On 3 moods toward the past: smashing, worshipping, and loving while transcending

The 1st Mood: The Past Must be Smashed. 

“We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” –F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto (1909)

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” –Faulkner

Thanks to Faulkner, Ibsen, and Chekhov, we recognize that the past cannot be wiped out or destroyed. In Ibsen’s Ghosts, the father’s decisions are inherited, in the form of fate, by the son. Modern fate is like that: the coordinates of our lives are set by and only intelligible through existing social structures. Hence, for us there is no creation ex nihilo.

The 2nd Mood: The Past Must be Worshipped

“When the sense of a people is hardened like this, when history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots, and at last even the roots are generally destroyed.”–Nietzsche, “Use and Abuse of History for Life”

For Nietzsche, antiquarian history can be uplifting but also crushing: uplifting because through reverence the historical man “gives thanks for existence.” Nonetheless, over time and under the wrong cultural conditions, antiquarianism can turn the past into an idol, mummifying it, entombing it and thereby ourselves. Isn’t our cult of turning holy places into museums, our yearning to preserve neighborhoods through law a mummification of the past? The decadent impulse of antiquarianism: to clutch the past, to embalm it in nostalgia, to kill it again, while producing nothing of value in the present or for the future.

The 3rd Mood: The Past Must be Loved yet Transcended

“For it is central to the conception of such a tradition that the past is never something merely to be discarded, but rather that the present is intelligible only as commentary upon and response to the past which the past, if necessary and if possible, is corrected and transcended, yet corrected and transcended in a way that leaves the present open to being in turn corrected and transcended by some yet more adequate future point of view.” (137)–Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

The past flows to us through traditions without which our lives would not be conceivable in the terms we presently use: terms such as “self,” “democracy,” “freedom,” and “love.” When traditions work, they confer upon us roles, identities, a sense of rootedness. Yet traditions can be muddled, incoherent, lost, or imperfect. In multiple senses, they can fail us. When this happens, it is up to us to correct and transcend them: up to us to recuperate what is valuable, to correct what is mendable, and to transcend what is unsalvageable. The past–taken in, taken up, held onto–is also, and importantly, transmogrified. Like alchemy.

A Postscript

Run the forms of consciousness described above through your life as well as through different cultures. The question, “How do you stand toward the past?,” does not go away unless it is meditated upon and, even then, it is not immediately put to rest. Like our pasts, the question can only be quieted through inquiry, conversation, and practice.

A philosophical review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, published in 2009, might just as well have been a play or a dialogue. The first part takes place in Venice, the second part in Varanasi. The protagonist Jeff Atman–yes, that is his surname–is a freelance journalist who writes about art, music, and celebrity. He attends Venice Biennale in 2003, one of the largest art exhibitions and bacchanalias of the year. Some time later, in Part 2, he is commissioned to write a 1200 word travel piece on Varanasi. His assignment has him there for 2 weeks; he stays on indefinitely.

The novel could be construed as a dialogue between Parts 1 and 2, and the form of the dialogue would be an antinomy. In philosophy, an antinomy is a special kind of conflict between diametrically opposing views. In this case, Part 1 poses hedonism, the apotheosis (pun intended) of a certain strand of western civilization, while Part 2 exhibits the way of spiritual enlightenment. My conclusion is that the antinomy does not reveals a Kiekegaardian “leap of faith” in which, without criteria with which to decide, one must make a radical choice between hedonism and enlightenment. Rather, it shows that both options are one-sided (“one-sided” in Hegel’s sense), both therefore wrong paths to follow.

As it is portrayed in the novel, the present-day Venice is a site of decadence where art has become an endless game of provocation and where pleasures seek satisfaction and terminate in boredom and dissatisfaction. The source of Jeff’s unhappiness, we gather, is unquenchable desire: desiring the wrong things, desiring too much, desiring too much of the wrong things, all of which leads to disquietude and dis-ease. This has been Jeff’s life up to his mid-40s.

In Varanasi, a holy city located along the River Ganges, something strange happens. Slowly Jeff loses his identity (the hard edges of his memory, his anxieties, his individual pursuits), his sense of time (which is replaced by eternity, the ever-present), and his desires (his longing to possess objects, sexually or otherwise). He shaves his head, bathes in the fetid waters, speaks in Koans. And yet, although he is freed from desire, we are led to ask: in what sense is he still human, in what respect still among us? One senses a lassitude, an inertia, a great enfeeblement of the embodied spirit, as if death–its rhythms, its eternity, its turn-and-turn-about–could bring relief but no unity of the person.

In sum, Venice represents the mental dis-ease of the individual ego whereas Varanasi symbolizes the enfeeblement of the whole person. It occurs to me that the way to overcome this antinomy is to meditate more fully on two thoughts–Epicurus’s that one must satisfy the right desires and Aristotle’s that one must love what one desires. To meditate on these thoughts is to discover that one can be of the world without being beholden to the world.

On relics and textiles and spiritual weight

There aren’t a lot of relics lying around these days. Occasionally, someone finds the likeness of Mary or Mother Theresa in a pancake or in a splintered oak tree. Then TV crews flock to the scene and interview the yokels. A bunch of bunk that. Makes for good TV though, something that Murdoch knew.

