PRINT January 1980

Myth, Thermadorians and Solipsists


THE MARQUIS DE SADE'S CONTENTION that, for lasting success, social revolution must be conjoined with moral revolution came to find its justification in Freudo-Marxism. Hegel’s daring concept of the unhappy consciousness led Marx to deduce that the history-making consciousness belongs to the class that revolts against its ruling class for having deprived it of the wealth it produced. From this assessment Marx concluded that, in order to replace capitalism by socialism on an international scale, the working class must think politically in terms of a universal discourse.

The failure of the German proletariat to follow the example of the Russian Bolsheviks implied that, although as a class it obviously had “the consciousness of itself,” it had failed, as Georg Lukacs phrases it, to “develop the consciousness of its ability as a class to organize society in terms of its particular class interests.”1 Lukacs attributes this failure to the fact that the proletariat had been reduced by its oppressors to a state of inhumanity, reduced to a thingres in Latin, hence, to what Marx called “a state of reification.” As long as this situation remains unchanged, Lukacs concludes, it is inevitable that the highest forms of literature should be those of a capitalist society, as was notably achieved by the middle-class: development of the realistic novel. The writer’s role, therefore, is to “mythologize” the struggle of the individual to resist in his life the process of reification that, through industrialization, is systematically undertaken by the bourgeoisie.

When Marcuse, in the mid-1960s, denounced capitalism for reducing contemporary man to a one dimensional being, he was warning the intelligensia in dramatic terms that the reification process denounced by Marx a hundred years before was now being carried to the extreme limits of dehumanization. In its turn, reification affects man’s view of commodities.2

According to Marx, as soon as a product of man’s hands “steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent,” which he calls fetishism. With this text in mind, Lucien Goldmann claims that when Robbe-Grillet, in his novel Jealousy (1957), instead of saying “the jealous man advances with silent footsteps,” writes “ the high shoes with rubber soles make no noise while they advance on the tiles of the corridor,” he reflects present-day reality.3 Goldmann is of the opinion that what a company does to promote shoes or cameras has become more important than what a person does who wears the shoes or travels with a camera. This author claims that, unlike the classical novel, whose structure is homologous to both the economic reality and the economic liberalism which reflects itself in the independence of the individual, the roman nouveau, while proceeding from the same basis, develops forms of contradictions that, instead of turning it into an expression of the managerial elite, transform it into an expression of resistance, or, at least, of non-acceptance.4 Perhaps it would have been more correct to say that the roman nouveau expresses the frustrations of the author and his readers, including, more often than not, members of the managerial order, and of artists and writers who, like Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, ideologically identify themselves with the managerial elite.

Unlike Lukacs, who assumes that mythologizing is a literary quality, Roland Barthes views it as a form of hypocrisy. According to him, the main concern of Marxist intellectuals today is to find a way “of intersecting the two sciences of modernity, namely the materialist and Freudian dialectics, for the sake of producing a new human relation.” I italicize the term “science” to indicate the shift of emphasis from literature to science.


Twentieth-century philosophy of knowledge is split in two, those who, together with Carnap and Wittgenstein, assert that truth is a syntactical concept, and those who, following Bertrand Russell, make a distinction between logical truth and empirical truth. In his Inquiry into Meaning Bertrand Russell says that those who defend verbalist theories sound as if they were saying “in the beginning was the word ” not "in the beginning was what the word meant.”6 Early in life we learn to associate words to a specific meaning; how we acquire this linguistic capacity is a behavioral problem, not a linguistic one.

Twentieth-century anthropologists are split between empiricists and formalists, between those who, like Frazer and Malinowski, explain the role of myth and magic in the life of the aboriginals, and those who, like the French ethnologists, dissect social structures. Claude Lévi-Strauss broke new ground when he interpreted the meaning of laws of exogamy in terms of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics.7 Furthermore, on the plausible assumption that language is our basic model of order, Lévi-Strauss discovered that the aboriginals do not classify plants according to their knowledge of their utility; rather, they are claimed to be useful or interesting because they are known: this observation confirmed his opinion that classification corresponds to a need to distinguish the known from the unknown, and to subdivide the known for the sake of controlling it. He also says that the way of thinking of the aboriginal is more like that of a “bricoleur” (a gatherer of odds and ends) than like that of an intellectual, or of an engineer. The bricoleur’s thinking is conditioned by his instrumentalism, not, like the engineer’s, by a project. On the basis of this distinction, Lévi-Strauss explains that mythic thinking lies midway between perceptions of images and concepts.

Lévi-Strauss identifies this midway position with the sign that in Saussurian linguistics conjoins the signifier (or image) with the signified (or concept). Lévi-Strauss also deduces that, in contradistinction to the myth, which proceeds from a structure by means of which it constructs a whole (object + event), art proceeds from a whole (object + event) toward the discovery of its structure. To myth’s analogies Lévi-Strauss opposes the homologous relations of representational art to reality, as in a smaller-than-natural-sized portrait of Clouet or a flat-looking Cubist still life. The artist’s function is to establish in his painting a dialogue between his model and his material.

