Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teaching Honors Philosophy, Fall 2014

This semester is the final variation of this story I've been telling my students, the story of death and the response to it. {{The august winds blow chilly and cold / September I remember}} I think this semester has the final version because it's given me an answer.

Parmenides really helped push the turnover. Or, really, it's the way Karl Popper reads Parmenides and tells that story. It's one of those moments where you recognize how the universe has been lining up things by passing through our scattering from the light. Pain has its purposes.

In a world where we now tell ourselves to question every ideology, every dogma, every advertisement, we rarely ever ask ourselves why we don't question the light:

"Who made you god?"

At the end of True Detective, Rust Cohle says "The light is winning." I cried during that scene when I first saw it. The show meant a lot more to me than I realize, but including an episode in the class helped me remember how it fits the story. Thinking about it, there is this aftertaste I have. I got really thirsty, and I drank a Coke. It was good so far, but the ending. The ending to the whole first season was not satisfying. Why? Everything about what the burnt-out dark husk/host of Rust and of Coal said made a lot of sense. Reflecting for a long, long time on Pascal, being the same age and having some small sense of a body wearing down he must have felt in his final years, I came to the same conclusions. Either there is a god, or its some kind of transdimensional criminal conspiracy. A con. A deceit. It's not even a joke. That's where people started to get it, denied it, and just had to laugh in it. But laughter only got us so far. We're here now. This is actually all there is. And it's a conspiracy to deceive us. But True Detective can't take that last step in its last moment?

Then it's not truly detecting what's worse than obvious. The light isn't real. Nothing is actually moving. We're already not alive at all. None of this is actually happening.

The light dazzles us to think that all of this it shows to us is what we must hold onto at all costs. It says we won a prize. It shows us how it sparkles. It makes us think it's ours forever. But

It takes this away from us immediately by turning its back on us, and the light leaves the world in darkness. It pulls away all the dazzling, all the shining, all the sparkling, all the intensity of that one single instant of light.

All of that, that's what we've got to lose. While I was writing this, "Judy Blue Eyes" played over the Pandora connection. Here's the lyrics to a section:

Remember what we've said
And done and felt about each other
Oh babe, have mercy
Don't let the past
Remind us of what we are not now
I am not dreaming
I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are
You make it hard

In the context of the class, how all of this works together is, again, just how it seems all things line up.

The light makes it hard. It makes us think about what does not exist. It makes us believe in the Void. By taking itself away from us, it curses us to see what cannot be seen. It makes us believe it's possible to be something that isn't real. It makes us believe there is a gap in the world, preventing us from being one with the being in the distance: the tree, the sky, the lover, the self. That's the illusion. None of what we sense is real. None of the changes and the movements and the loss is happening. Nothing's ever moved away and only ever further away. We're not removed from any of it at all. It's all the same one thing.

So, do not see with the light. See the world as you see it blind. See it for what is true without the lie of the light.

In the darkness, there is. Something is there in the night.

But, there is a very old fear we humans have

Like Cohle says at the end of the episode "The Locked Room"

There's a monster at the end of it.

Yes. I think there is wisdom in this.

There is further wisdom in accepting what Parmenides is proving: "This already happened."

Taoism I juxtapose with Parmenides. Both of them have a lot to say about counterintuitive thinking. Both of them have different conclusions about the void. Taoism is a bit more open to the void. Parmenides is very much not for the void—at least if Popper is even marginally correct.

Reading this Popper article more closely brought out some fascinating metaphors and phrasings; reading Blumenberg heavily has intensified my appreciation for noticing the implicit threads of metaphorical webs throughout our meanings. Otherwise, we get stuck on them, they get stuck on us. It's hard to let go of what sticks to you. Popper speaks of the world as a block. He uses 'blockhead' to compare with how 'doublehead' meant things to Parmenides' audience. Popper is contemporaneous with Charlie Brown being a thing, so he knows what level of insult it is to call someone a blockhead.

But what is a blockhead? It's someone whose head is full. They can't adapt. They can't flex. They can't try new things. They are stupid in predictable ways. Charlie Brown will never be rebooted into a near-contemporary hip character, the way they do Yogi Bear or The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the monomyth's hero—the one who hears the O. He's locked in time. Eventually, he'll no longer mean anything to the kids he's supposed to represent. Plato is exactly right: if it's written down as "timeless values" it'll never actually be timeless. Charlie Brown will be irrelevant. Blockheads will be irrelevant. Nothing that does not adapt survives.

