The End of the World

It’s starting to feel like the end of the world here in lovely Marin County, California.

A few weeks ago I returned from the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, which took place in Chicago. In addition to participating in a couple of sessions on the philosophy of humor, I had the opportunity to reconnect with some folks from my past, including my dissertation advisor and an old friend and roommate from graduate school. I also attended some interesting presentations, including a talk by Daniel Dennett about autonomy and determinism, and a fascinating symposium on the sublime and awe. I didn’t get to see much of the city, but I was able to pop out with my friend one afternoon to get some Chicago deep-dish pizza at a pub around the corner from the hotel.

While at the conference, the COVID-19 virus was not even on my mind. Upon my return home, however, it has been nearly the only thing I can think about. A week after the conference, both my wife and I got sick just before the beginning of spring break. I developed a fever and body aches concentrated in my torso. My wife also developed a fever and then came down with pneumonia. At the hospital, she was given a chest x-ray, prescribed antibiotics and steroids, and was told by the doctor that she probably had COVID-19, but that since she is younger than 65 years-old she does not qualify for a test. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway (other than to document the illness), since there is no special treatment.

And then the shelter-in-place order took effect. We have been told to avoid large groups and any unnecessary travel. We are supposed to stay at home as much as possible. All unessential businesses are closed. This is all in order to try and slow the spread of the virus; to blunt the curve of those who get sick so that hospitals are not overwhelmed with patients. The ominous message is clear: things are going to get worse.

College of Marin notified instructors that all of our classes are moving online for the remainder of the semester. I’ve taught most of my classes as internet courses at one point or another, so I was not as unprepared for this as were some of my colleagues and friends who had to scramble to upload their course materials and learn how to use the online tools. The abrupt transition is going to make for a bumpy ride all around.

In addition to dealing with my online classes, all of this at-home time has given me the chance to work on a couple of papers that I’ve promised to write (one on humor and nihilism, and another on violence and nihilism), and to re-read George Orwell’s 1984; a book that has predicted our current cultural situation better than any other dystopian novel ever written. It’s all in there: perpetual war, zenophobia, double-speak, thoughtcrime, Big-Brother.

We are definitely not living in doubleplus good times.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

Editor-in-Chief: Amir, Lydia

In cooperation with Destrée, Pierre / Gimbel, Steven / James, Christine A. / Marmysz, John / Olin, Lauren / Lintott, Sheila

Aims and Scope

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook covers the various intersections of philosophy with humor (and laughter, irony, and the comical), historically and contemporarily, descriptively and prescriptively, seriously and jocularly. It welcomes excellent academic papers of both the analytic and continental traditions, reviews of relevant books, announcements of forthcoming events, and a section dedicated to humorous short papers on philosophical topics.

Details

Language:
English
Type of Publication:
Yearbook
Keyword(s):
Philosophy of Humor
Readership:
Scholars, institutes, libraries

Editorial Information

Lydia Amir (Editor-in-Chief), Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA.

Associate Editors

Pierre Destrée, University of Louvain, Louvain, Belgium; Steven Gimbel, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, PA, USA; Christine A. James, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA, USA; Sheila Lintott, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA; John Marmysz, College of Marin, Kentfield, CA, USA;¸Lauren Olin University of Missouri, St. Louis, USA.

Editorial Board Members

Noël Carroll, CUNY, New York, NY, USA; Simon Critchley, The New School, New York, NY, USA; Daniel Dennett, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA; Stephen Halliwell, Emeritus, St. Andrews University, St. Andrews, UK; Kathleen Higgins, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA; John Lippitt, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, NSW, Australia; John Morreall, Emeritus, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA; Robert C. Roberts, Emeritus, Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA; Quentin Skinner, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Submissions should be sent to the Editor at lydamir@mail.com.

APA Central Division Philosophy of Humor Meetings

APA Central Division, Chicago 2020

The International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

Program

Three groups meetings

 

Thursday, February 27 Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm

 

G3P. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

2. Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

3. Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College, New York)

“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

4. Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul, South Korea)

“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

5. John Charles Simon (Independent Scholar)

“From Wildlife Biologist to Laughter Theorist: One Lone Scientist’s Relentless Pursuit of Obscurity”

 

Friday, February 28 Friday evening, 7:00pm – 10:00pm

 

G4U. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Author-meets-critics, Lydia Amir’s Taking Ridicule Seriously: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition.”

