27 Feb 2024

Notes on Socrates and the Ethics of Sobriety (A 6/20 Paper by Maria Thanassa)

Curbing their enthusiasm: Socrates, Maria Thanassa & Larry David 
According to Maria Thanassa [1], notions of sobriety and intoxication are central to Plato's Symposium and Socrates is shown to be a man of self-restraint above all else; he drinks, but never gets drunk; he loves, but never succumbs to erotic ecstasy (even remaining somewhat indifferent to the charms of Alcibiades).
Socrates, in other words, is a man who, like Larry David, knows how to curb his enthusiasm [2] and keep his wits about him. It's not so much that he lacks passion, but he prefers to master his desires. For Socrates, sobriety guarantees the integrity of his nature.
But, as becomes clear later in her presentation, Dr Thanassa is not only concerned with the doings of ancient Greek philosphers. She is interested also in how the idea of sobriety can be reactivated within a contemporary culture she thinks of as intoxicated (and infantilised) by a form of liberal Dionysianism that promotes the freedom of the individual and self-expression.           
In other words, a bit like the Greek lyric poet Theognis, Dr Thanassa wants people to exercise a degree of control and not act in a shameless or foolish manner (enslaved by their own base instincts); to behave in an ethical and stylised manner, carefully cultivating the self [3]

This might make Dr Thanassa sound like a bit of a killjoy or a member of the morality police; i.e., one who wishes to enforce a code of conduct and is concerned when people transgress certain social rules. Fortunately, however, she is saved from becoming a battle-axe like Granny Hatchet [4] by that which Socrates and Larry David are both masters of: irony
Maria ironically tempers her own enthusiasm for telling others to curb their enthusiasm before it tips over into zealotry. Like Socrates - and Larry David - she seems at times to try out and test philosophical positions without ever allowing them to become points of principle or dogma. 
That doesn't mean we shouldn't take what Dr Thanassa says seriously - just not that seriously. And it certainly shouldn't stop us from enjoying the wine served at the end of the paper, for as Alcibiades might remind us, the 6/20 is, like the symposium, a drinking party as much as a forum of debate.
Having said that, food and wine is served at the 6/20 to help facilitate conversation between those in attendance, not to induce drunken excess and vomiting on the way home [5] - something that the host, Mr Christian Michel, would almost certainly not approve of.          


I think the part of Dr Thanassa's paper I enjoyed the most was the section in which she (following Martha Nussbaum) discussed Socrates as someone who, in his strangeness, stands apart from other men - and indeed, the human condition itself. 
As already mentioned, Plato depicts Socrates as someone who is absent when he should be present; who drinks but does not get drunk; who is impervious to cold and hunger; who values beauty but remains unaffected by its physical manifestations; and who feels erotic desire but does not fully succumb to the pleasures of the flesh.

That certainly makes him sound like a queer fish and, according to Dr Thanassa, the oddity of his character when combined with his satyr-like ugliness makes him not only different, but genuinely other - inaccessible, impenetrable, and impossible to shut-up, even when sentenced to death.  
I can see why so many of his fellow Athenians hated him, just as so many of Larry David's friends and neighbours seem to find him impossible at times. But the above traits only increase my admiration for Socrates; he may lack empathy, but at least he recognises that even the most tragic events (such as the death of a pet parrot) have a comic aspect and that the philosopher must be free to ridicule, mock, or criticise everything under the sun - even if this risks offending others [6]
As the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: Socrates could abstain from those things that most are too weak to abstain from and enjoy in moderation those things that many indulge in excessively to their shame. His strength, his ability to endure, and his sobriety marked him out as a man of perfect and invincible spirit [7].  

In sum - and I think this was Dr Thanassa's closing line (borrowed from Baudelaire) - Keep smiling with Spartan serenity [8] and remember that curbing your enthusiasm means choosing not to burst into flame even though, as a philosopher, you will burn with a very special type of passion.
[1] Dr Maria Thanassa presented a short paper entitled 'Curb Your Enthusiasm: On Socrates and the Ethics of Sobriety' at Christian Michel's 6/20 Club (London) on 20 Feb 2023. This post is based on my recollection of what was said and I apologise to Dr Thanassa should I misrepresent her ideas in any manner. 
[2] The Socrates / Larry David connection and comparison has been made before; see, for example, Daniel Coffeen's excellent post on the philosophy of Curb Your Enthusiasm on his blog An Emphatic Umph: click here
      Coffeen rightly argues that both Socrates and Larry are characters who interact with the world in a fundamentally different way from most other people, refusing as they do inherited terms and questioning beliefs and norms of behaviour at every opportunity: "But whereas Socrates is really only concerned with big ideas about truth, morality, language, politics, Larry takes on the micro interactions of the social." 
      I was rather disappointed, considering the title of her paper, that Dr Thanassa didn't make more of the relationship between Socrates and Larry David. 

[3] This is suggestive of Foucault's later work and I was pleased to hear Dr Thanassa refer to such later in her paper, as well as to Nietzsche's idea of what constitutes the most needful thing - the constraint of a single taste - if an individual is to give style to their lives. 

[4] Granny Hatchet (Caroline Nation) was a member of the American temperance movement in the late-19th century and early-20th century, who famously smashed up liquor joints with a handheld axe. See the recent post written on her life and times: click here.   

[5] See the poem by Theognis in Greek Elegiac Poetry: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC, ed. and trans. Douglas E. Gerber (Loeb Classical Library / Harvard University Press, 1999), lines 477-496, quoted by Dr Thanassa on the night. 

[6] See my post of 14 Nov 2017 - 'Torpedo the Ark Means Everything's Funny' - click here

[7] I'm paraphrasing here from Meditations 1.16 - a passage quoted by Dr Thanassa in her paper. 

[8] See Baudelaire, 'The Painter of Modern Life', in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 29. 
      What I say here of the philosopher is, of course, what Baudelaire says of the modern dandy - another figure who understands, style, sobriety, and self-restraint.

