a note on forced choice/love of fate

i think these notions of nietzsche and zizek both mean to move beyond the dichotomy of more or less complete free will, on the one hand, and predetermination on the other.  instead of this either/or, zizek and nietzsche wish to suggest that there is a way of feeling both that my choice is highly conditioned by forces beyond my control and that i am free to affirm it or disavow it.  the point revolves around a distinction between two ways of thinking about free will:  1)  as a quasi god-like power to sovereign self-determination, or 2) as the relatively marginal freedom to affirm or disavow the fate determined by circumstances beyond my control.  i think nietzsche and zizek agree that #1 is an illusion, albeit an illusion that’s hard to avoid, since voluntarily rejecting it implicitly affirms it no less than overtly affirming it does.  hence the only way to shake loose the illusion of free will #1 is by recognizing contingencies of fate which are beyond our control but also strongly influence who we are.  nietzsche’s sections on  intellectual conscience and physics are about being honest with ourselves about the radical complexity of the world, of the causal conditions impinging on our choices from all sides (think of the sublimity of reality post below:  how could one pretend to master one’s reality when it’s so complex?).  the only freedom that we have any real chance of exercising is the freedom to affirm or disavow the fate we find ourselves confronted with.  the chance to exercise this freedom #2 only arises when we acknowledge what is always the case anyway, which is that the illusory freedom #1 hides all those predetermining conditions of our behavior; hence the importance of disappointment, or for nietzsche illness, brief habits, perspectivism, style, etc.  but although freedom #2 may seem like a marginal power in comparison with #1, exercising it makes a huge and real, effective difference (whereas the power of #1 was always only illusory anyway):  to make your fate the object enthusiastic relishing rather than resentment or denial is to transform it utterly.  so much modern art starting with the romantics is about changing the world not by force of will but by effecting this subtle shift in attitude or perspective upon a world too complex to allow for unproblematic belief in free will.

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nov. 8 notes and questions



1.  When Lady Catherine reveals her investment in marrying her daughter to Darcy she assumes a perhaps surprising likeness to Mrs. Bennet; are there other ways in which the two characters are analogs?  what might Austen’s point be in drawing similarities between these two?

2.  “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” (237).  How are we supposed to view this remark of Mr. Bennet’s?

3.  Comment on how Darcy’s discovery of Elizabeth’s love for him is narrated:  “Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, diffused over his face, became him…” (239).

4.  To the question of when he originally fell for Elizabeth Darcy says,  “I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”  Then Elizabeth herself steps in to explain:  “I interested you because I was so unlike them [i.e. the “women who were always looking for your approbation” and who “disgusted” you]” (248).  Is this a picture of two of the key aspects of love we’ve been discussing, that it’s compulsive and perverse?

5.  Zizek says that the true nature of the two characters is determined precisely by how they negotiate their illusions about one another (67); in Nietzschean terms, absent those illusions, they could not have become who they are.  Explain how truth could be a function of illusion.

6.  To the question of when she fell for Darcy Elizabeth emphatically jokes that “I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (244); does this joke cut too close to the bone?


1.  Why is the “modernist esthetic…incompatible with a moral point of view” (153)?

2.  Why does Vermeule claim, in spite of this, that “human psychology is inevitably moral psychology,” that “even self-recognition means facing the pressure of someone’s claims on you” and that such “moral anxiety” is “a version of the sublime” (153-4)?

3.  What difference does it make to think of God “not as a legislator or exemplar” but as “‘full access’ social agent especially interested in moral questions” (162)?


Odes are traditionally addresses to the gods of some kind, sung in praise, supplication and/or beseeching.  Keats’s odes are addressed to an electic set of god-like things.  The order in which they were written is a matter of some controversy but according to one chronology the odes are addressed:

  1. [To a mood (indolence) (which we’re not reading)]
  2. To a goddess (psyche)
  3. To a nightingale
  4. To an urn
  5. To an emotion (melancholy)
  6. To a season (autumn)

1.  In his letter on the “Vale of Soul-Making” Keats argues that salvation requires “the medium of a world like this;” in other words, the soul isn’t otherworldly but strictly a function of worldly existence.  A great way to think about Keats’s odes is as worldly media of soul making:  aesthetic experiences through which something like soul gets generated.  The most tangibly worldly of the entities to which Keats’s odes are addressed are the nightingale and the urn, whereas the one that is most recognizably ode-like and concerned with salvation is the Ode to Psyche.  So a good general question to ask is what do the odes to psyche, nightingale and Grecian urn do differently? All present an image of immortality in one way or another; but do the various images of immortality have different implications?

2.  In light of Keats’s critique of Christianity in his letter on soul-making, is his talk of worship in Psyche to be taken literally?  is he proposing a kind of religious practice here?  what could it mean to worship in a church of the mind?  wouldn’t this be at odds with Keats’s insistence that the soul is rather worldly rather just spiritual?

3.  A large section of Psyche is repeated; what is the significance and function of this repetition?  does this give it a ritualistic form?


  1. what does Shelley mean when he says: “We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life:  our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest” (1195)?
  2. What exactly does he mean by calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world;” what do they legislate and how? Why aren’t they acknowledged?  Do you agree with Shelley that “reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance” (1185)?
  3. Why does Shelley say that “in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry” (1186); and “poetry is never more to be desired than in periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.” (1195)?
  4. Explain this passage:  “The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.  A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of this species must become his own.  The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause” (1191).
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zizek-chatter on facebook

Max Brzezinski Just saw Zizek rambling down Trinity Ave. — it takes a
confident philsopher to work a brown fleece hoodie.
6 hours ago · Comment · Like
Jason D. Gladstone and 12 others like this.
Steve Brzezinski I would have loved to have seen that.
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Jason D. Gladstone say hi for me.
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Max Brzezinski he thinks like dr. jekyll & looks like mr. hyde.

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heavenly hurt

Emily Dickinson (on ‘second death’?):

THERE’S a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;                    5
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
’T is the seal, despair,—                    10
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’t is like the distance                    15
On the look of death.

OF bronze and blaze
The north, to-night!
So adequate its forms,
So preconcerted with itself,
So distant to alarms,— 5
An unconcern so sovereign
To universe, or me,
It paints my simple spirit
With tints of majesty,
Till I take vaster attitudes, 10
And strut upon my stem,
Disdaining men and oxygen,
For arrogance of them.

My splendors are menagerie;
But their competeless show 15
Will entertain the centuries
When I am, long ago,
An island in dishonored grass,
Whom none but daisies know.

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Lamia is about a god falling in love with a mortal.  So is, as we’ll soon see, the Ode to Psyche.  The story of Lamia’s love for Lycius, on the one hand, and that of Cupid’s for Psyche (and Psyche’s for the poet), on the other, reach opposite conclusions:  instead of the mortal Lycius getting elevated to immortality like Psyche, both he and Lamia die.  But this distinction is arguably beside the key point:  for Keats’s main aim in both cases is to show the interdependence between our images of death and of immortality.  For instance, as we saw, it is precisely the deadness of the urn, its resistance to our attempts to attach living meaning and purpose to it, that makes it a vehicle of temporal transcendence.  For Keats immortality is in essence an impossible phantom-dream (e.g., of an unhearable melody) projected from the context of time and mortality.

Love and Death

Lamia is a romance narrative – i.e., a narrative of a quest for love.   Anticipating the title of the Woody Allen movie though, the poem suggests that love is defined by the same paradox that defines death, since it is both incompatible with and requires time:  it is only from within a time-bound perspective that the dream of timeless love (or death) can appear as such.  What Lamia falls in love with is precisely the spectacle of a mortal striving to be god-like, something gods themselves cannot do.  There’s something wonderful about Lycius at the races appearing “like Jove” which Jove himself could never manifest.  Time is the condition of Lycius’s god-likeness, of his seeming timelessness, a point which is especially underscored by the fact that Lycius appears “like Jove” precisely while racing, as worldly and temporal an activity as there is.

Time is also the precondition of narrative, the medium in which alone narrative can take place. So although Lamia is a romance narrative, insofar as it recounts a quest for unnarratable, timeless love, it is importantly also a  self-deconstructing narrative, exposing the formal incapacity of narrative to contain its own story.  The love that would be narrated both presupposes and explodes the bounds of narrative time.

In Lamia, self-deconstruction is performed not only by the narrative upon itself but also by characters within the narrative upon themselves.  Quite apart from the truth of Lamia and her god-love for Lycius’s god-likeness, we also see how the mortals Lycius, Lycius’s friends and Apollonius view Lamia.  In a way that recalls Blake’s Songs, Keats shows us how mortals’ distorted views of the supernatural become self-fulfilling prophecies.  By not respecting the constitutive dreaminess of the dream – that it can’t be temporally realized but only imagined as the opposite of time – Lycius and his peers variously pretend to take ownership of the divine and are consequently hollowed out like the knight in La Belle Dame and the poet of the Nightingale ode.  First of all Lycius, in his all-too-human vanity, becomes dissatisfied with the divine bliss he and Lamia share ensconced in their love shack (the very paradox of temporally ‘becoming’ dissatisfied with timeless bliss underscores Lycius’s constitutive time-boundedness).  Lycius must convert that bliss into social currency to win the esteem of his peers:  “in thee I should rejoice / Amid the hoarse alarm of Corinth’s voice” (II, 60-1).  Likewise his friends at the banquet become intoxicated to the point that Lamia is “no more so strange,” about which Keats comments that “wine will make Elysian shades not too fair, too divine” (II, 211-2).  Lycius’s vanity and his friends’ self-indulgence foreshadow and are continuous with the ultimate heresy against the “strangeness” of the divine dream (“the Elysian shade”):  Apollonius’s “unweaving of the rainbow,” reducing what was a source of “awe” to one among the “dull catalog of common things.”  “Lamia” is commonly read as a more or less straightforward critique of “cold philosophy” which “clips angels’ wings.”  This critique is doubtless central to the poem, but we can’t let it eclipse Keats’s larger point that respecting the strangeness and awesomeness of the divine means respecting its status as a dream.  So just as St. Agnes’s concluding scene of mortal decay functions to preserve the “phantom”-form of the lovers’ rapture, so too there in a sense in which by “clipping the angels’ wings” Apollonius also implicitly (and unwittingly) sets them free to fly again.  He releases Lamia back to the realm of fantasy.  Thus by making Lamia “melt into a shade” (II, 229-239) Apollonius despite himself arguably restores her to her properly divine place outside time.

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Nov. 1 questions & notes


Again the key question to begin thinking about now is:  what do the fates of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet mean?  is it not the case that Austen tells us to find them both morally seriously flawed?  if so then why does she leave them not only unpunished but rewarded?


Here are some important terms and passages (extra-super important ones in bold) to keep an eye out for as you’re reading.  Numbers refer to chapters not pages.  As a step toward organizing Nietzsche’s thought I’ve categorized them into very broad themes, but this is just an heuristic and to be taken with a big grain of salt:  Nietzsche uses his aphoristic style precisely to achieve a level of complexity and subtlety that resists this kind of categorization.


  • Prefaceintoxication of convalescence; this tyranny of pain even excelled by the tyranny of pride that refused the conclusions of pain–and conclusions are consolations; the voluptuousness of a triumphant gratitude
  • 1. the short tragedy always gave way again and returned into the eternal comedy of existence.
  • 13. pain always raises the question about its origin while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself without looking back.
  • 301. The higher human being always becomes at the same time happier and unhappier.
  • 307. We negate and must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm.
  • 337. even the poorest fisherman is still rowing with golden oars!
  • 349. in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity.


