A Life That Could Contain Every Kind of Greatness: Stirner meets Pessoa
“I belong to a generation – assuming that this generation includes others beside me – that lost its faith in the gods of the old religion as well as in the gods of modern unreligions. I reject Jehovah as I reject Humanity. For me, Christ and progress are both myths from the same world. I don’t believe in the Virgin Mary, and I don’t believe in electricity.”
“Whenever I arrived at a certainty, I remembered that those with the greatest certainties are lunatics.”
These opening words are part of the literary legacy of a man that never existed, the Baron of Teive. One of the several lifetime incarnations of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, the Baron of Teive is possibly his most dangerous heteronym. In his book The Education of the Stoic, the fictional Baron of Teive collects the last thoughts of a life that has come to an end, crashing against the willful edge of suicide.
“Since I wasn’t able to leave a succession of beautiful lies, I want to leave the smidgen of truth that the falsehood of everything lets us suppose we can tell. [...] These pages are not my confession; they’re my definition.”
Despite dating back to the late 1920s, the words of the Baron of Teive seem to find a surprising resonance with some of the psychic waves that are shaking – or deadly calming – the contemporary collective mind. His declaration of disbelief, for example, can’t but resound vividly against today’s attitude towards the meta-narratives both of modernity and of postmodernity. As the world continues to be torn apart by the magnetic force of various fundamentalisms – economic, religious, ethnic, etcetera – the mental energies of contemporary humans in the West are getting more and more exhausted. As they desperately try to hold onto their shaky beliefs in progress and morality, our fellow humans can feel their fingers slowly losing their grip. The promises of science and technology – the ‘electricity’ mentioned by the Baron – are increasingly confined to the grotesque optimism of the cheering staff at the opening of a new Apple store. Centuries of bright horizons painted by medical scientists have finally shattered against the acknowledgment of the rigidity of the limits of biological life. No pill will save us from death, no powder will give us everlasting happiness, no starship will let us escape the environmental catastrophe of this planet. And now, we know it. At the same time, the belief in politics has also undergone a collapse as dramatic as that which occurred with the belief in religion during the last few ‘secular’ centuries of Western history. Contemporary multitudes are falling out of love with Parliamentary Democracy, resorting to a nebulous conception of anti-politics which defines itself as a confused political atheism, ever so slightly different from sheer populism. Even Humanity, the last stronghold of Liberalism, sees its walls crumbling. The ecumenical landscapes of Lennonist humanitarianism have given way to the resentment of the discourse over the 99% or, to deep-green, anti-human sentiments. And finally, even irony, the last great idol of postmodernism, sees its wax wings melting under the rays of today’s suns. In the good old days of irony and half-smiles, it was all about the distance from reality. This distance is gone now. Once our beliefs have vanished, the safe distance from our actual position in the world has also suddenly disappeared.
However, such a collapse of ourselves into our own reality is not happening as smoothly as a jump into the void. Remnants of our past beliefs are still attached to us, scratching against the walls of the void, making our flight downwards awkward, and finally turning it into a disastrous fall. Morality still sticks with us, and so do social norms. The Baron of Teive also noted this, as he looked at himself during the last hours of his fictional life.
“What made me furious at myself was the disproportionate weight of the social factor in my decision. I was never able to overcome the influence of heredity and my upbringing. I could pooh-pooh the sterile concepts of nobility and social rank, but I never succeeded in forgetting them. They’re like an inborn cowardice, which I loathe and struggle against but which binds my mind and my will with inscrutable ties.”
As the Baron precisely puts it, the acknowledgement of the loss of one’s faith in the old ideals and codes of conduct does not necessarily lead to the birth of a new, functioning self. The sterility of this passage is tightly connected to the inability of turning the passive experience of a loss, into the active process of forgetting.
How is forgetting opposed to losing?
If the experience of a loss is that of witnessing the self-emptying of a part of one’s mental or physical world, the process of forgetting is the act of reclaiming that same territory for oneself. We can observe this difference in the opposition between freedom and what the Egoist philosopher Max Stirner defined as ‘ownness’.
“What a difference between freedom and ownness! […] Ownness is my whole being and existence, it is I myself. I am free of what I am rid of, owner of what I have in my power or what I control. […]To be free is something that I cannot truly will, because I cannot make it, cannot create it: I can only wish it and –aspire toward it, for it remains an ideal, a spook.”
Faced by the disappearance of his faith in the old and new (un)religions, the Baron of Teive found himself stuck in the maze left by their emptiness. His freedom from them was a space which still maintained their same shape and boundaries. The “inscrutable ties” binding him, to which he referred, were exactly these cracks, opened in him by his new freedom.
