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A Cheerful, Tranquil, Immoral Beckett

Beckett himself is a Nietzschean ideal. The Nietzschean artist insists on applying “a long logic in all of his activity…he has the ability to extend his will across great stretches of his life and to despise, and reject everything petty about him”. There is nothing in Beckett but the confirmation of “the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity” And Nietzsche might have been writing about Beckett’s assembled characters when he states: “It is not the works, it is the faith that is decisive here, that determines the order of rank…: some fundamental certainty that a noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost. The noble soul has reverence [Ehrfurcht] for itself”. Reverence is a term sullied by associations with social hierarchies, class, meritocracy, religion and other abominations. Although it is inevitably and explicitly linked to the idea of the elite and the noble it is used by Nietzsche and mobilised by Beckett to produce a very different type. Beckett’s are characters cracking up, sometimes literally, and close to absence. They suffer and their existence is a disaster.

Nietzsche liked the Roman attitude of frivolous tolerance. He linked it to wisdom’s nobility. It shores up a skepticism. Applied to Beckett, it helps us resist the hagiographic image of Beckett as a secular saint of pessimistic beliefs. Pessimism is as lazy as optimism. Both are substitutes for Nietzschean wisdom and its frivolity. Jessica Berry’s says that Nietzsche can be understood through the lens of Pyrrhonian skepicism. She says : ‘A Pyrrhonian skeptic… is essentially someone with a peculiar talent for countering any argument with an opposing argument. It’s crucial to see that the Pyrrhonist is not a stubborn sort of person, unwilling to be convinced; it just happens to be devilishly hard to convince him, such is his talent for opposing one argument to another. In the face of his keen awareness of arguments on both sides of every issue, he suspends judgment, and a state of well-being——psychological equanimity——is said to follow this suspension “like a shadow follows a body.”

Berry confirms Nietzsche’s classicism. Pyrrhonian skepticism and Homer provide templates for Nietzsche. Berry takes the specific skepicism of Pyrrho as an alternative to self-defeating versions attractive to his post-modern readership. In this reading she parts company with the decidedly non-post-modern Brian Leiter as well, who defends both an anti-realist position regarding values and the possibility of knowledge in Nietzsche. Berry argues that these would both commit Nietzsche to a metaphysical dogmaticism that his Pyrrhonism denied.

The Pyrrhonian sceptic denies all belief. Nothing is knowable, therefore the very project of knowledge is ludicrous. Is this not a self-defeater? If nothing is knowable, then stating it seems to refute it, for the assertion claims to know that nothing is known. Berry argues that recognizing the self-contradiction is itself taken as proof for Nietzsche that it is something we cannot know. How, after all, could we know a contradiction? Berry writes: ‘That Nietzsche fully realizes the ridiculousness and incoherence of this view is evident in the mocking tone of his ‘nutshell’ caricature of Kant’s plan to limit knowledge to make room for faith: ‘Even Kant was on the same path with his categorical imperative; his reason became practical here – There are some questions that people are not entitled to decide the truth of; all the ultimate questions, all the ultimate problems of value are beyond human reason … to grasp the boundaries of human reason – now, that is real philosophy.’

If not a self-defeater, is it not unlivable? This is Hume’s challenge to the skeptic. Hume suggests that the skeptic would perish through bloody-minded opposition to common-sense . She wouldn’t eat when hungry, wouldn’t avoid being shot.
Nietzsche draws on Sextus Empiricus to refute this worry. We act with a skeptical instinct. This amounts to no more than an attitude rather than a set of beliefs or dogmatic theories. All actions are like the constrained random aestheticism of dancing, or reacting to pain, or custom. Action is a way of life embraced by those of courageous, warrior-like strength. It is a cheerful attitude to life, not one concerned with exile from truth or ultimate value. The unconcern is based on accepting that knowing why we act is beyond knowing. This Homeric warrior ethos is a counterexample to the ascetic life. Beckett writes: ‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’

According to Berry, Nietzche’s Pyrrhonist skepticism is an ad hominem assault on any form of ascetic value. The mistake of a Cartesian skepticism is to conclude that there is ultimate value in certainty. Descartes’ skepticism was motivated by a desire for this. It imagines no alternative valuation. Cartesian doubt aims at a narrow bedrock of certainty. Nietzsche’s Pyrrhonist skepticism is an older form of Skepticism that resists the Cartesian valuation of certainty and therefore aims at no such bedrock.

