hitler finished with the Constitution of Weimar and was massively voted in the city.

Yesterday the grand-grand daughter of Richard Wagner staged a provocative opera as the starting spectacle of the Hitler´s favorite festival. The play has been considered provocative because the plot confronts modernity and tradition and takes the option in favor of tradition. Today all over Jena there are signs on the streets asking wether "the sun will shine also for the nazis?" in a campaign inviting to a counter-demonstration next 8th september: "the peoples of Europe" are supposed to meet in one of the expected to be the bigger neo-nazi concentration of Europe. The sign talks in both directions: opposition against some kind of real-reality.

I come from Vic -Catalunya, Spain- in the last local elections (may´07) the second strongest party was the xenophobic "Plataforma per Catalunya" proclaiming some sort of stronger immigration control (nobody knows exactly what kind of control but the leader of this party has a long historial of neo-fascist practices and militancies).

I cannot but take all these movements (and some others such as the supposed-to-be liberating practices of the US Army around the world or the self-securing practices of the Israeli army, for example) as echoes of a dangerous melancholy and decadence of something that was once erected in the name of humanism.

Is it a misunderstanding (a symptom, an abuse, an undued appropriation) of some original concept thought for good ? Or it was perverse in its (secret, remote) origins? Maybe it is time to forget the concepts and look for new ones ? Sloterdijk suggested, quoting Nietszche, that philosophy died before it could reach its original proposals (it became an instrument of power and lost its "philo" part).

Shouldn´t we think about this question of neo-neo-humanism as art of that ghost (dead/not dead) of modern phlosophy? As mediaevalists you know it better than any one: what was there before humanism ? Or actually go further: what should come later ?

Thanks for the blog, it´s really moving.

Anonymous said...

Good Baba. Bad Bhabha.

Karl Steel said...

what was there before humanism

Better to ask perhaps, both what gets to count as human (but of course you knew I'd say that), and, to take a different approach, what was there with humanism and how that expands our impression of how many different expresses thought themselves humanistic.

Moore speaks of the "coiled gloom" of Agobard of Lyons (surely known better for his outrage at Rabbinic commentary than for his gloominess) "at human disobedience and depravity," but I might think, instead, of texts contemporary with the emergence of slight tweak in conceiving the human, the 12th century: i.e., iirc, compare what's recorded in the study on
Herrad of Hohenbourg's Hortus Deliciarum in Renaissance and Renewal in the 12th century with Innocent III's De contemptu mundi. We might then look ahead at this contemptu material in Prick of Conscience and its popularity at the same time, as, say, Thomas Chaundler’s Liber Apol­o­geticus de Omni Statu Humanae Naturae and wonder what kinds of human we encounter here, how it privileges the human to concentrate, depending on the work, on either its degradation or the minimally human being before its creator.

Anonymous said...

It is most moving, to read E.Joy's comments, and the ensuing discussion in the posted comments on my essay. But let me say for the record, that I am not 'opposed to theory'. The opposite of theory would be naive history-writing. But I am allergic to the reference-as-gesture, or as Nicola highlights, the lack of a definable stance or sense of responsibility.
Also, there is always a question of time spent versus value gained. I guess I need a bumper-sticker that says "I'd rather be reading Midrash."
Currently I am reading an amazing book by Stephane Moses, L'ange de l'histoire, linking the philosophies of history of Rosenzweig, Benjamin and Scholem. I am absorbed by Benjamin's concept that the historian bears a responsibility for the past, a theme of my essay.
And I think it is right to throw another rock at Agobard's head, as he was a terrible hater of the Jews and he really does bear some responsibility for Buchenwald. I call him gloomy, and deliberately wicked.
As for the question 'what was there before humanism'? My perception is that there was a 'rolling incorporation' of certain trends, which only later get that label. So from very ancient times come certain delicate trends that would praise and defend the human. This is as old, I believe, as the ochre hand-prints in the ancient cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc:

And these delicate claims have always been threatened by the Big Man carrying his stick, noose, or gun.
Finally, as for tears, you probably know that Virgil said: "there are tears in things." If we ever really started weeping over the history of pain that we call 'The Middle Ages' we might never be able to stop. Or, as the Irish monk said about the Viking invasions, you would have to have an iron tongue and lips of brass, to express such griefs.
With profound gratitude:

Karl Steel said...

