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When Negativity Don’t Pull You Through: Asides on The Pessimismus Controversy 1

By Richard Marshall.

(Pics: Julio Larraz)


1 Echo of Echoes.

‘When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez/And its Easter time too./And your gravity fails/And negativity don’t pull you through…’ (Dylan: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.)

The shocking truths of Nietzschean nihilism are that we inevitably suffer, die and will be forgotten by everyone, that ‘life is essentially amoral’ and that most of what we think is illusory.  To become aware of these truths can stun us into despair for the loss of what, after all, were just beautiful illusions. Disenchantment seems too gentle a word to describe that loss. For Nietzsche art redeems this horrible actuality, seduces us with what isn’t there, restores ‘an affective attachment to life,’ as Brian Leiter glosses it in his The Truth Is Terrible commentary. Art is like an echo of echoes. It’s ‘the lie that hallows itself,’ is deception with ‘…. good conscience on its side.’ It is a negation of negation, sprung from sublimated sexual pleasure, whose powerful affects brings the sufferer back to life.

Negation escaped the confines of technical logic and natural language when George Boole’s ‘Investigation into the Laws of Thought’ of 1859 proposed that for everything signified by a name there is a second name that signifies everything that is left over. ‘If x represents any class of objects, then will 1 minus x represent the contrary or supplementary class of objects, ie, the class including all objects which are not comprehended in the class x.’  And perhaps negation escaped logic and natural language a little earlier when in 1840 the neo-Kantian philosopher Friederich Adolf Trendelenberg writes that ‘ whether a concept is a positive or negative predicate in a judgment should not be judged by the form of the word alone. The difference is of a material nature and should be derived solely from the content of the concept.’

A couple of years before Trendelenberg, Schubert’s Winterreisse showed negation’s creative hand in its very first flush, starting with a forward trudging into an outcast’s ‘goodnight.’  Before that, Schubert had set to music Schiller’s heartbreaking: ‘Schone Welt, wo bist du? Beautiful world, where are you?’, registering the spectral loss of enchantment in the shape of ‘a purgatorial wanderer’.  Ian Bostridge’s extraordinary book ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey’ is subtitled ‘Anatomy of an Obsession’ and recalls his performing Winterreisse in 2002 after a recitation of a Beckett prose piece:

‘It’s a winter night , where I was, where I’m going, remembered, imagined, no matter, believing in me, believing it’s me, no, no need…’

In Bostridge’s obsession we’re drawn to a frozen non-identity creeping about, a Byronic lover going beyond whatever is now absent, beyond anything existing, finding the weight, beauty and indissoluble actuality of negation. Dylan’s ‘Clothesline Saga’ from the official Basement Tapes works the same inconsequential ramble, freighted with the refusal of deep memories and the certainty that nothing can happen. When nothing happens we remember the date and the name of the bridge from where its mystery is thrown off. We remember the weather which is just another sinister shaggy dog story. Another nothing.

But underneath there’s a crime. ‘When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of the slowly wheeling circle.’ This is Melville’s last page of white America, crying for a veil that doubts you can even feel the shape of anything you’ve heard. This is what Greil Marcus hears in Dylan’s ‘I’m not There, a song that ‘is barely written at all’ and where ‘… you hear the anguish [and] it doesn’t matter if the sentence doesn’t make ordinary sense.’ It’s where sentences just rescue us from silence by invoking nothing. ‘By temptation less it runs/But she don’t holler me/But I’m not there, I’m gone.’ Michael Pisaro writes of this: ‘ It’s almost as though he has discovered a language, or better, has heard a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life.’ Dylan reveals how nothing can hallow itself, gift us a small mercy, something for which we should be grateful.

Winterreisse’s ‘crime’ involves lovers without bodies. It’s a separation happening over minutes stretching to centuries, an abandonment of a love-knot that is unbreakable. It comes to a wandering from a kingdom heavy and above. This isn’t just a dissolved love affair. It’s dark, from a place where we daren’t see the whole of its physical past. Words are being dissolved.  Harmonies are almost unnoticeable. What is addressed is what’s not there anymore. Another hallowed lie.

Which takes us to Werkmeister. Familiar via The Melancholy of Resistance, a 1989 novel by László Krasznahorkai who also collaborated with Bela Tarr on his 2003 film The Werkmeister Harmonies, Andreas Werckmeister was a 17th-century court organist and theoretician whose guidelines directed the harmonies of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. Tarr’s film uses Krasznahorkai’s novel’s narrative whilst at the same time pulls out its own slow fatigues, threats and sorrows in a cradle of shadows.  There is no hesitation in it because there is no other story to tell.

In the film György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a respected local figure has retreated from daily life in order to investigate a conviction that Bach would sound better played on an instrument tuned to just intonation, the enchanted form of tuning employed pre-Werkmeister. Eszter’s conviction recalls the youthful Dylan’s comments about the music he’s aiming for, a ‘traditional’ music ‘… where it isn’t simple. It’s never been simple… music is based on hexagrams. It comes from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death… All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels…’ Eventually Eszter faces the fact that his pre-Werkmesieter harmonies can only sound bad-tempered in his modern ear. He is exiled from his dreamed origins. In the end he retunes his piano, is humiliated by his wife and discovers that ‘nothing matters.’ People have become incomprehensible and cast him as a foreigner, an exile, someone out of time, a wanderer where the world ‘is murky, the way is shrouded in snow.’ The words of Ecclesiastes sound out this mood and distressing predicament: ‘He hath made every thing beautiful in his time; also he hath set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.’ Existing in love and theft and death is both a riddle and a faith. Denied art he is left an endless menacing detour.

In the final scene he walks to the town square where the rotten facsimile corpse of an eerie whale returns us to Moby Dick and Melville’s visionary dark enchantment ‘ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of the slowly wheeling circle.’ Poetry reminds us that a heartfelt goodnight is a tragic figure’s solitary walking motion towards absence and rejection. This predicament is never fully revealed. Mihály Vig’s Valuska accompanies the bleak scene with the same ‘going motion’ Schubert asks for in his ‘Good Night’ – ‘massig, in gehender Bewegung…moderate, at walking pace.’ It’s music that’s all about motion, creeping from door to door. It’s in his setting of Goethe’s The Harper, and in Beethoven’s Sonata no 26, a heartfelt farewell, whose tempo is ‘in walking motion but with much expression.’ It’s in Dylan’s rendition of Restless Farewell at Sinatra’s birthday celebration in the early 90’s at the Shrine Auditorium. Soon after that Dylan was to set down the Time Out Of Mind songs. ‘It’s a spooky record because I feel spooky. I just don’t feel in tune with anything,’ he said of this. Tarr’s film and Dylan’s songs serve us broad-axe ‘sketches of the sun, moon, stars, ships, ocean-waves…’ on Whitman’s granite wall.  They remind us that feeling the lost echo of echoes is the required crime.

2 Beckett’s Erotic Bodies.

‘This is this.This ain’t something else. This is this.’ Robert de Niro ‘The Deerhunter.

Beckett’s insane Sadean erotic derangements link William M. Cooper’s ‘Flagellation and Flagellants’, Pierre Garnier’s ‘Onanisme seul et a deux sous toutes ses formes et leurs consequences’ to the ‘Metaphysik der Geschlechtsiebe’ essay on sex desire in volume two of Schopenhauer’s ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’. The erotic (often gay) body displayed and desired is his Nietzschean answer to Schopenhauerian pessimism and is a central trope throughout his work. Not enough has been made of this in the secondary literature.

Schopenhauerian pessimism claims suffering outweighs pleasure and that we’d all be better off had we never been born. Suffering arises from deprivation and also from boredom. Need gives rise to an excess of activity, boredom an excess of inactivity. Boredom is desperation, showing us that existence is a burden. Life, for Schopenhauer, swings madly between need and boredom. Pleasure is Epicurean pleasure and for Schopenhauer is merely a negative quality, merely the absence of pain. Here is the base of his notorious calculus of life’s benefits and costs. Pleasures, being merely absences, count for nothing. Only pains count.

