Tag Archives: French philosophy

The Starting Point

As you can see, philosophy struggles with huge tension. On the one hand, love seen as a natural extravagance of sex arouse a kind of rational suspicion. Conversely, we see an apology for love that borders on religious epiphany. Christianity hovers in the background, a religion of love after all. And the tension is almost unbearable.
—Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love (15)

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Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon c.1912

Thus, when Kierkegaard was finally unable to contemplate the idea of marrying Régime, he broke with her. In the end, he represented the aesthete seducer of the first level, lived the ethical promise of the second and failed to make the transition, via the real-life seriousness of marriage, to the third level. Nonetheless, he visited the whole gamut of forms of philosophical reflection on love (15).

I, for one, have a very hard time forgiving Kierkegaard for this failure. A friend convinced me to give him another chance, and so I suppose I must, but I am always on the side of the heartbroken and against those that create a philosophy or moral that disregards, or attempts to repress, the truth of love: “as we all know, love is a re-invention of life” (33). Well, at least according to me and M. Badiou, as told in his compelling little book In Praise of Love (2009), a book composed of a conversation with Le Monde journalist Nicolas Truing  initially coming from a series of conversations from Avignon Festival’s “Theatre of Ideas.”

Badou begins the book by discussing some problems with the modern perspective of love. The first being the unwillingness to admit risk into one’s life which is perpetuated by online dating sites that advertise the possibility of finding your “soul mate” or perfect match risk free. And then:

The second threat love faces is to deny that it is at all important. The counterpoint to the safety threat is the idea that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment (8)

And so one can see in the history of philosophy and religion an attempt to devalue romantic love. In philosophy the love of friendship is the gold standard while in religion, the transcending love of god, or some higher power, is the only true love. There is something in the temporal, mundane, and corporal nature of passionate love that make people feel exposed to their mortality and vulnerability I suppose.

But surrendering your body, taking your clothes off, being naked for the other, rehearsing those hallowed gestures, renouncing all embarrassment, shouting, all this involvement of the body is evidence of a surrender to love. It crucially distinguishes it from friendship. Friendship doesn’t involve bodily contact, or any resonances in pleasure of the body. That’s why it is a more intellectual attachment, and one that philosophers who are suspicious of passion have always preferred (36).

For Badiou, the idea of a transcending love is also off the mark. Love is about difference, not oneness. It is the “Two scene”, as he puts it, in which,in its role as a ‘truth procedure,’  “a certain kind of truth is constructed” (38).

the “Two scene” —is experience. In this sense, all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference” (39)

All kinds of love, Badiou states, make it possible for us to feel that we do not have to experience the world as a solitary, but can experience it through the difference of the other, side by side. Certainly this must be true. I only have to think of the delight I take in seeing the world from my youngest son’s point of view. I think we all do that—it is easy to find joy in experiencing the world through our children’s eyes but somehow we are told this can not extend to passion. People often look for love (through online dating sites in particular) to find the perfect match—the one that is just like me!—and yet, for myself, what I love the most are the people that make me see the world differently, through their eyes, their minds, and of course in the case of romantic love, through their body.

Badou’s book is thought provoking and quite lovely, although I did hit a few snags when he got to Lacan. In a nutshell, Lacan declared that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Badiou clarifies the famously “shocking” proposition a bit, explaining:

Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship (19).

The reason why it doesn’t exist, according to the theory, is that the pleasure, while mediated by the other’s body, in fact takes you very far away from the other in the form of your own personal pleasure. I am not sure I buy this. After all, if sex where truly, solely, a narcissistic adventure, then why the need for an other at all? Masturbation would suffice for that, no? It is difficult to see, in fact, why the theory applies only to sexual relationships. In this light can there be such a thing as friendship if the pleasure of the friendship can only be felt individually. Maybe I am missing something. Coincidentally I have a rather large tomb of Lacan’s sitting on my to-read pile, so I will have to investigate.

But overall, Badiou’s book is a brave declaration, in this day and age, of the importance of love. The chance encounter that transforms into destiny. Badiou talks of the process of falling in love as the “event-encounter” from which love follows. The passages in which he focuses on the declaration of love is really wonderful and true:

The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it iso perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright […] That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened” (43)

I love that—a kind of horrifying stage fright—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image out of my head of those three little, yet infinitely powerful words, clinging to the curtains of the stage of my mind: the butterflies of I love you.

As Troung writes in the introduction to this book, “praise of love, sung by a philosopher who thinks, like Plato, whom I quote: ‘Anyone who doesn’t take love as a staring point will never understand the nature of philosophy.'” My thoughts exactly.

