Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Ballad of Outward Life

My attempt at translating one of the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal's most famous lyrics, "Ballade des äußeren Lebens", in terza rima (the metre used by Dante but rarely by anyone else):

"Ballad of Outward Life"

And children grow up with their eyes so deep,
Yet knowing nothing - they grow up and die,
And all men go their ways, as if asleep.

And bitter fruits shall turn sweet, by and by
And shall, like dead birds, drop upon the ground,
And there a few days festering they'll lie.

And the wind blows still. We hear the sound
Of so many words, and our words leave few traces,
And we feel our bodies by sweet weariness bound.

And roads run through the grass, to places
Torchlit, that with trees and pools exhale,
Or threaten with their deathly, withered faces.

Why were they constructed? And if they'll
All differ, will each bear a different name?
In turn must we then weep, laugh, and grow pale?

What use all this to us, what use this game
To us, grown men that we are, lonely still,
Who, wandering, long ago forgot our aim?

Was it to see these things that we left home?
Yet speak out loud, now, this one word -
"Evening"; from it deep and sad thoughts spill

Like thick, dark honey from the hollow comb.

Sunday, 27 September 2015


A seasonal translation of Rilke's poem "Herbsttag":

Lord, it is time. Great summer is no more.
Set thy shadows upon the sundials' faces;
And through grassy spaces let the harsh winds roar.

Bid the last fruits take on ripened shape,
Grant them but a few more southern days,
Push them toward fulfilment then, to raise
A final sweetness in the heavy grape.

Too late for the homeless now their roofs to build;
And for him that lives alone - he'll long live so,
He'll read by night, compose long letters, go
Roaming up and down in avenues filled
With restlessness, and leaves that sharp gusts blow.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Philosophy felt through hands and feet

Back in the spring, I spent most of a week in a small German village in Lower Saxony, staying with an intriguing friend of mine, an aristocratic philosopher who will be referred to in the following only by his initials, GvC. In 2007 GvC hosted a performance by the Swiss modern dancer Anna Huber, attended by much of the village, in an unusual venue: the upper level of his enormous 18th-century barn. This time the place was quieter, and besides conversations with GvC, my other German philosopher friend Reinhard Knodt, and a few others who visited, I had time to explore the house, barns, attic, and courtyard by myself. The house contains a beautiful, old wood-panelled library:

and an adjoining conservatory:

In these surroundings of a faded yet still cultivated distinction, objects are placed with care, waiting for the late afternoon sun to pan across them:

Yet what one encounters on the other side of the courtyard, in and around the barns, is quite another matter. There are two characteristics of these spaces that strike anyone wandering through. The first is the accumulation of technological remnants, sometimes dormant, piled-up, sometimes cleverly rearranged, that occupy them. Here are tools, vehicles, means of transport and agricultural labour from a nineteenth-century carriage chassis to a 1960s tractor.

 Just inside one of the barn's entrance's sits an old-fashioned sleigh, its plush red upholstery spread with a light covering of dust and straw:

The second is the sheer physical invitingness of the spaces themselves. The barn is something like Piranesi's Carceri, labyrinthine in three dimensions, with ladders, hay bales, piles of bricks or open windows always issuing temptations to climb up or around a corner into some new, unexpected, protected nook.

It is like being ten years old again, except that here the fascination I then mostly only received from playing with and imaginatively inhabiting spaces in miniature, with Lego or other building blocks, is now realized in real life: the principle of the treehouse, multiplied and realized on a grand scale. (I never had a treehouse, but even growing up in the city you imagine them...)

