AUGUST 24, 2020
ON OCTOBER 17, 1910, a young man took his life with two pistol shots, having recently completed an ambitious thesis in philosophy, Persuasion and Rhetoric, which would become one of the least read masterpieces of 20th-century thought. The young man’s name was Carlo Michelstaedter. At the time of his death, he was 23.
In English-speaking circles, Michelstaedter remains virtually unknown over a century after his death. Unsurprisingly, his suicide looms large over his work, inviting speculation as to whether his act represented a response to the hopelessness of his own philosophical system. Though it is true that his writing contains a sense of desperation over the possibility of achieving a concrete praxis capable of radically changing one’s thinking — and thus guiding thought, not just being guided by it — such speculation only goes so far. More importantly, it does not always help us reach a better understanding of this challenging and remarkably prolific figure who, beyond the thesis, produced thousands of pages in just a few short years.
Thanks to a new book evocatively titled The Wreckage of Philosophy: Carlo Michelstaedter and the Limits of Bourgeois Thought, readers now have at their disposal an indispensable guide to the strange and extraordinary world of Michelstaedter’s thought. In it, the author, Mimmo Cangiano, offers a remarkably concise, sophisticated account of the thinker’s originality and relevance. He not only traces the contours of Michelstaedter’s intellectual development, but “thinks with” and beyond Michelstaedter. The Wreckage of Philosophy is not just a work of scholarship, but a philosophical accomplishment in its own right.
Cangiano’s first move is to situate Michelstaedter within a modernist context. This means that he inhabited “a time defined by a post-metaphysical crisis of the established certainties of reality, thought, self, and language.” Rather than reach for a new transcendental basis for value or reject any and all forms of value as fundamentally unstable or ruptured, Michelstaedter charted a third path. On Cangiano’s reading, he did this by recognizing that the two extremes actually mirrored each other and profoundly misconstrued the crisis to which they were meant to respond. Both a “higher” value from which to derive all others as well as the vacuum created by its absence are abstractions that, for Michelstaedter, avoided the essential threat posed by ideology, bad faith, false consciousness, and language itself to a genuine relation to one’s thoughts and actions.
One of the many strengths of the book is that it allows Michelstaedter to be recognized not as a cloistered thinker but as an attentive witness to his own time. For him, the questions pursued in his thesis were not merely cerebral matters; rather, they were of immediate sociohistorical importance. The young thinker diagnosed in the bourgeois culture that surrounded him (and to which he belonged) a fundamental, pervasive inauthenticity, one that ranged all the way from systemic, structural forms of domination down to the words of everyday speech.
In Persuasion and Rhetoric, as Cangiano interprets it, Michelstaedter staged bourgeois thought’s confrontation with itself. Having faced its own failure to safeguard transcendental sources of its authority — God, Being, meaning — it turns to nihilism, an “abstraction” of its failure (just another “ideal” in reverse) that also serves as its rationalization. The readers of Persuasion and Rhetoric, then, are led to a gradual awareness of thought’s failure, not as mere negation, but as the basis for a new form of self-possession. The book’s challenge is that this awareness is not meant to be an intellectual achievement, resulting in a thought (or a “lesson”), but something that, more cryptically, one must live. But what it would mean to live out this awareness, as Michelstaedter’s own death cruelly underscores, is not at all obvious or easily attainable.
Cangiano begins his account by showing how the germ of Michelstaedter’s thought resides in his initial engagement with the category of the tragic, specifically, its way of dramatizing the tension between individuals’ duties to themselves and to society and how the two come into conflict. In Greek tragedy, Michelstaedter observed a “uniformity between thought and life” that would soon become disaggregated and deteriorated, as it was in the time he found himself living through. In Euripidean rather than Sophoclean tragedy especially, he detected a precocious recognition of this disaggregation-in-the-making in the form of heroes who are keenly aware of the disunity of the world they inhabit. This world — the “social world,” emblematized in the figure of the Greek chorus — becomes a kind of screen for the hero’s own projections of value which are mirrored back in the form of something that appears to be well ordered (society), but which is just an aggregate of individual projections, each one reinforcing the existence of an illusory order.
This foundation led Michelstaedter to conceive the individual will as an expression of power of a distinct kind (not reducible, most obviously, to a “will to power”). In his work, the will is not just an expression of power in the sense of acting out the crude need to “determine” the world in this way or that in order to reflect a given individual’s consciousness. Rather, it is also — and even more crucially — the self-concealing workings of that consciousness.
What this means is that consciousness conceals its own need for affirmation, its own existence as a kind of need or lack — it hides from itself the fact that it projects into the world the value that it claims to “find” there, thus justifying its own projections. This act of possessing the world is an integral activity for consciousness, something that confuses a subjective need for an objective feature of reality. The world becomes its own reward system insofar as each act of the will reinforces the idea that the world is not only something that can be possessed, but also the fantasy that it is actually “made” for our possession.
For Michelstaedter, the subject (mis)recognizes “the sublimation of momentary needs into absolute values,” and thus produces one’s own abstract sense of the “fit” between one’s needs and the social structures in which those needs find (or don’t find) fulfillment. Thus, when such fulfillment is not found, the wills of others are perceived as obstacles, yet another occasion for possession and annexation. But the instrumentalization of others’ wills is another cover for the more fundamental operation at work: individual consciousness instrumentalizing itself. Certain societal structures feel “safe” to the individual who willingly subjugates him- or herself to them because they provide that satisfaction he or she needs. As Cangiano writes in a typically pithy, powerful formulation, “[i]ndividuals are prey to the needs they recognize as value.”
One such vehicle of instrumentalizing the wills of others — perhaps the most important and pervasive — is language. For Michelstaedter, as Cangiano shows, both the structures of language and the apparent autonomy of signs are yet another mirrored reflection of reality conceived as a justification for the satisfaction continually sought in it. Therefore, it is not sufficient to say that language is “ideological,” as though it were merely a mystification of reality. Language is only as much a mystification as the reality it describes, providing the “stabilization” required for the satisfaction of our needs. For Michelstaedter, the limits of language are not the limits of the world but the limits of society.
And indeed — and here is the crux of Cangiano’s book — for the Italian thinker, “social life” is nothing other than “a form of struggle against society.” The “solution” that persuasion provides for Michelstaedter is that, over and against rhetoric, it represents the negation of the very reality that structures it, and of the instrumental relationship to reality that we construct for ourselves in understanding reality as the reflection and promised fulfillment of our needs. In the figure of Socrates, Michelstaedter recognized an embodied resistance to the forces of abstraction; by teasing out flawed definitions of love, justice, or knowledge from his interlocutors, Socrates reveals the inadequacy of the discursive forms that made those definitions available to begin with. Persuasion, for Michelstaedter, is what reveals the absence of truth, or as Cangiano articulates it, “the endless activity that preserves truth as ‘absence.’”
In the epilogue, Cangiano makes a relatively brief but compelling case for Lukács (after his turn to Marxism) being the thinker closest to Michelstaedter in important respects, showing how a reading of the two on the questions of identification, abstraction, and antagonism reveals the applicability and relevance of Michelstaedter’s thought to questions of class. “Michelstaedter’s philosophy represents an invitation,” Cangiano concludes, “for an alternative common sense, identifying the alienated structure of society’s mode of operation and undertaking to reveal it.”
While resisting the facile temptation to interpret Michelstaedter’s death as “philosophical,” then, we can nonetheless acknowledge how difficult it is to exist in society for those who most wish to change it. This is one of many valuable insights to be drawn from Cangiano’s book, a clarion call to think politically and philosophically, especially in times that seem to foreclose the possibility of such thinking.