Friday, October 03, 2008


Heidegger speaks of "the basic Greek experience of the Being of beings in the sense of presence" and how "Roman thought takes over the Greek words [corresponding to that experience] without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word". If the "rootlessness of Western thought begins" here, what might this mean? If the reference to the authentic experience is debased and misused down the centuries, the further we get from the source, what is the source? What does it mean? Is it because we're to understand the Greeks as the height of Western civilization, from which all else necessarily falls away? (Just as it is sometimes said that Plato "is" philosophy and the rest of philosophy merely a series of footnotes and marginalia?) No, it is perhaps because the Greeks are still within living memory of a time before civilization, before the conquest. Their concepts and experiences are still in touch with the authentic, the natural. Already, Plato is suspicious of this, suspicious of Homer, suspicious of living tradition. Consider the acknowledgement, the apologetics, in the Greeks, that civilization requires slavery, requires forceable extraction, requires this kind of violence. We resist this, but it's true. Each successive expansion forced, and forces, more and more people into a certain way of life, the maintenance of which has requried, and still requires, force and propaganda. Ultimately, we are starved of options, bereft of choices. But they knew what it was to be free, or at least knew people who knew what it was to be free.

I come out of a way of thinking in which I am conditioned to be wary of the authentic, or rather, appeals to authenticity. Perhaps we rightly mock the Authenticity Police--for example, in pop music (all those tired tropes of the authentic singer who writes his own autobiographical songs). And yet this is not quite the same thing. I notice a literature depicting a striving for the authentic, perhaps a signal characteristic of Modernism. Recall Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The narrator is obsessed with isolating those moments when he feels most alive, the truly authentic moments of existence. Of course, he's suffered a head wound and seems as if he may be insane. But what if we're the insane ones and he's finally become sane? He's finally able to see the inauthenticness of his life, our lives. In book after book, Thomas Bernhard's narrators rail against the absurdity of life. Bernhard himself is reported to have said, upon receiving a literary award, "Everything is absurd when one thinks of death." And, given that we die anyway, all of our striving, all of our expended effort, seems absurd. What's the point? But Bernhard's narrators rail most often against frauds, phonies, philistines, petty bourgeoisie, institutions--schools, hospitals, museums, the church, the state--all the accumulated, structured apparatus of civilization. What if they, these narrators, simply want to be left alone--not by themselves, literally, but free, free to live authentically in the world? What if they want to escape? Not necessarily from any society, but from the insanity of this society? What if they know they can't? What if they sense something that is unachievable because it's already been destroyed?

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