Or, as the Irish monk said about the Viking invasions, you would have to have an iron tongue and lips of brass, to express such griefs.

The ferrea vox topos! I love it; as usual as it is, it always moves me. (from my notes to an Anglo-Norman prologue when it runs:
Purquant si tut dis puisse vivre,
E sanz nul entreleis escrivre,
E euse la buche trestut ferine,
E la lange tut ascerine,
E euse trestut la saveir,
Quanque nul home poet aver,
Ne purrai la maité dire
De ço k’apent a ma matire.
Nonetheless, if I could live forever, and write without any interruption, and if I had a mouth entirely of iron, and a tongue made entirely of steel, and if I had all the knowledge, as much as anyone could have, I could not say the half of what pertains to my topic.
"This is the ferrea vox version of the occupatio topos; e.g, Aenied, “non mihi si linguae centum sint oraque centum / ferrea vox” (VI vv. 625-6) [not even if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, and a voice of iron], which is quoted in such places as Jerome, Letter 66.5 653 and the Cursor Mundi, “for þou3e my tunge were of steele” (v. 20023).")

I'm glad you stopped by, Michael, and I hope you return. I'm wondering about this passage:
"If there is a Miloszan humanism, it differs from traditional humanism in another regard: despite the classical balance and restraint of his work, Milosz found classicism in the arts to be tiresome, and in any case inaccessible and even forbidden to an artist living in the midst of the modern world and the twentieth, or worst, century, which we would be right to call the pessima aetas. In this sense, Milosz found himself far from the sunny Greece of the Weimar classical period. The task of poetry has changed, and must now serve as a witness to the age, and thus poetry can probably no longer find its way back to the sublimity of a superbly heightened language or the stability of perfected forms."

I wholeheartedly concur with the call for a humanism (or at least some conception of the human) that can account for atrocity. But I wonder whether you subscribe to the notion of the 20th century as the worst of times. For Europe, yes, and even for much of the world, but--and here I can likely be accused of santimoniousness--surely the centuries between the 16th and 19th should be remembered as the worst era for some people. Hundreds of cultures suffered genocide in what's now the Americas, and I can only begin to imagine what happened in West Africa. In other words, I sense--perhaps not fairly--a kind of Eurocentrism to your discussion, which works to a degree when discussing medieval literature, but which begins to look suspect to me (again, perhaps unfairly) once we get into the modern era. I'm not sure yet, however, how my discomfort affects my feelings of your argument overall: it might not.

(and Uebel: puns?)

Anonymous said...

Karl, your comment settles the reference-search going on in my mind about that topos, and goes far beyond what I knew about it.
As for euro-centrism, I wonder if it is possible to have a grounding in some tradition, and to study it deeply, as a way of aquiring vision, rather than as a form of blindness? We have to try to achieve self-awareness, or else our culture will act as a "force from behind" (vis a tergo). That is to say, if Gadamer is right, and I think he is, that we can't really jump out of our skin, but can only strive for clarity and to examine our prejudices. Or as Thomas Merton said, to aquire self awareness to the degree that when you say "I think" - it is a genuine self speaking, not "the anonyomous authority of the collectivity speaking through your mask."

Karl Steel said...

I suppose what I'm getting at is something I've borrowed from critical work on time as in the most recent issue of the GLQ: i.e., worst age for whom, now for whom, and so forth. As is de rigeur for certain people, I'm dubious about 'genuine' anything, let alone dubious about the self; nonetheless, my hesitations might be answered if we just affix a "for me" to the end of any superlative. Then the question is what kind of critical and even ethical work we can get from that. A lot, I think.

