Jottings Logo - John Fraser




II. Cold White Peaks and Snug Foothills


Last time I took a look at some attitudes towards perception and reality. I was concerned with certain disjunctions and disintegratings.

In the modernist orthodoxy that I began with, either things slip away from us into a voiceless alienness and otherness, or perception itself dissolves into a solipsistic blur.

As the English literary critic Frank Kermode informed us in 1979,

We satisfy ourselves with explanations of the unfollowable world.... World and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention, and susceptible of interpretation only by our hermetic tricks.

In this view of things, art becomes a game of fictions carried on, consciously or unconsciously, in an effort to palliate that state of affairs, and to veil from our gaze an unfillable void, a hollowness at the heart of all our endeavours.

And intellectual bonuses accrue to those who are clear-eyed enough to recognize that this is the human reality, the nature of things, the way things are.

As Socrates observes in the Phaedo,

When a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments, or indeed, of all things, which, like the currents in the Euripus, are going up and down in never-ceasing ebb and flow.


I suggested that these are by no means the only messages to be derived from modern art. And I pointed to a powerful thrust towards grasping and cherishing the world in which we live as physical beings existing in time and space and engaged willy-nilly in action.

The art that I talked about conforms to Nietzsche’s statement that

We want to hold fast to our senses and to our faith in them—and think their consequences through to the end! ... The existing world, upon which all earthly living things have worked so that it appears as it does (durable and changing slowly), we want to go on building—and not criticize it away as false! ... Our valuations are a part of this building....

Such art is what might be called post-Idealist art.

It stands in contrast to what Nietzsche calls “the pessimism of doubt (a distaste for everything firm, for all grasping and touching)....”


But to speak as I have done (even with Nietzsche’s assistance) is to feel a nagging uneasiness.

In his influential little book Art, Clive Bell noted in 1913 how, when his attention relaxed and he gave way to “using art as a means to the emotions of life and reading into it the ideas of life,”

I have tumbled from the superb peaks of aesthetic exaltation to the snug foot-hills of warm humanity.... And let no one imagine, because he has made merry in the warm tilth and quaint nooks of romance, that he can even guess at the austere and thrilling raptures of those who have climbed the cold white peaks of art.

No-one likes to feel that he has shirked the challenges—and, perhaps, missed the raptures—of cold white peaks, and opted for cozy rambles among the foothills.

Or that he is one of those “other people” to whom William James referred when he said of his own near-breakdown in his twenties, “I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.”


In the present lecture I want to look more closely at the spectre at our feast that I merely glanced at in the previous one:—in Heidegger’s words, “that occurrence which Nietzsche was the first to recognize and proclaim with full clarity: nihilism.”


Nihilism, nothingness, the void. They have been around for a good while now, and some of the worryings about them seem a bit overdone.

In his book on the subject, the theologian Michael Novak describes how

Honesty... leads us to see that the myths and institutions that have shaped our identity are not necessary, solid, and permanent. And at first we are led to feel: ‘What’s the use? Everything is relative. Nothing makes any difference’.

But a philosopher off to play tennis doesn’t fall into despair because he and his racquet and balls are “really” only clusters of molecules, or even less substantial as-if constructs. Nor, when he has just shut out his opponent with his service, does he pause to wonder, “But are we really playing tennis? I mean, really?”

When you’re having a long, relaxed, late-night phone conversation with an old friend, you don’t feel pangs of dread because the two of you aren’t really communicating.


Some of the fussing about death also seems a bit overdone. Albert Camus, for example, suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus that the

idea that ‘I am,’ my way of acting as if everything has a meaning (even if on occasion I say that nothing has)—is given the lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death.

Well, I can only say that being disturbed about the fact of death in itself—as distinct from the possibility of that judgment after death that terrified Samuel Johnson— seems rather like being disturbed philosophically by the prospect of becoming wrinkled as you age. As W. H. Auden might have said, Dearie, it’s going to happen!


Nor is it self-evident that what people fear most is the prospect of non-being.

Personally I’d have said that what most of us fear most is pain—unsought pain—and that in so far as human values in their totality can be said to be grounded on any one thing, it is on the reality of pain. Your own pain. The pain of others.

It is insidiously easy to talk about death as a parallel to birth. We come, we go, like turning the TV on and then turning it off again at the end of the programme.

But as Tolstoy went to some trouble to remind us in “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” the reality of death is dying, and whereas there is only one way of being born—well, strictly speaking, two—, there are a great many different ways of dying, and most of them are unpleasant.

The narrator of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper remarks of her mother’s death that, “the last minute when you are dying, that may be a very long time indeed.”


But of course there’s more to it than that. Absence is defined by presence. Something whose existence we are unaware of can’t be absent to us.

What is dreadful is the loss of potential being.

The child or adolescent feels anguish at the prospect of missing something—a party, a dance—particularly when it’s because of a prohibition.

He or she can be stoical about the limits imposed by a sprained ankle. It provides a new role, an individuating experience—poor-Sally-with-a-sprained-ankle-and-crutches. But behind a prohibition—and, even more, your own yielding to a prohibition—lies the prospect of a series of further prohibitions and yieldings, all shutting you off from selves that you might become.

