Spinoza and the Spanish Poet

I’ve been tormented recently by that Spinoza scholium about the Spanish poet, he whom, having lost his memory, Spinoza is not prepared to call the same person. It’s a strange scholium, not the least because as Montag points out, it’s one of the only loose threads in the Ethics. It’s almost as if the second Ethics (to borrow Deleuze’s topology of the project) is not an esoteric sub-terrain, which system, like the double language of Strauss’s Maimonides, can be uncovered as a secular project concealed for fear of persecution beneath words shaped to appease both the student’s simplicity and the authority’s rigid canon.

Rather, when this thread, which as we shall see has a strange course, is pulled, the whole tapestry doesn’t collapse, but, there being symptoms in the seams, what is revealed is a shadow-portrait painted over, a work of which Spinoza is not the master. Certainly the work is masterful, but while traversing the disparate perspectives of infinite substance and finite modes, the play of power leaves gaps in the cloth’s folds. Montag, asking what external forces compel Spinoza’s pen, proposes that, “[t]he product of such heterogeneous forces would necessarily be a composite, nothing more than a factitious unity whose diverse elements. while combined, are never harmonized. Indeed, what would the ‘something more’ be, if not the very supernatural/supertextual realm that Spinoza so vehemently rejects?” (27).

More than anything else I want to trace the thought of the outside in Spinoza, there where there is strictly speaking no outside, for everything is immanent to an infinite substance that envelops itself in itself, but also where everything is the outside, for everything is just a play of forces and a play of folds, ceaselessly entangled without inside.

The thread weaves through these passages:

Pr.5.III: Things are of a contrary nature, that is, unable to subsist in the same subject, to the extent that one can destroy the other.

Pr.10.III: An idea that excludes the existence of our body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

Sch.Pr.20.IV: Therefore nobody, unless he is overcome by external causes contrary to his own nature, neglects to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his own being. Nobody, I repeat, refuses food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature, but from the constraint of external causes. This can take place in many ways. A man kills himself when he is compelled by another who twists the hand in which he happens to hold a sword and makes him turn the blade against his heart; or when, in obedience to a tyrant’s command, he, like Seneca, is compelled to open his veins, that is, he chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater. Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind (Pr.10.III). But that a man from the necessity of his own nature should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought.

Sch.Pr.39.IV: For I do not venture to deny that the human body, while retaining blood circulation and whatever else is regarded as essential to life, can nevertheless assume another nature quite different from its own. I have no reason to hold that a body does not die unless it turns into a corpse; indeed, experience seems to teach otherwise. It sometimes happens that a man undergoes such changes that I would not be prepared to say that he is the same person. I have heard tell of a certain Spanish poet who was seized with sickness, and although he recovered, he remained so unconscious of his past life that he did not believe that the stories and tragedies he had written were his own. Indeed, he might have been taken for a child in adult form if he had also forgotten his native tongue. And if this seems incredible, what are we to say about babies? A man of advanced years believes their nature to be so different from his own that he could not be persuaded that he had ever been a baby if he did not draw a parallel from other cases. But I prefer to leave these matters unresolved, so as not to afford material for the superstitious to raise new problems.

Sch.Pr.38.V: Hence we understand that point which I touched upon in Sch.Pr.39.IV and which I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less hurtful in proportion as the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge is greater, and consequently the more the mind loves God. Again, since (Pr.27.V) from the third kind of knowledge there arises the highest possible contentment, hence it follows that the human mind can be of such a nature that that part of it that we have shown to perish with the body (Pr.21.V) is of no account compared with that part of it that survives. But I shall be dealing with this at greater length in due course.

Immediately it should be strange that there’s any talk of a ‘subject’ in Spinoza. In fact, every other use of the word is the verbal ‘being subjected to.’ Even more strange is that this proposition (Pr.5.III) is the very basis for the establishment of the universality of the conatus or our very essence in so far as we strive to persist in our being.

The argument goes like this: I cannot destroy myself. Moreover I oppose everything that can destroy me. Therefore I endeavor to persist in my being, an endeavoring which is my very essence.

