…on the stoic attitude toward death


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


…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


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):


(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.


[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.


Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality – an Introduction, vol. 1” (trans. Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, 1990, orig. pub. Fr. 1973) is focused on the history & discourses of sex—re: technologies of the self, knowledge, & power. Georges Bataille’s “Eroticism: Sensuality & Death” (trans. ?, Walker & Co., 1992, orig. pub. Fr. 1962) is where Bataille stakes a claim for transgressive thought from a philosophical/mystical theory on the shared taboos of eroticism, death, the sacred &c.

foucault blueMichel Foucault

Let’s start with Foucault, who looks to the social relationships organized around the individual. He looks to the way ‘discourses manage, produce, regulate, deploy, incite’ the sexuality of the subject. The subject’s sexuality is proposed as the object of study & subjectively as s/he internalizes relationships of power. This broad category of sexual discourse includes ethics of conduct around sexual practice & how we view other’s sexual ethics. All of this discourse on sexuality centers on the acquisition/goal of truth. Getting to the truth of the secrets of sex requires a confession. This pursuit of truth is a feature of the power/knowledge relationship of the subject & namely the institutions of power i.e. the medical, judicial, law-enforcement, scientific, psychological & religious practice, to name a few. Often we are defined by our sexuality & society ‘helps’ define that—a not so readily recognized pattern, since we might often think our sexuality is simply our own, only to be shared intimately with another & nothing else beyond that. The sex act is to be differentiated from sexuality. Sexuality is ours & also a discourse of others as the subject of particular specialization, scrutiny & examination (re: scientia sexualis, H.of S.vol.1/53). All forms of sexuality & desire work intricately together as a power play, from the bedroom, to the way families are organized, sexual norms as the way they are implemented & conscripted on our bodies, practice, behavior, & ultimately the basic sexual rules that are followed in accordance to a prevailing discourse. This complex discursive array construes the sex act & sexuality radiates from there. The discourse of sexuality concerns methods of categorization from the perceived norms onto those that deviate from the standard, as perversities, defects, aberrations, & abnormalities, these are all scrutinized spoken of under the rubric of truth. “Normal’ is a regulation of control, a ‘no’ to whatever falls outside the ever-changing norm. The truths of sex change throughout  time. Yesteryear’s standards seem outdated soon enough to have an attitude change that will become the prevailing way we see/judge each other in a sexualized context. So not only is sexuality physical, but through language, it participates in the discursive practice—a dominant attitude.

foucault_upper bodyFoucault’s body

For Foucault the naming & classifying, categorizing of sexual aberrations did not have the effect of eradicating such behaviors, rather these were ‘incitements’. In the 17th & 18th centuries the punishments & cures for such perversions aided the way these sexualities have been defined & have manifested into how they are relegated, thus enhancing what that difference is. Remember, prison did little to silence the Marquis de Sade. Individuals, along with the offending sex-acts, find themselves in the discourse, born out of the Christian emphasis on simply punishing the sin, the individual becomes the patient, criminal, &/or just someone to fix. Foucault’s study of sexuality is a history with its psychological & ethical implications. A key idea to keep in mind has to do with Foucault’s discussion of the ‘repressive hypothesis’ where he works to unveil any habit that imagines that: since the Victorian age, sexuality has been repressed & silenced. Foucault deftly explains that sexuality was/is not repressed, as much as it has been endlessly elaborated about & as he named, it becomes: a discourse. This discourse is in large part what regulates sexuality for the subject overtly & covertly. How the discourses began had to do with the confession. Starting with the actual Christian confessional & its rules offering of the confession of ‘sinful acts’ in accord with their requisite penitential duties & so forth, as the confessional model is easily carried over to a secular context of the secrets disclosed to the analyst, law enforcement, a researcher, journalist, friends & family. The expertise that is deployed to study & understand sex is then what becomes the standard by which we measure ourselves sexually, or at least, in terms of positioning a sexual identity.

