A World of Gods and Monsters — Part Three

‘For hear Allhighest sprack for krischnians as for propogana fidies and his nuptial eagles sharped their beaks of prey: and every morphy man of us, pome by pome, falls back into this terrine: as it was let it be, says he!’

- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’

Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker sleeps on, dreaming about death, and about burial places, in a chapter that opens with numerous allusions to various battles, including some from the American Revolution, and from the American Civil War, suggesting an apocalyptic dissolution together with an anticipation of a new beginning, rising and falling and rising again, sleeping and waking, death and resurrection, sin and redemption: ‘abide Zeit’s summonserving, rise afterfall’, (‘Zeit’, German = time); the supervening chaos at the same time foreshadowing a new age.

‘Chaos’, George Frederic Watts, c. 1875–82

To paraphrase the above passage from ‘Finnegans Wake’: ‘For here at the tomb-site of Dublin the All Highest commanded the Christians to begin the work of missionaries — and his eagle churchmen sharpened their beaks of prey: and every mortal one of us falls, apple by apple, back into the earth: as it was, let it be, says he!’ ‘Allhighest sprack for krischnians’ refers of course to Friedrich Nietzsche’s, (1844–1900), ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, ironic in this context, with God commanding his eagle churchmen to sharpen their beaks and begin their work; for, as I outlined in part two, Nietzsche’s work opens with Zarathustra, having spent ten years meditating on a mountain, with an eagle, a symbol of pride, as a companion, and is now beset with a kind of missionary zeal and decides to go out into the world of men to teach some of the wisdom that he has acquired during his period of meditation; though his intent is of course to let them know that God is dead and that man is poisoned by those who teach that salvation is found not in this world but in the next, and by those who teach the Christian ethics of virtue, justice and pity.

‘And every mortal one of us falls, apple by apple, back into the earth: as it was, let it be, says he!’ Zarathustra’s other companion on the mountain was a serpent, symbol of wisdom. But another suggestion is unavoidable, that of the serpent that appears in Genesis 3:1, in the Garden of Eden, depicted as a tricky and underhanded creature, advocating as good that which God has forbidden; and it is especially cunning in its deception. ‘And every morphy man of us, pome by pome, falls back into this terrine’; falling apples, connecting with the Fall from Eden, but whereas when held in Adam’s hand the apple is a symbol of sin in artistic depictions of the Fall, when it is held by Christ he thereby represents the second Adam bringing life and rebirth. Symbols can evolve, or can be appropriated, as Nietzsche has done, the serpent now symbolising wisdom. Down from his mountain, Zarathustra decides that the people he encounters are unteachable for they are not ready to take the first step towards learning that necessitates a recognition of their present beliefs as being false; that he must find those ‘who do not know how to live except by going under’; that the people are too indifferent or too stupid to understand him but he will persist in teaching them the meaning of their existence; and as he cannot teach the multitude he will select a few disciples who will follow him, because they want to follow themselves.

Francisco de Zurbaran, ‘A Virgem da Maçã’, 1660–64

In part two of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ Nietzsche advances the notion of the will to power. The first part is for the most of it negative, but the second part delivers the positive doctrine; beginning with the idea that the hypothesis of God is meaningless because it defies the imagination; whereas the hypothesis of the overman is within the scope of the human mind if one first eliminates error; and one cause of error is pity; but the overman is willing to sacrifice himself, and so he is willing to sacrifice others also. Priests cause error, for they have taken death as their God’s triumph; they are in need of being redeemed from their Redeemer; they are virtuous because they expect a reward in the afterlife, but there is no reward. For the overman, to be virtuous is to be true to oneself and to follow where the self leads. The mass of people want power and pleasure too, but they want the wrong kinds of power and of pleasure; it is the overman that must search for the highest powers and pleasures; he must be nauseated by the rabble that is around him:

‘Life is a well of delight; but where the rabble also drink, there all fountains are poisoned.

