Dialectic of Idealization: Dream and Terror

6 Sep

My theory of image work is derived from the study of Western Literature and Culture. Image work analyzes and explains the results, found in all cultural fields, of idealization, the dominant drive of what we call the West (first weavings c 150 – 1050 CE; identity formation 1050-1250 CE; elaboration 1250 {the Renaissance} – c 1790; unweaving, c 1790 {The Marriage of Heaven and Hell} – today). In the West, and perhaps in other idealizing cultures, idealization is a process of transfiguration and its core myth is a figure of transfiguration, an avatar whose metalepsis is the sangreal, –“sacred dish,” “dish of blood” or “royal blood.” The use of the “holy grail” itself is a transvaluation of the Hebrew concept that “the life is in the blood” but that, in contrast, thus forbids consumption of blood. The West makes this consumption, at once symbolic and ‘real’ a means of transfiguration. So too is the process of image-work vampiric: the ideal consumes its host in a process of radical transgression, transumption and transcription. Indeed, most major rituals in the West require the prefix and concept “trans” before them. The West derives its transfigurative drive from the ancient Greek emphasis on metamorphosis (“shape-changing,: magic) as the primary fact of life.

The essence of Blake’s transvaluation of values beginning with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell became a less mythic and gnomic force a century later with Nietzsche who, in his Twilight of the Idols uncannily adopts some of the quirky formal quality of Blake’s seminal work. For example, “How the True World Finally Became a Fable,” a critique of the “castrative” thrust of Christianity toward the passions is like one of Blake’s “Memorable Fancies.”
Like most of Nietzsche’s works, Twilight has many arresting and useful comments on aesthetics, idealization and their relation to Eros. It is, as its title suggests, a de-idealization or demystification of the idols of the West. I will adduce them in this sketch of the dialectic aspect of image work, an agon of transfiguration that is the West’s sneaky gift and related to the ‘wrestling’ of Socratic dialog, as Nietzsche noted[ 1].

In the first or idyllic stage of image work, an image-ideal is imagined and the identity of the image generator or ‘host’ begins to move into and possess it. This triumphant, joyous and quest-like transfigurative act, a kind of nuptial is countered in the second, apocalyptic stage when the image-ideal begins to dominate and displace the host whose identity it absorbs and represents, becoming a focus of fascination and imitation. This counter-rape is the basis of Western irony. The tenor of this second phase increasingly is terror. This leads to the weakening and collapse of the cultural or individual body or ‘parent cell’ and the concomitant authoritarian petrifaction of the image (modeled often in digital imagery) whose demands that it be recognized as the ‘true’ being become more insistent as it becomes more artificial and imposed. The strains of this last phase develop an elegiac mood as the dying generator, a Narcissus laments its fateful love for its image and subservience to it; in the modern world, the institutions of State, the ultimate image or persona (“mask”) organize insincere and inflated memorials (and build them) to the ‘sacrifice’ of the culture it has encrusted and killed.

Nietzsche called the State “the cold monster” and antithesis of “the human.”

Note that “idyll” and “idyllic” derive from eidellion or “little idol”; the West’s transfigurative myths, epistemology and rituals in all fields are a form of idol worship which the Hebrew Scriptures unerringly identified as an aggressive, imperial and suicidal way of being.

The intersection of Greco-Roman late Classical culture/civilization with Israel was the most magnificent, productive and fissionable tragedy in history. It is apt that idol probably derives from the Hebrew avel, vain or futile, and the Greek word was used in this sense by early Church ‘fathers.’ Image derives from Latin imago-imaginem (shadow, image, apparition, fantasy, echo and their synonyms) which in turn derived from the Greek magik – magike or shadow work. The West’s way of being makes all cultural matters aesthetic products, a magike – tekne or image-weaving, a pattern of shadows applied to transfigure the natural world. The futility and collapse of image work is shown in the West’s drive through apocalypse to elegy. Post-Modern mockery and ‘appropriations’ are the last stage of West culture as it returns to its core sensibility.

With the French Revolution (made by applying English political theory, as Spengler noted, to Continental social structures) and Terror, Europe underwent its initial end stage apocalypse. The Romantic period which began then as if scripted, emphasized terror as its mood and had an apocalyptic edge, not least on questions of identity (“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Jerusalem: Emanation of the Giant Albion; Prometheus Unbound) and transgression; soon afterward, first in England, the dominant mode became elegiac as seen in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” the epic  lament for which he was made poet laureate. His Idylls of the King and Wagner’s Ring Cycle further showed the grip of the elegiac mode on European Culture ossifying as Spengler noted into the Civilization of Megalopolis, “the great petrifact.”

