Ladders have captured my imagination since I was eight. In Singapore, the libraries have these tall bookshelves where you have to use a ladder to grab a book. Although I was tall enough to grab a book off the shelf, I could not help but imagine the anxiety of climbing one:
- Would it be scary to look down?
- What happens if you fall?
- Is it okay to take a break on one of those steps?
- Would the ladder wobble?
- If you’re stuck, who’s going to save you?
I thought anyone who could climb a ladder was a god. They were fearless of heights and more. I had never climbed a ladder until I was sixteen because of my fear of heights.
It made me think of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It asked a simple question: How did Abraham overcome his anxiety and sacrifice his son, Isaac, in the name of God?
Kierkegaard says that’s because he is a knight of faith. You may know that term in various terms: genius, Great Man, role models, heroes, Ubermensch, individuals, artists, and more. These knights of faith have the ability to be a paradox — they are abnormal people; they are looking at God’s point of view (sub specie aeternitatis).
Most of us are not knights of faiths; we are the knights of resignation. We “live dejectedly in worldly sorrow and joy.” He pictures us in a ballroom and “we are the ones who sit along the wall and do not join in the dance.” Instead, we gaze at the “knights of infinity [or faith]” who dance. Kierkegaard observes “the [knights of faith] make the movements upward, and fall down again.” Their slip of the foot is as elegant as their dance. “But whenever they fall down,” he continues, “they are not able at once to assume the posture — they vacillate an instant — and this vacillation shows that after all they are strangers in the world.”
For this, we may poke fun at them, call them junk, and ignore them. “Even the most artistic knights,” Kirkegaard laments, “cannot altogether conceal this vacillation.” However, what makes us, the knights of resignation, different from the knights of faith is the way the knights of faith fall: “it looks as if [they] were standing and walking.” Their fall is a grace: “it transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian.” We shouldn’t be deriding that slip; we should be admiring it because that’s the only thing “a knight of faith can do — and this is the one and only prodigy.”
If we were in their shoes — to climb up the ladder or to dance — we wouldn’t be able to do it in the first place. We would only tremble in fear. That’s why we admire, in the form of jealousy and envy, these knights of faith. When we see a mistake, we laugh at them to hide our uncomfortableness. We fear these knights of faith and how beautiful their efforts are.
It is the same with art: when we read or watch something groundbreaking, we feel like our soul has been crushed. Sometimes, our hands shake. We perspire more than usual. Our mouths gape. We are trying to comprehend how something of this magnitude is made. It just feels so natural to feel that way. I certainly feel that way when I wrote my awful Subarashiki Hibi post. When I look back, I see that I was in a naive state of euphoria, of fear and trembling. Everyone has that awful blog post about Madoka or Evangelion hidden somewhere in their Livejournals, Blogspots, and WordPresses about how amazing and revolutionary this show is without realizing how much regret they will cause to them later. The worst of us may stay fixated on this work and preach to the choir how this work of art makes us fear and tremble. They call themselves “emotional wrecks” and say that those works “hit us in the feelios”. Of course, we make fun of them on Twitter and IRC — but that’s because we all have that past and if you somehow don’t, you are lying.
That is not how we should view art. To be a fanboy or fangirl of this knight of faith (or artist) is a self-defeating attitude. We are not able to gain new perspectives; we just pigeonhole ourselves and not widen our world. And I think that’s another reason why we make fun of these fanboys and fangirls in the dark: “They should go outside,” we say, “and experience the world.” But this is the knight of resignation calling another knight of resignation out — the pot calling the kettle black. When we are the knights of resignation, people who trembles in fear, we are actually giving up on art and ethics to change us.
So we must replace this “fear and trembling” approach with something else more substantial. On a school trip to Turkey, I brought The Picture of Dorian Gray while glancing up from time to time to see my friends ski. I had frequent nosebleeds then and there were nothing and nobody to comfort me except this book. So I dived into the book and my eyes opened wide when I saw this preface (I have edited out parts that are irrelevant to this discourse):
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
While most people see this as a critique of mimesis (art imitating life ergo life informs how we depict paintings), I view it as a profound, unique way to see art. Art should be seen as art itself. This was an upset — no, a shock to my “fear and trembling” approach. If we fear and tremble, that has nothing to do with the work! It redirects our fear of the knight of faith into pure admiration of it. Everything is all about the artist making beautiful things. Our reactions and feelings reflect our state of thought. When we are aware of these emotions and moods we are going through, we can moderate and ask ourselves, “Are we adding beautiful meanings to the work?” Introspection will let us edit out anything that resembles a “fear and trembling” approach.
