Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Reading Email (Once a Week)


I remember it very well. One day in the early 1990s I was reading the weekly journal of the University of Utrecht, where I was a student, and came across a small column that announced the invention and introduction of a brand-new way of communication. It was called “e-mail” (that stands for “electronic mail”, the note explained), and was extremely cheap because it used the telephone line to transmit entire text messages in just a fraction of a second. I was impressed. Could it really be true that instead of incurring expensive telephone bills for calling my friends at the other side of the Atlantic or of Europe, I could tell them everything I had to tell them for almost nothing? It seemed too good to be true. Surely there was a catch, and the telephone companies would find some other way to make us pay.
That is now more than twenty years ago, and I have forgotten what those early emails even looked like. Email has become so normal and omnipresent that we find it hard to imagine how people got anything done before the nineties. What did you do if you were organizing an international conference, for instance, and needed to communicate with your colleagues about all kinds of tiny details, correct misunderstandings, create
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.

When email was first introduced, its benefits seemed a bit similar to those of voicemail. Instead of having to deal with phonecall interruptions all the time, you could quietly read your messages at a moment of your own convenience. If people wanted to speak with you right away, well, bad luck for them, they just had to wait. But as email took over as the dominant means of communication, along with the introduction of visual and auditory cues ("you got mail!" - nowadays abbreviated as "bleep" or "boink" or just a number, for of course you got mail!) this quickly proved to be an illusion. Nowadays, email looks more like a wide open door that gives direct access to your home, with a large invitation over it: 

WELCOME! Everybody, known or unknown, may enter here at any moment, day or night, twenty-four hours a day. Feel free to walk straight into my study whenever you feel like it, and start talking to me about anything that’s on your mind, important or unimportant. I might be busy trying to concentrate on something when you enter, but no need to worry about that. Just start talking anyway. I’ll do my best to interrupt everything I’m doing right away, I'll listen to whatever you have to say, and will do what I can to answer immediately.

How normal is it, really, that we now find this normal? Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine? As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.  
In his important and predictably controversial book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr begins with an observation that I trust will sound familiar to many of us:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. [...] The boons are real. But they come at a price. [...] [W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it [...].

Carr provides hard neurological evidence. Our brain is very flexible: it quickly learns in response to whatever we ask it to do – and unlearns what we neglect to ask it. At present, we continuously train ourselves to get better and better at those skills that allow us to use the Internet quickly and effectively. And boy do we get good at it! But it goes at the expense of other skills that the Internet just doesn’t require, or even discourages. Notably those skills of deep and prolonged concentration on one single piece of text – without continuous hyperlinks that move us instantaneously to another text, full of other hyperlinks that again move us elsewhere, and so on. The fact is that we are systematically training our brain not to concentrate on a line of thought, an argument, a narrative. We are training it in the art of breaking our concentration.
Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me. When will the next beep come? Have they forgotten me? But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t. I have received the email, haven’t I? I have the technical means to respond, don’t I? So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s keeping me? And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself. I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic. They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs. Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I. 

I have been thinking about these problems for a long time and have come to a clear decision. I refuse to be manipulated and disciplined into conformity with the logic of The Circle, and most importantly: I reserve the right to protect my own brain. I don't want to expose it systematically to conditions that limit my ability to do what I do best: concentrate. From now on (July 2014) I will therefore be reading my email once a week, and will disable it entirely during the rest of the week. I know that many people will find this incredibly radical, or preposterous, and some will get angry with me - so let me explain. It is really very simple. My core business as a scholar in the Humanities requires the ability of deep “concentration and contemplation” (as formulated by Carr). That is what I need most when I'm studying books, articles, or primary sources. I have a responsibility, to myself and to society, to protect and cultivate those skills, for if they wither and decline then the quality of my work will suffer. I know very well that even this brief explanation sounds like a justification or even an excuse. Perhaps it is. But if so, it nicely illustrates the very point I've just been making: like everyone else, I'm by no means immune to the guilt-inducing magic of The Circle.
Now I’m well aware that, even though these general problems of concentration/interruption, dopamine loops, or social pressure by the internalization of guilt are real and universal, something that doesn’t work for me might work better for others. Different people have different mental constitutions, not everybody responds in the same way to stress, and quite some friends and colleagues do not experience email as a problem the way I do. Some people are able to switch quickly from one task to another, and that's great for them, but I have never had that ability: I just happen to be a deep concentrator with a long and slow curve. Some people enjoy digital socializing, and that's great for them too, but I don’t: I find it empty and superficial and prefer meeting people face to face. Some people like to focus on information, and that's fine too, but my interest is in knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Am I too naive or optimistic in thinking that this could actually work? I’ll have to see how it works out in practice, especially as the new academic year begins. But one thing is clear: reading email once a week means that once I sit down to do it, I will be concentrating on it. 100%.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Exterminate all the Idols


The Fall of the Hermetic Idols
I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and not everything will find its way into this blog. But I definitely need to write about my experiences with a somewhat older book by two French scholars that I bought second-hand and devoured from cover to cover: Carmen Bernand’s & Serge Gruzinski’s De l’idolâtrie: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Of idolatry: An Archeology of the Humanities, 1988). I have long been puzzled by the fact that whereas one can easily fill a library with academic books about “magic”, there are so few systematic studies of “paganism” as a category in the study of religion and even less that focus on what was traditionally seen as the core practice of pagan religion – “idolatry”. The rare exceptions to this rule, such as Moshe Halbertal’s & Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry (1992), focus mostly upon Judaism. One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.
And yet, that significance is enormous. If Jan Assmann is right, as I think he is, then monotheism defines its very identity not so much by its focus on One God (after all, it shares the focus on one deity with many “pagan” religions, and normative Christianity believes in a triune deity, not to mention angelic hierarchies and so on) but by its radical and uncompromising rejection of pagan “idolatry” – the worship of gods incarnated in images or statues – as the unforgivable sin par excellence. The history of how idolatry has been discursively constructed as monotheism’s “other” in the history of the three “religions of the book”, and the real-life effects of that discourse, should be a major concern for scholars. Anybody who finds such a statement too radical will perhaps change his mind after reading Bernand’s & Gruzinski’s study of the 16th-century colonialization of Mexico and Peru.