More often, sacred objects are put behind glass and stored in museums. The card on the right says that they’re old. Hard to know what’s the difference between this mealy fabric and the one on sale in the gift shop. The aura’s gone, the aura of human fingers and divine blessedness.

Even a Ukrainian translator of Dostoevsky’s elephants seems a relic, albeit a beautiful one, a relic of spiritual rhythms. In “The Woman with Five Elephants” (the trailer is here), Svetlana Geier describes how her mother stitched together a fabric. What was required, even before the first stitch, was a visionary gleam of the whole, but that was not all. When her mother stitched, there was no room for mistakes, and thus what was also necessary was exquisite craftsmanship and the sharpest focus. Vision and craftsmanship in which the past coursed, through which the divine recurred. The holiness of work, the auratic memory of fabric held fast in the fingers of an old lady, the daughter, who understands work and love.

The gulf separating Svetlana Geier and us is so great as, I fear, to be impassable. This became clear to me as I visited The Cloisters this past Sunday and sat in the church. The Cloisters are a collage of Spanish and French buildings dating back to the medieval period. They were transplanted here in the early 20th C. with the generous support of Rockefeller’s prodigious oil wealth. Each, originally an entity unto itself, hitherto rooted in its native soil, then expressive of monastic rhythms, had to be uprooted, shipped off, and re-planted in NY soil next to its French and Spanish brother. And what would the brothers have made of this? Of the church and the tapestries? Of the enjambments? Of the tombs and the gardens? What of the exile and repatriation?

As I sat in the church which was no longer in use, hence no longer a church, I felt like the speaker from Larkin’s “Church Going.” There was an “unignorable silence” about it but no spiritual weight. Whither had fled the spiritual weight? Whither today? No guidebook would tell me.

Rethinking financial prosperity

Update (7.27.11)

Nice broadside from Vinay Gupta regarding Umair Haque’s larger project.

What is Wealth?

I take it one of the philosophical consequences of the housing bubble, the economic downturn, and the debt crisis has been to compel us to rethink our conception of prosperity. “What is wealth? What does it mean for a nation or an individual to be prosperous?”

Over at HBR Blog, Umair Haque has been making the case that our measurements of wealth are out of whack. In his view, traditional metrics like job growth and GDP do not accurately depict the flourishing of an economy or the lack thereof. Rather, questions of a well-lived life ought to be front and center. So he writes,

Consider it a tiny, imprecise exercise in what I call “eudaimonics” — the art and science of rebuilding a prosperity that matters in human terms: the pursuit not merely of mass-made, lowest-common-McDenominator, faux-designer opulence, but of lives meaningfully well lived. If we conceive of “debt” not merely as an accounting device meaningless in human terms, a financial fiction owed to nominal creditors — but as a real economic burden owed to the eudaimonic promise of a meaningfully good life, then our economy isn’t just underperforming: it’s dysfunctional.

And might our way of life be to blame? Haque again:

The plain truth might be that we’re living beyond our means because our way of life atrophied our means. And it may be that way we live, work, and play requires deep transformation — if we’re to upgrade our means to live, work, and play better tomorrow.

A General Remark on Social Business

HBR seems to be posting a lot of stuff on the emerging interest in social business. Social businesses are not primarily interested in bottom lines or stakeholder returns but in social utility, meaningful work, and the like. Financial sustainability, we might say, is only one aspect of a larger concern with the sustainability of the entire enterprise.

Further Reading: Haque’s Work

Umair Haque, “Is a Well-Lived Life Worth Anything?”

—. “The Opulence Bubble.”

—. “America’s Deeper Debt Crisis.”

Tell that to Quine! (& other miscellany)


“That philosophers should be professors is an accident, and almost an anomaly. Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger anyone will learn it.”

Georges Santayana

Yeah, tell that to Quine (& to everyone who came after).


A prayer to the god of unsettled times.


hansel, n1. First encounter with or use of something taken as a token of what will follow.


Over at NYT, Mark Bittman proposes taxing unhealthy foods. While I applaud Bittman’s effort, I question his way of framing it. There are 2 objections that conservatives are bound to make. 1.) This is just nanny state-ism writ large. 2.) This proposal represents a loss of personal freedom. For these reasons, I don’t see much happening so long as Bittman pitches the idea as a TAX on unhealthy foods. Yet what if it were seen as a job creation program? And what if it could be argued that this would SAVE the health care industry on runaway costs? Or that it would cut federal spending in the long run? In short, Bittman and others have to appeal to conservatives’ core principles if they want to see legislation like this pass on a federal level. (Of course, on a local level, in places like SF or Portland, the case is much easier.)


“People say it’s not what happens in your life that matters, it’s what you think happened. But this qualification, obviously, did not go far enough. It was quite possible that the central event of your life could be something that didn’t happen, or something you thought didn’t happen. Otherwise there’d be no need for fiction, there’d only be memoirs and histories, case histories; what happened—what actually happened and what you thought happened—would be enough.”

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi


Steel-cut oats are surprisingly delicious.