But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others we know not of.
– from Hamlet, Shakespeare
How do we face the inevitable? Death, the “undiscovered country” of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks? As a poet of the will Shakespeare’s naturalism aligns well with that Epicurean Titus Lucretius Carus. Shakespeare whose “erotics of being” would ensconce what R. Allen Shoaf in Lucretius and Shakespeare on the Nature of Things would term the naturalism of “great creating nature,” (The Winter’s Tale). For Shakespeare death was not of essence since the fecundity of Nature is endless. Death is but a fragmentary entombing, a little sleep and silence. What matters is the mattering of productive and energetic nature from womb to tomb and back again. The eternal round and return from beginnings to endings, cycles upon cycles a sounding out of the depths of time as time’s return through its own mattering formlessness; a continuous play of life in the shadows of oblivion.
Lucretius would tell us in his stark and poetic response that “death is nothing to us“: “Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . .”. We should not fear it, it is the natural in us fulfilling its destiny; nothing more. There is no unique meaning, no need for constructing fabulous paradises or hells to plunge ourselves beyond the truth of animal death. Death is non-meaning: meaningless in itself, a final terminus of life lived out in a natural universe. Then why do people fear and dread death?
Nietzsche would say it is because man has been sick a long time, man is the “sick animal”. Nietzsche would identify the sickness as áskēsis:
That`s just what the ascetic ideal means: that something is missing, that a huge hole surrounds man. He did not know how to justify himself to himself, to explain, to affirm. He suffered from the problem of his being. He also suffered in other ways: he was for the most part a sick animal. The suffering itself was not his problem, but rather the fact that he lacked an answer to the question he screamed out, “Why this suffering?” Man, the bravest animal, the one most accustomed to suffering, does not deny suffering in itself. He desires it, he seeks it out in person, provided that people show him a meaning for it, the purpose of suffering. The curse that earlier spread itself over men was not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering – and the ascetic ideal offered him a meaning!
It is not death we fear rather it is suffering, suffering the emptiness, the lack of being – the lack of meaning and purpose to our suffering, our death. This led to the moral man, the ascetic ideal that would give meaning to death and suffering, would shape it to dark contours of law, justice, and punishment. Suffering as ecstasy, as life lived among the ruins and decay of time, an endless tribute to the animalistic vices of our zombiefication. The artificial meanings that convey only the dark truths of mind’s that seek out endless suffering and pain: the ascetic priests of death who harbor dreams of “spiritual cruelty”.
It is possible to see as a leitmotif of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action).
…..– Georges Bataille, Base Materialism and Gnosticism
Nietzsche would laugh at the philosophers of lack, of holes in being, of all those dialecticians of spirit who would look at the abyss in horror seeking to transcend it by way of gaps, splits, and ontological catastrophes. All those like Lacan, Zizek and Badiou in our own time who seek escape from the immersive world of matter into a world of Transcendence, a return to Hegelian Idealism, etc. Ascetics one and all. Ontological catastrophists: splits and gaps in the heart of Being, contrivers of strange cogitations and dualisms. These are false moves, false worlds of logic and distance that falsify the world into dichotomies of the Idea. Even as they speak of Plato, they do not even assume as Deleuze an anti-Platonic stance, but much rather a return to the great Idea cloaked as the Idea of Communism. This is a false world of appearances as appearances, where epistemology and ontology still remain under the tutelage of Kant. To draw a circle, to split the world into inside/outside, to formulate categories inwardly in the Mind between epistemic and ontic relations is itself the fall from life and matter, the coded betrayal of the Enlightenment.
Most materialists, even though they may have wanted to do away with all spiritual entities, ended up positing an order of things whose hierarchical relations mark it specifically as idealist.
…….– Georges Bataille, Materialism
As Jean Delumeau in his Sin and Fear – The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture will attest there is a collusion and decided contamination of self knowledge and autonomy that was brokered upon humans during the Catholic ascendency that brought with it a connection between guilt, anxiety, and creativity during the 13th to 18th centuries.1 It was during these dark years of endless wars and heresies that Western guilt culture turned inward, produced a new “siege mentality,” which was accompanied by “an oppressive feeling of guilt, an unprecedented movement toward introspection” (p. 1). It was during this long era that – as Delumeau puts it, the “ascetic tradition” that would mark our guilt culture taught us to despise the world and our flesh, the sensual life of art, creativity, and sexuality. In the eyes of the ascetic the enemy of man was man himself, his sensual and passionate nature, the cravings of the will. Through fear, dread, and the obsessive contempt of the world and hatred of evil that lead to an utter foreboding of damnation and judgement would come to haunt Western Civilization under these ascetic priests and their pessimistic philosophies of fleshly perdition.
