…the philosophy of grief

cote mom

Hi Brandon,

I read Rachel Vorona Cote’s article before I replied with a few initial thoughts. She is a wonderful writer. I will use this in Ф of D&D class for its relevancy & accessibility.

…yes, this has a number of philosophical points to consider—namely the similarities & differences between an online ‘life’ vs the rest of life. The virtual space of social media is not to be mistaken for a face to face meeting. Yet, our presence online has aspects of it that are likewise real and expressive. In short, we experience things online and via social-media. Experience here is qualified with a thoughtful comparison between experiencing a loved-one’s death in person as different from learning of someone’s death on Twitter. Both instances are experiential. The grieving continues to be experienced in the rich metaphysical filters of memory, time, self, relation. Yet to be experienced online, the suffering of our physical bodies must be transcended by the virtual and keyboarded mediation of grief’s relentlessly unresolved expression. No grieving is complete or completely rational. This admission delimits a full adequacy of emotion, experience, and expression, virtually or non-virtually. Online life is still a life, grieving or not grieving. Life is always incomplete.

I like that Cote avoids condemning the practice of online mourning. She makes it clear that an online expression of grief is not the same as a person to person sharing of grief, nevertheless she recognizes advantages. Her grieving blurs the lines of virtual reality ambiguously interlocked with non-virtual reality. I see her grieving has important aesthetic components of a 21st century ars moriendi, showing that her mother led a good life with her loving daughter by way of JPEGs is an emotionally reflective experience for those who had emotional contact with Cole’s mother. They likewise are touched, 100s of miles away, and by those of us now who read of her mother’s death. We too share and experience mourning with her in front of our laptops. To recognize that grief that is digitally filtered is still grief is an expansion of experience. Even today, the ancient themes of death and experience continue to be the immanent ground of philosophical contemplation. If death is a limitation of life, then in life we ironically imbue death with experience, virtually, written and spoken. It is odd that this contemplation of death has the advantage of showing us the philosophical value of our online experiences.

Conatus,

Aurelio Madrid

…on the stoic attitude toward death

Stoicism-2

After reading through the homework I did get, I see good answers to the problem of death for the Stoics. My emphasis for the class will often air on the side of philosophy rather than just description. In other words, it is one thing to describe the Stoic as one who is somewhat indifferent to death, and it is another thing to suggest that the Stoic does not care about death. Both of these statements are observations and a description of a Stoic attitude toward death. What I am looking for has more to do with the philosophy behind the description. That a Stoic is not afraid or does not care about death is only a description.

Why is the Stoic not afraid of death? Why does the Stoic appear to not care about death? Let’s take the last question first. We have to assume that to not care about death would be problematic for the Stoic, because to not care would mean that one would not be careful about death. So we have to ask ourselves if the Stoic is careless or non-caring about death. Probably not, given that a Stoic would have to take a deep consideration for death in order to have a better understanding of his/her life.

Asking again, why is the Stoic unafraid of death? How do we move beyond just a descriptive account? The Stoic is rational, and a rational goal of life is to be virtuous, then this life must also be understood as finite. Therefore, we need to face our own death to lead a virtuous life. So with this step, a Stoic reasons about the relationship between life and death and sees it rationally as a matter of assent rather than just fearing death.

As we see, to reason that death is inevitable is one part of the idea. The other part has to do with the notion of assent, or better said control. Once the Stoic acknowledges mortality, the Stoic has to also make the choice, to give assent to how to feel about the inevitability of death. The Stoic is rational, the Stoic knows that they will die someday, therefore it does not make sense to be fearful of something that is inevitable. To not be fearful requires that the Stoic make a conscious choice to no longer be fearful. To be fearful would be unvirtuous, given that the fear of death is uncourageous.

When we look to the philosophy of Stoicism and the attitude toward death, be sure to not just describe that they had a Stoical attitude toward death, rather work to explain how this works philosophically for the Stoic in terms of choice (&/or assent).

–aurelio madrid

…notes on tolstoy’s death of ivan ilyich

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…notes on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

If a confrontation of our personal existence is said to be existential, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych from the 1880s is a poignant account of a confrontation with Ivan’s life by way of his impending death.[1] Although this is a fictional account, it serves as an allegory for our confrontation with mortality. Perhaps the existential allegory is to urge us into recognizing that the life we face & look back on when we are about to die, should be of concern for us now, today as we read it. Tolstoy’s story becomes a moral lesson since it teaches us that the thought of one’s quickly approaching death enforces an evaluation of the life we’ve led up until then. One unfortunate feature of this confrontation is that life runs out faster than we can do anything to revise our actions up till then.  Life can be wasted away.

More than ¾ through Tolstoy’s recounting of Ivan’s steady decline, Ivan recalls a familiar example of deductive logic:

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Caius is a man

Conclusion: Caius is mortal

As philosophy students we usually introduced to this with  Socrates’ name in the place of Caius (a.k.a. Julius Ceasar).