The emptiness caused by the loss of his old masters presented itself as unapproachable and terrifying: it was barren land where nothing could grow, a place where humans had no possibility of action. Only ideals could have filled that complete emptiness. The place they had left free was a throne, where new ideal masters would have sat. In their absence, it was the emptiness itself which acted as regent, speaking as if through the cast of the old king’s mortuary mask.
The freedom experienced by the Baron of Teive was nothing more than an exercise in anguish and waiting – waiting for new, external masters to arise, for a new sense, a new ideal to appear on the horizon and take its place on the throne.
Indeed, what a difference between freedom and ownness! Ownness is the process of destroying the throne of foreign kings, and of establishing an autarchy of the self. Upon rejecting the foreign hegemony of social or ideal powers, the owner reclaims him/herself as a territory in which only s/he can claim full sovereignty. In doing so, the individual establishes within him/herself something similar to what is historically known as a civilisation. His/her territory is populated by a multitude of different desires, drives, obsessions and so on, not always living peacefully one next to the other and often striving for dominion over the whole inner world of the individual. From their sum, as it happens in politics with populism according to Ernesto Laclau, emerges an excess which can only be defined as devoid of any essential content. This ‘empty signifier’ – still using Laclau’s parlance – is nothing but the self. The self of the individual owner – or, as Max Stirner defined it, his/her ego – acts upon the hordes of desires of its territory as an immaterial master, that is, as a civilisation of the self. It is for this very reason that the individual owner – or, for Max Stirner, the egoist – does not recognise the authority of any socially constructed civilisation above him/herself: s/he is, already, a civilisation in him/herself.
Like every civilisation, even that of the self – or, the owner’s ego – is constrained not only by its inner structures, but by territorial, spacial boundaries. The borders of the owner’s territory stretch as far as his/her arms do. That is, the owner’s control over him/herself, or over the external world, goes only as far as his/her ‘might’ reaches. Max Stirner explains this concept repeatedly and emphatically throughout The Ego and Its Own:
“My freedom becomes complete only when it is my – might; but by this I cease to be a merely free man, and become an own man. Why is the freedom of the peoples a 'hollow word'? Because the peoples have no might! [..] Might is a fine thing, and useful for many purposes; for 'one goes further with a handful of might than with a bagful of right'. You long for freedom? You fools! If you took might, freedom would come of itself. See, he who has might 'stands above the law'.”
Also, more precisely and succinctly:
“My power is my property.
My power gives me property.
My power am I myself, and through it am I my property.”
What is this might, this power actually constituted of? The might of the owner – that is the source of his/her ownership – is not the ‘legal’ power of the socially powerful. Might has nothing to do with ‘right’, legitimate supremacy, and so on. The might of the owner is the measure of his/her ability to control a portion of their internal and external territories.
First of all, such might expresses itself negatively, as the ability to reject external dominions over oneself. Secondly, it exists as the ability to control the necessary spaces and resources in the physical world surrounding the individual. And finally – but most importantly – such might expresses itself as the ability to gain control over oneself, that is, to assert one’s empty self as the sovereign power over one’s internal civilisation. Such internal sovereignty, however, does not present itself with the rigid, immutable characteristics typical of social civilisations. Even when asserting its dominion over itself, the self of the owner does so with the greatest fluidity: what is true today can be declared false tomorrow, a decision taken today can be abandoned tomorrow, without regrets or the need to justify one’s lack of ‘coherence’. The self of the owner presents itself as autonomous even from itself, as well as from the various desires and passions which agitate themselves in its territory.
“The ambitious man, who is carried away by ambition and remains deaf to every warning that a calm moment generates in him, has let this passion grow up into a despot against whom he abandons all power of dissolution: he has given up himself, because he cannot dissolve himself, and consequently cannot absolve himself from the passion: he is possessed.”
This insistence on autonomy and independence, as well as on the possibility of changing the settings and direction of one’s internal civilisation, does not come without its positive counterpart. Similarly to the relationship between freedom and ownness, such an autonomy from dominating forces would be nothing without the ability to transform one’s control over oneself into a positive, productive act. The owner is not simply in control of his/her desires, and capable of bending them to his/her plans, but is also capable of realising such plans. This process has two fundamental aspects to it. First of all, the ability to nurture one’s desires enough to make them overspill into action. Secondly, that of performing this action effectively in the world.
Both these aspects find the sad image of their lack, reflected, once again, in the writing of the Baron of Teive.
“I am going to end a life that I thought could contain every kind of greatness but that in fact consisted only of my incapacity to really want to be great.”
“I have all the conditions for happiness, except happiness. The conditions are detached from one another.”
“Our problem isn’t that we are individualists. It’s that our individualism is static rather than dynamic. We value what we think rather than what we do. We forget that we have’t done, or been, what we thought; that the function of life is action, just as the first property of things is motion.”
