Archive for the Enlightenment Category

The Philosophy of Decomposition: Poe and the Perversity of the Gothic Mind

Posted in Ancient Greek, anxiety, Aristotle, barriers to critical thinking, Christianity, Consciousness, ecology, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, fiction, French Revolution, Freud, God, Goth, Gothic, Horror, horror fiction, irrational, Jesus, Literature, Morality, Philosophy, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, Romanticism, Science, Speculative fiction, terror, tragedy, Uroboros, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2013 by Uroboros

Whether you think Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are expertly-crafted explorations of the dark side of human nature or morbid, overwrought  melodramas, there is no doubt his work has had a tremendous impact on Western culture. Probably his most important contribution, apart from establishing the contemporary short story format and inventing the detective genre, is revitalizing the Gothic genre and pushing horror fiction in a more philosophically interesting direction. His stories are so enduring and influential because of the conceptual depth he added to generic tropes, redefining literature in the process. He accomplished this feat by perverting the Gothic.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), Master of Gothic literature

By the time Poe arrived on the scene, Gothic fiction had already fossilized and become fodder for self-parody. What started with the fantastic absurdities of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating in the speculative complexity of Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had eventually led to Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austin’s metafictional send up of what had become pretty stale conventions by then: crumbling castles, tormented heroines, supernatural entities, and family curses. Although the external trappings of Gothic plots may have fallen into ruin, its themes remained relevant. According to Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the genre in her own right, Gothic fiction explores the fragmentation of the alienated mind by inscrutable historical and biological forces that can overwhelm one’s ability to rationally understand the world and make intelligent choices, a critical antidote to naïve utopian visions of the future inspired by the Enlightenment and of particular interest to American culture, the intellectual basis of which is rooted in the rational pursuit of happiness. ‘Gothic’ suggests the fear of something primal and regressive that threatens to undermine mental and social stability. In order to be a culturally relevant again, though, Gothic literature needed a writer who could reanimate its tropes. It needed a morbid, hypersensitive, and arrogant genius named Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s key twist is turning the tropes inward and starting with the macabre landscape within—“the terror of the soul,” he calls it. By the 1830s, Poe is focused on composing short fiction, crafting tightly-constructed tales, rendered in dense, pompous prose, spewing from the cracked psyches of unreliable narrators. This is the dark heart of many of his best stories: “Ligeia” (1838), “William Wilson” (1839),  “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), just to name a few (of course, his most accomplished story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), flips this dynamic: an unnamed and relatively reasonable narrator details the psychic disintegration of Roderick Usher). Poe’s disturbed, epistemologically-challenged protagonists aren’t the true innovation. Marlowe and Shakespeare pioneered that literary territory centuries before. The element that Poe adds—the novelty that both revitalizes and Americanizes the Gothic—is, what Poe himself calls, “the spirit of the perverseness.”

-d328znhThe narrator in “The Black Cat” puts forth this concept to explain his violent deeds. He says perversity is “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties…which give direction to the character of Man.” What is its function? It is the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself,” the narrator says, “a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment” to commit a “vile or a silly action” precisely because we believe it to be ‘vile’ or ‘silly.’ In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the narrator claims that perversity is “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment,” so deep and pervasive, that it is ultimately immune to the prescriptions of the analytical mind. In other words, Poe identified the disruptive and neurotic effects of ‘the Unconscious’ half a century before Freud burst onto the scene.

