An examination of Ulrich Horstmann’s “The Beast. Contours of a Philosophy of Human Escape”
I. The beast par excellence: man
In his essay, first published in 1983 and then as a paperback in 1985, Horstmann develops the basic pattern of what he calls “anthropofugal thinking”. The beginning of the book immediately sets the ironic, sarcastic tone of this philosophizing:
The apocalypse is imminent. We beasts have known it for a long time, and we all know it. Behind the party bickering, the armament and disarmament debates, the military parades and anti-war marches, behind the facade of the desire for peace and the endless ceasefires, there is a secret agreement, an unspoken great understanding: that we must put an end to ourselves and those like us, as soon as and so thoroughly as possible — without quarter, without scruples and without survivors.(Suhrkamp edition, p. 7)
This thesis is more than surprising at first. It means that all human efforts, including and especially those aimed at fundamentally overcoming the war, ultimately, “in the secrecy of [our] reason” (ibid.), mean the opposite and towards an annihilation, not only of human life but of life in general:
The true Garden of Eden — that is the wasteland. The goal of the story — is the weathered field of ruins. The sense — that is the trickling sand blown through the eye sockets under the skull cap. (p. 8)
From the outset, all ideas, whether of philosophy or religion, of progress, a telos of history, or even salvation, have been brushed aside. They can be nothing more than laborious attempts to hide the meaninglessness of our existence, no, more than that, they secretly work towards the nothingness that they do not want to accept, as we have seen the structure of these ideas is therefore ambiguous. They express our species’ interest in existence, the participation in a fundamental drive towards it — and in them they are nothing but, as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would say, “living lies” — but contrary to this tendency there is another hidden one, which has always been had distanced itself from existence altogether:
Peculiarities and bearers of this initially disconcerting form of reflection, which nonetheless has always existed in the minds of the monsters as a kind of Trojan horse, is what we will see as anthropofugale Perspektive, as a perspective of a speculative human flight. What is meant by this is that the monster distances itself from itself and its history, looks on impartially, suspends the apparently universal commandment of sympathy with the species to which the thinker belongs, a cutting of affective ties. (ibid.)
Nothing is less natural. Because if we were only human animals who had to follow the dictates of their life-instinct with more or less reason, then we would only have the possibility of insight into the madness of the entirety of our doings blocked. But it can just as little owe it to a spirit which, like Hegel’s, combined the ability to negate precisely that of producing one’s own truth. So in the organic itself there must be a counter-instinct against life; in the creaturely, there is, as it were, the urge to surrender to death, to non-existence: reason can thus, based on the will to nothing, maintain a distance to beings as well as to oneself and evade the “universal commandment of sympathy with the species”.
What can such a claim be based on, are there any witnesses to support it? Horstmann first cites the myth:
But even in the myths of the so-called “primitives” and the religions of early high cultures, the disorientation, the existential feeling of being alien and out of place, which has accompanied the monsters since the beginning of their species history, is clearly noticeable (p. 9).
Astonishingly, the primal experience that is actually found in all cultures, that of being expelled from the bosom of nature, is valued as evidence of their anthropofugal tendency (cf. p. 12). But not in a formulation like: “A little later, a new self-image with the opposite sign takes the place of the mythical skepticism towards one’s own species, the place of totemic wishes for regression into the animal world and the grief over one’s own un-animal outcast: that Promethean idea from “man”, which from now on should dominate the species up to the present” (p. 13), very different things together, namely the “skepticism about one’s own species” and the longing for a restored unity with the living environment — to which the elementary realm of stone, water, earth and air also belongs in the imagination of the tribal cultures? In any case, to what extent does the desire for unity conceal the desire for after death?
However, Horstmann’s brief consideration of the myth does not seek to be precise from the outset; it wants nothing more than to cast an unusual light on this area, like a spotlight. Also, the following sections: about Greek philosophy, Christianity, Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment only want to illustrate what happens, namely a different kind of fall from grace, when the “primal experience of the senselessness and absurdity of the existence of the species” is replaced by “anthropocentrism and logomorphism” (p.15) is replaced. It is clear enough that one’s own discursive-philosophical claim is undermined or only apparently pursued. Instead of an independent justification why life as a whole should be rejected — such as with Schopenhauer, whose world will, eternally biting into itself, can never achieve the desired satisfaction or even something like happiness -, enumerations often appear, for example right at the beginning:
Who could endure a millennial and millennial litany of slashing, stabbing, spearing, hacking, the monotony of slaughtering and skull-cracking, the om mani padmehum of atrocities…” (p. 7),
or something like:
Ever since the beast existed, it has been at war with itself, and with hand ax and sword, with crossbow and rifle, with chariot and rocket launcher… All the endless battles fought to the point of exhaustion, all the bombing, blasting, and grinding, all the armor towers, scrap heaps and skull pyramids … (p. 56)
It is no coincidence that people’s suffering is not viewed from a close-up. not from an internal perspective either (the psychological misery, and the experience of torment is hardly ever mentioned): that would be contrary to the “anthropofugal perspective”. Anyone who would like to accuse Horstmann of the lack of autonomy in his philosophical approach would fall short. One may also find it unsatisfactory that the following chapters mainly contain only one presentation, no matter how interesting, of the “anthropofugal” tendencies in philosophy that are increasingly reappearing in modern times — from d’Holbach to Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, Nietzsche and de Maistre, Ludwig Klages, Freud and Foucault up to Cioran — with interim considerations about the ecological and the peace movement, to which I will come back later; but even so, the impression of a kind of blank space arises indirectly while reading. The philosophical argument seems to be there and then is not there, or conversely, it is absent and then nevertheless there. The direct becomes indirect and this reappears quite directly. This is puzzling. What does this enigmatic structure mean?
