Bar Fly in Berlin
By bblfish on Sep 10, 2006
So I have been sitting in a café named Soylent in Berlin, reading the second half of Jean Gebser's Ursprung und Gegenwart, that my old drinking buddy from San Francisco, Dave, had suggested I read. Conceived in the 1937, first published in 1949, and a second edition in 1966, it covers a large field of subjects in a way that is still very relevant and insightful. The book is getting difficult to read partly because of the references to a number of continental philosophers I have not read, but also because the evening is setting and there is not enough light to see the letters on the page. I just make out at the end of page 553: "Auch Heidegger greift das Konzept seines Lehrers Husserl...". I get up, take my backpack which contains my laptop, walk over to the bar maid and point her to that passage in the book. Of course with all the stuff I am carrying I forget the exact location of the passage, but she tells me that her brother had come over from Israel for a short vacation to Berlin, and that he had allready confirmed that Husserl was Heidegger's teacher.
We had a weird conversation the week before when I first discovered Soylent. That was last Saturday then, as I was over half way through the first part of "Ursprung und Gegenwart", subtitled "Beitrag zu einer Geschichte der Bewustwerdung" [contributions to a history of becoming conscious]. I had discovered Soylent by taking the S-bahn to the east of Berlin, and haphazardly getting out at some station, deciding that there was bound to be some nice relaxing place to read my book somewhere around there, and that I might as well be a tourist. After getting my hair cut for €10, I asked around for the happening area, and was pointed in direction of Warschauer Straße. As I passed Soylent I noticed the artwork on the walls (original), so ignoring the drilling noise, I sat down, looked at the menu and ordered a vegetarian sandwich. The guy drilling said he was nearly finished. The music, a selection of French, English and electronic music was very pleasant, the sun was shining so I just kept on reading.
The book being in German, I would come across a few words from time to time, which I did not understand. I had tried hard to guess their meaning from the context, but at one point I was just finding the double complexity of the meaning of the book and the lack of my understanding of a word - Muße in this case - to be too much indeterminacy, and so I asked the bar maid if she knew what that meant. She was not quite sure, so we asked around. Someone suggested Muse (the goddess of inspiration) and that seemed to fit. I was surprised that had not occurred to me.
Of course afterwards the usual questions followed, such as "where are you from?" to which I have to respond "England, France and Austria", because nothing else will quite explain how someone reading a big german book could not know that word. Of course I asked the question in return and the bar maid told me she was from Israel, studying film and theater.
Being a tourist, I was interested to know a little more about Berlin, so I asked a little, what she liked about it and then if she made herself a spiritual map of the town. I once noticed, I told her, that London could be divided into 5 regions which had a very clear spiritual/economic emphasis: North London was intellectual, East London was working class, South was more new rich, countryside, West was Imperial and the center was money. So following this map, it became clear why media would be in the North West, media being the intersection of intellectual and empire. It's a generalizing framework that I found useful to help me organize my experiences of London, full of holes and approximations, but nevertheless helpful. Of course she pointed out that Berlin had been divided after the cold war, and that reminded me that I should have a look at a map revealing the cold war zones.
This led me somehow to reflect on how amazing historical fate could be, that for a country such as Germany, whose most famous philosopher Hegel saw History as a development of the spirit, unfolding itself as thesis, antithesis and synthesis, that for a country whose main philosopher he was in the 18th century, Germany ended up being divided itself, by two camps, Capitalism and Communism which acted like thesis and antithesis, out of which sprung the new Germany, as a kind of synthesis of the two, or perhaps as Jean Gebser would say from the arational perspective, and integration of the two, whereby each part is still maintained and lives on, but a higher integrating structure that lives over and above the previous one, integrates and builds upon the past. There are still communists, punks (I later that evening came across a huge punk rock music festival in a large squatting zone), fascists, christian democrats, socialists, liberals, greens, etc.. all these past elements are integrated into the larger democratic structure that is the current Germany, itself integrated into the larger European structures, and numerous other international and transnational structures. The past is integrated in the present: all the way from the Ursprung (the Origin) to the Gegenwart (the present, understood as containing the past). Indeed perhaps this is the main difference between Hegelian synthesis and Gebserian integration: synthesis does not keep the past elements alive - there is no space for the previous categories after the synthesis.