*published 2012 by Serpent’s Tail, trans. from the French by Peter Bush

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

Sire, remember the Athenians

In order to contemplate [my  wandering thought’s] ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. – Montaigne, The Complete essays of Montaigne, from Of Idleness (21)

DSCI0014One of the wonderful things about Montaigne is his prodigious use of ancient writers to shape his ideas. He flings one quote after another onto the page at a furious pace. In the essay That our desire is increased by difficulty there is this gem:

The courtesan Flora used to say that she had never lain with Pompey without making him carry away the marks of her bites:
They hurt the longed-for body with their viselike grip,
And with their teeth they lacerate the tender lip,
Goaded by the secret stings to hurt the very thing,
Whate’er it be, from which these germs of madness spring.- Lucretius (464)

I found this essay particularly interesting having recently finished Love in the Western World because Montaigne discusses the same subject but his conclusion is slightly less hysterical.

What is allowed, we scorn; what’s not allowed, we burn for. – Ovid (466)

Rather than Rougemont’s pointing the finger of blame for this inclination at a “Pagan” mindset, which he argued had loose ideas about love and marriage that now makes us all confused by an addiction to the “pain of passion,” Montaigne describes the very same pain of passion as belonging to all time and all men (I have to resist my temptation to italicize the word men, but if woman had written more history and philosophy would we constantly be having this argument?).

Considering Montaigne’s liberal use of ancient sources, it is clear- if it’s true- we are and have always been warped, nothing particularly Christian or Pagan about it. Never the less, Montaigne very soon gets a little off the track of love, and uses this principle for a diversion into social engineering. He argues it is the bars on the windows, so to speak, that increases the desire to do wrong. If you do not want your house to be robbed- don’t lock it. If you do not want someone to walk across your garden, better to put a little silk cord across it than a tempting  fence which will perversely induce the desire.

Locked places invite the thief. The burglar passes by what is open. -Seneca (467)

I hesitantly agree with much of this principle- forbidden things are given allure that they do not necessarily possess.  But, as I mentioned in my ramblings regarding Love in the Western World,  the  I love her more because I can’t have her meme is as insulting as it is immature. Obviously there are plenty of odious rakes throughout history that are only occupied with their ennui and narcissism: those that seek merely to play with other people’s hearts until they are captured, only to be abandoned. But isn’t it possible that there is a lot written and thought about the pain of love because it’s often…painful? Real hearts get broken. This is life. Whether by death, circumstances, or simply unrequited (although that last one I am not convinced of – seems more a form of masochism than true love), a broken heart is the sort of pain that is so excruciating the only means of encompassing the throbbing aura of ache is art- consequently the intensity of poetry looms large in this domain. I will go out on a limb and suggest that Montaigne might agree, which may be why he wanders away from love in his essay and widens the scope to the dangers of unnecessarily forbidding our desires to more mundane aspects of life.

There are many thought provoking pieces in this collection, but I will mention just one more, because I loved the humor and truth (those two are always hand in hand in my mind). Of liars begins with a discourse on memory, as Montaigne puts it,  It is not unreasonably said that anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying (23) He bemoans his own inferior power to recall, but then adds a couple of silver linings, one being:

My second consolation is that I remember injuries received less, as that ancient said; I should need a prompter, like Darius, who, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: “Sire, remember the Athenians.” (23)

That one made me laugh aloud because, while I am sadly lacking in servants, I should at least probably make a note or two for myself to try to counter-act  my failures of memory. I have more than once had to stop myself whilst talking with someone (usually my children) and exclaim, “Wait a minute, I forgot- I’m mad at you!” Instead of Sire, remember the Athenians, mine will be- Jessica, remember the child that finished all the milk so you had none for coffee this morning.

It is always a marvel to me that from before the time that we humans had even begun putting pen to paper we have puzzled over the same unanswerable questions. It is never enough that someone else has done it before me, it’s not even enough that I have done it before. Whoever I will be tomorrow, the next day, and beyond, will continue mulling over the sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful mystery of life.

I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.
from Of repentance (611)

*The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame

That Dweam within a Dweam

Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering. There we have the fundamental fact.
-Denis De Rougemont, Love In The Western World

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Jupiter and Io c. 1530 Correggio

Looking at slides in my art history class recently I saw a painting of Tristan and Isolde. Or maybe it was in the text book as I was reading. I see it in my mind. It was a depiction of the moment when King Marc switches his sword for that of Tristan’s which lay between the sleeping lovers (Isolde being the King’s wife). Perhaps I imagined it. I can not find it now, nor clearly remember where I saw it.  I didn’t even like the painting that much, at the time I think I compared it to Correggio’s passionate Jupitor and Io which is wonderful.  But I had one of those countless moments of curiosity–what about Tristan and Isolde? I then went on to look for the myth–which I also did not immediately find. I instead happened upon a book about the myth. This is the sort of thing that will drive me mad. I swear I saw a painting. It was real. But there is no proof. The painting in my mind does not exist as far as Google is concerned–certain death if ever there was.  Which is actually perfectly to the point of the book I read as a consequence of my apparently imagined painting.