Chair: John Marmysz (College of Marin)

Author: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

Critics:

1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

2. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

 

Saturday, February 29 Saturday afternoon, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

 

G5D. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Philosophy of Humor”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH): http://www.philosophyofhumor.org

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).

Speakers:

1. Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)

“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

2. Lauren Olin (Center for Neurodynamics, University of Missouri- St. Louis)

“Comic Dispositionalism”

3. Michael K. Cundall, Jr., (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University)

“Why the Case for Humor and Health Isn’t as Weak as Thought: Methodological Paranoia We Can Laugh At”

4. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

“Achenbach, Humor and Philosophical Praxis”

5. Dianna Niebylski (University of Illinois)

“20th and 21st Century Philosophies of Women’s Humor”

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist

Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait, by Andrew Rankin. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).

The front cover of Andrew Rankin’s Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist, condenses the book’s central thesis into a single image. At the top of the cover is a photograph of Yukio Mishma (taken from the book Ordeal by Roses) smelling a flower. Beneath this is a fainter, inverted version of the same picture, suggesting a reflection of the first. It is as if Mishima is gazing into a pool of water, like the mythic figure Narcissus, relishing his own reflected appearance. The implication is that Mishima, like Narcissus, was self-obsessed.

Rankin’s book effectively argues that Mishima’s self-obsession was expressed through his life-long aspiration toward a “solid identity” (p. 8). This ultimately culminated in his anachronistic identification with the samurai tradition; an identification that both embodied a by-gone era and that allowed for the final, symbolic purgation of that era when, in 1970, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku. According to Rankin, Mishima was not born Mishima; he had to become Yukio Mishima through a lifetime of self-obsessed reflection and effort (something that I have also argued in Chapter Nine of my book Cinematic Nihilism, “Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body”). This process began with a talented and intellectually brilliant Japanese boy named Hiraoka Kimitake who, in living through World War II and in experiencing the defeat and humiliation of his country by the West, sought to understand his place in a confusing world from which he felt alienated. Hiraoka Kimitake would, only after the war, become Yukio Mishima, a literary figure who strained against the limitations of the written word while striving to transform the abstractions explored in his books into concrete reality.

Rankin suggests that it is the problem of beauty that drove Mishima’s quest for a self. This problem is illustrated in what is perhaps one of Mishima’s greatest works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In this story beauty is characterized as an impossible goal that always eludes concrete realization. A monk named Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with a Buddhist temple that, while it is supposed to be the most beautiful of structures, nevertheless strikes him as falling short of its ideal. It is painfully shocking to the monk that the temple fails to live up to its promise, and he concludes that its physical existence is what holds back the manifestation of true beauty. Consequently, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the temple in order that the pure, abstract form of its magnificence might be liberated.

Rankin’s analysis of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is very good, avoiding what I think are some of the mistakes made by many other interpreters of this particular work. He recognizes correctly that the problem with the temple in the story is not that it is too beautiful, but that it can never be made beautiful enough to express perfect, ideal beauty. It is the tangible nature of the building that holds back and degrades the ideal of beauty, and thus the only solution is destruction of its physical structure. Rankin applies this interpretation of the book to Mishima’s life, arguing that he was like both Mitzoguchi and the temple. In his turn toward body-building, Mishima attempted to make his own physique into a fleshy “temple” that he then suicidally destroyed in order to liberate his own self-created, ideal identity. In this quest both to create and annihilate himself, Mishima exhibited an extreme kind of aestheticism that was all consuming, narcissistic and decadent.

