Transitoriness (Freud)

Transitoriness (by Sigmund Freud)
Original German: Vergänglichkeit

Some time ago, in the company of a taciturn friend and an already reputable and well-known young poet, I took a stroll through a thriving summer landscape. The poet admired the natural beauty around us but without delighting in it himself. It disturbed him that all this beauty was doomed to pass away, that in winter it would wane; but likewise every human beauty, every lovely and noble thing humans have created or could create. Everything he otherwise would have loved and admired seemed to him devalued by the fate of transitoriness that defined them.

We know that from the plunge into decay of all that is beautiful and perfect two different mental impulses can arise. The one leads to the painful world-weariness of the poet, the other to a rebellion against the purported fact. No, it is impossible that all the glories of nature and art, of our sensory world and the world outside, should really dissolve into nothing. It would be too senseless, too blasphemous to believe it. They must in some way be able to persist, to bear all destructive influences.

By itself this requirement of eternity is too obviously a result of our own wishful life for it to lay claim to a reality-value. And also the painful can be true. I could neither make up my mind to challenge the transience of all things, nor force an exception for the beautiful and perfect. But I did challenge the pessimistic poet, that the transience of beautiful things brings about a loss in their value.

On the contrary, an increase in value! Transcience-value is a rareness-value in time [Der Vergänglichkeitswert ist ein Seltenheitswert in der Zeit]. Limitation in the possibility of their enjoyment elevates their preciousness. I declared it incomprehensible that the thought of the transience of beautiful things should thereby spoil our delight in them. As for the beauty of nature, it comes again after every destruction through winter into the next year, and this recurrence may in relation to our lifespan be deemed an eternal one. The beauty of the human body and face we see within our own lives forever wane, but this short-livedness adds to it an extra charm. When there is a flower that blooms for one single night only, the blossom does not for that reason appear to us less splendid. That the beauty and perfection of artworks and intellectual achievements should be devalued by their temporal constraint, I am just as little able to accept. A time may come when the pictures and statues we admire today disintegrate, or a race of men succeeds us for whom the work of our poets and thinkers is no longer understood, or even a geological epoch in which all that is living on earth has fallen silent; the value of all this beauty and perfection will be determined only by its meaning for our own emotional lives, does not need to outlive it, and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

I held these considerations to be indisputable, but I noticed that I’d made no impression on the poet and my friend. I inferred from this failure the interference of a strong affective element clouding their judgment and believed later to have found out what it was. It must have been the revolt in their minds against mourning that devalued their enjoyment of the beautiful. The idea that this beauty is fleeting gave both these sensitive souls a foretaste of mourning over its downfall, and since the mind recoils instinctively from anything painful, they felt their enjoyment of the beautiful impeded by the thought of its transitoriness.

Mourning over the loss of something we have loved or admired appears to the layperson so natural that he declares it self-evident. But to the psychologist mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena one does not clarify but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We submit that we possess a certain capacity for love, called libido, which at the beginnings of development had turned towards our own ego. Later, though actually very early on, it turns away from the ego and toward objects which we in this way, so to speak, take into our ego. When the objects are destroyed or become lost to us, our capacity for love (libido) again becomes free. It can then take other objects as substitutes or temporarily turn back toward the ego. But why this detachment [Ablösung] of the libido from its objects should be such a painful process, this we do not understand and cannot deduce at present from any hypothesis. We see only that the libido clings to its objects and does not want to give the lost ones up, even when a substitute lies ready. Such then is mourning.

The conversation with the poet took place the summer before the war. One year later the war broke in and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beautiful landscapes it tore through and the artworks it scraped up against along its way; it also broke our pride in the achievements of our culture, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hope in finally overcoming the disparities between nations and races. It sullied the lofty impartiality of our sciences, exposed our instinctual life in its nakedness, and unleashed evil spirits in us we thought we’d permanently tamed through centuries of upbringing by our noblest. It made our fatherland small again and the rest of earth once again far and remote. It robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the frailty of so many things we’d held to be enduring.

