Tragedy I (1 SEPT 2005; edited 5 JUL 2007)

There is a political message in Inferno XXIV: “Now you must cast aside your laziness / … / … for he who rests on down / or under covers cannot come to fame; / and he who spends his life without renown / leaves such a vestige of himself on earth / as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water”. But this “renown”, as Hegel showed us, is only the reciprocal recognition of one’s love in the world. One loves the world by becoming its mirror (I wonder if the converse is true). That the intrepid wanderer refers himself to the Christ is well-known; this is why Dante’s Christianity prefigured Hegel by 500 years.

Dante’s “io sol uno” becomes, in Montaigne, “je le recite [l’homme]”. Montaigne describes a man and not, as Rousseau, of man. Thus the innocent naïveté of Montaigne vis-à-vis the totalitarian naivete of Rousseau. “If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself,” Montaigne says, “I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself!” What could be farther from the modernity that has come to us in the guise of bourgeois liberal democracy? Mimesis is mandatory because we are never ‘outside’ the world. Auerbach was on to something here; so too was Nietzsche who asked whether he could show us this world—this “zoological monstrosity” as Jameson says—in his mirror. But as we know, it was Nietzsche’s own shadow that drove him to madness. … And perhaps that is the fate of any truly ethical engagement with the world.

A friend of mine likes to say she is “broken”, as if this were an insight. We “pull ourselves together” every morning. We do it better or worse, but we must do it constantly. There are times we “lose ourselves”, but is not psychic activity nothing else than the assemblage of an identity in fragments? There is, as Bergson points out, only memory.

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One thought on “Tragedy I (1 SEPT 2005; edited 5 JUL 2007)

  1. (4 OCT 2005)Merleau-Ponty reads Montaigne in the same way: “The critique of human understanding destroys [thought] only if we cling to the idea of a complete or absolute understanding. If on the contrary we rid ourselves of this idea, then thought in act, as the only possible thought, becomes the measure of all things and the equivalent of an absolute”.Even someone like Oakeshott (a rare case when an Englishman understood the French) can appeal to Montaigne and Pascal as exemplars of an Other to the familiar story of modernity. (What is innovative about Oakeshott is his ability to take Hobbes–typically considered as much a bastion of modernity as Descartes–and even Hegel and place them alongside his critique of rationalism à la Pascal.) The essayist, the fragmentary, the always questioning, always troubled Montaigne is nothing other than the voice of the ethical predicament in which we as responsible human beings find ourselves. But Montaigne describes (and discovers) only himself–not “Man”. It is left to us severally to undertake that walk ourselves. We have only the words of Dante’s earnest guide as Dante emerges from Hell: “Get up … be on your feet: / the way is long, the path is difficult …” (Inferno XXXIV)

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