Posts Tagged ‘Robert Harrison’

Who is the last man? Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
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Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. A year ago, the Book Haven published a summary of Sloterdijk’s Entitled Opinions conversation with radio host Robert Harrison. The podcast and summary was also posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. In December, we published a full transcript in German at Berlin’s Die Welt. You can read it here. Last week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published the full transcript, in English, here

A few excerpts below:

Harrison: I find that when it comes to Nietzsche being a prophet, in some ways he was blind about what would be the most dominant feature of the coming century, though many people consider him the inaugurator of the 20th century. He has almost nothing to say about the dominance of modern technology in the era to come. Okay, you can say that this was a blind spot in his thinking. In Zarathustra, especially in part four, however, he has a prophetic vision that has to do with our own time. He thinks of the last men. Who is the last man? In what way are the parameters of that last man contained within … for example, the consumerist of our own society, who is complacent?

We’re no longer dealing with the petite bourgeoisie or those 19th-century categories. It’s very much the contemporary citizen as a global citizen, a kind of capitalist of consumerism who does not think beyond the creaturely comforts of this day and the next day. There’s something in his thinking that promises to show us a way to transcend this fatality. European civilization after all these centuries and millennia cannot end in the last men. Or will it?

Sloterdijk: Here, in Nietzsche, appears a major problem that will occupy humanity in the centuries to come: the question of how to maintain what I call the vertical tension inside the human being. For everything that has to do with verticality, Nietzsche is the specialist coming from the tradition. He discovered this new type of problem — how to maintain the vertical tension if the higher region has been removed. As if Jacob’s Ladder, over which the angel can march up and down should still stand upright without having the support on the upper level. So there is still height, but no support from above. Everything has to be erected from below. The vertical tension has a rocket-like dynamic, a will to growth, and that can be easily expressed in biological terms. You can go back to Goethe, who said that all life is movement and extension, and from here you get to a less megalomaniac conception of growth.

World’s most controversial thinker? (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Harrison: Well, in fact, in Nietzsche Apostle, you speak about his extraordinary genius as a marketer of his own brand. You don’t merely invent a brand that then takes off in the market. What you do is create the market for the very brand that you’re promoting. And Nietzsche created a market for a brand of … I think it’s related to what you’re talking about, the ladder of having realized that — in the regime of the last man, a regime of egalitarianism — there will always be a drive for distinction. He marketed his philosophy as a promise, as a way to understand a need before it even became apparent to the world itself, that there was going to be a need for distinction in this world.

But you also say, somewhat prophetically, that he was promising losers a formula by which they could be on the side of winners. This was also part of his brand. Can you say something about this? When you speak about verticality, are you speaking about this need for distinction in this particular regime?

Sloterdijk: I think Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling for the deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown by the subtitle of Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen — “A Book for All and Nobody.” And I’m convinced that this is Nietzsche’s genius. This subtitle betrays something of his innermost drive. His way of polemics, as Heidegger would put it, was not really polemics. It was teaching, and so it was a kind of “action teaching” — action teaching like Joseph Beuys would call his performances. Nietzsche was a kind of action teacher writing a book for all and nobody, and discovering in so doing the very structure of higher morality.

PR man?

This kind of morality creates a field of behavior that is not applicable to living populations but traces the horizon for new generations to inhabit. This necessarily has to be a challenge, just as Buddhism was before it was brought out as an Indian form of gospel, as a way of salvation, just as the Christian Gospel was a pure challenge to the pagan environment of the former world. And so Nietzsche designs a horizon for those who in the morality markets of the future will distinguish themselves as individuals who show how the path of humanity can be continued. And in that context, you read this most provocative sentence from the introduction, the so-called prologue to Zarathustra: “Man is a rope between the animal and the Superman,” and you decide if you want to be a successful rope-walker or not. And if you are not successful as a rope-walker — you have nevertheless tried it.

That is the meaning of this philosophical pantomime that concludes the prologue of Zarathustra. He sees the rope-walker who has fallen down, and he says, “You made the danger. Out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing to despise in that, and for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands.” That is Zarathustra’s message. It’s not success that decides everything. It is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope, if you do not want to remain a part of the masses that are looking up and admiring people doing crazy things.

