Winter will come soon enough

October 25, 2006 at 12:38 am | In ideas, social_critique | 1 Comment

As though it were yesterday, I remember the time my dissertation advisor, during one of his undergraduate course lectures, quoted Charles Baudelaire’s The Eyes of the Poor. At the time, I was his graduate teaching assistant, sitting in one of the Sackler Auditorium‘s last rows — his courses were popular, so he got the biggest lecture hall. Together with the other six or seven graduate teaching fellows, it was our job to absorb his lectures, and to teach the ideas he was putting forward to small groups of students, in tutorials designed on an alternating basis by me or one of the other teaching fellows. What was interesting is that he chose to quote Baudelaire just at that time, because (even though he feigned ignorance of such trivial matters) it was of course a fact that The Cure had just come out with their song, How Beautiful You Are, which is based on Baudelaire’s text. It was actually almost electrifying to hear the original, there, spoken in that dark lecture hall by a most self-consciously rectitudinous man, while analysing screechy old Eduard Manet and the social changes effected by Haussmann’s wholesale bulldozing of downtown Paris, and to have the sound of a whining 1987 pop song insinuate itself into the ostensibly serious matter of studying what was, then, the pop culture of 19th century France.

I never much liked that song by The Cure, even though I found some of their other material very appealing. But that song…

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, not least because we have this massive social problem here in Victoria, which, like The Cure‘s song and like Baudelaire’s story, is focussed on a very sizeable group of highly visible poor people, many of whom are homeless and who beg, sometimes insistently, on Victoria’s streets. Our streets, while not subject to the same kind of rapacious changes put into gear by Prefect Haussmann, are also undergoing development — much of which is sorely needed.

But what the song and the story are really about — and here is where I get worried — are things having little to do with “the poor” or social justice. The story is really about the will — or, more precisely, a man’s will to power. It’s about a man’s expectation that the woman he is ornamenting himself with should feel and think the exact same way as he, followed by his disappointment and “disgust” when he realises that this of course is not going to happen. Why should a man think that a woman should mirror his own soul? Is it love? Hardly, otherwise he wouldn’t rush to throw her over just because she disappoints him. True love isn’t disgusted that easily.

The “woman” — an ornament, “beautiful” and even lofty — represents the spectacle of modernity itself: around Baudelaire’s time, she is a symbol of everything that modern 19th century economies created as desirable, and likewise of everything that kept the modern 19th century man enthralled to desire, just as it does his 21st century counterpart. The dandy, in paroxysms of impotent rage, can do battle with this sphinx, this chimerical Woman, and never worry about losing any of his own, real blood. He can use The Woman to produce the spectacle of his own Will to Power. Or, he can even fall into silence, as does Nietzsche (who thought about the will to power a lot)…

Human, All Too Human, aphorism #376

About friends. Just think to yourself some time how different are the feelings, how divided the opinions, even among the closest acquaintances; how even the same opinions have quite a different place or intensity in the heads of your friends than in your own; how many hundreds of times there is occasion for misunderstanding or hostile flight. After all that, you will say to yourself: “How unsure is the ground on which all our bonds and friendships rest; how near we are to cold downpours or ill weather; how lonely is every man!” If someone understands this, and also that all his fellow men’s opinions, their kind and intensity, are as inevitable and irresponsible as their actions; if he learns to perceive that there is this inner inevitability of opinions, due to the indissoluble interweaving of character, occupation, talent, and environment then he will perhaps be rid of the bitterness and sharpness of that feeling with which the wise man called out: “Friends, there are no friends!”9 Rather, he will admit to himself that there are, indeed, friends, but they were brought to you by error and deception about yourself; and they must have learned to be silent in order to remain your friend; for almost always, such human relationships rest on the fact that a certain few things are never said, indeed that they are never touched upon; and once these pebbles are set rolling, the friendship follows after, and falls apart. Are there men who cannot be fatally wounded, were they to learn what their most intimate friends really know about them?

By knowing ourselves and regarding our nature itself as a changing sphere of opinions and moods, thus learning to despise it a bit, we bring ourselves into balance with others again. It is true, we have good reason to despise each of our acquaintances, even the greatest; but we have just as good reason to turn this feeling against ourselves.

And so let us bear with each other, since we do in fact bear with ourselves; and perhaps each man will some day know the more joyful hour in which he says:

“Friends, there are no friends!” the dying wise man shouted.

“Enemies, there is no enemy!” shout I, the living fool.
(see this page, eg.)

What happens, in other words, when the dandy’s will to power is exhausted in his symbolic battle with the spectacle of Woman (that is, with Modernity and all its problems), is a reversal to …disgusted or frustrated silence. Which yet again means that things get left undone.