Because of your own weakness, you are never going to have certain experiences.


And we all know the self-disgust that comes with the feeling of waste, of not being sufficiently “there,” sufficiently alive; of living, as E. M. Forster’s Fielding puts it in A Passage to India, at half-pressure.

We know why a sleepless night is called a white night.

We understand the horror inspired by the 1950’s image of perfect wife-hood as a squeaky-clean void—the model house, the scrubbed child pushed in a stroller through voiceless suburban streets, the Sisyphean cycle of cleaning and recleaning, feeding and refeeding.


There are more “literary” emptinesses, too.

In the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter of Lord Chandos” (1902), Chandos speaks of the unbridgeable interior abyss separating him from his “works lying seemingly ahead.”

I can certainly empathize with that.

Committed, let’s say, to the project of giving a set of public lectures, you feel with a sense of horror (particularly three-o’clock-in-the-morning horror) that you have nothing to say, nothing in your head, and that nothing will come—that there is a void ahead, a non-performance, a disaster.

Even when there is something ahead for a writer—glimpses of possibilities that he or she may be able to realize—the prospect of the void of their non-realization because of accidents can also appall. It is horrifying to think that the ideas beginning to take form, the sentences, the jotted notes, the glimpsed constellations, may simply not come into being, may vanish, not be there for anybody else, be unrealized.

At one stage Ludwig Wittgenstein, according to F.R.Leavis, whose companionship he sought out for awhile at the end of the Twenties, feared every night that he would not awaken the following morning, and that if he didn’t copy down his thoughts of that day and give them to a philosopher-friend for safe keeping, they would be lost forever.


Beyond such dreads lie the systematized absences of full-blown schizophrenia as R. D. Laing describes them in The Divided Self (1965), with its endemic feeling of “the emptiness, deadness, coldness, dryness, impotence, desolation, worthlessness of the inner life.”

In novels like After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) Jean Rhys brilliantly shows us what it means to exist on the edge of that experience, when your hold on your past, even the past of yesterday, is intermittent, people are problematic and menacing, and you cannot bring things into the kind of focus in which forward-moving choices between clear alternatives are possible.

As the heroine of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie tells a pick-up at one point,

“I felt as if all my life and all myself were floating away from me like smoke and there was nothing to lay hold of—nothing.

And it was a beastly feeling, a foul feeling, like looking over the edge of the world. It was more frightening than I can ever tell you. It made me feel sick in my stomach.”

Nor have these stages of ontological insecurity been overcome by the ends of those novels in ways that reassure us of the essential benignness of existence.


But of course all this is “merely” psychological. And common sense is obviously not enough when it comes to what Nietzsche calls “the great nausea, the will to nothing, nihilism.”

There is a sizeable distance between unfortunate women adrift in pre-war Paris and London, dependent on men for money, conscious of their fading looks, and drinking too much, and the problems of Hofmannsthal’s Chandos (who abandons writing altogether) or Valéry’s Monsieur Teste (Mr. Head).

I am suspicious [the latter is speaking] of all words, for even the slightest reflection shows the absurdity of trusting them. I have come to the point, alas, of comparing those words by which we traverse so lightly the space of a thought to thin planks thrown across an abyss, which allow crossing but no stopping. A man in swift movement uses them safely; but let him pause for the slightest moment, and that bit of time breaks them down and all together fall into the abyss. The man who goes quickly has learned he must not dwell; it would soon be found that the clearest text is a tissue of obscure terms.

Valéry himself, by his own account, derived “Mr. Head” from an episode in his own life, around the age of twenty-five, that put an end to his poetry writing for twenty years.


When we speak seriously of nihilism, we are talking of philosophical nihilism, not of mere local accidents.

“What has happened, at bottom?” enquired Nietzsche.

The feeling of valuelessness [is] reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of an “aim,” the concept of “unity,” or the concept of “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not “true,” is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world.

And not only that.

In On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Gershon G. Scholem speaks of how, in one of the underground traditions of Western thought, the nihilist mystic,

having attained the highest goal of mystical experience, namely, the dissolution of all form,... extends his mystical insight to his relation with the real world[;] that is to say, he rejects all values and the authority which guarantees the validity of values.

Nor is this simply a matter of a passive denial, withdrawal, and contemplation.

“In his mystical experience,” says Scholem, the nihilist mystic

encounters Life. This “Life,” however, is not the harmonious life of all things in bond with God, a world ordered by divine law and submissive to His authority, but something very different. Utterly free, fettered by no law or authority, this “Life” never ceases to produce forms and to destroy what it has produced. It is the anarchic proximity of all living things. Into this bubbling cauldron, this continuum of destruction, the mystic plunges. To him it is the ultimate human experience.


The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born; he passes through all the embodiments and forms that come his way, committing himself to none; and not content with rejecting and abrogating all values and laws, he tramples them underfoot and desecrates them, in order to attain the elixir of life.


Given the long and powerful Christian tradition of life as a progress towards a destination, with choices along the way which if made wrongly may result in your never reaching the celestial city—and the sense of being at every point in a dialogic relationship with a being to whom all your doings are of ultimate concern—it is easy enough to understand the anxieties aroused by the threatened removal of the teleological from your life, and with it the possibility of invoking the name of that being when called upon to justify your moral judgments.

