Friday, November 30, 2007

IV. Tragedy, Oedipus, Circularity, and Strange Attractors

In aphorism 341 of GS, Nietzsche gives us in the demon’s (demon here no doubt from the Greek daimon, which is a divinity, but also “fate” and “fortune for good and evil” – Socrates said he had a daimon which spoke to him, telling him what not to do) offer a chance to affirm life as such through affirming our lives in particular. For those who would reject the offer – accepting Schopenhauer’s view that no rational person would wish to relive their lives over exactly as it was (World as Will and Representation, 324) – Nietzsche has nothing more to say. But for those who would accept it, thus accepting their fate, Nietzsche offers Incipit Tragodea, and TSZ, the further development of the tragic (having an unresolvable conflict at its root), recursive, and, thus, fractal geometry of time introduced in the demon’s offer – an offer which Oedipus accepted at the end of “Oedipus tyrannus,” providing the model for the tragic view of time.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera shows the consequences of this Schopenhauerean rejection with the fictional example of Mirek (the individual) and the nonfiction example of communist Czechoslovakia (the country/society/culture) attempting to erase their pasts – the most active rejection of Nietzsche’s demon’s offer one can undertake. Mirek thought he could control his destiny by erasing (forgetting) his past – just as the Communists thought they could do the same for the destiny of Communism. He wanted to “destroy his own hated youth” just as the people of Bohemia “rebelled against their own youth” (18), resulting in the Prague Spring, which, as a “bad memory” is not remembered, having been “carefully erased from the country’s memory” (19).

By attempting to erase people “from the country’s memory,” the Communists showed us how dangerous is the desire to forget, to erase our memory and our youth. But this is only a natural response, as Schopenhauer recognized, when he said “perhaps at the end of his life, no man, if he be sincere and at the same time in possession of his faculties, will ever wish to go through it again,” since “everything excellent or admirable is always only an exception,” and “as regards the life of the individual, every life-history is a history of suffering, for, as a rule, every life is a continual series of mishaps great and small” (WWPI, 324). But, natural as this response may be, we can see it is also a tragic response, resulting in people being imprisoned or killed and erased from photographs and history books. Those who would refuse to go through it again are saying No to their lives – and if they are in power, this No-saying can turn deadly. The tragedy lies precisely in their purposeful attempt to forget physis and attempt to impose their own order (nomos) on the world. Hegel – and Marx – insists that we can resolve the deep conflicts, that synthesis is possible. That makes both Hegel and Marx ethicists of the highest sort. But in trying to disconnect humans from physis/logos, and in trying to separate physis from logos (as Plato, Aristotle, and the postmodernists tried to do), that is, from a tragic understanding of the world, tragic results can and have ensued – as we see in every country in which Marxism was tried. The dualities of physis/logos and nomos and of tragedy and ethics is itself tragic. Ironically, when ethicists try to push ethics (ethos) beyond physis, their ethics turn unethical. On the other hand, we cannot forget the Apollonian aspect of physis. Tragedy is equally impossible without nomos. This is why Nietzsche emphasizes both the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Without both, there is no tragedy. Destruction or deconstruction, becoming alone, is equally anti-tragic.

Unless we affirm our lives, whether it be our own individual lives, or the life (history) of a nation or a people, the consequences can be tragic. This is, in one sense, ironic, considering Oedipus’ life is precisely terrible and, therefore, tragic, because Oedipus, in the end, would have accepted the demon’s offer, knowing full well what that would entail. This is what makes Oedipus both wonderful and terrible, truly awe-ful. But at the same time, this is what makes one’s life beautiful, this affirmation, as it now gains a certain depth – of time. Since it is unlikely one is going to actually encounter such a demon (though perhaps one does occasionally have to face one’s daimon), one can take this idea metaphorically, and chose memory (a-letheia) over forgetting (letheia). This too is tragic, though perhaps a considerably less bloody tragedy, at least for people other than oneself, as we see with Hölderlin’s idea of tragedy being connected to memory, with memory’s failure over time. As Dennis Schmidt points out in On Germans and Other Greeks, in discussing Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion for Hölderlin, “A separation in time cannot be overcome . . . since such a separation is the province only of the past. . . . Separation in time can only be suffered” (131).