It’s easy to talk about social change. It’s even easy to say (or write) things like, “you reap what you sow,” when you want to suggest that someone or something is to blame. The problem is that the “you reap as you sow” truism isn’t true at all — if it were, there would be no starving children, for what have they done to reap starvation? There would be no genocide, for what did anyone do to be born into a particular ethnic group? There would be no murder of innocents, for what did the innocents do to “reap” that fate?

I find myself provoked by the banter going back and forth on a forum I joined not long ago. I find that I can’t talk with these people. Another individual there posted the famous malicious scorpion story (albeit as “scorpion and frog,” not “scorpion and turtle”). This story of course is, among all the other things it can be, the classic illustration of sadean logic, and relates directly to the “reap as you sow” argument. The Marquis de Sade’s arguments need hardly be rehashed here, as he did demonstrate with finality that one doesn’t reap as one sows, for why would Justine be so pious but so miserably victimised if it were true, and why would Juliette get away with torture and murder (and enjoy every minute of it) forever and all time (or at least until death) if punishment really did follow bad deeds? As the scorpion says, when the turtle/ frog asks him why he stung him to death even though it causes their mutual demise: “it’s in my nature.” That’s the final recourse of the sadean imagination: nature as cruel mistress, which trumps the pieties of human kindness standing mute in the face of The Question (“why does evil exist in the world?”). It’s in the nature of things, to which it seems the “superman” has no reply. He agrees, fundamentally, with the scorpion.

The scorpion perhaps stings its own tail, perhaps, for if death and betrayal are what is in the nature of things, why struggle? (This question is directed at you, Superman.) Why bother trying to fathom the ragpicker’s eyes, or his son’s? Why bother feeling disgust with The Woman, and why bother falling into disgusted silence? In the sadean scorpion, the will to power (whether evinced by Nietzsche or his precurser Baudelaire) has a double, a twin, a soulmate, a winter’s soul.

For another really fascinating angle on the scorpion, see The Ethical Spectacle of September 1995. The author writes:

It is the scorpion that pulls humanity down. If you are not yourself a scorpion, you still are unable to play every move of every game in the cooperation zone, because sooner or later you will meet a scorpion. Not every scorpion is a suicide bomber; the law partner who made a successful motion to cut my draw, forcing my resignation from a law firm, suffered the symbolic fate of the scorpion when the firm’s biggest client (the one I alone knew how to service) left as a result, and the firm folded. Yeats’ judgment that “things fall apart, the center cannot hold”, because “the worst are full of passionate intensity” is a recognition of the fact that there are scorpions.

Scorpions may know the consequences, and not care, like the suicide bomber, or may, through vanity and denial, refuse to see the consequences, like my ex-partner. In any event, the effect is the same: a player defects when there is no reason to, and something–a life, an enterprise–ends as a result.

Game theory does not really take scorpions into account. It holds that people will defect because that is in their best interest–because the future has no shadow. Game theory fails as a tool when we are dealing with sociopathology or extreme denial. The human dilemma is that all progress ultimately fails or at least slides back, that anything once proven must be proven again a myriad of times, that there is nothing so well established that a fundamentalist (of any religion or stripe) cannot be found to deny it, and suffer the consequences, and then deny that he suffered the consequences.

All rivers begin in the human heart and, as I said recently in my Auschwitz essay, the human heart is infirm. The saddest saying I ever heard, “trees never grow into heaven”, will be true for so long as we have scorpions.

1 Comment

  1. This is a profound post, Yule, one that will have me thinking for a long time to come. I am not sure I got the main argument from a first reading on my monitor (I still like to look at the printed page when it comes to “thinking”), but I kept flashing back to my recent reading of a book on Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein, who brings the complicated ethics and ideas of this philosopher into a “modern” human frame, making his ideas relevant to our current dilemmas — as well as locating the origins of “modernity” in his works.

    At any rate, the scorpion for Spinoza is ignorance, or the refusal to reckon with the notion that “we are what we know, and what we know depends on the active exercise of our rational faculties.” For old “rationalists” like myself, this view is almost as comforting as the religious one is for those who flock in droves these days to its comforts, among which the prospect of having to think for oneself is blessedly removed. As is the kind of “salvation” Spinoza put forth, which is that “our own personal salvation, motivated by our essential commitment to our own individual survival and well-being, consist in achieving the most impersonal of worldviews.”

    Of course, there remains the problem of the scorpion — and his sting, which is the idea that he stings because it is his nature (which, if I read your post correctly, is fuel and fodder, and armor for Superman).

    Comment by maria — October 25, 2006 #

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