Garcilaso de la Vega
One learns from these authors that the Spanish conquerors used the “paganism” of late antiquity as their model for understanding the beliefs and practices they encountered in the New World. The cults of the Indians represented a phenomenon that seemed universal to them, since it appeared to exist in the Americas just as it had existed in the Roman Empire: that of a “natural religion” born from an inborn human desire for knowing and worshiping God (homo religiosus), but deprived of divine Revelation and hence an easy prey for infiltration by the devil and his legions of demons, who are always busy trying to convince human beings to worship them in lieu of the true God. The central reference for Bernand & Gruzinski is Bartolomé de Las CasasApologética Historia sumaria (1550), but they discuss a range of other major authors as well. I was particularly fascinated by the cases of Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), nicknamed “the Inca”, whose perspective on the Amerindian religions (in his Comentarios reales, 1609) appears to have been strongly influenced by the Renaissance Platonic Orientalist tradition of prisca theologia in the wake of Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo; and by that of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1568/1580-1648), who seems to have taken a somewhat similar perspective, describing the philosopher, poet and ruler Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472) as “a sage even wiser than the divine Plato, and who alone managed to raise himself up to the knowledge of a single ‘creator of visible and invisible things’” (p. 136).
If I understand Bernand & Gruzinski correctly (I’m not always sure, for unfortunately their writing is sometimes less than clear), the relevance of the “ancient wisdom discourse” of the Renaissance – a major fascination of mine: see Esotericism and the Academy ch. 1 – reaches even much farther than European culture alone. The early modern European discourse about “paganism” seems extremely relevant for understanding the attempts by intellectuals to justify the brutal realities of colonialist expansion; and moreover, it is crucial for understanding the emergence, in early modern culture, of “religion” as a general and universal concept born from the encounter and hence the comparison between Christian and “native” cultures.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry
Chapter 6 of De l’idolâtrie is titled “Extirpations” and discusses the systematic campaign of exterminating pagan idolatry in the New World. It starts with a reference to Peter Paul Rubens’ “Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry”, which once again shows that Europeans were incapable of thinking about Amerindian “idolatry” otherwise than through the prism of Hellenistic paganism. It is impossible to discuss the shocking effects of the conquests – by 1625, only 5% of the indigenous Mexican population had survived! (pp. 146-147) –  separately from the conquerors’ ideological conviction that idolatry in all its forms had to be destroyed by any means necessary, together with anyone suspected or potentially capable of practicing it. In the canon De Haereticis of the 3rd Mexican Council (1585), indigenous idolatry was discussed as equivalent with “apostasy” and “heresy” (p. 156): not as a rival form of religion, therefore, but as an intentional rejection of Christian truth. 
The penalty was death.
Sven Lindqvist
In parallel with De l’idolâtrie, I was reading Sven Lindqvist’s brilliant travelogue “‘Exterminate All the Brutes’”, an impressive attempt at understanding the origins and foundations of that famous sentence from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lindqvist does not discuss idolatry, but he reveals in chilling detail how the doctrine that “primitive peoples” and their cultures must be exterminated was a necessary and integral part of the “progress of civilization” as understood by mainstream 19th-century popular and intellectual European culture. If anyone might think that “necessary and integral” is a bit of an exaggeration here, Lindqvist’s analysis may come as a shocking revelation. I will give just two examples, although Lindqvist gives many more, showing that such statements were not the exception but the rule. Herbert Spencer claimed that “imperialism ha[d] served civilization by clearing the inferior races off the earth” (Lindqvist, 162): “the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way ... Be he human or be he brute – the hindrance must be got rid of” (Social Statistics (1850). Eduard von Hartmann’s formulations were even more brutal: “As little as a favor is done the dog whose tail is to be cut off, when one cuts it off gradually inch by inch, so little is their humanity in artificially prolonging the death struggles of savages who are on the verge of extinction. ... The true philantropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion, and labor for that end” (Philosophy of the Unconscious, vol. II, 12). These theoretical convictions were taken quite literally by the conquerors who took it upon themselves to advance the noble cause of civilization by “exterminating the brutes” – with such thoroughness and cruelty that one cannot but assent to Lindquist’s controversial comparisons with the horrors of the Nazi genocide. We all know about the Holocaust, as we should. But how many of us are familiar with (to give one more example, not covered by Lindqvist) what happened during the “rubber boom” of the decades before and after 1900, when the Amazon Putumayo region was transformed into a “death space” (as formulated by Michael Taussig in his Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man) of random torture and murder where the lives of “Indian savages” were worth less than nothing?
Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897)
De l’idolâtrie ends with a demonstration of how the religious campaign against idolatry was taken up and continued by the Enlightenment (rather similar to my argument in ch. 2 of Esotericism and the Academy), and one might say that Lindquist traces the same story of “extirpation” or “extermination” forward through the history of colonialism and far into the 20th century. Extirpation of idolatry in the name of Christianity, and extermination of savages in the name of progress and civilization: isn’t it obvious that the two are intimately related both conceptually and historically, as the former created the essential ideological foundations on which the latter could build its deadly mission of civilizing the globe? If there is just a grain of truth to this comparison, then isn’t it time for scholars to start taking a serious look - and I mean a very serious one - at the history of the Western campaign to “exterminate all the idols?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fatima's Knight


One of the most interesting books about religion that I’ve read in recent years came from an unexpected angle. Michael Muhammad Knight’s Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writings is a brilliantly written and highly intelligent piece of autobiographical literature, from the pen of an author who combines deep personal involvement in Islam with an off-the-charts heretical attitude, profound familiarity with academic research and theory in the study of religion, and most of all, a truly original, independent, and passionate mind. The troubled son of a white supremacist and paranoid psychotic rapist, Knight was raised as a Roman Catholic by his mother but converted to Islam at age 16, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He went on to study Islam at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, and came close to joining the Chechnyan war against Russia. Having become disenchanted with Islamic orthodoxy, he started experimenting with a range of alternative Muslim identities, including the Nation of Islam (he is fascinated by its mysterious founder Fard Muhammad) and the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percenters (who proclaim the divinity of human beings and therefore address one another, amusingly enough, as “god”). Parallel to this, he also embarked on a semi-professional wrestling career, subjecting himself to grueling training routines and diets and finally getting beaten up seriously (fifty stitches!) in a fight with a notorious wrestler named Abdullah the Butcher.