Read the whole thing here.

Do the French take their literature seriously? The furor over “La Princesse de Clèves”!

Friday, May 31st, 2019
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Another Look turned its attention to an earlier century on May 1, with Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. The Another Look director, Robert Pogue Harrison, led the panel, joined by Chloe Edmondson, a Stanford PhD candidate studying French literary and cultural history, and very special guest, Yale’s Prof. Pierre Saint-Amand, the author of The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment. Mostly the participants spoke off-the-cuff, but Edmondson’s opening remarks were an excellent introduction to this short and compelling work:

“Many of you may be familiar with French classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, yet you may not have ever heard of Madame de Lafayette, not to mention the book she wrote in 1678. To the French though, it is as much of a national treasure and classic, as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book in fact had a huge resurgence of popularity in 2009 after President Sarkozy publicly disparaged the book.

He said, “Non”!

He was talking about the entrance exam for public sector workers and how it included questions about Lafayette’s work. He suggested it would be absurd to ask a metro ticket clerk what he or she thought about the Princesse de Clèves, that it was useless that candidates must have a knowledge of the Princesse de Clèves.  He added, too, that he “suffered greatly by the princess” in school.

These comments triggered a full-blown scandal, and the French people took to defending the work as a pillar of their national and cultural heritage, a work they felt should be read and appreciated by everyone, not mocked as irrelevant. University strikes that year gave rise to marathon public readings throughout the country of La Princesse de Clèves as a form of protest. Publishers saw sales of the book double within a year. Even a book fair in Paris that year sold, in mere hours, more than 2,000 pins that said “I read The Princess of Clèves” and “This year, the Princess will vote!”

Edmondson also retraced the history of the book for the audience:  “Born 18 March 1634 to a family of minor but wealthy nobility, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, became a maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria in 1651, which initiated her entrée into the world of high society. It is during this time that she first became a part of the literary world of 17th-century France, frequenting the salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudéry, as well as becoming friends with Madame de Sévigné.

But the people said, “Oui!”  Vive la France!

“She married François Motier, Comte de LaFayette in 1655, and with him had two sons. She lived with him in the countryside until her return to Paris in 1660, when she started her own literary salon, regularly receiving in her home some of the most important men of letters of her time, like the Duc de La Rochefoucauld who introduced her to the great playwright Racine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she starts to write as well.

“In 1678, La Princesse de Clèves was published anonymously, though it is quickly attributed to Lafayette. At the time of its publication, it was the source of literary scandal. It was a question of genre – people weren’t sure how to categorize what seemed to be a unique text, combining elements of two of the most popular genres at the time – the romance and the historical novella.

“Romances were generally set in a time and place distant from the author’s, with implausible heroic plots and fantastical events, whereas novellas – short novels – were generally set in recent history, with historical characters behaving according to social conventions. La Princesse de Clèves, set in the court of Henri II in the mid-16th century would seem to favor realism, but readers believed that the characters did not conform to the ways that people “really” would behave, because of what seemed to be exceptionally strange behavior of the heroine, such as the Princess’ confession to her husband of her feelings for another man.

“Today, one of the big scholarly debates surrounding the book also has to do with genre – namely whether or not it really did mark the birth of the modern novel. Regardless, I think we can appreciate that it holds qualities that will become characteristic of the types of books we consider novels, works that give readers access to the inner thoughts and emotions of the main characters over an extended period of time.

“Indeed, if we look at the history of the work’s reception, what no one seems to contest, even in the 17th century, is that it captured – to quote her contemporary critic Jean-Baptiste Valincour – the expression of “what happens in the depths of our hearts,” the “expression” of things that all have experienced.”

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019
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Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.
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René Girard: “Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
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Robert Harrison with René Girard outside the Stanford Faculty Club (Photo: Ewa Domańska)

Here’s some good news for the holidays! My Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard has been named one of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s top books of 2018! You can read about it here. We can’t think of a better Christmas present. But there’s more good news.