I would like to express my gratitude once more to Maria for producing a fascinating paper and to Christian Michel for hosting another very enjoyable evening. This post is dedicated to them both and I hope it brings them some pleasure. 

26 Feb 2024

Will Absence Make My Heart Grow Fonder of Byung-Chul Han? (Part 2)

Cover of the original German edition (2007) [a]

According to Byung-Chul Han: "Anti-gravity is the fundamental characteristic of the Western soul, even of Western thinking." [48] 
Hegel, for example, is bored by inertia and hates the heaviness of matter: "Anti-gravity is the fundamental trait of Hegel's 'spirit'." [49]
And even Zarathustra was opposed to the Spirit of Gravity and wished to see young people become light of foot like dancers and for dancers to become birdlike, so that they may experience the incredible sensation of taking flight [b]. Weighed down by the Spirit of Gravity, they are prevented from ever loving themselves and discovering their own goodness, says Nietzsche. 
Of course, this all goes back to Plato who conceived of the human soul as striving towards the divine and infinite: "Its feathered wings allow it to shed its heaviness and float upwards towards the gods [...]" [50]

Far Eastern thinking, by contrast, "is pro-gravitational [...] insofar as it seeks to accomodate itself to the weight of the world" [51], rather than inciting resistance. Keep your feet on the ground seems to be the message.

The sea was angry that day my friends ... But that's okay, because maritime adventure is another popular metaphor in Western philosophy: "Conquering stormy seas is seen as a heroic undertaking." [56] 
Both Hegel and Nietzsche love to compare thinking to setting out on an endless ocean; for the former - perhaps the most hydrophobic of all philosophers - this requires real courage; for water is the most mendacious of all elements "because it permanently changes its form, because it does not have a form of its own at all" [57] [c] and fails, unlike solid ground, to offer stability (an important aspect of essence):
"Western thinking has its source in a desire for solid ground. It is precisely this compulsive desire for permanence and clarity that makes every deviation, every transformation, look like a threat." [58]
Kant also relies on a metaphor of seafaring to illustrate his concept of thinking; he trusts in a good captain to navigate with knowledge and to keep the boat clear of dangers: 
"The Kantian art of helmsmanship conquers the sea by framing it with a system of principles and fully charting it with coordinates." [58]
Reason will triumph over the darkness of the oceanic depths, tame the wild waves, and keep the ship off the rocks. Even Heidegger subscribes to this, although he argues for the importance of exposing thought to the abysmal sea.
This is not a very Chinese way of thinking: for Chinese philosophers the mind is as great as the sea and in fact they form a unity. Thus, the sea is no threat to man: "Someone who is as big as the world will not be hindered or impeded by anything in the world." [62] 
There's no angst in the Chinese model; it's far more carefree and effortless: "You are effortless when you do not set anything against the world, when you fully unite with it." [62] 
Thus, as Han concludes: "Chinese thinking involves an altogether different relationship to the world; it is characterized by a deep trust in the world" [63] - and a love of water, in which is seen the highest goodness:

"Because it lacks all solidity, water does not exercise any coercion. It is yielding and flexible. Thus, it does not encounter any resistance. As it does not assert itself, does not resist anything, does not oppose anything, it does not compete in strife." [64] [d]
Water, we might say, seduces, although this is not a term that Han uses. He concludes this interesting chapter on land and sea (and ways of thinking) with a convenient summary of what has been discussed:
"For the Chinese, the sea is not a symbol of chaos or the abyss, nor is it a mysterious place that lures adventurers. It is neither the sea of Odysseus nor that of Kant and Hegel. It is a place of in-difference, of the unbounded and inexhaustible. In the Far East, the transition from land to sea is not experienced as a transition from a firm ground to an unstable support. It is a transition from the limited to the inexhaustible and comprehensive, from difference to in-difference, from fulless to emptiness, from presencing to absencing, from holding fast to releasement (Gelassenheit). This is true not only of Daoism but also of Zen Buddhism. The moment of satori (illumination) is one of a great transition that leads to an oceanic feeling." [68-69] [e] 
Han continues:
"For the Chinese, water, or the sea, is the symbol for a thinking or a behaviour that, from moment to moment, adapts and snuggles up to the transforming world [...] The world is not abysmal. It is merely manifold in its manifestations. It is not a being but a path that permanently changes course. Far Eastern thought does not circle around identity. Transformations and change are not felt to be a threat. They just represent the natural course of things, to which one needs to adapt." [69]
The Chinese sage does not feel the need to set sail and conquer the world - he's happy just to snuggle up to the latter and be shaped by it ... One is almost tempted to say: Like a woman [f]