Tripping with Allah (an “adventure book for academics to chew on”, p. 30) is the most recent of a series of nine volumes that document Knight’s continuing search for his personal, religious, and (not in the last place) masculine identity. Right from the outset, we encounter him at the intersection of various overlapping cultural contexts and discourses, including traditional Islam (both Sunni and Shia), the cool hip hop Muslem culture associated with the Five Percenters, Religious Studies as practiced at Harvard Divinity School, superhero video games and TV comic series such as the 1970s series Transformers, the parallel universe of American wrestling and, last but not least, the (neo)shamanic practice of drinking ayahuasca. Having heard about the spectacular visionary and healing powers of this famous psychoactive brew from the Amazon forest, Knight decided to try it – hoping perhaps to see visions of “Muhammad on a flying jaguar” (p. 4) or perhaps, far more seriously, to find a way of healing his traumas and find answers in his spiritual quest.
A major theme in Tripping with Allah is the acute conflict between Knight’s quest for religious meaning and belonging, and the implications of his academic training in the study of religion. In the first chapter (“Cybertron Kids”) we find the author and his friend Zoser watching and “building” (in Knight’s delightful rendering of Five Percenters’ lingo) on an early Transformers episode called “Dinobot Island”, in which some kind of time warp phenomenon opens up portals through which life forms from other time periods enter and start messing with our world. In Knight’s narrative, Dinobot Island becomes a metaphor for contemporary religion and the pervasive phenomenon of decontextualization in a globalized media context: for young Muslims like Zoser and himself, and whether they like it or not, Islam has essentially become a reservoir of traditional materials and stories to pick and choose from at will, and available for being combined creatively with anything else that is available, whether it’s hip hop, science fiction, wrestling, shamanism, or popular comics. In Knight’s words, “‘Muhammad’ is a superhero template, his sunna functioning as a How to Be the Perfect Human kit that you’ll never finish: Muhammad as M.H.M.D., or Masters His Motherfucking Devils.” (p. 9).
And that, of course, is what the book is ultimately all about. While building up a narrative to prepare the reader for his encounter with ayahuasca, Knight offers erudite and sometimes brilliant reflections on a variety of relevant topics, such as the popular depiction of both drugs and Islam as the demonized “other” of white American identity (“Civilization Class”), the history of Islamic attitudes towards drugs, including coffee (“Islam and Equality” - “equality” being a code for hashish - ; “Coffee consciousness”), prophecy and visionary consciousness according to Avicenna and al-Ghazali (“Avicenna and the Monolith”), and the intellectual and existential dilemmas of studying religion academically at Harvard while also practicing it as a Muslim (“Jehangir Allah”, “Scholars and Martyrs”). Last but not least, there is the conflict between his emerging identity as a professional scholar of religion and the primal forces that drive him as a writer. Identifying with one of his heroes, a brutal wrestler known as “Bruiser Brody”, Knight is worried that the politically correct attitudes and pseudo-intellectual language (for some edifying examples of mindless cultural studies lingo, see pp. 134-135!) that seem to dominate American academia might finally end up killing his soul:
“Two years have passed at Harvard, and now I try to picture Bruiser Brody obsessed with explaining himself, apologizing for himself, justifying his existence through the use of a larger tradition and perhaps a grounding in theory, trying to find legitimacy as a public intellectual. I see Bruiser Brody understanding himself through Roland Barthes, wearing a corduroy blazer and tying back his hair and insisting, “I’m so much more than just a psychotic chain-swinging freak, if you read me in my proper context,” dipping out of the personality game while he’s still ahead and focusing on pure scholarship from this moment on – Bruiser Brody with his forehead full of scars disappearing into the quiet soft darkness of those Widener Library stacks and never coming back out” (p. 145-146).
Eventually, Knight has an intake meeting with an American member of the Brazilian Santo Daime church, which uses ayahuasca as its sacrament (“Bumblebee”; for the origins of the church, founded by a Brazilian rubber tapper after his visionary encounter with the “Queen of the Forest”, see his informative chapter “Church Fathers and Mothers”). He finally gets to drink ayahuasca at a Santo Daime meeting in a private home, but I will not spoil the book for you by describing how that experience turns out for him. Let me just note that Knight’s mind and subconscious, filled with Islamic imagery, does not match very well with the predominantly Christian Catholic setting. It is only at his third attempt, in a “Western shamanic” setting, that he has a full ayahuasca experience.
Verbal depictions of entheogenic experience are notoriously boring, but Knight’s account is an exception to that rule. The 17th chapter of his book (“Al-Najm”, “the Stars”: see the account of Muhammad’s ecstatic ascent/descent described in the Quran, Sura 53:1-18) contains a uniquely precise, impressive, and moving description of visionary therapeutic healing through ayahuasca – more convincing and instructive than any similar account that I know from the literature. Clearly it is not enough to have a powerful experience: to bring it across requires a powerful writer as well. Again, therefore, one needs to read this in the original, but given Knight’s biography it will perhaps come as no surprise that this decisive visionary sequence was grounded in Islamic imagery and mythology and went straight for what he needed most: “Out of nowhere, the drug interrupted my book about drugs and spoke instead about broken masculinities” (p. 257). Traumatized through extreme male violence, Knight’s life had been one desperate quest for masculine role models, from the frankly demonic exemplar that had raped him into existence, through the caricatural “He Men” of American wrestling, to the supreme male superheroes of his religious imagination: Muhammad the prophet, Ali the warrior, Husayn the martyr (p. 206). But by the time he drinks ayahuasca, he seems to have reached the end of that road: “It feels like I can’t go anymore; I’m like Macho Man at the end of his run” (p. 186, referring to Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the greatest professional wrestler of the 1980s: see chapter “Macho Madness”). And so it is fitting that the divine saviour/healer and psychopomp (“guide of souls”) who meets him in his vision and shows him the source of true power is not yet another muscle man, but a woman: Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, wife of Ali, and mother of Husayn.
In an interview with Deonna Kelli Sayed, Knight remarks that his Al-Najm chapter is “possibly the most heretical, blasphemous, challenging stuff that I’ve ever written. I don’t spare any of the details”. And that is true: the visionary episodes are sexually explicit, and put an intensely personal spin on traditional Islamic myth and imagery. In other words, the entire healing process would seem to happens on Dinobot Island, through a remarkable collaboration between Santo Daime’s Queen of the Forest and the Islamic Daughter of the Prophet - bien étonnés, no doubt, de se trouver ensemble... And yet, in the same interview, Knight continues by noting that the experience “leads me to this somewhat conservative place, because where I’m at right now, I pretty much just want to read hadith all day”.