II. The main thesis and a possible criticism
In the chapter on psychoanalysis a sentence begins: “Freud, who in a letter to Albert Einstein from September 1932 expressly describes his teaching as “a kind of mythology” (…) (…)” (p. 86). That makes you keen. Should also Horstmann’s “theory”, which finally the occidental philosophical subjects reason to a fundamental critique, implicitly, so to speak, stripping away its own theoretical claim by setting it up? Shortly before the passage just quoted, Horstmann makes the transition from Klage’s account to that of Freud: “Perhaps man’s will to annihilation and self-destruction is only the highest manifestation of a primal impulse and proto-instinct that is inherent in all living things and has become self-conscious for the first time drives it to its downfall” and continues shortly afterwards:
Anyone who accuses such speculations about the long march of the amoeba to death, about the patient suicide of DNA as being like a fairy tale and fantastic, forgets the cognitive potential of those primeval myths of the twilight of the gods and the cataclysm that stood at the beginning of our investigation. The fact that the new myth is told with evolutionary-theoretical fuss is irrelevant; the only important thing is the liberation of mythical consciousness from the Babylonian captivity of scientific rationality (…). (ibid.)
The liberation of mythical consciousness from the semblance of scientific rationality appears in the modern age as a self-defeating theory that consequently becomes ironic. Your factual claims are immediately “fairytale and fantastical” — and only because of this and herein can they pretend to be truthful. This creates a state of limbo in which ironic refraction and factuality cancel each other out, while also referring to and needing the individual right of the respective antipode. The fact that we should blow up this planet and everything that lives on it is meant ironically — and can only be understood in this way because it can also be taken literally to a certain extent. The irony would not ignite if it were not accompanied by the factual assertion that life is bad and should be rejected from the ground up; however, it is precisely this, in all its gravity, that is divested of its seriousness and thus placed in the state of limbo of a reason that no longer operates scientifically.
The “Promethean conception of man” (p. 13) and the “related” logos are thus confronted with a procedure for which it is important not only to simply criticize and reject the validity claim of unequivocal theses: this would also require the Confidence in the logical operations of our minds that have been lost here, but to set and undo them in one and the same act. What it’s actually about is not to say directly. It only arises as a mental state in which it becomes momentarily clear that we are in “free fall” (a phrase from Horstmann’s book on melancholy, which we will deal with shortly).
For the certainties that we seem to trust to allow us to orientate ourselves in this impossible existence, to get our feet on supposedly solid ground, are all fallacious. How much we need, for example, our purposes for those in this world decisive, because higher, is still clear from the instinctive reaction to the following sentences of d’Holbach:
Doesn’t the conqueror seem to fight his battles for the ravens, for the beasts, and for the worms? Do not the supposed minions of Providence die to provide food for the thousands of despicable insects that Providence seems to care for as much as we do? (…) A very cursory glance is enough, then, to teach us that the idea that man is the ultimate cause of creation and the constant object of the activity of nature … is false. (D’Holbach: “System der Natur”. Frankfurt 1978, quoted in: “Untier”, p. 41)
A reason that no longer follows its one instinct, which urges it to relate ontologically and phylogenetically everything that is and becomes to a concept of meaning, but in a certain respect turns against itself in order to undermine its own achievements, obeys apparently also, as we have seen, an instinct, only not towards life, but towards death.