To everything cleanly am I well disposed; but I hate to see the grinning mouths and the thirst of the unclean.

They cast their eye down into the fountain: and now glanceth up to me their odious smile out of the fountain.

The holy water have they poisoned with their lustfulness; and when they called their filthy dreams delight, then poisoned they also the words.

Indignant becometh the flame when they put their damp hearts to the fire; the spirit itself bubbleth and smoketh when the rabble approach the fire.


But I asked once, and suffocated almost with my question: What? is the rabble also NECESSARY for life?

Are poisoned fountains necessary, and stinking fires, and filthy dreams, and maggots in the bread of life?

Not my hatred, but my loathing, gnawed hungrily at my life! Ah, ofttimes became I weary of spirit, when I found even the rabble spiritual!

And on the rulers turned I my back, when I saw what they now call ruling: to traffic and bargain for power — with the rabble!’

- Thus spake Zarathustra

‘Metropolis’ (‘Großstadt’), 1928, Otto Dix

This category of nausea is also to be found in works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (1821–1881), and Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980). For Nietzsche, the malaise comes from seeing the rabble as one would see a field of dead, decaying animals, from seeing their putrid fires and tainted dreams. In Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’ the sickness is caused by the loathsomeness of life, made clear enough from the novel’s opening rant by the underground man:

‘I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors…. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well — let it get worse!’

Spite, in this context refers to a kind of existential defiance, the attempt to call into question some of the fundamental beliefs and habits that shape and condition our lives. not only in the mid-nineteenth century but today also; an attempt to raise doubts concerning the world’s prevailing logic. The underground man queries the value of reflective consciousness, particularly of the kind that focusses upon professedly moralistic evaluations of ourselves and of others; and hence here materializes the dominant theme of the novel, being underground, for the underground man feels like a mouse buried under the debris of his own internal reflective consciousness, his own countless thoughts and judgements, his unrealistic notions or fantastic ideas. And in contradistinction to all of this the underground man describes what he refers to as real normal men, men of action whose energies and consciousness are directed outward but who possess a comparatively slight or hollow perceptive and intellectual capacity. The underground man envies their freedom from self doubt, from hyper self-reflectivity, while at the same time experiencing a type of intellectual superiority towards them.

Ferdinand Hodler, ‘Urkraft’, 1909

One might compare this with Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave moralities (which I will look at in the next part of this series); not that the comparison can be stretched too far, given that master morality, the morality of the strong-willed, is based upon sentiment, whereas slave morality is based upon resentment (or ressentiment, the word Nietzsche uses) and who is doing the resenting here? Practically all of the underground man’s reflective consciousness circulates around the theme of his superiority or inferiority with respect to the people around him; he consumes an exceptional amount of energy fabricating detailed and complex fanciful notions concerning what they are thinking, why they are laughing, what he should be doing about it.

‘Self-Portrait. The Night Wanderer’, 1923–1924, Edvard Munch

In Sartre’s novel ‘Nausea’, the cause of the phenomena of nausea as experienced by the protagonist Roquentin, a 30 year old writer living in fictional seaside town, Bouville, (Mudville), is the brute matter of fact meaninglessness of existence. As Roquentin records in his diary:

‘People who live in society have learned how to see themselves in mirrors as they appear to their friends. I have no friends. Is that why my flesh is so naked? You might say yes you might say, nature without humanity. I have no taste for work any longer, I can do nothing more except wait for night.

5.30: Things are bad! Things are very bad: I have it, the filth, the Nausea. And this time it is new: it caught me in a cafe. Until now cafes were my only refuge because they were full of people and well lighted: now there won’t even be that any more; when I am run to earth in my room, I shan’t know where to go’.