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Socrates is a man

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

So the logical argument is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true in all cases. A deductive argument is generally said to argue from the general to the specific. When we examine the premises of the argument as true, the conclusion is sound (not merely valid). In other words, the premise all men are mortal is true. Albeit sexist in its antiquity, such statements are better thought of nowadays as: all humans are mortal. Nevertheless arguing that men and women are mortal does not invalidate the logic—no doubt, men are mortal as much as women, children, &c. (these points are for another paper). Nevertheless, we cannot deny this argument. This is one thing we can take for-granted: we all must die one day. This is irrefutable, yet in health we often feel we have some distance to its cold logic. This distance is what Ivan Ilych suddenly has the existential proximity to with the fresh threat of his own death in sharp focus. As Ivan thinks of this in revelatory horror, “And it cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too awful.”[2] Caius is mortal, Socrates is mortal, everyone is mortal & the simple cold logic is that we are mortal too. Today we update the argument like so:

Premise: All humans are mortal

Premise: I am human

Conclusion: I am mortal

When we think of this logic we are introducing ourselves to basic logic in philosophy class. Logically, we know it’s is a sound argument, there’s no argument against it. We do not live forever, but death seems to always come for someone else, not ours, or at least not now in the classroom, or while we’re reading this. We often feel that death will not come for some time in the far distant future.

Ivan’s looming death puts his life up till then into sharp focus causing him to look helplessly forward to his inescapable decline. His existential crisis is our existential crisis only if we are keen to its significance before it’s too late. His life was for the most part unhappy save a game of bridge here & there in the name of enjoying friendships. He had an upstanding job as a judge which brought him negligible fulfillment. His marriage was clouded with petty discord. The beginning of his decline happens when he falls off a ladder decorating his home as an aspiration of popular bourgeoisie taste.

Tolstoy’s moral lesson is an exhortation for us to live authentic lives. To be authentic is to take ownership of one’s life instead of obliging our behavior around the expectation of others. Death sharpens our focus on life. It is up to us to face mortality as a way to inspire us to lead a life we can value when we face death authentically, soundly & honestly.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, edited by George Strade (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).

[2] Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilych, 122.

…on unamuno’s tragic sense of life

library unamunoNotes on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

Unamuno’s 1912 book Tragic Sense of Life is an early expression of Spanish & European existentialism. Why do we propose Unamuno is an existentialist?—because he was concerned with existence, our corporeal existence. To conclude that a thinker is existentialist, we make the claim that their philosophy bases itself in the concerns of existence. If we are to come to an understanding of our lives as an existentialist, we must come to that understanding within the context of our own living & breathing existence.

In Unamuno’s 2nd chapter, he clearly defines what he means by the term a ‘tragic sense of life,’ “For living is one thing and knowing is another; and, as we shall see, perhaps there is such an opposition between the two that we may say that everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational, and that everything rational is anti-vital.”[1] This diagram separates Unamuno’s opposition with notes on what this must imply [my additions]:

unamuno tragic sense of life opposition

Now let’s unfold this seemingly simple proposition. On one hand we have that which is vital & anti-rational, life-force (indeed the life force named by Spinoza, a.k.a. conatus), existence, & the like. On the other hand, we have that which is rational which is not corporeal, it is objective, universal & timeless. Given these two polarities, we must not forget that they are opposed, they are in contradiction. If these two elements are in opposition, this opposition is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life.’

The ever-present well-worn philosophical opposition between the mind & the body is where we should center our attention. This is Descartes’ dualism. The mind is separate from the body. As Unamuno demonstrates, Descartes “cogito ergo sum” is not so much a direction toward the ego, rather “I am thinking” first & foremost. I am thinking beyond the body when I am engaged in rational thought. Descartes’ certainty rests in rational thought, not in the body (since for Descartes, the two were distinctly separate, notwithstanding the complexity of trying to justify how the two intermix, that’s somewhere in another paper).

For Unamuno, we reason through an understanding of our existence something like this:

unamuno death Rational thought sets up a way of thinking about death whereby we find ourselves in a “tragic” bind between “irredeemable despair” or the redemption of dying otherwise. Perhaps this is the promise of an eternal afterlife? We cannot know either way & hence our mortal despair. Rational thought pulls us away from the body by way of such philosophical thinking, objective, mathematical & scientific ways of thinking.

Another way of thinking about this would be to posit that the thinking person wishes to sees her mind as beyond the body & at the time of death if that mind moves on through the soul into eternity then she should aspire to this aim throughout her life until her death. This is found in religious practice & also by way of philosophical thinking. Why wouldn’t we aspire for eternity? Nevertheless, our fallible bodies are flesh & blood & not eternal. Reason posits eternity & we want eternity with our corporeal bodies & cannot have it. This is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ a problem of our embodied existence with this strange admixture of conatus + the body vs. reason + eternity, without resolution, a contradiction, a problem of our existential finitude.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (Sophia Omni, 2014), 47.

death & socrates

the dying socrates

Mark Matveyevich Antokolski, The Dying Socrates, 1875.