Of course, we are dealing here with a deeply melancholy outlook that discovers its negative truths in the process of dissolving, dying if you will, of the positive ones. However, before I turn to Horstmann’s representation of the reason and logic that corresponds to it, let me take a final look at the central thesis of the “monster”. It is:
Suffering can only be canceled out by its totalization. But in the inferno, the revocation of creation, the creaturely pain transcends itself, brightens up, cheers itself up in the animal with the foreboding, in the human being with the certainty that the wheel of generations, of rebirth in torment, has finally broken, that the unborn remains unborn henceforth, life unlived, suffering unsuffered. (…) Who wouldn’t be able to hear, in the rumbling of the detonations, above the groans, rattles, and whines of the bombed, the choirs of angels, the praises and hymns of those countless phantoms of the no-longer-to-be-born, of the unconceived, of Freedmen and those who escaped from torture, who were spared earthly hell through his sacrifice. And which one of those who promoted and defended the apocalypse (…) didn’t feel at the moment of its downfall how the grimace of the beast begins to decompose and the noble, holy death mask of the redeemed and redeeming human being crystallizes over the well-known murderer physiognomy . (p. 104)
Two pages earlier it says:
And the flashes of the detonations and the conflagration that will spread across the continents will be reflected in the eyes of the last of our kind, illuminating and transfiguring their countenance.(S. 102)
As Horstmann explains in the chapter on Eduard von Hartmann, we no longer need a Hegelian “world non-spirit” because “the completely non-metaphysical fact” that mankind longs for nothing (p. 54) is sufficiently obvious. The two poles of argument collide in this very harsh way in his essay. Reason forces itself, its instrumental character to accept without objection and formulated as a mere factual statement, which eludes any proof. It thus gives up its own field and becomes the mind — in order to present a fact in a good behaviorist manner, which of course isn’t one. That’s why her demeanor creates an irony that becomes all the colder the more horrible the scenario she depicts appears to the reader.
The consequence of this procedure is: Make it clear to yourself that the existence of mankind, like organic life as a whole, has no meaning whatsoever, by not only imagining the transience or non-existence of everything that exists, but even expressing the active desire for its destruction; confront the image of this sinking to find your peace of mind in it, in a paradoxical envelope. Thus arises what might be called the apotheosis of anthropofugal thinking. It moves away from all hope because it is the only way to achieve what it longs for, which is to live out the death drive in this existence. The constellation of both drives, their unity of tension, constitutes the ironic state of uncertainty, the specific truth of which arises precisely in the dissolution of every truth content. Her form of expression is an aesthetic one: “in the eyes of the last of our kind” the catastrophe and the calm that sets in after it is reflected as a work of art. There is
in fact (…) a form of knowledge that, in contrast to philosophical reflection, keeps the memory that we would not be better against the passage of time and has never renounced it, namely art (…). (p. 54)
If one wants to criticize Horstmann’s philosophical anti-theory, then this, is its highest point. First of all, it has to be acknowledged that he is stylistically master of his subject: the prose does not derail even at the point where the “moans of the bombed out” and the “choirs of angels” are mentioned. Even the last chapter, written in a hymn-sarcastic tone and partly parodying the Bible: “But over the bare rock of his [the monster’s] homeland there will be peace, and on the stones, the white dust of the organic lies like frost” (p. 113f) — the “mould coating” that Schopenhauer speaks of, this disease of life, has turned into frost-like “white dust” here — impresses the reader as the keystone of a hermetically sealed building. Every step out of him, out of this consistently solipsistic attitude, which would turn to the suffering people and animals again, compassionately, meant a stylistic and content-related falling out of character. Horstmann may and can imagine the final catastrophe, because from his “anthropofugal” standpoint — because that is precisely what defines him — the innumerable individual deaths are no longer present, but rather, methodically reflected, are overlooked. It may not be easy to take on this attitude, because this is what it is. It requires absolute rigor because it strives to abandon any meaningful reference. A criticism that accuses her of inhumanity slipped off her. However, whether the intended balance, the between as truth, shouldn’t the consequence that it requires also break through again out of its own impulse?
We already know that it only comes about as an exciting simultaneity of irony and factuality. But if the factual is ironized too easily, then the internal tension, which only persists if justice is done to both extreme poles, falls. This justice would be the appropriate stylistic and substantive criterion to examine the principles of anthropofugal thinking. It is double in itself. First of all, it asks how these two poles meet and penetrate each other, but then whether the impulse to break through one’s own attitude is visible and allowed to take shape.
According to the first point of view, there are certainly shortcomings in the text, for example when the “ecophiles”, the opponents of nuclear power and the peace movement of those years as a whole (cf. p. 71) are spoken of unceremoniously disparagingly, i.e. the irony falls out of its art form. However, I find the lines about the French Revolution to be particularly inadequate: see “anthropocentric revisionism”.
once again draws the dawn of a new age and hastens to equip the now bourgeois Prometheus des thiers état with the virtues of liberty, equality, fraternity befitting him. It comes, as it must. The beast understands at the moment that from now on it will no longer be allowed to rage, pillage and murder only for God and Fatherland, but under the banner of human rights and thus under the general pardon of the highest ideals, quickly draws on the tricolor, sets out with a clear conscience Decimation of his compatriots and a little later under the leadership of a dwarf Corsicans to the devastation of all of Europe. (p. 43)
This is where a historical perspective that takes everything from one perspective, that of always being the same, reaches its limits, and it also shows this stylistically, for example when Napoleon is viewed with a certain malice because of his small stature. Irony becomes mere satire here. Even the tricolor could not be raised “on the fly”. One believes one can hear the anti-bourgeois attitude and language of the university left of the time echoing (to what extent Horstmann’s essay could also have drawn the bitterly cynical conclusion of disappointed hopes for revolution, I do not concern myself here).
