Tag Archives: concealment

Martin Heidegger – Letter on Humanism (1947)

Page numbers are from Basic Writings (Harper, 2008)

An answer to the question: Comment redonner un sens au mot “Humansime?” Heidegger will question from the start whether we should maintain the word at all. He begins by explicating, more clearly than usual, the relationship between thinking and being. Thinking is an action. The essence of action is accomplishment of what already exists (not cause-effect) as unfolding. Thinking “accomplishes” the relationship between Being and man, because in thinking, Being comes to language. “Language is the house of being.” For thinking to be real thinking, it must stay in its “element,” and its element is Being.  The quiet power of the possible is Being itself: “to enable something here means to preserve its essence, to maintain it in its element” (220).Ok, so maintaining thinking within being preserves thinking as potential.if it goes out of its element (i.e., into the public realm), it becomes mere techne.

Now Heidegger dives into this element via the notions of CARE and EK-SISTENCE, both which characterize the ways in which man “stands-out” into the truth of being,  an ecstatic quality that differentiates him from animals and all other things. Man sustains Da-sein in that he takes the Da, the clearing of Being, into care (231). That is, Dasein’s positionedness in a world becomes an element with the care-structure that determines worldly relations. I’m not totally sure how this connects with the discourse of proximity, but I’m pretty sure that this clearing is space in which man becomes being’s neighbor, as Heidegger will famously write (245). Man is “more” than merely human, to the degree that more is not additive, but more “originally”:

Man, as the existing counter-throw of being, is more animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with man conceived from subjectivity. Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this “less”; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being into the preservation of Being’s truth. (245)

Ok, this links up in all sort of interesting ways to Levinas’s notion of proximity. Determining the difference should take place via temporality (time of death v. time of the other). Heidegger is basically trying to articulate the essence of the human as neither the liberal subject nor the public man. “Humanism” should be thought in terms of nearness to being.

Heidegger believes that thinking in this manner–not overcoming but “climbing down” from the heights of metaphysics to the “nearest nearest”–is the “recollection of Being,” which exists before thought divides into practical and theoretical spheres. “Such thinking has no result. It has no effect. it satisfies its essence in that it is” (259). However, this mode of thought, that which attends itself to the clearing of Being (not solely to man as the ego cogito), as surpassing all praxis:

Thinking towers above action and production, not through the grandeur of its achievement and not as consequence of its effect, but through the humbleness of its inconsequential accomplishment. (262)

Indeed, the problem according to Heidegger is “quantitative.” We need to recognize the inconsequentiality of our “accomplishment” (as the unfolding of what already is) and the limits of philosophical thought: “less philosophy, but more attentiveness in thinking; less literature, but more cultivation of the letter” (265).



Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


Oscar Wilde – “The Critic as Artist” (1891)

Another socratic dialogue, this time between Gilbert (the smart progressive one) and Ernest (the not so bright dullard). Gilbert argues for the relevance of criticism, claiming that there have been critical ages without creativity, but never a creative age without criticism; because criticism and self-consciousness are one. The critic’s relation to art is the same as that between the artist and the real world. We need both. Yet criticism does not need to be directed solely at an object. It’s purest form is subjective: directed at the self: it “seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another” (1028). Thus criticism takes on its own aesthetic beauty as it unfurls its own opposition between subject and object. The Critic’s job is to see in the object what the object is not: the non-identical fragment is nothing other than inexpressible, non-signifying Beauty. (1030).

The second part deals with the relationship between aesthetic and ethics. Aesthetic is higher than ethics, because the latter is merely the precondition for the former. He draws an explicit connection to Darwin’s division between natural and sexual selection. Relate this to Mill. Thus the role of the critic is both ethical and aesthetic. Slightly revising Arnold (who says that criticism shapes the intellectual atmosphere of the age) Wilde argues that it also fine tunes one’s intellectual capacity. Criticism is the means by which “Humanity can become conscious of the point at which it has arrived” (1055). It makes us cosmopolitan, etc.

Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species (1859)

Important topics:

The difference between natural selection and sexual selection. Gets taken up by Mill in On Liberty to distinguish the role of government: on the one hand, the rigorous respect for individual growth, and the processes of selection which occur through discourse and conversation.

Species vs. individual: Darwin refuses the fixed category of a species. It is merely a name for a set of creatures that resemble one another. This will trouble, eventually, the division between man and animal.

The tiny sublime: in Darwin, the sublime becomes infinitesimally small: “Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small modifications, each profitable to the preserved being.” This follows the extended discussion of domestication, the visible  and invisible, man’s ability to see or not, etc. Connect to the broader topics of the secret: small, inhering in change, transformation. Connect this to the larger topic of transition, historical, aesthetic and otherwise. Also connect to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where the “author” claims that the “beginning” of any story is arbitrary because the units of experience can be cut up into infinitely tiny pieces, thus making the discovery of some originary cause impossible.