This makes sense especially if you read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray has a painting of himself and he never grows old and ugly. But the painting shows a crippled, old, and disgusting version of him as he grows more corrupt. It is Dorian’s attitude that ruins the beautiful painting.
Oscar Wilde’s approach to art is anti-mimesis: life imitating art, not art imitates life as is commonly thought. Anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” We do not depict reality in paintings; the paintings inform us of this ‘reality’ through ‘certain beautiful forms’.
This idea may sound preposterous, but there is evidence. In E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, he discusses the challenges of appreciating paintings in terms of accuracy. “We are all inclined,” he writes, “to be quick with the verdict that ‘things do not look like that’. We have a curious habit of thinking that nature must always look like the pictures we are accustomed to.”
Gombrich then says, “Generations have watched horses gallop, have attended horse-races and hunts, have enjoyed paintings and sporting prints showing horses charging into battle or running after hounds. Not one of these people seems to have noticed what it ‘really looks like’ when a horse runs. Pictures and sporting prints usually showed them with outstretched legs in full flight through the air … About fifty years later, when the photographic camera had been sufficiently perfected for snapshots of horses in rapid motion to be taken, these snapshots proved that both the painters and their public had been wrong all the while. No galloping horse ever moved in the way which seems so ‘natural’ to us.” The irony of this anecdote is that “when painters began to apply this new discovery and painted horses moving as they actually do, everyone complained that their horses looked wrong.”
However, it is an understatement to say that life imitates art, ergo art informs us. It is our worldview! Our life! We can learn simple trivia, history (Les Miserables), social conditions (Down and Out in Paris and London), philosophy (The Stranger), and so much more from a book.
You can spend hours look up writers and artists about how art changes them in the inside. James Baldwin’s quote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”, is so beautiful. And there’s also Ursula K. Le Guin’s belief that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
So my conclusion is: art is an education and it is also a lifestyle.
I was excited about this new prospect of seeing art this way. I felt like I was climbing that ladder like all the knights of faith before me. Then, I stopped climbing.
“All art is quite useless.”
What does Wilde mean by that?
I looked up what that meant and Wilde had apparently written a letter to a fan who had asked that very same question. Wilde compares the uselessness of a work of art to the uselessness of a flower.
He writes, “The flower blooms for its own joy.” When we pick a flower from the ground and appreciate it, we feel elated. Emotions do not fall into the category of utility. The flower’s only aim is to “create a mood.” There is nothing to teach and learn from art and flowers. We cannot learn life lessons, find insightful answers to the questions that chain humanity into a meaningless existence, or walk away with a better understanding of ourselves from a mere flower. If we find “pleasure,” it is because we find “sterility” in the flower. We should remain inactive and gaze at this flower petal in silence. And if someone tries to sell this flower, that is not the “essence” of the flower. It is “accidental.” It is a “misuse.” The flower is what it is. Try to modify it, you will find yourself disrespecting the beauty of this flower.
I felt the fear and trembling overcome me again. Was I wrong? Was I actually trembling in fear but masking that fear in admiration instead?
I could only say, “Yes and yes.” I misunderstood Wilde’s ideas and I thought that he was right. Correct 100%. It didn’t liberate me from that fear and trembling in the way I thought it would; Wilde’s aestheticism preached silence instead of loudness. When he meant that the work of art was a mirror, he really meant it. We cannot do anything with a mirror except see that the mirror reflects us. I felt defeated. This philosophy was too restrictive for me. Even though I agree with Wilde’s conclusions (i.e. it is accidental and it is a misuse), it didn’t make sense for me. How could we see art by itself — by the standards of beauty — without feeling an affect?
That angst has stopped me from writing blog posts on stuff for years. It is pointless to me if I want to write all my “fear and trembling” reactions to everything. And I find myself dipping back into the position of knight of resignation, spitting out meaningless insults on works that disagree with my aesthetics. I mean, what’s the point if you’re writing blog posts on games no one will ever play except a select few? It’s elitism. Masturbatory elitism. I have resigned myself to stay where I am on the ladder and post dumb writings on Mimidoshima every October 16, my birthday.