Spinoza must then decisively establish the impossibility of suicide in order to identify the conatus with an individual essence. How does he do this? On the one hand he shows that, like the previous demonstration, no one can kill oneself from the necessity of their nature or the laws of their essence. But, on the other hand, when one does kill oneself, it is because of external forces. Suicide as such is impossible, while what actually takes place when “one kills oneself,” is merely the event of a death, like all other deaths, that comes from the constraints of the outside.

Yet, why does Spinoza add the qualification “Or it may come about” in order to continue, “when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind.” This reads like an unfinished thought.

Is it that when one’s body becomes contrary in essence to what it once was, this becoming-contrary is itself suicide? Or is it that one kills oneself, not from the necessity of one’s own nature, but rather this other nature is that which accomplishes the act from its own striving to be – like a virus, like a parasite that smothers its host?

When Spinoza speaks of the Spanish poet, however, it is a question of exchanging the death of life with the death in life. One’s body can become contrary in nature to what it once was, but one can neither have knowledge of the previous nature or the fact that this nature has changed. This is what it means when Spinoza qualifies the contrary nature as that, “whereof there can be no idea in the mind.” Yet, how is there still a mind? For Spinoza a mind is the idea of the body. If the body has become contrary to itself then it makes enough sense to say that, if there is an idea corresponding to its nature, it cannot be an object of thought for the mind that corresponds to its previous nature. But how can there be a mind of the previous nature if one is neither aware of the previous nature or the change therein?

This might make more sense if we present Blanchot’s analysis of the impossibility of suicide as a foil. In the section of The Space of Literature entitled “The Work and Death’ Space,” Blanchot asks the questions, “Can I die? Have I the power to die?” three times, each enunciation shifting the emphasis from ‘I’ to ‘power’ to ‘death.’

When Blanchot asks, “Can I die?” on the first instance, this question

has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected. It is when he concentrates exclusively upon himself in the certainty of his mortal condition that man’s concern is to make death possible. It does not suffice for him that he is mortal; he understands that he has to become mortal, that he must be mortal twice over: sovereignly, extremely mortal. That is his human vocation. Death, in the human perspective, is not a given, it must be achieved. It is a task, one which we take up actively, one which becomes the source of our activity and mastery. Man dies, that is nothing. But man is, starting out from his death.

For a being that must account for their ownmost death that makes them, death becomes, in a shrewd twist of thought, an accomplishment, an act, a suicide. To make death possible is, as Kirilov in Dostoevksy’s Demons formulates it, “practically [to grant] us the right to live.” It is to find a path from one to oneself and also from one to God, to the abslute, to existence as such, in a suicide that in order to be affirmed must be carried out.  

Yet, the addition of ‘practically,’ like in much else of Kirilov’s dizzying and disorienting language, Blanchot finds moreover a shame and a fear that precisely these thoughts of God mask by giving death a face. In the second instance, then, it is a question of the power of death: Have I the power to die, or does this power not belong to death itself? Against the anonymous omnipotence of death, one becomes utterly powerless, for to meet death is always to be met by death first, just as to grasp death is to be grasped by death, such that in the third instance of the question, it is the very impossibility of death that is at stake, for it is not I that dies.

Do I myself die, or do I not rather die always other from myself, so that I would have to say that properly speaking I do not die? Can I die? Have I the power to die?

The death that I make possible in my sovereignty over myself is not the same as the death in which I cease, that impossible death which “I” do not die, for this death has no relation to me. Death doubles as does the self, which is split both in relation to itself and to death. Consciousness of disappearing severs from consciousness disappearing, the self that kills from the self that is killed, and the death that the one makes a possibility from the death into the impossibility of which the other dissolves.

The expression “I kill myself” suggests the doubling which is not taken into account. For “I” is a self in the plenitude of its action and resolution, capable of acting sovereignly upon itself, always strong enough to reach itself with its blow. And yet the one who is thus struck is no longer I, but another, so that when I kill myself, perhaps it is “I” who does the killing, but it is not done to me. Nor is it my death – the one I dealt – that I have now to die, but rather the death which I refused, which I neglected, and which is this very negligence.

Who then is the subject of suicide?

For Spinoza, when “I kill myself,” I am not the one that kills myself even though I am the one that dies. For Blanchot, when “I kill myself,” I can certainly be the one who kills, but it is not my self who is killed.