But that in itself is not enough to explain the felt threat of nihilism, given that many of those who have felt it have been only too glad to eliminate—sometimes with considerable effort—the supernatural from their lives.


When we speak of nihilism, we are not simply speaking of a philosophical system, the kind of thing that—as seen, for example, in Heidegger’s four-volume study of Nietzsche—can be curiously safe and reassuring.

We are speaking also of nihilists.

Technically speaking, the insufferable Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons may have been a Positivist. But when, in Constance Garnett’s old translation, he tells his hosts out on the steppes that

“I shall be quite ready to agree with you... when you bring forward a single institution in our present mode of life, in family or social life, which does not call for complete and unqualified destruction,”

he is effectively being, and functioning as, a nihilist, in what was to become the familiar sense of the term, conscious that “Every man hangs on a thread, the abyss may open under his feet at any minute.” And Turgenev, was obviously disturbed by him.

Annihilators are disturbing.

In E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), when Helen Schlegel sits in the concert hall and listens to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,

the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world.... [T]hey returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.

The assertions about nothingness in Forster’s novels are made—made by Helen’s imagined goblins‑made by the echo in the Marabar Cave with its intimation that “everything exists, nothing has value.”


As writers like Conrad and G.K.Chesterton and Borges have reminded us, a profound anxiety can be aroused by the kind of person who composedly makes certain denials, denials that boil down, in one way or another, to Paul de Man’s coolly stated certainty that “The human mind will go through amazing feats of distortion to avoid facing ‘the nothingness of human matters’.”

In his first post-World-War-One thriller The Three Hostages, John Buchan’s sturdily upper-middlebrow Richard Hannay, who was able to cope with various greyings-out of confidence during his wartime adventures, comes close to meeting his Waterloo with that smooth and sophisticated villain Dominick Medina.

I know no word to describe how he impressed me except “wickedness.” He seemed to annihilate the world of ordinary moral standards, all the little rags of honest impulse and stumbling kindness with which we try to shelter ourselves from the winds of space. His consuming egotism made life a bare cosmos in which his spirit scorched like a flame.... [H]e made an atmosphere which was like a cold bright air in which nothing could live.

But things can be even more disquieting than that. More quietly disquieting.

In Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), a Classics professor describes his wife’s conversations with a schizophrenic colleague of his (Charles Watkins) at a time when she was worried about the state of their marriage:

Nancy says he was kind and helpful. But ... she was pretty upset because of his attitude—which was that the whole thing was not very important.... He spent a whole afternoon, she tells me, pointing out that he might have married her, and I Felicity [Charles’ wife], and it would have been the same, and that we were all much too personal about the whole thing. Yes, “we are all much too personal about the whole thing.” ... Anyway, Nancy found herself half crazy, because of Charles. She described it as feeling as if her entire life was made to look silly....

Faced with the calm confidence of certain denials, you feel in the presence of a system of moves that you don’t comprehend because you cannot imagine engaging in them yourself, and which appear to make possible an invulnerable, an imperturbable self-sufficiency of negation.


In part, of course, we may be the victims here of our own ambivalence with respect to order, knowledge, and power.

With a high-energy character like Shakespeare’s Iago, we know that we are watching a demonic figure shut out from enviable zones of feeling and experience and driven by the will to destroy those inside it and demonstrate his dominative intellectual power. No-one roots for Iago.

But in Paradise Lost, given the thinness of the modes of being in Eden and Heaven, and the celestial withholding of knowledge from Adam and Eve, we more than half desire that Satan will succeed in disrupting all that nude gardening and proper wifely deference.

Knowledge can bring power. Or at least diminish powerlesness.


And a recurring item in literature and in the popular imagination is the book of power, the repository of knowledge that transforms those who are bold enough to open its covers.

Think, for instance, of that strange and marvellous book (it bears little relationship to Joris-Karl Huysmans’ actual Against Nature) with which the epigrammatic Lord Henry Wotton corrupts beautiful young Dorian in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Or of the Kabbalistic texts whose names intimidate us in the short stories of Borges, or the dread Necronomicon of “the mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred that keeps bobbing up in the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft.

Or of those works of Sade, Juliette especially, that Baudelaire may have had in mind when he spoke of how “an obscene book sweeps us towards the mystical oceans of the deep.”

Nietzsche’s The Will to Power obviously figured as such a book for awhile. In one of George Moore’s turn-of-the-century short stories, the protagonist takes a copy with him on a train journey: “Its Nihilism had frightened him at first but he returned to the book again and again and every time the attraction had become stronger.”

The power of books can be increased, too, when they were not in fact written as books by their nominal authors, but have been pieced together by others. Behind the “unwritten” book, as behind the unfinished poem or novel, such as “Kubla Khan” or Kafka’s The Castle, we feel the authority of the perfect work that was intended, and strain unsuccessfully, and with a sense of our own insufficiency, to see its lineaments.


Ontological dreads and anxieties are especially likely to be aroused by postulated hyper-realities that you can’t flesh out in terms of any human doings that you have known, such as when we’re assured that none of us ever “really” communicate with each other.

