Sanctifying Life (2)

This is the second of a two-post series under the same title. The first was my post before last, that is, the post before “Pimps and Pushers,” which I put up a few days ago—and which itself is not at all irrelevant with regard to the issues addressed below.

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            Tranquility toward things and openness toward the mystery give us the view of a new rootedness. That might even be suited one day to call back the old, now rapidly vanishing rootedness in a changed form. [. . . .]

So, in a changed way for an altered age, must come true again what Johann Peter Hebel once said:

“We are plants that—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must rise with our roots out of the earth, if we are to bloom in the ether and be able to bear fruits.”

—Heidegger, “Gelassenheit” (in Gesamtausgabe 16, Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000, pp. 528, 529)

At the very beginning of the passage above, I have translated Gelassenheit (the German word Heidegger uses) as “tranquility.” The passage comes from an address Heidegger delivered at his hometown of Messkirch in 1955, at a memorial celebration on the 175th anniversary of the birth of composer Conradin Kreutzer, a local boy made good. In the English translation of the address by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (in Discourse on Thinking, Harper, 1966), the same word, Gelassenheit, is translated as “releasement.” More recently—for example, in Peter Skafish’s English translation of philosopher Catherine Malabou’s French translation of the word in her book Le Change Heidegger (The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy, SUNY Press, 2011, page 196)—it has been rendered as “serenity.” German dictionaries inform us that it could also be translated as “calmness” or “composure.”

At any rate, the basic idea behind the word is an attitude of relaxed freedom that is able to take what comes its way and be comfortable with using it or not, as circumstances suggest, without getting involved with it any more deeply one way or another. Having Gelassenheit zu den Dingen—that is, tranquility, releasement, serenity, calmness, or composure toward “things”—is being what is colloquially called “laid-back” toward them. Gelassenheit is such “laid-back-ness.”

What, especially, are the “things” toward which Heidegger recommends we cultivate such “laid-back-ness”? Above all, they are the things that today most threaten to absorb all of our attention, thereby diverting us from ourselves and from our need to send down roots somewhere, if we are ever to bloom anywhere. They are the things that quietly go about robbing us of our lives even as we go about living them. They are those things that come to exercise dominant power over us by stealing our own power from us, most of the time without our ever even noticing: all the things that everywhere surround us and invite us to sell out to them, one way or another. It is toward such things above all that we need to cultivate tranquility, Gelassenheit.

If we are gelassen toward something, laid-back toward it, then we can, as we also say, “take it, or leave it alone” as circumstances dictate in any given case. When we are thus tranquil in the face of something, whatever it may be, then that thing no longer has any power over us any longer. Whatever power we might have given it over ourselves, had we been taken in by its blandishments, has been withheld.

Thus, what we most of all need to be laid-back, serene, or tranquil toward is precisely that which otherwise sucks out all our own power from us, so that it may claim that power for its own, to use in order to own us. We do not even need to defend ourselves against whatever is at issue.

In fact, by the very effort we put into defending ourselves, we fall prey to that against which we are banking our defensive investments. Despite ourselves, by our very investments we thereby give what we fear the power to rule us.

What we need is not any such mighty endeavor to defend ourselves, but only a healthy indifference.



Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.
—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate ((translated by Richard Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006, p. 409)


‘Auschwitz’ names what might be called the murderous dimension of identity in philosophy.

—Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner (Verso, 2010, p. 47, on Theodor Adorno’s thought in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics)

Near the beginning of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche contrasts two very different ways of affirming oneself. The first consists of just that: self-affirmation. It is the exuberance of vitality, of life, that simply affirms itself in and by its own spontaneous, joyous expression of itself, in all its vitality, its aliveness and liveliness. What affirms itself in that direct, active way is like the rose of Angelus Silesius, a 17th century German mystic poet. The rose, says Silesius, just blooms because it blooms. It doesn’t pay any attention to itself, nor ask if anyone sees it.

