The Holism of Violence

Endless self-reflection can reach a dead end, even science can reach a dead end since it assumes the mind is a machine, present all at once, that contains all it’s secrets. Which is not to say I don’t believe in a mechanical universe, but self-reflection can take us only so far. So, Descartes was wrong (of course) and from self-reflection or even the science of the mind we must move on to history. That is, consider that which is really important in history, that which has led to us being who we are today, may be barely recognizable today. “All good things once wandered the world as monsters” was the Nietzschean phrase I think. And furthermore, we are not talking about chance occurrences but rather the real, as defined by, that which can have a powerful effect on us. We are defined by that which we haven’t felt yet. That which affects us strong now, pop culture, blinds us to that which can affect us, the latter being the truth of history. In other words, aesthetics is wrong because, like science and like reflection, it assumes that our present responses define who we are. This is wrong, we are defined by all possible responses, and in particularly past experiences, prehistoric experiences, we find out about ourselves in experiencing things we’ve never experienced before, because they may trigger some deeper memory — and note that in saying this we are not giving up a mechanistic universe at all, we’re not disagreeing with science, simply saying that the science of the self is incompetent. Or maybe, the mind is a machine, but one that has been hardly triggered at all by the present.

The real implication of this is that the study of the self must be an active pursuit and involve a willingness to go out on a limb — I don’t mean, here, traveling all over the world, but rather, more emphasis on the feeling of what is barely or almost there. The mind — and we may include culture too — responds powerfully and deeply to things that we may not even register consciously. Hitchcock’s word for this is “spellbound” a complete participation, the holism of entry and departure. The idea of 1984, for example, was this notion that one can come to love one’s oppressor, indicating the entirety of acculturation or assimilation.

And let’s elaborate on what we’ve been calling “violence” along these lines too. By violence, I mean something that is entirely useless to me, that does something to me rather than gives something to me. Something that does not help but rather harms me. All violence, then, is characterized by a blankness — even if this blankness is overwhelming color or complexity. So literature can be violent too, perhaps literature is violence par excellence since it refuses to be read. Yet violence can also be characterized by being spellbinding, in which case it sets off something like a violent chain reaction in the mind. I guess it should be pointed out that we are perhaps simply proposing a negative rather than a positive understanding of the world — after all, violence is universal, no interaction (with a different other) is not violence: we are used to thinking about learning from violence or learning from defeat. But here, we take the view that violence is simply some reaction in the mind. The idea that we can learn from violence — well — that’s an error, that’s basically just a  falling away from the investigation of the mind towards some notion of pragmatism in the modern day world, some dumb notion of God working in mysterious ways or something.

This idea of entirety, as suggested by the word “spellbound” (or Keats’s “thrall”), holism, will be an important one — the entire metaphysical hierarchy becomes centered around or caught around the blankness of violence. Let me just return to another personal example, our unwritten essay called “Watching out for my own kind” (call it, MOK). I have a scrap of about a few paragraphs somewhere here in my notes. But then, I ended up writing a little entry about why it won’t be written but should be written. It won’t be written because, halfway through writing it, I realized that it was impossible to make a distinction between the high (bad) and the low (good) — because in this essay I would accuse society of being blinded by technical mastery and of forgetting the sacred, which I conceive of as the pure possibility as presented by some experience. For example, we can no longer hear music because we are overwhelmed by thoughts of technical proficiency and closed off to — and this is mysterious, but comprehensible, I think — the pure possibilities of music. This is in fact a very old argument, it is one which Burke based his Inquiry into Our Notions of the Sublime and the Beautiful on. We know that, in general, we tend to appreciate things less and less as the novelty wears off. The argument here avoids the concept of novelty, of an original experience, by arguing for “purity”, which is distinguished from the “childlike” of novelty. So the MOK would concern itself with some defense of purity, some attempt to return to purity. It can never be written because, in fact, the high is influenced by the pure too, or, that we cannot talk about the pure at any length without finding that we have strayed, finding that we have taken up with a new high — this is why MOK won’t be written. But it should be written because, though we always fail, in our very failure we reorganize the entire metaphysical hierarchy, the holism, the entirety of history, so that the high points again back at the pure.

This is kind of silly, but let’s propose a reading of MOK even though it has never been written. It starts out euphorically – I should be old enough to know better, but somehow I never am, we never are — in speaking of the pure, of my own kind, defined by a kind of “genuine hope” – the keyword being “genuine”. The kind of hope here is of the utmost importance of course — we are not talking about the hope of achievement or anything like “The American Dream”, which is based upon social accomplishment or recognition, but rather a hope that seems to present itself at the very moment, a hope of a new way of being, a better way of being. This hope is of course associated with violence, and therefore with uselessness, and this is, oddly enough, something I had known long before I (hypothetically) wrote MOK. But the insistence on MOK is of a hope or a violence that is nonetheless better, for various reasons, all good. It would, for example, save the world — it would help people stop and smell the flowers — it would help people become at one with nature, and so forth.

At this very moment of conviction there is a dual realization, as we have said – (1) that I or the people I hang out with have somehow become exclusive, have begun judging on memory and a priori standards rather than, say, “with the heart”, and (2) that nonetheless, despite our corruption, we are still, and have always been speaking about that original form of violence. Thus, the emphasis here is on the holism (the “entire metaphysical hierarchy”) of the world disturbed by this violence.

Something similar actually occurs in La Belle Dame Sans Merci (LBD). A few weeks ago I realized that LBD was in fact about success and not about failure. After all, this knight has indeed discovered the purity he hoped to discover, and he is, you know, more knight than ever. For example, when Don Quixote, after a series of enormous failures, takes on the title of “The Knight of the Woeful Countenance”, this is a title of success. But Keats himself could not have written a poem about this knight, especially not the Keats of This Living Hand – or rather, he could not but must have finished (rather than abandoned) LBD, as we say above.

LBD is certainly about a kind of thrall, thrall suggesting someone who is entirely caught up in something. It’s kind of interesting that the very people who accuse the knight of being in thrall are in fact one of the elements of that holism: the oddly juxtaposed ghosts of kings, the king who gives an order, or the king who receives the reward — the king who teaches or lays down the law, or the king for whom one fights — ie, either the beginning or the end — in fact, both kings and ghosts are figures of the simultaneity of beginning and end. And the word thrall itself suggests either the unhealthy obsession of the knight with the moment or the thrall of the entirety of this poem and its context — the ballad. After all, the questioning, the answering, the singing, the listening of the ballad are all, well, already known. For example the speaker, when he asks, “O What can ail thee, knight at arms?” is not really asking (nor is it “rhetorical”) because he already knows.

The effort here is basically not to distinguish the pure from the impure but rather to reorganize the entirety of  history — the entirety of the ballad  ——- TBC

Q1: If the poem is characterized by the ambivalence of survival, what measures does Keats takes to “readjust” history to refocus the pure?

Q2: Are these measures in fact related to the way in which the mind “responds deeply to things we may not even register consciously” as important, spoken of in the beginning?

 

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