The dynamics of my thesis explain why the Hellenic matter with its emphasis on metamorphic imagery and transfiguration, within “the West” increasingly absorbs, deform-transforms and suppresses the Hebraic material. This process appears in the changing curriculum of European and, even more so, of American Universities during the past two centuries; in the growth of a culture of image-idols; the inflation and reduction to two-dimensional, fictive quality of Western currencies; in the geopolitics by which the West first isolated, then sought to exterminate the Jews and then, via a series of ‘peace’ initiatives seeks to bury the essence of Israel with a virtual people for a virtual peace. It is in its relation to the Jews as much or more than in its deployment of a distraction machine of imagery that one sees the process of image work progressing from apocalyptic to elegiac phases as I have indicated.

Note the dialectic aspect of the three-stage process of image work: in the first, the host generates an ideal image; in the second, the image takes power and authority from its source and displaces it. The synthesis, to use Hegel’s now ubiquitous formula, is the mirrored state of collapse and petrifaction, the collaboration in death and grieving-as-spectacle (theatron) of host and idol. The image-ideal is a Medusa which fascinates, ‘fixes,’ freezes and kills as Goethe has Mephistopheles tell Faust, bewitched by his ideal image, Margareta upon whom he gazes in the Witches’ mirror and encounters again on Walpurgis Nacht:

Let that be! That bodes well for no one.
It is a magic image, an eidolon.
Encounters with such are not good;
The fixed stare freezes human blood
And one is turned to stone.

Faust understands, “indeed, a corpse’s eyes are those…” Mephistopheles emphasizes that “she looks to every man like his own sweet heart” or image ideal. This idealization, a “magic art” Faust calls it is the imago-magic of image work, the art of reflection in which the mirror is held not up to nature but to the defect in one’s own psyche [2]. This defect, pain or deprivation is the trauma Nietzsche identified in the Greek psyche as the source of its “demand for beauty” [3]. This is the pain and hollow heart that drives the glories of idealization and its transfigurations: that expresses itself in the tragic dynamics of image work, a suicidal dilemma of transfigurative idealization as in the Narcissus myth. As I have suggested elsewhere [4] physical and psychic trauma are the essence of Greek drama and culture, the original sources of image work. How so?

Idealization begins (and probably attests to) a process of alienation which intensifies greatly in the apocalyptic phase when the glamour of the elected image-ideal or new self imposes its otherness on the image-creator and, even more frighteningly, begins to possess the identity and displace the social and emotional reality of its host. This traumatic displacement and pervasive disorientation, the Narcissus dilemma is the basis of a culture of terror which is characterized by identity confusion and loss [5]. It also is characterized by political and geo-political imperialism as the ‘idol of State’ becomes the public expression of the image ideal and seeks, like “appetite, the universal wolf” [6] to “consume the world” having first eaten up itself, that is, the society and individuals that generated the image. In a sort of omophagia it consumes its host: “the boy consumes his nurse.” As Odysseus comments in Shakespeare, “chaos follows the choking” as the universal wolf of image-work, the poiesis that suffuses all fields and institutions like any parasite consumes its host. Then, like Frankenstein’s monster, it sanctimoniously weeps over the corpse it has killed [7].

The Hebraic comment on the arrogant world of the image-makers, their sanctimony, power, wealth and pride is contained in the verse “they will be consumed with bewildering terrors” (Psalm 73:12-14). This description has proven determinative and prophetic indicating a profound grasp of the inner poison of image-work by the only major culture to have proscribed idolatry: no beauty pageants or Olympics or screen world, no idol of State in a true Israel. Thus ‘Rome’ that lives by myths of transfigurative trauma needs to bury Israel. Only thus can ‘Rome,’ the belated fiction,”the  greatest intellectual counterfeit in history” live in the place of the genuine article, “the the…” In history and world culture, Israel is “The Man on the Dump” and also “The Hunger Artist” in every generation…

Nietzsche provides many brilliant comments on aesthetics that are relevant to my thesis and its explication. Some of these remarks highlight the erotic aspect of image work part of whose dialectic is a form of gender transformation. In a maxim keyed to Faust’s fascination with Helen-Margareta, he writes, “Man has created woman out of what? Out of a rib of his god – his “ideal.” [8] Nietzsche takes a jesting tone but his point on the de facto religion of the West, the female image-ideal/eidolon is unerring. The Hellenic goddess of passion, Aphrodite, literally embodies the sexual organs of the heavens. She has no father: she is the sex of her castrated father.  The inner feminine ideal is akin to the alienating and ‘reverse possession – displacement’ aspect of image work. It is visible in the rise of feminism since the Romantic period (and in the period of the original Arthurian romances generated during and helping to constitute the West’s formative period, which has led to a de facto goddess worship whose brutal, family, health, and culture-destroying form is embodied in postmodern divorce and its lawless law, its legal fictions and cynical displacement of any law but that the ‘goddess’ rules.