To which she responded that one should take care of Hegel, as he was linked to the Nazis, about him having done something in the 1930ies - which got me a little confused to say the least. Hegel I clearly remember, and I know my understanding of history is very flaky, certainly lived before Nietzsche and Dostoievsky, and I know that they were writing in the second half of the 19th century, and that they clearly mention Hegel. So we had a problem. She seemed to be saying something about Hegel having something to do with the Nazis, which seemed to be stretching things a little. Perhaps, I wondered, she was thinking, of anti-Semitism going all the way back and having its roots in the writings of Hegel, and now I remember a very good book by an Israeli, Yirmiyahu Yovel The Dark Riddle writing on this subject, and surprisingly enough making the case that to the contrary of Bertrand Russel's facile interpretation of Nietzsche, he had in fact been quite the opposite of an anti semite - warning in fact of the dangerous trends that he saw in that direction - whereas the rationalism of Hegel was a lot more damning (since he thought older religions had been surpassed, he saw no real point for them left) So there you go, you are in Berlin, and a small discussion about the spiritual map of the town brings up a huge sequence of thoughts on history and philosophy. In order to cut down the possibilities of interpretation a little I decided to take the word Nazis in the more precise historical context around the second world war. "Yes ", she said, "Hegel was teaching here in Berlin during the war". Ah! Mistaken identities. We had it. She was thinking of Heidegger. This was clarified when she mentioned that he had a Jewish teacher and that Heidegger had not done much to protect him (Husserl I suggested) from the crazy laws forbidding Jews to teach in Germany in the 1940ies.
The barmaid, Ilil is her name, a very sharming and spirited young woman, had studied philosophy in Israel as part of some syllabus, covering the history of Jewish thinking of which she mentioned Emmanuel Lévinas, and his philosophy of the Other. So as I pointed out that passage in the book yesterday evening, it reconnected from our weird conversation the week before. Her brother who seems to be studying physics, computing and all kinds of technical subjects, (Ilil tells me he is perhaps a little too technical at times and does not take care enough of the emotions - I can hear my sister saying the same about me) - her brother then had confirmed my guess about Husserl being Heideggers teacher, as he had come over to visit for the week.
So we continued on the conversation from there, as the bar was a little empty, and in between orders, we spoke of other subjects such a film, possible worlds, the 10 dimensions of reality - which I quickly explained to her - and other such stuff one can talk of in a bar full of interesting people and with excellent murales.
The evening moved along and two guys who were on some kind of pub crawl came in, one of whom I overheard mentioning something about his buddy setting out to corner 90% of the market. His buddy soon took an interest in two girls in the corner of the room, and went over to chat to them. The guy had a quick glance at my books, but seemed more interested in Ilil. He asked her for something, she gave him a paper, he laughed at it, and off he went to join his friend. A little later he came back, sat around, and asked me what I was reading. So I tried to summarize Jean Gebser's work by saying that it was a book about a history of the development of consciousness, and that Gebser had identified 5 stages of consciousness from the origins of time, the archaic, the magical, the mental and he predicted the coming of the Integral stage whose birth he set out to describe in the second book that I was just reading, and with which I was struggling a little. But from what I was reading about the part I understood - his emphasis on the space-time discoveries of Einstein, and his interpretations of quantum mechanics - I have to say that he had some very good intuitions on where things were heading, presuming that the 10 dimensions of string theory I described in a previous blog here last week - is correct.
- "That's all well and good, but the question is," he said pausing, "what brings you to read this?"
- "Mhh that's a deep question. " I thought a little. "Because I find it interesting", I ventured
- "But is there a purpose?"
- "That does not explain causality" he suggested.
- "Oh no, to the contrary". I responded. "David Lewis explains causality in counterfactual terms very simply. First he defines causality as relating events. Take this roll of tissue paper ", I said picking up the roll in front of me, "and take the event of my moving my hand so ", I moved my hand and the roll fell over, "the event of my moving my hand caused the roll to fall over just means that if the event of my moving my hand had not happened, the roll would not have fallen over, which is a counterfactual statement, and so a relation between possible worlds", simplifying somewhat David Lewis's paper on causality. (see standford encyclopedia for more details)
- "Well", he said, changing track, "imagine we are like a fly trapped under a dome ". He pointed to an imaginary fly on the bar, and making a semi-spheric movement with his hands covered the fly with an imaginary dome. "What weird theories would the fly trapped under the dome come up with about its universe? Would those not in fact only be valid about the partial space it perceived from its own small and finite perspective?"
- "Very good point", I answered, " and this is exactly what is so absolutely amazing about string theory. It is not a physics of our small universe, but it is a physics it seems of all possible universes, if what I have come to understand in the last week is correct. If the fly trapped under its dome decided to come up with a physics that described just its perceptions, the phenomena it came in contact with, then yes, the poor fly would end up with a very limited and incomplete theory of the universe. But if the fly instead of creating a theory of what is happening under its dome, created a theory of all possible worlds, then it could perhaps come up with string theory, and correctly describe everything, even with its finite and limited perceptions of the world. An unlikely event for something as simple as a fly of course, but you get my point."
