Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Chapter 4, "The Art of Survival"

Here Blumenberg turns his attention to a kind of political deployment of the shipwreck metaphor. The touchpoint of the discussion is Goethe's reaction to the French victory over Prussia at Jena, as reported decades later by his contemporary Heinrich Luden. Goethe disappointed Luden (as he would disappoint German nationalists again by meeting Napoleon a year later) by adopting an aloof pose with respect to the event, referring to his situation as that of a spectator to a shipwreck.

Blumenberg points out that a younger Goethe had himself once been annoyed by the pose of political spectatorship. He had used the image of Voltaire observing storms in a mirror from his bed to mock a poem of his contemporary Gessner. Essential to understanding this annoyance is that Voltaire portrayed his lakeside residences as havens free from political interference or involvement -- they were part of a pose of autarkic indifference he fashioned for himself.

Blumenberg asks: "What has changed?" His answer takes us back to the purpose behind Lucretius' philosophy, which was to above all to liberate men's minds from fear of natural events. Even the fear of human action that exposes men to disaster can be neutralized, once human action itself is understood as governed by drives and passions that are themselves part of nature. (In fact, Blumenberg sees Voltaire's inclusion of curiosity among men's passions, and thus his nature, as in this sense a step to realizing the full potential of Epicurean philosophy).

Goethe's dispassionate spectatorship, on the other hand, is notable for its disciplined resistance to natural feeling -- its studied artificiality. Goethe observed the battlefield of Jena a year later and discussed the event without betraying any feeling at all. In respect to this, Blumenberg makes an observation about Goethe's stance that is difficult to interpret. "The observer of the battlefield appeals to the ancient poet's comparison precisely in order to protect his history from history per se, insofar as the latter is always, and must remain, the history of others. However, it is no longer possible to put historical catastrophes on the same footing with physical ones." (52) (Why "no longer"? And is this meant globally or just about Goethe?)

At this point, Blumenberg takes an excursus to ask what use Hegel made of Lucretius' metaphor for his philosophy of history. Hegel incorporates the metaphor into account of how reflection transforms perception of the apparent suffering and tragedy in the world. Reflection reveals that these world-historical travails contribute to the deeper rational order of the progress of freedom.

Goethe is not in sympathy with either Lucretius' philosophy or Hegel's. Goethe sees the aim of Lucretius' philosophy -- overcoming the fear of death -- as fundamentally in conflict with being human. In Goethe's invocation of the shipwreck metaphor, the key to the sense of distance is not reflection but rather escape from danger. It is not the spatial distance of an observer in real time, but the temporal distance of a survivor recollecting his own shipwreck.

Blumenberg notes Goethe's temporal configuration of the shipwreck metaphor in another instance -- a consolation letter to his friend Zelter -- and remarks that it again puts the focus on personal survival. He then pursues the peculiar image which concludes Goethe's use of the shipwreck motif in his letter -- "the sea already is hungry for figs again." (56) Blumenberg notes that this classical saying, perhaps taken up via Erasmus, showed up in a number of configurations, but he takes special notice of its use in a story about a sailor who is shipwrecked once carrying a cargo of figs, and demurs taking to the seas again.

Finally, Blumenberg draws attention to another of Goethe's seafaring metaphors -- the metaphor of the ship's trace which disappears behind it, which he uses in his critique of the Enlightenment's expectations of progress.

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