It is no surprise that our libido, thus impoverished of its objects, has with greater intensity occupied what has remained to us, and that love for the fatherland, affection for those closest to us, and pride in our common features have suddenly been reinforced. But those other, now lost goods, have they really lost all value for us because they have proven to be frail and incapable of resistance? For many among us, it seems so, but again wrongly, I think. I believe that those who think so and who seem ready for a permanent renunciation, because what is precious has not preserved itself as durable, are only in mourning over the loss. We know that grief, however painful it may be, passes spontaneously. Once it has renounced everything lost, and also spent itself, our libido is in turn free, insofar as we are still young and lively, to replace as much as possible the lost objects with ones equally or more precious. It stands to hope that it go no other way with the losses of this war. Once the initial grief has been overcome, it will be shown that our high esteem for cultural goods has not suffered under the experience of their frailty. We will rebuild everything the war had destroyed, perhaps on ground firmer and more long-lasting than before.

—Translated by Timothy Lavenz and Antonia Grousdanidou (2014)

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SEA’S WEIGHT (poems)

Please follow this link to access my poetry chapbook: Sea’s Weight by Timothy Lavenz.

All poems composed and copyrighted by Timothy Lavenz, 2018. Please share, reprint, or graffiti these poems in the world however you see fit.

My thanks go to many friends who have supported and encouraged me in my poetic efforts. The chapbook is a ‘trial run’. My intention behind distributing it is to receive as much feedback about them as I can. I am therefore open to comments, objections, problems, questions, of any sort, that anyone may have, including ‘strangers’. The comment section on this blog is a suitable place for that; or if you are in contact with me at other virtual addresses (Facebook, etc.) I am of course reachable there as well.

Thank you again for reading. May the bottle cast in sea’s weight reach heart-shore.

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On Poetry (by René Char)

ON POETRY
By René Char
Trans. Timothy Lavenz (draft)

I admit that intuition reasons and dictates orders the instant that it, carrier of keys, does not forget to make the trousseau of the embryonic forms of poetry vibrate by passing through the lofty cages where the echoes sleep, the chosen first-prodigies that, in passage, soak and fecundate them.

It befalls the poet to run aground in the course of his research on a shore where he was expected only much later, after his annihilation. Indifferent to the hostility of his entourage in the back, the poet gets organized, wears out his vigor, divides the term, fastens together the summits of wings.

The poet cannot dwell for long in the stratosphere of the Word. He must curl up in new tears and push further ahead into its order.

The poem is furious ascension; poetry, the game of dry riverbanks.

Poet custodian of the infinite faces of the living.

The poet, susceptible to exaggeration, reckons correctly in torment.

It is not worthy of the poet to mystify the lamb, to invest its wool.

Poetry is of all clear waters the one that lingers least in the reflection of its bridge.

Poetry, the future life at the interior of the requalified human. Continue reading

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Run-on Sentence

Run-On Sentence
August 9, 2018

No language can hope for anything but its own defeat. —Gregory Palamas

Everyone runs for cover in the stability of words, in their apparent capacity to define, stabilize, judge and control reality—indeed, the word’s power of ‘placing’ realities there in the first place as essences we might grasp, rendering everything in the world ‘sayable’, ‘cognizable’, ‘rational’, etc. When the latter qualities are lacking, we experience great discomfort. Words and all that comes with them—images, connotations, associations, memories, projections, assumptions, etc.—seem the remedy, mending the rips in time’s web.Words are like nature’s answer to the ‘brutal’ anxiety humans experience when they experience themselves as a question without an answer. Words seem to stretch so far, to fill so many gaps, to account for so many things, that they nearly prevent any such question from presenting itself. Yet, as everyone knows, words hardly make good on the faith we place in them, though their failure in this regard rarely leads us to lose our faith or, better yet, invent words that will be true to us. Instead, turn after turn we’re disappointed by what we can say, what we can get done through words. Often this drives us to stay within the confines of what we already know how to say; conventions that have already granted us a measure of success in the sphere of communication. This is not without consequences, however, for the reality we conceive ourselves to be living and living in.