Suffering and understanding are deeply connected; death and self-awareness are in league; and European romanticism may compare to a man for whom sufferings, and especially the sufferings of love, are a privileged mode of understanding  (51).

M. Rougemont book (published in 1940, France) has an interesting, if depressing thesis of what has made the myth of Tristin and Isolde (or Iseult as he calls her) so enduring. He frames it as a kind of Christian heresy and then goes on to relate it to the modern breakdown of marriage. I must necessarily skim the surface here. Rougemont’s idea is complex and he offers up a lot of evidence as a defensive measure against his critics. He wants to understand the preponderance of adultery as a plot line and fixates on Tristen as a subverted reaction against marriage. He implicates the Troubadours and the Cathars as misguided primary sources, and then goes on to expose the literary thread that supports his thinking.

But Racine, in being content to represent ‘passions excited’ and to produce the ‘sadness’ in which he invites us to find an indefinite ‘enjoyment’, betrays a rather morbid acceptance of the defeat of mind and of the resignation of the senses (202).

This is “love” that can never be consummated because that would be the death of the romance–the only proper release being actual death as in Romeo and Juliet. Cervantes ridicules the pain-of-passion novel, while Stendhal, and many or most others revere it–mistakenly, according to Rougemont:

On this theory, falling in love is to endow a woman with perfections she does not in the least possess. And why do we do this? Because we need to love, and because the only thing that can be loved is beauty (225).

This is a tragedy of objectification. I am sure it can go both ways, but more often than not women are mere two-dimensional objects in which their true selves are not valued and ignored. The fact that most of Rougemont’s examples are married woman (thereby creating an unattainable object of desire for the man) matters to his idea that the love is of an object (because, again, it is not a stretch, traditionally, to view a woman as an object) That a “passion” of epic, religious proportions (like the passion for God or Jesus which can never, by virtue of its very nature, until death, be realized) is foisted upon actual feeling breathing humans is a serious failing indeed. But Rougemont describes the problem as a confusion that the worship of (the pagan idea of) Eros has wrought on the Christian concept of love which is a communion (with God, ultimately). But, it is significant to me that he defines the word passion as it means in the Christian Biblical sense instead of how I might mean it, not to mention D. H. Lawrence, where passion is simply a deeply felt awe of our shared humanity.

As I have said, passion means suffering. Therefore, inasmuch as our notion of love enfolds our notion of woman, it is linked with a theory of the fruitfulness of suffering which encourages or obscurely justifies in the recesses of the Western mind a liking for war (243).

There were many moments while reading this book that I felt a strong need for a good therapist. One for everyone in fact. But, let’s calm down here for a moment. Anna Karenina without adultery is Levin and Kitty: a sweet but far less complex and riveting story. Can not a snake just be a snake? Or drama be drama? One could just as easily argue that the preponderance of the adulteress is better drama–being that much more outside the patriarchal norm of our society.

Rougemont waits until the near end to give his assessment of the state of things. In his view ‘passion,’ as he defines it, is a throwback to paganism, and paganism he casts as some sort of debauched bacchanal. In order to have a compliant society, which is, I think, one of his concerns, marriage must be preserved. How does one preserve marriage when we are all, according to him, infected with the desire for romantic passion, which marriage destroys? By adhering to the contract (a nod to Deuteronomy?). He emphasizes making a decision to put the contract above all else. It is a sort of because-I-said-so mentality that smacks of the sort of  patriarchal thrust the non-secular world is founded upon. I am not a hedonist, but the free-thinker in me provokes me to ask: is there nothing in between, or dare I say–outside the choice of being a martyr to contract or debauched excess?

It is interesting to take a moment to consider the more matriarchal aspects that paganism can represent, which Rougemont ignores. What?! a man dismissing a female perspective? How unusual. One doesn’t have to be a scholar of the ancients to figure out that the earliest pagan societies were not all a sexual free for all or societal anarchy. So much of philosophy, history, and religion is written and thought out by men that alternative perspectives are regrettably absent.  The more I read, the more I really started to go in a very different direction from Rougemont. When I got to this line from page 312: “Christianity has asserted the complete equality of the sexes…” I was truly perplexed, but then, the Bible has always been abused as a book of selective interpretation.

While Rougemont is onto something regarding the fundamental selfishness of love borne of vanity and boredom: love that is in love with love rather than a person (whom if one actually loved they couldn’t help feeling concern or in other words, that “feminine” sensibility called caring) He does not allow for actual romantic love, which of course exists. There are far more examples of couples, married or not, that show two people whom want to spend time with one another and want to make love to one another. It’s not complicated, it’s just perhaps not great drama. I am not prepared to be declared ill for appreciating desire or for caring about the happiness of those I love. After all, there is evolution and progress in the balance of personal and societal good. We should always strive to thoughtfully make a more lovely life for ourselves and for all.