After every book or so, I sigh at how marvelous or atrocious the writing is and then move on. Art is useless after all. People should keep quiet about their own ramblings on random crap. They should know better.
When I want to write something, I am afraid of “hyping” — or writing another “fear and trembling” post. No one had any idea how many drafts I put into the shelves because I was afraid of being stupid in public again. So I grudgingly accepted that I cannot write a review without spilling emotions and connections, which has little to do with the work as Wilde said. When someone brought up something that wasn’t in the text, I did not just raise my eyebrow — I thought it’s idiotic. I was no better than Dorian Gray. Every positive review, I saw, was a giant masturbatory session. My attitude on the world and art now resembled the knight of resignation and I could only laugh at my own demise. Because that’s what knights of resignation do.
Life goes on. I read to waste time, not to enjoy or learn something. Art is silence. The lesser you say about the work, the deeper your appreciation of the work is. There is one thing I do know in this chaotic world and it’s the fact that I love the activity of reading. Give me a book of any kind and I’ll read it.
One day, I have decided to read Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. I picked this book because I thought it may help me understand Dies Irae better and possibly inspire me back to writing a post. Of course, that post — but this book and various others that follow after including Mimesis, Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome, and Sakura no Uta had reinvented the way I see art.
A Theory of Parody, in particular, had taught me the concept of intertextuality — the relation between texts. Parodies encode a text beforehand to forge that relationship. Dies Irae is melded with Goethe’s Faust Part 1. Our understanding of Dies and Faust is mutualist, the same way the relationship of a pilot fish and a shark is mutualist. They help and inform each other’s readings. Masada, the writer of Dies, loves using this particular quote from Faust:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
Linger a while — thou art so fair!
There are various interpretations he uses to fulfill Dies‘s parodic/mutualist relationship to Faust. Everyone knows the protagonist of Dies has the ability to stop time and that’s one use. Another involves his relationship with Marie in her route. But in the holistic contexts of Dies and Faust, it is a warning to people that moments do not last and to linger further stops us in our tracks.
Dies Irae is written to the knights of resignation in mind, to those people who have stopped climbing because they don’t want to move forward. When we linger (or tremble in fear) at that moment that takes our attention, we will never mature. Such an attitude must disappear. We need to learn how to close the book we have finished and move on.
This mutualism made me realize that this mimesis/anti-mimesis argument was a false dichotomy. Aren’t mimesis and anti-mimesis mutualistic? Why couldn’t we say, “Life informs our understanding of art and art informs our understanding of life”?
This eureka moment was not complete. It was not until Yoru wa Mijikashi and Sakura no Uta where I learned the full extent of sub specie aeternitatis, the aspect of the eternal.
In other words, God’s point of view.
I see art from a distance. I am deliberately pulling myself back. To use an example from Yoru wa Mijikashi, I am on the clouds with some deities. Everyone below me looks microscopic. They are exchanging books instead of keeping books for themselves because books are meant to be read. From where I am, they look like fishes swimming.
This is not to be confused with historicism where we see a linear progress of art’s advancements. Nor is it the naive objectivity. No, I mean I am seeing the world and history of art in the knight of faith’s view, a holistic approach aka the aspect of the eternal.
The aspect of the eternal is holistic: it goes beyond subjective and objective — it encompasses all.
There is a reason why we must see the world this way. In the introduction to Spinoza’s complete works, translator Samuel Shirley laments how “even if we grasp the fact that there is a total system and understand its principles to some degree, our experience is so circumscribed and narrow that we are bound to make mistakes about our understanding of the system and our place in it.” He calls this disability similar to”myopia” and this “confines our understanding”.
This is what the knights of resignations suffer from. According to Schopenhauer, the knights of resignation are “the many who study in order to fill their memory [and] do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of the burden.” This is “fear and trembling” at its finest, but we rarely notice it. This can be seen if we look at ourselves climbing that ladder in the aspect of the eternal. We are still on that same step smiling like dorks without realizing the precarious situation we are in: we haven’t moved.
But we can develop a critical lens of the eternal — to see the world as a whole in the eyes of a God — because, as Shirley writes, “we aspire to experience every detail, every event, and every item as part of the whole, to see it from the perspective of the whole rather than from our own narrow point of view.”
We can see this in practice. In Writing from Start to Finish by John Schultz, he talks about how to depict scenes. If the writers find themselves backed in a corner, examining a lamp on a table in a room for no reason, that’s not good writing. The reader is stuck on this lamp when things are happening elsewhere. In order to create spatial relations, the writer must pull back from the scene and, in my words, see the scene from the aspect of the eternal. The lamp may be part of the scene, but then the writer can see that there are other events worth writing about. It is a simple instruction, but we are accustomed to being fixated to the space we are in. This is one of the many practical examples why the aspect of the eternal is crucial as an ideal attitude to live for.
To look at the world as a whole with an attitude like this is liberating. I can see what Wittgenstein means when he writes in his Notebooks, “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.” We have to be aware that, to use a cliche, there’s more than what meets the eye. Wittgenstein allegorizes this by a picture of a monk smiling at the vision of the Virgin Mary. The smile is there, but a slight, subtle change of the line (perhaps from where we see it, the line being smudged, or how moody we are) may make the monk’s smile ironic in our narrow-minded view. As Wittgenstein summarized, “it’s all in the attitude.” If we take the attitude of the aspect of the eternal, we may notice this slight change that can change our interpretations of the painting and then discover that there are multiple meanings which make up the work.
In a way, the critical lens of the eternal can be compared to Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy. When we deconstruct a text, we unwrap the text and let the contents spill. Deconstruction allows us to see what makes up the work. We see not only the framework of the work of art but all the notions and prejudices that society and education have instilled in us. What Wittgenstein did was that he deconstructed that monk painting when he noticed that the smile could be seen as honest or ironic. It really is all in the attitude. Deconstruction (or seeing in the aspect of the eternal) shows all the possible attitudes. It does not make a mess out of it, but it lets us see how every attitudes, notions, prejudices, everything can make up the work. We are not stuck on one dogmatic meaning, but many other meanings.
Multiple meanings demolish the idea that art is, to use a Wildeian expression, “useless”. It is active. The artwork is not just about the artist, but the attitudes of the reader as well. Wilde is right in saying that our reactions to a piece reflect ourselves and that didacticism is poor art, but artworks and flowers can help us climb the ladder. It teaches us to move on. The French slogan, “l’art pour l’art”, is not true — crying out “Art for art’s sake” is not only bourgeoisie, it doesn’t make sense! How can we say that art, which “is the great stimulus to life” in Nietzsche’s words, can be understood “as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”
This epiphany surprised me. Wilde’s aestheticism was holding me back and not letting me climb up the ladder. Instead, I lingered on that beautiful moment, on Wilde’s ideas — I was actually trembling in fear. It took me ten years to figure out that art was not sterile; it was simply active.
So I climb the ladder again, free from the uncompromising ideas of aestheticism to search for the aspect of the eternal. I must let go of that knowledge in order to look for another one.
But I know that, if I want to succeed, I must acknowledge that reading in the aspect of the eternal is more than just deconstruction and pulling back from the scene. A knight of faith thinks, from this God’s point of view, what the whole world looks like — so he or she tries to be in a reader’s perspective; use different critical lenses (Freudian, Marxist, postcolonialism, race, feminist, LGBT, New Historicism, formalism, new criticism etc.); recognizes signs, signifier, and the signified in a work of art; examines what the work is telling, how it’s told, the way it’s told; realizes what the art piece is doing to the audience; and more.
And sometimes, I must admit that I will not always succeed in the fashion I wanted. Samuel Shirley writes again in his introduction to Spinoza that “our success is limited; we can free ourselves from prejudices and blindness but only to a degree. We can see ourselves and act in terms of the whole, but only within limits.” This is difficult when “our goal is to free ourselves from the distortions and corruptions of our finitude, to become free, active, and rational. These are all the same, and are aspects of becoming like the whole, which is what the tradition dignifies with the title ‘God’ or ‘divine’ or ‘the Highest Good.’”
But I feel it is possible to be in accordance with the world and look ar the world holistically if we collaborate.