These two characteristics are found again - or I find them - in the writings of these marvellous buildings' owner. For a while I confess I found GvC's writings difficult to approach. As is not surprising for a philosopher tucked away in the German countryside, his acknowledged greatest influence is Heidegger, the Black Forest thinker's gnarled, mystical, sometimes suddenly glowing late essays alternately bowing down to the earth and foreswearing modernity's enchantment by all technology that removes us from that earth. Such as aeroplanes (I travelled by train to reach the village), or the inkless, insubstantial media of digital dissemination (hence GvC's anonymity in this blog, or the fact that our correspondence is entirely by handwritten letters - although since they only take three days in the post, one supposes they probably travel by aeroplane...). More metaphorically, in the realm of thought, it is calculation and dualistic, falsely metaphysical thinking that distance us from authentic human existence - "Being" - and it is Language, the basic substance of the everyday words we use, that takes us back to Being again.
One problem: Heidegger doesn't just mean any language.  He means German (although he quite likes ancient Greek too - not that that really helps from the standpoint of accessibility). Which is why his late philosophy is, when it comes down to it, untranslatable. It's hard to avoid the parochial conclusion that we can't exist in consciousness of authentic Being unless we speak German, and furthermore unless we realize all the philosophical hints contained in the etymology of the words we are using. I love the German language as much as the next musicologist, but that does seem to be taking it a little too far! And as recent controversies over Heidegger's notebooks - the so-called "Black Books" - make clear, there are political difficulties: not to put too fine a point on it, Heidegger was an unrepentant Nazi.

Yet recently I found a point of access to my friend's way of thinking that made it seem much more than a set of footnotes to Heidegger, and which does not, it seems to me, fundamentally depend on one's choice of language for philosophizing in. Let us begin instead, as one of GvC's essays does, with a considerably less well-known German thinker of the early twentieth century, whom he knew personally: Alfred Sohn-Rethel. Here he is in a portrait painted by Kurt Schwitters, more famous as a pioneer of Dadaist collages and sound-poems, in a British internment camp in 1941.

The proximity of hand and head in Schwitters' portrait is fitting, for Sohn-Rethel's main theme was how man might overcome the historical split between the two, between "Intellectual and Manual Labour", to cite the title of his belated philosophical magnum opus (Geistige und körperliche Arbeit. Zur Theorie gesellschaftlicher Synthesis, 1970). Sohn-Rethel was a Marxist, and shared with Marx the ambition to invert philosophy's traditional prioritization of mind over matter. But rather than refashioning modern philosophy on the basis of modern economics, as Marx did, he wanted to understand how even ancient philosophy had been profoundly influenced, in its predilection for the abstract, by material, economic processes.
For Sohn-Rethel, there was still something suspiciously idealist or intellectualist about the belief that man's ability to create abstractions - numbers, philosophical concepts, geometric diagrams - was something innate and supra-historical. According to the neo-Kantian and scientific materialist worldviews that dominated German philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, humanity had finally come into its inheritance in the modern era by applying abstract reasoning in order to predict and control the physical world - setting aside emotions, superstitions, and immediate physical attachments, and coolly figuring out how things (ought to) work. From that breakthrough there then followed numerous historical and economic consequences. Sohn-Rethel boldly argued that the sequence was the other way around. It was an event in economic history - the invention of gold and silver money in Lydia in the 6th-7th century B.C. - that preceded and made possible the earliest developments of Greek mathematical and philosophical abstraction. Lydia's fabled wealth lives on our idiom, "rich as Croesus" - the king who ruled Lydia from 560-547 B.C.

Maybe Sohn-Rethel's seems like too big a claim: how could we really prove it historically? And on a global scale too: after all, didn't the Chinese start using coinage around the same time - and isn't their philosophical history quite different? Granted: but we don't need to interpret the thesis in quite such a determinist fashion. Rather, as GvC observes, Sohn-Rethel is undertaking a kind of phenomenology, an attempt to imaginatively sketch out the key traits of a social world in which coins have just begun to mediate a large number of transactions between people, and to think about what kinds of activity might begin to seem more or less possible or significant in that world.