The problem with forgetting is that it is “absolute injustice and absolute solace at the same time” (Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 130) – and often the former is used in hopes it will lead to the latter. But both of these point to precisely why forgetting is tragic – it is an attempt by a finite creature to attain infinity (the absolute). In consciously trying to forget, we try to overstep our bounds, as defined by physis (we are a remembering being, and as such, we overstep our bounds by trying to make ourselves forget – we try to make ourselves other than human). The attempt to deny the past is the attempt to deny tragedy. Consider the situation Plato develops in his Phaedrus. Here we encounter the issue of memory when Phaedrus tries to get Socrates to allow him to recite Lysias’ speech from memory. Socrates replies: “I would not have you suppose that I am going to have your memory exercised upon me” (46). Socrates does not want Phaedrus to rely on his memory when Phaedrus has Lysias right there with him. Why, indeed, should Phaedrus rely on his memory when he can recite Lysias’ words verbatim?

One could surmise that Phaedrus wants to practice his memory on Socrates because he would like to play with the text, to add his own ideas to it. Socrates had not heard Lysias’ speech yet, so it would not be difficult for Phaedrus to pass off his own speech as Lysias’. Memorization creates centers of knowledge in and for the brain to bring together with other centers to generate new ideas from what has been memorized. By memorizing Lysias’ speech, Phaedrus has created a center on which he can develop his own ideas. We see this occurring, in a sense, when Socrates picks up the theme of Lysias’ speech and gives his own, better speech. Of course, Socrates has not memorized Lysias’ speech to create a better one on the same topic – which suggests that memory as memorization is not necessarily the best way to remember what one has heard (or read). Socrates remembers what Lysias’ speech says without having to memorize it. He has necessarily forgotten much of Lysias’ speech – he has forgotten the worst parts and remembered the best. Phaedrus, on the other hand, has memorized Lysias’ entire speech – good and bad equally – and so has not differentiated between the good and the bad parts, between what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. We should know what we read and/or hear well enough to remember what is important – but not so well that we remember the worst as well as we remember the best. One can know something so well that it becomes as dangerous to us as is ignorance – it may even blind us, as Phaedrus was, to the fact that there is more available to us than this one thing we have become obsessed with (to this extent, to pick up the apparent topic of the Phaedrus, the nonlover is preferable to the lover). At the same time, we don’t want to get bogged down in the overabundance that is the world, so we should focus in on something that we can understand well, and that helps us to understand the rest of the world in relation to it (the lover is preferable to the nonlover). Memory can ironically create forgetting, unless we utilize forgetting to help us to remember.

If one of the problems with Phaedrus reciting Lysias’ speech from memory is that Phaedrus remembers too much, it would appear to contradict what Socrates says toward the end of the Phaedrus when he criticizes writing and tells Phaedrus the story of the invention of writing by Theuth. When Theuth praises his invention as something that will make the Egyptians “wiser and give them better memories” (87), Thamus replies that “this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves” (88) and that they will only appear to know things but not actually know them. This is not an unreasonable criticism. As an undergraduate, I took the attitude that I did not need to know what I was being taught – I only had to remember where to look it up. As the information was repeated, I did, of course, come to remember what I was taught, but that does not negate the fact that this attitude very well could have prevented me from knowing anything about what I was studying, or that it could have that effect on others, since I know this attitude is not unique. Further, there is a type of memorization of texts that creates the appearance of knowledge – students memorize what they need to memorize long enough to regurgitate the information onto a test and then promptly forget it. They never knew or understood what they memorized. They were not able to pull the meaning out of the text – they gave equal weight to all the words in the text by memorizing it. This is the problem with Phaedrus memorizing Lysias’ speech. Rather than learning the speech, which means, properly studying the speech, what it is saying, how it is saying it, etc., Phaedrus has decided to just memorize the speech. This makes it appear that he knows the speech, when in fact, he is only thoughtlessly regurgitating the lines. Nothing can be created from this form of memory. This is why Socrates is so dismissive of Phaedrus’ memorizing Lysias’ speech.