Perhaps this will prove to be just a phase in Knight’s continuing story. But then again, he might well be in the process of leaving Dinobot Island, with Fatima’s help: “You can deconstruct Islam, but at some point you have to put it back together. Get your readings grounded in something” (p. 7). In what? The answer seems clear: Knight finds it in an intensely personal experience of divinity, or gnosis, mediated or facilitated by a “tradition”, with all the stories and images that it can provide. He does not find it in the intellectual practice of Quranic exegesis, so attractive and seductive “for the boys” (p. 224, 226, 238), but in a direct encounter with divine Otherness - with a presence, in other words, that is so different from his own identity that it can speak to that identity with unquestionable power and authority. Tripping with Allah may be all about Islam, Drugs, and Writing - but first and foremost, I would suggest, it is a primary source of Islamic mysticism.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Butchering the Corpus Hermeticum: Breaking News on Ficino's Pimander


In the spring of 2002, a group of devoted Ficino aficionados met at the home of Prof. Sebastiano Gentile to discuss the need for modern critical editions of the great Florentine Platonist’s writings. One of the young scholars present at this meeting, Maurizio Campanelli, decided to take a closer look at Ficino’s famous translation of treatises I-XIV of the Corpus Hermeticum, first published in Treviso in 1471 as Hermes Trismegistus’ book on the Power and Wisdom of God (De Potestate et Sapientia Dei) but better known by its alternative title Pimander. He was in for an unexpected surprise. Although certainly no beginner in Latin anymore, he notes, ‘the number of passages of which I failed to really understand the significance followed one another at a disquieting pace’. In other words, much of the text just didn’t make sense at all. Clearly something was wrong – but what was it? Since the Greek original is perfectly comprehensible, the initial suspicion fell on Ficino himself: could it be that his famous translation, finished in 1463, had in fact been so bad as the edition would seem to suggest? But no: a crucial manuscript from 1466, heavily annotated with corrections in Ficino’s own hand, showed otherwise. Apparently the problem was with the famous Treviso edition of 1471 itself, on which the great majority of 16th-century editions would later be based.
Now all of this may not seem like such a big deal to general readers. For anyone familiar with scholarship of Renaissance Hermeticism, however, the implications are far-reaching, even bordering on the sensational. Ever since Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), countless scholars and popular authors have been telling us that the revival of the “Hermetic Tradition” began with Ficino’s Pimander of 1471, and that ever since, throughout the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth, Hermes’s writings had become a very significant factor in the development of Renaissance religious and intellectual life. Presumably, this means that people had actually been reading Hermes’s writings. But if so, had nobody noticed that Ficino's Pimander was, in fact, an incomprehensible muddle? And if they had noticed, what had they done about it? Perhaps most importantly: was it at all possible, for such Renaissance readers, to distill the actual contents of the Hermetic writings from the translations available to them? If not, what did Hermetism actually mean for them? And what about all those modern scholars who have written large books and learned articles about Renaissance Hermetism? One cannot help wondering how many of them ever bothered to sit down and actually read he foundational classic of the entire tradition.
Spurred on by his initial discovery, Campanelli began working on a critical reconstruction of Ficino’s original Pimander, and the final result has been published with an Italian publisher in 2011. It is a very impressive example of painstaking philological scholarship, and a good reminder that, in the world of textual research at least, der liebe Gott lebt im Detail. So bear with me. In the first chapter of his 260-page Introduction, Campanelli analyzes Ficino’s repeated attempts at sketching a profile of Hermes Trismegistus, concluding that he was mostly trying to flatter his maecenas Cosimo de’ Medici by providing him with all the attributes of the ancient Egyptian sage, or the reverse (p. XLI, LIX). Campanelli then gets down to his real core business, analyzing all the editions of the Corpus Hermeticum that were published during the Renaissance. It is important to realize that Ficino himself never tried to get the Pimander published: the Treviso edition, published on 18 December 1471, was the unauthorized initiative of two humanists, the Flemish Geraert van der Leye (Gherardo de Lisa) and his Italian colleague Francesco Rolandello, who seems to have provided the manuscript. And it is here that something went awfully wrong, for the printed version is so corrupt that Campanelli does not hesitate to speak of an ‘authentic textual disaster’ based upon ‘scandalous negligence’ (p. CX-CXI). Most likely, according to his analysis, the printers were working under such heavy time pressure that they made countless errors, and neither van der Leye nor Rolandello ever took the trouble to check and correct the proofs… The troubling fact is that precisely this butchered version of the Pimander became, nevertheless, the basis for the great majority of later editions of the Corpus Hermeticum: the 3rd one (Venice 1481), the 4th (Venice 1491), the 5th (Venice 1493), the 6th (Paris 1494), the 7th (Mainz 1503), the 8th (Paris 1505), the 10th (Venice 1516), the 12th (Lyon 1549), and the 14th (Basle 1551). This does not mean that the text remained unchanged. On the contrary: from one edition to the next, and especially since the 1494 version of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, successive editors tried to improve the text, thus creating a wide range of variant readings of an original that had been wholly corrupt in the first place. Hence it is hardly surprising that when Gabriel du Preau was preparing his French translation (published in 1549) he admitted being ‘vexed & tormented’ by all the contradictions he discovered between the three Latin versions at his disposal (Mercure Trismegiste Hermes … de la puissance & sapience de Dieu, Introduction).
What then about the other editions, absent from the list above? The 2nd edition (Ferrara, 8th of January 1472: just a few weeks after the 1st) was based upon a separate manuscript of Ficino’s translation; but although it is much more reliable than the princeps, it seems to have remained a “stand-alone” edition without much further influence. The 9th edition (Florence 1513), edited by Mariano Tucci, was again based upon a separate manuscript of Ficino’s translation and became the basis for two later editions: the 11th (Basle 1532, edited by Michael Isengrin) and the 16th (Cracow 1585, edited by Annibale Rosselli, with huge commentaries). And finally (not counting vernacular versions such as du Preau's), we have three editions independent of Ficino’s text: the 13th Corpus Hermeticum edition in succession consists of the first publication of the Greek original by Adrien Turnèbe (Paris 1554); the 15th was a new Latin translation by François Foix de Candale (Bordeaux 1574); and finally, the 17th was yet another new Latin translation by Francesco Patrizi (Ferrara 1591). This certainly suggests that interest in the Hermetica was growing during the second half of the sixteenth century, especially its last three decades; but Campanelli claims that, in fact, none of these three new editions had any success at all, leaving Ficino’s Pimander as ‘almost the only vehicle of the Corpus Hermeticum in Europe’ in this period (p. LXXXIII). One might want to question that point, but it seems clear that van der Leye and Rolandello (and of course their printers) created a mess that would continue to create enormous confusion about the Hermetic message throughout the sixteenth century.
