The Silence of Ancient Egypt

For two thousand years ancient Egypt was “dead but unburied.” It existed only as stone, as a lifeless monument to its living past. The pyramids have stood silent and blind for millennia, and to Toynbee they seemed to speak: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Egyptian painting, flat and fragmented, gives a sterile impression of ancient Egyptian life. The people depicted seem themselves made of stone, unmoving, communicating with each other in stylised poses, fixed forever in their intention. Kings of stone eternally petition their unmoving gods, while stiff labourers, ungrumbling, toil ceaselessly together in workshops and fields.

It’s the silence of ancient Egypt – the silence of stone – that creates the impression of a vast mystery. Where there is silence, there is often a secret. But the mystery is so vast, that the thought of Egypt stretches out into a thin nothingness: a cosmos of motionless stone and eternally shifting sand, stretched over a void.

(Quotations are from A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee.)

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Herder’s First Principle

The life of rational individuals is chaotic as a madhouse. Herder writes:

“Whoever goes into a madhouse finds all the fools raving in a different way, each in his world; thus do we all rave, very rationally, each according to his fluids and tempers. The deepest basis of our existence is individual, both in sensations and in thoughts.”

Herder’s first principle: you will find the essence of who you are only in yourself, not in some general principle that applies to all people. You are not a type. We’re too different from each other for there to be such universal types.

Observe those around you. The well-established principle that there is no accounting for taste: we accept that there’s no general principle to explain the differences between people. We can only describe the situation: it is just a fact that human beings are different.

“What leaves the one person cold causes the other to glow; all the animal species are perhaps less different among themselves than human being from human being.”

This radical difference from individual to individual is the basis of creativity. If all human beings were alike, there would be a set of objective principles to discover, we could read the meaning of life there and the truth would be revealed. The truth out there to read, there would be nothing left to make up. To make up is to make something up out of yourself, out of what you find in yourself, your memories and thoughts and experiences tangled up in your deepest depths, interwoven with what you essentially are.

Perhaps some people never search for their depths, and it might seem that the truth really does lie there on the surface. Simple principles seem to be the highest truths. They learn to watch out for types, trust their instincts, satisfied that they know what – and who – is right and wrong. Talk of anything deeper sounds like nonsense to them.

But the deepest truth does not lie at the surface, in the form of such general principles. Each human being that is born brings into existence her own principle, which has to be freshly discovered in a life of experimentation, if it is to be discovered at all. And it lives and dies with that individual. This is the artist’s life, the life of a person who is fixated on truth and must discover it. And so must discover it for herself, since it belongs to her alone:

“If a human being could sketch the deepest, most individual basis of his enthusiasms and feelings, of his dreams and trains of thought, what a novel! As things stand, it is only perhaps illnesses and moments of passion that do this – and what monsters and amazing sea-miracles one often perceives!”

Of course, whatever is created, if it is truly new, must appear monstrous or miraculous. Because it has never been seen before, and will never appear again. Because the very universe from which it came – a single human life – was born into its own existence only to burn and blaze before it dies.

From Herder’s first principle you can derive the precept: you must find your own first principle, your deepest depth. It lies inside you and nowhere else. Or you can live on the surface and leave the treasure buried forever, to fade into oblivion.

(I’ve been reading the Philosophical Writings of Herder, translated and edited by Michael N. Forster.)

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Charles Taylor: Herder and Hegel

In the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s 1975 book Hegel, he sets the scene. He’s describing the kinds of ideas that were floating around in Hegel’s time, that defined the problems Hegel would come to tackle when he began his own work.

Johann Gottfried von Herder had a major impact on the ideas of the time, and we can still feel his influence today. He reacted against the absolutism of much Enlightenment thinking – attempts to find fixed universal principles for deciding what is true – by arguing that each individual is unique, with his or her own way of being human. This puts him against Aristotelianism too, since Aristotle would say that there’s just one way of being a good human being – being rational, being political – and not a multiplicity of ways, each uniquely good in its own way.

So each human being has his or her own particular path, but

“the idea is not just that men are different; this was hardly new; it was rather that the differences define the unique form that each of us is called on to realise.”

Herder is setting up the notion of authenticity: you’re authentic if you’re living up to your own unique potential, becoming what you are. You’re born unique, each of us as unlike as grains of sand, he says. But the essential thing is: you have an individual potential that you need to find. You’re authentic not just by virtue of being, but also by virtue of becoming aware of your own purpose, and finding your own meaning this way. It’s this search for your own differences that gives you the highest kind of purpose that you can find in life, so that

“the differences take on moral import; so that the question could arise for the first time whether a given form of life was an authentic expression of certain individuals or people.”

You are not to be judged on whether your life matches up to a universal ideal. In fact, it’s difficult to see how anyone can judge you but you yourself, since your path is yours alone. But the loss of universality makes it all the more urgent: you alone are responsible for finding yourself, and becoming what you are.