We wrote about Robert Pogue Harrison’s New York Review of Books essay, “Prophet of Envy,” on French theorist René Girard. We’ve also written about his Entitled Opinions radio show and podcasts. The year-end double issue of the U.K.’s  Standpoint has published a transcript of one of his 2005 Entitled Opinions interviews with his Stanford colleague – and with a line on the cover, too! (See right.) Excerpt below:

Robert Pogue Harrison: The founding adage of western philosophy is “know thyself.” That’s not an easy proposition. To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires lurk at the heart of our behavior, determine our motivations, organise our social relations, and inform our politics, religions, ideologies, and conflicts. Yet nothing is more mysterious, elusive, or perverse than human desire.

Our government invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year so we might better understand the world of nature, so that we might continue our pursuit of knowledge, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advancing the cause of self-knowledge. Most of our major problems today are as old as the world itself. The problem of reciprocal violence, for example. You would think we would want to understand its mechanisms, its psychology, and its tendencies to spiral out of control. Instead, we keep on perpetuating its cycles much the way our ancestors have done for centuries, and even millennia. Nor are we any closer to knowing the deeper layers of our conflicting and conflict-generating desires than they were.

René, your work has an enormous reach. It branches out into various areas and disciplines — literary criticism, anthropology, religious studies, and so forth. Today, I’d like to focus on what I take to be the foundational concept of all your thinking, namely mimetic desire. Can you tell our listeners exactly what you mean by that term?

René Girard: Mimetic desire is when our choice is not determined by the object itself, as we normally believe, but by another person. We imitate the other person, and this is what “mimetic” means. For example: why have all the girls been baring their navels for the last five years? Obviously, they didn’t all decide by themselves that it would be nice to show one’s navel — or that maybe that one’s navel is too warm, and one must do something about it.

One of San Francisco Chronicle’s top books for 2018

We’ll see the mimetic nature of that desire the day that fashion collapses. Suddenly, it will be a very old-fashioned to show one’s navel and no one will show it any more. And it will all happen because of other people — just as now, it is because of other people that they show it.

RPH: But how far do you want to go in saying that desire — by its very nature, and in human beings — is fundamentally mimetic?

RG: Maybe one can start from this question: what is the difference between need, appetite, and desire? Need is an appetite all animals have. We know very well that if we are alone in the Sahara Desert and we are thirsty, we don’t need a model to want to drink. It’s a need that we have to satisfy. But most of our desires in a civilised society are not like that.

Think of vanity, or snobbery. What is snobbery? In snobbery, you desire something not because you really had an appetite for it, but because you think you look smarter, you look more fashionable, if you imitate the man who desires that object, or who also pretends to desire it.

 And later in the interview…

RPH:  I asked in my opening remarks about why can’t we have an institution devoted strictly to the study of vengeance, for example, and work out its logic — reciprocal violence, these kinds of things. We are far from overcoming the behaviour that has characterised human history throughout the centuries.

But let’s move on to another emotion, which is closely linked, obviously, to hatred, vengeance, and jealousy, namely envy. I think envy is a highly underestimated emotion in the human relations. How do you see the role of envy?

RG:
 I see it the same way. Today envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society, where everything is directed towards money. Therefore you envy the people who have more than you have. You cannot talk about your envy. I think the reason we talk so much about sex is that we don’t dare talk about envy. The real repression is the repression of envy.

And of course, envy is mimetic. You cannot help imitating your model. If you want money very badly, you’re going to enter the same business as the man who is your model. More likely than not, you will be destroyed by strength. So when people talk about masochism and so forth, they are still talking about mimetic desire. They are talking about how we move always to the greatest strength in the direction of the desire we envy most. We do so because that power is greater than ours — and it’s probably going to defeat us again. So there will be what Freud calls repetition in psychological life, which is linked to the fact that we’re obsessed with what has defeated us the first time. Our victorious rival in lovemaking becomes a permanent model. So novelists like Dostoevsky and Cervantes will show you characters who literally asked their rival to choose for them the girl they should love.

Read the whole thing here

Postscript on 12/18: The actual, physical copies of Standpoint arrived in my Stanford p.o. box today. It’s beauuu-ti-ful! (See photo at left.) Moreover, “Love and Envy in Shakespeare: A Dialogue with René Girard on Mimesis and Desire” leads the “Civilisation” section of the magazine. Thanks to Daniel Johnson and the London staff of Standpoint magazine. What fine work you do! And what a splendid Christmas present – not just for me, but for all of us!