And zones of intellectual power and mystery can become zones of risk, like the Congo that Marlowe too eagerly sets out for in Heart of Darkness. You can find yourself in a labyrinth of endlessly receding philosophical argumentation, full of chasms and ominous unfamiliar shapes like those through which poor Gervaise wanders near the end of Zola’s L’Assomoir (The Dram-Shop, 1877) in the Paris that was being torn down and reconstructed by Baron Haussmann.

The possibility looms that the world may be utterly different from what it is customarily supposed to be, once your blinkers and tinted spectacles have been removed.


Some underminings are irreversible, too.

Young Goodman Brown, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of that name, may have returned home physically after watching the witches’ sabbath deep in the woods to which his curiosity has drawn him. But he has not returned to the same world, or neighbours, or wife, and the rest of his days are darkened by mistrust.

The narrator of Borges’ story “The Aleph” can never subsequently feel in the same way about his beloved cousin Beatriz, whose “unbelievable, obscene, detailed” love-letters he has been given the questionable privilege of seeing, along with a great deal else, through the magical Aleph, “the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, ... the only place on earth where all places are....”

As disputants with Socrates found to their cost, one step, one concession, can lead you on by a seemingly irresistible logic to another—and another: to entrapment within a total system; or, conversely, to the disintegration of all systems and order.


In his fictive letter, Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos leads us through the stages of his progression towards a paralyzing total scepticism.

He recoils from words like “spirit, soul, or body,” experiences a growing nausea with normal conversational judgments like so-and-so is a “good man,” and feels increasingly compelled to “view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness.”

But then, everything starts disintegrating—disintegrating “into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.” And the disconnected words that he’s left with become “whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.”

The disintegration is made all the more unbearable for him by the way in which, at the same time, a physical object, such as a peasant’s hat, can still appear charged with a transcendental but ineffable significance—a sense of an unseizable hyper-meaning and indescribable harmony.


The kind of anxieties that I have been talking about are intensified if you believe that art is a privileged source of philosophical insight—ultimately, perhaps, the only source.

At the centre of the conventional image of art as revelation stands (or lies) the Romantic figure of the Poet as Seer, uttering philosophical truths about Nature, the Soul, Art, Imagination, etc., in an indefinitely continuable monologue. We can enter the poet’s system anywhere, like entering a country, and find essentially the same things being talked about, and the same affirmations and denials.

The formal features of the poems don’t particularly matter, though they make it easier to remember what is said. The poems are all part of the poet’s ongoing discourse and revelation of his or her envisioned world, his (but of course more than merely his) reality.

The reality with which he or she is in touch exists in extenso, like the Hassidic wisdom in Borges’ Ficciones and the law in Kafka’s sketch “Before the Law.”

And he or she partakes of it immediately by means of the kind of intuition which, in Sartre’s words, “has often been defined as the immediate presence of the known to the knower...”

He is capable of what Sartre calls

those pantheistic intuitions which Rousseau has several times described as concrete psychic events in his history. He claims that on those occasions he melted into the universe, that the world alone was suddenly found present as an absolute presence and unconditioned totality.


It is a blessed state to be in, obviously.

As Chandos recalls of a happier time,

In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit.

Everywhere I was in the centre of [life]...; at other times I discerned that all was allegory and that each creature was a key to all the others....

The existence of The Poet satisfies our hunger for someone somewhere whose utterances are charged with authority at every point.

The Poet is a voice that is telling us things and that it is our job and privilege to attend to.

At times, in fact most often, it will be a voice from an earlier time and hence distinct from us in varying degrees, so that, as with a malfunctioning radio receiver, not everything gets through to us equally clearly. But even when the details are problematic, we must still reach hungrily after what the author must have been trying to communicate.

Furthermore, as with biblical exegesis, the aura of authority carries over from the sacred texts to the critic-priest who is interpreting them.

The “real,” which is to say arcane, meaning of the work has to be arrived at by means of the critic’s decoding. The critic-seer sees the Truth in the dark glass, he tells us about it, and we must surrender to him (or her)—especially when he depersonalizes himself, avoids “subjectivity,” and acquires the status of the scientist-priest.


However, that is only one side of the poetic coin.

If your possession or glimpsing of an at times ineffable and always imperfectly communicable knowledge can be like that of the Kabbalists (the non-nihilistic kind), it can also be like that of the shabby, oldish, cowardly Second Mate in Conrad’s “Typhoon,” who alone knows, which is to say thinks he knows—with a bitter sense of irony—what is really going on during the storm, and who shrinks into an impotent panic.

At times, knowing The Truth undercuts the belief that by means of language we can, as Maurice Blanchot puts it, “open up a road that takes one to the dark center of things.”

As Borges reminds us in “The Library of Babel,” each attempt to locate a meaning that is independent of any human utterer, and that confers a self-validating truthfulness on the utterances of him or her who had discovered it, can be demonstrated to be fruitless, so that ultimately the only truth is that there is no truth.

Or rather it is that the only truly serious human activity is to try and solve the riddle of the Sphinx, but that all solutions are equally fictive, centreless, ontologically weightless. Which takes us back towards the demonic nihilism that I spoke of above.


But if art can promote such feelings, art can also challenge them.