The domestic: good way to start a conversation about domestic fiction more broadly. Written in 1859, so in the midst of later Dickens (Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) and the same year as Collins’ Woman in White. Darwin’s argument is that man can select for the purposes of domestic farming, but that no man can see the processes of “natural” selection. “Man can act only on external and visible characters: Nature cares nothing for Appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being” (65).  As evidence, he shows that domesticated animals revert back to a state of nature when released into the wild, returning to certain instinctual patterns that are inexplicable within the parameters set by human understanding.  Interesting to talk about Wuthering Heights as presaging this work on domestication.

“Perfection” – argues, just as Ruskin does in The Nature of the Gothic” that nothing in nature, nothing living, can be held to the standards of human or aesthetic perfection: nevertheless, these processes recur as the very thing judged according to the beautiful…and as constitutive of that very beauty.

Geological record: as an imperfect text that tells the history of mankind extending beyond mankind, in languages that are not our own. Relate this to the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

The Tree Of Life as an analogy for the development of the world–i.e. dead branches fall off, new ones replace them, and the tree keeps growing. Connect this with the notion of perfection and the aesthetic more generally. What is metaphor accomplishing for Darwin? How does this relate to wonder? How does the shift the conversation from worries about the dry and mechanical, to one of beauty and wonder.


Thomas Huxley: “a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond.”

Cathy Gallagher on The Body Economic: distinguishes between bioeconmic plots (how political economies circulate Life) and somaeconomic plots — how accounts of pleasure and pain, unhappiness, desire, exhaustion, etc. stimulate bio plots and are in turned transformed by them. Central paradox: “the social body is growing old precisely insofar as the actual demographic proportions of the society are increasingly weighted towards youth, since, under optimal conditions, each generation would be twice as large as the generation preceding it. For Malthus to make sense, the body/society homology needs to be considered as a body/society opposition.”

George Levine: distinguishes Darwin studies from Literary Darwinsimsm; among other points, talks about hwo Darwin inspires wonder and not dry mechanical reducitonism. Everything signifies beyond itself, infinitely but immanently.

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

A “rewrite” of Jane Eyre, this novel tells the back-story of Bertha Rochester (Antoinette Cosway) before she is locked in the attic at Thornfield. Antoinette is a white creole living in Jamiaca, the daughter of a slave-owner and a mother who is purportedly crazy. Her nurse/maid  is Christophine, who plays a similar roll to St. John Rivers (neither novel can fully contain their stories). At a young age, Antoinette’s house is burnt down, following the Emancipation of slaves. After a brief sejour in a convent (her mother has moved to the countryside) her step-father Mr. Mason “provides for her” by arranging a marriage between her an unnamed man from England, presumably Mr. Rochester. He narrates the second part of the novel, which tells of their marriage that goes through a honeymoon phase before souring completely. Rochester has married for money, and now he feels the burden of having what some angry quack has called a “madwoman.” He readily adopts these fears, believing that Antoinette, Christophine and the entire Jamaican landscape harbor the secret that will destroy him (the secret turns out to be nothing other than the violence of colonial slavery). Antoinette, whom he violently renames Bertha, want shim to love her, so has Christophine (who practices the magical obeah) give him a “love potion” that makes him sick.  Ant moves with Christophine to some place in the countryside where she attempts to recover from an illness. The third section opens with Antoinette now narrating. She is in England, being nursed and jailed by Grace Poole. She  assaults he step-brother Richard Mason after he does not “recognize” her. She then burns down the house, but not before seeing herself in the mirror as the ghost that haunts Thornfield Hall.

As re-writing of Jane Eyre, the political consequences of Rhys’ novel cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives a face and history to a character that, in the original, was merely a “madwoman in the attic” that needed to be repressed for Jane’s emergence as chaste, moral, properly feminine, etc. But Spivak argues, convincingly, that such an argument appropriates the form of individualization that radical feminism, and critique more generally, should unsettle or reject. In Spivak’s reading, Bertha self-immolates so that Jane can emerge as the individualized feminist heroine  of European literature. The true Other, Christophine, remains outside this circuit of Western literature, the dialogue between literary feminists, because she is not just a white Creole, but a servant that is displaced from her home country Martinique from the very beginning.

Interesting endpoint for looking at the trope of the looking-glass. Antoinette sees herself in Tia just as the latter the latter throw a rock at her head. She herself in the eyes of the other. What are the ethical stakes of this identification. How does it differ from the self-recognition that occurs at the end of the novel, where Antoinette sees herself as the necessary sacrifice for the emergence of Jane Eyre/Jane Eyre? Connect to Wilde’s comments on cracked looking-glass, Joyce on cracked looking glass, and deKoven on mirrors, water, etc.

Mother-daughter text – Rhys’ novel is the daughter text that seeks to be the mother text. Compare to Zadie Smith’s rewriting of Howard’s End.

Literary history – the patronymic in the form of English literature is eaten away as Rochester scans the decaying book collection at the old mansion.

Narration – Rochester granted the role of narrator for all of second part. Does this render him sympathetic? Perhaps. Talk about the novel as Antoinette’s “quest” for a voice. The opening section’s voice is able to ventriloquize the thoughts of the town itself…the voice of the third section has fully imbricated itself into a text that has already been written. How qualified is that power of writing? Connect to the emergence of Stephen’s voice at the end of Portrait.