Nietzsche recognizes the psychological need of humans for the ascetic. It is not something lightly thrown off. We fear the ‘horror vacui’ and ‘it would rather will nothingness than not will.’ This is a basic fact of humanity for Nietzsche. That he offers nothing is precisely why he know his views will meet general resistance. As Berry says here of most of his readers: ‘ better he should steadfastly deny the existence of truth, the possibility of knowledge, the canons of rationality – better, that is, for him to espouse an aggressively negative dogmatism – than withhold belief.’ Berry reads him differently.

For her Nietzsche is seeking to undermine the ascetic planet he found himself on. She thinks it would be inconsistent to saddle him with a specific metaphysical and systematic theoretical philosophical position. It would make him a systems builder. She likes him best as a destroyer of worlds. She claims for him an ephectic attitude, one that denies all dogmatism. As a psychologist Nietzsche is attempting to revise the received wisdom that uncertainty and ignorance are incompatible with well-being. It may seem odd that someone convinced by science and naturalism should argue like this. But keeping truth and value separate the apparent contradiction dissolves. Only if we hold that the ascetic ideal of objective, dispassionate, enquiry is of sole and ultimate value does the stance seem conflicted. Nor is science a quest of certainties according to Nietzsche. The dogmatic mind is one that seeks to halt enquiry and therefore is inimical to the ceaseless enquiry that is science. Agnosticism enables enquiry to continue unabated on Berry’s reading. When in Beckett we read; ‘The essential is never to arrive anywhere, never to be anywhere. The essential is to go on squirming forever at the edge of the line, as long as there are waters and banks and ravening in heaven a sporting God to plague his creature, per pro his chosen shits. I’ve swallowed three hooks and am still hungry. Hence the howls. What a joy to know where one is, and where one will stay, without being there. Nothing to do but stretch out comfortably on the rack, in the blissful knowledge you are nobody for eternity’ a Pyhrronian influence is clear. And again in ‘Molloy’: ‘For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker.’

An immense loneliness is part of the enduring crisis of those who refuse to lament and alleviate suffering. It is a crisis that is only comprehensible and bearable in the ‘long logic’ of the activity undertaken by these sufferers. Nietzsche expresses the reason for this with astonishing clarity and psychological acumen. “Every choice human being,” says Nietzsche, “strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd, the many, the great majority…”. “A great man…is incommunicable: he finds it tasteless to be familiar…”: “ A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle — or as a temporary resting place” : “a great man…wants no ‘sympathetic’ heart, but servants, tools; in his intercourse with men, he is always intent on making something out of them” . Goethe is Niezsche’s Pyrrhonian fugleman who ‘… was not fainthearted but took as much as possible upon himself, over himself, into himself” In Beckett the characters of Godot’s two tramps seem gripped in the project of the ‘great man’ who has “a long logic in all of his activity…[who]… has the ability to extend his will across great stretches of his life and to despise, and reject everything petty about him” . These are noble guys. “What is noble?” Nietzsche asks in a Nachlass note of 1888. His answer: “That one instinctively seeks heavy responsibilities” .

Beckett instinctively structures Godot via organizing his creatures so that they are capable of capacities beyond those of any single individual and in a time scheme that expresses their willingness to endure through all eternity, repeating their vagrancies and bleak despondencies with both courage and willing appetite. When Nietzsche writes; “It is not the works, it is the faith that is decisive here, that determines the order of rank…: some fundamental certainty that a noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost. The noble soul has reverence [Ehrfurcht] for itself” he could be describing the characters in Beckett.

“The noble human being,” “honors himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent, who delights in being severe and hard with himself and respects all severity and hardness”. The poignancy of the inexhaustibly enduring tramps in Beckett is amplified in these lights. Theirs is a heroic brinkmanship with ignorance. They wait like Homeric Pyrrhonists facing the soul nudity brought on by their epistemic agnosticism . It runs so deep there is nothing to release them. Yet they refuse paralysis. They shrug away uncertainty, ignorance, lack of proof, evidence as the base requirement of action. They keep their eyes open, feel with their poetic sensibilities and get on with things as they seem. They draw on instinct, habit, a certain natural tuning that eschews not analysis but dogmaticism to make good what Nietzsche called, as we noted above, their ‘long logic.’

‘Spend the years of learning squandering/ Courage for the years of wandering/ Through a world politely turning/ From the loutishness of learning’, goes one poem. And in Godot:
“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
Vladimir: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.”
And in ‘Worstward Ho’ ; ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ now not to be read as despair but as Nietzschean cheerfulness acknowledging the anti-asceticism of the realization: ‘You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.’