While these narrators claim that philosophers have ignored man’s irrational inclinations, we shouldn’t assume Poe, himself a well-read scholar, wasn’t influenced by obvious precursors to ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ namely Aristotle and St. Augustine. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posits his theory of akrasia, the vice of incontinence, i.e. the inability to control oneself and do the virtuous thing even when one knows it is the right choice. This is his corrective to the Socratic-Platonic dictum that to know the good is to do the good: no one willingly does evil. To Aristotle, this is a distorted view of the human condition. We can know theoretically what the virtuous choice is—wisdom Aristotle calls sophiabut that doesn’t automatically compel us to have phronesisor practical wisdom, which is the ability to do the good. In other words, there is a gap between knowledge and action, a notion that surfaces again in Aristotle’s Poetics. In his analysis of drama, Aristotle identifies hamartia as a key characteristic of the tragic hero, referring to the flaws in judgment that lead to a character’s ultimate downfall. An archery metaphor that means “to miss the mark,” hamartia becomes the main word New Testament writers use to translate the Jewish concept of sin into Greek (they weren’t the first to do this: writers of the Septuagint, the 2C BCE Greek translation of Hebrew scripture, had already made this move). By the fifth century CE, St. Augustine, the most influential Christian theologian of late-antiquity, formulates his doctrine of original sin, describing humanity’s lack of self-control as innate, embodied depravity. For Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their progeny to bondage, chaining the human spirit to this corrupt, uncontrollable, and ultimately decaying flesh. Only Christ’s sacrifice and God’s loving grace, Augustine assures us, can liberate the spirit from this prison.

This is part of the philosophical lineage behind perverseness, despite his narrators’ claims to the contrary. There is, however, some truth to the critique if seen from a mid-19C perspective. From Descartes right through to Locke, ‘Reason‘ is heralded as humanity’s salvation (of course, Hume and Rousseau poke skeptical holes in 18C Europeans’ over-inflated, self-aggrandizing mythology. Kant manages to salvage some of the optimism, but has to sacrifice key epistemic conceits in the process). But enlightened humanistic confidence looks like hubris to Romantic writers and artists, especially in the wake of the French Revolution and the international traumas it spawned. This is the mindset Poe resonates with: one that is highly skeptical of the ‘Man-is-the-rational-animal’ mythos. Anyone familiar with his biography can see why he gravitates toward a dark worldview. As a critic, he loves savaging fellow writers whose dispositions strike him as too sunny, and as a storyteller, his characters often confront—sometimes ironically, sometimes tragically—the limits of reason, a capacity Poe calls (I think with a tongue-in-cheek ambivalence) ‘ratiocination.’

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

Dark reflections of a perverse mind

The ‘spirit of perverseness’ implies that neither divine ‘Grace’ nor humanistic ‘Reason’ can save us from a life of terror and suffering, especially when we ignore and repress our essential sinfulness. Whether you view history through a biblical or Darwinian lens, one thing is clear: humans aren’t naturally inclined to seek rational knowledge anymore than we are given to loving and respecting each other universally. Modern cognitive science and psychology have shown us that the mind evolved to assist in feeding, procreation, and, of course, to protect the body from danger—not to seek objective truths. It evolved to help us band together in small tribal circles, fearing and even hating those who exist outside that circle. Over time we’ve been able to grasp how much better life would be if only we could rationally control ourselves and universally respect each other—and yet “in the teeth of our best judgment” we still can’t stop ourselves from committing vile and silly actions. Self-sabotage, Poe seems to argue, is our default setting.

Poe shifts Gothic terror from foggy graveyards and dark abbeys to broken brains and twisted minds. The true threats aren’t really lurking ‘out there.’ They’re stirring and bubbling from within, perturbing and overwhelming the soul, often with horrifying results. A Gothic mind lives in a Gothicized world—personifying its surroundings in terms of its own anxious and alienated disposition. ‘Evil’ only appears to be ‘out there.’ As literary and ecological theorist Timothy Morton points out, evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of beholder who frets over the corruption of the world without considering the perverseness generated by his own perceptual apparatus. It’s an Uroboric feedback loop that, left to its own devices, will spin out of control and crumble to pieces. The most disturbing implication of Poe-etic perversity is the sense of helplessness it evokes. Even when his characters are perceptive enough to diagnose their own disorders, they are incapable of stopping the Gothic effect. This is how I interpret the narrator’s ruminations in “The Fall of the House of Usher:”

 What was it…that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression…There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy…so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued…

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

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Sublimity and the Brightside of Being Terrorized

Posted in Consciousness, conspiracy, critical thinking, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, Existentialism, fiction, freedom, Freud, God, Gothic, Horror, humanities, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Morality, nihilism, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, reason, Religion, religious, Romanticism, superheroes, terror, Terror Management Theory, The Walking Dead, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by Uroboros
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sleep_of_Reason_Produces_Monsters