Because we are so caught up in grammar - the metaphysics or presence of God within language - it makes it very hard for a Westerner ever to really think or speak or see the world like someone from the Far East. 
Han's native Korean, for example, doesn't presuppose an active subject - in fact the subject is often left out of things altogether, which is problematic for Westerners who find it hard to conceive of a subject-less happening; we have to have an actor behind every action (be it a human actor or a god) [g]
Han writes: "The subject is a slave who is under the delusion that he is master." [81] What would be noble, from a Buddhist perspective, would be to escape this delusion (and subjectivity) entirely.    
Would it be noble also to remain silent? Confucius often wished to remain silent. But Han is at pains to point out that Confucius's silence "does not aim at the unsayable, the mystery that cannot captured by language" [82]. Nor does he want to remain schtum because he thinks language is insufficient "and cannot signify its object adequately" [82]
In fact, the unsayable - that which escapes language - "is not a theme in Far Eastern thinking" [82] - it's a Western thing: "Language is renounced in favour of a remainder that can be expressed only in song" [82], for example. Or silence is affirmed as the only thing that can do justice to this extralinguistic residue (be it metaphysial, asthetic, or ethical in character). 
The silence of Zen masters is an empty silence; it does not refer to anything, but is designed to make others think about the reality of the world, which just is as it is, neither secret nor mysterious; "there are no murky depths" [83] for philosophers or psychoanalysts to uncover or root around in like pigs in search of truffles.   
The final chapter of Han's book is on greeting and bowing, i.e., forms of friendliness - although, interestingly, he suggests that originally to greet someone "must have involved emitting a dark, gutteral, threatening sound" [90], as, etymologically, the word means to attack, provoke, or unsettle.
Somehow, even as a (slightly shy but also somewhat cheeky) three-year old, I already knew this; which is why I was not just being friendly when I stood on my front garden wall and greeted strangers passing by [h].   
Han writes:
"Initially, the other represents a possible threat and danger to my existence. The other has an usettling effect. The gutteral sound of gruozen is probably an immediate reaction to the primordial threat posed by the other, another human being. By emmitting a gutteral, threatening sound I challenge the other to fight." [91]  
Eventually, once there's a degree of mutual recognition, the greeting becomes more of a form of reassurance; it tells the other that they are accepted and that you mean no harm to them. But, crucially, both parties remain separate; a greeting does not instantly or automatically create intimacy; the greeter greets the other across a pathos of distance and from within their own essence. 
Offering a friendly greeting lets the other be in their essential otherness - it's not aiming at some form of merger; it says I'm me and you're you. But the Japanese do not verbally greet with a grunt, they bow ...
According to Han, bowing is all about absencing oneself from the scene; there's no exchange of gaze or mutual sizing up. In a deep bow, parties form a flat plane between them, levelling out difference. Neither party bows to the other, they bow rather into the empty space between them. Technically speaking, no one is greeting or being greeted; and no one is subjugated or subjugating. 
Han writes: "A deep bow does not mediate between persons, does not reconcile anyone with anyone else. Rather, it empties and de-internalizes those involved into absencing individuals." [98]

And that's why bowing is so philosophically important; it's not just a form of politeness, but a way of negating essence and identity [i].

[a] I am using the English translation of this work by Byung-Chul Han, translated by Daniel Steur as Absence, (Polity Press, 2023) - all page numbers given in this post refer to this edition.  
[b] See Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 'On the Spirit of Gravity'. 
      Readers who are interested might also like to see my post entitled 'On Dance as a Method of Becoming-Bird' (10 Oct 2015): click here.
[c] Later, Han will note that whilst water may not have a form of its own, "it is anything but 'amorphous'. It always has a shape, because it takes the form of the other in order to unfold. It is friendly because [...] it snuggles up to any form." [64]

[d] This way of thinking isn't entirely unknown in the West - one thinks, for example, of Henry Miller's insistence on loving everything that flows - but, on the whole, it's undoubtedly true that we in the West prefer things to be dry and solid. Readers who are interested might like to see the post published on 7 June 2013: click here.

[e] Again, this line of thought is not entirely alien to Western thinkers; Zarathustra, for example, tells his followers that in order to be overhuman they must become a sea so as not to be defiled by the polluted rivers of the all too human world, although, admittedly, that's not not quite the same thing as the oceanic feeling of oneness that Far Eastern philosophers champion and Han concludes that Nietzsche - for all his attempted reversal of Western metaphysics - "remained a Western thinker" [70]
      Interestingly, Freud - another great Western thinker - argues that (if it exists) the oceanic feeling is a primitive form of egoism preserved from infancy.     

[f] I'll let readers decide whether that's a  good or bad thing, but would remind those in need of reminding that even Nietzsche toyed with the supposition that truth might be a woman; see the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil. If that's the case, then that pretty much changes everything; no phallogocentic certainty; no solid foundations or fixed forms, etc. (Again, I'll let readers decide whether this would be for better or for worse.) 

[g] Han notes: "For Asian aesthetic sensibility, something that happens without a subject being involved, without the imprint of a doing, is both noble and beautiful. The imprint of a subjective act is a typically Western motif." [84] 
      Nietzsche, of course, attempted to think deeds without an actor, but, says Han, he was unable to "turn from the philosophy of doing and power to the philosophy of happening" [85], which is why he remained very much a Western thinker and "more or less attached to subjectivity" [85].
      As for Heidegger, whilst he "may have repeatedly allowed himself to be touched by Far Eastern thinking" [88], he also remained in many respects a Western thinker attached to the idea of essence. And if he frequently used the trope of the way, his way "differs from the way as dao" [88]. Ultimately, Heidegger's being is a bit more mysterious and withdrawn than the being-so of Eastern thinking, which is what we might call everyday immanence.   

[h] See the post entitled 'Say Hello Then!' (3 Aug 2018): click here.
[i] I'm pretty sure Roland Barthes recognised this in L'Empire des Signes (1970), though I'm not sure Larry David fully appreciated this in episode 7 of season 8 of Curb Your Enthusiasm (2011). See the post entitled 'Shit Bow: Larry David and Roland Barthes on the Art of Japanese Etiquette' (26 Oct 2017): click here
To read part 1 of this post, please click here

25 Feb 2024

Will Absence Make My Heart Grow Fonder of Byung-Chul Han? (Part 1)

(Polity Press, 2023)
Although Daniel Steuer's English translation of Byung-Chul Han's book Absence was only published last year, the original German text appeared back in 2007 [a], and so we can rightly think of it as one of his early works; more philosophical and less political in tone as it explores the Western obsession with essence in contrast to the Eastern (and deeply foreign) notion of absence.    
As Han rightly says: "The concept of 'essence', which unites identity, duration and inwardness, dwelling, lingering and possessing, dominates occidental metaphysics." [1] From ancient Greeks like Plato to German idealists like Kant, essence is the key and be yourself the melody. What is outside and inessential can stay there and remain that way.
Even Heidegger, argues Han, "despite his best efforts at leaving metaphysical thinking behind [...] remained a philosopher of essence" [4]. In wanting to let things be he wants things to remain true to their own essence. Ultimately, Dasein both dwells and endures. It does not wander too far from itself (even if it explores the odd woodpath from time to time). 
But in Daoism, the wise man is without fixed abode and never stops wandering; evading all substantive determination and having no stable identity, he leaves no trail or name behind him. Daoist wandering may not be the same as Zen Buddhist non-dwelling, "but the negativity of absencing connects the two" [5]
Ultimately, the "fundamental topos of Far Eastern thinking is not being but the way [...] The way lacks the solidity of being and essence, which is what leads to the emergence of traces" [5]. Westerners talk about finding the way, but by that they really just mean finding themselves; the Eastern wanderer, however, becomes the way and doesn't hope to find anything (walking with neither intention nor direction). 