Just so does whatever is alive and lively naturally affirms itself in the very liveliness of its own unfettered behavior, conduct, and demeanor—free of worry about itself, or the compulsion to try to manage its image in the eyes of others. For example, a gentle heart affirms itself gently, in all of its acts of gentleness, with no need to call special attention to itself; and the truly kind are even embarrassed when they are caught out in doing the acts of kindness that flow naturally from them.

On the other hand, the second way of affirming oneself requires that, before and in order to affirm oneself, one first establish one’s identity by differentiating oneself from what one is not. In this sort of affirming of oneself, thus begins with the recognition of what one is not, what is other—in order then to be able to go on, after the fact as it were, to establish, by contrast, what one is in oneself. So the other to oneself must come to one first, and only after that can one come to oneself, by differentiating oneself from that other, “other-ing” oneself from that other, as it were. Then one affirms the result, which one takes to be one’s self.

Thus, this second sort of self-affirmation is no longer spontaneous. It is no longer the direct upsurge of life itself in its very liveliness, as occurs in the first sort of self-affirmation. In contrast to such active and primary affirmation of self, the second sort is reactive and derivative. It is the affirmation of self only as a result—namely, the result of a prior process of differentiation of that self from what is other than it. As such, it is an affirmation of oneself that can only be maintained by maintaining one’s difference from that primary, grounding other.

The second sort of self-affirmation, the reactive, derivative sort, is therefore an anxious sort of self-affirmation. It is anxious for itself, rather than for any other. A loving mother, for instance, is spontaneously anxious for the wellbeing of her child, or a loving child is spontaneously anxious to please its mother. In sharp contrast to such loving anxiety for the sake of the other—which is itself rooted in the first sort of self-affirmation, the direct, spontaneous sort—self-affirmation of the second sort is always anxious about itself. It is anxious to protect its derivative sense of its specialness by defending itself against that in contrast to which it has defined itself. It always perceives itself as under threat of being absorbed by that definitive other, a threat against which it must maintain constant surveillance in perpetual pursuit of its own security.

Since World War II, “Auschwitz” has been the most fitting name for what always inevitably results, sooner or later, from letting the mechanism of such secondary, derived, anxious self-identification run unchecked. Nietzsche, of course, did not live to see that particular place-name emerge as the name most appropriate for such a “murderous dimension of identity.” However, Adorno did—as Badiou says in the passage above.

To this day, so long “after” Auschwitz, that name still remains the proper name for such murderousness.



The notion of state power is a mirage: the seizure of the state is not the seizure of power.

—John Holloway, “The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas,” in Take the Power to Change the World, edited by Phil Hearse (London: IMG Publications, 2007, p. 131)


Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well then! Open your ears, for now I shall say my word about the death of peoples. State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. It tells lies coldly, too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” That’s a lie! [. . . .] State is what I call it where everyone drinks poison, the good and the vile alike: state, where all lose themselves, the good and the vile alike: state, where the slow suicide of all is called—“life.”

—Nietzsche, “On the New Idol,” Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part


It is there, at the start of the text, that one finds the formula that has become a commonplace of sorts: State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters, a formula General de Gaulle liked to cite, and many others, many other . . . men of state!

—Alain Badiou, Le Séminaire. Nietzsche: L’antiphilosophie I. 1992-1993 (France: Fayard, 2015, p. 127)

The power of the state is always derivative. Historically, there has always been and still continues to be debate among proponents of the state about just what the source of state power is—that is, what the state derives its power from. Does the state derive its power from God, thought of as some sort of “Czar of the Heavens,” for example? Some say so. Others say it derives only from “the people,” though just who is to be counted as “the people” continues to this day to be under dispute among the proponents of that position.

Either way, says Nietzsche, whether it says its power comes from God or from the people, the state is lying. Ultimately, he says, the state derives all its power only from those it can con with its lies—including lies about the sources of its power—con them, like some cheap magician, into believing in the state’s supposed power.

