“Only Guilt is Inheritable”

The relationship between guilt and inheritance is something we’re sort of aware of. They are two ways of transmission: guilt is transmitted, say, from the mother, and that which is transmitted is then bequeathed, sort of like property. So, in and out: like the wheel of history (the up and down rotation) or the spread of a virus, mother and father, etc.

One inherits — this is something we understand only vaguely — “something“. Inheritance is not the inheritance of “values”, moral values — that would be “teaching”. As the cliche goes, “college teaches us how to think” — teaching is a kind of preparedness — one is taught a set of values or methods and then is thrown into the world. Teachers don’t care about you — they want to see you succeed perhaps but not how — so maybe teaching is opposed to inheritance as one is concerned with the ends and the other the means or perhaps the totality. One cannot inherit, strictly speaking, a school of thought, since, as we know, children born with a silver spoon grow up with none of the spirit. One must inherit the spirit, which is neither values nor property — neither the idealistic nor material trappings. So these vague feelings about the paradoxical (a)materiality of guilt and inheritance will be our concern here, we will be to try to crystallize the thoughts here.

Guilt is the paradoxical combination of identity and displacement: one is displaced by someone who is “more myself than I am”. So, 1, guilt always involves the other and 2, guilt always arrives as a kind of shock. In the midst of believing I am who I am — boyish innocence — one suddenly reaches a moment of identity with the other — the other is in some sense just like me (“existential isomorphism” I called it). At that moment of radical identity however I am torn from myself, I am no longer who I claim to be. Guilt, then, is guilt over intruding into sacred ground.

The materiality of guilt is, thus, the moment when my own actions feel foreign to me, either that what I do seems to take on some sanctity that I was unaware of or that what I do becomes a intrusion into the sacred. This is different from merely feeling excluded, because in that case, one has not yet entered into some way of life, and in contrast, guilt involves myself. The promise never questions the self but only who one would like to be.

So bequeathal is not, actually, bequeathing something I already have, but it, too, has to do with the sacred — one can only bequeath the sacred, which is something that I myself cannot even touch. Bequeathal is actually sort of like teaching. But, again, we can’t be talking about “success training”, because bequeathal is, oddly enough, like the bequeathing of a piece of intellectual property, immobile land or sacred land — yet, “property” that, oddly enough, I cannot own, and no one can own.


This is the hardest part, but let’s try to attach something specific to what we’re talking about. Guilt and inheritance are universal, so the problem is not so much discovering an instance that will validate our theory — that’s not hard — but rather of discovering a example significant enough.

Let me just give a very summary reading of La Belle Dame. Both these concepts figure heavily into this poem. One can only bequeath guilt, or, a bequeathal is genuine only if it is based on guilt. The poem is the bequeathal (all art is bequeathal, and in this sense arrives to us from beyond the grave). At the same time, the sense of guilt plays very heavily into the “innocence” of the day before — the paradoxical combination of foreignness (cf, “promise”) and love (as identity). The two moments, the belle dame and the ghosts of kings or the ghosts of fathers, the lover and the father are the two aspects of the same historical phenomenon we are speaking of here, which is the persistence of the negational in history — ie, both guilt and inheritance, despite the apparent positivity of the latter, are negational, ie, they ‘negate us’ in an oddly passive sense. The argument here all along is that the negational is really the only thing that is “positive” — ie, our schools, thoughts, beliefs, etc. are not positive — ie, not inheritable.

In fact, this element of guilt has been present even in Keats’s earlier, more prospective poems, such as Ode to Grecian Urn — the one about beauty being truth and truth beauty. In these poems Keats wrote as an outsider, the moment of identity that he reached was imaginative rather than romantic. But even there, one reaches for more ethereal visions of beauty precisely because one is motivated by the other, unspoken, but far more intimate identity of guilt. We are talking, of course, about the great artists that Keats emulated, but since Keats did no technical research (really out of faith rather than scorn in their accomplishments) these figures remained shadowy. He saw their influence in the possibilities of poetry itself, ie, his own experience with poetry was a series of encounters with ghosts…





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