Don't Transcend

In general, we assume transcendence to be a good thing. It's a goal, an ideal. To take leave of the world's pettiness, if not of the world itself, is something to which we should aspire. We might not take this goal very seriously as we obsess over work, fashion, gossip, and other quotidian quibbles. But, if asked, we'd surely say, Oh, yeah, that transcendence stuff is gooood. I gotta get me some of that. 

For Nietzsche, however, this desire for transcendence is a hatred of life. To wish life other than it is, to want out of this teeming, swarming complexity, is nihilism. The task, he maintains, is to embrace this life, not some other life, some ideal life, some better life. The task — not the goal for it is not an end state but an ongoing practice — is to love all of this life. Of your life. Every bump, burp, and bruise. Every ache, twitch, dream, stubbed toe, and heart palpitating love. Not just accept it or tolerate it but love it. 

Now that's a difficult task! To wallow in the shit of the world and want to leave it makes sense. It's the easy way out. Calgon, take me away. But to be stewing in shit and say my life is great is a truly difficult task. (Isn't this what Voltaire's Candide mocks, even if it's Leibniz's affirmation rather than Nietzsche's?) Mind you, for Nietzsche, the goal is not to wallow in one's misery and say it's great. That would be masochism, another kind of nihilism. But nor is it to wish life away. The task is to train one's instincts to be healthy, vital, surging; to take up this life more vigorously, not flee it. 

I am not suggesting that we are purely physical beings and should ignore the spiritual or metaphysical. I am saying that the invisible forces — moods, affects, spirits — are part of this life. They swirl in and through visible bodies just as visible bodies flourish in and with and through and of invisible forces. The spirit is not out there. It's right here. So it's not that transcendence is bad; it's that there's nowhere to transcend to. All there is is this life and this life is infinite.

I do not mean to belittle transcendence. It is not a frivolous undertaking. It demands extreme dedication and attentiveness, a rigorous disciplining of oneself. And the experience is no doubt incredible. Just think of it: to move beyond this life and its many tethers, to taste the tasteless ether, to move among the metaphysical. 

This is the goal of ascetic monks: to shed this mortal coil as much as possible in order to maximize their contact with pure spirit — no talking, little food, certainly no jerking off. They seek to transcend the body, transcend this world, taking as much leave of it as possible without quite dying. To Nietzsche, this discipline is as impressive as it is grotesque. For Kierkegaard, this asceticism is a great gesture, what he calls infinite resignation. But, for Kierkegaard, the even greater gesture is to be worldly and transcend at the same time — to talk, eat, fuck and still have a direct relationship with God.

Transcendence is seductive. You can hear it whisper Just let go of your body, of your worldly possessions, of your fears, anxieties, and pains. Become as the wind, the spirit, and float free without all the encumbrances of human being.  Oh, man, that sure sounds good.

Transcendence even has rainbows!
Transcendence has been a great temptation to philosophers for millennia. Rather than develop a philosophy within and of a world in flux, they seek to ground the world in something outside the world, to put a stop to the relentless teem with something outside the fray, something sure and certain — an ideal, an a priori truth, a morality, a self, a soul, a logic. Deleuze discovers a different history of philosophy that runs through the one we tell: a history that affirms this life rather than transcends. He finds it in Nietzsche, of course, but also in Leibniz, in Spinoza and Bergson: philosophers who reckon this world in its infinite complexity without turning to transcendence.

Bergson wanted a philosophy that didn't reduce time to space, movement to fixity, four-dimensions to three. So he developed a philosophy of time and change, of what he calls duration and creative evolution. 

While transcending no doubt demands great discipline, so does affirming one's worldliness. You have to let the world inundate you, even when it hurts. When I experience pain, my instinct is to flee. I close my eyes, clench my body, turn away from the pain. That is not the way to go. The thing to do, I've discovered, is to move into the pain, to focus on it, to send my breath and energy and mind to the pain, to take it up and experience it. You have to be saturated in life.  

Now, metaphysical transcendence is only one mode of transcendence. Transcendence can involve overcoming any limit, not just physical ones. Sometimes, to transcend one's limits is liberating, creative, affirmative — to transcend cliché, bathos, bourgeois propriety, the insane demands of work, one's own petty limitations.

And then there is the experience of mania that seemingly breaks all limits, tearing them asunder in a terrible and beautiful frenzy. But this is not an overcoming of the limits of the human but a realization of the limits of the human: a becoming-manic is becoming-human.

It's silly to define the human as the neo-liberal bourgeois self (which is certainly a self that needs to be transcended). But human being, like all being, is a cosmic becoming. From this perspective, you should never need to transcend any limits because you are always becoming your own limits, the limits that you are, even if it means overcoming the limits of the human. What it is to be human, Deleuze argues, is to be becoming-animal, becoming-earth, becoming-wind, becoming-rock, becoming-machine. We don't have to transcend our limits to experience ourselves. On the contrary, we have to become ourselves by experiencing ourselves. And vice versa.

Of course, in our culture, limits are considered bad things, interdictions: we believe limits say no. But limits don't only say no. Limits say yes. I am this way of going in the world; you are that way; this gin goes as it goes; tequila goes differently; and so on. These ways of going are at once bound and infinite, a limit that is always in the process of forging itself.

We are differential equations. It's not a coincidence that Leibniz, the philosopher of affirmation that Voltaire mocks, invented the calculus. We are the very process of differentiation, of becoming this, this this. From such a perspective, there is no limit to overcome. There is no need to transcend, only to become. 


Donald said...

I am here by way of PEL. The Deluxe episode just rocked my world. This seemingly effortless blog post did likewise. Having listened to them so long, I understood every philosophical reference. My earlier experience with this is when, in a college Existentialism class I judged Kierkegaard bad because he made the Transcendent leap, and Camus good because he defiantly refused to do so. Props. Instant fan. I want you back on PEL ASAP.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Donald: Thanks for reading and the encouraging words. I'll take the props, gladly.