“God does not shoot craps with the universe.”
“Stop telling God what to do.”
— A conversation between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
“Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what their myth is. And you should know what your myth is, because it might be a tragedy. And maybe you don’t want it to be.”
— Jordan Peterson
The story goes like this: During the Occupation the Germans would routinely send someone to sniff around Picasso’s studio. On one such occasion a German officer picked up a postcard that depicted Picasso’s Guernica. The German said: Did you do this? To which Picasso said: No, you did.
The story may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the idea of it is true. Not only the idea of Picasso but the idea represented by what Picasso may or may not have said.
Where does a thing begin? Who or what is responsible?
Consider the idea that if Picasso is correct, then we are in the uncomfortable position of having to give credit to the Nazis for a great work of art.
This of course is the point of the fascist critique of Modernity. That it is decadent. The left wing fascists and the right wing fascists agree on this point. To be intellectually honest we must say they’re correct. From the gutter and the abyss pours the sublime. Walter Benjamin was correct when he said: There is no record of civilization that is not also a record of barbarism. Where the fascists were, and continue to be wrong, is in the idea that this decadence should be silenced; eliminated in the lager and the gulag.
But let us consider the idea of Picasso. When we say, “Picasso” we of course instantly also say/think a series of associations. In expressing these we seem to be speaking in non sequiturs. But this is an illusion. If we say “Spain” we have a series of associations as well and one of them may be, Picasso. If we reverse engineer the idea then “Picasso” becomes synonymous with “Spain.”
This is a basic tenet of Postmodernism.
However there are a number of people who find this objectionable, though it seems about as banal as saying the earth is not flat. After all if someone were to say Babe Ruth it would be unusual for someone to think of Russia. One might but what is more likely is that one associates Ruth with baseball, and in fact since the images of both form in relation to each other and are inseparable from each other, they are in effect synonymous.
Consider the use of this idea in another area. For example, politics. Let’s consider, Richard Nixon. A series of images appear, facts, speeches, events, Watergate, Vietnam, I am not a crook.
This is a narrative.
The question then becomes what is left in, and what is excluded from the narrative.
The question that follows from that is, by what processes are things included and excluded?
Is inclusion autonomic or is it conscious?
Are those choices predicated on objectivity or are they a subjective process, which itself is subject to other forces such as, class, education, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, personal animus or affection?
Obviously the answer is, yes.
And so we then ask, what is it about this apparently basic and obvious process that gets some people in a frenzy, and in which they say that asking these questions is a denial of reality?
For example: It is a fact that Nixon resigned the presidency on a specific date and at a specific time.
That is irrefutable.
But what was the cause of that event?
One answer would be the politics of the time.
That’s a valid answer.
But what were the politics of the time and exactly what shall we include and exclude in the narrative about it? And is there a difference between the cause and the event or are they one and the same?
For example should we include the war in Vietnam?
That seems a reasonable thing to include.
But if we include the war in Vietnam should we also say that an essential part of the narrative is French colonialism, and the Cold War rivalry between the US, China and The Soviet Union?
If we include that as well then how much of it should we include and what shall we say about it?
For example what shall we say about the Soviet mistreatment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn?
He was unjustly imprisoned and tortured and ironically that, like Guernica, and Picasso and the Nazis, led to the creation of a work of art.
Of course it also led to Solzhenitsyn being exposed as a raging Slavic nationalist, who hated Jews and made common cause with Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps we should leave that out since we are discussing the politics of the era that led to the downfall of Nixon.
So we can talk about the Cold War, but not about the parts of it that trend too far away from the story we are trying to tell.
Unless we want to tell the story that way and because in Solzhenitsyn we find an example of how cultural moments do not seamlessly follow the linear demarcations of dates, numbers and time, in the manner of a train schedule but instead may be sequential but are not linear.
In which case we have to discuss who is in charge of the form the narrative takes.
Consider a postmodern writer like, D.F. Wallace or Thomas Pynchon. In their work the story unfolds in a series of digressions and allusions and references, because of course David Hume was not wrong when he proposed Bundle theory. Neither are the Buddhists who say the personality is ultimately an illusion based on a series of associations, that are themselves not fixed in time or space.
That of course raises an interesting dilemma. If Hume is a factor in the advent of Postmodernism then Postmodernism does not begin in the 1960s or 1970s as some people foolishly and erroneously claim.
It begins in the middle of the 18th century with a Scottish genius. Or if you like, it begins under the Bodhi tree.
Should we include Hume in our discussion of the ways in which Postmodernist authors like Wallace and Pynchon construct their narratives, which are attempts to deal with the fact that when people say one thing they reference a thousand? Should we include Hume in our discussion of how reality is sequential but not linear?
If not, why not and if we do why are some people so afraid of it being done?
The answer quite obviously is fear.
There is a fear of the imagination and that it is limitless and in being without limit, it can and often does generate images and emotions that are terrifying.
For example, consider Caravaggio’s The Dormition of The Virgin.
So the story goes, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint the story of the death of the Virgin Mary. Being a practical sort and being in need of a model, Caravaggio went with his boys down to the river and fished out a dead whore.
What are we to make of this?
Should we feel badly for the dead prostitute? Should we condemn the artist?
Should we ask: Who is responsible for this?
Surely Caravaggio is responsible even though he did not kill the prostitute or invent prostitution. For that matter he did not invent the church and he is not responsible for the cult of the Virgin.
So if we were to say: “Caravaggio” we of course would instantly think of the Renaissance and the church. And prostitutes and cults dedicated to virgins and sex.
After all can one think of a whore and not think of sex? What if you were to think of the Virgin Mary and Sex? What if you were to think of the Virgin Mary and whores? What if you found this exciting?
Consider Charlie Chaplin and Amy Semple McPherson. She used to preach about the evils of alcohol. He used to make films. When she preached she wore angels wings. Chaplin seduced her. Perhaps she seduced him. Either way they ended up having sex and Chaplin said to her: No, keep the wings on.
This frightens people. It frightens them because it excites them.
The rush of associations frightens people.
Picasso paints associations. He is a master at it. Here is the idea of this and the idea of that and in this version they’re your contemporaries and in this version they look like they stepped out of an ancient Greek bathhouse and for my next trick they will look like something else but you will recognize that they are all essentially the same. You might even find yourself sitting next to one of them on the metro.
So, from this fear, people denounce the idea that the construction of the narrative is a question of who is in charge of constructing narratives. They insist that there are the right ways and the wrong ways to do it and they insist that what’s included and what’s excluded is up to them. They bloviate about something they call postmodern-Marxism or Neo-Marxist-Postmodernism. Listening to them is “like being yelled at by a rugby coach in a sarong.”
And then some people come along and say no you’re wrong and you’re not in charge of how the rest of us tell the story.
So, what if we were to say it turns out Hitler actually was a great artist after all? There he was, in Paris, responsible for a masterpiece we call, Guernica.
What then shall we do?