Having established the history of the printed editions, Campanelli proceeds to delve deep into the ‘vast archipelago’ (p. CXXI) of surviving manuscripts of the Pimander (those that were used for the first two editions of 1471 and 1472 are no longer extant). Demonstrating great philological expertise and attention to technical detail, he finally ends up selecting fifteen manuscripts most suitable for reconstructing Ficino’s original translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, published in a meticulous critical edition on pp. 1-111 of his book. In the final chapter of his Introduction, he goes into considerable detail about the nature and quality of that translation. His conclusions are very interesting. Ficino appears to have been much concerned with improving the literary style of the Greek original, trying to make it all more elegant and beautiful. Sometimes he changes the original meaning (see esp. CCXLVIIff for what looks like intentional modifications), and his formulations tend to be far more expansive and dramatic than the wording of the Greek text (not least in cases that reflect his own hostily towards the body: p. CCXXVII). More importantly, he tends to read the Hermetic content through his own lense of Neoplatonic Christianity (p. CCXXXVII); and one can see that, understandably enough, he looks to the Latin Asclepius as a model for his own translation (p. CCXLVII). 
In conclusion, even the most reliable version of Ficino's Pimander turns out to have been quite different from what we find in the Greek manuscript that had been brought to Florence by Leonardo da Pistoia (p. CCL). But what really messed up things for the thrice-greatest was the famous 1471 edition. In the wake of that disaster, and as the number of editions increased, the original meaning of the Corpus Hermeticum was bound to get buried under an ever-expanding number of mistranslations, misinterpretations, and well-meaning but counterproductive emendations. Hence, what we have is a lively Renaissance discourse about Hermes, but no Hermetic Tradition.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Of Essences and Energies


For some reason I am fascinated (dare I say “obsessed”?) by the history of the conflict between “paganism” and Christanity. Some years ago, when I discovered Gore Vidal’s novel about the 4th century pagan emperor Julian and his battle with the “Galileans,” I just couldn’t put the book out of my hands. This summer, sitting in the sun on my balcony and playing with my cats, I experienced a similar sense of excitement and fascination while reading a brandnew monograph about paganism and Christianity in the late Byzantine Empire. Niketas Siniossoglou’s Radical Platonism in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press 2011) is a provocative analysis of the Platonist philosopher / closet pagan George Gemistos Plethon and his battle with the Hesychast orthodoxy associated with Gregory Palamas. According to the Hesychast tradition, human beings are able to experience God’s “energies” in the world but not his ineffable “essence,” which exists beyond the boundary of Nature or the sphere of Being. The “supra-essential,” uncreated Light of the godhead could, nevertheless, be experienced in one’s heart and seen with one’s eyes, through radical psychophysical experiences of illumination (modeled after the experience of Jesus’ three apostles on Mount Thabor) that were supposed to be given by God’s grace in response to intense practice of spiritual techniques such as respiration control, concentration, uninterrupted prayer, and invocations of the name of Jesus. Siniossoglou argues that this perspective clashed with a hidden tradition of Platonic paganism that had been present in Byzantium for centuries and culminated in the writings of Plethon. Hesychasts aspired to a bodily experience of “entering within the uncreated light, seeing light and becoming light by divine grace” (p. 95), whereas Platonists aspired to “intellectual union with the divine, that is to say, the ecstatic ascent of the intellectual part of man alone, a process coinciding with the separation of soul and body (psychanodia)” (ibid.). The Hesychast attempt to keep Creator and Creation apart by distinguishing God’s uncreated essence from his energies was unacceptable for “pagan” Platonists: God’s energies could not be separate from his essence, and hence God could not transcend the sphere of Being but somehow had to be part of it. As such, he was not above nature, and his very essence should be accessible by the human mind or intellect in a state of “rational” ecstatic contemplation. In short, God could be known by the human mind’s natural faculties, whereas the Hesychasts claimed that God’s radically unknowable essence could only be experienced in a sensual but non-rational fashion through divine grace.
But is this distinction between Hesychast Christianity and Platonic Paganism really as sharp as Siniossoglou wants us to believe? Let me emphasize how much I admire the deep learning, penetrating intelligence, and profound analysis that is evident on every page of his book – not to mention the fact, of which I’m very much aware, that Siniossoglou’s knowledge in these domains is vastly superior to my own. The problems that I see do not have to do with his unquestionable expertise but, rather, with the intellectual background agenda that informs his analysis. It seems to consist of two parts: essentialism and rationalism. To begin with the first: surprisingly, and quite courageously given the prevailing climate in academic research, Siniossoglou argues with great passion, throughout his book, for a return to essentialism in the practice of intellectual history (p. xi, and passim): rather than blurring the boundaries between “Christianity” and “paganism,” we are asked to recognize them as “trans-historical paradigms” (p. xi) that ultimately cannot be mixed or combined because each of them answers to an intrinsically different internal logic. And secondly, Siniossoglou sees the paradigm of “Christianity” (here represented by Hesychast mysticism) as ultimately grounded in irrational attitudes and bizarre claims of experiential phenomena without serious epistemological import, whereas the paradigm of “paganism” reflects the kind of rational attitude that would ultimately lead to “modern epistemological optimism and utopianism” (p. x) and anticipates Spinoza and the Enlightenment (see the Epilogue, pp. 418-426).
Siniossoglou appears to think in terms of mutually exclusive binary opposites: it’s either essentialism or historicism (although admittedly he doesn’t use that term), either Christianity or paganism, either rationality or irrationality, and so on. As regards both his “essentialist” and his “rationalist” agenda, I would argue that this leads him to overlook the possibility of intermediary “third term” options. He is right that a methodology of extreme historicist relativism will ultimately leave us blind to fundamental deep structures and categorical distinctions that are at work in intellectual history; but on the other hand, if we take essentialism to an extreme, we end up with no more than theoretical abstractions divorced from historical reality and its messy complexities. To be honest, I suspect that Siniossoglou is too good a historian to be really the essentialist he professes to be: his actual approach seems quite compatible with the kind of history of ideas, or intellectual history, associated with Arthur O. Lovejoy's methodology, which manages to avoid both horns of the dilemma (for my basic line of argument in that regard, see this article, especially pp. 2-3 and 19). In short, Siniossoglou’s basic point is well taken, but I do not think he needs essentialist approaches to make it. As regards his rationalist agenda, I would question the double assumption that Hesychast mysticism had nothing to do with “knowledge” (because it was “irrational”) while Pagan/Platonic philosophy had nothing to do with “mysticism” (because it was “rational”). This simple opposition seems a projection of post-18th century Enlightenment assumptions back onto late medieval intellectual culture. Siniossoglou is certainly right in emphasizing that Plethon’s monist worldview left no room for a “super-essential” divine essence separate from Being, with the implication that human beings are not dependent on divine grace but possess an inborn, natural ability for gaining higher or absolute knowledge. But I’m not so convinced that this “epistemological optimism” is necessary “rational” in a sense that is reminiscent of Spinoza or the Enlightenment. We are dealing here with some form of ecstatic contemplation more akin to Platonic manía, as admitted by Siniossoglou himself. As an alternative to both Christian “faith” and philosophical “reason,” I would range it under a third category that could be referred to as “gnosis.”