  • Preface: truth is a woman (cf. 339 and the quote from Beyond Good and Evil below); those Greeks were superficial–out of profundity.
  • 56. Neediness is needed.
  • 107. Art as the good will to appearance.
  • 279. star friendship
  • 283. the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment isto live dangerously!
  • 290. one thing is needful–to give style to one’s character
  • 291. personal infinity
  • 295. Brief habits
  • 304. By doing we forego.
  • 319. We ourselves wish to be our experiments.
  • 339. life is a woman.
  • 344. will to truth might be a concealed will to death.
  • 345. all great problems demand great love.
  • 374. the world [has] become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.


  • 2. The intellectual conscience
  • 109. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident.
  • 125. God is dead…and we have killed him!; Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.  This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars–and yet they have done it themselves.
  • 276.  Amor fati
  • 335. We want to become those we are; long live physics, and even more so that which compels us to turn to physics–our honesty!
  • 341. the greatest weight (the eternal recurrence)
  • 343.  our sea lies open again

Finally, regarding Nietzsche’s likening of life and truth to a woman (in 339 and the Preface), consider the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil (which is also closely to related to the notion of making a “passion of one’s problem,” and to the whole project of a gay or joyful science):

“SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman—what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women—that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman? Certainly she has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien—IF, indeed, it stands at all! ….the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error—namely, Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself. But now when it has been surmounted, when Europe, rid of this nightmare, can again draw breath freely and at least enjoy a healthier—sleep, we, WHOSE DUTY IS WAKEFULNESS ITSELF, are the heirs of all the strength which the struggle against this error has fostered. It amounted to the very inversion of truth, and the denial of the PERSPECTIVE—the fundamental condition—of life….But the struggle against Plato, or—to speak plainer, and for the “people”—the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (FOR CHRISTIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE “PEOPLE”), produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals. As a matter of fact, the European feels this tension as a state of distress, ….we GOOD EUROPEANS, and free, VERY free spirits—we have it still, all the distress of spirit and all the tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the duty, and, who knows? THE GOAL TO AIM AT….”


1.  According to stanzas one and two of the Ode on Melancholy, why should we resist suicide?  does the final stanza not describe something like self-sacrifice? if so what makes this different from suicide?

2.  In his letter of 21 April 1819 to his brother George and his wife, Keats says that instead of speaking of the world as a ‘vale of tears’ we should call it ‘the vale of soul-making;’ what does this mean?


1.  What is the difference between the “truth-experience” and a “truth-effect” (172)?  (nb. Zizek without explanation has Nietzsche stand (i.e. take the blame) for post-structuralist relativism.  Whether or not you buy this conclusion I hope you’ll find plenty in The Gay Science, especially on the themes of amor fati and intellectual conscience, to seriously complicate it.)

2.  What does the question of the possibility of metalanguage have to do with myths of the origin of state power, like that of Freud’s primal parricide and Hegel’s master and slave and Rousseau’s noble savage? The answer has something to do with Lacan’s claim that “the ethical imperative is the mode of the presence of the Real in the Symbolic” (182).  So a metalanguage like the aforementioned myths are according to Zizek necessary though impossible fictions:  they structure the world of social phenomena; it would be impossible to perceive the world of social phenomena (and in particular the phenomenon of social purpose, that the society we’re participating has something to accomplish, has a point) without presupposing the kind of explanation they provide; but by the same token they could not assume phenomenal form without “materializing their own impossibility by their patent absurdity” (175).  When we try to get to the essence or origin of the social world all we find is the empty imperative to, effectively, be social. It’s this empty form of the imperative that these impossible fictions sustain.  There’s no way of opting out of this imperative; it is constitutive of the bedrock, non-negotiable “Real.”  Hence Zizek paraphrasing Kant (and, implicitly, Burke) says that “we cannot penetrate the obscure origins of power because we should not do so (because by doing so, we put ourselves outside its domain and so automatically subvert its legitimacy)” (185).