Socrates died 2,412 years ago by drinking hemlock.[1] The account of the trial that lead to his death sentence is famously documented by Plato in the Apology and also by Xenophon in his Apology. In the introduction to Xenophon’s two works, Raymond Larson tells us that Plato’s account of the trial was probably first hand, whereas Xenophon’s account was through the secondary source of a mutual friend of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, a man named Hermogenes (17). Although the two accounts differ in certain respects, when combined, they offer the only historical records of the trial. For this paper we’ll focus on the relevance of death and how mortality relates to the philosophy of Socrates.

The way we understand Socrates is by knowing that he died doing philosophy. He was officially charged with impiety (asebeia/ἀσέβεια) and for corrupting the youth of Athens. But, it was also because he was making himself known by calling into question the widely held beliefs of those who would be offended when shown their opinions were wrong. The emphasis here will not be to focus on the charges or the trial outright, instead we will look at the attitude Socrates takes toward death itself in the two Apologies and how his unique way of contending and discussing death philosophically expands our own concepts surrounding end-of-life matters. It is in the extraordinary way in which Socrates eloquently speaks of death (thanatos/θάνατος) that inspires readers with his courage, fortitude and wisdom. He was willing to die for his cause, rather then to live into old age with compromise.

As we all know Plato’s Apology is replete with references to death, probably because Socrates knew that he’d be given the death sentence. Not only does he seem to know that his death was immanent, but he extends the meaning of it to demonstrate that the fear of death is comparable to ignorance.

For the fear of death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem wise, but to not be so. For it is to seem to know what one does not know: no one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils (29a-b).

C.D.C. Reeve in his book on the Apology rightly compares this statement to what he calls “the Digression” (180). This alignment is made with the celebrated ‘digressive’ statement made earlier in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates claims to not be wise and that to be wiser one has to know what one doesn’t know (21b-d). All this is essentially and slyly positioned by Socrates to demonstrate a vital component of Socratic wisdom: know what you don’t know, or at least be cognizant of the fact that there are things that one can be ignorant of. This extends to the ultimate awareness about what we do know, in the sense that sometimes what we think we know more than we do and this might actually be a way to conceal a fundamental ignorance. So how, according to Socrates, can we know that death is something to be feared since we don’t know what happens after death? As we can see, this illustrates a typical problem and habit we have with fearing most of what we cannot understand, in this mindset, things that we don’t understand are things to fear, at least if we are ignorant of the fact that we need not always fear the unknowable, as with the benign things that are unfamiliar or even death itself. Not only do we fear death, but we also fear ignorance itself. It is for this reason that we often wish to conceal ignorance and death at all costs. So, the underlying lesson in the dual example of death and not being wise is manifold. To be wise, is to embrace your own ignorance, at least to the extent that you’re aware of it enough to know when you’re hiding behind knowing something when you really don’t. And it also shows that the fear of death is not something to avoid, but is something to face with fresh eyes, since it’s ultimately inevitable. Socrates cleverly demonstrates that the unknowability of death can disclose these things.

Xenophon’s Apology, as mentioned, does differ from Plato’s, it’s considerably shorter and it also depicts Socrates as having a slightly more down-to-earth attitude toward the issue of his impending death. For Xenophon’s Socrates, death is a welcome avoidance of the infirmities one would possibly have to endure with as old age advances.

But now, if my life continues, I know I’ll have to pay the price of old age […] What pleasure will I get out of life if I see myself deteriorating and reproach myself for it? […] A person is bound to be missed if he passes away with a healthy body and a soul capable of amiability. […] I’ll offend the jury and choose death like a free man rather than slavishly beg for the worthless gain of continued life (6-9).

Here, in Xenophon’s account, as it was conveyed to him by Hermogenes, Socrates almost suggests that to beg for life would be cowardly. It should be evident why death would appear to be the better option, because he would be dying for his cause. As Socrates attested near the end of Xenophon’s account, “I never harmed anyone or made anyone bad […] I helped those I conversed with by freely teaching them every good I was able” (26). It is for these seemingly simple reasons that we are still remembering Socrates—he was a great teacher. In our contemporary era this example seems too quick, it is as if he’s too eager to die. Nowadays we do not hesitate to think in terms of clinging to life at all costs. No matter what, death is always to be avoided. Socrates presents us with an alternatively extreme view that sometimes death is better than life. We must advocate such a view with caution and without any haste, but we do know that the untimely death of a wise man can serve to emphasize his altruistic and noble cause to do philosophy. We still think of Socrates as wise and that he died for his cause.

