Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Max Headroom

Karl Hess once told me that he thought Ayn Rand stole all her best ideas from Max Stirner. I disagreed. I didn't think she was that well-read.

Max Stirner was the pseudonym of Johann Kasper Schmidt (1806-1856), a German philosopher who is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of egoism, nihilism, existentialism and anarchism. Only Descartes (cogito ergo sum, and all that) and Goethe (who planned a novel entitled The Egoist, but I don’t know nearly enough about Goethe) have real claim to priority.

The "Max Stirner" name itself was his nickname from childhood, a pun on "Stirn," -- German for "forehead." So his nom de plume translates to something like "high brow," or perhaps "Max Headroom." So call him Max Headroom, if you like. There is a pretty good article on Stirner in the Wikipedia, and I recommend it.

So, bit of background, Stirner was writing in 1844, after the ice of religion and aristocracy had cracked, but before the floes were freely moving in the water, at least in Germany. Then, as now, there were a myriad of philosophies fighting for control of men’s minds, Church and State were now not the only games in town, so a lot was at stake.

Some of the players went under the banner of Liberalism (which, I’m sure you know, was considerably different from the doctrines now taking that name), some Socialism, and some Communism (though again, much different from the current notions grouped in those categories). One of the strands of liberalism had recently been espoused by a fellow by the name of Feuerbach, who seems to have been one of the first to achieve what we know call Secular Humanism, the substitution of Man in the place of God in all the moral equations. Stirner is particularly harsh with Feuerbach, and that seems to have been responsible for most of what splash Stirner’s book made at the time. However, Marx devotes a substantial portion of one book to attacking Stirner (in typical Marxist fashion: a personal attack rather than any attempt to meet the ideas themselves), so there was obviously something else going on.

Stirner's Magnum Opus was Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, (DEusE). Its English translation was titled The Ego and Its Own. My German sucks as badly as a single semester of college German can suck, but I can recognize a clunky translation when it bangs my head, and "Ego" qualifies. The original English translator stipulated that his title was a bad translation, but felt that it was a good enough title for something largely untranslatable.

"Einzig" means "only, sole, single" and "Eigentum" means "property," but there is also an internal bit of wordplay, because of the "Ein/Eigen" thing. Friend Ben Sano suggests that a better translation would be “Myself and Mine,” whereas I thought “The Only and the Owned” was pretty clever. Tthe Wikipedia article says "The Individual and his Property" and "The Sole One and his Property" have also been used, but I don't like those for other reasons. In any case, The Ego and Its Own is the title you’ll find in the second-hand bookstore.

Still, the reference to Ego (and Egoism) does allow the bringing of Freud into the matter later, which I may do, and there are various reasons for thinking that Freud was familiar with Stirner’s work. Stirner’s book was translated into English in 1907 and found some audience, though never a large one. I think there was a revival in Germany a little prior to that; the surrealist painter Max Ernst is known to have been influenced by Stirner.

The "Ego" part also hints at another problem that comes with reading Stirner: it's not just the German to English translation that causes problems. Stirner wrote DEusE heading on two centuries back and the meanings of the words have slipped some. "Ego" doesn't mean the same now as it did before Freud, or when Steven Byington translated it DEusE into English in 1907 (when Freud was also just penetrating English consciousness). All in all, you get a problem similar to the one Walter Kaufmann dealt with in translating Nietzsche, leaving "ubermensch" untranslated, rather than using "superman" because of the pop culture that had accumulated around the latter term.

The translation problems hardly stop there. The year of DEusE's publication, 1844, is inconceivably distant now. Stirner uses European Jewry as metaphors and exemplars at times, but there is no way for a post-Nazi world to understand how it read at the time. He wrote for his contemporaries, so jokes, allusions, all the rest, just slide right by all but the most devoted scholar of the period (which I am not), and such scholarship carries its own karma. And so forth. So what remains are the grand sweep of ideas, which are themselves open to misinterpretation. In fact, owing to the nature of Stirner's message, misinterpretation is almost demanded.

There is a web site devoted to Stirner:

Reading the essays there is enlightening. Are they reading the same book as I have? Probably not, when you get to it. It's a phenomenon that in some ways validates Stirner: each reading is unique, each an Enzig’s Eigentum, as it were.

So enough introductory, what is it the Stirner said that was so damn fascinating? Well, he was specifically attacking certain sorts of abstract ideas, which he called “spooks” and their elevation to a position above men, or specifically, Stirner himself, since he stipulated that he was speaking for himself alone, and damn proud of it, thank you very much.