While we would like to believe that conventions (‘ordinary language’) are just abbreviations for richer experiential realities, in reality they exert a constant framing power (‘common sense’, banal examples, lack of nuance). They exert the ‘soft power’ of ideology and conformism on our most basic understanding of life. They serve a repressive function, inducing individuals to frame their realities according to generalities, the most general categories and phrases, which are picked up socially and mimed from others with only slight variations and without any real analysis of their function or accuracy. There is comfort in that, a minimization of difference which would risk social isolation and jeopardize coherence. But in all likelihood it is also responsible for the mediocrity of most experience. What’s worse, in those rare moments when matters become crucial, elevated, rare, or of fatal importance, this more essential content feels itself forced into forms so banal and lifeless—now we become acutely aware of it, through our tears and incapacity—that it feels like it will be a betrayal to speak about it at all.

Because it is painful to not be understood, we gravitate towards words whereby we can present ourselves, our ideas, our feelings, our views on reality, with the least possible resistance to the other listener, in forms that sound ‘digestible’ to the superego in our head, the imagined listener which is, structurally, always present. These inherently ‘known’ and ‘regurgitated’ forms and contents of discourse smooth things out socially and, in the short term, grant a reprieve from tension and awkwardness amongst our fellows. But since the question is without an answer, the tension without any real equilibrium, ultimately the smoothing and soothing function of words only delays our confrontation with the unanswerable. It allows us to quickly get the desired ratiocination, conclusion, resolution, story, sense. But in the end, whether it is said out loud or held internally, something nags at us with incompleteness: the brutal anxiety of the question, dissatisfied by whatever we might have said and, moreover, conscious of the fact that perhaps no one is actually listening, or cares, or would be able to do anything even if they did care. (The drunk who, after an hour-long tirade filled with passion about some vital issue, suddenly feels overtaken with fatigue and the emptiness of the whole situation, the vanity of the moment’s rousing speech, indicates well the phenomenon at stake here.)

Even the question, ‘what is human? ‘when it aims toward knowledge, and not toward an experience of humanity at its limits—loses itself in words that aide in the evasion of the question. The formulated question masks the degree to which it relies upon words that mask the potential limitlessness of the questioning. To pursue it to the farthest limit would surely mean to experience the futility of words, the ‘final silence’ which shall engulf all of humanity, all its plans, borders, identities, histories, personalities, etc. But words, by the spell of sense they cause, protect us from their own futility which, if apprehended, could lead the mind to madness. To sense even for a moment the prospect of that abyss is to be conscripted to a lack of faith in the power of words to secure anything, to render anything finally coherent. —But what can it mean, ‘to sense even for a moment…’? Unless perhaps it is a stab of pain, our senses are already mediated by languages, learned behaviors, cultures of response, fears, the ‘sociality’ we inhabit. To sense something ‘outside’ is to sense nothing at all, save perhaps the torment of being without voice, without words, condemned to insufficiency (but how shall that express itself?). Such ‘muteness’ or impotence is what words, in daily animation, normally keep very far at bay, legitimizing in the process, as if by default, the cover-up.

Words in sum make it possible to take the ‘self’ out of play—to no longer risk it, to save it from the questioning that would consume it and drive it to the limit of its anguish. Religion, politics, opinion, banter, even interpersonal relation, are often in service of such psychological purposes: to save us from the collapse of collective and personal story, from an exposure to the nonidentical, to a world which is inherently without order, to objects which do not obey the claims words place on them. These discourses serve the mind as stop-gap measures, plugs against the on-rush of disparity and disunity. This comes long before their degree of truth can be evaluated: they satisfy a need to be ‘covered’, ‘insured’ as beings against the flux that engulfs them. Different discourses stabilize chaos differently, logic things together differently. They assert a uniformity of interpretation over the manifold; allow things to be counted for ‘what they are’ according to the language system; give us occasions to justfiy our acts in light of extant circumstances; etc. ‘Ordinary language’, of course, accomplishes this to a certain degree, through the various games we play with it. But there are language games that produce unique experiences, even if this is only achieved by the power of suggestion.

