Thursday, October 22, 2009

"On the Marionette Theatre" by Henrich von Kleist

I ran across this essay because, apparently, it was a major inspiration for Philip Pullman in writing the His Dark Materials trilogy. I've never read the third book of the trilogy, but I was actually far more impressed by the essay than by the first two books! To be fair, my understanding is that the third book adds a lot of thematic material that corresponds to some of what makes the essay so interesting.


Lonin said...

Hmm... so in the words of your Ambiguous Utopia / Anti-God Rant posts, the Fall of Man is the giant seeping wound, isn't it? And your contention that this wound can only be treated by a makeshift bandage, made out of the same material as the wound itself -- this is saying precisely that you can never rewind time back to Eden, isn't it? No wonder you're so impressed by this essay!

I actually read this essay for college, in a class about puppetry, of all things -- surprised? I liked it at the time, but I do think the context made me rather misunderstand Kleist's main point. ... I've only gotten to like it better over time. (And, also, having read a little more than half of The Golden Compass, when I got to the part about the bear I was also like, wait a minute, what??)

... I guess you disagree with Kleist that innocence is ultimately possible to recapture, though, even if the condition is that what follows upon that will be "the last chapter in the history of the world"??

Grace Mulligan said...

In the context of this essay, yes. "The giant seeping wound" and "the fall of man" are both metaphors, and they are metaphors for more or less the same condition.

I'm not actually surprised, though I do find that interesting. I'm curious as to how you misunderstood that essay in that context.

Do I disagree that innocence is impossible to recapture? Well, again, it seems to me that there's a very trivial sense in which this is an impossible assertion. If I believe that the state of lacking (self-?) consciousness is the state of innocence (and this seems to be what Kleist is getting at, as well, with all his marionettes), then of course I believe that we will one day regain innocence - I'm a materialist. I don't believe my consciousness is forever; I believe it will fade away again when I die. So I'm not doomed to experience forever; innocence will at some point return.

Obviously, this isn't the most optimistic way to put things, though. If my only hope is death, that's problematic, especially given that I'm not generally a suicidal type. This is actually a philosophical issue I've really had to grapple with - given that I think we've lost something, and can get it back by dying, then how come I'm not suicidal? Now, from a psychological perspective, this is an easy question to grapple with - I'm not suicidal because humans are generally born with an innate survival instinct, and it takes quite a bit more than philosophy to override that instinct ;-). From a philosophical perspective, though, I think it comes from an answer much like Kleist's. This is where you go a bit wrong in your first paragraph - you say that my contention is "that this wound can only be treated by a makeshift bandage," but I don't think that's what I've been arguing. Instead, I've been arguing that specific proposed solutions, in particular narrative and utopia, are makeshift bandages. But that doesn't mean I believe you can't heal the wound. That's why I talk about transcendence and God. The wound would be healed if we could redeem all individual consciousness by making it "infinite," making it "God." In other words, either we must know nothing (be dead) or we must know everything (be God). But I'm just as willing to take the second solution as I am the first. And that, I think, is my philosophical justification for being non-suicidal. It may be very unlikely, in my estimation, that we should ever become God. However, as long as there's that possibility, it's worth trying for, since being God would be even better than being dead (why? Well, we can imagine God being happy and enjoying Its happiness, but we are wrong to imagine someone who is truly dead being or doing anything). So I stay alive in the hopes of living until the last chapter in the history of the world, even if I'm not sure I really believe such a thing is likely ever to happen. I at least believe in the remote possibility.