By telling the story of the invention of writing, Socrates also points out that there is a tragic element to writing. The issue of memory is raised early on in the Phaedrus, but then Socrates invokes the Muses to inspire him with his first speech. In his second speech, wherein he praises madness, Socrates discusses again the issue of memory, in discussing the reincarnated souls’ losing “the memory of the holy things which they saw” (64), though if we can remember, we become mad – the type of madness that gives us such things as prophesy or poetry. Seeing earthly beauty makes us remember Beauty as understood when our souls were in the underworld (68). – and is thus again connected to madness. Socrates returns to the Muses in his discussion with Phaedrus about the cicadas, which were said to have been men until the Muses came. These men, in their joy in singing, forgot to eat and drink, and thus died – to be metamorphosed into cicadas. The birth of the Muses made men forget about their bodies, resulting in their premature deaths – but those same men were rewarded with a return to the world to share their songs with men. Memory brought forth the Muses that made men forget. It was a tragic forgetting that brought beauty into the world.

Socrates then mentions four of the Muses by name: Terpsichore – Muse of dance and choral song (shown dancing and holding a lyre); Erato – Muse of lyric and love poetry (shown playing a lyre); Calliope – Muse of heroic or epic poetry (shown holding a writing tablet); and Urania – Muse of astronomy (shown holding a globe). It is Calliope and Urania (epic poetry and science) who are “the votaries of philosophy” (73) – meaning writing (Calliope holds a writing tablet) is necessary for philosophy. Calliope is also “the eldest Muse” (73), so the first Muse Memory gave birth to was the Muse of writing. Yet we have learned that writing causes people to not use their memories. Further, mere memorization makes creation (inspiration – the job of the Muses) less likely. Socrates is suggesting the following tragic scenario: Memory gives birth to Writing, which turns around and kills Memory before she can give birth to the other Muses. We have an Oedipus-type story involving Memory and her daughter Calliope. Yet if this tragic story is true, Memory cannot give birth to Urania, making philosophy impossible, or to the other Muses, making the other arts impossible. If we treat Memory as memorization – a danger we face when we have written material we can go over repeatedly until it is memorized – we do not have knowledge, because we remember the meaningful with the meaningless, the good (Lysias’ topic) with the bad (Lysias’ style). This type of memorization does not invoke inspiration, it is not creative. It does not create the kind of memory that brings forth the Muses. This is why Socrates invokes the Muses for his first speech: he remembers the important points of Lysias’ speech, and is able to use them to create a new, and better, speech. Writing thus creates a potentially tragic situation, which Socrates tells in the form of a story about Egyptian mythology perhaps to avoid angering the Muses – the way he tried to avoid angering Eros by giving his second speech.

Misused, writing can kill memory through memorization, and thus can kill creativity. But Socrates gets Phaedrus to use Lysias’ writing properly by forcing him to not recite it from memory, but by reading it so Socrates can remember what is important from the speech and be inspired to create his own speech. Socrates hopes Phaedrus will remember both of Socrates’ speeches and be able to create his own speech on the topic, based on what he remembered about Socrates’ speeches. This type of remembering is dependent too on forgetting – forgetting what is not necessary to create something new around the elements remembered. This proper way of using one’s memory creates probability, a probabilistic relationship among what is remembered – while memorization brings us to truth, as what is memorized is unalterable. Probability is alterable, allowing for creativity. Change (becoming) is superior to the unchanging (being).

