We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science. Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world, which is to say, the anthropomorphic world.
On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Frederich Nietzsche.
One of the most difficult things to cope with this past few years is the constant confrontation with death. Since my mother died, the most common question that pops into my head is “does it really matter?” I watched her lose her mind, unafraid of death for the most part and quite accepting of it. What mattered mostly were the little things, the little bits of dignity that so slowly slipped away from her. For the last five or six years of her life, I called her everyday. That is, until she could no longer stay coherent long enough to speak on the phone. I missed those calls, as they became less and less frequent before her death. I’d like to be able to say she slipped away quietly into a dream, but it was more like she just got lost in a nightmare that she never woke up from. It was chilling, filled with paranoia and delusions, and unsettling to the core.
In a profound sense, my world just collapsed. Her passing wasn’t “natural” to me the way my father’s was. My father simply drove himself to the hospital and died. My mother faced a long, slow, and unpredictable decline. I’d been thinking up to this point that my life was improving, moving ahead. I had more respect, had managed a more secure financial outlook, had a secure and satisfying romantic relationship and an intellectual project that seemed all-consuming; but what happened to my mother threw me. Is this what really happens? Are people inevitably reducible to (streamlining Earl Butz) to the desire for comfortable shoes and a warm place to go to the bathroom?
I’m finally managing to get some distance from the problem, but nothing seemed very important after that beyond simple human kindness. I put down my scholarly projects due to a deep depression and an inability to concentrate, and moved to other pursuits that were more tangible and bound to objective realities. I didn’t stop theorizing, so much as I directed my hive-building into other areas. For the first time in my life, I’m buying my own home. I disconnected my self from Universities for a time, and began a different sort of life that wasn’t centered on the catacombs of scholarship, in a hut as far away from it as I could manage.
Whereas the man of action binds his life to reason and its concepts so that he will not be swept away and lost, the scientific investigator builds his hut right next to the tower of science so that he will be able to work on it and to find shelter for himself beneath those bulwarks which presently exist. And he requires shelter, for there are frightful powers which continuously break in upon him, powers which oppose scientific truth with completely different kinds of “truths” which bear on their shields the most varied sorts of emblems.(ibid)
I hadn’t really thought about the time I spent at the University of Minnesota that much until the past week or so, when I started thinking about Vicky Mikelonis. I was excited to take her class on “Models and Metaphors.” We read deeply into metaphor theory, which I had first encountered in Paul Ricouer’s The Rule of Metaphor which I read alone at University of Arkansas. I had a lot of trouble with it, and there really wasn’t anyone there to ask about it. With Vicky’s help it made a lot more sense the second time around, as did the volumes of theory we read along with it. Vicky used Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” as the capstone for that class.
I hadn’t thought about it until lately, when a colleague at SU mentioned teaching with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” The Orwell now horrifies me with its privileged white male perspective on language. I taught with it my first few semesters as a teacher and came to loathe and discard it quickly. It only took a few moments to remember the Nietzsche as a potential alternative view, with its major problem being that it would be incomprehensible to undergraduates while the Orwell is easily digested. Both see language as central to being human, tied to habit and convention and sometimes leading us astray. The difference is that Nietzsche accepts the inevitability of this rather than railing against it. The more I read the Orwell, the more I got Pete Townshend’s “Won’t get fooled again” stuck in my head. How barbarous to think that your own tired concept of language isn’t just as barbarous as any that has been used before? I haven’t been able to look away from the Nietzsche essay for the last week, and the more I looked at it the more I remembered Vicky.
The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally. (ibid)
We read glorious theories in that class, which always have some sort of fatal flaw. Vicky passed away in 2007, and I always wondered why she never wrote much on the subject of metaphor outside of pedagogical applications. She taught technical writing, primarily, and the things she taught made a deep impact on the world and her students. She could walk through the air of complex theories, never losing sight of the real and grounded human potentialities behind them. One of her favorite comparisons about the moment at which we truly “get” a metaphor and see its aptness, as the same sort of “ah-ha” moment that we get the punch-line of a joke. She took these theories and applied them to how people learned, not in a dry way, but in a way that made you smile with the sheer humanity of it all. She seemed fascinated and interested in my comparatively arcane research agenda (19th century photography), and unlike most of the professors I knew at UMN was always available just to chat about strange and beautiful things. I knew she was sick, but I never thought about her dying. She was always too busy living to get dragged down by death. In a strange coincidence, she was also the only woman besides my mother to consistently call me “Jeffrey” even though I frequently protested.
I haven’t read the Nietzsche since she passed, and since my mother passed. It takes on a new sense of urgency for me now, although the drive to compare, and shape metaphors was stronger then. Now, I’d rather build than write. I want to reshape my world, not conceptually but physically— and not as art, but as craft.
This drive continually confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies. It continually manifests an ardent desire to refashion the world which presents itself to waking man, so that it will be as colorful, irregular, lacking in results and coherence, charming, and eternally new as the world of dreams. Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art. (ibid)
Sometimes I feel like I’m drifting away, only brought back when I shape actual objects to fill my world with. It’s a struggle to be awake.