Robert Crumb, ‘Nausea’, (a comic book adaptation), 2011

‘Nausea is existence revealing itself — and experience is not pleasant to see’, said Sartre. I am reminded of William S. Burroughs, (1914–1997), who said of the title of his novel ‘Naked Lunch’ that it means that ‘frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of every fork’. The world is presented in ‘Nausea’ as even more alien than it might appear; there are moments when the world discloses itself to Roquentin as much more strange, much more unsettling in its mystery, than he would normally concede; moments when the logic that he, and by implication we, (nausea of this kind is not a malaise I can recollect ever experiencing to be honest), attribute to the world on a daily basis is suddenly no longer available; and the things of this world manifest themselves as decidedly contingent, even absurd, and rather unsettling. ‘Nausea’ is replete with such evocations of these kinds of moments.

For instance, Roquentin is on a tram, he rests his hand upon a seat, only to then promptly withdraw it; for rather than being a most fundamental and manifest specimen of manufacture, hardly worthy a moment of attention, the seat promptly imposes itself upon him as something profoundly strange, the word seat becomes detached from its moorings, the object it designates radiates all of its originary strangeness as if he was seeing one for the first time; and thus he has to strain himself to recollect that this thing beside him is a thing for sitting on; for one fearful moment Roquentin has gazed into the absurdity of the world; a Sartrean moment, one might say, when one becomes aware of existence when it has been divested of any of the prejudices or assumptions that endow it with its usual steady state as we proceed with our diurnal existences and habits. And though such moments, when we have them, are disorienting and quite chilling, nonetheless, according to Sartre, they possess a liberating aspect, for they reveal the extent of our freedom, or rather, that we are indeed free at all; for life may be much stranger and more curious than any of us presume, and yet as a consequence of this it is also much more abundant in possibilities, and nothing has to be quite the way it is. And in the course of fully realising our freedom we may come up against that which Sartre designates the anguish of existence, whereby everything is dizzyingly possible because nothing has any pre-ordained, God-given purpose; and people are forever improvising, so to speak, and are able to free themselves from their chains at any moment; and in the absence of any such preordained logic to the world, there is no need to feel the weight of oppressive traditions or of the current order of things.

‘The Tram’, 1911, Carlo Carra

I will run through the rest of part two of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ in part four of this series, but for now, I would like to say something, or rather call upon Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), to say something about existentialism in light of these comments concerning the existentialist category of nausea. It is sometimes said of philosophy that it makes no progress; it might equally be said of it that it sometimes takes a step backwards; I don’t much care for existentialism with its muddying the waters of philosophical discourse, and the Nietzschean category of nausea is just one instance of when such muddying began. The philosophical tradition initiated by Nietzsche (and Søren Kierkegaard, (1813–1855)), and continuing with Sartre was a reaction against the philosophy of the 18th century, with its apparent limitless confidence in the capacity of reason to clear up all philosophical disputes once and for all, as well as sorting out scientific or social problems, a tradition supposedly attaining its peak in Hegel. Hegel’s philosophy is open to many interpretations, of course, and it was almost completely unknown in France until after Word War I, when Alexandre Kojève, (1902–1968), and Jean Hyppolite, (1907–1968), began to introduce their own rather unorthodox interpretations of Hegel into French intellectual circles; and even then the central focus was only upon Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’; Sartre’s reading of Hegel is thus somewhat wayward.

Be that as it may, the existentialist reaction against Hegelian rationalism considered traditional philosophy to be impoverished and in need of something fundamentally different; that rather than rationalising everything into precise categories the stress should instead be placed upon the individuals that fit into such categories; that the attempt to systematize everything into one complete theory of reality should be abandoned; for philosophy is not a science, and it is the scientist that is unconcerned with the particular as a particular but is interested in it only insofar as it discloses something about the general laws governing all similar particulars. And further (and we see this in Nietzsche’s characterisation of the state as a ‘cold monster’) whereas Hegel supposedly emphasised the state at the expense of the individual, the emphasis, it was now thought, should be upon the individual; and concomitant upon that an emphasis upon individual responsibility, for the individual cannot appeal to general principles or universal laws of human or social behaviour to shift the burden of responsibility for his or her actions from off his or her own shoulders; generalising appeals are now ruled out. And of course following on from the emphasis upon individual responsibility there is a correlative emphasis upon human freedom.