Pyrrho of Elis lived about 365-275 BC. The term ‘Pyrrhonism was coined about a hundred years later by Aenesdemus, according to Pyrrho expert and philosopher Gisela Striker. Aenesdemus broke away from the New Academy because he thought they were betraying skeptical principles, becoming too dogmatic about it in the manner of the later Humean scepticism. Hume’s ‘mitigated skepticism’ dogmatically declares that knowledge is impossible and contents itself with plausible or persuasive opinion. Striker suggests links between this Humean position and Stoic dogmaticism and argues that Pyrrhonism rejects both.

Striker’s Pyrrhonian is tranquil. It wasn’t an attempt to return to the position of the Old Academy of Arcesilaus and Carneades. The tranquility was based on detachment from the worries of having to know. Sextus Epiricus wrote of Pyrrhonist tranquility as resulting from despair at reaching a way out of a skeptical impasse. The tranquility results from failure to find a way of reaching certainty rather than rational caution. She is not making a decision to suspend judgment to avoid committing a normative error but is arriving at a position derived from a universal skepticism. It isn’t that she accepts arguments that show that she ought to suspend judgment. She suspends judgment because she concludes no knowledge is possible and so can do nothing else. She hasn’t chosen to suspend her beliefs. No argument has convinced her. She is just literally unable to have any. Sextus writes in the chapter about the ‘… criterion of the skeptical way of life’ being ‘appearance, implicitly meaning by this the impression, for it lies in passive and involuntary affection and is not an object of investigation.’ Passive and involuntary affections allow the Pyrrhonist to function with beliefs that are not judgments. So by Pyrrhonist agnosticism or suspension of belief what is meant is not that there are no beliefs but rather that they are acquired in the same way as hunger is, for example, devoid of judgment and reasoning. Detachment from one’s beliefs is the key to this ancient skepticism. Striker wonders whether this state of mind is possible. It strikes her as psychologically impossible, possibly even pathological. There’s a hint that Beckett sees it like that when he writes: ‘We are all born mad. Some remain so,’ and perhaps targets the artist in this. But even if possible, Striker also wonders why the tranquility induced would strike anyone as being attractive.

Striker’s reading is subtly different from Berry’s. Berry suggests arguments convince Pyrrho to reject certainty. Striker’s Pyrrho doesn’t arrive through any kind of reasoning but is passively skeptically. This may help resolve the tension between assertions that Nietzsche was not a skeptic about truth and assertions that he was a universal skeptic.

Roy Sorensen wonders if the Pyrrhonian skeptic is a skeptic. By suspending all beliefs he contends that the resulting detachment is irrational. She is required to be maximally open-minded because no beliefs are ruled in or out. Yet the open-mindedness is such that no new evidence can change her mind. Sorensen calls her position ‘global neutralism.’ He contrasts her with Graham Priest’s ‘trivialist’ who believes everything. Priest is concerned to point out that philosophy has been biased towards refuting the global neutralist whilst ignoring the trivialist challenge. But Sorensen points out that ‘this campaign for dialectical fairness is misconceived.’ The trivialist holds a position of true contradictions and so you can’t beg the question against him. But the trivialist beliefs are the result of judgments. A trivialist takes a position, even if strange to a non-deviant logician. The Pyrrhonist supposedly takes no position. She suspends belief.

But Roy Sorensen claims that if ‘sincere assertion requires belief ’ then the Pyrrhonist is guilty of false advertising. Despite claims to the contrary, Sorensen argues that suspension of belief is itself ‘a substantive propositional attitude’ if ‘sincere assertion requires belief.’ Robert Fogelin is such a philosopher. His Pyrrhonianism finds reasons for uncertainty. Fogelin cites the Modes of Agrippa, a series of epistemological arguments purporting to show that all attempts to justify knowledge are either circular, infinitely regressive or arbitrary. Fogelin makes his Pyrrhonianism rational by applying auto-jiggery reasons to erode certainty. Striker rejects the authenticity of this position, saying that auto-jiggery Modes were later accretions that distort. Sorensen argues against this neo-Pyrrhonianism rather than the real McCoy. But Sorensen is uncomfortable with any resultant position that claims it is merely a quasi-belief situation. Auto-jiggeries create reasons for doubt. Conditioned reflexes don’t seem to doubt anything. To claim that they are cases of agnosticism seems to miscategorise them.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 15th, 2013.