“You must change your life” (Characters III)

1. The hand moves with the slightest and even unconscious impetus but the will refuses to budge, even with our best intentions. To explain how the mind moves the body is one of the easy problems; how, instead, is it possible for the mind to move itself? We resolve and yet we return again; we realize our true intentions and yet we persist; we notice that we have failed to satisfy our commitments even as we thought we had. “Whence this [monstrosity]*”, Augustine asked, that “the mind commands the mind to will, the mind is itself, but it does not do it”. The riddle and the solution are presented in a simple reductio: to move itself, the mind must be divided against itself and yet also, to be itself, unified as one mind. The conclusion – the “binding problem” – is inescapable: either we are called to act from beyond our will (perhaps even and especially in its desolation) or we must accept that the mind is not itself.

*Monstrum, which means both “monstrous” but also “wonder” in the sense of oddity.

Perhaps outside Freud, no one struggled with the reality of the divided mind more than Schopenhauer, for whom the human tragedy – which is not to say miracle – is the fact that consciousness arose from nature at all. There is perhaps no greater cruelty than the fact that whether by nature or freedom – it makes no difference which – we are never what we (think we) are, which is no mere hypocrisy but a necessary condition of our consciousness. This realization occurs in those rare moments when the spell is broken and we learn that every comfort has its price in complacency. These disappointments are often, however, not akratic but inertial: hours and weeks have passed blindly. Yet shame is a poor motivator and transforms the impulse to negate into the compulsion to repeat: we find that we are looking into the same eyes, after all, that we have returned to the same place, or that we are making the same confession yet again because we are incomplete:

for if the will were so in its fullness [plena], it would not command itself to will, for it would already will. It is therefore no monstrousness, partly to will, partly not to will, but a sickness of the soul to be so weighted down by [habit]** that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth. (Augustine)

Even when our reserves and our excuses are depleted, habit binds us inexorably to the existence in which we wallow, sunken into the past by persistent, unconscious recollection in every distraction and enjoyment. We “repeat backward”, in Kierkegaard’s formulation, seeking redemption for the past in the past as if what is missing can be brought to light as long as we persist.

**Consuetudo, which also can mean sexual intercourse.

There are moments, however, when we must stop, not because the next step is perilous but because it is not. “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”, Camus observed. The nihilist and the misologist agree that thought is an arrest of life but for the wrong reason. It is not the ground itself that we must fear but we invite peril when we turn our gaze upward toward the sun. Life already tends toward death, particularly when we walk timidly with our eyes lowered. Thought endangers life by rejecting it, yes, but Camus’ famous remark that suicide is the only “truly serious” philosophical problem has often been misunderstood: the real danger is not that of a future devoid of meaning but, rather, that we may not be worthy of a future at all.

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” (Adorno)

2. But is not the secret of redemption that we are never ready for it? “No one knows the hour” because the future – a true future beyond the sempiternal event of Christ – explodes ex nihilo not from the present but which is immediately captured by memory. We anticipate this future by what Kierkegaard called repetition: “when one says that life is a repetition, one says: actuality, which has been, now comes into existence”. Repetition inverts the causal order by transforming what was actual in the past into what was only possible until now – now, as we become who we were. Despair is simply recollection without repetition; death is life without redemption.

We can will (toward) death, certainly, but we must be called to redemption. But what calls for redemption? Our vocation is neither to preserve nor to care but, rather, to change.

Rodin torso

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not gleam like a wild beast’s fur;
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
[Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, tr. Stephen Mitchell]

The stone commands us, Rilke says, when we no longer regard it as a thing but when the divine idea “bursts like a star” as the objectification of the beauty of which we are capable, imago dei. The gods speak to us by speaking through us; but against the desire for unification (from Hegel to Feuerbach), the blessing of divine inspiration compels this alienation of the divine as sacrifice.

Yet Hegel was surely right to see that this alienation is an impossible separation, for it at once demands perfection while denying its achievement (as all erotic demands do). But we are not called not toward perfection (which would be unity and harmony) and the desire to be God is narcissistic and solipsistic at best. The force of the command consists in the fact that we do not know for what we must change because, after all, if we knew that much we would already be what we are trying to become.

We must change because we are not living rightly. But what demands this change is often not an experience of beauty but one of suffering. In both cases it is not my own life that calls for change but the face of another or the silence of the dispossessed: it is not they but I who am not living rightly. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”, Adorno observed, because we have no claim to happiness at the cost of responsibility. Yes, I must change my life, not to be happy with it but to be worthy of it.

