Overweening Generalist

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 2

Vico: Writing Oddly to Deflect Attention?
Vico seems to be writing in an intellectual backwater (although his immediate social world seems fascinating, but perhaps beyond the scope of what my topic is now) of Naples under the Church and its Inquisition, which was everywhere around Naples. He seems to have been a humanist with desire to believe in Catholicism, but he had read Lucretius deeply as a budding scholar and this pagan idea of people evolving from more basic forms in an atomistic universe had a very deep hold on him. He seems to have been a strange, isolated genius far ahead of his time, which was probably dangerous. If he had allies - and he did - they kept quiet about what Vico was really getting at. Berlin writes in an essay on the "Divorce Between the Sciences and Humanities" (collected in The Proper Study of Mankind) that Vico's "mind was not analytical and scientific but literary and intuitive." Years later the scholar Anthony Grafton asserted that, despite Vico's wish to preserve scholastic metaphysics, he was steeped deeply in Descartes and Bacon, and indeed, his magnum opus looks like an attempt to do for social knowledge what Isaac Newton had recently done for scientific knowledge. Grafton avers, "Despite his dislike of the new natural philosophy, Vico learned a vast amount from its prophets."

Vico's Jews
One of the "funniest" (and I mean that in at least two semantic senses) of Vico's moves is his take on the place of Jews in human history. Early on in his great melange, under "Establishing Principles," Vico states:

The true God founded Judaism on the prohibition of divination. By contrast, all the pagan nations sprang from the practice of divination. This axiom is one of the principle reasons why the world of ancient nations was divided into Jews and pagans. 

This idea is found throughout The New Science. The Jews are directly under the dispensation of God; all the rest of us are descended from (get this) Giants, as found in the OT, after the Flood, and who are still around, sightings of Bigfoot being the proof. Jews are of smaller stature, which shows they are not descended from the postdiluvian story. The pagans, after the Flood, wandered the forests of the world, mute and stupid, shitting everywhere and having sex indiscriminately, until a few families with strong, heroic fathers, settled down and started farming and villages, which turned into cities. And every now and then savages would wander in from the jungle or forest and seek refuge from the solitary, nasty, brutish life in the wilderness. And they were basically slaves in the early city-states. But I leave so much out.

Vico's Non-Reception 
Okay, so this bit about the Jews and pagans: What did the Inquisition think? We don't know, because Vico published his first version on his Newtonian historical sociology in 1725 and they probably didn't know what to make of it. (As many modern readers in 2011?) He financed its printing by selling a ring, and it appears it fell dead from the press. Who read it then? Jean Le Clerc was a big-time journalist, so Vico sent a copy to him, hoping for a good review. Nothing. Same with the copy he sent to Sir Isaac Newton.  He revised his Great Book furiously - in great manic burst of energy - over the years, published it again in 1730, to no acclaim. I think he must have started to feel persecuted by oblivious, probably malign forces. He assumed other intellectuals in Naples thought he was a madman. The final version, in 1744, the year he died, is a sprawling mess of wonderful insight for the dedicated reader. He appears to have slowly sank into a madness, whether of poverty and neglect, paranoia and persecution, or maybe he slowly fell into High Weirdness due to the effects of a serious head wound he suffered when falling off a high ladder in his father's bookshop as a youngster. He'd written a letter brimming with bitterness near the end of his life in which he said he expected nothing from his native city except a complete isolation, which allowed him to work hard at putting his Great Work together.

A Gloss on Vico: Language and Law and Class Warfare Through the Ages
When the Fathers of large, settled families needed to keep their children in line they used religion and violence. It was harsh, but it worked. When stragglers from the forests or countryside asked for protection, they were put to hard work. The Fathers grew richer and found it useful to use religion and violence against the stragglers too. Soon previously isolated Fathers and their sons and extended families met other villages and Fathers. They found they had things in common, including private Law. As these families made common cause, their private law became public Law. Far more important than fighting each other, they knew they must fight the new class of refugee-straggler-outsider-slave-plebe. The private law of the Fathers became the public law of the Aristocrats. There was no "social contract;" Vico believed the development of reason was too far in the offing.