Mishima’s narcissism, however, was of a unique sort, according to Rankin. Whereas the original Greek myth of Narcissus has the central character unknowingly falling in love with his own likeness, Mishima instead was, all along, knowingly obsessed with himself. In the myth, Narcissus happens upon his reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that what he sees is only a reflection – and thus is incapable of being possessed – he dies of a broken heart. When Mishima retells this myth, however, he replaces the pool of water with a “mirror image” (p. 75). This is an important difference, stresses Rankin, since while reflections in pools of water are natural phenomena that can deceive us, mirrors are unnatural, man-made implements that we already know cast our appearances back to us. Looking into a mirror, you know that you are looking at yourself. You know that the image has no substantial existence apart from your own body. There is, thus, no delusion when gazing at a mirror. You do not think you are engaging with other people. The mirror image, in this way, reinforces self-conscious self-involvement. This was Mishima’s frame of mind, according to Rankin. Mishima was a man who didn’t really care about interacting with others since he served as his own audience. His writing was a tool for him to create his own, self-enclosed world; a world that he eventually externalized in body-building. Lifting weights, Mishima watched his own muscles grow, becoming ever more self-obsessed with the transformation of his skinny, sickly body into a muscular, strong body. All the while, he knew that it was his own self that was both being transformed and observed. It was this dual, narcissistic process that came to dominate Mishima’s life. He was “intoxicated” with his own illusions (Chpt. 5).

Transforming his body eventually became part of a larger, public project of reactionary activism that, as Rankin writes, alienated him “from people on both sides of the political spectrum”:

Those on the left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of wartime militarist dogma and emperor-centered fascism. Those on the right objected to his eroticization of the sacred imperial institution and to his ad hominem criticisms of the reigning emperor. Within a short time, so it seemed, the flippant aesthete had become a dedicated subversive. Hostile critics began to speak of Mishima as a “dangerous thinker,” a label that pleased him enormously (p. 121).

Being called a “dangerous thinker” no doubt was pleasing to Mishima in part because this is precisely the kind of thinking advocated by one of his philosophical idols, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Mishima was concerned with the advent of nihilism, and he became determined to find a way to combat and overcome this condition. Nietzsche had claimed that nihilism as a cultural disease results from an overabundance of the formal, structured and logical Apollonian force when it comes to dominate over the life enhancing – but potentially destructive – Dionysian force. Likewise, Mishima (inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict) diagnosed Japan’s cultural nihilism as stemming from an imbalance between the “chrysanthemum and the sword” (p. 126). The chrysanthemum, like Nietzsche’s Apollonian force, symbolizes tranquility and the gentle side of Japanese culture, while the sword, like Nietzsche’s Dionysian force, symbolizes Japan’s violent and cruel side. For Mishima, the chrysanthemum had come, after WWII, to dominate Japan at the expense of the sword. What was thus needed was a reaction against civilized softness through the cultivation of samurai viciousness. This project took the form of what Mishima would call “aesthetic terrorism” (p. 146).

The Shield Society was a militia formed by Mishima, consisting of himself and a group of about 100 young followers. Sanctioned and supported by the Japanese government, the stated purpose of the group was to protect the Emperor and to assist Japan’s security forces in combating violent insurrection. In reality, The Shield Society appears to have been viewed by authorities as a bit of a joke; the narcissistic project of Japan’s greatest author. From the perspective of Mishima himself, it seems to have been part of his own preparation for a spectacular death. Rankin writes that it was shortly after the formation of his militia that Mishima began to use the phrase “aesthetic terrorism” to describe various violent, but beautiful, political actions, rebellions, and assassinations from Japan’s past. In associating terrorism with beauty, Mishima seems to have been anticipating his final work of art, a performance piece in which violence, politics and art were combined in one spectacular event that would not only be the culminating point of Mishima’s identity, but would also be the final conclusion to his life. On November 25, 1970, Mishima carried out his final act of aesthetic terrorism, storming the office of the commandant of the Self Defense Forces along with four of his soldiers, and then committing seppuku. This act, both shocking and awe-inspiring, was his last and most stunning work of art, according to Rankin. It was, he writes, “the logical culmination of his life’s work and of all the aspects of his thinking that we have investigated in this book” (p. 172).

I really enjoyed Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist. It is well-written and well-researched. One of it’s greatest strengths is the fact that the author is fluent in Japanese, and so has been able to consult Mishima’s original texts, many of which remain untranslated. Rankin’s insights into these works offer fresh support for his analysis of Mishima’s psychological and artistic development, resulting in an unusually full and satisfying account of the Japanese author’s life-long struggles with self-identity. It is a well-argued and carefully assembled book that makes good use of previously neglected material. I agree with Rankin’s conclusions and admire his diligent research.