Here is an example: there was an art exhibition of Charles Ray’s sculptures in the Art Institute of Chicago. I was looking at these sculptures and the gallery was packed with museum-goers. There was a car that looked totaled and I read the description. It turned out that Charles Ray had actually sculpted based on a real car that went into an accident. The description asked us to ponder about that. So I did precisely that while glancing at kids pointing at the license plate. Like most viewers, I assumed that this was an ultra-realistic car wreck and that’s to the extent of it. So I took a picture with my iPhone. Several people were doing the same. As I walked around the exhibition, I saw the sculpture of a man lying on a hammock-like structure as if he’s taking a nap; there’s a woman crouching down; another woman was naked and looked stunted. Everyone was taking pictures.
However, a security guard noticed that I wasn’t getting the meaning of this exhibition.
“Notice everyone around you,” he said, “what is everyone doing?” He told me to walk to the far end of the gallery so I can look back and see the crashed car sculpture as if it was part of the Chicago scenery. The gallery’s windows were usually closed, so I did think it was unusual they were letting natural light in.
Then, everything made sense.
The people around me taking pictures of the sculptures, the sculptures’ locations, why I have to be on this corner to see what I am supposed to see…
It looked like a car accident in the middle of Chicago. And we’re all in it.
You had the crashed car, you had the people crying in shock, and most importantly you had the busybodies — the museum-goers — who were taking pictures like it was nobody’s business.
The museum-goers, including myself, were part of the art. This gallery was curated in such a way where people who were looking at the aspect of the eternal were the only ones to realize that we were being toyed with. There were three messages the curator wanted to tell:
- We museum-goers are uncaring bastards who take pictures of the grotesque because it amuses us. There was at no point we thought it was gross and disgusting.
- We see art in galleries the same way we see car accidents in the street; we concentrate on it for a few seconds, take out our iPhones and snap a picture, nod, and then leave.
- It’s all about the attitude we take to view art.
I am not what sure to call it but this meta-something, along with Charles Ray’s eye for perception and scale, made a huge impression on me. The way we look at the world and art changes how we think.
But I must add another point to the curator’s list:
- The knights of faith should also help the knights of resignation see the way.
I was not able to tell what this gallery was about if not for the friendly security guard. He urged me to tell everyone in the gallery — anyone who wanted to listen to me — about this revelation. Some ignored me, but the ones who listened were as enlightened as I was. I could hear their minds go poof the same way mine did.
Isn’t art in some way a communication medium? It is one of the many ways for the knight of faith to express a desire for collaboration. Sometimes, you have those ideas bouncing in your head and you want to put it down on paper. But what are the “certain beautiful forms” that we must use to realize that “energy” that Wilde noted? Every idea is unique and various approaches can be used to elicit wildly different moods.
The relationship of the knight of faith and knight of resignation is mutualist.
I must add two more points to the curator’s list:
- With this new understanding from collaboration, the knights must reread and rethink their actions and perception of art and ethics.
- The knights must repeat #4 and #5 until satisfied.
To reach the aspect of the eternal, discussions and rereadings are required as well. Jinrui wa Suitaishimashita is one of those works that require a second reading because, once you know what the fairies stand for, it changes how and the way you read. You will notice details that you will normally be unable to pick up. Chapters you would think are pointless become the most meaningful experiences for the protagonist and the reader. The title has a different connotation that what is initially assumed. Holistically, Jintai becomes filled with different readings that can enrich the experience.
This isn’t just restricted to Jintai. I believe the reason why people reread is because they learn new details with every rereading they do. Whether they realize it or not, they are in a different position with knowledge about the work — the critical lens of the eternal — and this causes them to read more deeply into the works they love. Add in discussion and they are closer to reaching that goal.
Anyone who reads like a knight of faith would try their best to emancipate themselves from prejudices and restrictions. They will find ways to spark new readings into the works they love and begin to love; they will also not linger on a particular reading or work of art.
And this is why I will agree with my fellow blogger Seele in that Sakura no Uta should not be classified under a typical bildungsroman/coming-of-age story — it’s like Catcher in the Rye in the sense that the protagonist doesn’t mature — but I disagree with Seele’s use of slice-of-life. To classify SakuUta under any ordinary label would require me to redefine a commonly accepted term for my own purposes, which is a bad habit of philosophy that should disappear (even Wittgenstein was problematic for this and he knew that as seen in Philosophical Investigations when he declares his ideas as obsolete!). And even if we managed to put SakuUta under a slice-of-life genre, it does not sharpen our insights into the work. Putting anything in a genre of most kinds dulls our minds into accepting conventions and discourage us to read in the critical lens of the eternal.