3.  “The Spirit is a bone” refers to Hegel’s account of phrenology, which argues that if this pseudo-science exercised normative authority in its historical context, then in this context it was in fact that case that spirit animated the skull bone.  This is the kind of “patently absurd” (175) explanatory proposition whose manifest impossibility demonstrates its underlying necessity:  hence “we succeed in transmitting the dimension of subjectivity by means of the failure itself, through the radical insufficiency, through the absolute maladjustment of the predicate in relation to the subject” (234).

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sublimity of reality

scales of the universe

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oct. 25 notes and questions


This set of chapters includes some of the most pivotal of the novel.  One sign of this is that Austen’s narrator starts rendering some pretty broad and conclusive judgments:  the narrator sticks her/his neck out in other words, committing to certain value judgments rather than continuing to stand sardonically aloof making wry comments on characters’ and society’s follies.  These judgments pertain to the difference between what makes for good and bad personal character, especially a good and bad spouse, and what counts as genuine and false aesthetic taste and cultivation.

1.  So we learn in Chap. 43 that Mr. Bennet is guilty of serious “impropriety” (155) as a husband.  This could come as a surprise since his perspective seems so close to that of Elizabeth and the narrator (for instance on p. 124, upon first learning from Colonel Fitzwilliam about Darcy’s insulting maneuvers against her family on Bingley’s behalf, Elizabeth exclaims that nothing “could be urged against my father, who though with some peculiarities, has abilities which Mr. Darcy himself need not disdain, and respectability which he will probably never reach”).  So what impropriety does she discover in her father and why does she only discover it now and not earlier?  have Elizabeth and the narrator also been guilty of the same impropriety?

2.  Chapter 43 may be the most important of the novel.  The crucial events recounted here all have to do with Elizabeth’s aesthetic cultivation, the training or (in the more judgmental, normative terms of the novel) growth and ripening of Elizabeth’s taste.  The key objects she learns to appreciate in new ways are the estate of Pemberley and the person of Darcy.  So two questions:  i) what are the values that in each or both cases are newly revealed to her? ii) what or who mediates the revelation (consider for instance the role of art (architecture, furniture and above all painting), “nature,” and Mrs. Reynolds)?

3.  How do you explain the alternation of Darcy’s character at Pemberly?  To what extent is it not an alteration in Darcy at all but in how Elizabeth views him?

4.  This chapter ends with Elizabeth preoccupied with this alteration in Darcy “but above all with his wishing her to be acquainted with his sister.”  Is this not bizarre?  Why does the sister’s importance exceed his?  (is she secretly in love with the sister or something?)

5.  Two crucial themes to consider:  i) officers:  what could Austen be suggested about the military, about society generally, and about love, by making Lydia infatuated with anybody in uniform?  (consider Georgiana’s mocking comment:  “Pray Miss Eliza, are not the militia removed from Meryton?  They must be a great loss to your family” (174);  ii) perversion:  the theme of perversion explicitly crops up in many key places which suggests that Austen may implicitly be making a broader point about it:  the fact that Darcy arrives at Pemberley while Elizabeth is there is called perverse (163); Elizabeth acknowledges Darcy’s love for her only insofar as it counteracts first his supposed contempt for her and then her expressed contempt for him; Georgiana perversely compels Darcy to praise Elizabeth (176).

6.  “Though they could not all talk, they could all eat” (174).  Discuss.


Please be sure to read this!!! It is particularly clear and accessible and covers many of the key issues we’ve been dealing with.

Solitary confinement is akin to the experience of the Guantanamo Bay or death row prisoners we discussed last class:  in Kermode’s words, time that doesn’t progress towards any end is empty, and “without the sense of passing time one is virtually ceasing to live, one loses contact with reality.”  But Kermode argues that the novel Solitary Confinement demonstrates that this loss actually opens up possibilities for profound, autonomous self-creation, for “inventing” fictions of time.  The prisoner’s fictions are instructive for all of us moderns who, according to Kermode (echoing Benjamin), face an essentially contingent, empty temporal reality:  “Time cannot be faced as coarse and actual, as a repository of the contingent; one humanizes it by fictions of orderly succession and end” (160); it is “essential…’to have a boundary which would make time finite and comprehensible’….essential, whether one’s poverty is real or figurative; tracts of time unpunctuated by meaning derived from the end are not to be borne.” (162).