To continue on this thantic theme, we should include a few more things that shouldn’t be left out. We’ll be sure to recall the oft-repeated quote given by Socrates toward the end of Plato’s Apology after the jury has found him guilty and he is asked to give a ‘counterproposal’ to a possible death sentence. As Socrates speaks, he mildly suggests a possible exile where he would continue his work and the young would listen to his teachings and his way of doing philosophy (37d). He continues with the conviction that even in exile he wouldn’t stop “…conversing and examining both myself and others—and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being…” (38a). Although he is not explicitly speaking of death in this quote, the implication is too strong to ignore. Again, to paraphrase, Socrates is positioning the claim that if one doesn’t actively examine, interrogate and inquire about life and how to live it, he is better off dead. This idea demonstrates his predicament as much as it shows his wisdom. If he is (and, as we know he will be) presented with the death sentence, he can no longer practice his work of doing philosophy, therefore, he can no longer examine life, since he might be asked to keep silent in exile. The lesson is not lost on us either, if we are to truly live an examined life we much inquire, question and examine life as much as we can. Curiosity is at the base of this suggestion. All we have to do is act with a similar conviction to know more about life.

As the trial unfolds in Plato’s Apology, he is in fact, given the death sentence to drink the poisonous hemlock and then he gives his pensive closing remarks. Now that he knows his fate, he has no regrets about the way he defended himself “I prefer to die having made my defense speech in this way than to live in that way” (38e). When he says that he didn’t want ‘to live in that way’ he must have meant that he is proud that he didn’t have to grovel nor beg for his life. This connects with Xenophon’s record to show that Socrates was not willing to compromise his values at any expense, thereby setting a laudable example for the people of Athens and for posterity.

There is another strangely appropriate quote in Plato’s retelling where Socrates is continuing to talk after the death penalty is read, this is where he is sorting through the notion that escape from death could have been a possibility for him had he made a stronger more eloquent plea and defense. “But I suspect it is not hard, men, to escape death, but it is much harder to escape villainy. For it runs faster than death” (39a-b). This is easily directed at his accusers and the percentage of the jury who condemned him to die. The villainy of deciding that someone should die for showing people the truth is not as far-fetched as it sounds on the surface. We already know that sometimes people don’t like to be told the truth of things, namely if the truth is made to expose their ignorance, since we don’t like to be shown to not know something. Villainy is typically characterized as evil, crafty and deceitful, among other things. If we think just for a second about these qualities in comparison to what Socrates is saying, we see his point. People are quick to judge others, it’s easy to find flaw with someone else and it is easy to misinterpret things if we’re not thinking carefully. But villainy calls for darker motives, it’s faster than death because it can’t stay anywhere for too long. A villain doesn’t want to be figured out so he will move with speed, yet the speed belies his deeper problem of plain old ignorance. This kind of ignorance resides in all of us and usually we’re too afraid to see it—to know it. Socrates teaches us these things and then some. His way demonstrates that we must not be afraid to say we don’t know everything, something and nothing.

To be sure, this leaves us with four more pressing questions that have already been implied. How do I contend with my own ignorance? How do I contend with my own death? Then, how does this help me contend with the ignorance of others? And what wisdom is to be had when we witness and contemplate the death of others?

Aurelio Madrid


Works Cited

Larson, Raymond. The Apology and Crito of Plato and the Apology and Syposium of Xenophon. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1980. Print.

Plato and Aristophanes. Four Texts on Socrates. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.

Reeve, C.D.C. Socrates in the Apology. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989. Print.


[1] The plant from which the hemlock Socrates is made to drink is formally known as Conium. It is a large flowering weed which resembles parsley and grows in many parts of the world, including here in Colorado.

forgetting la leyenda negra

Narratio_Regionum_indicarum_per_Hispanos_Quosdam_devastatarum_verissima_Theodore_de_Bry

one of Theodor de Bry’s illustrations for De las Casas’ “Brief Relation”

This post examines La Leyenda Negra’s origins, its subsequent problems historically, and how echoes of the legend continue to implicitly resurface through the contemporary artistic practice of Teresa Margolles. The Black Legend isn’t just a banal Hispanophobic stereotype to be reduced to a sound-bite. If anything, the Black Legend is forgotten. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has been selected to aesthetically critique a view of marginalized people who are ignored by our misunderstandings, and our over-insistent categorizations. Hispanics in America are a people hated as much as their now undervalued past is forgotten. We consistently accept the ridiculous notion that the un-white person is not regarded as from here and that the white man is unquestionably American. In our overbearing bias we indirectly avoid seeing those people whom we’re ignoring. We will not comprehend all that we avoid when we are ignorant of our own blithe avoidance unless we examine own thinking as the problem to be challenged, again and again.

