Monday, February 22, 2010

Complementary Cultures

"One could divide humanity into two classes: 1) those who master a metaphor, and 2) those who hold by a formula. Those with a bent for both are far too few, they do not comprise a class."

Heinrich von Kleist

I was struck by a passage from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God in which Jonas Elijah Klapper, the breathtakingly bombastic caricature-of-a-humanist, offers the following riff:

"But, no, I'm not impressed by the slide-rule mentality. I remain unimpressed with the mathematical arts in general. What are the so-called exact sciences but the failure of metaphor and metonymy? I've always experienced mathematics as a personal affront. It is a form of torture for the imaginatively gifted, the very totalitarianism of thought, one line being made to march strictly in step behind the other, all leading inexorably to a single undeviating conclusion. A proof out of Euclid recalls to my mind nothing so much as the troops goose-stepping before the Supreme Dictator. I have always delighted in my mind's refusal to follow a single line of any mathematical explanation offered to me. Why should these exact sciences exact anything from me? Or, as Dostoevsky's Underground Man shrewdly argues, 'Good God, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if, for one reason or another, I don't like these laws, including the "two times two is four?"' Dostoevsky spurned the hegemaniacal logic, and I can do no less."

It is ludicrous, and it bespeaks a pride bordering on the Satanic ("Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven"), but it does contain the kernel of a point. It brings to mind William Blake's objections to Newton and certain excesses of the Enlightenment: "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's." Also Dickinson's "Tell the Truth but tell it slant." Is meaning ultimately a matter of temperament?

I thought also of Consilience, in which Edward O. Wilson argues that there is no aspect of experience, including the supposed mysteries of morality, art, and religion, that, in theory at least (whether we as a species can or will ever know and understand enough to grasp it all is a different matter), cannot be accounted for by objective (i.e. scientific, broadly considered) understanding. Subjectivity may, like ultraviolet light or atoms themselves, be a phenomenon we can never perceive directly, but one that will eventually be found to follow certain laws.

Wilson's book was published in 1998, when postmodernism more of a force to be reckoned with, but I was struck by his approach to the postmodernists' insistence upon decentered, contextual meaning (Nietzsche's notion of truth as a "mobile army of metaphors"). He quotes a passage by George Scialabba:

Foucault was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity....For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest--power--has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast?

To this Wilson answers:

"How and what indeed? To solve these disturbing problems, let us begin by simply walking away from Foucault and existentialist despair...To Foucault I would say, if I could (and without meaning to sound patronizing), it's not so bad...The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains."

This is a mind-bogglingly optimistic sort of monism, in which the ancient histories of individual and cultural difference melt away in the radiance of the one objective eye of the "view from nowhere," in contrast to the sheltered, shadowed, and limited perspective of the "view from somewhere," that is, from where (and what) individuals find themselves to be.

However, as a psychiatrist I am intrigued by an element of diagnosis in Wilson's view, his suggestion that beyond a certain point, the hand-wringing of threatened nihilism cannot be logically answered (any more than the specters of suicide or unequivocal delusion can be logically answered). It can only be denied and rejected as moral pathology, as toxic to the range of human potential that has been the consensus of human beings across cultures and ages. Has anyone considered "nihilism" for DSM-V?

Yet Wilson throws a bone to those grappling with nihilism:

"Nevertheless, here is a salute to the postmodernists. As today's celebrants of corybantic Romanticism, they enrich culture. They say to the rest of us: Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from firework explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects."

But getting away from pathology per se and focusing on psychological understanding, it is important to see Romantics as one end of the continuum of epistemology, the other end being the Classicists I suppose. Epistemology can't be understood apart from human needs. The fictional Klapper, no less than Blake, Kierkegaard, or Dickinson, is saying, "I need something that your Enlightenment, your 'consilience,' can't provide." It is only when this need--for ambiguity that is--becomes so overwhelming that it cannot be reasonably satisfied that it becomes nihilistic psychopathology. For it must exist in tension with the complementary human need for order, which has its own well-known pathologies.

Wallace Stevens nails the ambivalences of the Romantic mindset in "The Motive from Metaphor:"

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead,
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.

In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon--

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound--
Steel against intimation--the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Just as human cultures over the millenia may have gained from the tension between piety and apostasy, they have likely been enriched by complementary needs for fact and metaphor, reality and fantasy. Yes, there is literally nothing outside of reality, and metaphor is "merely" a subcategory of fact, but Homo sapiens is so constituted as to need its Romantic consolations. Eliot ("Humankind cannot bear very much reality") and Nietzsche ("It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are justified") had it right. Good riddance to metaphysical dualism, but as for psychological and cultural dualism(s), not so fast.


Retriever said...

Wonderful post. Love the Stevens poem. Facts and metaphor inform each other. Wilson was my favorite professor in college, still a hero of mine, tho I have to keep quiet about it at my verging-on-fundy church that views some scientific explanations as wicked...:) So glad you are writing again, much to ponder...

Novalis said...

As if on cue, my 2nd grader just got home with a library book on earthquakes that has "A True Book" printed at the top. Beware the "False Book" series...the poets are still banned from Plato's republic.

Anonymous said...

Ambivalence is a law unto its post-modern self; a socialised pathology that no longer bears the stigma of sickness but announces its health through the irreligion of paradox. It makes heresies out of absolutes and orthodoxies out of half lights, only to renounce its pronouncements at random in the obscure tongue of probabilities.

What untruth/fiction/lie never unfolded a truth either intentionally or not? Alll truth endpoints, are to some degree, paved with a procession of dead untruths. Life is spent discarding the sucked bones from yesterday’s truths. There is no marrow.

'Subjectivity may, like ultraviolet light or atoms themselves, be a phenomenon we can never perceive directly, but one that will eventually be found to follow certain laws.’

Interesting: the inaccessability of subjectivity as a thing-in-itself ; the last bastion of sense of agency and self ownership appropriated by godless determinism? we own nothing?....are we just the playthings of cosmic laws?...maybe/possibly/relatively....I tend to agree on half of the days....nevertheless, I can still sense my subjectivity even though it may not really exist. Not all palatable meals are cooked by the eater.

Yeah, nice poem. Great post.