In his remarks about Nietzsche cited above, Alain Badiou reminds us that among the best liars, which is to say the most successful con-artists, are those statesmen—literally, those state’s-men—who can turn the truth itself into a lie. Such accomplished liars can turn even the truth about the state into no more than a tool to use as they choose, to serve themselves—and to honor the idol they have bowed down before, and sold themselves to.



While social movements, in general, tend to struggle for progressive or radical changes to national polity—think of the U.S. civil rights movement, or the suffragist movement—indigenous-led movements tend toward constructing power outside the framework of the state.

—Jeff Conant, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (Oakland: AK Press, 2010, p. 227)


[T]here is a struggle, but that struggle not only will make your life fulfilled once this inevitable revolution that may happen sometime in the future happens, but it will make your life better right now, and [. . .] engaging with other folks is a better way of living.

—Boots Riley, speaking during an interview conducted at the Socialism conference in Chicago in 2012, in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 13)

Boots Riley is an artist. He is a song-writer, rapper, and committed social activist who regards is best known as the front man for The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, two fine, politically conscious, socially responsible hip-hop groups.* A little latter in the same interview from which I have taken the lines above, he goes on to tell a story that should be placed beside the story Emil Fackenheim tells about the Hasidim of Lublin during World War II—a story I quoted near the beginning of my preceding post, the first of this two-part series on “Sanctifying Life.”

The story Boots Riley recounts goes back to his early days as an activist, when he was involved in “canvassing this area of San Francisco called Double Rock.” Here is his telling (p. 14 of the collection of his lyrics and writings that make up Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb):

A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects. The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police. What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died—because they didn’t take him to the hospital. So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life. So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air. If you’ve ever been around a gun going off, you know that whatever you were thinking a second before is not what you’re thinking then. You’re thinking, Let me get the fuck out of here. And everybody ran away. But at a certain point everybody turned around. They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car. The car was turned over.

So two things. One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day. What I’ve told you so far is what dozens of people said. Other folks added other things. But this is what everyone agreed happened, everything that I’ve told you so far. And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this: It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. And somebody started chanting “Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.” And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.

What Boots Riley realized that day was the power of music—a power it shares will the other arts, I would add—to call those who truly hear it to honor the sanctity of life. Truly to hear music, and thus to let it truly be powerful, is to hear that call.

In turn, truly to hear the call to honor life in its sanctity is immediately to answer that call. It is no more possible truly to hear that call yet fail to answer it immediately in one’s actions, than it is to hear the cry of a baby in distress, and not get up and go to offer help. Just so, truly to hear the call to sanctify in one’s turn the life that itself sanctifies whatever it touches, is immediately to move to honor the holiness of life in one’s acts—or to slink away in shame, thereby dishonoring not only oneself but also, far more damningly, life in its holiness.

Here is another tale that says the same thing. This time, it is a fictional story, one embedded in the much larger fiction that is Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of Russia, World War II, and the Holocaust, centered around the battle of Stalingrad. The episode at issue (on pages 303-305 of the novel) concerns three Soviet soldiers—Ikonnikov, a non-political POW; Chernetsov, an old Menshevik; and Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik—and one French priest named Gardi. They have all been imprisoned together by the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and made to work in a Nazi camp. The first speaker is Ikonnikov:

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’
[. . . .]

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’ [“What should I do, Father? We are working in an extermination camp.”]

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’ [“Everybody works there. I work there too. We are slaves. God will pardon us.”]

C’est son métier,’ added Mostovskoy. [“That’s his job.”]

Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully. [“But it’s not your job.”]

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No”. There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre,

je dirai non!’ [“I shall say no, Father, I shall say no!”]

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head. ‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said. [“Give me your hand.”]

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But, rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

Gardi, who as a priest had a calling to honor the holy, realized it was Ikonnikov who had truly heard the music.

* I have blogged about Boots Riley and The Coup before, in the summer of 2104, after my wife and I attended a Coup concert in San Francisco at which our daughter, a professional cellist, played in one of the groups The Coup invited to share the spotlight with them—a practice central to the work of Boots Riley and The Coup.

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