With his typically precise prose, the Baron of Teive identifies the origin of his existential failure – and consequently, of his choice of committing suicide – in the combined inability to desire enough what he desired, and to turn his plans into effective action. The former aspect is particularly relevant to the contemporary psychic landscape. After the immense investment of mental and emotional resources demanded to the inhabitants of the West by what Franco Berardi Bifo defined as ‘the prozac economy’ of the past few decades, our mental environment has reached a point of devastation and exhaustion comparable only to that of the natural environment. The libidinal energy which fuelled the surge of late capitalism has long reached its peak and is fast running out. Well before we will reach the exhaustion of natural energy sources such as oil or gas, we will find ourselves completely devoid of any libidinal energy. This mental energy crisis found its early example in the fictional life of Baron of Teive, before exploding, in more recent years, in the current depression epidemics.
The paralysed restlessness in which most of us find ourselves stuck, often diagnosed or self-diagnosed as depression, is a state in which we are faced by a life that “could contain every kind of greatness”, and, at the same time by our failure at “really wanting to be great”. It is interesting to examine the issue of such lack of ‘want’ and desire under the perspective proposed – with astounding similarities – by Schopenhauer and by the Taoist school(s) of thought. If we are to accept their conception of the world as the plane of existence traversed by a universal ‘will’ – or Tao, – then our failure at producing sufficient mental energy of our own can be interpreted as the inability of singularising the Tao. If we agree on the illusory nature of our life – often compared also by Buddhism to a dream – then our failure at gaining ownness over it can be described as the inability to turn our mere dreaming into a lucid dream.
The act of singularizing the Tao is exactly what Max Stirner meant with his concept of gaining ‘property’, of making one’s self one’s ‘own’. It is the act of reclaiming for oneself one’s own share of energy, one’s own territory in the world. Similarly, the distinction between mere dreaming and lucid dreaming can be found again in the above mentioned, desperate words of the Baron of Teive, when he refers to his “inborn cowardice,” which he “loathe(d) and struggle(d) against but which (bound his) mind and (his) will with inscrutable ties.” If we observe it under the perspective which sees our daily experience of the world as the experience of a dream, we can interpret the Baron’s cowardice as his way of drifting through a dream which he had unmasked as such, but which he could not navigate as he wished.
“A dream, when too lifelike or familiar, becomes a new reality, equally tyrannical; it ceases to be a refuge. Dreamed armies ultimately go down in defeat, just like those that go under in the battles and clashes of the world.”
The phantasmic visions that appeared in the Baron’s dream, such as the social norms of aristocracy, imposed themselves on his life as real forces and entities. Yet, their body was made of nothing but the ghostly substance of essences and ideals, that is, of what Max Stirner defines as ‘spooks’.
“To know and acknowledge essences alone and nothing but essences, that is religion; its realm is a realm of essences, spooks, and ghosts.”
“Man, your head is haunted; you have a screw loose! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!”
And yet, precisely as it happens with those ‘spooks’, the acknowledgement of their presence within the territory of the individual produces real results. To the active passivity of the mere dreamer – who reacts to imaginary ghosts with real acts – we can oppose the combination of forgetting and action, typical of the lucid dreamer. As discussed above, forgetting here refers to the lucid dreamer’s refusal both to acknowledge the pretenses of reality of the ghosts that populate his territory and to enter into any submissive relationship with them. Action describes the combined process of nurturing one’s desires, controlling them as part of one’s civilization and pushing forward the ever-changing plans of one’s internal civilization in the world.
This complex idea of action finds its negative counterpart in the “inborn cowardice” described by the Baron. While the Baron’s “cowardice” was binding his mind and will “with inscrutable ties”, action as part of a lucid dream can be described as characterized by bravery. In opposition to the psychological attitude of the Baron of Teive and his inability at preventing his alienation from his own life and the descent into suicidal depression, bravery describes the attitude of the individual who willingly decides to embark on a voyage of forgetting and lucid dreaming throughout his life, and, at the same time, to reclaim his/her ownness over him/herself.
It is easy to detect the enormous difference between this type of bravery and the one commonly praised in idealistic discourses, such as those of nationalism and militarism. While the latter kind of bravery corresponds to the attempt to merge one’s life with the ghostly substance of a greater cause or ideal – mostly through extreme self-sacrifice – the former kind refers to the process of reclaiming one’s life as one’s own. Also, and most importantly, if the bravery of idealism defines one’s movement beyond one’s limits – in the attempt to reach a horizon ‘bigger than oneself’ – that of lucid dreaming is a movement always within one’s limits.
We have already observed the limits of the owner, in terms of the reach of his/her might. However, the limits of one’s might – and consequently, of one’s property – are inscribed within a stricter and fundamental frame: that of mortality. The fragility intrinsic in the mortal condition surrounds the individual from the outside and from within, both as threat and as necessary aspect of life. This awareness of mortality both constitutes and defines the behaviour of the egoist.