An irony that, despite the greatest anthropofugal tendency, still galled at the concrete suffering of people, would break out of its self-made prison. It would not become inconsistent, but on the contrary followed its own impulse to remove all barriers. At least in his essay “Das Untier”, Horstmann did not get as far as this area, in which logic pushes itself beyond the limits of the instrumental-rational. With biting mockery at the end of modernity, he created its model of a nihilistic-melancholic worldview — insofar as it belongs to the series of great literature, which seeks the truth in ruthlessness, even against itself, and which ranges from Montaigne to Cioran, heard — but he doesn’t have it again himself, in his construction, destroyed. Because this work, the actual condition of development, was not done, the task it describes keeps coming up. Horstmann counters the danger of repetition that this entails with the brilliance of style at his disposal.
III. melancholy and knowledge
Two years after “Monster” appears “The long shadow of melancholy. Essay on a blackened feeling” (Essen, 1985). In this book, Horstmann develops the beginnings of an epistemology based on melancholy. It has, he writes, “to do with experiences of powerlessness, experiences of being overwhelmed, with existential failure, the necessity and hopelessness of failure”; the true melancholic is “a gourmet of the final loss of control, the disempowerment of the planners through contingency, the resurrection of the original chaos” (p. 9). The normal life instinct, as we already know, constantly deceives itself by convincing itself that future success will take the place of present failure. What normality means is basically this web of lies. The melancholic person breaks through it by turning directly to it. He no longer closes his eyes to him, rather it becomes his ambition to remain radically aware that “the basic fiction of an existence” (p. 10) is really only this: a fiction. There is only “groundlessness under our feet”, we live “in castles in the air” and walk “on clouds”, “nothing (can) stop our fall (…) once we let ourselves fall” (p. 12) .
Horstmann finds an expression that is as precise as it is genuinely frightening to make it clear what melancholy is about; their undertaking is “an expedition into the heart of the catastrophe” (p. 11), that is, into that space of chaos in which both the lies of existence and their annihilation arise. To keep looking into him, to confront the horror, that is “the joy of melancholy thinking — thinking in free fall” (p. 13).
If whole generations of philosophers following Kant have repeatedly strived to understand how our mind constructs and builds up reality, and in doing so not only creates a reliable framework for knowledge, but also for action, namely binding norms On the contrary, melancholy would also like to let a devastating reason have its say. Their activity requires “lack of illusion” (p. 22) and creates it, to an ever increasing degree if possible.
Real knowledge happens in the “heart of the catastrophe”. So she’s genuinely melancholy. Horstmann quotes from Aristotle’s “Problemata”: “Why do all exceptional men prove themselves in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts as a melancholic?” and then reports on the connection established by Aristotle between creativity and the states of manic depression (p. 15f). The mood disorder should not predominate, rather “a secondary equilibrium” should be established in it, because “in sector of the exceptional (applied) its own laws”. These old insights are fundamentally confirmed by modern suicide research (cf. e.g. K.R. Jamison: When it gets dark. On the understanding of suicide, Berlin 1999). Without the suicidal tendency of melancholic thinking to to be exposed to nothing, there is no inspiration whose level of experience undoubtedly has a manic-depressive component.This does not mean that some creations in the philosophical or artistic field can be traced back to pathological states, but on the contrary that there is something mad in the depths of life lurks, without which there would not be what we do sth call spirit or freedom.
Horstmann describes inspiration, the opening of thinking to its abyss, as an initiation experience:
Thought is defenseless against what it does in good faith. But it is not defenseless in the face of good faith itself. Rather, it can learn to see through its suggestions, evade them and go beyond the hope of better times, i.e. where, according to healthy optimism, it should only have encountered dullness and stupor, its clairvoyant and find an honest living. The breaking in and desperate unraveling (…) marks the critical phase of the transition, that “dense, horrible night” of a “stubborn, dark … wild melancholy” (…), about which Leopardi reports at one point (. ..). And maybe this wanting to help oneself out, the indiscriminate clinging, (…), the inability to finally and irrevocably let go is precisely the decisive stumbling block. (…) [The perfect melancholy] overtakes and absorbs the ‘devastating’ initiation experience, refines and ennobles the despair into that ‘silent basic mourning’ without which, according to Gottfried Keller, there is no real joy (…). Behind the ‘black’ appears a bright and cheerful melancholy (…). This ‘white’ melancholy is a peaceful disappointment that has come to rest (…). What Leopardi would like to have understood as “destruction of the naturally largest and most fertile soul” actually describes her melancholic resurrection in the most precise way. This completely earthly coming back to oneself is — which melancholy person would deny that — not salvation in the religious sense, but rather a detachment from all promises, a liberation from the salvation mortgage that oppresses us (…). So the despair of black melancholy leads to redemption from redemption, to a wholesome hopelessness, a carried fall and a free fall (…)” (p.89ff).