The ways of assimilating the knowledge & truth of sex address issues of knowledge & power. The various discourses have disciplinary power over the subject. This normalization of sexuality is tied into Foucault’s notion of ‘bio-power’ where the body is managed throughout the predominant discourse. Generally, populations are managed as groups from a discourse that’s less about sin & centered on health (a managing of the organic body), i.e.: the discourse on being overweight & getting thinner is better for your health. We already know that historically such body norms were not always the case. The norms are fundamentally internalized & self-regulating. ‘Modes of subjectification’ & ‘techniques of the self’ sometimes work to radicalize norms to the effect that rebellion is an unwelcome development that’ll reject easy implementation of codes of behavior, thus transforming into a new mode of behavior to call into question.

“Where there is desire, the power relation is already present: an illusion, then, to denounce this relation for a repression exerted after the event; but vanity as well, to go questing after a desire that is beyond the reach of power.” (H.of S. vol. 1/ 81)

With all of this said, it might be deceptively easy to assume that Foucault wants us to see power as transferred for these so-called institutions of power. A top-down approach to power is what Foucault wanted to interrogate, instead we’ll see power as bottom up & not exclusively in the hands of the state &c.. Power & knowledge go hand in hand & move into what Foucault called “multiple force relations” (H.of S. vol.1/92) bearing down on conventions of truth & challenges to truth. These could stem from our interpersonal relationships to our flippant public encounters.

“The omnipresence of power: not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” (H.of S. vol. 1/ 93)

batailleGeorges Bataille

For Bataille death & eroticism are brought together. Eroticism is to be differentiated from sex as simply an act of procreation, although in procreation there are elements of the erotic & overtones of death. Although Bataille did not consider de Sade’s oeuvre to be necessarily that of total eroticism, rather it was an exploration of horror. Bataille quotes de Sade “There is not a better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image.” (E. D. & S./11) We’ll quickly acknowledge that this vision is the utter extremity with a view to the sex act & death, the idea is expanded from there, from that extreme. Death & eroticism are centrally located in Bataille’s system, the relationship of both seemingly disparate ideas are fused together where each informs the other. Eroticism & death are complimentary. Basically we are ‘discontinuous’ beings & by this Bataille means that we born into the world alone & in a very strict sense we live our lives as singular entities. We then have eroticism, whereby for the discontinuous being, eroticism is where the individual looks to be unified with another discontinuous being. Erotic pleasure , re: ecstasy, reaches to the nadir/zenith of this union. When a child is conceived & born the union created yet another discontinuous being: “…we yearn for our lost continuity.” (E. D. & S./15) Eroticism is dubbed as emotional, physical & religious. We’ll see later how Bataille accounts for an eroticism of religious practice. Eroticism is distinctly human & animals are said to not be erotic (let us suppose that certain mating rituals of birds & primates might resemble the erotic,or is this just an anthropomorphism?).

“In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation.” (E. D. & S./16) Bataille names the term dissolute that dissolves the discontinuous self & the goal is to eradicate the discontinuity as a violent, erotic act. Nakedness offers a promise of continuity, a stripping away of clothing that readies the the individuals to fuse. Obscenity too threatens/offends this individuality.

We’ll sometimes speak of death binding together with love: ‘she would die for his love, or he will sacrifice his life for her love.” So, death represents continuity, it’s where we cease to be discontinuous & pass into the continuity of death, a mystical continuity of a greater whole with non/existence. Bataille is not referring to an immortal afterlife. He characteristically summons a comparison to ritual sacrifice, where the offering (maybe a virgin) is made to appease the gods & when that life is offered, it is to underscore a relationship with a god for the living, a sacred exchange. The individual is offered for the good of the whole. Bataille ties religion & eroticism together, as both can be known subjectively.

Everyday rational experiences are separate from the sacred & the erotic. The discipline of empirical science demands objectivity for its validity & claims to truth. This doesn’t mean that science cannot have its taboos, i.e. cleanliness as a practical way to keep the taboo of filth at a distance. The prohibitions of science maintain health & rejects/studies that which falls outside that order. That a certain multiplicity of taboos exist is without question in the realms of science & the religious life of man. This could lead the individual to look for redemption, taboo & transgression that are manifest in the religious experience. The religious catharsis of transgression has erotic components. Man cannot always be constrained by reason & for Bataille there is an “undercurrent of violence” (E. S. & D./40) Man continually wants to transgress boundaries (taboo or otherwise).

