The Place of No Pity
Erich Kahler’s book, The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation of Man, may be one of the most important books I’ve come across in my time. I imagine I could dedicate a whole new blogging site just to discussing it and why I think it is such an important book, particularly for dedicated students of the work of Jean Gebser.
Another passage from Kahler that I’ld like to share, which may resonate with those who appreciate the writings of Carlos Castaneda, concerns Kahler’s interpretation of the thoughts of Ernst Jünger, an ambiguous, complex and controversial personality who fought on the German side (also the French side!) through two world wars and lived to the over-ripe age of 102 years (1895 – 1998).
Jünger made his reputation from a book titled, in English, Storm of Steel, which chronicled his experiences as a soldier and officer on the front during World War I and in which he mused philosophically about the meaning of the war, in which he saw an emerging convergence of technics and ethics in the form of “total war” and modern society as being in a new state of “total mobilisation.” He has been accused of glorifying war, but it is probably more the case that he believed, like Nietzsche, in the value of “living dangerously.”
It was during the war that Jünger attained to what he called a “second and coldest consciousness” that was, apparently, to remain a permanent attitude afterwards. It is a kind of second consciousness that was often arrived at, too, by inmates the the concentration camps, as described by Kahler, which he equates to what Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), in The Myth of Sisyphus, described as “lucid indifference”,
“For absurd man it no longer matters to explain and to resolve, but to experience and to describe. Everything starts with lucid indifference.”
This “second and coldest consciousness” (Jünger) or state of “lucid indifference” (Camus) has a corresponding term in Castaneda’s experience with his teacher don Juan, where the state is described as “the place of no pity”. This is the real connection I wanted to draw out here. But it is also important to note that this state of “lucid indifference” or “second and coldest consciousness” was the psychic condition that allowed Jünger to survive the experience of modern mechanised war, and the concentration camp inmates to often survive their internment. Buddhists would describe this condition as “detachment”.
The essay that Jünger penned that elaborated on this “second and coldest consciousness” is called On Pain, (Über den Schmerz). Of this essay, Erich Kahler notes,
“In his essay On Pain Jünger attempts to demonstrate that in the great and cruel process of transformation which man is undergoing in our age the touchstone is pain and not value, pain which completely disregards our values. ‘There is nothing,’ he says, ‘for which we are destined with greater certainty than pain’ – the inevitable lot of every human being, most particularly in this vicious world in which we live today. Therefore a person can only maintain himself and prove himself worthy if he does not try to evade or push away pain but sustains it, faces it, and establishes distance from it; if he is able to place himself beyond the zone of pain, even of sensation, if he is able to treat that region of the self where he participates in pain, that is, the body, as an object.” (p. 89)
Now, this is not only very Nietzschean, it is also very Buddhist. Pain, in Buddhism, is dukkha, often translated as “suffering”, and the reality of pain is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second Noble Truth is the recognition that dukkha, which is pain or suffering, arises from attachment or identification, and so the remaining Noble Truths highlight the way to attain the condition of detachment and so, the cessation of the condition dukkha through dis-identification with dukkha or pain. This state of detachment is, equally, what is called “the place of no pity” in Castaneda’s writing, and appears in Nietzsche’s philosophy as his “become hard” and his repudiation of the value of pity for the sake of preservation and self-maintenance.
Why? The answer is already present, somewhat, in Kahler’s statement above — that we live in a vicious age, but which is also an age of transformation or mutation that entails the loss of the human form or structure as Kahler, Gebser, and Nietzsche all see it. In fact, Kahler does quote Nietzsche in the context of his discussion of Jünger: “Where are the barbarians of the twentieth century? They will be those capable of the greatest harshness against themselves, those who can guarantee the greatest duration of will power.”
This has all the flavour, though, of that “self-mortification” practiced by Christian, Muslim and Buddhist ascetics.
Jünger’s “second and coldest consciousness,” which he claimed as a permanent attainment from his experience of the war, is probably also that which is called, in Castaneda, “the second attention” as well as “the place of no pity”.
And it is these overlooked interweavings and connections that are so interesting.