Showing posts with label French literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French literature. Show all posts

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born 14 March 1908, before the first World War. As with many of his generation, Merleau-Ponty lost his father to the war. Unfortunately, much of European philosopher emerged from the ruins of the two World Wars and the horrors of these conflicts.
Following World War II, Merleau-Ponty emerged as one of the leading French philosophers. He was closely associated with his former classmate, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had introduced Merleau-Ponty to the writings of Edmund Husserl. Merleau-Ponty would spend most of his career working to refine phenomenology, the study of human perceptions.
Few philosophers dared match wits with Jean-Paul Sartre, but Merleau-Ponty was always up to the task. The two enjoyed long discussions, with Merleau-Ponty and Sartre often agreeing on all but the most minor of points.
In the years following World War II, Merleau-Ponty defended the Soviet Union, to the point of defending the Moscow Trials and Soviet purges. Eventually, though, he could no longer defend the Soviet Union and its abuse of power in the name of communism. Merleau-Ponty’s split from Sartre, much like the more famous split between Camus and Sartre, was a result of Sartre’s unflinching defense of the Soviet Union and its cruelty toward its own citizens. The actions of the USSR against satellite nations only aggravated the opinions of many dedicated socialists, like Merleau-Ponty. Until his death, Merleau-Ponty remained a Marxist, but a critic of the Soviet Communist party.

Creating Mrs. Orwell

Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of a mistress might have resulted in her marriage to George Orwell. It was a short, unromantic marriage, at that.
This information first came to my attention in the New York Times book news, 14 June 2003. Reviewed by Stacy Schiff, a biography of Sonia Brownell came to my attention. The book, The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, by Hilary Spurling, paints an interesting picture of Merleau-Ponty, which has me intrigued. Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was charming… like Camus and Sartre. With popularity comes certain perks.
The Orwells were married for 14 weeks, a fact that increased my curiousity regarding Merleau-Ponty’s potential role in the matter. George Orwell was a bed-ridden invalid when he proposed to and married Sonia. Why would a woman marry a man not able to leave the hospital? Even the wedding party was held, following a hospital ceremony, at a hotel without the groom. What made Sonia marry someone without necessarily loving him? Pity or a broken heart?
Spurling’s biography of Sonia Orwell describes Merleau-Ponty as charismatic. “Jilted” by Merleau-Ponty, Sonia accepted a proposal from Orwell, for whom she had been a babysitter and typist. Sonia apparently attracted scandal, since her second husband had been a defendant in a trial for homosexuality. She continued to miss Merleau-Ponty.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed his existential philosophy by drawing heavily upon the works ofEdmund Husserl. Merleau-Ponty has been categorized as both an phenomenologist and an existentialist, indicating the difficulty of separating the two schools. Each holds as a primary tenet that the individual defines both self and the world experienced. Merleau-Ponty rejected the Western philosophical tradition of ideals and transcendent “truth” to emphasize human experience. For Merleau-Ponty, experience did encompass more than sense / reason: he included nonsense / un-reason.
Merleau-Ponty suggested that philosophers, scientists, and educators of all manner, were limited by their own physical existences and experiences. One of the challenges presented by Merleau-Ponty is that while he thought science and emperical data were paths towards the truth, he also rejected the notion that science, as a set of methods, could discover philosophical truths. As Continental philosophers were rejecting “scientism” in the aftermath of the two World Wars, Merleau-Ponty was suggesting there was still a value in science, but not in science alone.

Immediate Experience: The Lebenswelt

It was Merleau-Ponty’s contention that science and too much abstraction had resulted in a philosophical tendency to reduce every phenomena, every object, every person to nothing more than collected data. Merleau-Ponty believed that philosophers had a duty to relate things as they were viewed, not as science described them.
We must return to the Lebenswelt, the world in which we meet in the lived-in experience, our immediate experience of the world.
In contrast to Sartre’s contention “we are condemned to freedom,” Merleau-Ponty stated “we are condemned to meaning.” According to his theories, since we are only able to know ourselves based upon the input of others, all our actions, thoughts, and statements define us and have historical consequences. In accordance with the idea that true human nature never ceases to change, Merleau-Ponty described philosophy as “like art, the act of bringing truth into being.”