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Starts off with Utterson and Enfield taking their weekly walk. Enfield tells a story of his randomly coming home from some “end of the world” and seeing Hyde turna  corner and trample a young girl in the street (contingency of the urban). He offers to pay the family 10 pounds but gives them a 100 pound check signed by Jekyll. Utterson, who knows that Jekyll has recently signed over hsi entire will to Hyde, is worried. He hunts down Hyde, who turns out to be hideous, and asks for his address, which Hyde gives him. Jekyll tells Utterson not to worry. The circle of bachelors hang out quite a bit until one day Jekyll, who has laid off the potion that transforms him into Hyde, buckles under the pressure and kills an MP by the name of Carew. Investigation ensues but the murderer has vanished and only the broken cane is found in Jekyll’s apartment. More time passes has Jekyll tries to ameliorate himself…he employs his friend Lanyon to help him procure the potion that transforms Hyde back into Jekyll. Lanyon suddenly dies of shock. Eventually Utterson breaks into Jekyll’s laboratory to find Hyde dead in Jekyll’s clothes, with a letter that explains everything that happened. Jekyll had started to be overwhelmed by the potion, turning into Hyde in mid-day. He eventually ran out of potion. Jekyll’s narrative ends by saying he does not know what will happen with Hyde, but that his life is over.

Can think of Hyde as the creature of Dr. Frankenstein in a post-Darwinian age. He is in this sense simple the product of Dr. Jekyll: he is the product of his society (the “species”): we can think of this “splitting” as the harmful bifurcation that occurs in organisms as they evolve. [Relate this to Ruskin’s worries that men are being “split” because they are disallowed freedom in “Nature of the Gothic,” and also to Hopkins “splitting,” which reduces the variety of the world into black and white, right and wrong.] Adrian Poole (2005) says that Hyde is specifically the product of the ‘patriarchy’ that dominates the tale. The community is composed almsot exclusively of childless men: Hyde as returned of the repressed à la Picture of Dorian Gray? Problematic.

Formally, is is a short story, a novel, or a novella? Poole argues that Stevenson wanted to “explode” the categories of fiction because he thought the Jamesian dictum–“Art imitates Life”–was bunk; instead, Stevenson’s story etched down to the bare minimum, and beyond, with ellipses, inexplicable entrances and exits, unanswered plot questions, etc.

Urban Space – The city throws people together by chance and the creation of a story ensues: relate to Poe and Dickens: man of the crowd. Can begin to talk about a “geography of chance” in relation to Darwinian evolution: how Darwin migrates the city. Compare portrait of urban space in Dr. Jekyll and Picture of Dorian Gray.

Transcendental Science vs. Material Science : Wallace vs. Darwin : Jekyll vs. Lanyon. A debate over explanations of species variation and the intervention of “God.”

Jekyll the narrator from the end can see all, and Jekyll in the present, while seeing less, still sees more than Hyde. Jekyll can hide from Hyde’s narrative, but Hyde can never hide from Jekyll. Can talk about the power of concealment. Relate to the “becoming-intense” of the secret.

Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (1900)

Marlow tells the story of Jim, whom he first sees in a court room, being tried for jumping off the Patna even though the Patna did not sink. Jim is torn up over this because he has romantic ideals that he tries but cannot fulfill–but it’s actually not so clear, since at times it seems that it is simply Marlow attempting to write Jim in to a heroic story. Jim is disgraced but Marlow and his friend Stein get him a job on the island Patuma, which is wehre he become “Lord Jim.” He rids the island of competition, meets a woman named Jewel, and is well liked and respected by all the natives. However, some guy named Brown shows up and tries to take the island over. Jim drives him away, but Brown manages to sabotage a group of islanders before leaving, killing the king Doramin’s son. Jim resigns himself to his fate, and his shot by Doramin.

The epiphany in Conrad, and the impossibility of representation. Contrast the following descriptions of Jim’s face with the knoweldge conveyed in Kurtz’s “the horror!” What is the different statuses of knowledge? In Lord Jim, the chinese box narration withholds clarity all together, retrospective and otherwise:

To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the gloom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence. (chapter six)

The muscles round his lips contracted into an unconscious something violent, short-lived, and illuminating like a twist of lightning that admits the eye for instant into the secret convolutions of a cloud. (chapter ten)

He heard me out with his head on one side, and I had another glimpse through a rent in the mist in which he moved and had his being. (chapter eleven)

It is hard to tell you what precisely she wanted to wrest from me. Obviously it would be something very simple—the simplest impossibility in the world; as, for instance, the exact description of a cloud. (chapter thirty-two)

A good opportunity to talk about narrative vs. story, and about the readerly contracts necessary for creating a distance between the narrative and the story. So Marlow keeps saying “one of us” (connect to Forster’s ONE and Ford’s GOOD PEOPLE) as a way of implicating the reader in the Western tradition of the quest, for example:  Marlow is attempting to show the reader that that narrative is appropriate to the story.

Stein and the butterflies, rendered as aesthetic objects. Talk about Jim as a butterfly of sorts.

The trope of the abyss: here it is first and foremost an abyss of non-meaning. Track how this differs from both New Grub Street and Howard’s End.