‘The Beyond’, 1938, Rene Magritte

There are noticeable similarities between the nausea as characterised by Zarathustra, by the undergound man, and by Roquentin; not only the calling into question the idea of a pre-ordained or prevailing logic to the world, but in particular the problem seems to be other consciousnesses in that world. ‘Hell is other people’, Sartre famously said; or rather, a character in one of his plays said it; (Garcin, in ‘Huis Clos’). Hegel, in the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, discusses self-consciousness and how to resolve the dialectic of the general and the particular, or the relation of the universal and the individual, and its relation to its object, be that another self-consciousness, and the relation to itself as subject, and the conception it has of its own identity. Were self-consciousness to attempt to displace itself from the world and take up a purely objective stance, (emphasis on the general), or were it to attempt to impose itself upon the world to the extent that the distinction between self and world falls apart whereby self-consciousness is reduced to ‘the motionless tautology of: ‘I am I’’, (emphasis on the particular), both these positions would be much too one-sided for self-consciousness to assume either of them. On one side of the I there is wholly simple existence, on the other side of the I there is the infinite variety of the world; and, in such opposition of the I and the world, self-consciousness would retains its finitude in a quite abstract self-identity. That is to say, what is present in the I = I of self-consciousness would be a difference (an identity) that simply ought to be, but is not yet an actual difference; only when consciousness becomes actual self-consciousness can it proceed from barren and formless generalities to a conception of the world and of itself replete with the hustle and bustle of life.

For the world to disclose itself to self-consciousness as a world overflowing with things possessed with life and with individuality, self-consciousness has to begin to interact with the world at the level of desire, for at the level of life in itself there is simply the general rather than the particular; at the level of life the I, as a particular, amounts to very little; but at the level of desire consciousness is no longer merely consciousness but self-consciousness. Once the subject has moved to the level of focusing upon itself qua individual, so that it ‘has itself as a pure ‘I’ for object’ it is not possible for the subject to find satisfaction in a practical relation to the world that assumes the form of desire; for at the level of desire whereby the subject exerts itself as a kind of unadulterated will, any sense of alienation from the world is offset by the destruction of the object, and so by a quite literal negation of the otherness of the object.

‘The Enigma of My Desire’, 1929, Salvador Dali

With desire the subject endeavours to preserve its individuality by negating the world around it; but desire poses a problem: it involves the destruction of the object, but once this object is destroyed, the subject has nothing over which to exercise its control and thus to demonstrate its individuality; the subject has therefore to find itself another object to destroy, so that the process may start all over again, leading to an manifestly hollow regress. How is such difficulty that desire is confronted with ultimately to be resolved? It will occur once a single self-consciousness sees the world as containing other self-consciousnesses; for in seeing that others are selves like it, and in thereby recognizing itself in them, the subject is no longer confronted by sheer otherness, whereby only through negating the world can the subject find itself in it; rather, once the self-conscious subject is able to ‘see itself in the other’ consciousness is then capable of a much more harmonious and well-adjusted outlook than it has achieved hitherto.

What such mutual recognition actually involves may be broken down as follow. Essentially, each self-consciousness must acknowledge the other as an autonomous subject, as something with an independent existence of its own, and which, therefore, it cannot make use of to serve its own purposes, if that object does not voluntarily or in the absence of exterior intervention do what the first does to it; and furthermore, each self-consciousness has to recognise and accept that its well-being and identity as a subject is bound up with how it is seen by the other self-consciousness; and if such recognition is reciprocal then neither side need fear that by acknowledging the other and feeling itself bound up with it, in a loving relationship for instance, it has lost itself. because each sees the other do the same as it does, each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only insofar as the other does the same; for action by one side only would be fruitless because what is to occur can only be brought about by both.