The minor imperative

Williams’ accusation that morality is a “peculiar institution” is no more evident than in Schopenhauer’s reduction of freedom to guilt and accountability. The determination of will in an empirical character accounts for both the phenomenal individuality of action and, therefore, its (empirical) necessity while at the same time remaining fully within the Kantian solution to the antinomy of freedom: insofar as we regard ourselves as noumenon our reflective experience manifests as will and yet transcendental freedom is real only as a particular feeling.

Kant was fully aware, however, of the highly mediated nature of self-affection. Morality is only possible by virtue of the weakness of reflection and a fundamental passion first proposed by Shaftesbury. For Shaftesbury, the moral sense is a reflective affection: not the capacity for generosity, e.g., but the affirmation of such a desire. The capacity to be so moved, Kant argues, however, is itself an act of reason. Yet Kant insists equally on the mind’s receptivity, e.g., to the moral ideas as the condition for reason’s activity. Similarly, in the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant observes that the mind must be “attuned” to the feeling of the sublime in a way that requires the influence of culture (even if it is not produced by it) “in something that, along with common sense, we may require and demand of everyone, namely, the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to moral feeling”. Unlike the beautiful, the inadequacy of the sensibility to the infinite requires the “dominance” of reason “for the sake of expanding it [sensibility] commensurately with reason’s own domain (the practical one)”. The role of such an elevated sensibility is not cognitive but, rather, conative since its object is not found in nature (or, for that matter, even the idea of nature); instead it is the terror of the infinity of reason’s practical task itself that morality must transform from fatalism to action. The binding force of the categorical imperative requires

the determinability of the subject by this idea—the determinability, indeed, of a subject who can sense within [herself], as a modification of [her] state, obstacles in sensibility, but at the same time [her] superiority to sensibility in overcoming these obstacles, which determinability is moral feeling—is nevertheless akin to the aesthetic power of judgment and its formal conditions inasmuch as it allows us to present the lawfulness of an act done from duty as aesthetic also …

The Christian passion gives us an image of this conatus that explodes the encircling tendency of self-affection in the agony of the one who must suffer for the love of humanity. Such love is one of the moral feelings that made the mind receptive to the imperatives of duty, which appear simultaneously as if from the outside (from desperation and weakness) but also as if from the inside (from the strength of will to be moved from a noble self-respect). The will moved from duty is moved irresistibly by the appeal of humanity’s fragility and the horror of its reduction to bare life and such a will is ultimately bereaved by the passion of suffering.

But if the possibility of morality were predicated on actual suffering it would not be transcendental. The appeal of suffering has its power not from its exceptionality but rather in its ubiquity and invisibility. The cry of anguish reveals suffering too late and morality passes too easily into retribution for the fact of suffering or else we are moved merely by pity. Suffering has a transcendental role when precarity transforms cosmic fatalism into a love for humanity.

Yet humanity is never given; it must be perpetually constructed. This is why the sublime is propaedeutic for the impossible task of the transcendental imagination: to experience the inadequacy of its own power to cognize the ideas of reason as the necessity of acquiescing to reason’s practical task: “the imagination thereby acquires an expansion and a might that surpasses the one it sacrifices; but the basis of this might is concealed from it; instead the imagination feels the sacrifice or deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is being subjugated”.* Kant insists that the sublime is primarily not to be found in nature—and especially takes pains to warn us against adolescent awe at the night sky as diminishing us to insignificant specks (for such judgments are teleological and not aesthetic)—but in the formality of the idea.

*Or: “the object of a pure and unconditioned intellectual liking is the moral law in its might, the might that it exerts in us over any and all of those incentives of the mind that precede it. This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation—though one that serves our inner freedom—in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee).”

This formality is necessarily dialectically incomplete: “aesthetic purposiveness is the lawfulness of the power of judgment in its freedom. [Whether we then] like the object depends on [how] we suppose the imagination to relate [to it]; but [for this liking to occur] the imagination must on its own sustain the mind in a free activity” (translator’s interpolations). But, thus undetermined by experience, the reflective mind is faced by its own fundamental passivity, which, however, is logical and not temporal: it is always inferred from its effects. The liberation of ideas from sensible experience makes possible pure acts of expression whose constraints are not the usual conditions of discursive consistency but the endurance of an imagination whose activity is never applied to the given. The constants of expression are suspended and thought is turned from appearances toward the shadows: not to be dispelled but varied according to our points of view (or what Løgstrup calls a “sovereign expression of life”). Here, in this transcendental singularity, the imperative of the moral idea refuses the refuge of certainty either in conviction or in the constancy of sense; without the assurance that the ideas of reason are real—and thus where negation can lead only to nihilism—we are left only with the possibility of creating their reality: it is for this reason that “becoming-minoritarian as the universal figure of consciousness is called autonomy” (Deleuze). Thought’s practical task neither begins from nor arrives at the given but, rather, passes through existence as insufficient to satisfy its fundamental drive.

