Idealism, Solipsism, and the Mournful Mind


There is a well known letter that Mark Twain wrote to his friend Joe Twichell soon after the death of Twain’s wife ‘Livy’ which constantly returns to me. It has come to my mind more and more recently as I have had too many occasions to think about the death of someone I knew. In the letter Twain writes:

“Dear Joe,

‘How life and the world – the past and future – are looking – to me? (A part of each day and night) as they have been looking to me for the past 7 years: as being NON-EXISTENT. That is, that there is nothing. That there is no god and no universe; that there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible thought. And that I am that thought. And God and the Universe and Time and Life and Death and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that insane thought.”

Twain’s words are repeated in various versions of his last and unfinished work the mysterious stranger. Satan seems to endorse’s Twain’s notion that the only certainty is oblivion and that life is a vapor, a delusion, a dream. Yet we are in that dream and what does it mean to think the dream from within a dream, to think the limit of thought if thought imposes its own limit in its dreamy non-logic? The oldest (or certainly one of the oldest) problems of philosophy is that of the unfortunate lot of mortals being trapped between thinking about that which is and that which is not.

As I have discussed in the Kimhi posts and regarding idealism in general this of course asks after not only what is the all or the limit or what is the limit in or thought in, but also what is the quality of thought by which it seems to be able to recognize a limit? Much of this, at least in recent philosophy, follows from Godel’s discovery that one must choose between consistency and completeness (a list of all the lists in the world must include itself on it but if it did then there would be a longer list and therefore it would be not be the list of all lists etc). But whether this applies to thought or even types of thought is a even harder problem. In a recent talk Anna Longo highlighted how Godel thought that if there was a limit to human thinking we would (mercifully) not know what it was.

It is this internalization of the limit of thought as either central to, or identical to what makes thought thought, which is shared between Twain’s desperate loneliness and recent currents in both continental and analytic philosophy (and as well as, but not limited to, post-war French philosophy and German Idealism). But as I said the problem, in at least one form, is as old as philosophy. In Parmenides’ fragment the goddess seems to pity humans for being foolish two-headed creatures:

“The [path] on which mortals, knowing nothing, wander, two-headed, for helplessness in
their breasts guides their wandering minds and they are carried, deaf and blind alike,
dazed, uncritical tribes, for whom being and not-being are thought the same and yet not
the same, and the path of all runs in opposite directions. For never shall this be proved:
that things that are not are. But do restrain your thought from this path of inquiry, and do not let habit, born from much experience, compel you along this path, to guide your
sightless eye and ringing ear and tongue. But judge by reason the highly contentious
disproof that I have spoken.”

But of course the goddess (and perhaps it is a problem if we think goddesses no longer are, or never were, you know, existing) does not give us sound advice on thinking things that were but now are not. The dead, the extinct, the lost, the forgotten invoke different mental gymnastics to pull them back in front of us – the various replays of memory that have to take place in order to partially reconstruct this or that ghost. The way we think about non-existent people differs depending on how it is the fact that they no longer exist in a particular way. But I do not think it is necessary to invoke a kind of crude humanism to justify why someone who has passed away is thought about differently than say a tv character who is no longer on the air.

The contents of the mind here being held no doubt border worryingly on the edge of imagination and speculation, where that which is held and remembered (put back together) will become increasingly divorced from its original matter. And here is where Twain’s musing about solipsism, as a kind of psychopathy, unfold their tempting downward spiral.

Is it a comfort to say the dead become a thought, or a concept, or an idea? Are they safeguarded that way or at least as much as possible post-soul belief? Is thought just a constellation a torture where we do not know what exists or not because that which does and does not exist for us here and now become ideas too alike that we take out here and there when a memory is lit up unexpectedly?

I had more of a point to this when I started it than I seem to have now. Even from a position of extreme materialism, imagination is a problem, a big one. Even a materialist as extreme is La Mettrie (who says the soul is mud, that thought is just affectation of matter) almost collapses under the power of imagination (which can only be handled by being consumed by a theory of pedagogy). And this does not seem to adequately give proper account for what it means to be trapped inside your own head when someone (who was also trapped in their head) no longer exists.

If your memories of the dead are just every decaying memories of their affectations (which you hope told you something about who they were) then what do you do with that in your own imaginative moments in your own head? It would seem there is some degree of strange solipsistic mourning, in terms of how the concept of the mourned becomes a concept anchored in their memory traces and yet also a character you can deploy. Case and point – I remember after Mark Fisher died the first time some of us who knew him made a joke about him like he was a superhero. The idea was that if someone was being too academic, too careerist, that Burial would start playing and then he would fly through the window and tell everyone ‘this way out of the vampire castle!’ But of course this is exactly a shared imaginary but the point of its departure seems locked in someone’s particular head, and this is why it seems so odd.

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