Given his agenda of highlighting Plethon’s rationalism, it comes as no surprise that Siniossoglou seeks to downplay the relevance of authors such as Suhrawardi, who has often been mentioned as a background influence on Plethon, but who claimed that the Platonic quest culminated in visions that sound peculiarly similar to those of… the Hesychasts: “let [the philosopher] engage in mystical disciplines … that perchance he will, as one dazzled by the thunderbolt, see the light blazing in the Kingdom of Power and will witness the heavenly essences and lights that Hermes and Plato beheld” (Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, Walbridge & Ziai ed. [1999], 107-108). Again, it would seem to be the same rationalist agenda, combined with his essentialist methodology, that forces Siniossoglou to conclude that many later Platonists, such as Proclus, were not really Platonic, and not really “pagan” either! Their “introvert, defeatist and passive late antiquity Neoplatonism bordering on obscurantism” (p. 191) is, again, too close to Hesychasm for his taste, and too different from his idealized picture of a wholly rational Plato. Of course, Siniossoglou knows that there’s a different side to Plato as well, which would seem to imply “that man’s intellectual resources are not sufficient to know ‘the divine and lofty things’ but require ‘some sort of inspiration’ (ἐπίπνοια) that will illumine him and uplift him to that high level” (p. 177). Apparently, however, he seems prepared to draw the conclusion that whenever he falls short of the rationalist ideal, even Plato himself is not “really” a Platonist…
Be that as it may, and regardless of what one may think of its essentialist and rationalist subtexts, Radical Platonism in Byzantium is an eye-opener that deserves to be read and re-read. Apart from Plethon and Palamas, it introduced me to a whole range of deeply intriguing thinkers whose very names I had never heard before, let alone that I knew anything of their work or their ideas. If realizing the extent of one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, then this book is for anyone who aspires to become wise.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus

 
There is a popular stereotype about academics: they spend far too much of their time bickering endlessly about the meaning of terms. Shouldn’t they better dispense with such tedious foreplay and get straight on to their real business, addressing the topics themselves that they are supposed to be studying? It is not so easy to explain to non-academics that this is a naïve request, because those topics themselves are often not there in the first place, but are constructed by the very discourse in which they are being discussed. Take “Hermeticism”, or “the Hermetic Tradition”. Are we thinking here only of the Corpus Hermeticum and its commentaries, or do we also mean to include a whole range of alchemical writings attributed to the legendary author Hermes Trismegistus? Is such authorship essential for something to be “Hermetic”, or do we assume that since alchemy is known universally as “the Hermetic art”, Hermes does not even need to be mentioned? But if so, do alchemy and the Corpus Hermeticum really have that much in common, apart from the name? If so, what is it that they have in common? And what do we do with texts about astrology or natural magic attributed to the Thrice Greatest? Do they suddenly become “Hermetic” too, just because of that attribution, while texts with perfectly similar contents that happen to be attributed to some other author are not? That seems quite arbitrary. But then again, if we conclude that therefore we do not need a reference to Hermes to call something “Hermetic”, then what do we need in order to do so? Presumably something that all of these texts and traditions have in common, setting them apart from all others. But imagine that we will manage to establish some such common features (by which criteria? established by whom? why? with which arguments?), then will we still have any reason to call those common denominators “Hermetic” at all?
And so on, and so forth… I’m afraid that such a seemingly endless string of questions will only add more fuel to the already dim view that outsiders tend to have of academic discourse. And yet we really have no other choice than to deal with these terminological issues seriously. While reading a recent book by Peter-André Alt, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit [Imaginary Secret Knowledge: Studies of Hermetism in Early Modern Literary Texts], I was reminded that the problem gets complicated even further by the contingencies of how scholarly traditions have developed in different disciplines as well as in different countries and linguistic domains. In anglo-saxon research, the legacy of Frances A. Yates is absolutely unavoidable even for scholars (like myself) who disagree with almost everything she said; but for some reason, Yates’ seminal Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) never got translated into German, and neither the book nor all the discussions around it seem to have had much impact on the German debate. An entirely different scholarly tradition has emerged here in the field of literature instead, with entirely different arguments and assumptions, strongly influenced in this case by the pioneering work of Hans-Georg Kemper – who never got translated either, and remains almost unknown to non-German scholars. As a result, instead of an international scholarly debate about “Hermeticism” we have a series of local networks that hardly care to listen to what the others have to say. In the Humanities at least, this kind of provincialism is much more widespread than we might think: the Germans read German, the French read French, the Italians read Italian, the Russians read Russian, and so on – and none of them gets read by the English-speaking world. Of course I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of argument, but the pattern is a real one.  
In discussing how he plans to use the term Hermetismus in his book, Peter-André Alt, too, appears to think entirely in terms of German academic discourse. He takes his cue mostly from Hans-Georg Kemper and Wilhelm Kühlmann (p. 13, 15), both of them very impressive scholars whose work would deserve to be much better known beyond the German domain. Now Kühlmann appears to understand Hermetismus in a very broad sense, as including more or less everything that tends to be discussed in current English-language research under the label of early modern “esotericism” (see his programmatic article ‘Der “Hermetismus” als literarische Formation: Grundzüge seiner Rezeption in Deutschland’, Scientia Poetica 3 [1999], 145-157), but Alt rejects that terminology because he finds it anachronistic. While he expresses some objections to my way of approaching the problems of definition and categorization, I suspect that my recent work (Esotericism and the Academy, published in the same year as Alt’s book and hence not accessible to him at the time) might perhaps put some of them to rest. Be that as it may, I think that Alt’s resistance against the “esotericism” label has to do not only with a (quite justified) fear of anachronistic reasoning, but at least as much with the simple fact that his own field of specialization is restricted to the early modern period. As a result, he and his colleagues do not need to bother about the longue durée of the traditions they study, and can dispense with the problem of finding a term that covers all of it. In a solid discussion written by Alt in collaboration with Volkhard Wels, published in a multi-author companion volume Konzepte des Hermetismus in der Literatur der Frühen Neuzeit(2010), this point is acknowledged explicitly (p. 8).