Schopenhauer has a second argument, found earlier in Stoic and Epicurean works, which deepens his pessimism. Needs grow, according to the Stoic. They have no natural limit. Once we have fulfilled a little need, we want more. As the need grows, fulfillment becomes harder. Discontent and frustration is the result. Sex, for Schopenhauer the strongest drive in human nature, is blind and irrational, and after each brief fulfillment, disillusionment begins. We flee the scene of sex only to rush back wanting more. We are caught up in powers beyond our control. The will to life is in biology and we can’t resist it. But that is all it is, a drive working like a frenzied whiplash.

This is Schopenhauer’s inevitable, inescapable cycle of torment: ‘lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion… and drawing water from the sieve of the Daniads.’ Neo-Kantians like Windelband (the philosopher Beckett read more than any other), Paulsen, Liebmann, Meyer, Riehl campaigned against this pessimism. But not just neo-Kantians. Positivist Eugen Dühring (target of Engel’s ‘Anti-Dühring and, disgracefully, founder of the anti-semitic movement in the nineteenth century) wrote his ‘Der Werth des Lebens’ in response.  This in turn was a text Nietzsche made copious notes from as he too worked out his own response.

The positivist affirms actuality: the facts of this life are the ultimate reality and there is no other. Redemption and fulfillment can only be found here in lived naturalistic existence and there is no higher source. No Gods. No life after death. Just this and this only. For Dühring neither desire nor boredom could be sources of pessimism in and of themselves. Misery is caused by historical systems of ownership and power and these can be relieved by politics. Schopenhauer, for Dühring, is talking pure mystification when he goes on about ‘the riddle of existence’ and ‘the puzzle of the world.’ The world is what science tells us it is. ‘Factuality is the ultimate basis of all positing; it is the simple form upon which all knowledge has to be led back in the final instance,’ he writes in ‘Naturliche Dialektik’. In the second edition of ‘Der Werth des Lebens’ he writes: ‘ … human existence is a complete and sufficient reality in itself.’ In true Epicurean hedonistic style, he claims feelings and sensations of experience endorse the value of life, not ideals or reasons. A sensation; ‘… is what it is, entirely and complete.’ The value of life lies in the total sum of all our feelings and sensations, both good and bad, contra Schopenhauer.  He writes: ‘The multiplicity of risings and fallings of feeling is the indispensible requirement for a valuable existence.’ And:  ‘The evaluation of life has to proceed from the principle that the natural resistance to the enjoyment of life is not an evil but a necessity, without which an enjoyable life is impossible.’

This is where he breaks both with any eudemonism that values pleasure as ultimate but also with the Stoics and Epicureans – and Buddhists – who recommend equanimity. A stress-free life for Dühring would be as complete a torment as one of unadulterated pleasure. All this is clearly hugely important to Nietzsche who called Dühring ‘Berliner Rache-Apostel’ – “Berlin vengeance apostle’. His valuing of all passions – not just the seemingly positive ones but also supposedly negative ones like revenge – anticipates Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values later on in the 1880s. For Dühring the erotic is pleasure itself, not a means to a procreative end. Love – forget the romantic notions and high expectations – but the erotic imagination and its playfulness – that is what drives us – wrapped up though strange, porny, hilarious feelings and acts. It is the joyfulness that comes with disappointment, rage, loss and death.

Beckett agrees. His roots are in the Dühring/Nietzschean naturalism not any high- falluting Frankfurt sex-Scroogery. Beckett’s hallucinatory erotic porn is a sequence of mocking rejoinders to the Schopenhauerian calculus. But he does so whilst mocking any attempts to find transcendental answers to Schopenhauer, reasons that find value beyond or above this world. He mocks the sort of argument – found in anti-pessimist Hartmann for example – that claims that some sort of unconscious cosmic will  – which in its omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence sounds very much like a traditional deity –  will achieve its ends with the greatest possible wisdom and efficiency. Beckett’s is an earthy counter-vision and he constantly works to deflate any attempt to find values in some other-worldly glimmer. For Beckett, Schopenhauer is right in seeing us as just animals, responding helplessly to desires and the sex drive. He’s just wrong to discount that kind of life. It may be terrible, but we can positively  value it nevertheless.

