On the west-eastern couch

Empedocles and Lao-Tzu as vanishing mediators

Aber rühmen wir nicht nur den Weisen 
Dessen Name auf dem Buche prangt! 
Denn man muß dem Weisen seine Weisheit erst entreißen. 
Darum sei der Zöllner auch bedankt: 
Er hat sie ihm abverlangt. (Brecht)

The seminar for 2014-2015 will address the presence of two ancient thinkers, Empedocles and Lau-Tzu, in the work of two German poets, Hölderlin and Brecht.

The rhetorical enthymeme, or what in logic is called an ‘incomplete syllogism’, is effective because the middle or mediating premise is elided from what is said or attested to explicitly. In this way the mediator is made immune to critique: all humans are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. But as Socrates says himself: how do I know I am a human being and not some other creature? The elided premise remains unconscious. It has the nature of a ruling fantasy and usually originates in a dilemma or contradiction, a trauma – in this example that of the fact that I am moribund: all humans die, so he must die. Psychoanalysis on one hand and ideology critique on the other constitute the work of resurfacing these premises, understanding their operations and “traversing the phantasms” – a movement which is not the same as getting rid of the unconscious (that is itself a fantasy). Frederic Jameson introduced the idea of the vanishing mediator to conceptualise the elision of that which makes something possible from the self-consciousness of that possibility. It does its work and is forgotten; it can only do its work because it is forgotten. I live because I “forget” that I will die; but before the forgetting, the realization that I will die makes it possible for me to take my life upon myself. The unconscious has the structure of a rhetorical enthymeme, a movement of evacuation.

Two classical philosophical stories express the idea of the vanishing mediator: Empedocles’ disappearance on the Etna, leaving only a trace, a sandal, behind, and Lao-Tzu’s vanishing westward through a mountain pass, leaving the warring states of China and the Tao Te Ching, the trace of his thinking, behind. What happened to them remained unknown and their disappearance quickly became the source of contradictory legends. In Lao-Tzu’s case it is not even clear whether or not he ever existed in the first place; he functions as fantasy right from the start; he had vanished before he ever was present. In this way his story expresses Tao, the creative nothing or unformed in all form, the unfathomable, that which cannot be said directly. We might say: the original elision.

How can we understand these philosophers and their transmitted ideas as vanishing mediators? (1) Both Empedocles and Lao-Tzu are dialectical thinkers. Their philosophies conceptualise the unity of opposites; they are both enthymematic in so far as their central ideas are about what cannot be said, at least not without contradiction.

(2) In both stories the ideas of change and of the way dominate. Empedocles loses his sandal on his leap towards death in order to save his life; Lao-Tzu leaves a hopeless situation behind and in this way becomes himself the unnameable Tao which his book circumscribes. Both are figures of the paradoxical constancy of moving on, of transformation. Both are thinkers of Trieb, drive – thinkers of the unconscious.

(3) Both their ways were metaphysical as well as political. Empedocles was a radical democrat in Agrigentum, Lao-Tzu’s thought is anti-authoritarian, against property and incorporates a qualified critique of Confucianism.

On the road

On the road

It is no coincidence that two poets turned to these philosophers in two different periods of German history. Hölderlin, during the struggles for freedom and democracy after the French Revolution, identified with Empedocles and his vanishing act. Brecht, during the Nazi years and his own forced disappearance westward, identified with Lao-Tzu. For both, these philosophers became fantasies they traversed to make their writing possible or to keep it viable. Brecht saw in the Taoist notion of wei wu-wei, “doing not-doing” an essential aspect of communist praxis, “the simple that is so hard to do”; Hölderlin saw an overcoming of the subject-object / spirit-nature opposition in Empedocles’ Freitod, his freely chosen death, “tired of counting hours”; “familiar with the world soul; with bold love of life”. At work in both is an approximation of the nothing that makes being possible and a utopian idea of spontaneity, improvisation and naturalness that resides in the evacuation of the sphere of this-and-that. Both speak from a different temporality than the one that dominates our societies, a temporality of emptying, beyond counting time but also beyond the dramatising hypostatization of the kairotic moment and the urgency of now.

In the seminar, which will be divided into six blocks of each two sessions, we will develop a reading of this movement of exile, in its poetic, metaphysical, existential, psychoanalytical, political and ecological dimensions.

The central texts in this constellation:

Friedrich Hölderlin, Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles)

Bertolt Brecht, Legende von der Entstehung des Buches Taoteking auf dem Weg des Laotse in die Emigration (Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s Road into Exile).

Empedocles, fragments and biography in Diogenes Laertius, Life and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (English translation). This was the main source material for Hölderlin.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching. We will use the translation by Richard Wilhelm, which influenced many German thinkers and writers, and which Brecht used. We will also use the English translations by D.C. Lau and Chung-Yuan Chang and draw on an interlinear translation of the Chinese text.

Seminar dates and times will be advertised in July 2014. Please register with the convener in advance: johan.siebers@sas.ac.uk

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