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

We live in a terrorized age. At the dawn of the 21st century, the world is not only coping with the constant threat of violent extremism, we face global warming, potential pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, Middle Eastern conflicts, the debilitating consequences of partisan politics, and so on. The list grows each time you click on the news. Fear seems to be infecting the collective consciousness like a virus, resulting in a culture of anxiety and a rising tide of helplessness, despair, and anger. In the U.S.,  symptoms of this chronic unease can be seen in the proliferation of apocalyptic paranoia and conspiracy theories coupled with the record sales of both weapons and tickets for Hollywood’s superhero blockbusters, fables that reflect post-9/11 fears and the desire for a hero to sweep in and save us.

That’s why I want to take the time to analyze some complex but important concepts like the sublime, the Gothic, and the uncanny, ideas which, I believe, can help people get a rational grip on the forces that terrorize the soul. Let’s begin with the sublime.

18c philosopher Immanuel Kant

18C Philosopher Immanuel Kant

The word is Latin in origin and means rising up to meet a threshold. To Enlightenment thinkers, it referred to those experiences that challenged or transcended the limits of thought, to overwhelming forces that left humans feeling vulnerable and in need of paternal protection. Edmund Burke, one of the great theorists of the sublime, distinguished this feeling from the experience of beauty. The beautiful is tame, pleasant. It comes from the recognition of order, the harmony of symmetrical form, as in the appreciation of a flower or a healthy human body. You can behold them without being unnerved, without feeling subtly terrorized. Beautiful things speak of a universe with intrinsic meaning, tucking the mind into a world that is hospitable to human endeavors. Contrast this with the awe and astonishment one feels when contemplating the dimensions of a starry sky or a rugged, mist-wreathed mountain. From a distance, of course, they can appear ‘beautiful,’ but, as Immanuel Kant points out in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, it is a different kind of pleasure because it contains a “certain dread, or melancholy, in some cases merely the quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan.”

This description captures the ambivalence in sublime experiences, moments where we are at once paradoxically terrified and fascinated by the same thing. It is important here to distinguish ‘terror’ from ‘horror.’ Terror is the experience of danger at a safe distance, the potential of a threat, as opposed to horror, which refers to imminent dangers that actually threaten our existence. If I’m standing on the shore, staring out across a vast, breathtaking sea, entranced by the hissing surf, terror is the goose-pimply, weirded-out feeling I get while contemplating the dimensions and unfathomable power before me. Horror would be what I feel if a tsunami reared up and came crashing in. There’s nothing sublime in horror. It’s too intense to allow for the odd mix of pleasure and fear, no gap in the feeling for some kind of deeper revelation to emerge.

Friedrich's Monk by the Sea

Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea

While Burke located the power of the sublime in the external world, in the recognition of an authority ‘out there,’ Kant has a more sophisticated take. Without digging too deeply into the jargon-laden minutia of his critique, suffice it to say that Kant ‘subjectivizes’ the concept, locating the sublime in the mind itself. I interpret Kant as pointing to a recursive, self-referential quality in the heart of the sublime, an openness that stimulates our imagination in profound ways. When contemplating stormy seas and dark skies, we experience our both nervous system’s anxious reaction to the environment along with a weird sense of wonder and awe. Beneath this thrill, however, is a humbling sense of futility and isolation in the face of the Infinite, in the awesome cycles that evaporate seas, crush mountains, and dissolve stars without a care in the cosmos as to any ‘meaning’ they may have to us. Rising up to the threshold of consciousness is the haunting suspicion that the universe is a harsh place devoid of a predetermined purpose that validates its existence. These contradictory feelings give rise to a self-awareness of the ambivalence itself, allowing ‘meta-cognitive’ processes to emerge. This is the mind’s means of understanding the fissure and trying to close the gap in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, by experiencing forms and magnitudes that stagger and disturb the imagination, the mind can actually grasp its own liberation from the deterministic workings of nature, from the blind mechanisms of a clockwork universe. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant says “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.” One is now thinking about their own thinking, after all, reflecting upon the complexity of the subject-object feedback loop, which, I assert, is the very dynamic that makes self-consciousness and freedom possible in the first place. We can’t feel terrorized by life’s machinations if we aren’t somehow psychologically distant from them, and this gap entails our ability to think intelligently and make decisions about how best to react to our feelings.