Here the two categories - once again taken from Marx - whose balance decisively alters at this moment are use (Gebrauch) and exchange (Tausch). And exchange involves an abstraction from use: not a mere conceptual abstraction, but what Sohn-Rethel considers more fundamental, a "real abstraction" - a socially agreed fiction, embodied in coinage, that considers different goods (such as salt and wheat) to be equivalent to and exchangeable for each other according to a fixed relationship. The fixing of that relationship will always involve ignoring what happens to commodities, or at least most commodities that human beings trade: namely that they and their value decay, both naturally and due to human uses of them. Here is GvC's own summary of Sohn-Rethel's argument about "real abstraction", which I think is clear enough (once translated) to stand without further explanation:

"How is abstraction implied in the act of exchange? The answer what was said above, insofar as it is seen phenomenologically... In the situation of an exchange one must abstract from, i.e. disregard, any acts that make use of/use up [the objects of exchange], in order that the exchange can be completed. For if anything about the commodity were to be altered, either by consumption or by [further] production, during the exchange itself, then the commercial basis of the exchange would be void, i.e. the commodity would no longer be equivalent to the agreed price.

"Yet even without human uses of them, materials are constantly involved in processes of material change. Wood, for instance, matures; iron rusts; plastic becomes worn-out. The prerequisite of immutability in materials to be exchanged is realistic as far as banning human interference is concerned, but the ban on material change in general is illusory, and thus remains a fiction, i.e. a pure postulate. This unreality makes exchange abstract in a particularly acute fashion, transcending the limits of the realizable.

"In order to give reality to the illusion of immutability, the most imperishable substances, such as precious metals, are cut into equal pieces and pressed into apparently permanent forms. From them there then radiated the idea of an imperishable value. With the idea of value, finally, the fiction of the equi-valence of dissimilar materials could be secured - for exchange only makes sense when dissimilar materials are set equal to one another.

"Once value and equivalence had become a reality - if an abstract sort of reality - then calculation could begin. The postulate of immutability made things and processes calculable... And once calculation was secured in the sphere of exchange, then from there it gradually invaded the sphere of use... First the materials to be consumed were abstractly fixed (e.g. by being standardized), then the human interactions that produced them (e.g. the production line)."

This "invasion" of the sphere of "use" by processes of calculation, and postulates of immutability, derived from the act of exchange connects to one of Sohn-Rethel's, and GvC's, other concerns: technology, and our relationship with the tools and machines we use, or simply with the environments we physically inhabit. For both of them, the study of technology is of no interest considered scientifically, as an application of principles of mechanics to establish how machinery might best function in its own right; it is of interest only anthropologically. What does a relationship with a tool make possible for us - that is, for our development as human beings, not for the practical end we hope to achieve by completing the activity? (In more mundane terms, why do so many men, and doubtless women too, enjoy "doing it yourself", or pottering about in a tool shed at the bottom of the garden?)

Sohn-Rethel's primary engagement with this question was in an early essay written in Naples and published in Germany's main daily paper, the Frankfurter Zeitung, in 1926, with the title, "The Ideal of the Broken-Down: On Neapolitan Technology" (Das Ideal des Kaputten. Über neapolitanische Technik). It is on the face of it a very witty piece of journalistic travel-writing; at a deeper level, a reflection on what seemed to the author like a more authentic and creative relationship to the world of modern technology than his own countrymen possessed. Sohn-Rethel was at the time living in close proximity to a whole German exile colony of artists and thinkers in Positano, not far from Naples, which happened to include two of the most significant members of what was later called the "Frankfurt School": Walter Benjamin and Adorno, along with another intellectual heavyweight of the period, Ernst Bloch. Benjamin is reported to have "squealed with delight" on reading Sohn-Rethel's essay - there must have been some envy intermixed, since unlike Benjamin's own essays on his Italian milieu, Sohn-Rethel's was written from the experience of someone fluent in Italian and able to interact confidently with the people he was writing about:

"Mechanical appliances in Naples are broken as a point of principle. Only exceptionally, thanks to some disconcerting piece of luck, does one discover anything still intact and functioning. As time goes on, one gets the impression that everything must already be manufactured in a broken condition... [Yet] for the Neapolitan, the functioning [of a device] only really begins when it is broken... With inimitable mastery he succeeds in getting his defective automobile going again through the unforeseen insertion of a small piece of wood that he picked up off the street - although only temporarily, until it unavoidably breaks down once more. For conclusive repairs are anathema to him: in that case he would much rather do without the car altogether" (Alfred Sohn-Rethel, ed. Carl Freytag, Das Ideal des Kaputten (Bremen: Bettima Wassmann, 1992), pp. 33-4)