I have two criticisms, one having to do with the book’s tone and the other having to do with its philosophical content. First, while Rankin himself is impatient with what he thinks is a “dismissive” attitude toward Mishima by other scholars, the Introduction to his own book, I think, strikes its own unnecessarily dismissive tone toward English language writing that does in fact take Mishima seriously. The author sweepingly proclaims most English language accounts of Mishima as “lightweight” (p. 6). In a footnote he abruptly discounts Roy Starr’s book Deadly Dialectics as “unsatisfactory” (p. 175, fn 7), and he fails even to mention Damian Flanagan’s book Yukio Mishima (Reaction Books, 2014). While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these other studies, they certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed or ignored.

Second, while I do appreciate the serious attention Rankin devotes to Mishima’s own writings and ideas, the book exhibits a lack of depth when it comes to exploring some of the connections between those ideas and Mishima’s philosophical influences. Rankin is obviously an expert when it comes to the Japanese literary tradition, but his study lacks detail when it comes to the wider philosophical tradition of which Mishima was a part.  In particular, Rankin’s account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is quite thin, missing important subtleties about how the Nietzschean dynamic of nihilism  is replicated in Mishima’s obsession with the conflict between the ideal and the concrete. Ironically, this is something that might have been addressed had Rankin engaged more charitably with Roy Starr’s book.

Overall, however, I would enthusiastically recommend Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist to anyone fascinated by Yukio Mishima’s writing, his life, or his psychological development. It is an exceptional book.

Auto-da-Fé

Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti [1935]. Translated by C.V. Wedgwood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1984.

Inside of your head or outside of your head? Where does the real world exist? This is the conundrum explored in Auto-da-Fé, the only work of fiction published by Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is an intense, lengthy and detailed meditation on the various subjective realities that humans inhabit, how they overlap, interact, and how they conflict and relate to one another. The book is at once touching, terrifying, hilarious and tragic, raising some thought-provoking and unsettling issues about the world-building nature of human thought. Finishing this 464 page book was like awakening from a dream that made me question how much of my “real” life I actually share with others.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. “A Head Without a World,” 2. “Headless World,” and 3. “The World in the Head.” The story follows the life of Peter Kien, a sinologist who lives in an apartment where he has amassed one of the greatest private libraries in the world. As a scholar he is well respected, but he shuns face-to-face contact with others, instead preferring to remain among his books, researching and writing papers that he sends to conferences for others to present in his absence. The first part of Auto-da-Fé takes place mostly inside of Kien’s apartment. The second part takes place outside of his apartment when he is exiled from his home, and the third part describes his return home. While there are a variety of characters that appear throughout the story, the main thread of the tale is anchored in the unfolding of the main character’s thoughts. In fact, the overall structure of this book reminds me of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist, which describes the evolution of consciousness according the triadic convolutions of dialectical logic. Thus, in Part One, Peter Kien begins as a self-contained consciousness (thesis), who, in Part Two, is forced to confront consciousnesses outside of himself (antithesis), until finally in Part Three he consolidates these experiences into a tragic Aufhebung (synthesis).

The structure of Auto-da-Fé gives important guidance to the reader. Many of the events in the book are surreal and bizarre, and so the tight structure that Canetti has imparted to his story helps to lend assurance that there is a point and a purpose to all of this strangeness. I found myself becoming confused and baffled by the seeming illogic of some of the unfolding events, but by recalling the division of the story I was reading, and by going back and reviewing the events leading up to each bizarre episode, I felt re-centered and confident that there was sense behind the seeming nonsense. Ultimately it became apparent that the main theme addressed by the book is the nature of human alienation and our efforts to make ourselves feel safe, certain and secure in a world that is too complicated and fragmented for us truly to grasp. We falsify reality by oversimplifying it, and then we hold these simplifications inside of our heads. Since everyone is engaged in their own, unique forms of simplification, we don’t really understand one another. We construct reifications that bump into the contradictory reifications others have built up in their own heads, and though it may appear as if we are engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, in fact we are just misunderstanding other people from within our our own mental prisons.