Van Gogh's Starry Night

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I think this is in line with Kant’s claim that the sublime is symbolic of our moral freedom—an aesthetic validation of our ethical intentions and existential purposes over and above our biological inclinations and physical limitations. We are autonomous creatures who can trust our capacity to understand the cosmos and govern ourselves precisely because we are also capable of being terrorized by a universe that appears indifferent to our hopes and dreams. Seen in this light, the sublime is like a secularized burning bush, an enlightened version of God coming out of the whirlwind and parting seas. It is a more mature way of getting in touch with and listening to the divine, a reasonable basis for faith.

My faith is in the dawn of a post-Terrorized Age. What Kant’s critique of the sublime teaches me is that, paradoxically, we need to be terrorized in order to get there. The concept of the sublime allows us to reflect on our fears in order to resist their potentially debilitating, destructive effects. The antidote is in the poison, so to speak. The sublime elevates these feelings: the more sublime the terror, the freer you are, the more moral you can be. So, may you live in terrifying times.

Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Zombocalypse Now!

Posted in Apocalypse, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Morality, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, Uncategorized, Zombies with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by Uroboros

The Walking Dead as Dark Thought Experiment

Glimpse Behind the Apocalyptic Door

One thing I love about zombie stories—from Romero’s groundbreaking Dead   saga to AMC’s brilliant The Walking Dead—is how they flip the script of history and imagine an inverted world. It’s a dark thought experiment. Post-apocalypse, what would our lives be like? What kind of humans would we be under those circumstances?

Contemplating such extremes, I can’t help but wonder if I could survive at all, a curiosity which taps into my anxieties over the fact that, if I had to feed, shelter, and clothe myself, I’d be  screwed. Long ago, our culture off-loaded these life-skills to specialists and technological capabilities most of us take for granted     and are pretty clueless about. We’re alienated from our own livelihood. That’s why there’s a growing subculture in this country devoted to learning survival  skills and preparing for the social calamity so many see coming.

As a student of history, I can’t just dismiss this anxiety as pure paranoid fantasy. One of the properties all civilizations seem to share is their inability to overcome the law of entropy. Even the mighty Roman Empire fell. Dark ages do happen. So where do we get off assuming the modern West will be the one culture that bucks this trend?

While I graze the aisles of my beloved local supermarket, sipping my bottled water and pondering which shrink-wrapped package of factory farm beef to buy, I’m haunted by the notion that, if this easy access to sustenance were to vanish suddenly, I’d be hard-pressed to find an alternative source. After all, I’m not a hunter and gatherer. In the zombified state-of-mindlessness, in which I often find myself these days, it’s a struggle to remember to water the plants sometimes. After all, I’m not a farmer. I’m a consumer. I’m a debit card-swiper and button-pusher.

How in the world would I survive the end of the world?     

[Warning: Walking Dead spoiler alert]

Andrea vs. Dale

Zombie mythology raises an even deeper issue: would I even want to survive? The characters in The Walking Dead constantly wrestle with this core existential dilemma. Andrea’s nihilism in particular gets under my skin. You want to reach through the screen and slap her—you want to tell her that, yes, what happened to your sister is  tragic—you’re obviously entitled to your grief—but be glad you’re still alive and that someone like Dale, the post-apocalyptic Obi-Wan, is there for you. Your life matters, Andrea, because life itself still matters. I hope I’d be like Dale—optimistic, determined, not cynical and defeatist. But how do I know I wouldn’t feel like Andrea? After what she’s experienced, isn’t she entitled to her nihilism? What’s even more disturbing is, what if she’s right? Under those conditions, the right to check out—to call it a life—could be just as ethically-viable as making the effort to survive. If I decided to stockpile booze and pills and go out like Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, who’s to say that, under those circumstances, I’m ‘wrong.’ Live fast, die young, and leave a rotten liver for the Walkers to munch on.

Why not?  