Another excursus by Nietzsche helps complete this overview of image work and its alienating dialectic of trauma and terror. In pursuing “a psychology of the artist” he proposes that all art and “any aesthetic doing” require “frenzy” even as a physiological (if not necessarily physically demonstrative) condition. “All kinds of frenzy” accomplish this,” he adds, “above all the frenzy of sexual excitement.” The erotic component of idol formation (the idyll), exaltation, possessing and, paradoxically, distancing (apocalypse) he described as I see it, as involving possession and a form of rape, first of the idol or image ideal and then of the host by the image: again, Coleridge’s “Christabel” portrays the most explicit form of this rape, its ambiguity and possession-displacement of the host’s identity. “Out of this feeling” of frenzy, Nietzsche adds, “one lends to things, forces them to accept from us, one violates them – this process is called idealizing” [9]. This overpowering of the will of the audience or of the physical nature of art materials (the materials of Medusa are human beings), which may be a society or world, itself is precisely the process that the Greek gods routinely adopt toward humans, not least Aphrodite as may be seen in her brutal intervention in Hippolytus and the Women of Trachis or in the many myths in which Hera, Poseidon or some other god asserts its will over that of a human subject. The gender reversal in the Herakles-Omphale story and in the confused identity of Hippolytus himself, his deadly and exclusive identification with Artemis, shows this process. Transfiguration of gender is the province of the Hellenic archimage, Teiresias, the core of the Iphis-Ianthe tale related by Ovid and the initiation of Pentheus (“pain”) by Dionysus whose body [10] double he becomes on the way to a transfiguring dismemberment, a precursor of the core passion (“suffering” from passio or pathos) of the West, its myth of transfiguration. That the mediator of this passion is an abstraction (“holy ghost”) of a fiction emphasizes the alienating, terrifying and abstract nature of Western image work, a most potent idealizing magic.

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols Part I, “The Problem of Socrates” sections 7-8 in The Portable Nietzsche (NY 1954, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann)
2. Goethe, Faust, Part I, 4189-4200, “Walpurgis Nacht” (Indianapolis & NY 1965, Charles Passage verse translation), 146-7; see also “The Witches’ Kitchen” in which Faust first is enraptured by the image of Helen- Margareta in the mirror, his ideal reflection.
3. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 2nd edition (1886), introduction, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism” in The Birth of Tragedy & Other Writings (Cambridge University Press 1990, R. Geuss and R. Speirs), 8
4. “Poison and Poiesis in The Women of Trachis” a study of the great Herakles play by Sophocles in which Aphrodite, “the Cyprian handmaiden” destroys him and his family, becoming a vehicle for the venom of the hydra that is her demonic form. Sophocles shows that the beautiful idealizations that are the Greek divinities are predatory beasts, a point also suggested by Heinrich von Kleist in his 1810 essay “On the Marionette Theatre.” In The Iliad, Homer calls the gods, “the dogs of war.”
5. Eugene Narrett, Culture of Terror: the Collapse of America (Bloomington Indiana, 2009)
6. Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida 1.3.124-6
7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (1831 author’s revised edition of the 1818 original) in Walton’s last letters at the end of Volume III, chapter 7; (NY 1985, Hindle edition), 212-25.
8. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxim 13 in TPN op. cit. 468; regarding the goddess worship that takes the form of infatuation with a feminine image ideal or ‘anima’ consider Percy Shelley’s idealization of and great poem on Emily Viviani, “Epipsychidion” (“on the little soul within my soul”).
9. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, op. cit. 518, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” section 8
10. I have alluded to plays by Euripides, Herakles in which Hera drives the hero mad and causes him to murder his wife and children, to destroy his substance or ‘house’ and the Bacchae in which Dionysus finally entrances Pentheus to “initiate him into his mysteries” and makes him the image of a Bacchante. The reaction of Hippolytus to his Amazon mother, Hippolyta (“unbridled horse”) indicates the identity confusion in his tragedy and is part of an ancient mythic conflict between bull and horse.

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