Much of what was private law seems still public law to this day: The Fathers were originally the priests, so they read the auspices and said what god had told them, in whatever the mode of communication. The priests were the Fathers were the Wise were the Kings were the Lawmakers. They were the Heroes who valiantly protected the family from Monsters. They said who was allowed to own the land and profit by it. For Vico, Law is a form of Severe Poetry. (Why "poetry"? The answer, like everything when discussing Vico, is complex.) In section #444, Vico says, "Generally speaking, metaphor makes up the bulk of vocabulary in all languages."And as Cognitive Neurosemantics is showing in studies done in our day, metaphors are the atoms of thought and language. If the Nobles were allowed to name (note what "noble" means to us, to this day) and to make the laws and to say what God really wants, what does this imply about political control?

For a brief sketch of how the banded plebes gained rights from the severe Noble Gentes, read Vico under "Establishing Principles," numbers 40-45, in which he courses from the Law of the Twelve Tables through the Second Punic War. From there, throughout the long book, one must read very carefully when Vico talks about changes in history, law and punishment. No wonder he has something for seemingly every political persuasion under the sun! He's crafty, diffuse, obtuse and vague just enough.

                                       Here's a painting of Vico, who though he died in 1744, 
                                                    seems to be coming into his own only now.

A Sufi Fits Here
Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj the sufi-mystic was executed - crucified and dismembered - in Baghdad in 922 AD. "He propounded the principle of complementarity[...] as in the Ying Yang disc, black and white embrace and contain sparks of each other embedded within themselves. In one sense God is everything and Iblis (cognate with what we'd call "Satan"- OG) nothing; yet God cannot be realized as the Beloved without a lover, even and especially a tragic lover, one doomed to separation." Satan was required for divine unity, according to Hallaj. For proclaiming this openly - that "evil" needs its opposite, he was killed. Another sufi, Ahmad al-Ghazzali agreed with Hallaj, but avoided execution, and Peter Lamborn Wilson thinks it was because yes, Ahmad had a powerful orthodox sufi brother, but also: Ahmad avoided execution "by the very density of his mystical language."-p.89, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam

Esoteric Groups: According to Robert Anton Wilson
Wilson was interviewed in 1989 and David Jay Brown asked him this question, after Wilson said that secrecy impedes the flow of information and therefore slows the growth of real wealth, which is about know-how, know-what and not money:

DJB: Why do you think it is then, that it took so long for occult knowledge to come out of secrecy into the open?

RAW: Well, that's largely because of the Catholic Church. Anybody who spoke too frankly for many centuries was burned at the stake. So the alchemists, hermeticists, Illuminati and other groups learned to speak in codes.

DJB: So you think it was fear of persecution, rather than a feeling that most people weren't "ready" for the information quite yet?

RAW: Well, I think that's a rationalization. You can't find out who's ready, except by distributing the information. Then you find out who's ready. - p.113, Mavericks of the Mind: Conversations For The New Millenium

Evading Authorities: William S. Burroughs
One could blog day after day on just the subject of Burroughs and his ideas about language. But in an introduction to an omnibus edition of WSB's work, Ann Douglas writes that "Burroughs' early style was founded on drug lingo and jive talk; he was fascinated by their mutability, their fugitive quality, the result of the pressure their speakers were under to dodge authority and leave no records behind. His later work elaborates and complicates this principle. No one form of language can hold center stage for long. Fast-change artistry is all; sustained domination is impossible." - p. xxiv, Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader

A Passage From Peter Dale Scott
And for what? Should we simply accept 
             that (as the court historian
     Nebrija wrote in his dedication

to Queen Isabella of Spain)
              language is the instrument of empire?
    I ask these questions

not out of hopelessness
             but pondering my own role
     and that of those I trusted

in today's cunning of reason
-p.179, Minding The Darkness: A Poem for the Year 2000

Question here: if language is the instrument of empire, how is/was it encoded? Why do so many Murrkins not even agree Unistat is, has been, an empire? When the evidence is stupendously overwhelming?