The Western philosopher wants his soul to blossom; the Eastern thinker, like the flower, doesn't have a soul (and remains nameless). They also remain rooted in the material world and care for the body; eating when hungry, sleeping when tired. Oh, and they also remain silent, still, and inactive.  
I have to admit, all of this appeals to me very much - and I say that as someone who has been hostile to (and dismissive of) Eastern thought in the past. It seems to me to that absence and emptiness and meaninglessness may very well lead "not to nihilism but to a heavenly joy [...] being without direction or trace" [13]
Kant - and those idiots who think happiness is all about being stuffed-full and satiated; all about having purpose and direction - wouldn't like this, but I do. Like Laozi, I'm happy to lead a life "without sense and goal, without teleology and narration, without transcendence and God" [14] - to be, as the Sex Pistols once sang, pretty vacant [b] and to find in this freedom, not spiritual deprivation [c]
This is interesting: 
"Of course, postmodern thinkers also oppose ideas of substance and identity. [...] The negativity of these thinkers brings them closer to absencing and emptiness, but [...] Far Eastern thinking [...] is alien to them [...] The Far Eastern thinking of emptiness leaves deconstruction behind in order to achieve a special kind of reconstruction." [16]
This special kind of reconstruction is worldly immanence - "the 'this-is-how-it-is' of things" [16]
To be fair, I think Deleuze gets this when he transforms no-where into now/here. And when Derrida insists il n'y a pas de hors-texte - for isn't that similar to the Daoist notion that there is nothing above, beyond, or outside of the immanence of the world ...?

Anyway, the point is this: immanence is a crucial concept - as is "the painful charm of transience" [19] which allows for the development of an art and poetry of blandness, in which things fade out and blow away (again, this reminds me somewhat of Roland Barthes's theory of neutrality). 
If essence is difference and a way of keeping things clear cut, then absencing is a form of indifference; one that un-bounds and makes indistinguishable. It's hard to see the outline of a white flower against a snow-covered backdrop (or a black cat in a coal cellar as others would say). 
The East is messy - things flow into each other: "Nothing imposes itself. Nothing demarcates itself from other things. Everything appears to retreat into an in-difference." [22-23]  The West, by contrast, likes strong boundaries and distinctions and closure.
Han continues:

"In-difference also fosters an intense side-by-side of what is different. It creates an optimal degree of cohesion with a minimal amount of organic, organized connection. Synthetic composition gives way to a syndetic continuum of closeness in which things do not come together as a unity." [23-24]

The cathedral is a space that is perfectly enclosed; even stained-glass windows are designed to keep the natural daylight out, which is why D. H. Lawrence preferred them in a state of ruin, exposed to the elements, etc. [d]
Han, however, seems to prefer a Buddhist temple that is "neither fully closed nor fully open" [26]. The spatiality of the latter "effects neither an inwardness nor a being-exposed" [26]. Doors of white rice paper are preferable to colourful stained-glass windows and standing light without direction is preferabe to a divine radiance from above that is intended to illuminate everything:
"The standing light, which has become fully indeterminate, in-different, does not emphasize the presence of things; it submerges them in absence." [27]    
It's almost as if white standing light brings a special type of darkness. You don't get that with modern glass architecture which marks the triumph of transparency

