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You must change your life!

I was introduced to this Rilke poem via a book by Peter Sloterdijk:


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life

He takes the closing line as the title for his book. I’ve struggled somewhat with it. I don’t find Sloterdijk to be a clear or careful writer. It’s also a translated work which I’ve been reading in fragments. But his interpretation of Rilke’s words has stuck with me:

‘You must change your life!’ – this is the imperative that exceeds the options of hypothetical and categorical. It is the absolute imperative – the quintessential metanoetic command. It provides the keyword for revolution in the second person singular. It defines life as a slope from its higher to its lower forms. I am already living, but something is telling me with unchallengeable authority: you are not living properly.

This authority touches on a subtle insufficiency within me that is older and freer than sin; it is my innermost not-yet. In my most conscious moment, I am affected by the absolute objection to my status quo: my change is the one thing that is necessary. If you do indeed subsequently change your life, what you are doing is no different from what you desire with your whole will as soon as you feel how a vertical tension that is valid for you unhinges your life.

This is a topic I’m drawn towards. Those moments in which we confront something outside of ourselves that reflects back upon us. Reminders of the ‘subtle insufficiency’ which might otherwise remain at the back of our minds, lost behind the minutiae of the quotidian. In confrontation with them, we recognize our own possibility and the challenge that we might become more than we currently are. Sloterdijk offers a detailed theory of ‘vertical tensions’ to make sense of how these qualitative distinctions of worth are embedded within cultural forms: exactly what we take ‘more’ to be is culturally variable but there is always ‘more’ and ‘less’, ‘better’ and ‘worse’.

I think this is another example of what Ian Craib describes as the importance of disappointment: “what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise”. If Craib is right that we often retreat from disappointment in the late modern world, reflecting “a desire to get out of the mess of life”, we also miss out on these moments in which we confront ‘vertical tensions’. The discomfort generated by a vertical tension, in which we recognize a gnawing sense of ‘subtle insufficiency’, might come to be seen as pathological: what should be a spur to self-transcendence instead becomes seen as a threat to self-esteem.

Categories: Pre 2020 reading notes

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8 replies

  1. I’ve also been reading this in fragments, which makes me a bit uncomfortable interpreting the text at this point. But one question that I have wrestled with is the extent to which this imperative to change one’s life can be used to understand the lives of ordinary individuals. I’m not sure that it is a generalizable framework for self-understanding. Sloterdijk seems to be focused on those “over men,” those world-dividing and world-altering ascetics who secede from habitual life and reflect on that life with disgust. Their return to that life is marked by their condemnation of the people they left behind in the “river of habit.” The only intermediate figure in this picture of social-historical change is the one who produces pure theory in an attempt to translate the new world of practice. Yet, the sense of vertical tension does not appear to be restricted to these radically eccentric secessionists. I think the distinction lies in the origins of that vertical tension. Sloterdijk emphasizes the totally new and individual, perhaps a more developmental version of Heidegger’s authentic being. For the rest of us, vertical tensions–such that they exist at all–emerge from the world of habit itself. I don’t know that Sloterdijk is much interested in these.

  2. Are you familiar with the debate about the respective extent to which habitus and reflexivity account for social action? It strikes me that there’s a really interesting parallel here – in fact it seems to be the same argument in a different language.

    I’m unclear whether what constitutes the figure of Sloterdijk’s interest is that they break free from ‘the river of habit’ or that they make a lasting mark on culture? In other words, is it that they exercise reflexivity or that they do so in way that transforms the habitual action of others by virtue of their influence?

  3. I think you’re right that the argument is the same in many respects. But his focus on ascetic practice and world-changing developments shifts the debate, maybe. The book seems to oscillate between the “great men” of history–the Buddha, Christ, Marcus Aurelius, and so on–and the countless hermits, monks, and antisocial ascetics who repulsed at day-to-day life and locked isolated themselves from the sensory and linguistic world of average people. But nowhere does the average person acting on some balance of habitus and reflexivity appear. It seems he took that debate and asked how it has factored into moments of large-scale cultural shift, transforming the habitual action of others. It seems to be a pragmatic answer to the question of how to achieve authentic being that Heidegger left open.

  4. Could this perhaps be an artefact of his mode of investigation though? This is what happens when philosophers treat these issues by writing 500 page stream of conciousness (ish) books in relatively short spans of time? It’s much more demanding to investigate everyday life and those people for whom one can’t rely on prior familiarity with their work.

  5. Ah, good question. I hadn’t thought of it that way. If I remember right, Stuart Elden sums up his work as good to think with but frustratingly thin when it comes to suggesting how it might applied to research or everyday life. Whether it’s a book about a relatively few exceptional people or a convenient variation on a theme, the concept of vertical tensions is helpful. And his argument about the metaphysical quality of many secular beliefs and practices is really interesting. Anyway, happy to see you writing about him and this book.

  6. thanks, your interesting questions have led me to go back to the book I’d lost interest in a bit

  7. I’m not sure where you are in the book, but maybe an added motivation is the turn toward acceleration in chapter 7: “The acceleration whereby existence frees itself from the inertias of the course of the world is characteristic of existential time. Whoever takes the step into the practising life wants to be faster than the whole–whether they seek liberation still ‘in this life’ or still aim for ‘heavenly exaltation’ (exaltatio caelestis) in vita presente” (p. 243)!

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