There are incitements enough in modernism to reject such a view of art while continuing to applaud F. R. Leavis’s emphasis on the heuristic, the “exploratory-creative” nature of art.

To agree with Yvor Winters—no stranger to the experience of the void, as his story “The Brink of Darkness” demonstrates—that the languages of metaphysics, modern science, literature, and so on are “modes of being which were slowly enlarged to discover and embody an increasing extent of reality; they were forms of being and forms of discovery,” need not lead us towards the void.

Nor need we necessarily feel intimidated by the asserted “rigour” of certain kinds of critical or theoretical explorings.


The image of the “real” understander of art as a heroic mountaineer has its allure, of course.

Intensities, particularly the sustained intensities of high-energy heroic doing, always have their authority, especially when, as in the careers of a Conrad, a Wittgenstein, a Virginia Woolf, they are accompanied by a good deal of anguish. After finishing Nostromo, Conrad said that he felt as if he had been interminably trundling a wheelbarrow along a narrow plank over an abyss.

And we can understand the excitement of which Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks when he says of Heidegger that:

The tremendous power emanating from [his] creative energies in the early 1920s seemed to sweep along the generation of students returning from World War I or just beginning its studies, so that a complete break with traditional academic philosophy seemed to take place with Heidegger’s appearance.... Even in the intensification of the German language that took place in his concepts, Heidegger’s thought seemed to defy any comparison with what philosophy had previously meant.


Think of all those dramas of seeking to find things out in Shakespeare: of Hamlet, with at the outer limits of his consciousness “that undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveller returns”; of Macbeth “bent to know/ By the worse means the worst.” Think of all those dark places of the mind—of Marlowe’s Congo; of the pain-filled laboratory in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau; of the danger-charged mysterious sites in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

“Freud,” R. D. Laing observes, “was a hero. He descended to the ‘Underworld’ and met there stark terrors.”


But something rather different seems to me involved in the idea of the art-theoretician as a sea-green incorruptible like Robespierre, untainted by the muddled sentimentality and absurd desires of ordinary beings.

“It is really incredible,” Schopenhauer announced, “how meaningless and insignificant when seen from without, and how dull and senseless when felt from within, is the course of life of the great majority of men”

Contrariwise, how reassuring it must be to feel, like the Hegel of Alexandre Kojève whose much-attended lectures on him influenced several generations of French intellectuals, that, as Kojève phrases it, “I am a philosopher, able to reveal the definitive truth, and hence endowed with an absolute Knowledge.”—a truth, in William James’ words about Hegel, “indivisible, eternal, objective, and necessary, to which all our particular thinking must lead as to its consummation.”

How splendid to be one of those Napoleonic personages before whose entry onto the intellectual stage (as with the entry of the key character of a play), there had been only errors, half-truths, misperceivings.

How yummy to be able to say, with Nietzsche, “My philosophy brings the triumphant idea of which all other modes of thought will ultimately perish”!


Moreover, as Nietzsche reminds us when he speaks of the will to dominance in philosophical exchanges, there may be darker sources of intellectual pleasure.

H.G. Wells’ vivisectionary Dr. Moreau recalls the thrill of “burn[ing] out all the animal” by means of pain:

“I asked a question [Moreau tells his reluctant houseguest Edward Prendick], devised some method of getting an answer, and got—a fresh question. Was this possible, or that possible? You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him. You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem.”

Nietzsche knew how delightful it is when “One leaves it to one’s victim to prove that he is not an idiot. One makes others furious and helpless, while one remains the embodiment of cool triumphant reasonableness oneself—one deprives one’s opponent’s intelligence of potency.”

And R.D. Laing notes how, at times, :

The self is... charged with hatred in its envy of the rich, vivid, abundant life which is always elsewhere; always there, never here. The self... is empty and dry.... It is unable to incorporate anything. It remains a bottomless pit; a gaping maw that can never be filled up.... The self tries to destroy the world by reducing it to dust and ashes, without assimilating it. Its hatred reduces the object to nothing, without digesting it. Thus, although the “self” is desolate, and desperately envies the goodness (life, realness) it imagines to reside in others, it must destroy it rather than take it in.


But the greatest and most daring works of intellectual exploration, whether Spinoza’s Ethics, or Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, or Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams aren’t deliberately anxiety-making, or terroristic, or riddled with power-games.

Their authors stay close to the phenomenological concreteness of what is being explored. They are conscious all the time of the “here” from which they start, and of their readers’ expectations and reactions at every stage. They are concerned with taking the intelligent reader as scrupulously as possible to the “there” in which their arguments terminate; a “there” beyond which, of course, there may subsequently be further journeyings. They affirm rather than dissolve the intellectual bonds of the human enterprise.

And modern art too has its reassurances to offer.


Let me return again to Conrad, supposedly the laureate of fictiveness and nothingness.

According to Tzvetan Todorov, “That knowledge is impossible, and that the heart of darkness is itself dark, is what the whole text [of Heart of Darkness] tells us.” And he goes on to explain that

The final meaning, the ultimate truth, are nowhere, for there isn’t any interior and the heart is empty; what was true for things remains even more true of signs; there is only the reflection, circular and yet necessary, from one surface to another, from words to words.