This was not the usual reply he heard to his puzzle, that was clear, because it did stop him in his tracks. He paused. Then pursued,
- "The fly is only finitely intelligent, consider what a more intelligent creature could come up with."
- "Yes, you are quite right. First notice though how you are just making a counterfactual statement which is best described using possible worlds logic. Thought itself consists of imagining and talking about possible worlds. Secondly, I think that the point of yours that just as we are to a fly - immensely more intelligent - so other creatures may be to us.
- "Have you ever met such a creature?" he asked rhetorically.
- "I don't have to. Since we can imagine them we know they must possible exist." I smiled. "But to get back to your point about these intelligent creatures, your realization that there may be much more intelligent, spiritually evolved creatures than yourself, is in itself is a very great and useful discovery about the finiteness of our intelligence, which is worth taking into account in proceeding in the world."
That seemed to close the discussion, as he gestured to Ilil a little paper with it seemed a phone number on it, and mumbled something I did not catch. She laughed a little and timidly pointed to the ring on her finger, "I have to tell you that I am married" she said.
- "Oh I am sorry" he said very much taken aback it seemed. His plan there had stopped in its tracks. (Oh the magical power of the ring!) There followed some very confused talk of how he was surprised, how old she was (25), and that it was such an early age to be married, how he would not imagine to marry so young,
- "It is not physical age but spiritual age that counts" said Ilil and how he thought that if he was to marry it would be at 32 or something, he was 27 or so. Anyway he was quite all over the place. The guy really was taken aback, and of course given the lack of subtlety in his way of opening the situation, he clearly could not conceive that she might only be wearing this ring to push off barbarians at the bar. Perhaps the thought crossed his mind, so he continued. He even went on to say that he could not live without women. To which I responded "One can't live with them one can't live without them".
- "I love women", he exclaimed, somewhat helplessly
- "Clearly you have not lived with one yet", I said.
Isn't youthful enthusiasm great?
- "What do you study I asked?"
- "I studied history" he answered, "but I am tired of it now."
Clearly he had not studied the history of becoming conscious. His friend came over and they moved on to another bar.
A blond woman came to the bar to pay and doing so noticed my books, and said
- "Ah so they have republished this book."
- "I don't know" I said "I just went to the book shop in the center of Berlin and ordered it on the suggestion of my friend Dave Freeman, from San Francisco".
- "Oh yes. It was out of print for a while", she continued.
- "Do you know his work?"
- "My mother had it at home", she continued, " and I have been meaning to read it for a while. What do you make of it?"
- "Well it is a very interesting and deeply researched map of a history of becoming conscious", I replied. "From the passages I understand best - and I am not expert, far from it - the space-time/quantum debate, I must say that his intuitions of what was to come were very good. I can't comment about a lot of the other topics he covers, as the depth of Gebser's culture so far surpasses my own, that I am just left to take his word for a lot of what he says. I will see how far his map takes me. It is a hefty book to read, so I can't just recommend it to everyone. A simpler overview or continuation of this thought is given by Ken Wilber, who is more of a guru, American style - lots of marketing and stuff there though. His book 'Sex, Ecology and Spirituality' though a little off putting with its back cover quotation 'The twenty first century has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche and Ken Wilber'"
- "Still", I continued, "if one can abstract from the marketing hype, its a good book. This integral thinking is very helpful in creating a framework to bring together all the disparate specialized fields of knowledge. In the United Kingdom we are much too specialized in our thinking. A child can take an A level in only three subjects, and then go on to a very high level of specialization for his Bachelors. I for example only really studied 20th century logical philosophy. In the end too much specialization leads to a drying up of the well of inspiration. Knowledge has to be built in an integral framework and have depth for it to be alive. " (see RDF and Metcalf's law) "What do you study?"
- "Music ethnography and psychology."
- "Oh, excellent. That is a wide spectrum of fields."
- "Yes. Nice talking to you. I have to go, but I'm sure we'll meet again. Bye", she said, having paid, and left.
So now it's Sunday and I am in Soylent putting the finishing touches on this rather lengthy entry. I notice a woman sitting in front of me reading a book. I start a small conversation with her. Noa is her name. She is visiting Berlin from Israel for the weekend, and was just reading Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens in hebrew in a translation by Irit Linor. "Very fun" Noa told me. And she just left to see the Cirque du Soleil, which is playing for the first time in Berlin.
The music from Magnolia is playing.