“White melancholy or logic” is also the theme of the essays in the 2000 volume of “Abdrift”, which deal with the connection between alcohol abuse and creativity. So here lies the center of Horstmann’s reflections on the creative power of melancholy. Its “black” whirlpool devours all solidifications of consciousness that give us a false security, and as long as we fear this dissolution it appears as a terror par excellence. But only who gives up the resistance and not forced, but of their own free will also the last consequence does not shy away from throwing himself into this abyss, will not be swallowed up by it, but rather let go. What happens to him is what has always been called rebirth, but of course it has no religious connotations here. A “carried falling and free falling” is the actual life of the spirit, which only finds itself in this state of suspension. It exists deep down as a pure flow, a being with oneself in giving oneself away. Nietzsche tried to characterize this form of existence as that of the superman. She is godlike but without God, who was nothing more than the enhanced image of this self-generating and self-renewing process. “God” was the name of the absolute form of this being, which man knows and endures only in a weakened form and concentrated in moments. (We will see that this idea of inspiration itself, for all its magnificence, is by no means reliable — even melancholy runs, or ran, after an illusion.)
Of course, the nihilistic variation of this exaggerated existence does not create a new ideal of freedom, it knows its conditions: “The subtle stinging in reason that melancholy gives birth to can never be eliminated in melancholy and does not stop at the black bile. Even under the feet of the miners namely the ground trembles, there too digging is going on. The unground is omnipresent, an Archimedean point is nowhere to be made out — not even in the certainty of the non-existence of Archimedean points” (p. 98).
Melancholy undermines its own certainty as it recalls its origins:
The maelstrom does not exist without the matter it swirls and devours, the black hole does not form without the collapsing star, and the melancholic no links a thousand reasons to the negated. (p. 113)
Man’s freedom can only be spoken of, if at all, in connection with his lack of freedom. Nothing would be more contrary to the melancholy view than the attempt to settle down once and for all in a field, declaring it to be yours. It only exists as a solution to a tension, insofar as this is maintained in that tension. But this basic figure is, as already mentioned above, the aesthetic par excellence. It is therefore logical when Horstmann now quotes Schopenhauer and finds an “aesthetic dimension” in the “moment of pleasure of melancholic detachment” he describes, namely “a very peculiar and purified beauty” (p. 92f). The only thing capable of reconciling us with “life that endlessly devours itself (…)” and its unreasonableness (this is, mind you, an expression of Horstmann’s), is its transience (p. 95), “its melancholy (.. .) lifts us from ourselves into a beauty of disappearance that can probably only be expressed poetically” (ibid.).
The real task of art, which was already discussed in “Untier” as a “form of knowledge” (cf. ibid. p. 54), is now outlined in this way — and with it this “Form of knowledge” as that of melancholic life par excellence: “No art can prevent everything withering away, seeping away and floating away to deserts, but it can aestheticize the inevitable in such a way that we are able to look it in the eye without, like Lots to freeze woman” (p. 96). The melancholy evokes “a frightening wide-openness” and nevertheless enables us “to put up with that Medusa, that gorgon that we ourselves are, to the end” (ibid.).
The melancholic and aesthetic way of life are actually identical. It’s about being above him in life, at least as a trial, giving up any claim to the meaning of an action, it implies small or big consequences, but ultimately to meaning in general, with a laughing and a crying eye, so to speak. Nothing that happens is significant, everything is equally null: repeats and transforms the fundamentally nihilistic melancholy, but not as an abstract insight, but actually carrying it out, a main tenet of mysticism, which Angelus Silesius put it something like this: “God hath no difference, it’s all one to him: / he makes himself so much the fly as you mean” (Cherubinischer Wandersmann, first book, 127th distich). It may come as a surprise, but it lies in the logic of the matter that Christian mysticism and nihilism, for example of the Nietzschean type, both demand that people transcend themselves. However, both are based on the same idea of an inner process of the unity of decline and regeneration.
The outstanding signs of what man should strive for are the works of art:
Only the masterpieces (…) survive the undermining; but not because they could defy it, but because they are their own subversion, honoring an inevitable disappearance by resisting the Maelstrom by becoming whirlpools themselves. (p. 99)
A consistently designed work does not solidify into its own facade, but demands of its recipient to get the dammed-up stream flowing again in its shell. In its formal principle lies the real tendency to shape and survive one’s own downfall.
