March 2, 2008

Sympathy with the Dead

Filed under: Philosophy, Unreadable, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:02 pm

Throwing out a few noteworthy quotes. As usual, I’m not in a position to do anything useful with them; and won’t be for a long time.

1) Adam Smith.

Smith prefaces his great account of the structure of our economy with an account of the ‘Moral Sentiments’; and he grounds that account in the idea of sympathy. “[W]e have no immediate experience of what other men feel”, Smith writes. It is thus “by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are [another’s] sensations.” But the imagination does not directly grant us access to another’s feelings; rather, it tells us what our own feelings would be, were we in another’s place. Sympathy may thus make us share another’s emotions; but it may also prompt in us emotions very different from those felt by the object of our sympathy. “We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour.” Most strikingly, we may feel sympathy for those who have no feelings at all: the dead.

“We sympathise even with the dead… It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity… That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity… The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.”

2) Schopenhauer

“Weeping is by no means a positive manifestation of pain, for it occurs where pains are least. In my opinion, we never weep directly over pain that is felt, but always only over its repetitions in reflection. Thus we pass from the felt pain, even where it is physical, to a mere mental picture or representation of it; we then find our own state so deserving of sympathy that, if another were the sufferer, we are firmly and sincerely convinced that we would be full of sympathy and love to help him. Now we ourselves are the object of our sincere sympathy; with the most charitable disposition, we ourselves are most in need of help. We feel that we endure more than we could see another endure, and in this peculiarly involved frame of mind, in which the directly felt suffering comes to perception only in a double indirect way, pictured as the suffering of another and sympathised with as such, and then suddenly perceived again as directly our own; in such a frame of mind nature finds relief through that curious physical convulsion. Accordingly, weeping is sympathy with ourselves, or sympathy thrown back to its starting point. It is therefore conditioned by the capacity for affection and sympathy, and by the imagination.”

3) Plato

“[T]he poet gratifies and indulges the instinctive desires of a part of us, which we forcible restrain in our private misfortunes, with its hunger for tears and for an uninhibited indulgence in grief. Our better nature, being without adequate intellectual or moral training, relaxes its control over these feelings on the grounds that it is someone else’s sufferings it is watching…. For very few men are capable of realising that what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves, and that if we let our pity for the misfortunes of others grow too strong it will be difficult to restrain our feelings in our own…”

Plato particularly has in mind Homer’s depiction of Achilles as succumbing to ‘womanly’ grief – a grief occasioned by the loss of what he loves, but exacerbated, as Henry Staten emphasises (as so often, I’m drawing heavily on Staten’s work) by his agonised apprehension of his own mortality. When Plato banishes the poets from the Republic, it is because they feed that irrational part of ourselves which succumbs to immoderate grief in the face of death.

I want to say a few things.

1) Notice how directly opposed are Plato and Smith’s views on the link between the good society and the grief produced by death. For Plato, nothing could be more harmful to the establishment of the Republic than irrational lamentation. Plato’s enquiry into the nature of justice comes to identify grief as the most powerful enemy of the polis. For Smith, by contrast, this “great poison to the happiness” is also “the great restraint upon the injustice [my emphasis] of mankind, which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.”

2) Lamentation is, in all these passages, connected to mimesis – representation. It is only the imagination, our capacity for representing another’s feelings – and, most crucially, representing our own feelings to ourselves through our reflexive understanding of another’s representation of those feelings – that allows us to experience sorrow at all. An animal may feel sensations, but an animal cannot grieve (the argument goes), for an animal is incapable of mimetic representation. Schopenhauer develops this idea when he says that even our own grief for ourselves is really an involuted form of sympathy. The very feeling we identify with when we see it in another is already the product of a prior network of reflexive identification. In the realm of grief, there is nothing that is not already conditioned by this reflexive sympathy.