Popper, I cannot tell if this is irony or not, thinks blockhead is a comparable insult to the word used by the Goddess who reveals the static, unchanging Truth to Parmenides: doublehead. One reason why I can't tell if he's being serious or not is because Popper is himself in the article talking about Parmenides being extremely sarcastic, sarcastic enough that Aristotle of all interpreters misunderstands the point and fixes his own words: from our senses being always-erring to always-humbled.

This is significant, since Popper understands Parmenides as beguiled by the "making propaganda" of the Goddess, who is saying that nothing ever changes is the truth, and the illusion is the light. He says that this propaganda is "delivered by the goddess with divine authority, but not in the spirit of dogmatism. The listener, Parmenides, is treated as a critical thinker. The appeal is to his intellect, and perhaps to his intellectual pride" [69, World of Parmenides].

But what if that is the illusion? What if the illusion is precisely that the world is an illusion? Popper's language, I cannot really tell yet, slips all over the place and flirts so close to being baldly inconsistent. Frustratingly. How can he not see his own language is just tripping him into these kinds of conclusions about the lie about the light? There is a particular kind of ego satisfaction in knowing something nobody else knows, in knowing exactly inside you what only you alone have decided about reality. Parmenides, and thus Popper himself by presenting the story in the life of Parmenides, is being seduced into this deeper illusion of knowing one's self as knowing something another does not.

I mean, think about it. Isn't there usually this scene? A very weird scene, where the one character pretends to hide or obscure something and says "I know something you don't know." The power in the threat of concealment. The power of hiding something away. It is the littlest of the tricks the ego can pull. What is the particular thing Parmenides knows that we don't know? Parmenides knows via the Goddess revealing it to him that nothing really matters. This has already always happened. The Heideggereans infect us with a certain temporality in that phrase... this makes sense, since disclosure/unconcealment of truth is fundamentally temporal for Heidegger. "First, it was hidden. Then, it was revealed. I have seen the Light, Lord." —A good German, indeed, where religion counts.

So that's why I'm also fascinated with the subtle commentary in "Bohemian Rhapsody." The rhapsode, according to how Socrates goes about it, is a particular way of talking about what's unknown, this way making someone feel like they understood without actually informing or being based on facts. There's a resignation and sadness to the narrator for most of the song. A way I used to hear the song went along these lines: he's given up. He's suffered. He can't go on. He doesn't want to be alive and wish he wasn't born. It's nihilism. The particular reasons why he wants this, I had from my friend Russ a theory about it: he thinks Mercury's narrator has just had oral sex with a man as a man. The lyrics fit in an amazing way. With that insight, the entire story of the rhapsody comes across as this man wanting out, to be let go by someone else, someone who doesn't want him as he is but wants him as the way he isn't. There is this subtext: if you hate me so much, why not just let me go? But the answer is so loud, and yet another responding the challenge comes from another party, other parties: "We will not let you go / Let him go" [my emphasis there].

The narrator resigns himself. Not to pretend in the fantasy of the community, whatever that's supposed to be. He's not going to pretend believing in God. He's not going to pretend believing in Morality. He's not going to pretend believing in Traditional Expectations and Demands.

He's going to carry on as if nothing really matters.

(Things matter.)

The illusion for the rhapsody's narrator is that nothing matters. Nothing changes. None of this is real. This isn't happening.

(Things happen.)

But the Light has taken over the truth and made it a lie. I think Parmenides is right about that; I think Popper is right about that, too. But this does not mean the Night is the truth, either. For just as Parmenides shows the turning of the moon is an illusion of light, when in truth there is no movement at all (is he wrong? This becomes an ideological question), the argument here I'm making shows the heavy weight in the darkness is also an illusion of sensation, just in the other senses: in this case, proprioception, touch, sound, even taste.

If the senses are illusion machines and not to be trusted over reason and logic, logic and reason being the only means we have to learn the "cold, hard facts" about the world, then we cannot even say meaningfully of the real that it is cold and hard and massive. Those are the senses—in full acceptance of the erotic meaning I'm flirting at here—being turned on.