If Kundera is writing a novel about the tragedy of time and memory in the tradition of Plato, Hölderlin and Nietzsche, we should not be surprised to find him making use of the image of rings and circularity (images of eternity) – specifically, in this case, including oneself in a circle of people, and finding belonging there. It is in the ring where one’s individuality can dissolve into others, but this can, as one can imagine, have tragic consequences, both in creating, and in being expelled from, the ring. The ring, or circularity, can be seen in the story of Oedipus, as he finds himself within a ring, or circle, that started and ended in his mother’s womb. Indeed, it is when Oedipus learns of the facts of his birth that he gets expelled from the ring he was trapped in. To be expelled from a ring (and thus the eternal) is tragic. The ring is connected to the tragedy of time through the eternal return. Tragedy is again related to time.

There is tragedy in rings precisely because people wish to be in rings: “Dancing in a ring is magic; a ring dance speaks to us from the ancient depths of our memories” (88-9). But how does one enter into a ring dance? Kundera gives a list of ways one of his characters, Madame Raphael, attempted to enter into one:

at first in the Methodist church . . . , then in the Communist Party, then in the Trotskyist Party, then in a Trotskyist splinter party, then in the movement against abortion (a child has a right to life!), then in the movement to legalize abortion (a woman has a right to her body!), then she looked for it in Marxists, in psychoanalysts, in structuralists, looked for it in Lenin, in Zen Buddhism, in Mao Tse-tung, among the followers of yoga, in the school of the nouveau roman (89).

Finally, she finds it in two of her students, Gabrielle and Michelle. The students are her favorites, and, after the two students have given a presentation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, where the students are wearing cardboard horns,

The three women danced and laughed, the cardboard noses jiggled, and the class looked at them in mute horror. But by now the three dancing women were unaware of the others, they were concentrating entirely on themselves and on their sensual pleasure. Suddenly Madame Raphael stamped her foot harder and rose a few centimeters above the floor and then, with the next step, was no longer touching the ground. She pulled her two companions after her, and in a moment all three were revolving above the floor and rising slowly in a spiral. When their hair touched the ceiling, it started little by little to open. They rose higher and higher through that opening, their cardboard noses were no longer visible, and now there were only three pairs of shoes passing through the gaping hole, but these too finally vanished, while from on high, the dumbfounded students heard the fading radiant laughter of three archangels (104).

Those outside the circle are horrified by what goes on within. The same would have been true of the audience’s reaction to watching the Oedipus plays on stage when they were first performed – as everyone at the time knew of the story separate from Sophocles’ particular presentation of it. And the circle itself, while being wonderful for those within, is also always exclusive. Those within the circle become unaware of those not in the circle – perhaps to the point of ignoring, or not even seeing, as too many Communist idealists did and do, the horrors around them.

Kundera himself admits “I too once danced in a ring” (91), as a Communist student. But “then one day I said something I should not have said, was expelled from the party, and had to leave the ring dance” (92). And it is here, in his own personal story, where we learn of the tragedy of the ring dance:

That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not yet stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles (92).

Kundera feels this most strongly when he finds himself excluded by the French surrealist poet Éluard, who failed to try to save the Czech poet Kalandra, even after André Breton requested it of him, because he “was busy dancing in a gigantic ring between Paris, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, Sophia, and Greece, between all the socialist countries and all the world’s Communist parties, and everywhere he recited his beautiful poems about joy and brotherhood” (93). But he would not try to save the life of another.

The view of time as circular (and of time as being a fractal, as we see in the idea of the eternal return) is tragic. Time for Oedipus was circular – no matter what direction he went in, he ended up in the same place, stuck as he was in the hermeneutic circle Apollo created for him. So Oedipus quite literally returned from whence he came – and escaping from this circular time into linear time – and willing his past – is what brought about the tragedy. We can see in the Oedipus story both the apparent circularity of time (but not really, as Zarathustra repeatedly insisted – time’s circularity is not the whole story) and the willing of one’s past. But as Nietzsche points out in BT, tragedy is the Apollonian dream of the Dionysian. It may seem a strange thing, what I am getting ready to do, to use literary-philosophical (humanistic) knowledge to explain something scientific – but if we understand literature, philosophy, and science as legitimate forms of knowledge (just different perspectives on, and metaphors about, the same things), we can see it really is not (and should not be) that strange. Moods of time are ways humans can learn intuitively about the umwelts of time, and these moods are typically expressed in our art. Both science and literary/philosophical knowledge (wisdom) are ways of knowing that can be powerfully united to inform each other.

