Mann on the peculiarity of new places

As I continue to slowly work my way through Thomas Mann's masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, I find a new gem every night. Since I have moved 3 times in just as many months this summer, this one was especially poignant:

There is, after all, something peculiar about the process of habituating oneself in a new place, the often laborious fitting in and getting used, which one undertakes for its own sake, and of set purpose to break it all off as soon as it is complete, or not long thereafter, and to return to one's former state. It is an interval, an interlude, inserted, with the object of recreation, into the tenor of life's main concerns; its purpose the relief of the organism, which is perpetually busy at its task of self-renewal, and which was in danger, almost in process, of being vitiated, slowed down, relaxed, by the bald, unjointed monotony of its daily course. But what then is the cause of this relaxation, this slowing-down that takes place when one does the same thing for too long at a time? Its is not so much physical or mental fatigue or exhaustion, for if that were the case, then complete rest would be the best restorative. It is rather something psychical; it means that the perception of time tends, through periods of unbroken uniformity, to fall away; the perception of time, so closely bound up with the consciousness of life that the one may not be weakened without the other suffering a sensible impairment. Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interesting and novelty of the time-content are what "make the time pass" ' that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time-units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one "gets used to the place," a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully--but only the first few, for one adjust oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or--and is a sign of low vitality-it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

This passage, the veritable form of romantic German prose if there ever was one, beautifully merges form and content. From a literature perspective, I would love to hear someone weigh in on how common it is for a novel to include a piece of narration this long and detailed--not by a character in the book in the form of monologue, dialogue, or soliloquy--just straight narration by an omniscent authorial voice. (I believe this novel is an instance of the German Bildungsroman genre). The passage itself is an "interval, an interlude, inserted, with the object of recreation" into the story. Its literary function mirrors the content of which it speaks.


Absorption & Reflection (part 2: or, On the prospects for moral phenomenology)

Perhaps my previous post (see below) was too hasty. There I characterized 'absorption' as an experiential modality. This means that absorption is a property of experiences rather than a property of the objects of experience. Thus, when I see this black cheese grater here on my desk, I do not say that my experience is black--rather, the cheese grater is black. My experience is visual, and thus an experiential property rather than a worldly property. So, to use Heidegger's familiar example, hammering a nail does not "have" the property of absorption. Rather, absorption is a property of the experience of hammering a nail. In this case I am not reflecting on my activity, I am simply absorbed by it. (Experiential properties presuppose a subject of experience).
I also characterized absorption as dangerous. Of course, I did not intend for this to be a blanket characterization--that is, there's certainly nothing wrong with being absorbed in hammering, or playing music for that matter; in fact, absorption may be a better experiential modality for these sorts of things. When I said that absorption could be dangerous, I meant that experience which rules out reflection is prone to violating other subjects. While driving to the hoop in a game of pick-up basketball, absorbed in my activity, the bodies and limbs of my opponents are merely things inhibiting my purposeful activity. (The reflective attitude of basketball is thus embodied by the referee, whose task it is to not become absorbed in the game and to remain detached from it). One can see how venerating an experiential modality that rules out reflection could have dehumanizing consequences. The subjectivity of others is not acknowledged. Persons become bodies. Lives become means to the telos guiding my absorbed activity. (Yes, this is all very loose, but its a blog--ah, I'm reflecting!)
But what I may have overlooked in my last post was the possibility of a modality of experience that could be called absorption, but with the modification of being an absorption-like modality specifically oriented to the subjectivity of others. This would mean a direct, intuitive, noninferential awareness of foreign subjectivities that would be more than just empathy (for that is what empathy is) in that it would include an additional experiential-property-aspect that we might describe as 'moral attunement'. I believe Levinas approaches ethics in a manner along these lines. For him, the experience of the other--the experience and not the other himself--grounds the first and foremost ethical principle not to violate the other. In Levinas' colorful prose, the "face" of the other "calls out" to me, demanding moral recognition.
If there is to be such a thing as moral phenomenology it would undoubtedly have to address this issue of a moral experiential modality. Regardless, the difficulty still remains as to whether this would be moral philosophy proper and not merely a descriptive treatment of moral experience.


Absorption & Reflection

I want to draw a contrast between absorption and reflection. This has vague historical influences, but if it turns out that I am misreading Heidegger or misappropriating something, just focus on the concepts and not where they may have come from. By "absorption" I mean the modality of experience where one is "absorbed" in an activity. We typically speak of athletes and musicians being "absorbed" in their activities, unaware of "what" they are doing insofar as they are simply doing. In this sort of mode the boundary between subject and object seems blurry. By "reflection" I mean the modality of experience where one "steps back" and "regards" the very activity they are undertaking. Philosophy has typically been done in a reflective way--attempting to step back from the immediacy of experience in order to gain a third person perspective on things so that the structure, or logic, of experience can be made explicit.

Does Heidegger favor absorption to reflection? If so, I see his romanticization of absorption as problematic, and open to a relativization or complete degeneration of moral life. On Heidegger's account, we have gradually "forgotten" Being as such. We have forgotten how to be authentically attuned to the world, how to authentically be-IN-the-world. I characterize this as our movement from absorption to reflection. Nietzsche speaks of something similar, vis a vis the movement from master to slave morality. Or we could examine Richard Moran's recent classic, Authority and Estrangement. We are, indeed, increasingly estranged from our biological heritage- from our absorption in the practical concerns of surviving in nature. But this estrangement brings authority. As we are increasingly able to step back to reflect, we are increasingly moral. Following Levinas, we can see estrangement as the condition for the possibility of ethics. One's confrontation with oneself is the a priori condition for the ethical encounter with the other. When absorbed in playful, spontaneous, or violent activity, the other is but a feature of my world--and this is not the world. This is my world; my consciousness has absorbed it into the activity which consumes both self and world. In this mode, the other is subject to my activity and has no ethical standing.


Demolition vs. Destruction

Tearing things down can be nice: old buildings; old theories; old selves. There is something very refreshing and enjoyable about the whole "out with the old, in with the new" attitude. But replacement is not destruction. If tearing things down only with the intention of building newer, better things is "out with the old, in with the new," then destruction is simply "out with it."

Tearing things down in a systematic, planned way, only with the intention to improve the space is automatically informed by the existing structure of what one is tearing down--even if only in a reactionary way. Such tearing down is better referred to as "demolition" rather than "destruction." Demolition is planned. Demolition is organized. Demolition is future-oriented insofar as one only demolishes something in order to "spruce things up."

Destruction resembles demolition only superficially. Destructive tearing down does not take place with the intention of repair or replacement. Destruction is best characterized by "out with it" because destruction simply seeks constant radical tearing down. Radical as in "to the root." The destructive attitude seeks to dispense with thoughts, plans, notions, ideas as soon as they arise--to pursue them to their end constantly and with vigor. Because of this urgency, destruction is, in the end, more creative than demolition. While demolition coolly plans improvements ("upgrades"), destruction does not wait, does not hesitate to act--even if it ends up being unwise or ill considered!

Thus, characterizing the destructive attitude as "joyful, spontaneous, exuberant, etc." would only tell half the story. Indeed, the truly destructive act can be all of these things. And yet, destruction can be masochistic, loathing, deranged, awful. It would be unwise to advocate destruction exclusively. But it may be equally unwise to assert that demolition is always the preferable precursor to creativity.