Let him rejoice who breathes up here in the roseate light!
The title of this post is drawn from one of my favorite moments in Freud: it is Schiller, actually, quoted by Freud in response to a friend’s passionate belief in the “oceanic state” achieved through meditation, when the limits of the self are dissolved. It was a shout of solidarity, from Freud, to those among his readers who preferred a clear and conscious vision to one weirded by ecstasies.
I’ve been shy about updating because I’ve found it difficult to write to the audience I imagine is reading, so, as I’ve done a couple of times before, I’m going to pretend there isn’t an audience and hope for the best.
I’ve been thinking of late about Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis, because it’s arisen as a contentious subject on Acephalous’s blog. (Acephalous continues to be a fascinating experiment in academic blogging, by which I mean “blogging that offers no chance to vent about daily annoyances, unless said annoyances somehow relate to Hegel.”) Lacanian thought could be interpreted as the study of an ineradicable psychic wound which disrupts the smooth, adjusted functioning of human beings, and pushes them into madness unless they recognize and resist it.
I am still impressed with the Nietzschean idea (from The Birth of Tragedy) that this wound is two things simultaneously: the recognition of death and death’s absurdity, and the appetite for pleasure. The two fuse together in his description of Dionysian rituals in ancient Greece. No matter how well the Greeks cordoned off the Dionysian by ritualizing it, it remains an unforgivable insult to the craftsman’s values of harmony and work.
Nietzsche is not evasive about the implications of the Dionysian fever: it is a murderous, destructive impulse which requires little structure (it thrives on spontaneity) and undermines all the established works of society and culture. To the extent which it is directed against the created things through which we appropriate the world, and recognize ourselves in the world, it is suicidal.
This is not nearly as abstract as it sounds. At the bottom of my various posts, going back to the beginning of this blog, about the eerie feeling that every place has become the same, is an awareness that American society has become so completely Dionysian in spirit that, in large part, the Apollonian tradition has disappeared except where it has been absorbed by the concept of family.
For example, what is the meaning of life for the person who works as a cashier or an office drone five days a week? The answer is simple: either the family bond, if one exists, or whatever they do on the weekend. If there is no family, the weekend becomes more important in terms of that person’s self-image and worldview than the whole rest of the week, much of which is really a sort of practice for the weekend (e.g. watching movies or Sex and the City).
Of course, some people live for their work, and spend their off nights doing whatever is necessary to recharge for the return to work. But this is not Apollonian in the old sense, when one’s work meant the task of crafting a part of the world and inventing an order within it. Modern workers are functionalists who think of themselves as performing a task which was, intellectually speaking, already completed before they came to it. (This is how most composition programs describe teaching composition.) The rest are egoists working off sublimated drives (and a single person can be both, depending on the moment). The most obvious example of this second kind of worker is the person who works to someday be famous. These people think of themselves as machines, and even produce culture about (wry) machines: The West Wing. Their main concern is efficiency, and they tend to be obsessed with “intelligence,” which they consider quantifiable.
This led me to the following conclusions:
• People do not really like to talk about their work, and they hate being asked what they do. This is because their work is usually not meaningful — or it is meaningful, but after a fashion they worry is cliché.
• What they do like is pleasure (the Dionysian), performance (the functional, including sports and most modern ethical conversations), fame (the egoistic), and fantasy (absurd or utopian thought, plus vicarious experience in movies and so forth).
• The writers who are most famous for their craft are, not coincidentally, now the writers most centrally concerned with wounds and desire. Hence Flaubert (M. Bovary), Nabokov (Lolita and Humbert), Hemingway (Jake and Brett), Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book), Emily Dickinson, Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), and so on: Barthes writing about the grammatically perfect sentence in Sade. Thus the content of the work consciously mocks its Apollonian rigor, with pleasure and death still at the heart. (That’s assuming these works are understood at all, and not sacrificed by some humorless Kantian to a creepy obsession with form.)
I am not saying that these are the artists who pay the most attention to craft. The historically significant fact is that today they are the ones most recognized for it.
Or consider the following experiment: in a given conversation, what will produce a better yield – talking about favorite bands, or talking about one’s musical guilty pleasures?
Tonight at dinner, I found myself in a conversation about stores holding clothes, jewelry, and so forth. It went like this:
PERSON AT DINNER: I’ve had a lot of trouble with my suit, because the pants and the jacket don’t match.
ME: I’ve had a lot of trouble because a suit looks perfect in the store, but then I take it home, and find my nice jacket has been matched with giant red clown pants and clown shoes.
Which is to say: the subject of mismatched suits was dull, so I moved the discussion in an absurd direction, and it became a fun moment.
This is why I don’t have any taste: because taste has become completely randomized by the bizarre associational logic of pleasure. We live in a world where it is tacky to like “My Heart Will Go On,” but not tacky to like Kylie Minogue. For five years I listened to practically nothing except the Beatles, Mendelssohn, Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel. When I started to listen to other music, it was partly because I wanted to share in the experiences of other people.
Thus a co-worker the other day:
HER: Last summer I kept asking you what you were listening to, and you were always like, “Mozart’s Ninth Symphony,” or something by Tchaikovsky, or whatever.
ME: Right, and you were thinking Jeez, can we ever loosen up a bit?
HER: Exactly! Like, can we have some Billy Joel, or just anything, you know?
ME: Totally! Even if it ain’t Mozart, it’s still rock and roll to me.
HER: Ha! Awesome.
Which is to say: in some cases Mozart is going to be the wrong answer, and in this case I even knew last year it was the wrong answer. Since at some point it gets real tiring to keep giving the wrong answer, Billy Joel gets moved closer to the visible surface, and Mozart sinks back into the depths. But I honestly think Mozart surpassed the entire recorded output of Billy Joel with his compositions in any one of about four genres.
I do think that the people I care about most, care about beauty and the human negotiation with the world that produces beauty. They are compassionate people: I take beauty to be a formal expression of sympathy. But somewhere along the line I got the spear in my side, too, and I started to want the masks of pleasure, and fantasy, and absurdity, even though they weren’t my values. I wanted to be part of one community, at first, even though I mistrusted a lot that happened in Mendocino. Then I wanted to be part of every community, having left Mendocino, and having been unable to put down roots anywhere else, because I was working in a cubicle and commuting between Sacramento and Stanford. I am terrified to believe that in most American communities, hip or educated or Democratic or not, the social group pays lip service to beauty and compassion, and homage to pleasure and success.
Again, the exception is the family, and there are, undoubtedly, other exceptions. But saying you like the plastic bag scene in American Beauty is, I think, still the wrong answer. I wish it weren’t; in the meantime, madness will have to do. So Lacan was right — there is a busted fire hydrant somewhere, a wound in our work week: the bacchanal. Last night it was Pirates of the Caribbean 2, which I just couldn’t make myself attend. Tonight it will be a game of “kings” with beer and vodka. Which reminds me, I have phone calls to make.
A good night to you.