For Han, then, the Buddhist temple is preferable to the Christian cathedral; the Greek temple; and the shiny American skyscraper of glass and steel. It's not just a question of spatiality and light, but asymmetry; "an aesthetic principle of Zen Buddhism" [29] which "breaks up presence into absencing" [29].
I suppose some might say that it's all a question of how one sees things. And this brings us on to the question of eyes:
"According to Hegel's philosophical physiognomy, the eyes should be surrounded by the elevated bones so that 'the strengthened shadow in the orbits gives us of itself a feeling of depth and undistracted inner life'." [30]
But Eastern eyes, of course, are flat:
"Hegel would explain this in terms of a lack of inwardness, that is, an infantile spirit that has not yet awoken to subjective inwardness and therefore remains embedded in nature." [30]
But what does Hegel know about the beauty of the absencing gaze ...?
D. H. Lawrence thought there was nothing more bourgeois than the unfading flowers of heaven. But the Kantian lover of the beautiful would probably delight in such; their "imperishable splendour would most likely [...] make him happy" [33].
For sure, he'd not like it if they were revealed to be fake flowers - their artificiality depriving them of "their teleological, even theological, significance" [33] - but their everlasting nature would only intensify his love for them. Plato too dreamed of a divine form of beauty that "neither emerges nor vanishes, neither increases nor decreases" [33]
But for someone who views the word from a Far Eastern perspective, the most beautiful thing of all about a flower is its transience; the fact that it loses its petals without any hesitation and is content to disappear. For such a person, the bare stem or twig is as beautiful as a flowering plant or tree in full bloom. 
In other words: 
"In the sensibility of the Far East, neither the permanence [Ständigkeit] of being nor the stability [Beständigkeit] of essences is part of the beautiful. Things that persist, subsist or insist are neither beautiful nor noble. Beautiful is not what stands out or exceeds but what exercises self-restraint or retreats, not what is solid but what hovers. Beautiful are things that carry the traces of nothingness [...] not full presence but a 'there' that is coated with an absence [...]" [33-34]   
The Japanese call this wabi-sabi - the art of impermanence that "combines the unfinished, the imperfect, the transient, the fragile and the unassuming" [34]. Even your favourite Clarice Cliff milk jug is made more beautiful by a tiny crack or chip; and every silver bowl is improved when it loses its sheen and begins to darken [e].    
Han writes: 
"Satori (illumination) actually has nothing to do with shining or light. This is another point on which Eastern spirituality differs from occidental mysticism, with its metaphysics of light. Light multiplies presence. Buddhism, however, is a religion of absence." [35]
In the West, people almost want to be blinded by the light; a light either from some transcendent source or an inner light that emphasises the presence of things. Han - like Tanizaki - seems to admire the magic light of absence; a light that does not disturb or dispel the darkness; a friendly light. 
Finally, a few brief notes on (i) food, (ii) flower arranging, (iii) rock gardens, and (iv) theatre ...
(i) It's funny, but one of the complaints of English people is that Chinese food leaves them feeling empty inside five minutes after eating. Han provides a possible explanation: "Emptiness and absence also characterize the cuisine of the Far East." [39] Rice is the perfect example of this; lacking colour, lacking taste, offering no resistance (providing nothing to chew).
"Far Eastern cuisine appears empty also because it does not have a centre [...] The meals lack the centre or weight of a main dish and the closedness of a menu." [40]  
Further, in the West we like to cut food up with a knife and fork; in the East they assemble food with chopsticks.
(ii) The Japanese art of flower arranging is known as Ikebana - which means bringing flowers to life: 
"It is, however, an unusual kind of invigoration, because the flower is cut off from its root [...] The flower is invigorated by dealing it a mortal blow. [...] This raises it above the process of slow withering, its natural death. The flower is thereby removed from the difference between 'life' and 'death'. It shines with a special vitality, a flowering in-difference  [...] that has its source in the spirit of emptiness." [40-41]
The flower radiates with an unnatural (and transient) vitality; the shining of absence. 
(iii) If you have ever walked round a Japanese rock garden, you might have come away feeling a bit disappointed that there wasn't much to see. But that's the point; they are designed as gardens of absence and emptiness. 
However, despite their absence and emptiness, "they radiate", says Han, "an intense vitality" [41] and visitors must learn to appreciate the flow of the lines raked into the gravel and the darkness of the rocks. 
The Japanese rock garden is another method of paradoxical invigoration: "It invigorates nature by completely drying out its soul" [42] and placing it in a state of satori
(iv) Traditional Japanese puppet theatre (Bunraku) is also radically different to the world of Punch and Judy, showing that the latter is not the only way to do it. The Western puppet theatre animates characters via funny voices; in Bunraku it's all about the gesture and the puppets remain soulless figures.    
Similarly, Noh theatre is a theatre of absence: the costumes and masks worn by the living, human actors are designed to make them look like puppet figures. Even when an actor appears on stage without a mask, "the uncovered face is expressionless and empty" [44]
And the narrative composition of Noh theatre also adds to the sense of absence; its hard to tell what is real and what is dream - what is past and what is present - things appear only to then disappear once more (probably best not to worry too much about the plot in such cicumstances) [f].
[a] The German edition was published as Abwesen: Zur Kultur und Philosophie des fernen Ostens (Merv Verlag, 2007). In this post, page numbers refer to the English edition (Polity Press, 2023).  

[b] 'Pretty Vacant' was the third single released by the Sex Pistols (Virgin Records, 1977): click here to watch the official video for the song (which was shown on Top of the Pops) and/or here to read my post written on the track and published on TTA on 30 July 2108.   

[c] Is this also Han's view? It's hard to know. For whilst here he writes that the world "has no narrative structure" and is therefore "resistant to the crisis of meaning" [14], sixteen years later he will publish a book entitled Die Krise der Narration (2023) in which he seems to argue strongly in favour of narratives that anchor us in being and subscribe to a form of Catholicism informed by Martin Heidegger. Anyway, readers who are interested can click here to access the first part of a three-part post on this recent text. 

[d] See the post 'Believe in the Ruins: Reflections of a Gargolyle ...' (16 April 2019) in which I discuss Lawrence's thoughts on religious architecture: click here.

[e] Han at this point refers us to Tanizaki's famous essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows (1933). I have mentioned this work in several posts on Torpedo the Ark (click here, for example) and it partly formed the basis for a paper delivered at Treadwell's Bookshop in September 2023 on occultism in the age of transparency (an extract from which can be read by clicking here). 
[f] For the record: I find all theatre irritating and tedious; I do like the tranquility of a Japanese rock garden, but enjoy also the colourful chaos of an English wildflower meadow; and, if obliged to choose, I'd prefer to have steak and chips for dinner than a bowl of egg-fried rice. 

Part two of this post can be read by clicking here.

24 Feb 2024

On the Strange Case of the Golden-Backed Frog With a Bonnet Mushroom Growing From Its Flank

Grenouille aux champignon
As if the rise of irradiated black frogs in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone wasn't enough to think about, we now discover that in the lush foothills of India's Western Ghats a live golden-backed frog has been found with a tiny bonnet mushroom sprouting from above its hind leg - which is not something you see every day ...

In fact, it's never been seen before - in India or anywhere else - and so scientists are naturally a bit puzzled by this, whilst those with a special interest in amphibians are particularly concerned, as this may not be a good development (for the frogs). 
Whilst it's true that even people can develop fungal infections - athlete's foot, for example - mushrooms usually grow on decaying plant matter and rotten wood, not live animal tissue; skin is a nutrient poor surface and not ideal for living upon as a rule. So perhaps this is just a very rare (rather freaky) occurrence. 
As the frog seen in the photo above wasn't captured, researchers are uncertain what's going on; whether there's something uniquely different about its skin, or whether the mushroom is harmful or benign, for example. But, as I've said, herpetologists are worried by this development, as frogs and hundreds of other amphibian species across the world are already under threat from another parasitic fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis).
Infections by what is commonly called the chytrid fungus - which ruin the salt/water balance of the skin and eventually cause heart failure - have resulted in a steady decline of amphibian populations globally, and this, in my view, is a terribly sad fact. For, like my mother, I love little gem-like frogs and think everyone should have to build and maintain a pond in their back garden by law.  

