Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Chapter 3, "Aesthetics and Ethics of the Spectator"

I learned from taking notes on the first two chapters that it's hard to get a handle on Blumenberg's approach to his material. It isn't an argument in any usual sense, nor is it a typology or a narrative. His organization is loosely thematic, in that he takes up some variant or aspect of the seafaring metaphor and examines it for some stretch before moving on to another topic. Within his exploration of these topics, he tends to follow the series of treatments chronologically, but not rigidly so. So while there is no overarching account of either the structure or the genesis of the metaphor, there is episodic insight into both. In pursuit of a better understanding of sum of these insights, I will seek to record not just Blumenberg's observations about the different treatments of seafaring metaphors, but the logic of his transitions, insofar as I understand them.

In the image of the shipwreck with spectator, the spectator carries on the ancient ideal of theory as contemplation, but with a new object. Instead of the cosmos, the object of contemplation is man's own consciousness. (26-27)

Lucretius describes the forms of the natural world as being like debris from a shipwreck thrown up from an inexhaustible ocean of atoms -- making the point that man would do well to remain a spectator to these forms instead of trying to comprehend them. The birth of a human being is also depicted as a kind of shipwreck, like a sailor being thrown ashore from the sea. The notion that seafaring is unnatural informs these uses of the shipwreck metaphor. This analogy is metaphorical and literal at the same time -- seaborne commerce really is driven by a refusal to accept all limits to desires as natural limits. Remaining content within the boundaries of natural needs = staying ashore. Wanting and pursuing in excess of those needs = taking to the seas and risking shipwreck. (27-29)

The Enlightenment, by contrast, sees the danger of shipwreck as the price that must be paid in order for their to be wind, and therefore sea commerce, at all. (29)

29: "In complete contrast to this, it will be one of the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment that shipwreck is the price that must be paid in order to avoid that complete calming of the sea winds that would make all worldly commerce impossible. Through this figure is expressed a justification of the passiones, the passions, against which philosophy discriminates: pure reason would mean the absence of winds and the motionlessness of human beings who possess complete presence of mind."

This formulation of the Enlightenment attitude is taken almost directly from the debate between Herostratus of Ephesus and Demetrius of Phalerum in Fontanelle's Dialogues of the Dead -- with the omission of an explicit reference to the possibility of shipwreck. (The context is that Herostratus, destroyer of the temple of Ephesus, is arguing for an equal claim to fame with Demetrius, who had erected 360 statues in Athens, because the destructive work of the passions is a prerequisite for clearing the ground in order for new human achievement to be possible.) (29-30)

Blumenberg proceeds to another dialogue from Fontanelle's work in which shipwreck is thematized -- the argument between Margaret of Austria and Hadrian about whose death was better. In the case of Margaret, this was an imagined death by shipwreck rather than her actual one. Margaret sees her reckoning with this death, expressed in a poem, as superior because it was not planned ahead of time. Hadrian sees his as superior because his calm acceptance, also expressed in poetry, achieves the classical ideal. Hadrian poses the question whether her poem was not actually composed after her brush with shipwreck, to which Margaret counterposes the question whether his poem was not actually composed well before his death. The dialogue is resolved on the acceptance of moderation even in virtue. Blumenberg finds irony both in the ultimately unacknowledged fact that the poetic ideal was separated from actualization in both cases, and in the exaggerated metaphysical distance of the interlocutors from the human predicament in that they are dead and thus beyond any threat of disaster. (30-32)

A shipwreck metaphor also comes up in Fontenelle's pioneering Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, which imagines the Earth as it would be seen through the higher rationality of an intelligent alien. The work's protagonist, the marquise, boldly wishes for a shipwreck of such aliens on the Earth so she could see what they look like. She has to be warned, none too successfully, that the aliens could reverse the role of spectator and specimen, since they could just as well catch her like a fish as be shipwrecked. (32-33)

Voltaire and his circle focus on the passions as the indispensable moving force in human existence. Candide, for instance, may retreat to his garden in the end. But he does not start with renunciation like Lucretius' spectator. Rather, it is the actual experience of the arbitrariness of shipwreck which extinguishes his passion for believing that things could be better. In the Marquise de Chatelet's "On Happiness," reflection is portrayed as a force that delays action until it is too late to achieve happiness. She counsels that time is short, and feeling and thinking must not be delayed by too much careful preparation -- like a ship always in port being caulked rather than being made use of while it could. For Voltaire, moreover, even the role of spectator with shipwreck is seen as the result of a passion -- curiosity -- rather than, as Lucretius would have it, as an opportunity to dispassionately comprehend one's own security. And he believes that animals share the passion of curiosity. (34-36+)

Voltaire describes himself in his letters as shipwrecked when he hastily escapes from the Prussian king. Compares his feeling of security to that of passengers who are saved from a shipwreck, and look back at their experience from a safe harbor -- but then goes on to express doubt that there is a safe harbor in the world. (37)

Voltaire's Micromegas describes a shipwreck caused by curious alien giants examining what, to them, are tiny vessels -- so small that they are unable to perceive the men in them at all. Through this story, Voltaire hopes to illustrate triviality of human history. Here Blumenberg says that man is removed from the possibility of even being a spectator, as in Fontanelle's story, of more advanced beings , and is only an object -- but in fact it seems he is not even that! (37-38)

Voltaire takes on Lucretius' account of the spectator again in his article "Curiosity" for the Encyclopedia. He shows his revulsion with an analogy to an angel who would use his observation of the sufferings of the damned as an occasion to reflect on his his own imperviousness to suffering; this angel, according to Voltaire, would be indistinguishable from a devil. And he goes on to say that it is his experience and that of others that curiosity rather than taking pleasure in safety drives people to gawk at a shipwreck. (38-39)

Abbe Galiani contradicts Voltaire in a letter to Madame d'Epinay. Curiosity only exists where there is security, he contends, otherwise men would be occupied with his own immediate concerns. Moreover, animals do not share the ability to be curious, because they lack the capacity of detachment from what is strange and frightening, and the sense of security it brings. Galiani forgoes the shipwreck metaphor altogether in his argument, preferring the to illustrate his point with the image of a theater. There, spectator are able to take interest in the drama because they are sheltered and secure. Blumenberg notes that the dangers of the spectacle to which the audience devotes its interest are not even real, so that in preferring this metaphor to that of the shipwreck Galiani aestheticizes what was originally a moral relationship. In suppressing the shipwreck metaphor in this case, Blumenberg also sees an abandonment of the classical implication of precarious human existence in the face of nature. Instead, in his Dialogues sur la commerce des bles, Galiani portrays the relationship between man and nature as a somewhat equal struggle between to indefinite powers. And so seafaring and shipwreck metaphors are made available for use to illustrate the proper prudence of administration informed by the best available evidence. (39-41)

Blumenberg notes that the first appearance of the shipwreck with spectator theme in German comes in Ewald's short poem Der Sturm from 1755. The poem has an intense, present tense description of a storm and shipwreck, with a an abrupt transition to a past tense coda when the topic switches to the "I" which is revealed to have been only a spectator. (41-42)

Blumenberg takes this as an opportunity to revisit Horace's employment of the shipwreck and spectator theme. Here the spectator's interest is justified by an attempt to warn the battered ship to return to port -- the involvement is moral rather than aesthetic. This leads to a reflection on the relative degree of involvement of Cicero's narrator and the narrator of the Greek poet Alcaeus' shipwreck story (which Cicero had used as his model). Although Alcaeus' narrator's experiences the storm aboard the boat, his involvement is in a way both more passive, because it is the perspective of confused immediacy, and more detached, since it is the view of an even that has passed. The orientation of Cicero's narrator, on the other hand, is toward the future, and an attempt to prevent the imminent peril to the ship. In this sense, the view from the Alcaeus' surviving passenger is more that of a spectator, than is the view of Cicero's actual spectator. (42-43)

And from here, we have a remarkably stream-of-consciousness set of transitions. Blumenberg notes that Ewald's poem was written in 1755, the year of the Lisbon earthquake which shattered Leibnizean metaphysical optimism. Then he notes that Herder, in turn, used the shipwreck metaphor in 1792 to describe the relationship between the German public and the French Revolution. He then turns to trace the succession of Herder's use of seafaring references, starting back in 1769. In that year, when he sailed from Riga to visit the Enlightenment thinkers in France, he uses sea exploration as a metaphor for philosophical discovery. On the return voyage the next year, Herder was shipwrecked on the Dutch coast; though it does not seem that Herder himself made this into a metaphor of anything, Blumenberg notes the irony of the sea intransigently asserting its power in light of the previous year's remarks. By 1774, Herder is using the shipwreck metaphor to express the current situation of philosophy in his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. In his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity of 1792, he turns this metaphor, and the metaphor of the theater, to the task of accounting for the reception of the French Revolution in Germany. He sees the relationship between the events in France and the German public as a comfortably distant one (secured by the difference of language) akin to that between spectators and actors, or a spectator and a shipwreck. Blumenberg notes that the shipwreck metaphor is deployed with an unusual destabilizing twist, however: Herder suggests that a demon toss the spectator into the sea. Also, as with Galiani, Blumenberg notes that the shipwreck is presented as the superficial level of a more profound metaphor of theatrics. (43-46)

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