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Hans Blumenberg-After The Absolutism Of Reality

The “Strangford Shield”, a fragment of a marble replica of the shield of Athena Parthenos. From Athens, 3rd century AD. Height 43.18 cm, width 45.72 cm. British Museum. GR 1864.2-20.18 (Sculpture 302). Strangford Collection. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are a few excerpts from ‘Work on Myth’ by Hans Blumenberg translated into English by Robert M. Wallace, MIT Press, 1985. Chapter 1, ‘After the absolutism of reality’.


The absolutism of reality is opposed by the absolutism of images and wishes. In ‘Totem and Taboo’, Freud spoke of the “omnipotence of thoughts” as the signature of archaic animism. We must remember that after the abandonment of the forest, the division of life between caves and open hunting grounds set in. The closed space allows what the open space prohibits: the power of the wish, of magic, of illusion, and the preparation of effects by thought. But not only by thought. The illusionary power of magic is less one of thought than one of ‘procedure.’ He who keeps to a rule whose importance and origin no one (any longer) knows can produce a precisely determined result that is not bound to the time and place of the procedure. In accordance with Freud’s personal interpretation of Haeckel’s fundamental bio­ genetic law, the phylogenetic ‘animism’ that was referred to corresponds to ontogenic narcissism in the main feature of its “overevaluation of one’s own psychical acts”. This is the presupposition of a concept of reality that makes consciousness of it arise from an ensuing “unmistakable protest of reality” against narcissism. It may be that one can take a further step toward the construction of the facts of the case by imagining the absolutism of wishes and images as that of products of the caves, in isolation, at first, from the absolutism of reality. The connection of the one to the other, whether one calls it magic or cult, would only be a secondary confrontation on the basis of an already structured, already differentiated, independent world. In the hunting magic of his cave pictures the hunter reaches, from his housing, out and across to the world.
Man is always already on this side of the absolutism of reality, but he never entirely attains the certainty that he has reached the turning point in his history at which the relative predominance of reality over his consciousness and his fate has turned into the supremacy of the subject. There is no criterion for this turning, for this ‘point of no return.’ To those who saw themselves as beneficiaries of science and enlightenment who were already beyond the point, where they could be overtaken, the Middle Ages still seemed to belong in the category of a primitive world of unmastered and unmasterable powers that were nothing but names and addressees of helplessness. It was theological absolutism-without its mitigations in the institutions for the administration of grace-that made the Middle Ages look dark when seen in retrospect after the modem age’s act of foundation. Even Goethe scarcely wanted to believe Romanticism’s first revisions of this historical self-consciousness and of the image of the prehistory that went with it. On April 21, 1831, he writes in his diary: “… in the centuries when man found nothing outside himself but abomination, he had to be happy that he was sent back into himself, so that in place of the objects, which had been taken from him, he could create phantoms….

The contradiction that seems to enter the construct of the archaic concept of reality here-absolutism of reality on the one hand, omnipotence of ideas on the other-is repeated in the description of dreams. Dreaming is pure impotence with respect to the content of the dream, the complete bypassing of the subject and of his disposition over himself, in the midst of his images, together with an extreme disposition to anxiety; but at the same time it is the pure dominion of wishes, which makes waking up the epitome of disappointment, however the censors may be constituted under which the psychic mechanism is then placed. To fly in one’s dreams-Nietzsche’s formula for something that he calls his prerogative- is the metaphor of a zero level of realism together with the most intensive illusion of reality. Dreams are the faithful interpreters of our inclinations, Montaigne wrote; but we were forced to learn that in order to communicate their message to us, the interpreters required a theoretically sophisticated interpreter in their tum. Since our only concern here is to clarify the supposed contradiction in the hypothetical construct of archaic ‘realism,’ a slight detour to a clever aperçu of Stanislaw Jerzy Lee’s may be permissible: “Last night I dreamed about Freud. What does that mean?” It is only secondarily the meaning of the dream that may connect it to the world of early men; first of all, and most importantly, the dream gives us access to a limiting case of prostration to reality.

In his biography of Pericles, Plutarch concludes his account of how Pericles dealt with the fear inspired by an eclipse of the sun with the remark that the story was told even in the philosophical schools. During the Peloponnesian War, Pericles was setting out with 150 ships to besiege Epidaurus, and they were just ready to set sail when the sun was suddenly extinguished. Everyone was seized with terror. Evi­dently, in the case of this eclipse, later dated to August 3, 431, the example of Thales of Miletus’s depriving the event of its ominous content by predicting it with the aid of theory did not have any effect. Pericles’s way of bringing to his senses the steersman of his ship, who didn’t know which way to tum for fear, consisted in holding the man’s cloak before his eyes and, having thus put him in darkness, asking whether he still thought he perceived a terrible disaster or an omen of such a disaster. The seaman had to reply in the negative, and Pericles completely freed him of fear by asking where, then, was there any difference between what happened to him, here, and to the sun in the other case, except that the sun was eclipsed by a larger object than a cloak.

This story is told in the schools of the philosophers,” Plutarch concludes, and no doubt one sees from this what mattered more to philosophy than the admiration of the cosmos. But the anecdote’s rhetorical recoil against the vehicle of theory’s prospect of success in freeing man from fear cannot be overlooked either. For, while the Athenian statesman thought that he was carrying out a model instance of bringing explanation to bear, the steersman was probably already calmed by the fact that he, to put it paradoxically, could no longer see the eclipse, and could surrender to mere encouragement. But the anecdote illustrates still more: The boundary line between myth and logos is imaginary and does not obviate the need to inquire about the logos of myth in the process of working free of the absolutism of reality. Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos.’


Note about The “Strangford Shield”:

The fragment was acquired in Athens by the British politican Percy Clinton Sydney Smythe, 6th Viscount Strangford (1780-1855), one of the antiquities he collected while British ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, 1820-1824. It was purchased by the British Museum in 1864 from Percy Smythe, the 8th Viscount Strangford.

During the Roman period many copies were made of Pheidias’ colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos. The “Strangford Shield” is the only surviving part of one of these replicas. Traces of the original paint have survived. In the centre is a Gorgoneion, the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Only the front of this shield has a relief, the back is blank. Ancient authors indicate that the outside of the original shield showed an Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons), and the inside a Gigantomachy (battle between gods and the Giants). A handful of similar fragments of such shields have also survived.

According to Plutarch (Life of Pericles, 13), Pheidias was accused by enemies of Pericles of stealing gold intended for the Athena Parthenos statue, and of impiety for portraying Pericles and himself among the figures of the Amazonomachy on the statue’s shield. On this replica, Pheidias and Pericles are thought to be the two men standing back-to-back below the Gorgoneion: Pheidias is the balding, naked figure on the left with an axe in his raised arms; Pericles stands to his right, wearing a helmet and armour, his left foot resting on a fallen Amazon, his right arm raised and obscuring his face. Having been warned by Pericles to carefully weigh the gold, Pheidias was able to disprove the charge of theft, but he was found guilty of impiety, and died while in prison.

About the book and the publisher:
Hans Blumenberg-After The Absolutism Of Reality

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