Peter Kien’s specialty as a sinologist gives a central clue to the philosophical underpinnings of this book. His studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism introduce us to ideas concerning impermanence, suffering, and the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Throughout the book, the ideas of Kant and Hegel also recur, cementing the author’s preoccupation with the flux and flow of existence and of the alienation of human consciousness from the totality of the noumenal, “thing-in-itself.” Both the Eastern and the Western thinkers referenced in this story are ones who characterize the world as an idea in our heads, something that is not “real” in the sense of having an objective or stable existence. This point is articulated quite clearly in an early passage that might either be the voice of Kien or of Cannetti himself:

…our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence – mean in its nature as in its scope – can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. (p. 71)

The way we understand our situation is by fragmenting and splintering the totality of things into digestible and comprehensible bits and pieces. We are blind to the whole of reality by necessity, since if we paid equal attention to all things all at once, we would be overwhelmed. Each thing would collapse into every other thing, and we would be unable to make distinctions between what is significant to us and what is not. Our minds (to use a metaphor from Sartre) are like flashlights that illumine only small patches of reality at a time. Without this “truncation,” one event would flow into another and there would be no distinct objects, events or situations. It is the human mind that chops things up and then rearranges them into the subjective worlds within which we operate. But then we mistake our own subjective interpretation of the world for the only one that really exists.

This theme is illustrated in the opening chapter of the book. Kien is outside of a bookshop, clutching a case in which he carries some selections from his private library. Here he encounters a young boy who is also fascinated by the books on display in the bookstore window. Kien breaks out of his internal preoccupation with his own thoughts to engage the boy, who reminds him of himself. He promises the boy a visit to his library and then goes on his way. As he walks down the street, Kien becomes aware of a voice asking for directions. When the voice receives no answer to its query, it becomes more and more agitated and angry sounding. Kien thinks to himself that he approves of the silence with which the questioner is met. Who is it that is refusing to provide this man with directions? Most people are too eager to speak, to blab on and on, but here is one person who remains nobly quiet, like the Buddha. It is only when Kien is assaulted that his internal monologue is interrupted and it becomes apparent both to him and to the reader that the “silent one, the man of character, who controlled himself even in anger, was Kien himself” (p. 17). So it was, in fact, the oblivious Kien who was being asked for directions, and his silence was taken as an insult by the questioner! Upon this realization, Kien breaks free from his offended attacker and heads home to the safety of his library.

Kien is the head without a world. He lives in his thoughts. His only friends are his books. Other people are just annoyances that distract from his scholarly work. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk” (p. 17). This is because talk requires one to step outside of one’s own head in order to engage with others, and in engagement with others a threat arises to one’s own internally complete world. Later in the chapter, Kien writes down his own interpretation of his earlier encounter on the street. Instead of rudeness, he characterizes his silence as an act of compassion; a way of sparing the ignorant questioner embarrassment. In a following chapter when the young boy that he promised a visit to his private library appears at his home, Kien turns him away, annoyed at the intrusion. Kien resists anything that challenges the world inside his own head.

Eight years earlier, Kien had hired a housekeeper, Theresa, to dust his books and to prepare his meals. This housekeeper, though physically living in her employer’s apartment, nevertheless occupies her own mental world. Theresa imagines that she is incredibly beautiful while others think she is hideously ugly. She takes great pride in her starched, blue dress, believing it dazzles those around her. At work, she is scrupulous in her duties, but she is also suspicious of Kien’s secret activities. She believes that he must be engaged in some sort of “vice,” either murder or drugs, but she cannot find evidence of any crime. She comes to suspect that Kien is hiding a large sum of money, and resolves that she will somehow profit from his wealth. She works to convince Kien that she too loves books, and impressed, he asks her to marry him. The remaining action in the first part of the book consists of Theresa’s efforts to take over Kien’s apartment and finally to expel him from his own home. By inviting her into his life – first as hired help and then as his wife – Kien initiates a breach in the integrity of his self-enclosed, scholarly world.