What for Walter Benjamin was still the expression of a desperate hope, Horstmann shows after its failure as the definitive preponderance of the death drive in unity with its antipode. Life is “mournful at heart, so to speak, and pushes into nothingness,” he paraphrases Alfred J. Ziegler in agreement, and together with him draws the well-known conclusion that melancholy is “a proto-instinct (…), a primordial impulse” of the organic existence.
However, whether it really feels drawn to its self-abolition, or whether its suicidal tendency is the equally precarious and necessary addition of the attempt to increase it, must remain open according to the principle of melancholy investigation: “We fail in life, but we also live in , yes from failure” (p. 113). At the end of the study, the Christian philosopher Romano Guardini, of all people, is quoted with explicit approval, who shows “how fullness becomes accessible precisely in emptying and how the black, desert, devastating melancholy can so unexpectedly transform into its white, gentle, adoring twin sister “ (p. 113). Guardini explains that the Dionysian breaks out of melancholy; It is the melancholic one “from whose essence the excess of the flood of life breaks and who is able to experience the unrestrainedness of all existence (Romano Guardini: “Vom Sinn der Melancholy.” Zurich 1949, quoted p. 114).
The impressive conclusion of Horstmann’s essay is given here (the book has long been out of print and urgently needs a new edition): The “romances” of the “black bile” are nourished by
something that stays in the shadows and from there sees all the more unglared: the twinkle of the dew, the rainbow, all the peacock feathers of nature so beautiful and so wrong. And the will-o’-the-wisp above the abyss kindles St. Elm’s fire in the head; and again one sits and writes bat wings. Flicking over ruins. shuffle of letters. Already over. dimmed. Illegible. If you don’t fail because of melancholy, you haven’t thought about it. (p. 114).
IV. Outline of a metaphysics of melancholy in the postmodern era
This ending is so impressive because it is, so to speak, the expression of a theory that is becoming practical: the retraction of what has been written into nothingness and the transient in itself includes the intensification and culmination of the melancholic attitude to life to the aesthetic. Such a way of looking and feeling has its indubitable right to exist. No one, and certainly not someone who insists on perceiving the positive sides of our existence, can deny her that. The following critique is by no means intended to show that this attitude is unjustified. Rather, she would like to have a quasi-family conversation with her and neither emphasize the differences per se nor the similarities. Both, however, result from a different view of life, which can be called post-modern, because the structure of the — melancholic — inspiration process, and thus also of individuation per se, is no longer given with apparent self-evidence.
One thing that has never occurred to melancholy and its skeptical process, which does not want to accept any Archimedean point, is to attack its idea of its own process. Without noticing it, she had an undoubted, because obvious indubitable foundation. The god-believing and, as Gustav Landauer called it, mysticism without God, both strive to create a state of limbo of the spirit, in which Apollonian and Dionysian, constructive and destructive forces are balanced. Skepticism may destroy everything: for it, a placeless center of consciousness emerges all the more purely, which at first is frightened, but then unmoved, watching the decline of the structure of meaning. This central point gathers in itself what has been called the self since the dialectic philosophy of idealism. Precisely it is nothing given, but arises as a backward reference of the intentional, centrifugally outward-turning acts of consciousness. In the opposite process, it means the moment of the turning point, the real rebirth: “I” am what seems to be present in the construction and dismantling of my world like an extraterritorial place, but which at every moment is only the real resultant of the opposing forces, that which ostensibly hovers detached above them exists. The self emerges from the abyss of the object definitions into which it has surrendered, it is, as it were, their paradoxical withdrawal into nothingness.
Two consequences result from this condensed observation of the melancholic process: on the one hand, the skeptical destruction of the edifice of ideas is only the counter-movement of the others who build it up — and both, whether they know it or not, are always only together in one and the same act of consciousness present and active; on the other hand, there is no “white” melancholy without its counterpart, the “black”, because the calm of the first can only be felt as long as the terror felt by the second still reverberates in the former and is present in this way. That means what tears down the skepticism is in itself also an immediate construction and its view that it lives in nothingness, thus also a self-misunderstanding. One now understands immediately why she has to question her own results again and pull them into her whirlpool, because when the thesis begins to predominate in her antithesis, the power of the negative, as Hegel called it, freezes and the experience of the flow of knowledge seeps away. It does not follow from this that skepticism and melancholy are philosophically untenable; rather, like other philosophical attitudes, they are part of this world and, like this one, do not occupy a privileged place in relation to it.