What then is Alt’s approach? On the one hand, he wants to use a much more restrictive and precise definition of Hermetismus than Kühlmann: he emphasizes repeatedly that his book will be grounded in ‘a determination of Hermetism based on exact source-philological criteria … based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’ (p. 21). On the face of it, then, his book will be concerned exclusively with the reception history of the C.H. in early modern literary texts. The reception of alchemical materials, including the Tabula Smaragdina, is strictly excluded (p. 21). However, it would seem that this ambition of applying great philological/source-critical rigour suffers shipwreck immediately, for a simple reason: it just so happens, Alt points out, that we rarely find any ‘direct textual references’ to the C.H. in early modern literature at all (p. 16)! Instead, we are seldom dealing with more than indirect ‘allusions [Anspielungen] and the hidden use of central patterns of argumentation’ (pp. 16-17, cf. 23). If this is the case, then doesn’t it make Alt’s apparently so severe program of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung des Hermetismus (p. 21) impossible from the outset? It would seem hard to draw any other conclusion, until one realizes that Alt has opened a narrow escape route in the final words of the quotation given above: ‘… based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum and its topoi’.
So what are those topoi? Alt first mentions three criteria of what he, for reasons best known to himself, considers to be particularly “Hermetic” (the logos doctrine, the central function of inspiration, and the special importance of doxa transmitted from teacher to pupil [21]), and continues by mentioning some ‘specifically literary topoi through which Hermetic traces are passed on: to these belong secrecy, reading the Book of Nature, androgyny, the self-reflection of poetic production or the brooding silence of melancholy’ (p. 23). Judging from such a description, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Kühlmann’s wide and inclusive understanding of Hermetismus has silently returned through the back door. For if all these “topoi” are supposed to be “Hermetic” – but unfortunately, Alt never explains what it is that makes them “Hermetic”, or in what sense –, then the term Hermetismus becomes so vague and all-encompassing as to be virtually meaningless. In short, I’m afraid that Alt’s laudable project of a quellenphilologisch exakte Bestimmung based strictly on the Corpus Hermeticum vanishes into thin air even before it is put to the test.
In some other respects, too, the quellenphilologische foundations are less secure than one might think at first sight. I would not dare to question Alt’s expertise in early modern German literature, in which he undoubtedly knows his business, but it must be said that his knowledge of the Corpus Hermeticum and its early modern reception is rather flimsy, and the same goes for his familiarity with non-German scholarship in this domain. Amazingly, Alt never seems to have noticed that the C.H. consists not of ‘insgesamt 18 Traktate’ (p. 25, 26, 27) but of only seventeen (the first editor of the Greek text, Adrien Turnèbe, created a fifteenth treatise out of some Hermetic excerpts from Stobaeus, but this was seen as artificial by later editors, who left it out again but kept the numbering: hence the absence of a C.H. XV). And although Lodovico Lazzarelli (the translator of the final three treatises of the C.H., not included in Ficino’s Pimander) figures prominently in the very title of Alt’s Chapter 2, it seems that all he knows about this figure – who is in fact crucial when it comes to the quellenphilologische foundations of Renaissance Hermetism – is taken indirectly from Hanns-Peter Neumann’s problematic review (in Scientia Poetica 12 [2008], 315-322) of the main contemporary monograph on Lazzarelli, published by yours truly in collaboration with Ruud Bouthoorn in 2005. I really need to set the record straight here, for almost everything that Alt writes about Lazzarelli and my own work is wrong.
Most of Alt's mistakes have their origin in Neumann himself, who, for reasons unknown to me, seemed determined to present our book on Lazzarelli in the most negative light possible. Sitting on a very high horse, he complained first of all about the ‘Lässigkeit und Mangelhaftigheit’ of our ‘incomplete and partly incorrect’ bibliography (p. 318). What was the problem? Well, we appear to have overlooked one title: Alselm Stoeckel’s 1582 edition of Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetis (attached to his Epithalamion and therefore easy to miss). There is no reason, however, why we should have mentioned all the later reprints of Lefèvre d’Étaples’ famous 1505 edition, although Neumann thinks we should; and most importantly, before accusing us of a mistake as elementary as getting the date of Gabriel du Preau’s French translation wrong, he should have taken the trouble to consult the book itself. It was first published in 1549, exactly as indicated in our bibliography, and not in 1557 as claimed by Neumann on the basis of the French National Library Catalogue. So much for the ‘Lässigheit und Mangelhaftigkeit’ of our bibliography, which then inspires Neumann to express doubts about the quality of our translations as well (but what is the connection?) only to end up concluding, apparently to his surprise, that those doubts are unfounded and we do know our Latin after all... As for Lazzarelli’s Corpus Hermeticum translation, known as the Diffinitiones Asclepii, Neumann’s knowledge of it does not reach as far as the information that, as already noted above, it contains no C.H. XV (p. 316, 319); and if he had read our sloppy and faulty bibliography a bit better, he would have known that the Diffinitiones were published by C. Vasoli in E. Castelli's Umanesimo e esoterismo in 1960. Hence his claim that we have failed to grasp the chance of ‘doing pioneering work’ on these translations (p. 319) rests on nothing. Not a word of appreciation, by the way, about the series of critical editions and annotated translations of previously unavailable texts, including several manuscripts, that we did publish in our book.
Incompetent reviews [sometimes written by competent scholars, as happens to be the case here] are a fact of academic life, and are better ignored in most cases. They become a problem if renowned scholars take them seriously, and rely on them in lieu of reading the book itself, particularly if this happens in a monograph. Unfortunately, such is the case here. A relatively minor issue is that Neumann and Alt both present me as ignoring the “neoplatonic” nature of the Corpus Hermeticum while attributing neoplatonic interpretations only to Ficino (Neumann p. 320; Alt p. 26 nt 39): in doing so, they seem to conflate the well-known middle-Platonic backgrounds of the C.H. with properly neo-Platonic interpretations in the wake of Plotinus. More serious is Alt’s completely incorrect claim that Lazzarelli’s Crater is about ‘the idea of transmigration’ (Alt p. 26), quod non, or his misleading description of Lazzarelli as ‘a pupil of the alchemist Giovanni da Correggio’ (it is only at a very late stage that both men seem to have developed an interest in pseudo-Lullian alchemy: Correggio was essentially a wandering apocalyptic prophet and miracle man). In fact, these few mistaken statements are all that we get to read about Lazzarelli at all. Nothing indicates that Alt ever read our book, and hence he misses quite some information that could actually have been useful to some of his later arguments, for instance about Poimandres as the Logos (cf. pp. 30-31).
