Mar 6, 2015

Starting From A Standpoint: Rilke's Notebooks Of Malte Laurids Brigge

One theme that consistently runs through the literature associated together under the rubric of "Existentialist" is that of philosophizing -- or indeed starting to think, to write, to decide at all -- from the standpoint that one has been afforded.  This can be construed as beginning from the concrete, from the individual, from a situation -- there's a number of different now-classic ways to frame this general idea.

This week in the online Existentialism class I'm currently teaching, we've been studying Rainer Maria Rilke's works -- starting with the Letters to a Young Poet, then examining some of his poetry, and ending the week by looking at his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  Early on in that work, there's a passage quite literally filled with possibilities (paragraphs beginning with "Is it possible. . . "), and towards the end of it, a both plaintive and resolute conclusion gets drawn.
But if all this is possible, if there is even so much as a glimmer of possibility to it, then something must be done, for pity's sake.  Anyone- anyone who has had these disquiting thoughts -- must make a start on some of the things we have omitted to do; anyone at all, no matter if he is not the aptest to the task:  the fact is, there is no one else.
He applies it to his own (i.e. the narrator stand-in's) case:
This young foreigner of no consequence, Brigge, will have to sit himself down, five flights up, and write, day and night: yes, that is what it will come to -- he will have to write.

There Is No One Else

Here in Late Modernity is, of course, a long-trivial truism that each person's standpoint differs in some ways from that of others, and there is a corresponding tendency to bemoan -- in characteristically general, anemic, abstract ways -- just how many rich, different, valuable perspectives we miss out on.  That's making the grand, and unwarranted, assumption that were we to enter into the perspective of each human being, we would not find them insipid, stereotypical, containing little to nothing genuinely of their own -- unwarranted, not because we can assert this to be the case of many people, but precisely because, as the problem has been set, we don't know what inhabits, enriches, or just takes up room and residence in the perspective of these countless others.

Rilke is writing about something very different here.  He's not asserting that we all labor under an imperative to tell our unique story, to explore all the ins-and-outs of our own private subjectivity, to unfold our memories, our affects, our eccentricities, to set down our individual and perhaps idiosyncratic musings -- as if there was some inherent virtue or intrinsic value to this.

What he's saying instead, in this case, is that some thoughts, some musings, wonderings, and reasonings, some experiences have impressed or imposed themselves upon him, and he notices a semblance of unsettling novelty to them.  They're not the sort of matters upon which those who are in the mainstream, those who have been appointed to positions, those who hold the gaze of the audience and form opinions by their utterances and interventions, upon which other people are willing to work -- if such matters have even come to their notice.

And yet, they are worth noticing -- and more . . . linging with, ruminating over -- and more . . . working out, working through, bringing to as coherent a condition as they will admit or our capacities will allow.  And since there is no one else, in this case, it is Brigge who will have to do it, fully conscious that in theory he is not the best person for the job, but that in actuality, he is the only person for it.

 Existentialism - Philosophizing From A Standpoint

One source of the richness and new perspectives afforded by Existentialist thought is precisely this focus on the concrete, individual human person, existing in situations and in a matrix connecting together those situations, partly reflections of uses or effects of their own freedom but mainly those produced by the freedoms of others.  The individual human being, in his or her relations with others, located in a history, within or against their culture or society, pervaded by dimensions too multiple to exhaustively list -- workplaces and careers, family or its lack, friendships and rivalries, restaurants and schoolrooms, just to start naming a few -- the person provides a vantage point for starting the work of philosophy -- i.e. thinking.

And not just a starting point, but also a constant or at least continuing set of references, an emphasis upon key categories and experiences conditioning a human life and its meanings -- life, love, death, freedom, time, anxiety, responsibility, nothingness, existence, action. . . . 