Magick and Philosophers in the Renaissance
Frances Yates reiterates over and over in her magisterial Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition that philosophers interested in magic must be careful: theirs is the "good magic" as distinguished from what the Ruling Class and the masses believed was a "bad" type. Furthermore, all the good types of magic emanated from the foreseers of Christianity, or even from Moses himself!

You could get away with this for only so long. Even John Dee, Elizabeth's court astrologer and one of the great Mages of all time, had his library ransacked by the mob. Bruno himself was "terribly burned" at the stake in February of 1600. Bruno wrote in code, but he spoke in perhaps too direct a manner, and to the wrong people, for too long. The Inquisition wiped him out, and Vico knew very well about this.
I could go on and on and on with examples. Pushkin? Shostakovich? William Blake? Ovid? Shelley? Perhaps I will go on, but I will admit: it's not "fun" blog-reading...


SatoriGuy said...

I definitely agree that that language has been used to keep everyone confined in the "black iron prison" of our stratified society. Although, it's hard to gauge whether it has come to be this way out by some sort of conscious conspiracy by the ruling elites or by some more complex set of social factors.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Alan Watt's Psychotherapy East & West, and he has definitely got me thinking about how the English language has contradictions built into the fundamentals of our speech and hence, our thinking. Ultimately, resulting in a kind of mass delusion in "egoistic" thinking.
"Here then, is the major contradiction in the rules of the social game. The members of the game are to play as if they were independent agents but they are not to know they are playing as if. It is explicit that the individual is self determining but implicit that he is so only by virtue of the rules...The rules of the game confer independence and take it away at the same time without revealing the contradiction."

michael said...

When I was writing these two (incoherent?) blog posts, I was thinking of Watts. He knew he had a few really meaty passages on language/history/assumptions about "reality" that were radical, but I didn't know exactly where. That's a fine quote you gave and gives the flavor of so much of his other thinking on this subject.

I think - I guess - there's a "conscious conspiracy" by a very small handful of select Wizards working for either side; for almost everyone else it seems not conscious.

Vico more often emphasizes that different historical epochs are so different from each other that it's mostly unconscious. But there are readings of him that assume he's Burying the Bone deep: the Ruling Class are always doing class warfare against everyone else, whether in the Iliad or Hobbes. I admit it's a particularly creative misreading (in the sense that all readings are misreadings, or we get into the hairy problem of some One performing The best reading) but I am using intuition.

SatoriGuy said...

I'll definitely have to pick up some Vico reading material. Since he seems to have influenced some of my heroes such as RAW, Joyce, Beckett, McLuhan et. al..Although, I'm sure my local chain bookstore won't be carrying anything by Vico.

michael said...

Finding a copy of The New Science should be easy, used. Also his Autobiography, which is really one of the first modern autobios; he was asked to write it as instruction to youth. It's really good, underrated, in my opinion. Then there's On The Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians;n The Study Methods of Our Times; and On Humanistic Education.

He's not easy, but it's a challenge to read him he's so dense and odd and wonderful. It's like reading Ulysses for the first time: not easy, but you start to get the feeling, the rhythms, when Vico or Joyce are on some very weighty topic and we might want to consult some secondary sources, etc.

In these recent blog spews I briefly touched on what I see as a neglected aspect of Vico among his critics, and it was very difficult and I don't think I did an adequate job. Maybe I'll keep at it, maybe not.

The aspects of sympathetic reading of history, the anti-rationalistic approach, the famous "verum-factum," and the cyclical model of history are much easier Vichian topics for elucidation, to my mind.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

SAT question: "Einstein is to Newton as ______ is to Vico.
a. Robert Anton Wilson
b. Michael Johnson
c. John Lee Hooker
d. _____________"

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Vico's New Science and Against the Day both have a five part structure.