Sohn-Rethel's conclusion is that "technology" in the anthropological sense, as a realm of human activity that enhances our lives directly, "only really begins at the point where man exercises his veto against the secretive and inimical automatization of the mechanical sphere, and involves himself personally in its world. But he thereby proves his clear superiority to the law[fulness] of technology... Bound by a minimum of prescribed goals and uses, technology here is subjected to the oddest vagaries, absorbed with startling but convincing efficacy into a mode of existence quite alien to it... A further example: the motorbike engine, released from its forced service to a now smashed-up motorbike, that with its swirling rotations around a slightly eccentric axis serves to whip the cream in a latteria" (pp. 36-7).

The Neapolitan, in other words, does not accept the illusion of immutable, indestructible, unpervertable efficiency radiated by the devices that arrive from Northern Europe on the streets of his city, so lately under the unchallenged sway of mules, carriages, and oil lamps. All these things are meant to be used, that is, adapted, patched up, taken apart, kicked, whacked, bent out of and back into shape; the pleasure in them, and in oneself, is lost if they merely function automatically the way they were designed to. For then one is submitting to an abstraction, a reliance on exchange: one only enjoys the device's functioning as something one has paid for, something one does not understand and must submit to paying over again for in a new version as soon as it ceases to perform its predestined role.  (What Sohn-Rethel saw in the 1920s in southern Italy is now of course to be seen all over more distant developing countries such as India, while Western Europe as a whole has since succumbed to the dulling effects of planned obsolescence.) 21st-century microelectronics only intensify in this sense what clockwork had already begun, as GvC's ironic little note ("What's inside") in the photo below emphasises:

Where did Sohn-Rethel get his interest - unfortunately not pursued in later life - in the human experience of technology? Why did he abandon the attempt to describe, phenomenologically, the positive values to be derived from a more creative and authentic use of tools and objects? GvC claims that when he visited Sohn-Rethel in hospital, as the latter recovered from a leg operation, he furnished the answer: the interest in such a phenomenology came from Heidegger, and its abandonment was related to the conflict between Heidegger and the Marxist Frankfurt School - for it was as a member of the Frankfurt School that Sohn-Rethel came to see himself. "It appears it was Adorno's authority", GvC writes, "that compelled [Sohn-Rethel] to direct his gaze [only] negatively towards all that abstracted from use"; for in Adorno's pessimistic vision, the "damaged life" one was forced to lead under the generalized capitalist system of abstract exchange-relations was a life that could never be repaired or patched up. The best that intellectuals could do was understand the logic of the system that imprisoned them.

Meanwhile Heidegger himself, though he may have prompted Sohn-Rethel's incipient phenomenology of technology, and provided his own famous analysis of the experience of hammering in his early masterpiece Sein und Zeit (1927), ended up more or less demonizing technology altogether, seeing salvation only in escape from it into the domain of the poet, language. Only the poet's language would reveal reality; technology would forever obscure the essence of the world from us by treating everything as a means to something else. More interested by the possibility of reclaiming Technik, GvC began to look elsewhere for intellectual forebears: most notably, to the German Romantic philosopher and poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), but also to Eastern philosophy - Zen and Taoism - and the thought of Franz Kafka.

As scholars of Romanticism such as Frederick Beiser have recently emphasized, the early German Romantics were anything but apologists for art or poetry as escape from reality. Novalis in particular cultivated an active and diverse circle of interests, at the centre of which stood Poesie ("poesy") as a transfiguring imaginative attitude to the world. One of the domains he wanted it to transfigure was that of human beings' physical movements and interactions with the material world. He dreamed of a "theory of the modifications of movement", a "physics" centred on the human body. Tools would expand and develop the capacities of the people who used them - and in that lay their redemptive potential: "Each tool thus modifies on one side the powers and thoughts of the artisan [who uses it]". Effective tools considered from this perspective were "anthroposcopic" - they brought man into focus, were adjusted to his scale. Novalis's ultimate vision of technology was a single omnipotent tool  - a "magic wand" (Zauberstab). Yet we should not imagine he had something like a robot or computer in mind, for the potency of this tool would not lie in its own autonomous power, making human activity superfluous, but in its ability to promote our range of activity. In GvC's barn I found a piece of paper with a German translation of this, similar dream of the French poet René Char (a friend of Heidegger's, incidentally) - "A tool, whose blessing our hand, relieved of memory, could experience at each moment, would never age; it would keep our hand whole" ("Un outil dont notre main privée de mémoire découvrirait à tout instant le bienfait, n'envieillirait pas, conserverait intacte la main").