Precisely because there is no Archimedean point, no philosophical view or theory has the final say. Since there is no longer a center in the post-modern era, the claim to sole representation of every idea is no longer valid and can no longer be justified. Of course, this also applies to the skepticism that claims the nullity of all positive knowledge. Like every doctrinal opinion that has appeared up to now, it has to change fundamentally if it wants to be credible in its own way in the present. In doing so, it has to demand what applies to every concept of truth today, namely to carry out a transformation in which one’s own claim to knowledge absorbs what appears to be impossible, but in fact has always been the case, that there are a large number equal truths. Suffice it to say that this attitude has nothing to do with relativism. Basically, skepticism only applies its own principle to itself, in that it admits and considers it conceivable not only that it is wrong, that would be too little, but that the groundlessness of the world it has stated is one of its reasons among many others. For skepticism and melancholy as a way of life, any arrogance towards other attitudes would still be a sign of their being stuck in modernity and its central concepts, which tend to be dogmatic.
But arrogance, the view of one’s own special position, necessarily attached to melancholy in earlier times — compare what Horstmann explains in his essay on the medieval concept of acedia. The manic-depressive temptation conveys the feeling of extraordinaryness and infinite power, even of creative intoxication, which many artists or poets then wanted to get by taking drugs or drinking excess. However, anyone who today, in art, poetry, music or philosophy, wants to leave the paths of the recent past, which are now merging into the tradition of modernity, will forgo solipsistic arrogance and thus the question of a different course of the inspiration process to permit.
The initiatory rebirth that this process brought about in earlier times created, as we saw, an extraterritorial center that nevertheless had its place in the world. In this context, this means that the purity of the “white” melancholy can by no means do without the ingredients of the “black” one. Their real violence, which practically expresses itself in murder or suicide, theoretically or artistically in the tearing down of given structures, culminated in Horstmann’s wish for a nuclear attack that would wipe out all organic life. Logically, the idea of the end of all animate existence should enable the ultimate and deepest skepticism about every idea of meaning. Now she shows her other side. If every center only acquires its extraterritorial status by not only retaining the echoes of its origins, but rather by potentiating its power: here to the point of breaking the last taboo, the existence of life itself — and it is precisely here that it is part of the world is that means to look at it as a whole; then the attempted transformation of the destructive into the purely aesthetic fails. The desired separation of the “white logic” from its counterpart would end up playing down the first one. But the violence that concentrates in her against her will is and remains the mirror of how things are in the world. The sharper the accentuation of the extraterritorial, the more precisely it fits into what it negates — the aesthetics of nuclear death in the 1970s and 1980s.
The uncompromising view of the nothingness of existence therefore fails. If we can learn something from it today, then maybe this: also the post-modern attempts to overcome the cruelty of life by accepting it, put in any other way will not succeed. The failure of melancholy becomes its new condition, so to speak. She recognizes, actually as the culmination of the paradoxical, that her absolute setting failed and brought her back into the world as a partial, where she now, accepting herself as a part of it, changes her shape in order to express the overabundance of suffering as this special one. Because that’s what it still wants to be: the lament of a being that is terrified of being addicted to the violence of existence and to death. She also sees the reason for her existence in herself and, as she knows, can never withdraw from it, but has to work towards it, which, as Horstmann rightly says, is life itself, by unmasking it.
The sentence quoted above, that we live in and from failure, therefore now takes this form. One of its possible manifestations would be the already indicated one, to follow the impulse to remove all barriers in its two directions — because paradoxically, the one that skeptically melancholically tears down the given and thus removes itself from all references now demands the coexistence of another, which is straight towards individual existence and its concrete suffering. Both tendencies no longer combine to form a unity of the contradictory. Rather, when the melancholic attitude realizes that its “free fall” or soaring above the world not only requires an affective attention to it, but also contains it immediately, a double or extended space arises in it, in which both directions intersect without wanting to cancel each other out. The post-modern melancholy that feels this space emerging within it gains an image of itself and the world of which it is a part. In this picture, as in those of art, the real itself, which no longer follows a simple law, becomes ambiguous and enigmatic, even uncanny. Because apparently not only does the intended ironic turning away from existence also contain a turning to it, but also the effort to really approach the individual other existence — lovingly, helping, or whatever -, as a condition of one’s own, an emotionless distancing oneself from it . There is no real love without indifference, no pity without coldness, and yet these feelings for another life are not easily canceled out by their opposites.
The post-modern melancholy thus sees in its own image the new conditions of its failure and at the same time the actual reason for its existence. Because she herself contains and is part of what she is also afraid of, which she now has to and wants to withstand, she understands that of life in the enigmas of her existence. Still — and again — it seems not only to drift off into madness, but to have its source in it. This time he shows himself as alien, as coldness and death in people’s feelings, as enigmas and imponderables in their attempts to understand themselves and their own world. As before, melancholy wants to throw itself into his abyss, it is the impulse towards him. But if he is now the opposite, in which life and death coexist in a space of expansion, then, as we have seen, she finds the image of her existence endowed with double features: the head of the medusa, the gorgon Horstmann speaks of, does not simply have a hideous physiognomy; rather, her face reflects an expression of joie de vivre and affirmation. This beauty itself has something treacherous, even evil, she knows that there is no escaping her. Because melancholy in its abyss does not find the possibility of a complete negation of existence, but on the contrary its intensification, without its experience of coldness and strangeness being mitigated in any way, it now recognizes, in a special moment of its existence , to what extent their rejection of life directly contains its increase — and this knows about and accepts, it cannot help it, its cruel conditions.
