....whereas the resurrection of Christ in a sense breaks the bonds of the social order that crucifies, so as to inaugurate a new history, a new city, whose story is told along the infinite axis of divine peace, the religious dynamism of Attic tragedy has the form of a closed circle; it reinforces the civic order it puts into question, by placing that order within a context of cosmic violence that demonstrates not only the limits but the necessity ofthe city's regime.
These irresoluble contradictions within moral order belong often to a civic order of injustice, which tragedy dissimulates by displacing the responsibility for civic violence to a metaphysical horizon of cosmic violence; the sacrificial structure of the polis is presented as the sacrificial order of the world.
Perhaps, however, it is just this mythos - this pagan metanarrative of ontological violence - that the Christian narrative has from its beginning rejected, and against which it must pose itself as an alternative wisdom. Greek tragedy, as a gnosis, a vision of truth, is a particularly alluring feature of a particular linguistic economy, a narrative of being according to which the cosmos is primordially a conflict of irreconcilable forces, embraced within the overarching violence of fate; and the wisdom it imparts is one of accommodation, resignation before the unsynthesizable abyss of being, a willingness on the part of the spectator to turn back toward the polis as a refuge from the turmoils of a hostile universe, reconciled to its regime and its prudential violences, its martial logic.
From my Washington Examiner magazine review of Roberto Calasso's latest book, The Celestial Hunter:
In The Celestial Hunter, Calasso has blended philosophy, myth, theology, and literary analysis to create a masterpiece of what Friedrich Nietzsche called "impure thought," described by Calasso in an interview as "a kind of thought where abstractions are so mixed with the facts of life that you can’t disentangle them." The eighth installment of Calasso's decadeslong project to map the origins of human consciousness, The Celestial Hunter is essentially about the role that hunting played in man’s understanding of his self and his place in the world. It was the act of killing from a distance, Calasso maintains, that led not only to “thought that for the first time felt no need to be presented as a story,” but to an overpowering blend of guilt and reverence for the killed animal, which culminated in the complexity of culture itself.
You’re both talking about a vision of human flourishing and of the common good that grows out of Christianity. But in a pluralistic society, can this Christian vision be translated into politics?
West: The Christian way of life allows us to look unflinchingly at the wretchedness in the human condition, and still emerge with joy, with a commitment to perseverance. Happiness in the modern sense is not really part of Christian discourse. The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But that’s a secular influence. When it comes to spiritual food, I don’t really go to brothers like Thomas Jefferson. When you’re committed to trying to love people, really trying to be a neighbor, then you run into W. H. Auden’s wonderful question: How do you learn to love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart? That’s the call, that’s what’s demanded, that’s the wretchedness that we must look at unflinchingly. But it doesn’t turn you into a nihilist, or to revenge or hatred. What’s on the other side is following Jesus: “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
George: Human flourishing has got to be something more substantial than just “happiness” considered as a pleasant psychological state that might be induced by serotonin-stimulating drugs, or hedonistic living, or by wielding power over others. We are embodied creatures who are also rational souls. And we can make choices that advance our flourishing in our physical and intellectual lives. We can eat well; we can think carefully; we can nurture our relationships with family members and friends; we can appreciate excellence in literature, music, art and architecture, sports, and other domains; we can delight in the beauty of nature; we can love and honor God. We can make choices that define our character.
You will have seen art from the Edo Period—its most recognizable images are the ukiyo-e prints: mass-produced woodblock scenes of popular entertainment and Japanese landscapes, the most world-famous of which is Katushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa from 1829. These prints were ubiquitous, disseminated through the city’s pleasure quarters, and sold, it’s colloquially said, as cheaply as a second helping of noodles. And before Edo Japan opened up to the world and these inexpensive prints were splashed all over Europe, they were bought almost exclusively as souvenirs by a growing Japanese middle class, a pictorial keepsake of insular pride. The Great Wave is itself an amalgam of some of Japan’s most distinctive characteristics, illustrating its relationship with the spiritual anchor of Mount Fuji, and with the sea itself, which is embodied in both the quotidian economics of the fishing industry, and in the Buddhist philosophy of a wave’s impermanence.
