May 2011

Matt McGregor


The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms by Georg Simmel, translated by John A.Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine

The View of Life, the final work of German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, is a strange and curious book; but its immediate interest lies in the fact that it is strange and curious now. It would appear that Simmel's work has never found an audience less receptive to his odd batch of quasi-mystical vitalism and analytical rigor. At a time when novel reading is seen as an elite activity, silent-film era speculative philosophy wouldn't seem to stand a chance. On the other hand, in the wake of “theory” in the humanities, there is a generation of over-educated graduate students for whom Heidegger is just another footnote -- and for whom, incidentally, vitalism is the latest hot ticket.

This, then, like most publications today, is publication for a niche. And this, as all Bookslut readers will surely agree, is a bloody shame. Admittedly, reading The View of Life takes some energy, some concentration, and some patience; it requires skimming some thick Germanic profundities, and pausing over some too simple, earth-shattering aphorisms. To put this another way, if you try and read Georg Simmel's The View of Life in one sitting, you will at some point begin to cry. So keep that in mind. Also, remember that you are reading a German philosopher and sociologist from the era of Heidegger, Husserl, and Ernst Bloch, writers who famously attract the standard cross-room book-hurl, and are catnip for that classic marginal notation: “WTF?”

And yet, if you cocoon yourself away from the general anti-intellectual noise, take out your inkiest black pen, and begin to underline, there are rewards which might just exceed the latest HuffPo headline -- including the un-ironic insistence that defining “life” might just be something of real vital importance. But it is, as I say, strange. It suggests that there was a time when speaking about “vital forces” did not sound kooky. That it sounds kooky now says less about its essential kookiness, than the extent to which much of our own life is subsumed by practicality, and has become what Theodor Adorno would call “administered life.”

So, let's get to the meat of the question: what exactly is Simmel's view of life? Life, in its fullness, is a great Heraclitan stream of “becoming,” of organic begetting and endless reproduction. The obvious, immediate rebuttal is that we do not generally experience such raptures. To get by, to work, to communicate, to be a normal social person, we set boundaries on this overflowing vitality. Not every sentence is a poem; usually, I walk because I have somewhere to go; most of my time is “clock-time”; and most of my days are spent completing relatively banal routines. If life is a continuous river of becoming, a perpetual eruption of spirit, a joyous awareness of the globular ever-transforming self, there’s a good chance that I'm not all that alive.

For Simmel, though, these routines and boundaries are not completely deadening. True, we stake out boundaries in the “infinite fullness of life,” in order to act in the world; but to live in the world is nothing more than to overstep these boundaries at every moment. So, while I live in routine for much of my life, such routine never saturates my existence; for Simmel, there is always a kind of vital excess. This is the paradox of Simmel's theory of life: we are enclosed; we leave our enclosure. Or: to know your limits is to transcend them. Life, for Simmel, is nothing more than this reaching out, this grasping for what one is not.

From this initial definition, a whole mess of problems will arise. Simmel confronts not only the obvious ones, like time and death, but also knowledge, law, art, and morality. With each of these conceptual problems, Simmel will argue that our inherited definitions, our epistemology, our ethics and aesthetics, as well as our governing juridical institutions, are founded on a mistaken theory of what it is to be alive. His discussion, often tense and taxingly rigorous, is punctuated with moments of aphoristic clarity, when the muddy waters of philosophical explication suddenly run clean:

Life, which we consume in order to bring us closer to death, we consume in order to flee it. We are like people walking on a ship in the direction opposite to its course: while they walk southward, the deck on which they do so is borne northwards with them.

Here, despite the clunky syntax, Simmel corrals his concepts into a single betrayal: that life, those vital energies we spend escaping death, only brings death so much closer.  Like many of Simmel’s aphorisms -- and the book ends with a whole series of them -- we have an odd blend of pat cliché (time runs its course; we all die in the end) and profundity.

This book is also deeply utopian, in the best possible sense of the word. Simmel, a vitalist after all, is sensitive to the violence of structures, of those human-made forms which warp and limit all forms of life. As an example, Simmel uses the distinction between custom and law. If life produces custom for the benefit of life, law can be seen as reified custom, custom made permanent and objective, custom turned against life itself. And the law is just one example of what is done to life after industrialization, where the increasingly dehumanizing nature of work, and the growing threat of “technological rationality,” have produced the promised dystopia, in which the streams of Heraclitus have returned to sand, and life is nothing more than the repetition of the ever-same.  

Utopian, huh? But the utopia here is that life persists, even in those most degraded and dehumanized societies. While we are violently formed and disciplined, “our narrow reality is perhaps shot through with the feeling of these unbound tensions and potential directions, and equipped with the intimation of an intensive endlessness...” That is to say, we feel in our bones that life could and should be something other than it is. Life is a tragedy of a limitless potentiality within a remarkably limited milieu, in which we continue to experience that “deep desire to overcome the contingent.” Life may well be a thing of misplaced energies, wasted talents -- but we are creatures of energies and talents, nonetheless.

It is only after you’ve worked your way into Simmel’s architecture of concepts and forms, and burrowed into their internal logic and relation, that you can begin to make a judgment on whether this makes any kind of sense. I tend to think that the denaturalizing strangeness of Simmel's concepts, coupled with his frank confrontation of that which is most difficult to express, justifies the energy such work demands. It will be no comfort to say that Simmel influenced Heidegger’s Being and Time; it may be a slight comfort to say that Habermas “extolled” his “impact on German intellectual life,” as the introduction by Donald Levine and Daniel Silver points out. For my part, it seems to be the case that we are indeed, as Heidegger tells us, “thrown” into a pre-existing world, which disciplines and defines us. We have little choice in the matter; our “life” is to remake it in our own little, limited way. From a century’s distance, this insight seems very much of its time. Maybe, increasingly, it is an insight of our own.

The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms by Georg Simmel, translated by John A.Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226757838
240 Pages