I prefer not to go into detail about a range of further statements, later on in the same chapter, about the Corpus Hermeticum and its contents: this blogpost is already getting far too long. The points I have been trying to make are simple. Firstly: Hermeticism is an extremely complicated topic, both historically and conceptually, and the sine qua non in writing about it consists in careful study of the primary sources in their original languages together with equally careful study of the secondary sources in their original languages. And secondly: the imperative of always going ad fontes pertains not only to the former category, but to the latter as well. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Desire for Beauty

This week I have been re-reading Der Tod in Venedig. Thomas Mann has been my favourite German author for several decades now, but my memory of this particular novel had receded almost completely behind the more recent experience of watching Luchino Visconti’s famous movie of 1971. Because I happened to be reading a contemporary novel at the same time – Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (in this case I had seen the movie first) – I was reminded once more that one should never allow one’s standards of quality to be determined by the average level of good and professional writing, but only by the example of truly great authors. No offence intended to Martel, who is competent enough as a writer, but obviously Mann is in a different league altogether. It had been some time since I had read prose of such superior beauty, and the experience brought me straight back to one of my long-term topics of interest and reflection: the nature of beauty and erotic desire. For that, of course, is what Mann’s novel is all about. It tells the deceptively simple story of a famous writer, Gustav Aschenbach, who, following a sudden impulse, decides to escape from his daily work discipline to take a holiday in Venice, where he falls under the fatal spell of an incredibly beautiful teenage boy, Tadzio, who is staying with his family in the same hotel. They never exchange a word. All that Aschenbach does is watching his “idol” from a distance during dinner, on the beach, or during sightseeing tours through the city. When the great man finally succumbs to cholera, while sitting in his chair on the beach, Tadzio is hovering in front of him on the edge between earth, water, and sky, as a luminous figure – Hermes the Psychagoge – beckoning him across the threshold between life and death.
Mann’s lifelong struggle with his homoerotic desires is a key to his oeuvre (see the brilliant biography by Herman Kurzke, which cannot be recommended highly enough, even if it might go just a bit too far in reducing Mann’s Urkram entirely to sexual/erotic repression and sublimation), and his allusions to Plato’s Phaedrus are obvious and wholly explicit. Therefore I decided to re-read that dialogue as well, in a good translation by Robin Waterfield. What I knew best was the famous center part about the four divine frenzies, the chariot of the soul, and its “wings of desire” that start growing in the presence of beauty (cf. Wim Wenders’s movie of that title, known as Der Himmel über Berlin in German). This time I paid more attention to the first parts as well. First Phaedrus recounts a speech by the famous orator Lysias, who argues that an older man who desires a younger boy should take care not to lose his wits by actually falling in love with him, but should keep a cool head and just get what he wants. It’s essentially a cynical argument that highlights the risks and disadvantages of losing one’s reason in the pursuit of sex. Socrates responds by coming up with a speech of his own, which emphasizes that the lover’s erotic passion is disadvantageous and risky to the beloved as well.
Now just imagine. There they are, the older man Socrates and the young attractive Phaedrus, lying in the soft grass under a great tree outside the gates of Athens, far from any prying eyes, and reaching a clear conclusion: one should not give in to the irrational passion of erotic desire! It is precisely at this point that Socrates is interrupted by his inner daimon, who tells him that the tale he has just been telling is utterly false: he has committed a terrible offense against the great God of Love, and should do penance. And so he does, by launching into a speech with an entirely different message, which praises not reasonable restraint but the frenzied state of erotic madness (mania) as a divine condition that leads to true and lasting knowledge. By gazing upon a beautiful human body, the soul is reminded of the absolute beauty that it has once beheld when it was still travelling in the company of the gods along the outer rim of the heaven. From there it could gaze into the region beyond heaven, which “has never yet been adequately described in any of our earthly poets’ compositions, nor will it ever be”: this is the home of absolute unchanging and everlasting beauty, of which the passing images of corporeal beauty in this temporal world can give only a reflection. This beauty is the proper divine nourishment for the wings of the soul: at the sight of a beautiful human body, they spontaneously begin to grow, getting ready to carry the soul upwards back to its divine origin.
It’s a splendid narrative, compellingly beautiful in its very analysis of beauty. Reading Plato’s Phaedrus again, in conjunction with Thomas Mann Tod in Venedig, I couldn’t help musing about the incredible power of ideas. The impact of this relatively short dialogue can hardly be overstated, and regardless of its beauty (or, rather, because of it?) it must be admitted that its effects have been far from just positive. Firstly, Plato’s insistence that we must find beauty beyond the body has given legitimacy to Christian obsessions with sex and sin, at least since Augustine, leading to pervasive mechanisms of repression and sublimation that are the object of psychoanalysis and remain omnipresent in our society to the present day. Secondly, the narrative simply denies beauty to women; and while this would eventually be corrected, when Platonism got heterosexualized into a veritable “religion of beauty in woman” – medieval chivalric ideals of “courtly love”, some currents of Sufism, Renaissance Platonism after Ficino, Romanticism – it remains doubtful, to say the least, whether the masculine gaze can at all be translated into a feminine gaze on corporeal beauty (whether masculine or feminine) – or whether it should. And finally, the Platonic ideal of love has led to an implicit “complicity with death” at least since German Romanticism: perhaps beginning with Justinus Kerner (an underestimated pioneer: see pp. 236-237 here), eros has been implicated with illness and death, because only through dissolution of the body is it supposed to be possible for the soul to reach its true destiny. Nobody knew this better than Thomas Mann himself, for not just Tod in Venedig but also its splendid hetero-erotic counterpart Tristan, and indeed his entire oeuvre – particularly Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, which really diagnose the cultural pathologies underlying World War I and II respectively – can be read as testimony to a persistent struggle with the human, moral, and ultimately political implications of Platonic eros. There is something awe-inspiring (literally numinous) in the realization that, in some very real sense, so much of the essential drama of Western culture may have its origin in a frenzied conversation between two Greek philosophers, lying under a shady tree on a lazy afternoon, talking about love.