This does not mean that everything in life rests upon your shoulders. We depend on others for all sorts of things: for food, shelter, education, companionship . . . But there is at least one thing in life you alone are responsible for, and that is coming to know yourself. “This is the new dimension added by a theory of self-realisation,” writes Taylor, and this new dimension will be a central part of the challenge Hegel will come to face when it comes to giving an account of what it means to be an individual in the modern world.

(Quotations are from Charles Taylor’s Hegel.)

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Neal Cassady Listens to the Talk

The drinking men talk “Truth and Life”. Shallow generalities: there’s nothing of real life in talk of “Life”. The men sit outside in the sun and drink. Or sit inside Neal’s father’s kitchen, as the young boy runs in and out. Sometimes he stops to listen to the talk. Grown up talk. Sometimes they stop their talk to say some words to him: “This is my boy.” They’re all proud of him, his father’s friends.

Real life comes to take on an intangible quality to match the vacant general talk. Their words are flat and abstract, and the world becomes this way too, for them. Stare blankly at the world and world seems only to stare blankly back at you. Neal wonders at the men who cannot see past the stiff mask the world wears looking back at them, cannot guess at the dance the world makes, the insane rhythms it follows as it moves. Life flows hidden from them. Only take a step and push aside the veil that stretches across the front porch where the men sit drinking.

The men themselves flat and abstract to fit the world they have created. Little Neal himself learns to “understand the way they understood”. It is their mode of existence to listen, to nod, and to speak in turn. He learns to listen, to nod, so that one day he’ll be able to speak in turn.

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Beat Freedom

Gregory Corso’s Variations on a Generation, exploring what it means to be “beat.” First it’s about how to write poetry: beat writers use “spontaneity ‘bop prosody’ surreal-real images jumps beats cool measures long rapidic vowels, long long lines, and, the main content, soul.” In beat writing you’re free from traditional old constraints and the words come out spontaneous according to rhythms and images that speak to the souls of the poets themselves and to others who are “beat”. Allen Ginsberg reads from Howl and every image sings of the angelic lives of beat souls and Jack Kerouac in the audience shouting “Go!” to the end of every line as the bottle of wine is passed around and around.

But what does it mean to be “beat”? Because it’s not just about poetry. It comes to mean more. You’re “beat” when “the blather [is] knocked out of you by experience”. There have been too many disappointments, too much heartbreak, too much plain dull hard work and often you feel just numb, and you no longer expect anything better. You don’t talk theories and ideals anymore. You become quiet, frowning down, looking inward. “Beat” in the sense of “beaten down”, beat into silence. But your senses were alive the whole time underneath, and introspection wakes them again, into direct vision of self, the ancient simple wisdom: “Know thyself!” And with no more ideals and theories you can no longer judge yourself, you just take a cool look at your own actions, “notice what you notice”, surprise your own mind with the sudden sight of your instincts, your spontaneous thinking and feeling and action in response to life.

And then you know yourself and you learn you can trust yourself, you’ve been getting something right this whole time. You’ve been going with the flow: after all, how could you resist? You’re free now to follow your own impulses, and do so consciously –– do as you please, you won’t hurt anyone, you never have. Now you’re at ease around others, worrying less you’ll say or do the wrong thing. You start to write again, no longer afraid to share what’s in your heart. If it comes from you then it’s real and nothing to be afraid of.

You say: “Be yourself!” And it means everything: this new wisdom, this new faith you have in your own instincts, going with the flow. But it doesn’t sound like much, seems like saying nothing. Who else would I be? The simplicity of beat wisdom –– just be yourself –– is why beats often don’t know they’re beat. They deny it. They say: I’m not special just because I’m being myself. You’re you, I’m me: nothing deep about that. What’s beat? But the deepest way you can be beat is to be “so beat you don’t know.” Because if you’re really doing it right, being as beat as you can be, you’re really doing nothing at all.

(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. It’s a collection of some of the best writing from the Beat Generation, with interesting little introductions to each writer. Some of the quotations I’ve used in what I’ve written above are from the Gregory Corso I found in there.)

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Imagination and Evaluation in History: Spengler and Adorno

Oswald Spengler: “Once again, therefore, there was an act like the act of Copernicus to be accomplished, an act of emancipation from the evident present in the name of infinity. This the Western soul achieved in the domain of Nature long ago, when it passed from the Ptolemaic world-system to that which is alone valid for it today, and treats the position of the observer on one particular planet as accidental instead of normative.”

The first step is to recognise that you have a standpoint, and then you can see that there are different standpoints you might have taken up. And that these different possible standpoints go all the way to infinity, making yours quite accidental. With this knowledge, you can state your “prepossessions” consciously and methodically, without labouring under the illusion that you’re being objective.