Theresa proceeds to isolate Kien in fewer and fewer rooms of the apartment, and in response, Kien endeavors to rouse his library to action. He delivers a speech to his books in which he formulates a manifesto of war against his housekeeper/wife. Yet, he feels foolish using oral speech, remembering that the wise silence of Buddha was his most powerful form of rebellion. When he scrutinizes his books, he realizes that even they can’t unite and agree with one another about a course of action. The Buddha can’t get along with Hegel, and Hegel can’t get along with Schelling. Kant and Nietzsche are at loggerheads. Finally, Kien decides to turn his books so that their spines face the wall, obscuring their identities while keeping them lined up in neat rows. The books, thus, themselves become silent. Their differences erased, they become united in support of their owner in mute rebellion against the take-over by Theresa.

When Kien falls from a ladder in his library, Theresa thinks that he is dead and searches the apartment for a bankbook that she imagines must be hidden somewhere. But she can’t find it. It turns out that Kien is not dead, and she calls on the building caretaker to help her hoist her injured husband into bed. Kien, while recuperating, formulates a plan to remain silent, stiff and impassive toward his wife. Again, silence is his form of rebellion. He becomes immovable stone, fused to the floor, and this provokes Theresa into a rage. She tosses Kien out of his own apartment.

The second part of the book – “Headless World” – finds Kien out on the streets with his bankbook tucked away in his coat pocket. He despairs of regaining his library and so resolves to reconstruct the collection by visiting bookstores in order to purchase replacements for the lost volumes. Each night he stays at a new hotel, setting up his book collection in his room, dismantling it and then carrying it to another hotel the next evening. One night at Stars of Heaven – a cafe that caters to the dregs of society – Kien meets a chess-playing, humpbacked dwarf named Fisherle. Fisherle is married to another humpbacked dwarf who works as a prostitute. He calls her “The Capitalist.”

In Fisherle, Kien imagines a mirror-image of himself. Fisherle’s deformed body provokes him to reflect on his own unusually thin, tall body. Fisherle’s obsession with chess reminds him of his own scholarly obsession with China. Fisherle’s relationship with his wife reminds him of his own relationship with Theresa. In Kien’s mind, Fisherle is just like him, and he feels that he has never entered “so deeply into the mind of another man” (p. 185). Consequently, he decides to hire Fisherle as his assistant. Fisherle, on the other hand, has his own ideas. He is intent on swindling Kien out of the money that he openly flashes about.

As the two of them rearrange Kien’s books in hotel rooms each night, it starts to become clear to the reader that the “books” being hauled around, loaded and unloaded are not tangible, physical volumes. They are ideas being carried around in Kien’s head, and the ritual of unpacking the “books” at night, then repacking them in the morning, is a metaphor representing Kien’s alienation from his scholarly work in his apartment. Unable to sit behind his desk, think and write, Kien is now living in a “headless world,” a world in which he is preoccupied with merely lugging around his knowledge, interacting with others, and trying to survive from day-to-day. Whereas, in Part One, he was a “head without a world,” living cloistered away in his study, now his head, his self, hovers in a homeless, holding pattern.

Fisherle eventually concocts a story about a local pawnbroker shop – The Teresianium (an apparent reference to Kien’s wife) – where books are mistreated. His tale so horrifies Kien that Kien decides to station himself outside of the business in order to intercept customers and pay them to go away before they have the chance to pawn their books. Meanwhile, Fisherle hires a group of people to take Kien’s payments and formulates a plan to abscond to America. He buys an expensive suit and arranges for a fake passport, but before he is able to complete his plan, Fisherle is murdered by one of his wife’s blind customers, his hump sliced off with a bread knife. Kien, meanwhile, has been detained by the police and is escorted home by the caretaker from his apartment. Thus ends Part Two.

The last, and final, part of the book is titled “The World in the Head.” It is the shortest section, but it is here that the main themes explored and illustrated in the rest of the book are clarified, summed up, and made explicit in a conversation that takes place between Peter Kien and his brother, George. George is a gynecologist-turned-psychoanalyst who shows up to take charge of his brother, now detained in the caretaker’s apartment.