‘Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin’, 1889, Paul Gauguin

However, in this situation a single self-consciousness is still incapable of achieving a stable sense of its own identity in the face of the other self-consciousness; there remains a tension between universality, the wholly universal I belonging to both self-consciousnesses, and individuality, the sense that each self-consciousness has of itself as an individual fundamentally distinct from the other self-consciousness. How is such a difficulty thereby created for self-consciousness in achieving a stable self-identity to be resolved? Through a dialectic that takes it from desire towards a life and death struggle. How so? Risking one’s life necessitates such a struggle. How can that be? The answer is that in order to achieve recognition, a self-consciousness must demonstrate to another self-consciousness that it is a subject and not simply a living thing; but although each self-consciousness knows that it is a subject, it needs to convince the other self-consciousness that it is, for otherwise it could be viewed as simply a living creatures bereft of subjecthood, and so fail to be granted the recognition it requires. As Sartre puts it: ‘to the extent that the Other apprehends me as bound to a body and immersed in life, I am myself only an Other. In order to make myself recognized by the Other, I must risk my own life. To risk one’s life, in fact, is to reveal oneself as not-bound to the objective form or to any determined existence — as not-bound to life’.

The reason for the life and death struggle is the requirement for self-consciousness to risk its life as each tries to show the other that it is not merely a living creature; and the most fundamental manner by which a subject may demonstrate its status as a subject to another, and hence to achieve recognition for its subject-hood, is to show that it is prepared to sacrifice its existence as an object: that is to say, to show that it is prepared to give up its life; any creature that demonstrates that it has knowingly and willingly risked its destruction as a living thing thereby differentiates itself from mere animal life, and shows itself to be human. As Hegel puts it in the ‘Philosophy of Right’: ‘I have these limbs and my life only in so far as I will it; the animal cannot mutilate or destroy itself, but the human being can’.

‘Porcia wounding her thigh’, 1664, Elisabetta Sirani

It may be objected that if all that is required here for recognition of my subject-hood is that I risk my life, why could I not simply demonstrate my lack of concern for my biological nature and goals by simply risking my life in front of another subject rather than engaging in conflict with that subject? Bungee jumping for instance (not something I would ever engage in no matter how much recognition I achieved by it). The answer is that each self-consciousness has to put the other to the test in order to detect the presence of freedom there; the one expects recognition from the other only insofar as it demonstrates itself to be more than an animal subject; and likewise, the other will only recognize it if it demonstrates itself to be the same; each self-consciousness tests the other to discern if it is indeed worthy of recognition, and this is achieved by putting its life at risk and witnessing its subsequent behaviour. Negation, disregard, the destruction of life, all determine the presence of freedom; and so it is that the two self-consciousnesses become locked in a life and death struggle.

However, and this is so important, the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ is, in Hegel’s words, an ‘exposition of the coming to be of knowledge’. At this stage in its progress towards its ultimate goal, absolute knowledge, there is a very limited notion of freedom in operation: namely, that if one subject recognizes another as a subject, it takes this to undermine its freedom, and so is unwilling to grant this recognition; that is to say, at this point in the dialectic the freedom of one self-consciousness is threatened through a recognition of the freedom of another self-consciousness; forget about the relationships we normally think on, love etc., whereby in recognising others we recognise their total personal independence; that they have rights and so do we, with no detriment to ourselves. Through love my personality is not thereby submerged. But there is as yet no such relationship at the stage of the life and death struggle; the immediate particularity of self-consciousness and its freedom have yet to be separated, or a self-consciousness is incapable of surrendering anything of its particularity without surrendering its free independence; the life and death struggle is brought about through conceptual limitations, in effect, as each self-consciousness believes that recognition of the freedom of the other threatens its own freedom; self-consciousness assumes that to be free is to be able to ignore any claims made upon it by other self-consciousnesses; that it may act exactly as its particularity, which is to say, its own self-centred desires, may dictate. Once self-consciousness accepts such assumptions to be mistaken it may then move beyond the impasse that led to the life and death struggle.