23 Feb 2024

An American Battle-axe: Notes on the Life and Times of Caroline Nation

Caroline Amelia Nation (1846-1911) aka Hatchet Granny  
Photo c. 1900 

One rarely hears people today using the amusing twentieth-century term battle-axe to describe a tough old bird who can at times be belligerent, overbearing, and bullying. 
I suppose it's now regarded (perhaps rightly) as sexist and derogatory in nature, although originally it was a gender-neutral descriptor and usually said with a certain amount of affection; who doesn't love Hattie Jacques's Matron in the Carry On movies, or Violet Carson as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street?    
Arguably the greatest (non-fictional) example of a battle-axe, however, was Caroline Nation [1]; a militant member of the temperance movement, who played up to her own popular image by actually wielding a hatchet and making it her trademark symbol. 
Caroline Nation (née Moore) was born in Kentucky, in 1846. 
Although he suffered financial difficulties from time to time, her father, of Irish descent, was a successful farmer and slaveholder. Her mother - like other members of the family - suffered mental health issues; believing, for example, that she was Queen Victoria [2].  

In 1865, Caroline met and fell in love with an alcoholic young doctor and, despite parental objections, she married him in November 1867. They separated, however, shortly before the birth of a daughter the following year and he died of alcoholism in 1869. 
Perhaps not surprisingly, Caroline thereafter developed a vehement hatred for liquor and, after qualifying as a teacher, gaining a history degree, and marrying a much older second husband in 1874 [3], she convinced herself she had a divine mission to sober up America.
And so this formidable woman became involved with the more radical wing of the temperance movement which demanded prohibition long before it was passed in 1920. Caroline soon gained a fiercesome reputation for attacking establishments which served booze, justifying her actions by saying she was carrying out God's work:
I am a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus and barking at what the Good Lord hates [4].     


Initially, Nation would simply protest outside saloons, singing hymns accompanied by a hand organ and telling bartenders they were responsible for the destruction of men's souls. This had little effect, however, and she was mostly laughed at. 
And so Nation prayed for guidance and, finally, in the summer of 1900, the Lord spoke unto her; instructing her to enter the saloons and smash them up with rocks and promising that He would stand by her. 
As her arrest sheet lengthened [5] and her notoriety increased in Kansas and other mid-western states, such as Missouri and Oklahoma, she became increasingly violent and, at her husband's suggestion, she put down the rocks and picked up a small hand axe (or hatchet) in order to inflict maximum damage.  
It was this that really made her name and before long she was publishing her own newspaper, The Hatchet, which promised its readers that all drinkers would get what they deserved
In a very American manner, Nation also exploited her fame by appearing in vaudeville in the United States and music halls in Great Britain [6] whilst promoting her autobiography [7] and selling all manner of merchandising, including photos like the one above, in which she holds a hatchet in one hand and a Bible in the other. 
Nation died, aged 64, in 1911, having told her family, friends, comrades, and supporters: I have done what I could
Those who might wish to pay their respects will find her grave in Belton, Missouri. And any readers who happen to find themselves in Wichita may also like to visit the life-size bronze statue of the old battle-axe erected in front of the Eaton Hotel [8].   
'I am the destroyer of the works of the Devil 
by the direct command of God.'

[1] Her name was originally shortened to Carrie, but she changed it to Carry A. Nation believing she was ordained to carry a nation to sobriety (and salvation).
[2] Sadly, Caroline's mother Mary died in an insane asylum in 1893, having been placed there by her son (Caroline's brother Charles) three years earlier.  
[3] The couple divorced in 1901. 
[4] It might be noted that Nation also regarded herself as a suffragette or women's rights activist, and campaigned against tight clothing, including corsets, on the grounds that such garments not only restricted movements, but had a damaging effect on internal organs.
[5] Between 1900 and 1910, Nation was arrested more than thirty times for her militant activities. She paid her fines from lecture-tour fees and sales of stick pins in the shape of hatchets and which had the words Death to Rum engraved on the handle. 
[6] Sadly, she wasn't really cut out for showbiz, more given to sermonising than entertaining as she was. Whilst appearing in London in 1909, she was hit with an egg thrown by an audience member and not only did she immediately leave the stage, she ripped up her contract with the theatre and returned to the States. Like many self-righteous and self-serious types, she couldn't stand being embarrassed or made to look foolish (i.e., having egg on face).
[7] The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation (F. M. Steves & Sons, 1908): click here.  

[8] The six-foot bronze statue was sculpted by local artist Babs Mellor and erected in 2018. 

22 Feb 2024

Reflections on the Black Tree Frogs of Chernobyl

A tree frog shown before and after the 
Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986
I have always liked D. H. Lawrence's description of little green frogs as gem-like [1].
But it seems that the frogs living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) are no longer emerald green in colour. For in order to increase their survival rates in an irradiated environment, the frogs have undergone rapid evolution and now model jet black skins rich in protective melanin [2].
In 2016, whilst researching the effects over the previous three decades of Chernobyl's uniquely polluted environment on the flora and fauna, two Spanish scientists [3] made a strange discovery ... 
They expected to find that plant and animal species subjected to daily doses of radiation way above normal levels would have experienced negative consequences, but what they did not anticipate was that nature would respond in such an amazing way and recover so quickly - and they certainly weren't on the lookout for black frogs!
So, what on earth is going on here? 
Well, cancer resistant wolves [4] and ebony-skinned tree frogs would seem to suggest that the Chernobyl disaster, which generated the largest release of radioactive material into the environment in human history, has accelerated natural evolution in a manner that Darwin - who always liked to stress the slow and gradual nature of evolutionary change by natural selection [5] - would have found hard to believe.   
And this - along with the absence of human beings - helps to explain why Chernobyl has become one of the largest nature reserves in Europe, where a diverse range of endangered species find refuge and live happily (or at least successfully) side-by-side. 