What we should do is develop the critical lens further and use it in practice. For a long time, people assumed Dickinson’s poetry had no consistent principles and thus not poetry. Her published poetry was censored unwittingly (her famous dashes became commas) and she was considered one of those madwomen in the attics. Her pieces were considered religious, sentimental, and bland because they read like church hymns. But recently, rereadings have given us the idea of the Dickinson sublime and her versatile approach to humanity. Her poems are small, but they pack a lot of possibilities. Multiple readings can easily be gained. It is no surprise that neuroscientists enjoy quoting “The brain is wider than the sky” because they see it as applicable to their own fields of study. SCA-JI’s interpretation of that poem in Subarashiki Hibi emphasizes the mind-body dualism (and the lack of it because, after all, the sky is part of the brain). Her poems are accepted into the contemporary world because we embraced multiple readings through the critical lens of the eternal.
There is a certain philosophy to this lens I feel that needs to exist as well: to advance our imagination into possibilities and new beginnings. For this to happen, we should learn as much as we can and then drop them when it’s unhelpful or unnecessary. We need to treat the many schools of thoughts like aestheticism and even deconstructionism as something to learn and then leave behind. Returning to Schopenhauer, he says:
For the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him up one step, he leaves it behind.
This duty will stop us from trembling in fear. We will be able to move on with our lives.
And artists, the knights of faith, know this — that endings are merely new beginnings. Sakura no Uta ends with a new beginning to show this. Subarashiki Hibi shows that ladder being knocked away in the “Tsui no Sora II” ending. If on a winter’s night a traveler is about the beginnings of books and moving on. Crime and Punishment and various Victorian-era novels end on a note that suggests there’s another story to be told but this isn’t the right time.
“Pump Six”, one of my favorite SF short stories, shows a bleak world. Humanity has dumbed down literally and has turned into beings that can only fuck. But the protagonist borrows an engineering book that he doesn’t understand, opens the book, and reads it. One of my professors summarized this story to a group of English teachers and they complained that “Pump Six” was another example of science fiction stories being depressing. But my professor argued that it is not. To him, this is a new beginning and the protagonist doesn’t tremble in fear at the duty. Yes, the beginning may be rough and he may never succeed, but he is a knight of faith. He is in accordance with the world and sees humanity in the aspect of the eternal. Even if humanity is wiped out, at least he tried — no, he was climbing the ladder, knowing that he will fall at some point and possibly be unable to stop the destruction of humanity. That was not an attempt; that was his duty to climb the ladder.
But it is difficult to be a knight of faith and let go of the rung that is making us a knight of resignation. Our current place in humanity is depressing and we have nothing to hold to. To us, the world just ends. Explanations that should make us feel calm don’t — they make us feel worse. In the light of several shootings that have happened recently, we probably have the right to think badly of ourselves. There’s nothing to latch on: our distrust of the government is considered normal when it shouldn’t be, we can’t follow the commandment of “Love thy neighbor” without going “screw you”, and there are so many things that don’t make sense to us. Adults feel like children again. The loss of certainty has reduced us to shambles. Relativism and subjectivity are accepted rightly so, but we accept them grudgingly. No grand narratives exist. And we remember that we die (memento mori). This myopically absurdist attitude, to me, is the postmodern condition — the condition of being a knight of resignation.
But what this critical lens does is cure that. It turns us into knights of faith. In Proposition 6.54 in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein says:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
Wittgenstein says that if you use his philosophy to examine Tractatus, then everything in the text becomes meaningless. This is the criticism Popper uses in The Logic of Scientific Discovery and I definitely agree it makes no sense. But there’s another meaning to this ladder analogy as we know and this is what Popper has missed. Wittgenstein asks us to not treat his Tractatus as gospel; he wants us to move on with our lives, to a new beginning with this new knowledge.
We should see Subarashiki Hibi, Sakura no Uta, or anything as steps, not as something to be proud of because we read it or tremble in fear because we dread its power. That hinders us to move forward. We must do the same even with death. We must see death not as an gruesome ending but as a new beginning (or as SCA-JI puts it, ウィトゲンシュタインの「永遠の相の下」は、我々は死を経験出来ない。経験出来ないものは永遠に来ない。つまり今を生きる者は永遠の世界で生きている事と同じである、というアクロバティックでありながら単純明快な思想です。). We must, in Wittgenstein’s words, “surmount these propositions; then [we] see the world rightly.”