Existentialism can be understood -- in its key texts, ideas, thinkers, and in what we ourselves in our turn take up, interpret, and then set down -- as a set of resistances to a tendency particularly marked within Philosophy but occurring within human thinking more generally.  This is a tendency to focus attention and efforts, to commit our available intellectual and communicative resources, you might say, towards what is publicly acknowledged.  Accompanying that tendency -- really its reciprocal cause and effect -- is the very prioritization of what has been accorded that public standing.

At one limit-point of this tendency, what is viewed as valuable to think out, to make choices about, to do in practice becomes constrained to just one way, even one place, or one group.  The idea that somehow intangibly "better" work or thinking in philosophy goes on in "top tier" schools or journals, or in those endorsed by the Philosophical Gourmet, or endowed with prestige in any similar manner provides an example easy to relate to in the present.  Kierkegaard's insistence upon thinking matters though from a personal position engaged with but eccentric to the dominant Hegelianism of his own day, and from all places, Copenhagen! -- that's another example.

It's not just about resisting, being other, reversing privilege and margin, though -- after all, just because some perspective has been arbitrarily left out, undervalued, or ignored doesn't mean it's actually worth spending the time on. . .  as one often finds out!  One philosophizes from one's own concrete standpoint because, as it turns out, in one's ongoing experience (and thinking is an experience, when it's done right!), there's something more there, a surplus of significance that does need to be brought into the light, something exceeding one's own subjectivity -- what you might call, in more old-fashioned terms, a Calling.

Widening Application of this Existentialist Stance

One might argue that Existentialism represents a restoration or re-injection of egalitarianism of sorts into philosophy and culture more broadly.  One the one hand, by the emphasis upon the personal, the non-privileged situations in which the vast majority of us find ourselves in, the individual person becomes emboldened to try his or her hand at what they haven't been properly certified to do -- to engage in philosophizing.  On the other hand, it can't be simply an elevation of the self and its perspective into a new center of everything -- that's simply narcissism or even solipsism, which usually turns out to generate pretty sub-par philosophy.  One implication of egalitarianism, you might say, is that one is always liable to have others call "bullshit" about one's perspective -- and some of that might actually stick!

Consider the case of perhaps the most individualistic of the Existentialists (though I'm sure someone will want to claim that Nietzsche or Shestov are still more radically individualistic), Kierkegaard.  He writes at times as if any genuine communication, any lasting contact with the real, cannot be mediated in any way -- it must be purely, radically, irrevocably individual -- and even worse, in a lot of cases has to be between a mysterious, even absurd God and the individual human person.  Fortunately, there's plenty of other useful passages -- for example about indirect communication -- to place these extravagances into perspective!

But consider this -- think about just how many people have read Kierkegaard, and found in him an author with whom they could carry on a conversation, an interlocutor or even teacher whose thoughts they could get to know not entirely from the inside, as they were themselves thought, but not entirely from the outside either.  He philosophized from his own standpoint.  And there are plenty of people who cry "charlatan" (as well as many worse things) when they read his work.  But there's also plenty -- and some of them enigmatically well-integrated, paradoxically intelligent -- who seem to derive quite a bit from lingering with and over his works.

Should you buy yourself some Kierkegaard books because he's managed to make it, after a century of being largely ignored, into the canon?  That's not a particularly good reason, but if it gets Fear and Trembling or Either/Or onto your shelf, and someday you happen to get it down, read it, and find yourself realizing that your mental palace might be in need of some renovation, well. . . .

We can go much wider, however, than just what we typically count as "philosophy," beyond even than what might be found in a book store, library, or lecture series.  "There is no one else" -- that can apply not only to philosophizing, or even thinking more broadly, or even to writing.  We can expand it to encompass the "poets" in a broader, Platonic sense (you'll want to go back to the Symposium) -- those who create, who make, who shape, whether it be laws and characters, tangible physical products, works of art and music, or even those who make new lives or who make love.  When there is something genuine there, there is also a calling, and one can find oneself responsible to that call precisely because there is no one else at that place or time, with that particular capacity, who responds to that call.

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