First of all, the acknowledgement of oneself as a creature inescapably bound to mortality leads one to an utter refusal of anything which might escape such condition. Immortal objects, immortal principles and immortal demands are of no use for a mortal, since they do not share his/her same plane of existence – if theirs can be considered at all as existence. The egoist’s relationship to the surrounding world is one of empathy and utility, and both empathy and utility require a relationship with counterparts which insist on the same plane of existence.
We can call such attitude as a radical type of atheism; an atheism, that is, that doesn’t only reject the conception of immortality propagated by religion, but also that of any type of idealist (un)religion. The egoist is an atheist towards anything that raises itself above the fragility of his/her mortality. His/her atheism doesn’t limit itself to an act of obsessive denial of the objects of its refusal – as traditional atheism does – but, as discussed above, proceeds to their active forgetting: while rejecting the immortal structures that bind categories such as love or bravery, it unfolds in its active reclaiming of the territory previously occupied by them, proceeding to its occupation and reinvention within the frame of a mortal existence. Such an attitude develops into a complex relationship with the external world, which we can define as a complicity between mortals. This becomes extremely evident in a relationship of love with an other. As Derrida says:
“For this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one’s birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one’s own ruin – which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures.”
This complicity between mortals – which is not limited to one’s relationship towards the other, but also towards oneself, or one’s own civilization, as another mortal other – finds its common ground in the fundamental substance of mortality itself: the slippery surface of time. Understood in its dynamic nature, time enters and supports the mortal as a sense of pure urgency. The egoist’s love, understood as mortal love, can’t be anything but urgent love. Such is the love of the egoist for him/herself, as well as for others. However, as was the case with other reclaimed existential territories, this mortal urgency – that is, the urgency of the egoist’s lucid dreaming – presents itself as very different from that commonly experienced in the heavily-idealised, contemporary life. Instead of acting as an urgency to reach immortal ideals, or to shape oneself according to their commands, mortal urgency opens itself to a less anxious experience. By rejecting the temporality of immortal demands, the egoist can focus on what Derrida calls his/her “finite infinity”. Exactly because of the infinity which constitutes its finitude, and which does not ever promise a point of accomplishment of the quest, the egoist experiences his condition with an urgency relaxed by the acknowledgment of the impossibility of any final accomplishment. It is an urgency of moments, rather than one of meaning.
Also, in consideration of the ever-growing death at the heart of the individual’s existence, the egoist allows him/herself an exceptional license of action in the world. This applies in particular to the relationship with oneself, as noted by the Baron of Teive
“Self-preoccupation, in literary or philosophical matters, has always struck me as a lack of good manners. [...] [However,] I realize that in this manuscript i violate the principle I’ve [just] laid down, But these pages are a testament, and in testaments the testator can’t avoid talking about himself. there’s more tolerance for the dying, and these words come from a dying man.”
Indeed, the mortal is always a dying person. And, consequently, anything s/he might produce is to be understood also, in part, as a testament. Like a testament, the egoist leaves behind him/herself a trail of acts and words that testimony the mark s/he has left while proceeding through life. In this sense, the present text must be considered as nothing else but a mark left by my individual experience of life, the trace that I am now leaving behind myself, as I continue venturing on, towards a death that lies everywhere but in front of me. Pushing down my death, I leave behind me a testament that contains as much truth as that of the tales of medieval explorers. I have met the concepts I have discussed so far, their incredible shapes, their unbelievable existence, and yet, if any of you were ever to go back there to find what I describe, s/he would never find it. No point in going back, then, looking for someone else’s lucid dreams. Better to limit oneself to listen to others’ tales, without too much conviction or belief. After all, whenever not written by oneself for oneself, philosophy is always nothing but pure entertainment.
Fernando Pessoa, The Education of the Stoic - the only manuscript of the Baron of Teive, p. 14, Exact Change, Cambrisge, 2005
Max Stimer, The Ego and Its Own, ed. David Leopold, p.143, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,1995
see Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso, London/New York, 2009
Max Stirner, Op. Cit., p.151
Max Stirner, Op. Cit., p.166
Max Stirner, Op. Cit., p.258
Fernando Pessoa, Op. Cit., p.13
Fernando Pessoa, Op. Cit., p.15
Fernando Pessoa, Op. Cit., p.18
see Franco Berardi Bifo, Precarious Rhapsody, Autonomedia, New York, 2009
Fernando Pessoa, Op. Cit., p.27-28
Max Stirner, Op. Cit., p.41
Max Stirner, Op. Cit., p.43
Jacques Derrida, Chaque Fois Unique, la Fin du Monde, ed. P.-A. Brault and M. Naas, Galilee, Paris, 2003; as quoted and translated in Martin Hagglung, Radical Atheism, p. 111, stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008
Fernando Pessoa, Op. Cit., p. 17-18