Hence, he suggests, “the story of Kurtz symbolizes the fact of fiction, the construction around an absent centre.” And if, as in this story, “human relationships are nothing more than a hermeneutic search,” it is a search that is predestined to fail.


But Heart of Darkness, so far as I can see, proves none of those things.

The story is narrated by Marlowe about his own experiences and attitudes when younger. And even though he may have been hoping for revelations from Kurtz—for “ultimate truths”—while he was making his way up river, you wonder what those revelations or truths could conceivably look like.

Kurtz, the Kurtz of whom Marlowe has heard, and whom he finally meets, is not an oracle , and even if he were, the proffered wisdoms of oracles are notoriously elusive.

What Marlowe felt, and what he describes to his hearers on the Nelly, was a superstitious craving for something impossible (encouraged, perhaps, by those little paw-strokes of fever that the wilderness inflicted on him).

It is absurd to equate that kind of longed-for secret-of-the-universe revelation with “knowledge,” and to perceive as philosophically sound the disillusionment and scepticism that result when—inevitably—it cannot be obtained.


The belief that unless we have perfect knowledge and communication, knowledge and communication are impossible belongs with the superstitious feeling of some scholars about the perfect text—the feeling that unless we have a text of whose rightness at every point we can be wholly certain, the presence of even a single insignificant error, with its implication that there may be others, makes it impossible for us to read a work with any confidence or commitment.

What Heart of Darkness defines for us, and very memorably, is an obsession like those that Borges challenges in “The Library of Babel,” and some related conceptualizings.


Marlowe is journeying into something. He has to go a long distance and with difficulty (indeed, he may never get there) toward a featureless distant answerer. Along the way are a succession of “signs,” all of them requiring to be interpreted in relation to the answerer. And ultimately, after the goal has been reached and reality breaks in, the answerer is revealed as human-all-too-human.

Whereupon malaise and disillusionment ensue.

But even when supplemented by some authorial sleight-of-hand with respect to the narrative (if we don’t know what went on in the conversations between Kurtz and Marlowe, it is not because of any existential or ontological mystery, it is because we are not told), Heart of Darkness remains an account of an obsession, with large gaps in the information with which the reader is provided, and not a revelation of “reality.”

Furthermore, the story seems to me to have been a stage in an ongoing attempted exorcism by Conrad of that kind of craving and obsession, the craving and obsession that Borges was trying to exorcise in Ficciones.


Paradoxically, Conrad displays a greater philosophical sophistication with respect to knowledge, appearances, and action in the ostensibly much more objective “Typhoon.”

All on board the tempest-smitten Nan-Shan have limited knowledge, and some of them make mistakes—temporarily, like young Jukes the First Mate, or permanently, like the cowardly Second Mate—about what is going on and what needs to be done.

But because they are ignorant of some things—Captain McWhirr, for example, does not know experientially what it is like now in the engine room and the coolie hold—they are not therefore ignorant of everything.

They are not acting in error. There is no full, error-free knowledge that any one of them could have possessed. And if we have the illusion of superiority to them, it is because of that God’s-eye view of things that is uniquely possible to the writers and readers of fictions.


More generally there seems to me to have been a misreading of Conrad in the emphasis on his irony and undercuttings.

He does indeed provide us with formidable critiques of romantic overreaching, particularly in Nostromo, and of complacency with respect to the supposedly solid bases of social order, as in The Secret Agent.

But in “Typhoon” he gives us unironically the professionalism of a purposive community functioning for desirable ends, in this instance the survival of themselves and their passengers.

And his presentations of supposedly more sophisticated intellectuals are almost all, in the final analysis, unfavourable.

Just look at them.

Look at Kurtz, for example, the man whom all Europe made—artist, orator, etcetera, and “hollow at the core. ” Or Martin Decoud, the ironical boulevardier, who can’t endure the solitude of his voiceless islet in Nostromo and shoots himself. Or the idealist-anarchist Michaelis in The Secret Agent, grotesquely fat and endlessly word-spinning. Or the garrulously plotting Russian exiles in Geneva in Under Western Eyes.

In Victory, most tellingly of all in some ways, the gentlemanly Axel Heyst can’t overcome his ironical self-distancing and resist, on Lena’s behalf as well as his own, the three murderous invaders of his island retreat, headed by that cool nihilist Plain Mr. Jones.


There is nothing ironical, in contrast, about the endorsement that Conrad gives in “The Secret Sharer” to the two young sea-captains, highly self-conscious and reflective, yet effectively committed to action, who live and work inside the same system as Captain McWhirr of the Nan-Shan and are deeply concerned with values.

They must act, both in response to the challenges immediately confronting them and in relation to the expectations and ambitions that draw them forward into the future—their sense of themselves as they can become.


Even in the urban irony of The Secret Agent there is no flattening of heroic ambitions back into a world of endlessly multiplied and complacently mediocre common humanity.

We aren’t presented with those endless suburban houses and contented back-yard putterers that so exasperated H. G. Wells, or made to feel the sheer weight of city numbers that oppressed the anarchist “Professor” in the novel and were evoked in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) when “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many.” Winnie Verloc is the prime representative of “ordinary humanity” in a novel that works in terms of representative individuals, and, as things turn out, there’s nothing comfortably anaesthetized about her consciousness.