“…the Black Legend had resulted in beliefs that Hispanics were inherently evil.” (Sanchez 1). The Black Legend is essentially a tired centuries-old Anglo/Protestant stereotype that cast the Spaniard’s as deceitful, sadistic, bigoted, dirty, bad-tempered, backwards, murderous, scoundrels, etc. La Leyenda Negra was already becoming a legend in the sixteenth century not long after Christopher Columbus (ca. 1451-1506) discovered America (better known then as the Indies). Friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) who was personally acquainted with Columbus, and who was one of the original Spanish settlers in the New World, wrote an unsparing account of the abuses the Indians were subjected to under the rule of the Spanish. De las Casas’ “A Short Relation of the Destruction of the Indies – Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias” solidified the claims of torture, exploitation, and the general depravity of the Spanish colonists, who already had been acquiring a bad name in Europe with their enforcement of the Spanish Inquisition (1480- ca. 1834). It’s worth noting that the “Black Legend,” in name, was not coined till the twentieth century. It was given this moniker by the Spanish journalist Julián Juderías y Loyot (1877-1918) in 1914, in his eponymously titled book that examined the Black Legend’s roots and its problems.

De las Casas’ “Short Relation” wasn’t intended to despoil Spain’s reputation, nor was it ever meant to spread hatred and bigotry. The “Short Relation” was basically a report from the New World to the Spanish crown attesting to the maltreatment of the Indians. De las Casas was a tireless advocate of the Indians, so his explicit intent was to reform the existing “Encomienda” whereby the Spaniards were self obliged to not only take possession of any land in the New World, but the Encomienda enabled them to then possess the native peoples living on that land. The “Short Relation” is generous in the details of the torture and disrespect.

“They [the Spanish] forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes.” (15)

De las Casas continues to call out the endless sadistic atrocities and indignation. His report worked, there were reforms, the Spanish crown worked hard to ameliorate their sins under the eyes of God. But, these efforts didn’t help to change what De las Casas had penned forth: a damning propagandistic report of the Spaniard’s supposed depravity in the New World. Despite of its extreme and obvious hyperbole, Spain’s European rivals ate it up. With its recent conquest of the New World, coupled with the Inquisition’s idealistic conflict with the Protestant Reformation—Spain had its jealous and non-catholic enemies in England, The Netherlands, France, etc. We need not be reminded that these foes had huge colonizing aspirations themselves, that were to eventually outmatch the Spanish, namely with the continued westward growth of the English colonies in America.

As legends go there are truths to be found and hatreds to lose. We should never give in to the notion that the Spanish were any more barbarous then the rest of the New World colonists. In his outstanding book on the subject of the Black Legend, The Tree of Hate, Philip Wayne Powell speaks of many instances where the Black Legend is used against the Spanish with thinly disguised bigotry and hypocrisy. For instance, Powell writes of the ways the English easily forget their own glaring mistreatment of the American Indian, he writes, “…our English forbears treated Indians with a callousness and cruelty every bit the equal of Spanish behavior if not worse.”(16) Of course, none of this makes mention of the infamous ill treatment of African Americans under the care of the British and the other colony-hungry Europeans of the time.

La Leyenda Negra enjoyed its popularity on through the nineteenth century, especially during the Texas Revolt (1836), Mexican-American War (1846-48), and the Spanish-American War (1898) (Sanchez 8). It is a sad irony that a Spaniard’s words (De las Casas’) would be translated and disseminated to fuel Hispanophobia, making the history of it all the more painful, especially with mindful consideration that his attempt was to help the plight of the mistreated Indians.

To be sure, the hatred itself gets forgotten. Ask the average American today about the Black Legend and you’ll get puzzled look—‘huh, what’s that?’ Yet in the same line of questioning, ask about the Hispanic presence in America, and the conversation will take a quick turn to the recent (Mexican) immigration debate. One reason this forgetful turn is so problematic is that the actual Hispanic past of the United States gets blankly ignored in the crossfire of selective memory, since if we are only categorized as recent (illegal) immigrants, then our centuries-long presence in this country is blankly erased—indeed it’s a lazy sin of omission. A 2006 New York Times article on the Black legend by Tony Horwitz attests to this reluctance to remember, “Coursing through the immigration debate is the unexamined faith that American history rests on English bedrock, or Plymouth Rock to be specific.”

Nowadays, the camouflaged bigotry rests not so much on illusions that Hispanics are deceitful, treacherous, sadistic, untrustworthy or other Black Legend lore. Today, Hispanics are hated because they’re viewed simply as (illegal) outsiders. Deeply embedded in this skewed viewpoint is another covert bias towards segments of the Hispanic population who happen to be poor and undereducated. It’s in these imperious oversights that countless people get blindsighted. It’s too simple to turn the other way when faced with those things that cause us pain; as it’s considered much easier to contemplate the so-called good life.

Teresa Margolles – “What else could we talk about?” from Lesley Punton on Vimeo.

