Alain Badiou: Beyond the Dead God’s Shadow

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Reading Badiou’s Briefings on Existence: A Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology we come across the Third God, the God of the Poets: “The central poetic expression concerning It is as follows: this God has withdrawn and left the world as prey to idleness. The question of the poem is thus that of the retreat of the gods. It coincides neither with the philosophical question of God nor with the religious one.”1

Badiou like many atheist philosophers seems to need God. Why? Like Nietzsche Badiou reiterates the endless series of statements on the Death of God: the death of Religion’s God, of the Metaphysical Prime Mover as God of Philosophers, the Fundamentalist God of Literalists, etc. But then he links this to the other god, the third god, the God of the Poets he finds in Holderlin. He finds in this other god a sense of a reenchantment of the world. One is almost tempted to refer him to C.G. Jung who named this god the Anima Mundi or World Soul, etc. Of course this had a long pre-history as well. Yet, what he finds is not this sense of an animate Nature, but rather its withdrawal which leads to pure idleness and nostalgia for the loss of the ancient gods. This sense that it is neither a philosophical nor a religious question, but rather a literary one brings one back to those secular priests of the Book who sought during the 19th and 20th Centuries to displace the sacred books with a secular one. Was this not the goal from the Romantics through the Late Romanticism and Symbolists. Isn’t this a tradition stemming from the poet Stephen Mallarme who created a sort of secular poetry of the sacred: a symbolic world in almost pure and mathematical sublimity, an alchemical vision as complex as it was metamorphic.

I think here of such philosophers as Quentin Meillassoux with his The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des. In which as the blurb tells us: “The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child s game: All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but a sole condition that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de des, like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of the siren that emerges for a lightning flash among the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.” Even Jacques Ranciere in his Mallarme: The Politics of the Siren “presents Mallarmé as neither an aesthete in need of rare essences and unheard-of words, nor the silent and nocturnal thinker of some poem too pure to be written. Mallarmé is the contemporary of a republic that is seeking out forms of civic worship to replace the pomp of religions and kings.”

This notion of a secular religion seems fitting for an age that wants to do away with God but still wants the accoutrements of its ritual ties to ancient forms of existence. As Badiou will say of Holderlin: “The poet’s task-or as Holderlin wrote, his courage-is to bear in language the thought of the God that has withdrawn as it is also to conceive the problem of Its return as an open insertion into that of which thought is capable.” (KL 412) Years ago M.H. Abrams would define this whole tradition in his excellent study: Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. He shows that central Romantic ideas and forms of imagination were secularized versions of traditional theological concepts, imagery, and design, and that modern literature participates in the same process. As Badiou will add:

Essentially, the relationship to the poetic God is not of the order of mourning, as the obscure relationship to the dead God can often be. Nor is it of the order of critique, or the conceptual defection fection of totality, as the philosophical relationship to the First-Principle Principle God can be. Strictly speaking, it is a nostalgic relationship. It melancholically envisages a chance to re-enchant the world through the gods’ improbable return. (KL 413-415)

Yet, for Badiou our contemporary age is defined not as the romantic poets envisioned as a return of the pagan gods, but rather “our times are undoubtedly those of the disappearance of the gods without return. But this disappearance stems from three distinct processes, for there have been three capital gods, namely, of religion, metaphysics, and the poets.” (KL 442) That these ancient paths are no longer viable Badiou admits:

Committed to the triple destitution of the gods, we, inhabitants of the Earth’s infinite sojourn, can assert that everything is here, always here, and that thought’s reserve lies in the thoroughly informed formed and firmly declared egalitarian platitude of what befalls upon us here. Here is the place where truths come to be. Here we are infinite. Here nothing is promised to us, only to be faithful to what befalls upon us. (KL 449-452)

It’s as if he were preaching a new gospel of total destitution in which we are now condemned to sojourn an empty paradise riven of the sacred, the metaphysical, and the poetic; condemned to live out our bare existence in the immediacy of our own unknowing, eclipsed of any transcendence we are condemned to the truth of our bare lives “Here”:

It is this `here’ that a poet, born so far from us in a language closer to us than any other, the Chouvash poet Guennadi Aigui, celebrated in a song to the glory of what about the here cannot be replaced.’ Divine guidance is not what this song celebrates, which is why it is called, “Here” It leads us toward understanding that the here is gained once the search for the dead God’s shadow anywhere and under any name is renounced. In this song, even the death of man, a transitory configuration of dispersing infinities, can be envisaged as maintaining and receiving these infinites. I end this prologue with his song:

Here everything answers itself
In a primordial and high language
As one part of life answers
The contiguous indestructible part
Here at the curling extremities
Of branches in the appeased garden
We seek not the horrible clot of sap
That resembles the afflicted silhouettes
Embracing a crucifix in the evening of calamity
And we know of no word or sign
That would be higher than another
It is here that we live, here that we are beautiful
And it is here that we trouble the real when being silent
But if our farewells to it are rough
Life is a part of it as well
As if on its own
A novelty inaudible to us
And parting from us
As the reflection in the water of a shrub
It shall remain aside
To afterward occupy
Our place
So that the places of men be replaced
Only by the spaces of life
Forever more. (KL 455-460)

Much like the poetry of Rilke in his Elegies this seems to celebrate a certain power inherent in existence itself that will survive the human, a continuance of the “spaces of life” even if we as a species vanish into the night. Would one call this the poetry not of the Death of God, but rather of the Death of Man? Does it not celebrate pure existence without humans? A universe emptied of thought itself, and poetry beyond poetry? Is Badiou seeking a form of transcendence after all? Only one in which we are emptied of ourselves forever? This sense of the transitoriness of being, of the vanishing and of saying goodbye in an infinite passing is celebrated rather than mourned.

  1. Alain Badiou. Briefings on Existence: A Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology (Kindle Locations 406-412). Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Alain Badiou: Beyond the Dead God’s Shadow

  1. “…God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” — Nietzsche

    If science has replaced God, haven’t we finally reached the point where we now realize that reason isn’t the answer to everything? Send in the poets!

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    • Problem with that is that if as Blake once said: “The poet’s created the gods to begin with…” then the poet’s are just the beginning of more trouble. What Badiou is seeking is more in line with Nietzsche’s affirmative or active nihilism: a revaluation of values… his notion of fidelity to the truth-operation which overrides the postmodern negative nihilism and its endless iterations of the deconstructive blind spots of textuality.

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      • S.C;

        I’ve been intrigued by Nietzsche’s thoughts on active nihilism as a way of positively navigating through life. Do you have any older posts re: active nihilism?

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      • Not specific to that, no. I must admit I went through my Nietzsche phase back in my twenties… I’ve been rereading him a little of late, but haven’t seen a need to write about him. I read and reread him for years to the point that for a long time it was difficult to read him again. Only recently after thirty years have I even thought of rereading his work, and only because it touches on so many other thinkers I’ve been working through. I made Nietzsche my own, made him a part of my inner experience to the point that his thought became ubiquitous within me, much like many of the poets I read early in life. I see Whitman and Wallace Stevens in that way… their invisible within me.

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