A philosophical education

1. Paraphrasing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (where Cicero is himself paraphrasing Plato), Montaigne gives us the famous remark that to philosophize is to learn how to die. We prepare not only by banishing the fear of death through understanding, however, but because in contemplation per se we are most acquainted with death. While initially Montaigne calls contemplation a withdrawal from our bodies, contemplation is a sort of resemblance or mimesis of death by which we are ultimately liberated to our bodies (not from them) in the pleasure of life.

We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good. This is why, for example, Spinoza insists that one who is free “thinks of nothing less than death” (E4p67). The paradox is that thought is like death but it can never be of death.* The liberation of thought from death consists in being (of) death without letting death appear before us, which is why for the Epicureans the thought (of) death manifests as ataraxia instead of Angst, i.e., an affect of life as a dialectical negation of death (to think (of) death is only possible by not thinking of death).

*Significantly, in his allusions to the third way of knowing, Spinoza never satisfies his promise in the Ethics to discuss that part of the mind that remains after the body perishes.

2. If we learn how to die (which, instead of a “preparation” for death is actually learning a desire for the good) by thinking, it is necessary that we learn how to think. It is not surprising, then, that the same duality in thinking (of) death is that which we find in those who teach us most purely how to think. There is always and necessarily a sort of trickery involved in that lesson: we are led to believe that we are learning “about” something (else) when, in the end, we realize that the (real) object of our thought is simply “how” to think. It is true that philosophy per se enjoins us to think—by convincing us that we must think when and because we usually are not—but there are those who grasp that we cannot say that what we’re thinking about is how to think on pain of reflexive failure. Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.

Consequently, the problem of philosophical expression is intrinsic to the attempt to think. There are many ways—not all of which may be successful but a significant step is taken by the recognition of the problem—of thematizing the possibility of philosophical expression (e.g., (eidetic) intuition, the speculative proposition, more geometrico). The tendency toward mysticism results from a fundamental confusion either between (1) the limits of thought and what is actually constructive of it or (2) the relation between thought and being. The proposition that “the True is the Whole” or the ontotheological thesis of the One-All mistakes a reference to or representation of totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought because of the timorous conviction that that which cannot be thought must be other to thought (which is correct) and whose otherness must fall on the side of being (in other words, the mistake is to posit that that which must be thought for thought to think “itself” is not itself, yes, but neither is it on the order of being). What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.

The body of the soul (continued)

1. The popular masterworks of American composition in the last ten years have shared at least one distinctive trait: the manipulation of sonic architecture. Architectural theory in the last half of the twentieth century has shown how spatial organization and orientation not only affects our understanding of time and place but are at least partially constitutive of understanding and subjectivity itself. The task of contemporary architecture has been to raise the art from the bottom of Hegel’s hierarchy to the top: i.e., to construct experience as such. If the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted of the inversion of the baroque, i.e., as an attempt to control the flight of the soul by mechanisms of discipline (the panopticon* is the obvious example here), however, current “neo-Baroque” chic should come as no surprise (and notice that what should be most irrelevant in any depictions of futuristic architecture is a body whose motility is no longer limited by continuous locomotion).

*As Bentham said, the doors of the panopticon, as the building’s name suggests, must, “like the doors of all public establishments ought to be, thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the world”—the consequences of which Foucault understood immediately.

Yet that future is already here, for example, in works such as Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body”. What Theofanidis attempts is not a representation (in the way, for example, that Tchaikovsky gives us a life in the sixth symphony or Hayden’s famous oratorio narrates the creation of the world) but, through the materiality of sound, the creation of new bodies. The term “rainbow body” he explicitly borrows from the mystical notion of the body’s transformation into light, which should not be confused with a separation of body and soul but, rather, the soul’s final and complete unification with the body.