A crisis of faith in God, for example, has as much to do with the viability of a certain manner of language as it might have to do with the metaphysical question of God’s existence (which after all cannot be posed without words, though this inquiry too culimates in silence and a ‘cloud of unknowing’). Furthermore, despite its propensity to be entangled in conceptual and terminological quarrels (also attesting to language’s predominance), all great theology insists upon the primacy of prayer. And what does prayer do? It establishes, in a highly practical fashion, that a common language exists between the believer and the Absolute who is addressed by the prayer. Jesus’ instruction to pray to God like he is our ‘papa’ draws attention to this fact and means to render this relationship intimate and personal. Holiness begins and ends with prayer because it is only through prayer that a ‘dialogue’ with God is kept open, such that the ‘promptings of the spirit’ can be discerned.

No believer expects to know God in full, but without some understanding of God as a partner in prayer, belief really would be just empty words—words meant to prove to others that one is a believer, which is a much different ‘language game’ than prayer itself is. Just as one can forget how to talk to a friend with whom one has fallen out of contact, prayer is a matter of repetition and habit, indeed of ‘staying in touch’ with God through the continual address. Paul instructs the believer to ‘pray ceaselessly’ and to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ who was, after all, the Word made flesh. Anyone who rolls the dice with such a ‘linguistic practice’ knows just how quickly God begins to loom and overwhelm as an ‘interlocutor’. This does not necessitate God ‘talking back’—what’s relevant here is just prayer as a use of language and the sort of world it builds up. Noteworthy also is that, for someone who isn’t in the habit, prayer comes in moments of crisis and difficulty: when one ‘has no clue’ and ‘has no one to talk to’, yet simultaneously must ‘put words to it’, must put them to someone who will hear them. After all, that’s the guarantee of God: a listener who understands you better than you will ever understand yourself, who guides those who rely on him to the goal of religious life: to be “known as I am known.”

Rarely can a human put up with silence for long, even if it seems divine. A thought, a determination, an inclination, will always spring up from the depths of whatever repose, whatever quietude. And this is only right, according to the interrogation that we are, the reflection without which we would just be functionaries or minerals. The equivalent on our level of the addage, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, must be something like, ‘Sense abhors a silence’. The void wants to be stuffed full of words, sounds, colors, sensations, thoughts; sometimes all these help us articulate the question, though we should not deceive ourselves that it is a question that might be answered through such means. Otherwise, that void is embraced to the point of surrendering to one’s own nothingness, as in certain forms of jhana yoga or self-emptying prayer.

But even the yogi ‘returns to language’. The monk comes forth from his retreat and writes, teaches. Nothing impedes or condemns the words that flow here, for silence has not meant futility, but the plenitude of God who fills our silence with his own. God either guarantees purpose, thus at a minimum solving the question theoretically; or God nullifies the self so thoroughly that no space is left for a question. In either case, the self as limitless interrogation, as ungrounded desire, as disappointed futility, tends to be taken out of play, ‘saved’. (It should be asked here what purposes of ‘cover up’ *this* interpretation of silence, as expressive of a peaceful and inextinguishable infinity, may serve. For here eternal silence is a consolation, rather than the horror that it also is. Without the faith that God secures all being despite it being suspended over an abyss, consolation could only revert back—or advance to—anguish and ecstasy over the unanswerable. Matters here are not easy, since it is very often those who are in the most direct contact with divine matters who experience most acutely and painfully the abyss. As Henri de Lubac put it, faith and atheism are separated by a hairsbreadth; and Christianity takes as its model a god who dies, God abandoned by God, but I digress.)

“Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” “What is the truth, but a lie agreed upon.” So did Nietzsche phrase it emphatically. But it must be understood as a polemic against every form of ‘running for cover’. His intention is clear: to destroy the illusions which protect humanity from a more difficult confrontation with truth, where the measure of greatness is how much one is willing to suffer for it, and where feelings of blessedness or consolation are no guarantee. “That the destruction of an illusion does not produce truth—but only one more piece of ignorance, an extension of our ’empty space’, an increase of our ‘desert’—” This indicates not a ‘relativism’ of interpretations, which would just be one more cover-up, but rather the difficulty of the task, which necessitates having an experience of language and humanity at the limit of their collapse and futility—the running-on forever of a life sentence. Nietzsche’s hope was that from out of that experience, the conventional beliefs which produce mediocrity could be razed to the ground and new goals be set. My hope is more modest: that we put everyday a little bit more of our risked self at play in our speech.

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On Poetry [Owls at Dawn]

I sat down last month (May 2019) with the guys at the Owls at Dawn podcast (go support them here!), this time to discuss poetry and read some poems. Listen to the whole episode here: More Than Words: On Poetry w/ Tim Lavenz.

Most of my comments were improvised – some probably in need of correction – all of it probably in need of going into more depth. But the guys make a great show and I always feel like I get to say the essentials of what I wanted to say. I learn from their questions and responses.

Toward the end I read Paul Celan’s ‘So Many Constellations’ and my own poem ‘Trouble in Paradise’.

As time allows, I’ll re-listen to the show and fill in this post with corrections and elaborations. Also happy to field any questions in the comment section and incorporate them here.

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On Messianity [Owls at Dawn]

Last Spring I sat down with Austin Smidt for the Owls at Dawn podcast (go support them here!) and talked about my research into Messianity. Listen to the whole episode now live on their site: Non- or post-religious messianism w/ Tim Lavenz

As time allows, I’ll re-listen to the show and fill in this post with corrections and elaborations. Also happy to field any questions in the comment section and incorporate them here.

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Mysticism and Trash

Trash is what can no longer be submitted to the productive process but can only be eliminated, incinerated, buried, and so on. Trash can be viewed as a metaphor for the ‘uselessness’ of religious/spiritual knowledge as it stands from the prospective of capitalism and its logic of objects and value; and as a metaphor for the devaluing of mysticism as it stands from the perspective of our scientific, ‘enlightened’ times.

In most cases trash continues materially to exist, only out of sight. This ‘invisibility’ effects in no way the consequences its continued existence may have. Such may be the case for mysticism as well, one could surmise, and perhaps even with as much ‘omnipresence’ as trash.

An interest in mysticism is then aligned with the rejection of submission to the productive process or dominant economy. It is a useless activity – whether by reinvesting the register of taboo pleasure as Bataille seems to – or if it rejects the premise of consumption and attachment to productivity, namely, desire. This includes the desire to durate, to ‘last’ in social time as an individual self with past, present, and future. The living corpse of the mystic as garbage bag.

The mystic, as one whose happiness is found in union with God alone, could be positioned as the extreme of a negation of the commerce of ‘goods’, the circulation of mundane values, and so on. Being essentially indifferent to time, the mystic is like a plastic sac blowing in the wind, or an old cigarette butt discarded in the street. Retaining the mark of having been produced by human labor, as a disposable ‘by-product’ of civilizational advance, it has arrived at an odd, almost ‘post-human’ point. Returned to nature, yet as potential contaminant of all cosmic and cosmetic order, not natural; yet also not participating, particularly, in culture and history; and so only non-consumable refuse, a stand-in perhaps for God’s refusal of all the designs of man, a mirror of eternal dust. Silence: the wasteland of a breath that won’t sell…

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