Such at least is one interpretation of the dialectic from desire to life and death struggle, and whatever we make of it it does give us something to work with. But now let us look at Sartre’s take on it. In ‘Being and Nothingness, in the section ‘The Look’, Sartre presents us with an example of the man in the park, attending to his own concerns, everything is hunky-dory; the entire world is constituted by the consciousness of the man in the park; everything is configured in order to refer to his particular point of view; the entire situation is a matter of his phenomena, along with the expectations of further phenomena that would also be his were he to do such and such. And then, all of a sudden, another man enters the scene, much to the man in the park’s discomfiture. From whence comes this sudden feeling of being threatened? Not physically, it could be an old man walking by, but the feeling is there. According to Sartre, it arises from the threat of the other to the man in the park’s order and arrangement of his entire world; another subject in his world implicates another point of view, a point of view of which it is impossible for the man in the park ever to occupy. Sartre presents a phenomenological description of the situation thus:

Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Le Parc Monceau’, 1877

‘I am in a public park. Not far away there is a lawn and along the edge of that lawn there are benches. A man passes by those benches. I see this man; I apprehend him as an object and at the same time as a man. What does this signify? What do I mean when I assert that this object is a man? … If I were to think of him as being only a puppet, I should apply to him the categories which I ordinarily use to group temporal-spatial ‘things’. That is, I should apprehend him as being ‘beside’ the benches, two yards and twenty inches from the lawn, as exercising a certain pressure on the ground, etc. … Perceiving him as a man, on the other hand, is not to apprehend an additive relation between the chair and him; it is to register an organization without distance of the things in my universe around that privileged object…. We are dealing with a relation which is without parts, given at one stroke, inside of which there unfolds a spatiality, which is not my spatiality; for instead of a grouping toward me of the objects, there is now an orientation which flees from me. … it appears that the world has a kind of drain hole in the middle of its being and that it is perpetually flowing off through this hole. The universe, the flow, and the drain hole are all once again recovered, re-apprehended, and fixed as an object. All this is there for me as a partial structure of the world, even though the total disintegration of the universe is involved’.

Such hyper self-reflectivity is like that of the underground man; the values that were manifest in the world of the man in the park are suddenly the values of this human presence and which are invisible to him; the man in the park is no longer entirely subject but an object in the world of the other; the freedom of the other does violence to the freedom of the man in the park, the other is defining who or what he is, and so on. And so it is that Sartre has lifted from Hegel the dialectical account of two self-consciousnesses locked in a life and death struggle and presented the situation in a way that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Suppose it were myself sitting in the park, eating my sandwiches; I could be thinking about anything at all; perhaps about where to go for my holidays. In what way could another’s sudden presence on the scene possibly threaten my freedom? Granted, Sartre is dealing here with an ontological issue, not an epistemological one; which is to say, what he is describing here is what he takes to be a fundamental way of being, that we connect with the other not through knowledge of the other but through feelings of shame, pride, and so on; and granted that what he is describing here goes on at the pre-reflective level rather than the reflective (pre-reflective, a kind of non-conceptual self-awareness necessary before we can reflect on anything at all), unlike the underground man, so that the threat may be lessened through reflection; why should I care what anyone thinks etc.? But I maintain that this characterisation of the being of consciousness, as opposed to the knowledge of consciousness, is phenomenologically false.

Triumph of the Skies’, Kazimir Malevich, 1907

Edmund Husserl, (1859–1938), initiated phenomenology with the intention of minimising the kinds of errors that one is prone to when presenting arguments and making inferences; instead, he proposed that rather than arguing we should limit ourselves to describing the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view; describing phenomena, the way that things appear to us. Sartre’s existential phenomenological ontology shows up the pitfall of such an approach; description brings with it the possibility of misdescription. But the problem with existentialism generally, as I see it, is that it is at heart a theology reconstructed in secular form and inheriting the failing of religions to deliver what they claim to deliver. In the case of religion, we are told that without God life is meaningless and without purpose. But with God, what then is the meaning and purpose of life? According to St. Paul, ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’. (1 Corinthians 10:31). And that is about as good as it gets. Serve God and you may attain heaven, where you can serve God forever, whatever serving God actually means. In the case of existentialism the emphasis is on freedom and the individual. Be true to yourself and follow where the self leads; what does that even mean? How can I know if I am being true to myself, or even that I have a true self? And even if I could be true to myself is my true self worth anything to be true to?

And worse for existentialism, and contrary to popular thinking on the matter, the existentialist generally speaking is working with an impoverished notion of freedom; typified by the underground man’s view on the nature of human freedom; whereby he pours scorn on the notion that the human world is reducible to our quest to find happiness in more or less rational ways; that we are genuinely free if all we ever choose is what optimises our advantage in life, or offers us the greatest likelihood of our experiencing pleasure and happiness. According to the underground man, for freedom to be authentic it has to incorporate the whole gamut of human possibilities, not merely the pleasant ones, as real choices; otherwise what we call our freedom would in actuality be nothing more than a preordained and mechanical will to pleasure, which would work something like a piano key or organ stop. In a stance of existential defiance the underground man especially prioritises choosing what is disadvantageous for ourselves or others; not difficult choices (like the choice to go bungee jumping) but negative choices made out of pure caprice for no good reason at all, and then, he believes, our freedom becomes real, a case of independent choice rather than anything that is automatically preordained: ‘Man may desire what is injurious for himself, what is stupid, very stupid, simply to have the right to desire for himself what is stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to only what is sensible’.

This is our most advantageous advantage, according to the underground man; but just as the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ that religion supposedly offers us is easily won and rather vacuous, so too existential freedom, if it could even be categorised as freedom at all, is easily won and rather worthless. Genuine freedom is finding oneself at home in the world, not alienated from it or from other people, and this freedom is not easily won. As Hegel states: ‘nature is rational within itself, and . . . it is this actual reason present within it which knowledge must investigate and grasp conceptually — not the shapes and contingencies which are visible on the surface, but nature’s eternal harmony, conceived, however, as the law of essence immanent within it’. We must view the world correctly in order for it to appear satisfactory to reason; the elements it contains that appear alien and mysterious may lead us into despair, but philosophy’s greatest contribution is to assist us in overcoming our despair; it delivers ways of thinking about reality as a rational place in which we can genuinely feel at home. As he says: ‘’I’ is at home in the world when it knows it, and even more so when it has comprehended it’. By contrast, neither the underground man, nor those that he thinks of as real men, men of action, are free in any sense of freedom that is a freedom worth having, as Hegel explains:

‘The ignorant man is not free, because what confronts him is an alien world, something outside him and in the offing, on which he depends, without his having made this foreign world for himself and therefore without being at home in it by himself as in something his own. The impulse of curiosity, the pressure for knowledge, from the lowest level up to the highest rung of philosophical insight arises only from the struggle to cancel this situation of unfreedom and to make the world one’s own in one’s ideas and thought’.

- Hegel, ‘Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art’, 1831

Salvador Dali, ‘Ambivalent Image’, 1933

The world is such that we can discover profound intellectual and practical gratification in it: there is nothing in reality as such that is irresolvably contradictory and thereby resistant to reason; that is genuinely incomprehensible, mysterious, unexplainable; and there is nothing in reality that renders it inherently at odds with our purposes or interests; including the text of ‘Finnegans Wake’, the deciphering of which is an intoxicating experience of genuine freedom in itself:

‘Hightime is ups be it down into outs according! When there shall be foods for vermin as full as feeds for the fett, eat on earth as there’s hot in oven. When every Klitty of a scolderymeid shall hold every yardscullion’s right to stimm her uprecht for whimsoever, whether on privates, whather in publics. And when all us romance catholeens shall have ones for all amanseprated. And the world is maidfree’.

To be continued …

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotations:

Quotation One:

1. sprack = Sprache (German), language; and sprak (Dutch), spoke.