Although Theofanidis draws the principal motif of “Rainbow Body” from Hildegard of Bingen, such unification has been the singular mystical vision not only of the Tibetan and Indian traditions but of the Latin west easily since the thirteenth century. In a strange sort of anti-Platonism, as Bynum has shown, the mystical act consisted not of the escape of the soul from the body but their transformation. The eucharist is not only the transubstantiation of the body of Christ but, in consumption, an ecstatic encounter “with that humanitas Christi which was such a prominent theme of women’s spirituality. For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’ s humanity was Christ’s body and blood”. Lest, however, the body be confused with the source of base and carnal desire, Catherine of Siena reminds us that in the search for the eternal truth “the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. … Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat [emphasis added]. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me”.** Just as the body suffers to give birth to life, so does the soul suffer to give birth to beauty—to become beautiful—by its communion (koinonia [Plotinus!]) with the divine.

**Later in the dialogue we read that “often … the body is lifted up from the ground because of the perfect union of the soul with [God], as if the heavy body had become light. It is not because its heaviness has been taken away, but because the union of the soul with me is more perfect than the union between the soul and the body”.

2. But, as Catherine says, such beauty consists in a life of virtue and charity. For us, however, who are unable to hear the convertibility of conscience and consciousness (on which little work has been done, unlike the Anglo-Saxon misspellings of “God” and the “good”)—we have been forced to adopt the morality as the child of a poor will with the resources of technically advanced intellect. In this respect, Kant is thoroughly medieval: the moral will is necessarily beholden to an intellect that can never satisfy the task necessary to motivate virtue; on the other hand, if Schopenhauer were right, (reflective) consciousness would be impossible. Perhaps we might in the end be able to rescue something of the moral sense: neither understanding nor will but as a capacity (dunamis) for suffering. Moral suffering, however, is not my suffering but suffering for suffering, embraced for the love of the good.

The persistence of ethics

If life is thought, even if thought is conceived in more contemporary terms such as reflection (Sartre), a fold (Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze), or self-identity (Fichte and idealism), need one be naïve to hold that the task of philosophy is essentially an ethical one? One might say here that we are still dealing with Hegel (see Marcuse’s thesis under Heidegger on the role of life in the theory of historicity in the Phenomenology), which ultimately means the persistence of Kantianism, especially insofar as the center of the Kantian system was precisely in morality. Even if our allergy to speaking of morality is the result of crude readings of Nietzsche, we need not be trapped between a choice of a return to Kantianism or fundamentalism (even though morality is arguably intrinsically theological or “religious” in the strictest sense of the word). One way in which philosophy is moral is insofar as it is metaxiological. There has already been significant work at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics; what remains is the conjunction of metaphysics. The question is not “what is the meaning of life?” but, rather, what is a life?


1. Courage must always manifest in the face of violence. In particular, courage is predicated on self-violence, in death (the extreme possibility), in the willing of death. (This is, however, different from suicide, for suicide cannot be a willing.) Courage, real courage, is more common and, thus, more demanding than perhaps we always want to acknowledge. At the risk of falling into the jargon of authenticity, there is courage in every faithful act—in the greeting, in the glance, in the smile, in the departure.

2. In courage the distinction between morality and ethics is blurred: there cannot be a distinction between the care of the self and the recognition of the other, for example (not because these two things are conflated, but because they are presented under two aspects of this phenomenon).

3. Courage is also an artistic virtue (which in some sense is also an intellectual virtue, I suppose). Artistic courage opposes every utterance like “I want to be famous” (which in academia manifests in wanting an “–ian” attached to one’s name), for nothing could be more disastrous for an artist.

At first, this seems like a strange thing to say. What, for example, is more lamentable than the fate of “forgotten” artists (like Thalberg or Méhul) who are being valiantly “recovered”, now that we are getting bored with Liszt and Beethoven? Would not their art have been better served with fame?

Fame, of course, is recognition, and nothing is more ruinous for art than recognition (the shortest path to ideology). What art requires, instead, is repetition. Hence the term “recovery” is not quite right, for there is nothing more asinine than the “rediscovery” of third-rate art simply because it is an alternative to the exhaustion of the classics. (But, of course, a classic that is exhausted is not a classic.)

The real tragedy is for an artist to disappear. But in this case there is a special problem and forms the very limit of art: if an artist disappears, then we (here, now) can never know that he has. (Hence, to eulogize or elegize this artist would require the construction of a fiction.) This possibility of disappearing is, in short, the very definition of artistic courage.

3a. This explains why the artist cannot care for fame. Along the same examples I’ve been using, this is why Alkan more than Liszt is the artist par excellence (and why, among his more limited output, there is more uniform quality in Alkan’s work than in Liszt’s). And yet, what was Alkan’s fate?