What were these ideas, (he also referred to them as “fixed ideas” in the translation, though in current times we would probably call them “fixations”)? Things like God, and the State, and Mankind, and the Common Good, the Law, the Public Interest, the Proletariat, well, you get the idea. Liberte, Equalite, Fraternite. Grand ideas that have been at the center of quite a lot of bloodshed throughout time, but, accordingly, ideas which are quite dangerous to attack. Ideas that are supposed to be larger than we are. “Bats in your Belfry,” Stirner said of them.

What was the nature of Stirner’s attack (other than sheer peevishness, which is often quite enough, isn’t it)? Let’s use a single one of the spooks to serve for all, but remember that the argument is fairly general. Let’s consider how Stirner would address a theist, someone who is religious in the old style, who demands that all men must live to serve God (which, in the practice of Stirner’s time meant that all men must live to serve the Church).

Anyway, Stirner would say something like this:

First, you cannot actually serve God, you can only serve your own idea of God, or perhaps someone else’s idea of God. But since God does not speak to you directly, (unless you are Jean d’Arc, presumably), you are stuck with following a disembodied spook.

And yet, let’s consider this idea of God. Who does God serve? Well, no one. God exists in himself and for himself, and asking who God serves may even be blasphemous. Well, why should I not demand the same? Why should I not serve myself? In fact, (and here the argument gets specific to God, and I’m putting words in Stirner’s mouth, but it’s a pretty obvious extension of Max’s ideas), if God made Man in his own image, why did he leave out such an important bit, the right of existing for his own sake?

Then, Stirner inquires slyly, aren’t theists really serving themselves when they claim to be serving God? Your worship holds out the promise of life after death and eternal life at that. What is your eternal life to God? There are plenty where you came from (wherever that may be). On the contrary, your eternal life is of importance to you and primarily you. You are actually an egoist pretending otherwise. Your selflessness, your disdain for selfishness is a sham.
Of course, that final argument is self-canceling to a substantial degree. If you are really acting in your own self interest in being God fearing (and if the Old Testament God really exists, you’d be daft not to fear Him), then how is owning up to it going to change you or your behavior?

Well, it’s good to be rid of these fixed ideas, anyway, Stirner says, and there is some truth to it. If you’re behaving in your own interest in a certain way for a long time, if you have developed a fixed idea, in other words, you may get stuck and continue to behave that way long after it has ceased to serve your own interests. Then too, honesty can be refreshing. To believe in a God that is both a bully and all loving suggests a centralized hypocrisy.

There is a similar argument made when Stirner gets to the Eigentum, property in other words. He notes that liberalism (old school) makes constant demands for freedom and liberty. But what are these good for? Nothing really, you’re just hoping that freedom and liberty give you an unimpeded path to what you really want, whatever that may be. Food, a clean bed, a palace or a nice house, whichever your taste. A respected position, perhaps, or your own private railroad car (Stirner noted the insatiability of desire with a demand for the possession of flight - having just been on a five hour flight from Detroit to SF, I can say that the process is overrated). Sex, drugs, rock and roll. A happy life and a loving spouse.

In other words, Stirner says, don’t confuse means with ends. Realize what it is that you really want, rather than what you think is the means to get what you want. Again, pretty decent advice, within its limitations.

But there are those limitations. Indeed, when you follow Stirner as far as he goes, you find yourself bereft of most of the things that people want from a philosophy. Design an ideal society? Why would anyone want to do that (or think that it could be done)? Stirner himself spoke vaguely of a “Union of Egoists” but never explained how it would be different from what we, in fact have. Abolish the State? What’s in it for me?

There are no absolute prescriptions or proscriptions to be found in Stirner. If Mother Teresa were to tell him, “Very well and good, but I choose to serve my own idea of God,” then what?

The philosophy of egoism has no real answer, other than maybe, “Good for you, as long as you’re clear on whose responsibility it is.” And figuring out what one wants, and the getting it, those are the hard parts. What happens when you want contradictory or unrealistic things? Resolve the contradictions? Isn’t “contradiction” a fixed idea? And how often have you gotten what you thought you wanted, only to discover that maybe that wasn’t it after all?

So we come to my suspicion that Freud read Stirner and tried to answer some of those questions, and his answers wound up being so unpalatable and disturbing that we’ve spent a century trying to sweep Freud under the carpet one way or another (and by “we” I mean both Freuds’ supporters and his detractors).

However, I don’t think that Stirner--or Freud--are useless or even wrong. Here’s an example of why. A while back a friend of mine was trying to sort out a set of romantic entanglements that had developed around him. He was trying mightily to “do right” by everyone involved. After listening to him for a while, I said, “You know, you are allowed to consider your own interests in this.” He blinked, smiled, and said, “Thanks, I need to be reminded of that from time to time.”

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