The first half of Season Two has been particularly good at exploring the existential implications of a zombocalypse. But finding the will to go on is just the beginning of your troubles because, even if your will to live survives intact, the anxiety just switches from ‘Do I want to live?’ to an even harder question: ‘How do I want to live?’

I tell myself I wouldn’t become like Shane, whose cold pragmatism has grown more brutal and vicious as Season Two has progressed. Watching his transformation from wily, but redeemable trickster to a truly duplicitous, anti-heroic killer has been the creepiest thing about this season, punctuated with startling irony and tragic pathos in the climax of Episode Seven.

But what really disturbed me about the ending was who wound up resolving it. When Rick pulled the trigger, his intentions seemed so ambiguous. Was he doing “the right thing” by putting Sophia and, by extension, the rest of the gang out of their misery? Or was he really just reasserting his authority over the tribe after Shane’s over-the-top attempt at a coup de ta? Are the two intentions so conflated in his mind they could never be pried apart and judged?

Shane vs. Rick

Looking towards the future, will Rick have to become like Shane in order to keep him in line? One thing’s for sure, they can’t go back to the relatively stable and orderly life the farm has provided. No doubt, after what happened at the barn, Rick would have to adopt a Shane-like mentality in order to keep the gang there. At any rate, his attempts to persuade Herschel and entertain his zombies-are-people-too ethic are all moot now. Unless Herschel has a mental breakdown or a radical change of conscience, Rick and company have certainly worn out their welcome in this pastoral paradise. So what are they going to do? Again, for Rick, it’s not a question of ‘Do I want to live?’ but ‘How do I want to live?’—a conflict made all the more poignant when you consider that his wife is pregnant. Now we’re left to wonder if, by stepping up and pulling the trigger, he hasn’t compromised some core element of his morality.

What is Rick willing and prepared to do now?       

Some fans have complained about the pacing and melodrama of the farm episodes, but I think the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down and developing the characters and the thematic implications of their struggles. The last few episodes have focused more on tweaking the character arcs in order to enhance the terror lurking around the corner and in the woods. It’s a refreshing change from the hyperactivity you get with True Blood and American Horror Story, two series which flow like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation. 

The Walking Dead knows how to spread out the story and alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite, and the monster isn’t always a zombie, either. This kind of structure and pacing not only builds the dread, but it lets the viewer contemplate the dark thought experiment, too. In short, in the midst of the suspense, The Walking Dead gives its viewers the time and space to think about the truly terrifying aspects of the scenario and care about the implications because we’re invested in the characters and understand the stakes.

This approach lets us wonder about the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, as well, the desires that get us out of bed in the morning, the fears that won’t let us sleep at night. If the script of history does flip, would you want to throw away the old morality? To hell with having to be altruistic, especially to strangers or people who can’t help you survive. To hell with reasoning and debating ‘the right thing to do.’ It’s shotgun politics. The one with the biggest gun and the most ammo makes the rules—pure might over right.

Seen in this light, zombie fiction is a pop cultural version of Enlightenment philosophers’ state-of-nature theories. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, three highly influential thinkers, imagined a prehistoric past to justify modern ethics and politics. In doing so, they helped articulate the West’s new vision of human nature—the rational individual with unalienable rights—and argued for the proper political structure in which said individual should live. Their theories helped inspire the American and French Revolutions, reshaping the modern world. Conversely, a zombie state-of-nature story allows us—not to retroject like an Enlightenment philosopher—but to project visions of human nature, politics, and ethics onto the great hypothetical that’s haunting us all these days: what if the world founded on Enlightenment principles falls apart, and we’re back to square one?

Rick’s Existential and Moral Dilemmas

In a world where life is brutish, nasty, and short, who would you be like? Rick and Dale or Andrea and Shane? Not only does The Walking Dead’s spin on the zombocalypse pose this query, it prompts an even more pointed and immediate question: what kind of person are you now? What’s your character like, morally speaking, under your current existential circumstances? Are we fulfilling our individual potential as human beings and living up to our social duties? Would it take a zombocalypse to find out who we really are and what we truly value? Maybe if we confronted these issues in the here and now, we could  redirect or squelch the very forces which make the End of Days look so inevitable sometimes.

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