Anonymous said...

Self-awareness is not what is needed; quite the opposite. What is needed is a letting go of the self. Satori.

Mr Steel is, as per usual, on the edge of the razor. His description of a "for me" critique or "for me" ethics harmonizes with the gestaltist project of acknowledging that each person's "figure" and "ground" reality-sense is all we have to work with in its absolute singularity--therapeutically, socially, politically.

Eileen Joy said...

I'm not sure about the edges of razors, but I would like to dwell for a moment on Michael Moore's comment that,

"We have to try to achieve self-awareness, or else our culture will act as a 'force from behind' (vis a tergo). That is to say, if Gadamer is right, and I think he is, that we can't really jump out of our skin, but can only strive for clarity and to examine our prejudices. Or as Thomas Merton said, to aquire self awareness to the degree that when you say 'I think' - it is a genuine self speaking, not 'the anonyomous authority of the collectivity speaking through your mask'."

We have had many fruitful discussions on this weblog concerning the self, identity, narcissism versus a more generous communitarian multiplicity, humanism, and anti-humanism, and while I have *always* been in agreement--pace Uebel's Gestalt and holistic approach to self-world relationships, pace JJC-by-way-of-Deleuze/Guattari's bodies-bceoming, pace Karl's insistent reminder of all the murder required to "make a human," etc.--I do not understand the need, that sometimes seems to surface in these discussions, to, and pardon my frankness, "shit" all over the idea of the sanctity [or let's say, ethical significance] of the idea of what I would call attention to, or regard for, singular selves, even human but also "Other" selves. I am perfectly well aware that I need to "get out of my head" [or "skin" or whatever] and "make contact" with others in ways that are self-less [literally], but one cannot even begin to make this journey without SOME notion of who one is--via the very "deep" project of self-reflection recommended, I think, in Michael Moore's writings, here and elsewhere, even IF that reflection brings one to the idea [or fact] espoused in current cognitive science that the "self" is just a "story" consciousness tells itself to cover over the deep absence of self. But even then . . . there's that "story," and therein lies our task. Singularities, following Caputo, matter very much, and I am also one of those singularities. You could never count how many there are or how they will always, and have always, overlap, touch, etc. But there are singularities, and they matter, and we need to start deciding how we are going to determine what that means if we ever want to have a hope of having international human rights, personal well-being, etc.

Karl Steel said...

But even then . . . there's that "story," and therein lies our task. Singularities, following Caputo, matter very much, and I am also one of those singularities. You could never count how many there are or how they will always, and have always, overlap, touch, etc. But there are singularities, and they matter, and we need to start deciding how we are going to determine what that means if we ever want to have a hope of having international human rights, personal well-being, etc.

Absolutely. Stories matter. They're never "just" stories. And regardless of the artificiality of the self, we should, first, lose our scorn for the so-called "merely artificial," while remembering--and how could we forget?--that we and others still have, ultimately, only our own lives (which are of course enabled at least in part through their being with other things, other lives, other times).

BTW, I'm rewritten my Caninophilia post as the conclusion to my diss, Eileen, and I'll post it here soon enough, after it passes muster with my committee. I think you'll like what I came up with.

Anonymous said...

Marcus Aurelius said that a true friend is as rare as a black swan. But I have found one of these rare beings in E.Joy.
Kierkegaard remains the most interesting author on the problem of selfhood. Kierkegaard, who assumed so many guises, from Johannes Climacus to Johannes de Silentio. Similarly, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, with his alternative poetic personae Alberto Caeiro and (greatest of all) Ricardo Reis. Both men confronted a similar situation, that "Kierkegaard" and "Pessoa" became for them further personae to be explored and adopted. But if you ponder these cases you may find that these authors did not thereby attempt to dispose of the problem of selfhood, but to see it, and have it, with the greatest possible lucidity.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, MM, you *do* go on.