2. propogona = propaganda fide (Latin), things of the faith to be propagated (name of a Vatican agency).

3. nuptial = of or pertaining to marriage or the marriage ceremony

4. beaks of prey = bird of prey, a predatory or rapacious bird.

5. morphy = mortal; and morfa (Greek), form.

6. pome = a fruit of the apple kind or resembling an apple; a jocular alteration of ‘poem’.

7. terrine = earthenware dish or jar; and terrenus (Latin), consisting of earth, earthy.

Quotation Two:

1. Highttime = high time, elated, merry, hilarious (time); and Hochzeit (German), marriage, wedding (literally ‘hightime’); and it’s high time, that is, the time that something is due (bordering on overdue) to be done; and time is up (phrase); and marriage is up and down and out, the rainbow girls look forward to their sexual freedom; they dance away.

2. down into outs = down and out (phrase), lacking funds, resources, or prospects; destitute.

3. according = agreeing in nature or action; and the Angelus (Latin for Angel) is a Christian devotion in memory of the Incarnation. The Angelus originated with the 11th century monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the evening bell (6:00 pm). ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini. / Fiat mihi secundum Verbum tuum’: Behold the handmaid (servant) of the Lord./Be it done unto me according to your Word. (Luke 1:38).

4. vermin = any of various small animals or insects that are pests, for example, cockroaches or rats; and votes for women; and corpse.

5. as full as = as well.

6. feeds = feed, food (for cattle); also, food, fare (for human beings). U.S. colloquial.

7. fetts = fett (German), fat, grease.

8. hot = hot condition, heat (obsolete); and Hosea 7:4–7: ‘They are all adulterers, as an oven heated by the baker… They are all hot as an oven, and have devoured their judges’.

9. oven — (Slang), vagina, uterus; and Lord’s Prayer: ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

10. Klitty = kleitoris (Greek), clitoris; and Clytia, or Clytie, was a water nymph, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys in Greek mythology. She was loved by Apollo. Apollo, having loved her, abandoned her for Leucothea and left her deserted. She was so angered by his treatment that she told Leucothoe’s father, Orchamus, about the affair. Since Apollo had defiled Leucothoe, Orchamus had her put to death by burial alive in the sands. Clytie had wanted Apollo back and had wanted to win him back by taking away his new love, but her actions only hardened Apollo’s heart against her. She sat naked, with neither food nor drink, for nine days on the rocks, staring at the sun, Apollo, and mourning his departure. After nine days, the suffering turned her yellow and brown, and she was transformed into a sunflower (some researchers claim heliotrope or marigold), which turns its head always to look longingly at Apollo’s chariot of the sun. This story is told in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.

‘Clytie Transformed Into A Sunflower’, 1688, Charles de Lafosse

11. scolderymeid = scullery, the department of a household concerned with the care of the plates, dishes, and kitchen utensils; hence, scullery maid; and meid (Dutch), maid, girl.

12. yard = (Slang), penis; and cullions (Slang), testicles; and scullion, a domestic servant of the lowest rank in a household who performed the menial offices of the kitchen.

13. stim = Stimme (German), voice, vote; stimmen (German), to tune (i.e. her upright piano); and Stimmrecht (German), and suffrage (literally ‘voiceright’ or ‘right to raise one’s voice’).

14. upright = (Slang), sex performed standing; and oprecht (Dutch), sincere; and rechtop (Dutch), erect.

‘Two Nudes (Lovers)’, 1913, Oskar Kokoschka

15. whimsoever = whomsoever, whatever person or persons; any one who, or any who; and whim (Slang) = quim (Slang), vulva.

16. whather = (Ulster Pronunciation), whether.

17. romance catholeens = Roman Catholics; cathole, a hole in a wall, door, etc., large enough to let a cat through; and Caitilin (Gaelic), female personal name, from Greek Katherine.

18. amanseprated = emancipated; and amans (Latin), lover.




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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