For whilst acute exposure to high doses of radiation can cerainly be damaging, both to the natural environment and the genetic material of living organisms, it can also kick-start and accelerate evolution in a surprisingly positive way, as species adapt to the new conditions. 
[1] See D. H. Lawrence, 'The State of Funk', in Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 221. 
[2] The pigment melanin which, as many people know, reduces the effects of ultraviolet radiation, can also, so it seems, afford protection against ionising radiation. And that's why it's better to be a black frog than a green frog if you're going to spend your life hopping about in the CEZ.   
[3] Germán Orizaola and Pablo Burraco; they discuss their study of over 200 male tree frogs taken from twelve different breeding ponds from various sites in northern Ukraine - including four outside the CEZ - in an article originally published on theconversation.com (28 Sept 2022): click here.  
      As Orizaola y Burraco make clear, the dark skin colouration is typical of frogs from within or near the most contaminated areas at the time of the Chernobyl disaster and it suggests that they have undergone a process of rapid evolution in response to the radiation. The black frogs, having better survival rates, are now the dominant type within the CEZ, which, in my view, is a bit of a shame, as I prefer the little frogs with bright green skins. 
[4] See the recent post entitled 'Cara Love and the Mutant Wolves of Chernobyl' (14 Feb 2024): click here.
[5] In what is considered to be the founding text of evolutionary biology - On the Origin of Species (1859) - Darwin emphasises how natural selection progresses at a glacial pace and we usually observe nothing of the changes being made until long periods of time have passed. 
      Although this is true, adaptation to new conditions can occur within a relatively short period of time and examination of the fossil record shows that many species undergo rapid bursts of evolution, even if true speciation takes time. Recent work in developmental biology has identified certain mechanisms of tissue morphogenesis that may help explain any swift structural transitions. 
      I am grateful to Dr Andy Greenfield - my go to science guy and longtime friend - for his guidance on this point.
For a frog-related follow-up post to this one, click here.

20 Feb 2024

Reflections on Two Speeches by Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) 
photographed in 1913

'I am by nature a law-abiding person - one hating violence, hating disorder - but from the moment 
we began our militant agitation to this day, I have felt absolutely guiltless. 
For in Great Britain there is no other way ...'
For some reason, the figure of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst continues to haunt my imagination [1]
And so I thought I would take a look at a couple of her speeches, both from 1913, and perhaps find a clue as to why I find her so unsympathetic (although, actually, I know precisely what it is that irritates: her self-righteous moral and political idealism; i.e., her fascism with a human face, as BHL might say). 
Freedom or Death [2]
In a famous speech given in the United States in 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst identifies herself as a revolutionary and a soldier on the field of battle, waging civil war on behalf of women.
She wishes to make it clear to her American audience that she is not merely a spokesperson or an advocate - that the time for talking has been surpassed by a time for action: Deeds Not Words is the suffragette motto and if her deeds make her a dangerous person in the eyes of the authorities, well, she seems to revel in that.
Forced to choose between two evils - either having to "submit indefinitely to an unjust state of affairs" or rise up and adopt violent methods - Pankhurst chose the latter on the grounds that political (and maternal) history shows which option is most effective: 

"You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks [...] until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first."
Pankhurst could have refused this binary and opted for neither/nor, but instead she decided that she would make more noise and be more obtrusive - be more of a big baby - than anybody else, throwing her explosive toys out of the pram.
Initially, she says, the term militant was was wrongly applied to her and her cohorts. But after brutal ill-treatment at the hands of men simply for asking questions in public, they were now quite willing to accept the description and begin to terrorise the nation. 
And if shit happens, and the non-combatants suffer as well as the combatants, well, that's okay with her; "you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot have civil war without damage to something." 
Similarly, if suffragettes are killed for the cause (or die whilst on hunger strike in prison), well, that's unfortunate, but might also be viewed as one way of escaping male power; for the dead cannot be enslaved or denied their rights. And whilst human life is sacred, says Pankhurst, the sacrifice of life in the name of Freedom, Justice, and Equality is the greatest thing of all and she would fight for any of these noble ideals. 
And so we see how moral idealism turns deadly and collapses into the black hole of fascism ... 
Why We Are Militant [3]
The Freedom or Death speech, as it is known, was not the only speech that Pankhurst made whilst on her fund-raising tour of the US in 1913. Why We Are Militant was another speech that is often cited and reproduced by her admirers today.
It opens by taking on her critics who argue that human emancipation is an inevitable evolutionary process and that women will therefore be given the vote sooner or later, thus making the violent campaign of the suffragettes unnecessary and unjustifiable. Such critics argue that educating women and preparing them for citizenship would be time better spent than smashing shop windows, burning down churches, and sending letters bombs in the post. 
Pankhurst, however, rejects this argument and sees little virtue in patience. Indeed, she sees patience as "something akin to crime when our patience involves continued suffering on the part of the oppressed" and argues that political change has only come at the point of a sword, i.e., via rioting, revolution, and war - not peaceful evolution. She reminds her listeners that the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 which extended the vote first to middle class men and then the urban male working class, were passed in response to violence and the threat of still greater violence to follow.   
Pankhurst thereby defends the arson attacks carried out by her suffragette comrades and suggests that if half of England needs to be burned down in a single night so that she might be able to put her X on a ballot paper, then so be it. Peaceful marches and meetings were having no effect - even if on a large scale - and appeals made fell on deaf ears - violence was unfortunate, but necessary.   
And the right to behave in a violent manner was part and parcel of female emancipation and equality; women should be free like men to behave in a non-constitutional and criminal manner - to break heads and destroy property - when the time called for direct action. They had the human right to do so when all other available means to bring about social and political change had failed. 

So, I think it becomes clear from these speeches why I don't like Emmeline Pankhurst. 
During the years she, her daughters, and the rest of her gang were particularly active on the UK political scene - from the founding of the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903 until the advent of the First World War in 1914 - there was, as Foucault would say, a certain style of political discourse and a certain ethics of the intellectual [4] - a style and an ethics that justified violence in the name of certain high ideals (such as freedom and equality). 
This radical moral philosophy appealed to a wide variety of political ascetics, angry militants, and potential terrorists - those who may claim to act in the name of Love, but are actually motivated by hate and resentment and seem to be particularly gripped by the molecular fascism that is in us all (in our speech and our everyday actions; in our thoughts and our desires). 
Paraphrasing Foucault once more, I would remind those who continue to admire Pankhurst and still think that revolutionary violence is justified by some greater good, that even if what you are fighting for is noble - and even if those you oppose are base and deplorable - you do not have to terrorise in order to be militant. 
And, further, don't think that politics is only and always about (defending or granting) individual rights as defined in liberal humanist philosophy.  