“Contemplation or vision, on the other hand –– I may recall Goethe’s words: ‘vision is to be carefully distinguished from seeing’ ––, is that act of experience which is itself history because it is itself a fulfilling. That which has been lived is that which has happened, and is history.”

The task then isn’t to acquire a god’s eye view of all the objects of history, since this is impossible. Instead, notice how the objects of history affect you. Objects become symbols for you, as you assimilate them according to your own cultural needs. Notice the process of assimilation –– the presuppositions that shape the material –– and state it. It’s difficult, and you can only go so deep: there are always deeper presuppositions. But in your attempt you will be expressing a life: your life, and the life of the culture you belong to. (For example, what looms over everything in Western culture today? Perhaps the most terrible is the symbol of the Holocaust, a symbol so horrifying that it seems impossible to assimilate, and it lives for us as a reminder of the inhuman depths that mankind can sink to . . . An object: the gates of Auschwitz, and the words: “Arbeit macht frei”, which stand in mockery of our own glorification of work, praise for the “hardworking”, the fascism in our own culture . . .)

“In the presence of the same object or corpus of facts, every observer according to his own disposition has a different impression of the whole, and this impression, intangible and incommunicable, underlies his judgement and gives it its personal colour.”

What seems evident to you is in fact only accidentally so. Whatever is most obvious to you is never a necessary standard by which you can judge the whole of history. Your undeniable truths are in fact merely the colour you give to things. They are secondary qualities, and inessential. But they are real and irrefutable: you’ll always see historical objects through such qualities.

“We have before us a symbol of becoming in every bar of our music from Palestrina to Wagner, and the Greeks a symbol of the pure present in every one of their statues. The rhythm of a body is based upon a simultaneous relation of the parts, that of a fugue in the succession of elements in time.”

A culture announces itself in its “vision”. Vision is not the sum total of facts that the culture has gathered about the world, but what it has made out of those facts. Don’t look just at historical textbooks: look also at poetry, architecture, music, political discourse . . . in order to see what a culture has made out of what it has inherited, what presuppositions it has created for itself.

“The darkness encompassing the simple soul of primitive mankinds, which we can realise even today from their religious customs and myths –– that entirely organic world of pure wilfulness, of hostile demons and kindly powers –– was through-and-through a living and swaying whole, ununderstandable, indefinable, incalculable.”

There are two aspects to historical work: fact-gathering, then interpretation. The truth of the cultures you study will not be found in the facts alone. A culture is something organic and must be lived. This requires an imaginative leap, into the once living culture so distant and dark, “going on” from the facts. (Not ignoring the facts, but going further, in a direction not wholly determined by the facts. See what Theodor Adorno does in his Minima Moralia: he looks at the “mental structures” created by a culture. For example the mental structures created by the Third Reich are “stupid”, a mockery of existing practices, and nothing of lasting value. Adorno is making a value judgement, and this kind of judgement is really the essence of historical work, it lets us get our teeth into history –– and as disciplines, history and philosophy aren’t so far apart. In the same chapter, Adorno goes on to mention Spengler: he says we need to re-evaluate what the decline of the West means, now that we have the fact of fascism to consider. We’re given new facts, and we adjust our evaluations in response to them.)

“Tendencies towards a mechanistic idea of the world proceeding wholly from mathematical delimitation and logical differentiation, from law and causality, appear quite early.”

And, says Spengler, the “systematic” way of thinking hardens, becomes the default method, so that it seems impossible to think in any other way. Only in the minds of children and artists does the organic, imaginative method remain. But imagination is essential for discovering what is at work in the symbols that exist in our culture, since it shows how the past has been assimilated into our culture, how it affects our thinking: for example, not just what caused the rise of fascism in the early part of the 20th century, but how these symbols continue to live, so that we can be alert to the ways that fascism continues to threaten us today, existing in the very machinery of our own culture.

(I’ve been reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson, and Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott.)

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A Note on Spengler and Historical Perspective

The Western historian writes from her own “standpoint.” But she knows she must be objective, which means opening her eyes to the infinite differences and infinite distances of history, freeing herself as far as she can from the limitations of her own perspective. One thing to bear in mind is how much of what is past she must inevitably be blind to, when she creates her own image of History:

“Plainly, we have almost no notion of the multitude of great ideas belonging to other Cultures that we have suffered to lapse because our thought with its limitations has not permitted us to assimilate them, or (which comes to the same thing) has led us to reject them as false, superfluous, and nonsensical.”

The challenge for the historian is to imagine her “present” –– her world, her perspective, the system of rules that govern her thinking, the everyday things, ideas and objects, she takes for granted –– as merely existing in a moment, one step in the endless journey that humanity has been making and must continue. Just as countless alien ideas have been forgotten to us in the West, so our present full of truths that seems to us so real and eternal might be lost forever. Perspective is everything.

(I’ve been reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson.)

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