It is in spite of all this delusion, that we turn to the contemporary art of Teresa Margolles (1963- ). Margolles’ artistic practice has to do with the contemplation of death, particularly violent Mexican death. Yes, Americans could stand to come to terms with Mexican death, including the mortal eventualities of their very own lives. Margolles helps us to see that even in death the poor are forgotten. Often, the bodies of those who have died violently disappear on the streets without a basic funeral, a memorial and without respect. Representing Mexico at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Margolles had a young man mopping a palazzo floor daily with mop water that had actual traces of blood and mud meticulously collected (by Margolles) from sites of Mexican narco-executions. The installation is titled “What else could we talk about?” In 2009 Kaelen Wilson-Goldies wrote an online piece for The National about this art work, “Margolles’ performances and installations call attention to a grim and seemingly untenable situation where demand for illicit substances meets an endless supply of violence.” In presenting an artwork where someone is mopping the floor with traces of the earth and of the corporeal body, Margolles’ art tarries with a handful of loaded metaphors. A man cleaning the floor, in itself, implies a janitorial duty that extends to a distorted American vision of Mexicans as belonging (only) to the working class. The so-called poor are not worth a second look in a scenario of exclusion. A similar prejudice affects the reality of death itself as we push its eventuality into the background far too often, mainly because it’s too damn uncomfortable to face. Yet, without a genuine recognition of death as an eventual fact, we fail to retain an authentic embrace of the inevitable. Not only is it vital to come to terms with our own mortality, but it’s also worth it to come to terms with the many who lose their lives in these marginalized conflicts, where human life is mistakenly disposed of much too casually. As much as we’re terrified to see death, we also are unable to witness the uncanny chaos of basic human suffering. De las Casas’ plaintive cry for the human rights of the Indians is brought to mind again (think of the spilt blood of the Indians). Bringing attention to those who cannot do it themselves always runs the risk of exaggeration, it can backfire, and it can easily be used against you, especially by those that detest you. But, how can we openly critique cultural bigotry, if not creatively? Little do we consider that in our striving to only pay attention to the pleasant, do we miss what’s most important—our essential humanity, our consideration for the plight others who we blindly deem as less fortunate.

It is only with a wise and introspective critique of our own consistent, personal, and cultural tendencies to discard painful history for the sake of ease, can we honestly begin to regard ignorance for what it is. Surely ignorance has to do with ignoring and this problem isn’t unique to a specific culture or ethnic group. We are all guilty of broad oversights. A question remains as to how to learn from a habit to disregard the plight of others and in the same spirit teach ourselves how to recognize the value of all people, including those who do not look like us, those who do not think like us, or those who are not as privileged as us. In De las Casas’ humanitarian effort to save the unfortunate Indians of the New World, the Black Legend was born. Its ragged remnants drag on in the American half-life of forgotten of Hispanic value. Margolles’ shows us the blood of the nameless so that we can search our collective consciousness to remember our shared ability to empathize with others. La Leyenda Negra is forgotten just as America’s Hispanic has been erased. A memory of hatred has been replaced with a consistent inability to remember.

—Aurelio Madrid

_____________________________________________

Works Cited:

De las Casas, Bartolome. A Short Relation of the Destruction of the Indies. London: Penguin Classics. 1992. Print.

Horwitz, Tony. “Immigration — and the Curse of the Black Legend.” The New York Times. July 9, 2006. Web. March 23, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/09/opinion/09horwitz.html?pagewanted=all

Powell, Philip Wayne. Tree of Hate. New York: Basic Books Inc. 1971. Print.

Sanchez, Joseph P. The Spanish Black Legend. Albuquerque: Spanish Colonial Research Center. 1990. Print

Wilson-Goldie, Kaelen. “Death in Venice.” The National. September 4, 2009, Web. March 24, 2012. http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/art/death-in-venice#full

gérard de nerval’s artemis

blood of de nerval

Gérard de Nerval  (1808 — 1855):


Artemis

(from the collection of sonnets) Les Chimères, 1854

La Treizième revient … C’est encor la première;

Et c’est toujours la seule, — ou c’est le seul moment;

Car es-tu reine, ô toi! la première ou dernière?

Es-tu roi, toi le seul ou le dernier amant?…

Aimez qui vous aima du berceau dans la bière;

Celle que j’aimai seul m’aime encor tendrement:

C’est la mort — ou la morte… O délice! ô tourment!

La rose qu’elle tient, c’est la Rose trémière.

Sainte napolitaine aux mains pleines de feux,

Rose au coeur violet, fleur de sainte Gudule:

As-tu trouvé ta croix dans le désert des cieux?

Roses blanches, tombez! vous insultez nos dieux,

Tombez, fantômes blancs, de votre ciel qui brûle:

— La sainte de l’abîme est plus sainte à mes yeux!


Artemis (Translated by A. S. Kline)

The thirteenth returns … She’s forever the first;

And always the sole one – or the sole instant;

For are you queen, O you, the first or the last?