Paul Schrader's essay on the film canon uses Harold Bloom's The Western Canon as its model, and Bloom bases his structure on Vico. http://paulschrader.org/articles/pdf/2006-FilmComment_Schrader.pdf

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I strongly suggest Bob Wilson would have loved this blog post and this blog in general. Great work.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I really like your point about "good magick" in Yates. I love Yates's books, but I disagree with her about The Tempest. I just can't see Prospero as a "good" magician. I have this problem with a lot of pre-1950 Shakespeare criticism. In our post-colonial world, I have a great deal of sympathy for Caliban whom Prospero enslaves and tortures. I don't see Prospero as particularly "good." I have the same problem with Mark Van Doren's essay on The Tempest, and I love the alternative vision of the play given by Leslie Fiedler in The Stranger in Shakespeare.

Yes, yes, please go on and on about Shostakovich, Blake, Ovid and Shelley, etc., all heros of mine, although I've yet to read Pushkin.

michael said...

I'd go Einstein is to Newton what RAW is to Vico.

I don't think I've read Shrader on the canon. Shrader-->Harold Bloom--->Vico. Interesting!

You've read much (much) more on The Tempest than I have, but I have always considered the role of Caliban as...a noisy signal. As dissonance. My nervous system still needs to make sense of it, resolve the dissonance. I think I'll start with Fiedler.

Your kind words are much appreciated, Royal Eric.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I love that Schrader essay, although I don't agree with all of it. I like how seriously he took his task of creating a canon.

I just reread Fiedler's The Stranger in Shakespeare. He analyzes the role of four outsiders in Shakespeare: the woman as outsider in 1 Henry VI, the Jew as outsider in The Merchant of Venice, the Moor as outsider in Othello, and the savage as outsider in The Tempest.

Oz Fritz said...

I've wanted to read " The New Science" ever since I heard Wilson say that it was to "Finnegans Wake" what "The Odyssey" is to "Ulysses." Thanks for giving Vico a face for me, I knew absolutely nothing about him.

michael said...

@Royal Academy of Wagner Reality:

I hope to get to Fiedler's book The Stranger in Shakespeare AND Shrader's essay on the film canon in 2012. OR: I could just watch Orson Welles in The Stranger and Shrader's Taxi Driver again.

michael said...

@Oz Fritz: you're in for some wild history reading, but if you have the time to give to hermetic-like texts (and when I read your blog I think you know how to read this stuff well - it should be quite rewarding. Vico seems wonderfully, psychedelically weird to me. And profound...RAW seems to have favored the first trans of The New Science, by Bergin and Fisch. I have enjoyed Dave Marsh's translation.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I first heard of Fielder in an interview with Phil Farmer. In the early 80's I only valued writing about poetry by poets. I then read a piece on Pound and Frost by Fiedler and realized that non-poets could also have some cool insights into poetry.

michael said...

@Sir 1132: There's a documentary called The Stone Reader, about a guy (sorta like a RAWphile some of us know) who remembered reading a big fat novel that really blew him away. No one else seemed to know the book or the writer. So he eventually tracks him down. It's a wonderful doc on fans of obscure but "great" writers who for some reason never caught on. I mention it because when I flipped my mental rolodex after seeing "Fiedler" I thought of the Extras on the DVD: Leslie with Buckley on Firing Line, holding his own.

Also: I noted Saul Bellow's last novel, a roman a clef about his friend Allan Bloom (who I found absolutely creepy, and someone who could've stood in for Mortimer Adler in Illuminatus!); Saul Bellow said about Fiedler, "the worst fucking thing that has ever happened to American literature." Which makes me REALLY want to get more into Fiedler!

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I haven't read much Fiedler. Bob Wilson liked his book about Native Americans in American literature whose name I've forgotten. I enjoyed Fiedler's essays on Huck Finn, Gatsby, and Ulysses (the last from "Fiedler on the Roof).