All our current histories of the Enlightenment that castigate the Age of Reason forget to mention this long education in ascetic hatred and fear of death, judgement, and eternal damnation. It is against this culture of the ascetic priest and his dark paidea of sin and guilt that the culture that began with the Renaissance in art, science, and philosophy became a part of the a transition into modernity. Any history of modernity that does not entail a deeper narrative of our roots in the sin and guilt culture of the Western Catholic core of our heritage blinds us to what the Enlightenment iconically undermines in that dark heritage: Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life.3
The characteristic Enlightenment suspicion of all allegedly authoritative claims the validity of which is obscure, which is directed first of all against religious dogmas, extends to the claims of metaphysics as well. It was against religious obscurantism and authority, mysticism and metaphysics that science, naturalism, and the various philosophical notions of autonomy and freedom brought about the liberal vision of life and the universe. Without them we’d still be controlled by authoritative priests of an ascetic world view that would bind us to the guilt cultures of sin and punishment.
The fatal flaw in the Enlightenment is that it turned against its own freedom, and with Kant would overturn the struggle for Nature and Science in the name of Transcendence. Kant means his system to make room for humanity’s practical and religious aspirations toward the transcendent as well. According to Kant’s idealism, the realm of nature is limited to a realm of appearances, and we can intelligibly think supersensible objects such as God, freedom and the soul, though we cannot have knowledge of them. Through the postulation of a realm of unknowable noumena (things in themselves) over against the realm of nature as a realm of appearances, Kant manages to make place for practical concepts that are central to our understanding of ourselves even while grounding our scientific knowledge of nature as a domain governed by deterministic causal laws.
Thus is from Freud… that a representation of matter must be taken … it is time to designate the direct interpretation, excluding all idealism, of raw phenomena, and not a system founded on the fragmentary elements of an ideological analysis, elaborated under the sign of religious relations.
– Bataille, Materialism
That we’ve lived under this lie for two hundred years is obvious. That all who followed in Kant’s wake would deliver themselves to a dark inconsistency, a matterless matter; sink into the inner life of the Mind, and become mindless phenomenologists of illusory thoughts, become in essence and stupidity: Idealists. This alone makes one cringe and wonder just what went wrong. Even the most antagonistic element of that inverse relation to Idealism, which came by way of Karl Marx and named “dialectical materialism” was nothing but an reverse engineering of Kant’s dictum; yet, in the end it retained the dark inner kernel of its inner thought: Transcendence. This dualism of mind and world that seems inevitable from within this broken world of speculation.
Yet, under the traditions of these lords of the Ideal lay another tradition, one that harbored a heretical message of a different order of matter – an active mattering of will. An energetic cosmos of productive relations where the natural did not need some dualistic force and transcendence but felt its way to an immanent principle constructed out of an impossible excess. Those like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Bataille would uncover this other materialism, a non-dialectical immanent system of creativity and excess.
I can say that from now on it is impossible to retreat and hide in the “wonderland” of Poetry without being publicly condemned as a coward.
………– Georges Bataille, “The Lugubrious Game”
This new materialism is no longer defined as epistemology or ontology, the old dichotomies that trapped former philosophers in tedious reversals or inversions; instead of any rude implication in phenomenon and noumenon, any dualisms of appearance and reality we swerve toward the abyss. As Bataille will state it: “I submit entirely to what must be called matter, since that exists outside of myself and the idea, and I do not admit that my reason becomes the limit of what I have said, for if I proceeded in that way matter limited by my reason would soon take on the value of a superior principle (which this servile reason would be only to happy to establish above itself, in order to speak like an authorized functionary).” 2 (p. 31) He comes to the crux:
Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations. (p. 31)
This materialism is neither epistemological nor ontological, it is inhuman and base to the core unconcerned by reason’s limits as much as by our superfluous thinking and ideas. There is no merger of thought and being, because there is no being or idea, only the mattering of an energetic cosmos of pure evil: a formless wandering. As even William Blake would attest: “Energy is my only Delight.” And do not confuse this evil with moral prognostications or religious purveyors of utilitarian control systems, either. Instead of thought we have mattering without human limitations imposed by artificial means and constraints. It is only in this new paidea we are taught of base matter, a forgetting and leave taking that itself is a mattering folded into that saintliness of a “happy loss of self” – a “Joy before Death” – a seductive transport immanently into a meaning that means “life can be glorified from root to summit” (p. 236). As Bataille will explicate:
It robs of meaning everything that is an intellectual or moral beyond, substance, God, immutable order, or salvation. It is an apotheosis of that which is perishable, apotheosis of flesh and alcohol as well as of the trances of mysticism. The religious forms it rediscovers are the naïve forms that antedate the intrusion of a servile morality: it renews the kind of tragic jubilation that man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow. (p. 237)
With the “death of God” man became free to create meaning in the world again. Meaning does not exist in the world, it is made. Poets are “makers,” and what they make is meaning. We have yet to realize just what this might one day release us into…
“Whoever creates, whoever paints or writes, can no longer concede any limitation on painting or writing; alone, he suddenly has at his disposal all possible human convulsions, and he cannot flee from this heritage of divine power – which belongs to him.” (p. 245)
- Jean Delumeau. Sin and Fear – The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture. trans. Eric Nicholson (St. Martin’s, 1990)
- Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess. (Minnesota Press, 1989)
- Bristow, William, “Enlightenment“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)