Are you king, you the sole or the last lover?…

Love him who loved you from cradle to hearse;

She I alone loved still loves me tenderly:

She is death – or the dead one…O joy! O torment!

The rose she holds is the Rose trémiere [hollyhock].

Neapolitan saint with your hands full of fire,

Rose with violet heart, Saint Gudula’s flower:

Have you found your cross in the desert of heaven?

White roses: fall! You insult our gods,

Fall, white phantoms, from your burning skies:

She, the saint of the pit, is holier to my eyes!


Gérard de Nerval stopped living in the winter of 1855, hanging himself with an apron string in an alley near the Rue de la Vielle-Lanterne in Paris. He was an eccentric, famously known to keep a pet lobster on a blue ribbon—because the lobster knew the secrets of the sea. De Nerval was a man of letters, he was defeated in love and he was a mad-man, occasionally to be found at night wandering throughout the Paris streets naked. His many romantic failures haunted his art. Nerval’s literary work was of the finest quality, early on he was praised by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for his exceptional French translation of Faust. Although he was unusual, he avoided the glare of the spotlight, to be forever known by his darknesses, his melancholias, and his delphic evocations into dreamlike states of mind.

The small collection of sonnets (where our Artemis is found) is titled: “Les Chimères,”these chimerical monsters guide us into his world of myth. His world is not made of a single chimera; rather it’s inhabited by several chimeras. The Chimera is a composite creature with the head and body of a lioness coupled with another head of a goat and the creature is completed with a tail of a venomous snake. A chimerical vision is one of fantasy, an illusory vision. Each of de Nerval’s sonnets is its own chimera.

Chimera_di_Arezzo  chimera of arezzo

Specifically addressing this group of poems de Nerval is quoted as saying: “They are hardly more obscure than Hegel’s metaphysics or Swedenborg’s Memorabilia; and would lose their spell by being explained, if such a thing were possible.”[1] This is an official foreboding to venture further. But as the English critic Arthur Symons (1865 – 1945) wrote in 1899 of de Nerval’s work: “Truth, and especially that soul of truth which is poetry, may be reached by many roads; and a road is not necessarily misleading because it is dangerous or forbidden.”[2] De Nerval, as we learn from Symons, is classified as a French Symbolist, albeit an early forefather of the later fin de siècle artistic epoch. De Nerval is equally comparable to such mystical figures as Félicien Rops (1833 – 1898), Joséphin Péladan (1858 – 1918) and Fernand Khnopff (1858 – 1921)—to name only a few. If we are to surmise anything from this stylistic classification as a Symbolist, we can speak of it as an insistence on the interiority of vision, of indulgent dreamlike spaces, and a plethora of symbolic meanings. All of this was set into motion by de Nerval through the venue of vast literary expression. His art was an objectification of the inner world of the mind. For him this was an usually haunted vision replete with symbolic value. In the example of Artemis we find in the mythic title of the Greek virgin goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress of a myth. One could only dream of understanding the language flowers as de Nerval repeats his many symbolic guises for roses. His saints, love and death’s tenderness are complex riddles too, with no easy equivalence. We’ll look into a couple of these symbols later.

Meanwhile, since we are warned early on by de Nerval that the difficulty of “Les Chimères,”is to be on par with the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770 – 1831) and the genius-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772), we are either put off, or piqued. This admonition, if we choose to venture further, is a wry suggestion to compare the work of the two thinkers to de Nerval’s (possible) intent with the sonnets.

When we turn to Hegel, we find clues. Probably the clearest one has to do with idealism itself. Hegel was idealistic, as much as he spoke of the way idealism worked for the mind to know and to conceptualize an objective idea of the world via the spirit (the absolute spirit and the absolute idea). Even when, in the legendary preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel speaks of death,[3] it is a way that death is understood intrinsically for the mind (spirit/der geist) to know itself. We know that for Hegel all of this is dialectically tending toward reason, from there we draw the line to distinguish de Nerval’s way as markedly unsystematic and irrational. Yes, de Nerval writes of death to know death, but he does so un-dialectically, as his is not a resolution, or an absolute reconciliation with death’s rational possibilities for life. In a way de Nerval’s evocation of death happens beforeHegel’s aufheben (sublation). Then, our plainest and most general connection with Hegel and de Nerval is within their mutual idealism, their mutual way of looking into the interior landscape of consciousness to grapple with a way to know the external world. Also, it is worth noting, that de Nerval and Hegel each share in their breathtaking obscurity. The philosophical work of metaphysics is the work of the mind to know being, and to know being against the nothingness of death—therein lies the pursuit of a lifelong mystery for consciousness.