It's worth noting, finally, that it was Emmeline's eldest daughter Christabel who was the real black shirt of the family. It was only after she took over leadership of the WSPU that the real violence began and the group resorted to terrorism as a legitimate political tactic - much to the horror of more moderate members who either spoke out against the bombings and arson attacks. 
In 1913, when Emmeline gave her speeches in America, several prominent individuals left the WSPU, including Pankhurst's younger daughters, Adela and Sylvia. 

Somewhat ironically, it was only with the outbreak of war the following year that Emmeline and Christabel called an immediate halt to their militant campaign and lent their full support to the British government in the conflict with Germany. Not only that, but they encouraged all women to assist in the war effort and all men to fight for king and country - happily handing out white feathers to those who had no wish to do so.   
After the War ended, Emmeline became more concerned with what she perceived as the threat posed by Bolshevism and joined the Conservative Party; her daughter Christabel, along with other more radical one-time suffragettes, chose to support the British Union of Fascists [5].   
[1] I have recently published two posts on Pankhurst and the insufferable suffragettes and their far-right political affiliations: click here and here
[2] This speech was delivered in Hartford, Connecticut on 13 November, 1913. It can easily be found in full online. An edited version was also reproduced in The Guardian (27 April 2007) as part of a series of great speeches of the 20th century: click here.     
[3] This speech is also from the US tour of 1913 and can also be found easily enough online: click here, for example. 

[4] See Michel Foucault's preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, trans Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, (The Athlone Press, 1994), pp. xi-xiv. 

[5] Again, see the post 'On Suffragettes and the British Union of Fascists' (17 Feb 2024): click here

17 Feb 2024

On Suffragettes and the British Union of Fascists

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo [1]
Having received a number of emails from readers responding to my last post on Sadiq Khan and the Suffragettes - most of which expressed shock and disappointment to discover that the latter were more than happy to use violent means to achieve their political ends - I thought it might be interesting to say a bit more about these insufferable women to whom history has granted heroic victim status [2]
Deeds Not Words - this is the slogan of many an ascetic militant or armed revolutionary. And it usually means that someone somewhere is about to be shot, blown up, stabbed, or beheaded in the name of some higher cause or greater good. In other words, such murderous actions are justifiable when they are committed in the name of freedom, justice, or God, for example. 
In addition to smashing shop windows and setting fire to all kind of buildings, including theatres and churches, not just government offices, the suffragettes were also prepared to kill politicians, judges, and members of the public. In 1912, one of these deranged harpies even threw an axe at then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (it missed him, but injured another MP, almost slicing off his ear) [3]
If only a handful of people were actually killed as a result of the suffragette terror campaign, there were dozens severely injured. But that's not really the issue: the issue is whether such violence can ever be acceptable [4]. I don't mind if someone answers yes to this question, but then I don't expect them to complain about the violence that invariably befalls them or start squawking about their human rights
If you live by the sword ...
The fact is, Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, and the rest of her criminal gang, essentially revelled in the violence and the chaos caused - dismissing those women who called for patience and peaceful protest. It's little wonder, therefore - and this too will come as a shock to some readers - that many of the most militant suffragettes eventually drifted into the sweaty embrace of the black-shirted strongmen of the British Union of Fascists ...  

As the British historian Martin Pugh points out [5], Oswald Mosley's paramilitary movement drew all kinds of cranks and crackpots, including Mary Richardson, the former suffragette notorious for slashing The Rokeby Venus in 1914, who ran the Women's Section of the BUF (est. 1933), after Mosley's mother gave up the role.
When asked what attracted her to Mosley and the BUF, Miss Richardson explained that she saw in the Blackshirts the same courage, dedication, and loyalty that she had known in the Women's Social and Political Union. The fact that the BUF were ultranationalists who wanted to make Britain great again and keep Britain for the British, also appealed to her extreme brand of patriotism.         

In the interwar period, votes for women was no longer the burning issue it once was for women like Richardson and Christabel Pankhurst [6]. In fact, they now repudiated the entire parliamentary system and advocated total obedience to a supreme leader. They also regarded feminism as a form of decadence and openly sneered at women such as Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament.

For these women in their black blouses, black berets, and grey skirts it was fascism which uniquely offered a true form of feminism and promised an escape from the twin evils of domesticity and democracy and they enthusiastically gave the BUF their full support.
[1] This image was used to illustrate an article by Martin Pugh entitled 'Why Former Suffragettes Flocked to Fascism' (14 April 2017), in the online magazine Slate: click here. The article was excerpted from Pugh's book Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars, (Pimlico, 2006).
[2] There are even memorial statues of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (1903), in London and Manchester. 

[3] Readers might also find it interesting to know that future PM Winston Churchill was also assaulted by a suffragette using a horse-whip, whilst on a platform of Bristol railway station, in November 1909. The woman was arrested for assault, but was simply found guilty of disturbing the peace. 
[4] For me, the acts of terror and political violence perpetrated by the suffragettes are objectionable on several grounds, including the fact that they betray class privilege and indifference to the suffering of those deemed social inferiors. These ghastly women simply didn't care if a policeman, or a postal worker, or a train driver, was injured or killed, because they didn't know any such people personally and were most unlikely to have family members employed in such roles.
      A bit like the Just Stop Oil protestors today, they also knew they were unlikely to be subject to the full force of the law as they came from posh backgrounds and had friends and supporters in postions of power and influence.  
[5] See note 1 above. I am indebted to Pugh for his published work in this area. 
[6] During 1916-17, the House of Commons Speaker chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended limited women's suffrage. Then, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 (who met a property qualification) to vote. Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, it was only about two-thirds of the total population of women in the UK. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that all women over 21 were finally able to vote. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote in UK elections to 15 million. 
For a follow-up post on two speeches by Emmeline Pankhurst, click here.