With this understanding, the circularity of time can be seen as the Dionysian experience of time, or how the Apollonian represents the Dionysian experience of time. As we have seen, the Dionysian can also be understood as the Atemporal. Rather than no time experience, then, we could instead see energy as having such a very tight circular time experience that it appears to be atemporal. Recent theories in quantum physics have dealt with the problem of everything being in phase – appearing solid rather than continually switching between particle and wave. Their solution is that the observer effect works among quantum entities, with a pair of quantum entities “observing” each other into particles when in the form of atoms and molecules. But how do atemporal packets of energy “observe” each other into probabilistic quantum entities, which “observe” each other into solid-state physics? The idea of atemporal energy having a circular experience of time solves this problem. As the universe cooled, energy quanta were able to interact with each other, and circular time experiences, coming in close proximity, became entangled, pulling their time experiences out of circularity into more forward-moving helixes. If only a few of these manage to entangle, there is the possibility that this linear time could re-collapse into circular time, that particles could collapse into waves. This is why quantum entities are probabilistic – they are blinking in and out of atemporality. This is what is called decoherence.

What makes quantum objects quantum and macroscopic objects macroscopic? It seems to have to do with the process by which quantum objects lose their quantum nature: decoherence. (In a sense, a coherent beam of light behaves like a single quantum object.) When a photon or an atom is measured, it is forced to “choose” whether it’s spin up or spin down, and at that moment, it behaves like a classical object rather than a quantum one. The quantum state decoheres. (Charles Seife, Science15 Nov. 2002, 1355)

In other words, decoherence occurs when information flows: “The bigger and warmer an object is, the more difficult it is to isolate it and prevent information from flowing from it into its environment, making it decohere more and more quickly,” which is to say, any quantum nature “disappears too quickly to measure” (1355). If we get enough entanglement, we increasingly approach solid-state physics, and increased difficulty in collapsing into complete atemporality. But the possibility does not go away completely, and any physical system will feel the push and pull of emergence and collapse – which is to say, it will have some sort of strange attractor, since strange attractors are those which both attract and repulse, pulling in, and pushing away. There is an agon between coherence and decoherence, between attraction and repulsion, which is necessary to create the world. This is physis. Attraction and repulsion are of the essence of the world. Nietzsche recognizes this as the concept of pleasure and displeasure: “The whole logic of nature then dissolves itself into a system of pleasure and displeasure. Everything snatches at pleasure and flees displeasure: that is the eternal law of nature” (“The Philosopher, PT, 98). What we call pleasure and displeasure when referring to human behavior, we call attraction and repulsion in the realm of science. Nietzsche identifies them as being scalarly similar. This constant pulsation is what generates the chaos of chaos theory. If we continue this story, one could then imagine certain entanglements giving rise to particular kinds of spirals – those chemical interactions that gave Fibonacci time-spirals would be those which could be said to be alive, or to have given rise to life. Perhaps those interactions that are for all intents and purposes irreversible make time spiral out into Fibonacci spirals rather than remain in tight helixes. This would also explain how one gets emergent properties – how life has such different properties from other forms of chemistry – since one would get emergent properties from bringing-together itself. With the emergence of human-type intelligence, where different options give rise to the appearance of possible future timelines, we then get a branching time, turning the simple fractal of the Fibonacci spiral into a more fully fractal appearance (perhaps appearing more like a Mandelbrot set or Yeats’ gyres or perhaps something we have yet to imagine).

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