…and what about Swedenborg? The ‘Memorabilia’ to which de Nerval refers has to be in reference to the extensive later spiritual work of Swedenborg’s. This book is known also as his “Spiritual Diary” and is essentially a record of Swedenborg’s spiritual journeys. It is in these non-scientific works of Swedenborg’s where he documents his conversations with spiritual entities.[4] All of this exaltation takes place on the outskirts of reality. Like de Nerval, Swedenborg was a man of detailed visions, madness and mind-numbing erudition. The very mention of Swedenborg attests again to the mystical qualities of de Nerval’s work as it contributes to our view that “Les Chimères” is a soul-searching journey inhabited by spirits, saints, monsters and phantoms etc.

While we become weary to shovel ourselves deeper into the depths of mystery to conjur ‘meaning’ from our Artemis, we’ve also become buried in its very depths. It has been suggested that the opening stanza refers to a symbolic reference to Tarot cards[5] where the metaphoric Death card is the thirteenth card, whereby de Nerval moves to the Queen card, the Lover and then to the King cards. It’s uncanny to notice that on some well known Tarot decks Death is shown as the armored reaper on horseback carrying a black flag with an emblem of the white rose (a white rose mentioned briefly in the last stanza of Artemis). In the sonnet the fortune-telling cards usher us away into the domain of love (that loves de Nerval, the narrator) and her appellation is death. For de Nerval, apart from the card’s symbology, Death carries the hollyhock of fertility; let’s recall that the goddess Artemis symbolizes fertility too. Death’s connection to fertility is an ancient motif that carries with it the circularity of birth and death.

death card XII: the Death card.

Continuing through the symbolic visions of the poem, it is tough to find any reference to de Nerval’s ‘Neapolitan saint’ whose hands are full of fire. We’ll content ourselves with this as de Nerval’s personal emblem and one of infernal deviation. St. Gudula’s flower is bizarrely a kind of rare mushroom variety[6] that ‘blooms’ in the month of January. Other varieties of mushroom in the Tremella family are known as “witches butter.”[7] The potentially dismal last line of Artemis: “— La sainte de l’abîme est plus sainte à mes yeux!” is dramatic enough to let us know that this isn’t a Christian poem. L’abîme is often translated as pit or abyss. With this in mind, and in a less satanic key, we look to Swedenborg again. In his book: Rational Psychology there is a passage about the mysteries of the human body as a never-ending source of marvel, and then we find a telling quote: “Nature is an abyss, as it were, and naught remains but amazement.”[8] Nature’s depths attract the imaginative powers of the mystic.

As a uniquely malevolent evocation Artemis works on the troubled psyche to imagine the abysmal limits of art. In the same envisioning, one is inclined to give it the redemptive qualities it deserves. When we fear to look at mortality, its symbols and our own dark-night-of-soul, we are vengeful of death in the promise of heaven. This is a hellish desert in the heart of heaven while we search for the salvation of the cross, even as the intimacy of our irrational finality awaits us all. But whose god deserves the insult of roses when the sky burns? When we ask for meaning, let us be extra careful to not exclude the multivalence of that which cannot be uttered or disclosed in totality. A universe of signs only hints at the comprehensiveness of logic’s limits. Art contains a symbolic disclosure of our afflictions—these tragic epiphanies, this plaintive cry.

—Aurelio Madrid

Artémis – Diamanda Galás


[1] De Nerval, Gérard: The Chimeras. Trans. Peter Jay. Redding Ridge, CT: Black Swan Books. 1984. p.9.

[2] Symons, Athur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: Dutton. 1958 (orig. pub. 1899). p. 17.

[3] Hegel, G.W.F. Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. Yirmiyahi Yovel. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton U. Press. 2005. pp. 127-128. This important passage on death is worth quoting at length: “The activity of dissolution is the force and work of understanding, which is the greatest and most wondrous power—indeed it is the ultimate power. The circle, which rests enclosed in itself and holds it moments in the immediate relation of substance, provokes no sense of wonder. But that the accidental in detachment from its surrounding—the accidental as such, that connected [entity] which is actual only in mutual dependence with others—should gain its unique existence and a separate freedom, this is the colossal power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, the pure I. Death (if we wish to give that name to nonactuality) is the most awesome thing of all; and upholding the dead requires the greatest force. A powerless beauty hates the understanding, because the understanding expects it to do what it cannot. But the life of the spirit is not a life that shuns death and bewares destruction, keeping clean of it; it is a life that bears death and maintains itself it.”

[4] See: Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision. Eds. Robin Larson, Stephen Larson, James F. Lawrence, William Ross Wooffenden. New York: Swedenborg Foundation Inc. 1988.

[5] Burwick, Frederick. Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State U. 1996. p. 250.

http://books.google.com/books?id=M39-oYlJce0C&pg=PA250&dq=nerval+artemis&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QBA3T6TXGO-GsALe36miAg&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=nerval%20artemis&f=false

[6] “St. Gudula’s lantern” (tremella deliquescens): http://raf.dessins.free.fr/2bgal/img.php?id_img=11171

[7] See: Wikipedia entry for Tremella: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremella

[8] Op. cit. p. 489.