On the contrary, it is in the intensity of her sufferings, especially the undescribed but all the more real mental agonies after her abandonment by the predatory Comrade Ossipon, that the imperative towards valuing is ultimately grounded.


Nor, when we turn to two of the quintessential modernist explorers of ontological insecurity and paranoid dreads, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, do we find any concern to metaphysicalize those states into philosophical truth and wisdom, let alone put a Good Modern Authors stamp of approval on our friend the void.

I shall concern myself with those two writers during the remainder of the present lecture.


In the short stories that Kafka himself chose to publish and that are assembled, in the order in which they first appeared, in the posthumous The Penal Colony, it is the “Typhoon” rather than the Heart of Darkness pattern that predominates.

In them Kafka gives us a world of intensely individual centres of consciousness, individual perceptions, individual stretches of experience, individual encounters.

But the encounters are not “merely” personal, subjective, insubstantial.


There is nothing insubstantial about the experience of Wese in “A Fratricide”:

At the very corner dividing the two streets Wese paused, only his walking stick came round into the other street to support him. A sudden whim. The night sky invited him, with its dark blue and its gold. Unknowing, he gazed up at it, unknowing he lifted his hat and stroked his hair; nothing up there drew together in a pattern to interpret the immediate future for him; everything stayed in its senseless, inscrutable place. In itself it was a highly reasonable action that Wese should walk on, but he walked on to Schmar’s knife.

“Wese!” shrieked Schmar, standing on tiptoe, his arm outstretched, the knife sharply lowered. “Wese!” You will never see Julia again!” And right into the throat and left into the throat and a third time deep into the belly stabbed Schmar’s knife. Water rats, slit open, give out such a sound as came from Wese.

There is nothing insubstantial about the confident, laughing, whip-cracking Arab in “Jackals and Arabs,” the barbarian horsemen in “An Old Manuscript,” the brutish groom in “A Country Doctor” who grabbed hold of the serving girl and “pushed his face against hers. She screamed and fled back to me; on her cheek stood out in red the marks of two rows of teeth.”

The body’s strivings and resistances are omnipresent in this slim volume, and it is an active physicality. Apart from “A Country Doctor,” nothing is said about sicknesses, or about passive pleasures like the comforts of the bed.

In story after story, characters journey to or through something, or engage in high-energy performances, like circus artistry and “free” galloping:

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath where horse’s neck and head would be already gone.


Nor are there any intimations that daily human existence is hollow.

In the subset of stories published originally as A Country Doctor, public structures and doings are far from being merely cages—the cage of the kind of work that takes your energies away from the things that you would really like to do.

While no confident commitment of the self to a single structure or mode of being is possible, no blanket rejection of any of them occurs either. The various options that are sketched are all limited ones, but they are real.

There is no hint of any innate absurdity about the civil professions, or art, or technology, or fatherhood. Bucephalus—Alexander the Great’s horse turned attorney—confidently ascends the steps of the Law Courts “with a high action that made them ring beneath his feet.” He enjoys his public role; and the public respects both that role and the somewhat unusual self that is filling it.

Doctors endeavour to heal, engineers survey mines, coal-merchants sell coal, The father in “My Eleven Sons” is almost obsessively interested in his offspring.

We don’t have here the passivity, the irony, the feeling of social and personal unchangeableness that we get in Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities (1930- ).


And the wide variety of styles and rhetorics in these stories of Kafka’s function always in relation to the given of the corporeal and the communal as we know them.

A postulate may be fantastical—a horse becoming a lawyer, an insurance clerk transformed into a giant beetle—but immediately, as in the magic tales of E. Nesbit or the science fiction of H. G. Wells that Borges so admired, the rules of the body and of the demands and expectations of others (they, too, Nietzschean nodes of power-seeking) come into play again.

Kafka isn’t giving us multiple worlds here.

It’s a single world, our world, apprehended through a multiplicity of languages.

Nor, pace the religious or pseudo-religious accounts of him, are there constant intimations in those stories of an infinitely realer “beyond” which casts a permanent shadow over the inferior gratifications of the “here.”

Insofar as there are beyonds, they are fuller and intenser modes of being and doing in terms of this world—of “more,” not “other.”


If what we have in The Penal Colony is far from what Richard Sheppard, in the Modernism volume, calls “the vision of an animal looking out from its burrow on to a world which in its flatness and greyness no longer belongs to him,” Jorge Luis Borges is likewise far from being a writer for whom, according to a couple of others, “the idea of absurd creation, random method, parody or self-exhausting fictionality is paramount.”


Like G.K. Chesterton, that hero of his, Borges was frightened by the void of nihilism, the void that he himself experienced during his near-mortal bout with septicemia in 1939 and which, in the first story that he wrote during his convalescence from it, he embodied in the figure of the nihilist-symbolist French poet Pierre Menard (“author of Don Quixote”).

Borges brilliantly dramatized the adventures of the mind—his mind—among ideas, transposing into physical terms the experiences of reading and the mind’s yearnings and fears.