3) Something very strange happens when the reflexive network of sympathy/self-sympathy takes a dead beloved as one of its moments. In the first place, as Smith says, identification with the dead is an ‘illusion’ of the imagination. The dead themselves feel no sorrow – not insofar as they are dead. (Thus Smith adds to his account the caveat that, in identifying with the dead, we “overlook what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them…”) Our sympathy with the dead is therefore (apparently) qualitatively different from our sympathy with the living – it is altogether a product of the imagination; it does not give us any access to the mind or heart of the object of our sympathy. Here, then, the mimetic circuit is interrupted by a representation that does not represent anything – that is, does not represent anything real. But the mimetic circuit is also interrupted in a second way. For one of the most appalling aspects of death – one of the aspects that occasions the most grief or sorrow – is the fact that the dead will be forgotten. “It is miserable, we think… [for the dead] to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.” And this thought is one of the most important sources of our sympathy with the dead; mourning is remembrance, and we grieve in mourning because of the inevitable end of that remembrance. Pathological mourning – melancholia – is occasioned by the refusal to forget; the refusal to direct our sympathy away from the dead loved one. (Thus Hamlet’s melancholia is called forth by the perceived o’erhasty end to the proper period of mourning for his father; he refuses to stop mourning because he does not want his father to be subject to the final death of forgetfulness). But if we grieve (for ourselves or for another) because we imagine, through a network of sympathetic identification, the moment in which the dead one (who feels nothing) is forgotten (nothing is felt for them) our sympathy is wholly paradoxical. It moves through a network of identification with feelings that are not felt, and that are necessarily not felt. It may be a ‘contingent’ fact that the impudent object of our sympathy does not feel the proper shame; and we can non-paradoxically feel shame in his stead. But when we imagine the dead; or when we imagine the moment in which the dead are forgotten; the very nature of the situation in which we place ourselves precludes the closure of the circuit of identification. We may feel for the dead, but the dead themselves don’t feel. We may imagine a situation in which the dead are forgotten; but if we use this situation to think of the dead, we are by definition not truly imagining it. Yet the very fact that the feelings we imaginatively identify ourselves with cannot be felt calls forth our own most powerful feelings.

Now if (to make an enormous leap) we say (following Plato) that thought in general is always the product of Eros, love; and if (contra Plato) we say that love in general, Eros, is impossible without mourning… then this paradoxical identification with something that does not and can never exist is essential to all consciousness. (C.f. Staten’s ‘Eros in Mourning’).

That’s a big enough leap. But take another. If, following Adam Smith, we want to ground our understanding of the economy on an understanding of individual behaviour which in turn takes its bearings from the faculty of sympathy – imagination – then we also need to incorporate this paradox into our thinking. Sympathy (I’m claiming) is always, to some extent, sympathy with that which does not exist – or that only exists as matter, in the state of death, without feeling of its own. More than that: sympathy must always potentially involve imaginative identification with something strictly unimaginable. The emotional or psychological situation, I believe, thus closely parallels that which Berkeley described in his famous paradox of the unobserved tree. We try to imagine a tree as unimagined; and thereby prove that the tree is in fact always an object of consciousness. Berkeley used this argument to ‘prove’ the truth of idealism. I suggest that this argument rather proves the paradoxical nature of the imagination – that thought must always involve thought of the unthinkable. In Smith’s account sympathetic identification involves placing ourselves in a situation in which we necessarily cannot place ourselves, because the very nature of the situation is that it excludes our presence. As soon as thought takes such a detour it becomes subject to paradox or aporia. And such paradox is, in fact, a precondition of imaginative identification of any kind.

Which connects up to the claim that, I believe, inaugurates deconstruction – the claim, in ‘Speech and Phenomena’, that “[t]he statement ‘I am alive’ is accompanied by my being dead, and its possibility requires the possibility that I be dead; and conversely…. [W]e understand the ‘I am’ out of the ‘I am dead.’”

I can’t imagine anyone’s buying this. [Plus I’ve got a nasty feeling I’m mostly rehashing second hand Hegel and/or Lacan.] My point is that I think it’s very important that Smith begins his entire project with the possibility of identifying with the dead. If we see Adam Smith as the father of economics, then this moment, which opens his oeuvre, is of some significance. I’m sure we’ll have occasion to refer back to it, as this blog babbles its way through the classics, making ever more hare-brained claims.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: