Thursday, April 12, 2012

'Looking Good' into the Abyss?

Lionel Trilling
Looked too long?

Although the caricature above comes from Nathan Glick's article, "The Last Great Critic" (Atlantic Monthly, July 2000), I don't think Glick mentions the abyss of today's subject heading, but Lionel Trilling was very familiar with Nietzsche's words on the abyss:
. . . wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein

This is usually translated as "when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you," but I would suggest a slight rewording: "if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back deeply into you." If you dwell long in contemplation on that aphorism, you might come to sense the angst that it's meant to provoke. Unless you're like one of those 'unhungry' students in a class mentioned by Trilling and cited by Mark Edmundson in "Education's Hungry Hearts" (The New York Times Sunday Review, March 31, 2012):
Too many current students conform to the description that Lionel Trilling offered in a famous passage from an essay called "On the Teaching of Modern Literature." Trilling had been teaching his students Kafka and Blake, Nietzsche and Freud. "I asked them to look into the Abyss," Trilling writes, "and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: 'Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes to your being whole, or well-rounded men.'"

I love that irony. Nietzsche's aphorism of the abyss is intended perhaps as a secular equivalent for the biblical fear of coming face-to-face with the living God, the abyss as a terrible presence of absence only dimly remembered in Sartre's "encounter with nothingness" and not even vaguely intimated by the well-rounded men who gazed at the words about it in Trilling's class, those 'looking good' into the abyss.

Perhaps I am one of them . . .

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4 Comments:

At 5:18 AM, Blogger dhr said...

and the Abyss has greeted them: ... a knowledge of me contributes to your being whole

"Or, being whale?"

__Herman Melville

 
At 6:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"That's the punishment -- and the reward -- for fighting monsters" - Captain Ahab

Channeled by . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:09 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Encounter with nothing? That's like the creatio ex nihilo argument that seeks to make the world out of nothing . . . it makes nothing into something.

Now as for ego death, that is another thing entirely. Mmm. Psychosis.

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, "nothingness" -- by which is meant (I think) the moral groundlessness of reality, i.e., the death of God . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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