A possible everyday example of such a tool, only invented after Novalis' lifetime, is the bicycle: it has the instrumental value of allowing us to move faster from place to place, but its use also requires us to refine our ability to balance while in motion. It is built to our scale, and expands what we can do with our own bodies in a much more fundamental and integral way than driving a car does (though of course that too is a skill involving one's whole body). Another, simpler example is the swing, constructed purely for the pleasure of "modifying one's movements" (the unusually long one below hangs in GvC's barn):

In the case of Kafka, the example he chose of technology's potential is more classical, more Heideggerian, and yet the interpretation he gives it is more mysterious. Kafka wrote in 1920 that he wanted "to hammer a table together with meticulously careful attention to craft, and at the same time, to do nothing - not in such a way that someone would say, 'The hammering means nothing to him', but 'The hammering is to him a genuine hammering and at the same time means nothing', whereby indeed the hammering would have become still bolder, still more decisive, still more real, and if you like, still crazier". 

Surely what Kafka is driving at in this passage is a conception of engaging in a practical act for its own sake, as an "amateur" would, not in order to get the job done, i.e. not "professionally" - but nevertheless with the kind of intensity belonging to a professional, not with an amateur's leisurely detachment. The hammering is as real as if it really mattered to complete the job with total craftsmanship; and yet it does not, because if the consciousness of the job's purpose is allowed to take over, then the focus on the present act is lost. Only in the present moment does the redemptive - one could even say, religious - power of the activity lie. Walter Benjamin, who quoted this passage in an essay, saw in it Kafka's proximity to Taoism. It represented to him an "absolutely elemental purity of feeling", deriving from a perfect equilibrium of motive and self-sufficient attentiveness, the yin and yang pushing back at each other, interpenetrating.

What is once again surprising, for us who think of Kafka as the writer of his era most concerned with literature's autonomous power, is (as GvC points out in another essay) that he thought of immanent activities such as this hammering as the purpose of life - not writing literature. Writing would rather have an instrumental function - for once having attained his realization of the primacy of the practical, it would be necessary "to use writing to convince other people of it".

For GvC, philosophy has much the same function, it would seem. I am almost tempted to see his property - the house and barns - as a kind of embodiment of the goal of his thought. Its technological remnants, mysterious, antique spaces, and playful détournements of everyday objects provoke one's hands and feet to new tactile experiences, experiments. In my bedroom was a unique "wardrobe": 

Perhaps it was from the same tree that the tree-trunk "bookcase" came that I found standing in the corner of a downstairs drawing-room - a slot widened out of its bole, holding a single book. Efficient as a storage unit it was not, but how much more pleasing to make and contemplate than anything from a Swedish furniture chain... 

GvC has a project to use the barn's spaces as a location for "performances" or performance workshops (in the sense of performance art) - of which Anna Huber's dance display, mentioned at the start of this post and described in an earlier blog piece, is conceived as a forerunner. Yet it is as practices and processes, not as "art", that such "performances" are chiefly important to him - and the same seems to be true in the case of music, the reason we became acquainted with one another to begin with. Music has no "product" (other than those that our technologies of notation and recording have artificially abstracted from it). It is an activity in which sensitivity of feeling, subtlety of equilibrium, are paramount, and realized only in the moment of music-making itself. What abstract calculation it involves ends up reconverted back into feeling - the proportions of duration and tone sensed as rhythm and harmony. A small remnant of a "technology" of practice whose pleasures and accomplishments once penetrated much more of our working lives.