Only now does it become clear that melancholy is a form of being like others. The recognition of this justifies their post-modern transformation. It is now clear to her that every sense is only a partial one, with emptiness standing next to it; like, however, that one next to this one. It no longer has to renounce the idea of a universal meaning or happiness and constitute itself as the negating memory of this never-before-seen. She sees through this claim to absoluteness, which is that of her own past. Since there is no way back to her, she can meet her with sympathy. Her self-reflection shows her that by turning away from life, she becomes an expression of the stranger she dreads. Her sadness at not escaping this circle is itself an expression of the life that is being renewed and intensified within her. Even the post-modern melancholy seeks death only in him. If you really kill yourself, you go a different way. The skeptical-melancholic attitude, on the other hand, as the process of stretching progresses, encounters moments of freedom that, as Cioran thinks, perhaps only contract for the suicidal person at the moment of transition from being into nothingness to the only possible one (this would have to be thought about separately).
The skeptical melancholy, however, sees nothing in withdrawing now, as it were, into its own space and immediately thereafter, transforming itself, meeting another human being with unconditional love or affection, expressing the temporal law of their existence in this as in that way. For her, their opposing movements do not fit into any overall structure, but allow the unmitigated picture of the mysteriousness of existence to emerge when viewed, which is not related to any possible solution. The melancholic reflection recognizes its conditionality and accepts it: it would like to make visible in its picture, which is just as real, precisely that part of its content which also seems to deny it. The indifference, the “everything doesn’t matter” of the related attitude, transforms itself into the as well as lack of illusions and commitment. For to practice only the first would be to work into the hands of the stranger and make oneself equal to him without protest. On the other hand, it is not as if she hopes that her, like all other efforts to combat hunger will bring about a real improvement in the fate of those in need. Also the post-modern melancholy knows about the hopelessness of existence, but her experience contains another component. Life is not only at the mercy of violence, ephemeral and altogether null — it also grips us with a malignancy that reached to its extraterritorial center and did not exclude it, and which now occupies the spaces of postmodernity as well. Every expression of existence, including knowledge that wants to expose itself to its strangeness, supports it. Because this is the case, because nothing is sunk deeper into us than failure, there is at least the possibility, from the attitude of melancholy outlined here, of meeting the other attempts not to close our eyes to the terrible with a fundamental solidarity .
Postmodern metaphysics no longer seeks a being, substance, or god-like foundation upon which the world rests. Instead, it endeavors to focus on the pictorial character of existence, its imponderable and enigmatic nature. In doing so, it inevitably encounters a nothingness that combines with being to form a monstrosity that we trivially call life. Life renews itself by incorporating its own downfall, death, into its core and the boundless space of expansion. In this manner, structures seemingly arise in which a terrible suicidal drive expresses itself directly as the urge to exist.
Life itself is evil, indeed it is the epitome of evil, in its many shifting configurations because it casts its collective as well as individual forms into an abyss of annihilation that constitutes its intensity, the essence of life. In specific situations, life condenses into figures that we encounter as vivid images. Then the veil is lifted on our existence, and we see ourselves as inescapably horrific. If we understand that, in various times and epochs, no matter how profoundly its conditions of appearance have changed, as is currently the case, it is always waiting for us, we are seized by a bottomless fear. We are confronted with a mysterious, dark figure who is nameless yet possesses a will and, occasionally, a sudden face.
The evil of life, its true driving force, is concentrated in the fluctuating images of melancholic inspiration, which directly and mockingly demand one final thing from it: to let it re-emerge in the knowledge that it cannot do otherwise, looks back and, in the moment of encounter, knows that the melancholic negation of existence does not first have to turn into its affirmation, but that this already is itself. The pain coursing through it now leads to life, not death. The new form of melancholia also clearly sees what awaits and concurs with it unreservedly. It echoes what it has just experienced: the greatest rejection of being here lies within it. There is no escape from this cycle.
These propositions are themselves metaphysical. They strive to open a layer of being that radiates into everyday reality without being directly perceptible today. This area is pictorial. Configurations arise in it, which, on closer inspection, are imponderable, the other side of the post-modern thoroughly contingent objects. Each individual, who always belongs to a social structure even as an inner-psychic one, is a process that extends and stretches in opposite directions without joining together to form a whole. Its mysteriousness is the condition of our freedom, as well as its failure. It applies equally to metaphysical knowledge: its truth is as real as it is impossible and, precisely because it never forgets its pictorial character for a moment, expresses its insight into the basis of existence. This is thanks to a radical experience that expressly recognizes other ways of perceiving our reality.