Peter and George represent complementary halves of a single person. As George himself states, “If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man” (p. 436). Peter’s is a world of internally connected ideas. These ideas, while originating in the minds of others, have become disconnected from concrete human beings and solidified into stable, unchanging systems. He recoils from interaction with flesh-and-blood people, preferring to be left alone to contemplate ideas in isolation. While Peter dives deep into the world of books, his brother George goes out into the world of other people. George is a medical doctor, and as such he reaches out to other people, interacting with, talking with, examining, and diagnosing them. His world is empirical and changing, while Peter’s world is self-enclosed and internally solid. Their conflicting perspectives, different as they are, nevertheless represent two differing aspects of what it means to be human. While there is a natural drive toward unity among humans, a drive toward mass existence, there is also a natural counter-drive toward individuation and isolation. These two perspectives must always chafe against one another, existing in an uneasy relationship. The worlds we construct in our heads are stretched between these poles to one degree or another, but neither one alone can possibly do perfect justice to the world’s true nature:

‘Mankind’ has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils” (p. 411).

Life is an ebb and flow between the drive to reach out to others and the drive to withdraw from others. Peter and George occupy extreme ends of this continuum. In the conclusion of Auto-da-Fé, Peter cannot endure his self-enclosed, isolated existence any longer now that he has been exposed to the outside world. This exposure has had too profound an effect on his interior world. He has become aware that he has imprisoned himself in a world of ideas, words, and books. All of the ideas, sensations and experiences that he has taken in over the course of the story finally come cascading through his mind, mixing together in an overwhelming flow that becomes unbearable, and now it is too late to turn back time. He can no longer ignore the chaos of the world outside of his head. The story ends with the maniacal laughter of Peter as he sets fire to his library and burns to death.

Auto-da-Fé is a demanding, yet very profound book. Though seemingly influenced by the structure of the Hegelian dialectic, Canetti is much less optimistic than Hegel, whose philosophy suggests that the human mind can ultimately encompass the overarching Truth of reality in a final synthesis of thought. Canetti’s story, on the contrary, seems to suggest that there is no final Truth to be comprehended by the human mind. Rather, we are all engaged in ongoing relationships with others that lead only to self-delusion and alienation. The ultimate fate of Peter Kein seems to suggest that the only way out of this conundrum is to obliterate the natural tension between inner and outer, the self and the other, that characterizes human life. It is only in death that our illusions evaporate and we are reabsorbed into the tranquility of nothingness.

Nostos Volume III, Number 2

Nostos, Volue III, Number 2 is now available for purchase.

This issue of Nostos is based on the theme of “loss.” Eleven poets, two essayists, a short fiction writer, and an artist all render their experience and the human expression of loss. Featured in this issue is the poetry of Nathaniel Tarn, who writes in response to Forrest Gander’s Pulitzer Prize winning work Be With. Poet Laureate of Marin County Terry Lucas, award-winning poet Troy Jollimore, former Poet Laureate of Marin County Rebecca Foust, and others provide extraordinary poetry that touches the center of the experience of loss. Non-fiction by John Marmysz and Sheila Bannon explores the fundamental nature of loss. Evocative paintings by June Yokell reflect the varying mood of loss. And the outstanding short story “Angel” by Heather Altfeld makes this issue a complete and moving and insightful collection on the theme.

Longship Press website

Blackplate and Sacripolitical

It was a lively night of punk rock in San Francisco at The Makeout Room on Saturday, January 4th.

Blackplate, a post-punk, dirge band from Humbolt County – whose album, Every Day is Sadderday, was produced by Steve Albini – made the long drive down to the Bay Area to play an early show with Sacripolitical.

Sacripolitical went on first and was welcomed by a crowd of familiar faces, including their old bass player, Brooke J., the vocalist from Complete Disorder, Danny C., and tons of other friends from the 1980’s Marin punk scene. There was lots of dancing, laughter, and singing along by the crowd. It felt like old times, and reminded me that even as we get older, nothing really has to change. The band debuted a new song titled Gogol’s Nose and ended their set with the old Crib Death song, Shove It Up Your Ass!

Blackplate closed out the night with a terrific set of grinding, post-punk noise that reminded me of a cross between Big Black and Killdozer. An electrical short in Sean’s microphone caused a bit of an annoyance, but that problem was overcome and the band went on to tear through some great songs that were received by the audience with lots of head-banging enthusiasm and cheers.

Thanks to everyone who came out! We’re hoping to arrange more nights of punk-rock fun in the near future!