Nietzsche understood the aesthetic as a sublimation of the sex drive: Beethoven’s Ninth, Wagner’s Tristan, are just sublimated feelings of orgiastic orgasm. In Twilight he writes: ‘The fundamental fact of the Hellenic instinct – its “will to life” – expresses itself only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dyonisian state. What did the Hellenes guarantee for themselves with these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal return of life; the future promised by the past and the past consecrated to the future; the triumphant yes to life over and above all death and change; the true life as the continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality. This is why the sexual symbol was inherently venerable for the Greeks, the truly profound element in the whole of ancient piety. All the details about the acts of procreation, pregnancy, and birth inspired the highest and most solemn feelings… gives religious expression to the most profound instinct of life directed towards the future of life, the eternity of life, – the pathway to life, procreation, as the holy path… It was Christianity with its fundamental resentment against life that first made sexuality into something unclean, it threw filth on the origin, the presupposition of life.’

Beckett’s erotic porn imagination is playing with this. A playful Nietzschean Dionysianism runs through his works. He translated Sade for ‘Transition’ – but coyly refused to allow them to be published. In ‘Dreams of Fair to Middling Women’ sex is a comically unhinged involuntarism. Defacating horses as sexual stimuli is a repeating image. ‘ Behold Belacqua an overfed child pedaling, faster and faster, his mouth ajar and his nostrils dilated, down a frieze of hawthorn after Findlater’s van, faster and faster till he cruise alongside of the hoss, the black fat wet rump of the hoss. Whiphim up, vanman, flickem, flapem, collop-wallop fat Sambo. Stiffly, like a pertubation of feathers, the tail arches for a gush of mard…’ Here we have the deranged racist trope of ‘fat Sambo’ jammed in with priapic beastiality – a moment where Beckett’s insane erotic imagination works with themes of racial and species intersexuality to go beyond the pale.

In ‘Mercier and Camier’ we have the first of many of Beckett’s men-lovers whose Sadean fantasies are hilariously disfunctional. In Molloy, so long as there’s the ‘ unction of a little mucous membrane’ it really isn’t about filling orifices but watching the sights. In ‘How It Is’ the S & M includes sodomy, a can opener, carving letters into buttock flesh and spine, and torture. In ‘Dream’ he writes: ‘… but all men are homo-sexy, I wish to Christ I had been born a lesbian’. In ‘Happy Days’ Winnie spends some time examining a pornographic postcard of a couple having unusual sex with a masturbating voyeur looking on. Throughout his works Beckett mixes scopohilia and masturbation with coitus. Malone watches a couple have sex from his window. Even nothingness is a take on absent pornographic voyeurism. ‘Texts for Nothing 9’ has ‘… what a shame I am not appearing anywhere as a testicle, or as a cunt, those areas, a female pubic hair, it sees great sights, peeping down, well, there it is, can’t be helped, that’s how it is.’

His work abounds with his Nietzschean retorts to Schopenhauer’s pessimism and simultaneously with any sense that one needs transcendence to assert life or love. The sexy, porny body – the sexy body displayed, that is the thing for Beckett, it is this sex driven, playing, watched body that drives his aesthetics ‘to make possible a deeper birth, a deeper death…’ as he writes in Text 5. And in Text 9: ‘ The graveyard, yes, it’s there I’d return, this evening it’s there, borne by words, if I could get out of here, that is to say, if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, to know exactly where would be a matter of time, and patience, and sequency of thought, and felicity of expression. But the body, to get there with, where’s the body?’



Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 5th, 2018.