He gave us fables embodying the allure of the idea of a total compacted knowledge like that embodied in the Aleph of the Kabbalists, “the only place on earth where all places are—seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” He knew the craving for unmediated knowledge. He understood the frame of mind reported on by R.D. Laing when he says of one patient that

He had various “mystical” experiences in which he felt himself united with the Absolute, with the One Reality. The laws by which he secretly “knew” the world was governed were entirely magical ones.

But he also knew the terror of everything connecting up with everything else, with no fixed point anywhere, in a labyrinth without a centre, like the vertiginous, Piranesi-like Library of Babel, with its “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of identical hexagonal rooms.”

After solving (as he thinks) a set of clues, Detective Eric Lönnrot in “Death and the Compass”(1942) visits the abandoned Buenos Aires villa of Triste-le-Roy with its “superfluous symmetries” and “maniacal repetitions.”

He ascended dust-covered stairways and came out into circular antechambers; he was infinitely reflected in opposite mirrors; he grew weary of opening or half-opening windows which revealed the same desolate garden outside, from various heights and various angles... On the second floor, on the top floor, the house seemed to be infinite and growing.



But we don’t have to remain trapped with the scholars in the Library of Babel, obsessively searching for the key book that will put them in touch with the total, out-there, objective truth about everything, in an infinite regress of attempted authentication. (To find Book A you must first find book B, and to find Book B you must first find Book C, and so on.)

Nor need we settle for the counter-solution of the mythical post-modernist country of Tlön in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) , where the idea of objective truth is altogether absent—a country where all philosophizing consists of As If Constructions whose duty is simply to offer “a kind of amazement,” and where a literary critic is free to “choose two dissimilar works—the Tao Te Ching and The Thousand and One Nights, let us say—and attribute them to the same writer, and then with all probity explore the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres.”

We don’t have to live in a world in which knowledge is by definition absolute and perfect, error (the absence of knowledge) is total error, and all fictions, being empty of real knowledge, are equally arbitrary, groundless, and weightless, so that all that remains is to subscribe to the ones you yourself happen to find the most “interesting.”


Detective Lönnrot allays, by rational explanation, his mounting dread in the villa. “The house is not this large, he thought. It is only made larger by the penumbra, the symmetry, the mirrors, the years, my ignorance, the solitude.”

The narrator of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” demonstrates that “Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”

And stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1942), “Theme of the Traitor and Hero” (1944), and “Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth” (1951) all show us the successful clearing up of limited mysteries.

Borges loved detective stories, Chesterton’s especially. The stories that I have named are all Chestertonian.

Borges’ labyrinths have centres.


Moreover, if Borges was omniverously bookish, he was also fascinated by the military forebears on both sides of his family.

Soldiers, gauchos, outlaws, knife-fighting city toughs, and other men of heroic action are as much a presence in his work as are Platonic idealism and the Kabbalah, and are presented with a strong moral interest in courage, cowardice, and the Conradian possibility of second chances.

He is always respectful towards the energies of the body, even when they result in foolish deaths, deaths on behalf of “honour.”

The wickedest man in his works is the Plato-reading rancher Don Guillermo Blake in the 1967 story “The Immortals,” who “conclud[es] that the five senses obstruct or deform the apprehension of reality and that, could we free ourselves of them, we would see the world as it is—endless and timeless”

In Grand Guignol fashion, Blake

begets a son by one of the farm girls so that the boy may one day become acquainted with reality. To anaesthetize him for life, to make him blind and deaf and dumb, to emancipate him from the senses of smell and taste, were the father’s first concerns.... As to the rest, this was arranged with contrivances designed to take over respiration, circulation, nourishment, digestion and elimination.


The perceptions of the paralyzed youth, Ireneo Funes in “Funes, the Memorious” have the instantaneous total fidelity to sense impressions that the literature of Northern Tlon, with its concern for rendering the uniqueness of phenomena like “the vague, quivering pink which one sees when the eyes are closed,” can only grope towards.

But the result resembles Roquentin’s vertigo in the park in Sartre’s Nausea, when concepts have slipped away from things, and he sits “dazed, stunned by that profusion of beings without origins; bloomings, blossomings, everywhere... .”

Funes, observes the narrator, was

the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London, and New York have overawed the imagination of men with their ferocious splendor; no one, in these populous towers or upon those surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the unfortunate Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse.

Funes dies at the age of twenty-one, in 1889, during the heyday of the Symbolist movement.

There are worse things than imperfect knowledge.


Borges’ shapely and heuristic fictions are the antithesis of that sort of nausea, and of the activities of Pierre Menard. There is nothing absurdist about them.

If I may borrow from myself:

Far from endorsing the trivializing of art to the equivalent of erecting card-houses, Borges observes in [an article on Bernard Shaw] that “The conception of literature as a formalistic game leads, in the best of cases, to the fine chiseling of a period or a stanza, to an artful decorum, ... and in the worst, to the discomforts of a work made of surprises dictated by vanity and chance....” And in the same essay he praises Shaw because his work, as he puts it, “leaves one with a flavour of liberation. The flavour of the stoic doctrines and the flavour of the sagas.”

Those flavours are also to be found in Borges’ own deeply Argentinian and chivalric oeuvre. If they weren’t, his work could never have played so central a role in the evolution of Latin American magic realism.

Next time I shall take up the question of power and plenitude.


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Preface Nihilism Peaks Together Bibliography