We shall never stay still.
And with tools like deconstruction, pulling back from the scene, and the farsightedness to see ourselves as pieces in a chessboard, we will no longer dwell on the specific, the particular, the existential, the postmodernist condition but dwell instead on new beginnings, new possibilities, and the rungs we must climb up to reach the top.
But we may have to abandon those tools to reach the aspect of the eternal. It’s an irony and a contradiction, I know, to say we must drop the tools associated with the critical lens of the eternal. But it is also how Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus. If we want to adopt this attitude toward life, then there’s no other way out. When the time comes, we knights of faith have to climb up and knock away the ladder. We have to adapt.
It is a warning Karl Jaspers knows too very well. He knows that “our questions and answers are in part determined by the historical tradition in which we find ourselves. We apprehend truth from our own source within the historical tradition.” This determination contextualizes our thoughts not in the aspect of the eternal but in a subjective history. It is “myopic”. If we stay in this subjective history, we will stay on the same rung of the ladder looking for a readymade answer to that questions of art and ethics.
But true philosophizing can only happen if our thoughts “arise from our own source.” He famously said, “Only as an individual can man become a philosopher.” We knights of faith have to raise our consciousness beyond our limits and communicate to each other so we can realize the fruits of our efforts. Communication is what he means by “our own source”. Collaboration and teamwork will provide new methods to overcome new challenges. This never-ending discussion can set us back on the path for the aspect of the eternal. The more feedback we receive, the more we can fine-tune this method. Soon, we ex-knights of resignation too can hear the sound put into syllables like all the knights of faith or as Jaspers puts in his own words, “The more determinedly I exist, as myself, within the conditions of the time, the more clearly I shall hear the language of the past, the nearer I shall feel the glow of its life.” This is the power of a holistic approach like the critical lens of the eternal — with collaboration.
Knocking the ladder off in unison will transform the knights of resignation into the knights of faith. And the knights of faith look for another ladder to climb. And the cycle repeats forever. That is how we advance humanity into the aspect of the eternal.
That is how I view the categorical imperative, “Live happily!”
P.S. If I may allow myself to be presumptuous and speak on behalf of the writers of this blog without their consent, we see this blog as a ladder too. One of you readers could read a post, go “wow, that was cool”, and never come back to this website. And that’s okay with us. We are a rung of a ladder, a mere epitaph in this fun derangement of epitaphs. You may leave us behind, forget the URL of this blog, and move on with your life. That is the case of not just blogs but mass media in general. Very few people stay. We can switch channels at the flick of a remote button. But we hope we may inspire you to see the world in a different way and help you climb your own personal ladder. Maybe you’ll say, “I guess light novels aren’t that bad after all.” Or even “Huh, I didn’t know visual novels existed.” Simple stuff like that. But that’s a change. Even if it’s small.
Would you call this blog useless if you are trying to get some utility out of it? Yeah, we admit that we are probably going to fail and instead write for English speakers who can read Japanese. That’s the dilemma of visual novel blogs like Mimidoshima and Curry Curry Chronicles: we are writing reviews of games no one will ever play. What’s even the point? Just put that on Twitter. We are already there. No one is going to read them. People who are interested will have followed us already. I can’t speak for Curry, but my own blog (and even in its previous incarnations) doesn’t get many views. There will always be that problem that we will write for a too specific audience and we cannot deny that.
But like “a flower blossoms for its own joy”, we write for ourselves. And here I will agree with Wilde that whatever the person does with the flower (or the blog post) is not part of the essence. But here I must disagree: it is not accidental and it is not a misuse. It is a cure for our postmodern condition. It is a rung of the ladder. It is holistic. It is the critical lens of the eternal.
Following John Fowles’s ideas in The Aristos, I believe that our duty in this blog is to educate non-Japanese learners out of a “false sense of inferiority” (fear and trembling) and that we Japanese learners and bloggers are responsible for that education to happen (Jaspers’s ideas). The “precious elite” is not threatened by the “barbaric hordes”; we need each other to coexist. The relationship between Japanese learners and non-Japanese learners is mutualist. The knights of faith will help the knights of resignation climb the ladder. This is our blog’s mission under the guidance of the critical lens of the eternal.
We want this blog to spark a new beginning in your lives. Just like what Sakura no Uta did to us.