Why We Want What We Want: René Girard and Robert Harrison in conversation

Friday, November 30th, 2018
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“I THINK THE REASON WE TALK SO MUCH ABOUT SEX IS THAT WE DON’T DARE TALK ABOUT ENVY. THE REAL REPRESSION IS THE REPRESSION OF ENVY.” –RENÉ GIRARD

“Know thyself.” It’s not an easy proposition. As Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison says, “To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires are what lurk at the heart of our behavior. It’s what determines our motivations. It’s what organizes our social relations. It’s what informs our politics, religions, ideologies, and above all, our conflicts.”

René in a video interview…

In this conversation and podcast, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here, Harrison talks with Stanford’s expert on human desire, René Girard, whose work on the subject was rooted in literary criticism, but eventually reached across disciplines to embrace anthropology, sociology, history, religions, and even the hard sciences.

Girard began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the prestigious Académie Française.

… Robert Harrison as radio host

Their 2005 interview discusses envy and desire in literature — in Canto V of the Inferno, in Cervantes, Balzac, and Flaubert, but most of all in the plays of Shakespeare. They also discuss the role of vengeance as an act of mimetic rivalry, “snobbery” as a form of imitation, and the “sacramental” nature of advertising today. “If you consume Coca-Cola, maybe if you consume a lot of it, you will become a little bit like these people you would like to be. It’s a kind of Eucharist that will turn you into the person you really admire.”

Ultimately, they talk about the mimetic escalation of warfare, Girard’s late-life fascination with the war theoretician Clausewitz, and the need to renounce violence.

This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion – you can listen to it over at the Los Angeles Review of Books “Entitled Opinions” channel here. Meanwhile, Robert Harrison writes about René Girard in the Dec. 20, 2018, issue of the New York Review of Books here.

Potent quotes:

From RENÉ GIRARD

Envy is the emotion which plays the greatest role in our society.”

Mimetic desire is an absolute monarch.”

If you have a rivalry, your vanity is involved and you want to win at all cost.”

The institution that is most mimetic of all is the greatest capitalist institution – the stock market.”

Clausewitz constantly shows you the mimetic nature of war.”

From ROBERT HARRISON

Nothing is more mysterious, evasive, or perverse than human desire.”

We are far from overcoming the behavior that has characterized human history.”

Why is it that human behavior is so resistant to adapting itself to what the mind knows?”

To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire.”

It’s amazing that our governments invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year in order to better understand the world of nature, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advance the cause of self-knowledge in order to better understand ourselves.”

Marilynne Robinson: “The absolute discovery we make is that we are radically solitary.”

Saturday, April 14th, 2018
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“The world we think we know is what we’re losing.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson is considered one of the defining writers of our time, a treasure in contemporary American literature, in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her novels explore mid-20th century Midwestern life and faith; her essays roam the boundaries between faith and science. She is perhaps best known for her novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). Her newest collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here? was published this year. Her Entitled Opinions conversation is the newest listing over at the Entitled Opinions channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

The Entitled Opinions conversation with Robert Harrison explores John Calvin’s vision of an immanent God, Original Sin, and the influence of both ideas on Lincoln’s national vision and also on foundational American writers such as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe. Harrison and Robinson discuss grief, loss, history, science, Freudianism, and what it’s like to live in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.

In his introduction, Harrison praises “her perception of ordinary reality, which is anything but ordinary when perception becomes truly attentive and thoughtful.” Then he cites her own words: “Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. … You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.”

Potent quotes:

“The world we think we know is what we’re losing. My characters experience grief because they love the world.”

“The absolute discovery we make is that we are radically solitary. … This relationship is essential, indestructible, primary.”

“You learn the value of things in losing them.”

“It’s just spectacular: this planet is disappearingly small, by any model of the galaxy and anything beyond it, and yet at the same time, its knowledge, its capacity for knowing, passes through billions and billions of light years of void.”

“It would be trivial to be a large planet in the middle of a small universe. It’s absolutely brilliant to be a small planet in an endless universe.”