A FOOTNOTE TO
ON PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Jean Paul Sartre portrayed Gustave Flaubert as a particularly “stupid” member of the bourgeoisie in his multivolume The Family Idiot.
Flaubert himself never thought much of middling society; he was never loath to complain about bourgeois stupidity.
Being wise to the world’s stupidity is repugnant to the romantic idealist without faith in some nonsense that breaks logic’s stupefying hold on the human mind; e.g. the irrational Logos from which human logic flees as it rationalizes it.
Flaubert, in September of 1855, penned his notorious scatological remark to his pal Mssr. Bouilhet: “Against the stupidity of my age I feel waves of hatred that suffocate me. The taste of shit comes to my mouth…. I want to keep it there, congeal it, harden it, make it into a paste to daub all over the nineteenth century, as Indian pagodas are gilded with cow dung; and who knows, maybe it will endure?”
Flaubert was obsessed with finding the perfect way of saying everything; that is, a pure style, an imaginary toilet devoid of shit.
“What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to write,” Flaubert wrote to his mistress Louise Colet in 1852, “is a book about nothing, a book depending on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer the expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.
We cannot live without our “fictions,” whether utopian or dystopian, yet Sartre, a self-effacing, anti-intellectual intellectual who improvised his works, resolving vainly never to repeat himself, at least not in the same way, believed that Flaubert’s constructivism was antithetical to the governing principle of Imagination, namely, Freedom, which is anarchy or no government at all.
The concept of the Imaginary was old hat to Romantic Frenchmen, who “borrowed” a great deal of the abstract aspect of their Romantic philosophy from their traditional enemies the Germans—we recall that G.W.F. Hegel accused Victor Cousin—director of French education, founder of an eclectic philosophy dubbed French Spiritualism, also lover to Louise Colet—of stealing his spiritual soup.
Romanticism was a nostalgic reaction to the realism of the Enlightenment that had displaced the human being and his planet from the center of the universe, sometimes taking him completely out of the picture. People longed for imagined Good Old Days and the presumably wild or free spirit that lived back then. Whereas Hegel’s overarching, World Spirit ground individuals to insignificant specks of dust in its historical course; the general impetus for Romanticism was the recovery of the holy self, whether particular or universal, from the clutches of profane science.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, who had been Hegel’s friend and roommate and became a highly regarded leader of the Romantic School, restored the self and put it in its rightful place, in Nature. Immanuel Kant had severed the finite, phenomenal realm of experience and practice, where everything was naturally determined, from the infinite, noumenal sphere, from which ideas are freely intuited and reason operates theoretically; but a reconciliation of noumenal to phenomenal, ideas to experience, theory and practice, mind and body, subject and object was warranted. J.G. Fichte, Schelling’s mentor, emphasized the impersonal, transcendental realm where the universal I, which he believed was Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself, was everything; therein lie the proper subject of metaphysics, he thought, and Schelling’s reconciliation of self and nature together with Schelling’s blasphemous personal reference to “my” philosophy resulted in their falling out. Speaking of romance in this phenomenal world, young Schelling, while at the University of Jena, would steal and marry August Wilhelm Schlegel’s wife, Caroline Schlegel, one of the most intelligent and talented women of the day—August was a leading Romantic poet and scholar.
Friedrich Schelling (1755-1854)
Now the reconciliation of subject and object, self and world, theory and practice, according to Schelling, was by way of the imagination, which is a sort of wavering between the infinite and the finite. It may be that nature and self are opposed, but they are joined in consciousness: “The intelligence is initially conceived of as the purely presentative, nature purely as what can be presented; the one as the conscious, the other as the non-conscious. But now in every knowing a reciprocal concurrence of the two (the conscious and the intrinsically non-conscious) is necessary; the problem is to explain this concurrence,” Schelling noted in System of Transcendental Idealism (1800).
The severance of imagination from reason, thought both Hegel and Schelling, is a false dichotomy, for reason is imagination and vice versa. Schelling was convinced that ideas, which are neither finite nor infinite, are produced by the imagination. Particular identities in the wavering flux are phenomenal pauses that appear as forms of the wavering. The human being may arrive at a theoretical understanding of the world’s constitution, where events proceed via cause and effect; on the other hand, the human being is a moral creature capable of regulating himself in regards to the world, hence is free. In fine, it is the imagination that sets the man free. Schelling’s philosophy is best understood aesthetically:
“Through this constant double activity of producing and intuiting, something is to become an object, which is not otherwise reflected by anything. – We cannot here demonstrate, though we shall in the sequel, that this coming-to-be-reflected of the absolutely non-conscious and non-objective is possible only through an aesthetic act of the imagination. This much, however, is apparent from what we have already shown, namely that all philosophy is productive. Thus philosophy depends as much as art does on the productive capacity, and the difference between them rests merely on the different direction taken by the productive force. For whereas in art the production is directed outwards, so as to reflect the unknown by means of products, philosophical production is directed immediately inwards, so as to reflect it in intellectual intuition. The proper sense by which this type of philosophy must be apprehended is thus the aesthetic sense, and that is why the philosophy of art is the true organon of philosophy…. “
“From ordinary reality there are only two ways out – poetry, which transports us into an ideal world, and philosophy, which makes the real world vanish before our eyes. – It is not apparent why the gift for philosophy should be any more widely spread than that for poetry, especially among that class of persons in whom, either through memory-work (than which nothing is more immediately fatal to productivity), or through dead speculation, destructive of all imagination, the aesthetic organ has been totally lost.”
What we have here is rather well crafted romantic bullshit, an impassioned attempt by the author to fool himself into believing he possesses the last word on his imaginary subject although he knows better, wherefore he dumps it on us to see if we shall fall for the bluff or respond with something he failed to realize, perhaps in the form of a heterotopian poem.