1.   Why does Kermode characterize Solitary Confinement as “post-tragic”?  what does the following mean? “Down on the bedrock, life becomes a love affair of the mind, and reality merely the eternally mysterious beloved.”  Likewise from this perspective Burney discovers that “the quality of an action” is determined by by the volition that preceded it but retrospectively as a matter of reflective consciousness (158); do you agree?

2.  Why does Kermode claim “ethical solutions are aesthetic” (160)?  why is the problem of “imagining a relation between the time of a life and the time of a world” (166) so important and why has modernity made it particularly, perhaps even impossibly, difficult?  A central thesis of Kermode’s is in fact that straightforward solutions to this problem have become unsatisfactory; we require difficulty somehow:  “fictions too easy we call ‘escapist;’ we want them not only to console but to make discoveries of the hard truth here and now….We do not feel they are doing this if we cannot…hear the discoveries of dissonance, the word set against the word” (179).  What does it mean to only find satisfaction in dissonance, a word that is somehow at odds with itself?

3.  When Kermode says that “your own death lies hidden from you” (161) is this a way of speaking of Zizek’s “second death”?  Is Kermode’s coarse, contingent, empty reality akin to the Lacanian Real?

4.  What does Kermode mean by calling Burney’s “upper class English” status (and in particular education) “relevant” to his literary achievement?  do you detect a vestige here of Austenian/Burkean defense of English aristocracy?


1.  Comment on the (Kierkegaardian? Keatsian?) function of echoing in “There was a Boy.”

2.  Do you agree with Kermode that “Resolution and Independence” “is not about the leech gatherer at all”?  Why does Kermode say that this poem “has an end which could pass as the end of a simpler, even of a bad poem; but here it is a fake, a cheat in the plotting….[I]ts true end is the proof that from time to time, as now, we are by our own spirits deified; peculiar grace is the property not so much of grave livers, as of poems.” (171)?

De Quincey

Like the Kermode I also think this short essay of de Quincey’s offers a relatively accessible yet profound account of crucial issues.

In the second paragraph what example does de Quincey use to illustrate his argument about the limits of the understanding?  Do you find it persuasive?  How does this relate to his argument about the function of the knocking at the gate in “Macbeth”?


1.  In his letter of Nov. 22, 1817 (to Bailey) Keats says that men of genius have an effect like a chemical reaction on the minds of others “but they have not any individuality, any determined character.”  What could it mean to exercise power but lack “a proper self”?  How does this relate to the famous line from this letter:  “The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream:  he awoke and found it truth”?  Does the following passage, which seems to anticipate what Kierkegaard discussed in terms of “echoing the infinite,” help answer the foregoing questions?  “…imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition.”  How do you interpret Keats’s example of the memory of a singer?

2.  In his Dec. 28, 1817 letter (to G. and T. Keats) Keats articulates his famous notion of ‘negative capability;’ how does it relate to the above questions?

3.  What is Keats’s criticism of the “egotistical sublime” he associates with Wordsworth in the Oct. 27, 1818 letter (to Woodhouse)?  In this letter Keats also says that the true (i.e., negatively capable) poet is a chameleon, and yet, as such, “the most unpoetical of anything in existence.”  What can this mean?  Consider the fact that he explains this by referring to an experience of being at a party or seeing a nursery of children, activities that don’t seem to involve poetry per se at all.