Body and Subject

For Merleau-Ponty, people are both bodies and subjects of thought. The act of self-contemplation is not the same as the tradutional dualism of mind-body; Merleau-Ponty is not discussing the “spirit” when he writes of the body-subject. There is a curious ambiguity, a tension, between bodily existence and the self as a subject of contemplation. The body-self relationship cannot be severed, yet the two are not one thing. Unity was also considered by Merleau-Ponty when he wrote on the relationships of thought-to-speech and fact-to-value.
You must exist physically before you can think about what it means to exist. This extends the notion of self-definition to recognize that you first need a physical body and brain before you can create an “essence” that is you. Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:
It is the definition of the human body to appropriate in an indefinite series of non-continuous acts “centers of meaning” which go beyond its natural powers and transform it.
Our thoughts move us to act physically. The complication is that even our thought process is a physical, concrete process of chemical and electrical signals in the brain. Without the physical, there is no self-conception. If self-conception itself is a physical act, then we are always at risk of reducing our view of humanity to the empirical study of the brain.
About the only thing clear in Merleau-Ponty’s view is that nothing can be certain. We struggle to define terms like “self” and “body” which are the very basis for philosophy. If we cannot define “person” without creating a tangled web of relationships, then nothing else can be reduced to an ideal. It would seem the one thing we should know, ourselves, is impossible to know.
In The Structure of Behavior, a study of psychological theories, Merleau-Ponty wrote that his aim was “to understand the relations of consciousness and nature: organic, psychological or even social.” According to Merleau-Ponty, humans and our world are interconnected: neither causes the other, instead we shape and are shaped by our environment. Furthermore, we have both a natural (predefined) existence and the ability to change that nature via conscious choice.
[If] one understands by perception the act which makes us know existences, all the problems we have just touched on [in the book] are reducible to the problem of perception.

The Phenomenology of Perception

Merleau-Ponty’s Primacy of Perception, published in 1945, further explained his theory of perception.
[Our experience of perception comes from our being present] at the moment when things, truths, and values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent Logos; that it teaches us, outside of all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself; that is summons us to the tasks of knowledge and action. It is not a question of reducing human knowledge to sensation, but of assisting at the birth of this knowledge, to make it as sensible as the sensible, to recover the consciousness of rationality. This experience of rationality is lost when we take it for granted as self-evident, but is, on the contrary, rediscovered when it is made to appear against the background of non-human nature.
Merleau-Ponty’s theories were advanced in his major work The Phenomenology of Perception. The text opens with a preface and long introduction. Merleau-Ponty used these pages to explain his phenomenology, including both its concepts and procedures. Again, Merleau-Ponty was setting his approach apart from that of Husserl.
Phenomenology, as proposed by Merleau-Ponty, is concerned primary with physical existence. The human body, and its perceptions, is the way we relate to and understand existence. Merleau-Ponty suggested meaning therefore begins with perception. Because meaning begins with perception, Merleau-Ponty found it necessary to discuss how perception works. Perception starts, according to Merleau-Ponty, with the preconscious moment the external comes into contact with the body. The conscious interpretation of input, as neurologists have affirmed, follows the experience by a significant lapse.

Free Will

Merleau-Ponty did not advocate a concept of “absolute free will” in his works. Instead, there are limitations on human choice. The Phenomenology of Perception served to illustrate differences between Jean-Paul Sartre’s understanding of free will and that of Merleau-Ponty. Though a simplification, it has been suggested that Sartre’s “free will” is always absolute. As Albert Camus and others have written, the radical interpretation is that even choosing to live each day is a choice. For Merleau-Ponty, the suggestion that reality is created by individuals was too simplistic. Sartre, according to Merleau-Ponty, was too quick to imply that the only obstacles one faces are created by the individual. Absolute free will is impossible, Merleau-Ponty believed, because real barriers to choice are all around us.
In The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty developed the argument that humans are “situated” within their environments. There are physical and cultural limits on choice. While Sartre argued one can always reject such limits, especially cultural limits, Merleau-Ponty proposed conditional free will. People can act on their environments, and via these constant interactions the individual and the environment are changed.
Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Phenomenology of Perception:
The view which we oppose [Sartre’s] is wrong in that it pays attention only to our intellectual projects, and does not take into account the existential projects which polarize life toward a purpose in which being-determined and being-undetermined fuse.

Terrorism and Marxism

Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror is a troubling book. It is difficult to comment on Merleau-Ponty’s defenses of the Soviet Union without reflecting the biases that time affords: we know the Soviet Union to have been a cruel, oppressive power and not a model of Marxist ideals. The French Left embraced Marxism and the Communist Party in ways that might defy explanation, until one considers the absolute destruction of the two World Wars on the Continent. People were left with nothing; socialism promised to provide for everyone. The Soviet Union became the idealized model for socialists.
The question posed by Merleau-Ponty, in the context of Marxism, is if violence can be justified in the name of revolution. The difficulty for Merleau-Ponty is that he did not ask this about a full-scale revolution against injustices, but rather in the context of Soviet Stalinist purges. According toHumanism and Terror, terror might be justified by history if the Marxist ideal were realized by the Soviet Union.
In 1938, the Soviet Union, under the iron-fisted leadership of the dictator Joseph Stalin, began a series of show trials to purge the Communist Party of individuals Stalin feared would challenge his authority. This was following the the footsteps of Lenin, and it might be considered evidence that Russia had only traded one style of authoritarian rule for another. Stalin managed to have tried and executed numerous high-ranking Communist Party officials, most charged with treason and crimes against the people.
Merleau-Ponty thought it was necessary to first refute Arthur Koestler’s interpretation of events, which appeared in Darkness at Noon. For Merleau-Ponty, the trials could have been part of the Marxist evolution of history. In other words, the Moscow Trials were merely a step, a phase like capitalism or feudalism, as the Soviet Union matured towards utopia. Of course, this all had much less to do with Karl Marx than basic modern politics.
Today it seems shocking, but in Humanism and Terror Merleau-Ponty casts Stalin’s rivals as threats to the Soviet Union and even the totality of Europe. Merleau-Ponty suggested that without Soviet unity and Stalin’s leadership, World War II might have been lost to Germany. The text argues that the violence against possible traitors to the Communist Party was, therefore excusable.
Even if the individuals tried and executed were innocent, as many historians believe, Merleau-Ponty argued that the deaths were still possibly minor mistakes that could result in a better Soviet Union at a later date. This argument attempts to either raise the dead to martyrdom or it casts them as meaningless lives that had value only insofar as they were sacrificed to Marxist historical progress. The least tenable argument is that the terror was justified if a more egalitarian society evolved, while other forms of oppression might have continued without the deaths.
For Merleau-Ponty, history was, at best, uncertain and ambiguous. Only as we approach a full century since the Russian Revolution can we look back and pass judgment on the figures involved in shaping the Soviet legacy. However, this line of reasoning would allow one to avoid passing judgment on almost any action, as long as the ultimate aim was an egalitarian society. Later in life, Merleau-Ponty would recognize that actions must be judged in a moral context at all times.
True, we make mistakes and what seems like a good choice can be viewed historically as a disaster. However, the killing of innocent individuals and the use of terror to exercise power seems difficult to justify in any context. Choices are often based on the odds of future results, but humanism seems to demand that we not sacrifice people for a future we cannot predict will be better.


  • La Structure du comportement, Essay: 1942, 1949, rev. 6th ed. 1967
    trans. The Structure of Behavior, 1963
  • Les Relations avec autrui chez l’enfant, Centre de Documentation Universitaire, 1958
  • La Phenomenologie de la perception, Essay: 1945, 1976
    trans. The Phenomenology of Perception, 1962
  • Humanisme et terreur: Essai sur le probleme communiste, Essay: 1947
    trans. Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, 1969
  • Sens et non-sens, Essays, Articles: 1948, 1966
    trans. Sense and Non-Sense, 1964
  • Eloge de la philosophie: Lecon inaugural faite au College de France, le jeudi 15 janvier 1953, 1953
    trans. of original In Praise of Philosophy, 1963
    revised as Les Aventures de la dialectique, 1955
    trans. Adventures of the Dialectic, 1973
  • Signes, Essays, Articles: 1960
    trans. Signs, 1964
  • Le Visible et l’ invisible, 1964,
    trans. The Visible and the Invisible, 1968.
  • Resumes de cours, Lectures: 1952—1960
    trans. Themes From the Lectures at the College de France, 1970
  • Perception, Structure, Language, Essays: 1981

Albert Camus

"Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me and be my friend."
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  • 7 November 1913–4 January 1960) was a French Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He was a key philosopher of the 20th-century and his most famous work is the novelL’Étranger (The Stranger, in the context of my post, The Outsider).
  • In 1949, Camus founded the Group for International Liaisons within the Revolutionary Union Movement, which was a group opposed to some tendencies of the surrealistic movement of André Breton. Camus was the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature – after Rudyard Kipling – when he became the first African-born writer to receive the award. He is the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in an automobile accident just over two years after receiving the award.

  • Before commenting upon the works of Albert Camus, I should first make a rather bold statement: I consider him to be an existential writer. More accurately, I consider him a writer of existential works. It is fashionable in academic writings to now drop the label from almost every “existentialist” — especially since only Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have embraced the label, and then only for a brief time. Certainly it is possible to debate Camus’ status as an existentialist, but one cannot ignore existential elements in his fiction. Camus preferred to think of himself as an “absurdist.”
  • As one reads Camus, or any other writer sometimes called “existential,” remember existentialism was never an organized movement. Existential situations and themes appear in Dostoevsky’s works, but he certainly was not an existentialist. In large part, the following commentaries do not focus upon whether or not Camus was an existentialist… I leave that to the readers and individuals with doctorates in philosophy. Personally, I think Camus stands far above Sartre as a writer and nearly equals Franz Kafka. That view is my bias.

    "You cannot acquire experience by making experiments. You cannot create experience. You must undergo it."

Alfred Jarry

French Ubu’ist writer, cyclist and pataphysicist - died this day in 1907 of tuberculosis

Alfred Jarry, known primarily for his Ubu plays, began writing in 1888 at the age of fifteen with two fellow pupils at the Rennes lycee. Their project, a comic satire of their physics teacher, Monsieur Hebert, was nothing more than a childish prank. Eventually, however, this "piece alquemique" would become the world's first absurdist drama.

The first and most famous of Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays is Ubu Roi or Ubu Rex. This strange parody of Shakespeare's Macbeth let loose upon the world the grotesque figure of Pa Ubu, a foul old man set on conquering Poland by any means necessary--and a personification of all that is base and stupid in mankind. The play premiered at the Theatre de L'OEuvre on December 10, 1896 to mixed results from an angry and violent crowd. Some audience members were outraged. Others were intrigued. But no one had ever seen anything like this before. The next day, the debate raged on in the papers and the cafes.

In 1898, Ubu Roi was performed again at the Theatre de Pantins--this time with marionettes. Around the time of this second performance, Jarry completed the second play in his Ubu trilogy--Ubu Cuckolded. The first play, however, had generated such a heated reaction that he failed to find a publisher. The third play of the cycle, Ubu Enchained, was completed in September of 1899. Neither Ubu Cuckolded nor Ubu Enchained was ever performed during the playwright's lifetime.

Alfred Jarry's career was brought to an unfortunate and early end when he died in 1907 at the age of 34, but his legacy lives on in the works of such playwrights as Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. Jarry was the first prophet of the Theatre of the Absurd. Today, his plays are considered an integral step in the evolution of the modern theatre.

                Alfred Jarry Quotes

"Applause that comes thundering with such force you might think the audience merely suffers the music as an excuse for its ovations."

"God is the tangential point between zero and infinity.

"The theater, bringing impersonal masks to life, is only for those who are virile enough to create new life: either as a conflict of passions subtler than those we already know, or as a complete new character. "

"We believe... that the applause of silence is the only kind that counts. "

"Blind and unwavering undisciplined at all times constitutes the real strength of all free men. "

    Charles Baudelaire

      For More Information >


    When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid
    On the groaning spirit, victim of long ennui,
    And from the all-encircling horizon
    Spreads over us a day gloomier than the night;

    When the earth is changed into a humid dungeon,
    In which Hope like a bat
    Goes beating the walls with her timid wings
    And knocking her head against the rotten ceiling;

    When the rain stretching out its endless train
    Imitates the bars of a vast prison
    And a silent horde of loathsome spiders
    Comes to spin their webs in the depths of our brains,

    All at once the bells leap with rage
    And hurl a frightful roar at heaven,
    Even as wandering spirits with no country
    Burst into a stubborn, whimpering cry.

    — And without drums or music, long hearses
    Pass by slowly in my soul; Hope, vanquished,
    Weeps, and atrocious, despotic Anguish
    On my bowed skull plants her black flag.

     Transl.  by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

    Jean Cocteau

    Jean Cocteau & Tristan Tzara

    •       Awakening

    Grave mouths of lions
    Sinuous smiling of young crocodiles
    Along the river's water conveying millions
    Isles of spice
    How lovely he is, the son
    Of the widowed queen
    And the sailor
    The handsome sailor abandons a siren,
    Her widow's lament at the south of the islet
    It's Diana of the barracks yard
    Too short a dream
    Dawn and lanterns barely extinguished
    We are awakening
    A tattered fanfare

    •           Soft Caramel

     Take a young girl.
    Fill her with ice and gin
    shake it all up to make it androgynous
    And return her to her family
    Hello, hello, operator don't cut me off
    Ah! how sad it is to be the king of animals,
    Nobody says a word
    Oh! Love is the worst of evils
    Take a young girl,
    Fill her with ice and gin
    Put a slight drop of angostura on her mouth
    I knew a man very unhappy in love
    Who played Chopin's nocturnes on the drum
    Hello, hello, operator don't cut me off
    I was talking to....I was talking to the....hello, hello?
    Nobody says a word.
    —don't you find that art is a bit.....
    We tell children wash your hands
    We don't tell 'em wash your teeth.....
    Soft caramel--

    Arthur Rimbaud


    I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road.

    I walked, walking warm and vital breath, While stones watched, and wings rose soundlessly.

    My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name.

    I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess.

    Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms.

    Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves.

    Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood.

    When I awoke, it was noon.

    •       A Dream For Winter

    In the winter, we will leave in a small pink railway carriage
    With blue cushions. We will be comfortable.
    A nest of mad kisses lies In each soft corner.
    You will close your eyes, in order not to see, through the glass,
    The evening shadows making faces.
    Those snarling monstrosities, a populace
    Of black demons and black wolves.
    Then you will feel your cheek scratched...
    A little kiss, like a mad spider, Will run around your neck...
    And you will say to me: 'Get it!' as you bend your neck -
    And we will take a long time to find that creature -
    Which travels a great deal...

    • Anguish

    Is it possible that She will have me forgiven for ambitions continually crushed,--
    that an affluent end will make up for the ages of indigence,--
    that a day of success will lull us to sleep on the shame of our fatal incompetence?
    (O palms! diamond!-- Love! strength!-- higher than all joys and all fame!--
    in any case, everywhere-- demon, god,-- Youth of this being: myself!)
    That the accidents of scientific wonders and the movements of social brotherhood
    will be cherished as the progressive restitution of our original freedom?...
    But the Vampire who makes us behave orders us to enjoy ourselves
    with what she leaves us, or in other words to be more amusing.
    Rolled in our wounds through the wearing air and the sea;
    in torments through the silence of the murderous waters and air;
    in tortures that laugh in the terrible surge of their silence.

    •        After The Flood
    As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided,
    A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells,
    and said a prayer to the rainbow,
    through the spider's web.

    Oh! the precious stones that began to hide,--
    and the flowers that already looked around.
    In the dirty main street, stalls were set up
    and boats were hauled toward the sea,
    high tiered as in old prints.

    Blood flowed at Blue Beard's,--
    through slaughterhouses, in circuses,
    where the windows were blanched by God's seal.
    Blood and milk flowed. Beavers built.

    'Mazagrans' smoked in the little bars.
    In the big glass house, still dripping,
    children in mourning looked
    at the marvelous pictures.

    A door banged; and in the village square
    the little boy waved his arms,
    understood by weather vanes
    and cocks on steeples everywhere,
    in the bursting shower.

    Madame *** installed a piano in the Alps.
    Mass and first communions were celebrated
    at the hundred thousand altars of the cathedral.
    Caravans set out. And Hotel Splendid was built
    in the chaos of ice and of the polar night.

    Ever after the moon heard jackals howling
    across the deserts of thyme,
    and eclogues in wooden shoes growling in the orchard.
    Then in the violet and budding forest,
    Eucharis told me it was spring.

    Gush, pond,-- Foam, roll on the bridge and over the woods;--
    black palls and organs, lightening and thunder, rise and roll;--
    waters and sorrows rise and launch the Floods again.
    For since they have been dissipated--
    oh! the precious stones being buried and the opened flowers!--
    it's unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire
    in the earthen pot will never tell us what she knows,
    and what we do not know. 

    Gracious son of Pan! Around your forehead
    crowned with flowerets
    and with laurel, restlessly roll
    those precious balls, your eyes.

    Spotted with brown lees, your cheeks are hollow.
    Your fangs gleam. Your breast is like a lyre,
    tinklings circulate through your pale arms.
    Your heart beats in that belly where sleeps the double sex.
    Walk through the night, gently moving that thigh,
    that second thigh, and that left leg.

    •   Common Nocturne

    A breath opens operatic breaches
    in the walls,-- blurs the pivoting of crumbling roofs,--
    disperses the boundaries
    of hearths,-- eclipses the windows.

    Along the vine, having rested my foot on a waterspout,
    I climbed down into this coach,
    its period indicated clearly enough
    by the convex panes of glass,
    the bulging panels, the contorted sofas.

    Isolated hearse of my sleep,
    shepherd's house of my insanity,
    the vehicle veers on the grass
    of the obliterated highway:
    and in the defect at the top
    of the right-hand windowpane
    revolve pale lunar figures, leaves, and breasts. --

    A very deep green and blue invade the picture.
    Unhitching near a spot of gravel. --
    Here will they whistle for the storm,
    and the Sodoms and Solymas,
    and the wild beasts and the armies,
    (Postilion and animals of dream,
    will they begin again in the stifling
    forests to plunge me up to my eyes
    in the silken spring?)
    And, whipped through the splashing of waters
    and spilled drinks, send us rolling
    on the barking of bulldogs...
    --A breath disperses
    the boundaries of the hearth.