Yet these small-scale, delicate, disposable prints comprise only a fraction of the art from the period and what is on offer at “Painting Edo,” which speaks to the scale and scope of this exhibition. It is the largest special exhibition ever mounted at the Harvard Art Museum, and the one hundred and twenty objects presented span multiple painting schools that thrived during the Edo Period: from the deliberately amateur style of the Literati School, to the sumptuous golds of the patronized Kano School, to the subtly layered breaths of cloud and mountain landscape painting, to the whole condensed narratives revealed in the arc of a fan. These almost endlessly unfurling galleries might feel daunting if the objects and their presentation didn’t create such intimacy, the ample wall space and generous cases allowing scrolls and screens to fully display exquisite details that invite you to stay close.
Without hardcore, it’s hard for me to imagine punk lasting for as long as it has. Hardcore is an entirely bottom-up enterprise, implemented by virtue of its being needed. The wider culture cannot provide for everyone, try as it might. Some people want a certain sound, a certain social experience, a certain way of thinking that the wider culture cannot or refuses to comprehend. In that event, those who want it need to make it themselves. Hardcore, and by extension punk, is an ongoing process of creation and correction. Black Flag and Bad Brains built the world and forged the language; Fugazi, Sub Pop Records, and others made every punk a citizen. Punk thrives less because it is weird than because it is right. It is less about a lifestyle than it is about living, to the best of one’s ability, what one believes to be absolute.
Why is it that the most powerful American art is outsider art? Of course, we don’t have the same sort of government patronage for artists that European countries do, so more of our artists are “outsiders” by definition. But our artists seem to thrive in this harsh cultural landscape, which provides the pressure through which eccentricity is formed into aesthetic diamonds. It was Moby Dick, after all, that ended Herman Melville’s career as a writer. The book was his white whale, dragging him down into an obscurity that only ended when an Englishman, D.H. Lawrence, began to champion Moby Dick in the early 20th century.
The trick to being remembered, it seems, is for the artist to remain half-forgotten, quietly smoldering away in the hinterlands while letting his or her work give off an occult heat, drawing in the sensitive.
The Digital City disabuses its citizens of a key myth that structured our shared political space: that modern institutions are neutral, that they enjoy a god’s-eye view of reality. The modern scientific enterprise, the press, the university, the justice system, the free market, the technological systems that ordered the modern world, even reason itself were understood as neutral instruments of the common good. In the Digital City, the neutrality of the common good, and so the very notion of the common good, are called into question. The clearest symptom of this may be the mounting challenges to the traditional liberal order and its key institutions, as well as the sudden and dramatic disrepute of the idea of centrism and political compromise.
In the Digital City, it is increasingly difficult to believe in the neutrality or objectivity of these institutions. This is not because arguments against the liberal order have won the day. Indeed, to believe as much would be to assume that the Analog City still rules. Rather, our trouble believing in neutrality is in part because of the new arrangement of social relations through digital media, which sustains the proliferation of niche identities and brings these into volatile proximity with one another. This new social order is hyper-pluralistic, a place of ceaseless and irresolvable conflict. Our identities take shape as we self-select into ever more narrow subcultures, and we are then drawn together in public forums lacking a sense of a greater whole to which we might all belong.
The effect is a deeper experience of plurality, without any countervailing centripetal forces. Sundered into multiplicity and without recourse to a common narrative thread, we are bereft of a view of the world held in common. Civility, consensus, and compromise take on the character of fantasies entertained by the naïve or foisted on the public by a self-interested elite.
The coming of global information networks deepened Taleb’s concern. He reserved a special impatience for economists who saw these networks as stabilizing—who thought that the average thought or action, derived from an ever-widening group, would produce an increasingly tolerable standard—and who believed that crowds had wisdom, and bigger crowds more wisdom. Thus networked, institutional buyers and sellers were supposed to produce more rational markets, a supposition that seemed to justify the deregulation of derivatives, in 2000, which helped accelerate the crash of 2008.
As Taleb told me, “The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.
covid-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor