Once you’ve been exposed to Wittgenstein, Derrida, Richard Rorty, Stephen Greenblatt, and Nietzsche (“truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” etc.), and have absorbed the consequences of their insights surrounding the quest for certainty, is it coherent to any longer go on speaking? Should we postmoderns simply fall into silence (“…of what we cannot speak, we must remain silent”)?
This feels too all-or-nothing to me. To go on speaking, I don’t think you’ve got to have a perfectly laid out, God-based, phallocentric metaphysics–nor do you have to pretend that Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, etc. never happened in intellectual history. You just have to treat your speech with greater irony, knowing what it might be accomplishing, and what not, and how it’s more akin to play–and not be too spell-cast by it, or imagine that only one language should be–or ever can be–overlaid, superior to all others, on the whole of reality.
You can’t, in my view, unspill the intellectual milk here. Once you’ve absorbed the arguments of historicism, languistics, and pragmatism surrounding the spell-casting nature of culture, language, and metaphysics, it’s hard to go back and say, “Let’s still act like we’re reasoners outside of history, and go on believing that God is not a ghost bird. Let’s keep talking about God and truth as if nothing’s has happened since the early nineteenth century surrounding our understanding of the evolutionary cosmos and language.”
So it’s okay to take the historicist and linguistic turn in your intellectual life, and yet go on speaking.
But of what should we speak?
Well, everything, obviously, but with lightness. Once you perceive that you are flung into a cosmos in which God is dead (or silent), and your ultimate questions are unlikely ever to be answered, it’s time to stop worrying about who or where you really are, and spend more time in the realm of imagination–making, say, lion-man totems from pieces of animal bone, like our pre-agricultural ancestors did.
I’m not saying the historicist and linguistic turns ought to turn everyone into primitives, abandoning science. If you’re a scientist or mathematician, enjoy doing science and math. Everyone understands humanity makes real and measurable progress through these things, and that they’re pleasurable endeavors. Go on enjoying them–and making progress.
But for the rest of us, there’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the non-scientist’s escape hatch. The imagination is Nietzsche’s solution to the problem of life. Nietzsche says: add to reality–the three dimensions of space, plus the dimension of time–a fifth dimension–the aesthetic imagination. Master your circumstances in accord with your imagination; create something or do something interesting, regardless of what ultimate truth there might be out there.
If there is, after all, an ultimate truth, maybe it’s less interesting and hopeful than the one that you can create in your imagination. It’s okay not to be quite so adaptive to reality. It’s okay to live in a deception or partial reality.
In fact, it’s preferable, for the whole of reality is just the collection of facts (where each atom is in each moment, etc.), which has no meaning absent you. It takes you to make meaning of the facts–to overlay them with a language pleasing to you–especially if God is not speaking.
And this is why Nietzsche was prone to mock Darwin’s interpretation of how life evolves: it’s too focused on an organism’s adaptation. Don’t adapt, says Nietzsche. Will. Struggle. Imagine. That’s life. In the teeth of your suffering, creatively rule your circumstances. Make, of your agony, an ecstasy. Contra Buddha and Jesus, alleviating suffering and aligning one’s life to “ultimate reality” (whatever that is supposed to be) is not life’s problem, the failure of imagination is. Embrace your suffering and fate, and bloom where you’re planted. And while science has its place, don’t let even science dictate the parameters of the non-scientist’s acceptable thoughts and behavior. Don’t let anything do that. Nietzsche can get scary here, for he says bye-bye to Christian “slave” morality and its weak-tea child, secular humanism. Instead, if you’re so inclined, be barbaric in your rule and reign, like the Homeric Greeks before that wussy Socrates came along.
So here’s Nietzsche in a nutshell: reality and adaptation to it are overrated. Don’t be well-adjusted. Don’t dodge suffering. Risk mourning, for there is no life or joy without mortality and pain. Overgo conventional reality into the dimension of your own imagination and creative will.
Like Rod Serling did:
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.
Nietzsche would have admired the creator of The Twilight Zone. And Willie Wanka.
Sam Harris and Pope Francis, not so much.