4.  A common feature of the Elgin Marbles sonnet and the Ode on a Grecian Urn is that both develop in a direction of increasing abstraction:  all the emotional intensity of the sick eagle looking at the sky, and lovers about to kiss, gives way to the formal, conceptual abstractions of a magnitude and its shadow, and the equation of truth and beauty as “all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”  What does this development from sensuous and emotional intensity to formal abstraction mean?  Does it suggest a narrative development of some kind?


This essay addresses the change effected by modernity:  a kind of aesthetic spectatorship becomes impossible in the modern context:  “what used to be called art begins at a distance of two meters from the body;” “no one dreams any longer of the blue flower.”  Technology Benjamin suggests has rendered this model of aesthetic spectatorship obsolete, but in the process “consigns the outer edge of things to a long farewell.”  He claims that the object of modern art and dreams alike has become precisely this obsolescent outer edge of things, the point that is most “threadbare and timeworn,” like banknotes that have lost their value.  The object of modern art is kitsch according to Benjamin for the same reason that the catalyst for Proust’s massive novel is a ‘petit madeleine’:  if the world is totally reified, technologically super-saturated with instrumental purpose, then chance and obsolescence, the loss of meaning and purpose, become the precondition of art.  Like a child’s gnarly old teddy-bear, it is precisely kitsch’s dispensability, being “worn through with habit,” that can expose us to a kind of strangeness, an aesthetic opacity, and enable a new kind of “surrealist” enchantment.  The very valuelessness of obsolete banknotes exposes us to their aesthetic properties in a way that is preempted in valid currency.  This is what Keats called the orphaned status of the Grecian Urn, and it’s crucial to Keats’s poem that the urn that inspired it, the “Portland Vase,” was already by Keats’s time the inspiration of many more or less kitschy knock-offs.

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a nice brief video-synopsis of the famous antonioni movie which reminded me of our class:


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paper topics

The following seem to me like five promising areas of inquiry you might pursue; if you have questions or suggestions please comment and i will try to elaborate.

These topics pose theoretical questions; your paper should address one of these questions by analyzing one or more works of imaginative literature or film from our syllabus.  I offer suggestions of plausible pieces of literature for each topic but these aren’t mandatory but only suggestions.

1.  Forced choice: how can compulsion, the feeling that my life (what i do, whom i love, what i feel guilty about) was decided for me in advance, be commensurable with freedom, with individual autonomy?  why for thinkers like Rousseau and Zizek is it even a necessary condition of such autonomy?  This is a very broad, umbrella topic that is also involved in the more specific topics below.

2.  Trauma, Horror and/or Abjection: what is the relation between sublimity and trauma?   what Kristeva calls abjection, Benjamin ‘shock’ and Freud the death drive imply a breakdown of meaningful subjective experience.  how does such breakdown figure in the aesthetic experience of the sublime in writers such as Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Baudelaire, Kermode, Lear and Hardy?    or even in what Auden found so “shocking” in Austen, “the amorous effects of brass”?

3.  Self-reification and “rhythmic,” impersonal sociality: what does Bersani mean by impersonal intimacy and how is it different from the kind of self-reification Adorno finds in Odysseus?  why does Bersani characterize this in terms of rhythm? how might such rhythm relate to Nietzschean laughter, Wordsworthian repetition, Keatsian negative capability and life of allegory, or courtship in Austen?

4.  Hollywood and the Star System: here i would ask you to consider not just how a particular hollywood product like The Searchers makes use of sublime aesthetics, but also how such aesthetics may be implicit in the distinct form of art that is hollywood cinema per se, the celebrity “star system” etc., and how a film like The Searchers exploits and comments on this art form.

5.  God and/or the Nation: what would it mean to speak of the sublimity of God and/or the nation?  Consider how Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Keats and/or what Vermeule calls “God novels” make notions like God, eternity and millennial time available for a critical aesthetic experience that is not, and perhaps even cannot be, limited by religious doctrine.  Alternately, consider how the idea of the “Crow” nation or the “American” nation functions in Lear’s Radical Hope and The Searchers respectively:  to what extent can the nation be said to consist in an aesthetic experience of the sublime?

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