Work for Bataille becomes a kind of tempering force that includes its own taboos. Any transgressing of taboo is usually opposed to the work-a-day world. Exceptions to this might be artists, writers, actors, entertainers, & the less accepted margins that include sex-workers, prostitutes, & porn-stars. Typically work is a suppression of the pleasures of the body as is the pursuit of a religious life. Importantly, (rational) work is done as a refusal of death for the sake of life. Work as an enforcement of life against the finalities of death. Work is this sense is a ‘no’ to death.

If we can acknowledge the taboos of sexuality, we should also observe the taboos of death. One stays away from the rotting corpse, a taboo with a clear reason why we bury the dead: to keep the putrefaction of the dead body away from us. We’d be amiss to not recognize the the taboo of killing & murder with their grueling associations with eroticism & sex. Bataille mentions exceptions to these taboos, oddly in the instances of war & marriage: war, where killing is permissible & marriage, where eroticism is permitted (recall that this book was written back in the early 60’s). The difficulties of restricting eroticism & death are enmeshed with taboo/transgressive temptations, the breaking of rules will often require a kind of violence (named as such, or otherwise). Man doesn’t allow himself the sexual freedom of animals, that we restrict both our sexual & violent impulses is an accepted practice.

Birth & death are reconciled within Bataille’s theory, with the notion that death can be a renewal, the dying away to bring about renewal. Life continues to be & is not the nothingness of death. Yet, while in the cycle of life man continually wrestles with his fear, revulsion, rejection, disgust & fascination with death. As William Burroughs said: “Death is the seed from which I grow.” The rotting body is worse than the white bones. Bones (usually not the decaying body) are an acceptable symbol for death. “Mankind conspires to ignore the fact that death is also the youth of things.” (E. S. & D./59) This is a view of death as an exchange to live, animals must die so that we can have life, an expenditure of resources & energy that must be used, then occasionally wasted. When a taboo is sanctioned, more exaggerations appear, it then becomes easier to expand on the transgressed act…

 baby bataille with his father & older brother in 1898baby Bataille (on left) ca.1898

We know that Foucault was greatly inspired by Bataille. In a remarkable & sumptuous essay on Bataille, written by Foucault in 1962, titled “A Preface to Transgression” (PDF) is where the two thinkers fuse. As the title suggests, Foucault writes on the idea of transgression as it relates to limitations & thus leads to another of Bataille’s terms: sovereignty.  Sovereignty reaches for an ultimate erotic & sacred nadir/zenith, the kind of ecstasy that’s closest to death. Sovereignty is the place where desire is fulfilled & where is it saturated. It might be proposed that sovereignity is how one would venerate desire to the ends of experience, rushing to the tranquility of satiation when the desire is in fullest rapture. An ecstatic continuity completely aware of it’s transgressed limits. Today we might call it the ‘high’ of transgression, a singular place that Foucault describes as beyond the discourse of typical philosophical language (till then) & compares Bataille’s transgression to Blanchot’s “contestation”.

Contestation does not imply a generalized negation, but an affirmation that affirms nothing, a radical break of transitivity. Rather than being a process of thought for denying existences or values, contestation is the act which carries them all to their limits &, from there, to the Limit where an ontological decision achieves its end; to contest is to proceed until one reaches the empty core where being achieves its limit & where the limit defines being. (P.to T./36)

Later in the essay Foucault writes of Bataille’s beloved symbol of the upturned eye as it relates to the failure of philosophic language (dialectics/discourse) to entirely permeate the limits of transgression. The upturned eye with only the white showing, the white of the eye where sight is absent & the pupil is looking inward to its very limits, its deathly limits: the eye socket of the skull, the end of the eye, the end of language & the un-namable end of life…

Aurelio Madrid