File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 43

Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2001 21:22:35 -0500
Subject: A holy terror


I wanted to respond to you about the issue of terror that you raised.  I
think it is intimately connected with ataraxia and exploring why this is
so helps to clarify the relation of Epicurean teaching with the sublime.

Edmund Burke said that besides positive pleasure and positive pain,
there is another kind of pleasure that arises when pain is removed,
which is different from positive pleasure and which he termed delight.

Burke pointed out that: "the removal of a great pain does not resemble
positive pleasure: but let us recollect in what state we have found our
minds upon escaping some imminent danger or on being released from the
severity of some cruel pain.  We have on such occasions found, if I am
not much mistaken, the temper of our minds in a tenor very remote from
that which attends the presence of positive pleasure; we have found them
in a state of much sobriety. Impressed with a sense of awe, in a sort of
tranquillity shadowed with horror."

Of course, Burke goes on to make this the basis for his analysis of
sublime feeling.  The point I am making is that it also lies at the
foundation of ataraxia and Epicurus definition of katastematic pleasure
as the absence of pain.

Terror remains terror.  What makes the experience of terror result in
sublime feeling requires a certain detachment, something akin to what
Nietzsche called "the pathos of distance."  Such distancing can be
either temporal or spatial.

Epicurus is reputed to have survived a shipwreck and this biographical
fact has often been commented upon in relation to his teaching of
ataraxia.  This kind of escape is nothing less that a temporal
distancing from terror.

The great Epicurean poet Lucretius said this in his poem "On the Nature
of Things":

"Pleasant it is, when on the great sea the winds trouble the waters, to
gaze from shore upon another's great tribulation: not because any man's
troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive what ills you are
free from yourself is pleasant."

This is a spatial distancing from terror.

My point is that the psychological experiences that Epicurus pointed to
that give rise to the tranquillity of ataraxia is exactly the same
phenomenon that philosophers such as Burke, Kant and even Lyotard have
analyzed as the sublime feeling.  This insight helps point the way to a
possible postmodern religious feeling which is virtuous because it
resists the inherent tendency of capitalism to maximize production. Such
a feeling in response to contemporary terror is perhaps what is
ultimately needed to save us from terror.  We must stare back into the
abyss until it blinks.

Even though Nietzshe profoundly misunderstood Epicurus, I have always
enjoyed this particular quote of his and think it has some bearing on
what I have been saying as well.

"Yes, I am proud of the fact that I experience the character of Epicurus
quite differently from perhaps everybody else.  Whenever I hear or read
of him, I enjoy the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity. I see his
eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across rocks at the shore that are
bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this
light, as secure and calm as the light and his eyes.  Such happiness
could only be invented by a man who was suffering continually.  It is
the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of being become calm, and
now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this
tender, shuddering skin of the sea.  Never before had voluptuousness
been so


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005