Plato retains this erotic route to knowing the other by saying it fucks us, impregnates us, and we give birth to the children in our minds of this encounter: the ideas has sex with us to reproduce knowledge. I didn't read Derrida's comments about Plato and the pharmakon, and maybe I'll do so one day. But why didn't he write about this part? Here's the tension in Plato: not how knowledge is written on us when writing is bad, but why knowledge is born through us when men—who are in nearly every way superior to women by the cultures of the time—do not have uteruses to know what it actually means to give labor to a life.

Parmenides, on the other hand, according to Popper, rejects and sarcastically mocks sensuality in any way being connected with the Truth. It's not acceptable for the misleading senses to continue being allowed to fool us, so the argument Popper makes goes. "It fuses the Way of Truth and the Way of Conjectures into one well-articulated — but pessimistic — whole work. Parmenides sees life in all its warmth and movement and beauty and poetry. But the icy truth is death" [73].

Is it? Is it really, Popper?

He ends his essay with a "brief assessment." He opened with high praise of his younger self being fascinated with Parmenides, whom he meets, the way you meet an older student who is so cool and has all the right moves, and being overwhelmed:

I first met Parmenides . . . in a German translation by Wilhelm Nestle, famous as the editor of the later editions of Zeller's magnum opus. I was 15 or 16 years old, and I was overwhelmed by the meeting. Here were the first steps that led to Newton. The verses I liked best were Parmenides' story of Selene's love for radiant Helios. But I did not like it that the translation made the Moon male and the sun female (according to the genders of their German names), and it occurred to me to give the couplet in German a title like 'Moongoddess and Sungod', or perhaps 'Selene and Helios', in order to rectify the genders.

Rectify them. Fix them. To tell the story better, he had to change the uncomfortable impassivity of the male and the lying radiance of the female. The better story, so Popper tells us, is actually a more classic one: a lying man makes the lady shimmer, and we believe the shimmer. We want the shimmering illusion.

But Popper was overwhelmed. By what? Why would it feel better for a young boy Popper to have the guy lie and the woman impassable? Why does he tell us he has "never looked at Selene without working out how her gaze does indeed turn towards Helios' rays (though he is often below the horizon). I have always remembered Parmenides with gratitude" [68].

But is he? By the end of this essay, we've left this behind. Popper declares the Goddess as speaking propaganda through Parmenides. He ends his essay with such amazing tension, but I have to quote the last paragraph entirely.

But the war still continues, the war of observation and experiment against theory, of believers in sense perception against thinkers; both within science and within scholarship.

"We have always been at war with sensuality. We have always been at war with the people who choose the body."

Popper ends this, by resorting to actually being propaganda. Is this irony? Is it, intentional?

He parenthetically suggests in a squirreled endnote [pg 78] to his essay his hypothesis is a dream. A hypothesis. What is that? It's you imagining what would happen if things weren't like they are right now. You might have, maybe, connected the hypothesis as close as you can, but it's still not what's immediately available to you through the senses. It's a belief in something the senses say is not real. It's believing in the darkness as its reality, on its own terms. You have to see how distanced he keeps himself from this odd admission:

My favourite hypothesis (or shall I say 'dream'?) to explain the language of Parmenides is that he was brought up with and by a beloved blind sister, older by three years, who at 11 took full charge of him. Something like this may explain her great influence.

This has to be sarcasm of a kind I don't know anything about. There are so many layers of irony in this statement. I need to read much more Popper to make heads or tails of this, but it seems to me that you've got this in an endnote, inside an imaginary list of favored hypotheses with this being the favorite, asked as a question inside a parenthesis, a something given a name even though it doesn't exist except in the mind. That's what the Goddess is exactly saying is forbidden. We cannot name the void. We cannot name what does not exist. There's nothing there to name. Nothing at all. Popper gives it a name, shyly.

Why? Why this story? What a story it is! Is it close? How close is it to Popper's own life, or neighbors, or, dare I say, his 'dream'?

How do we go in Popper's mind from a glorious romance of overwhelmed emotions falling in love with a man who worships the unchanging, by letting the propaganda and exploitation of his mind by an self-accountable divine woman happen as already always happened? That the particular genders make him comfortable when we tell it this way?

I don't know. But, boy, do I love the goddesses tonight.

This is going to be a great semester.

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