Going further than Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes views myth as a metalanguage.8 For while in language proper the signifier is equated with meaning, as this is its final term, on the plane of myth it is equated with form, as the first term of the mythical system. As for the signified, it refers to the concept in both systems. Barthes’ ability to uncover the mythical content of a contemporary story or poster is dazzling. From a structural standpoint, the myth can no longer be defined by the object of its message and must be accounted for by the way in which it utters its message, which is the reason every message can be viewed as a myth. For Barthes, the whole of traditional literature should be defined as an acceptance of the myth. Viewed as form, myth “cannot possibly be either realistic or unrealistic”; hence, “the writer’s problem is not to represent reality but to signify it.” In the last analysis it turns out, according to Barthes, that there are only two forms of language that undermine the myth, history and poetry.

Some 15 years later, Barthes was disappointed to realize that teaching his students to decipher the latent content of bourgeois myths was not going to help them overthrow capitalism. What is required since the ’70s is to make a new evaluation and produce a new object.9 Since Barthes believes that “every message can be a myth,” the dialectical message of Hegel or Marx will not prove anything. To the thesis/antithesis/synthesis of the dialectician she contrasts the doxa (Greek for belief) and paradoxa (counter-belief) relation: “A new discourse can only emerge as the paradox against the surrounding preceding doxa.” As an example of this process Barthes draws attention to the development of modern linguistics, noting that “the Chomskyan mentalism is constructed against Bloomfeldian behaviorism; linguistic behaviorism having once been liquidated by Chomsky, it is against Chomskyan mentalism that a new semantic is being developed.”

Barthes points out that language’s undialectical nature seems to be confirmed when one realizes that the discourse of one of the greatest thinkers of dialectics, Karl Marx, is almost entirely paradoxical, “being now Proudhon, now someone else.” “The doxa and the paradoxa don’t produce a new synthesis,” but “this twofold movement of separation and renewal results not in a circle, according to Vico’s great and beautiful image, but in a spiral, and it is in this drift of circularity (of paradoxical form) that historical determinations are articulated.” The drift of circularity that is of historical importance now consists in uncovering “the relation between class determination and the unconscious. By what displacement does this determination slip between subjects? Certainly not by psychology, but quite obviously by language, by discourse.” To discover the new semantic science Barthes advises his students “to move . . . according to [Louis] Althusser’s scheme, from Feuerbach to Marx, and from the young Marx to the mature Marx.” According to Althusser, Lenin’s acumen grasped the true character of the relation between Marxist science and Marxist praxis both before and during the revolution, by splitting Marxism into one-half science and one-half ideology.10 On the basis of this distinction, Althusser makes Lenin, Stalin and Mao the sole judges of how Marxist science should be applied in any given circumstance, while generously feeding the masses with heavy doses of ideology.

The closest Marx ever came to accounting for an economic phenomenon in terms of a scientific theory was when he interpreted the diminishing returns of surplus value in terms of the loss of economic energy in a time sequence modeled on Carnot’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. Since Descartes, we know that explanatory theories of science can be constructed without any reference to experience, just by making use of our reason. We are undoubtedly equally entitled to make speculative anticipations in the field of political science. This is precisely what Marx and Lenin did with great skill. However, speculative anticipations can be considered scientific only as long as unforeseen events do not upset the predicted development. Ever since it became obvious that it was no longer possible to blame the failure of the Russian Revolution to lead the people to economic and cultural free activity on the evil genius of Stalin, it became imperative to interpret both the Russian and then Chinese revolutions in terms of the immediate tasks of an anticapitalist regime. According to Rudolph Bahro, the historical role of the Soviet and Chinese bureaucracy is to industrialize these two countries by noncapitalist methods.

Sense of Tragedy

According to Karl Popper, “the traditional empiricist epistemology and the traditional historiography of science” are both “deeply influenced by the Baconian myth that all science starts from observation and slowly and cautiously proceeds to theories.” As a perfect example of the opposite, he cites Anaximander’s theory of the earth as “counterobservational,” for “the earth . . . is held by nothing, but remains stationary owing to the fact that it is equally distant from all other things . . . ”11 Popper claims that “the step taken by Anaximander was even more difficult than the one taken by Aristarchus and Copernicus. To envisage the earth as freely poised in midspace is to say that it is motionless because of its equidistance. . . . It is to anticipate to some extent even Newton’s idea of immaterial and invisible gravitational forces.” Apparently Anaximander arrived at this conclusion by arguing against his master Thales, according to whom the earth was floating on water, by applying the principle that “where there are no differences there can be no changes.” Theionian philosophers came to view knowledge itself in terms of change in two steps, first when Heraclitus postulated “the self-identity (and non-identity) of the changing thing during change,” and, after that, when Parmenides reinterpeted change in terms of an unchanging reality.

For a critique of identity in terms of change we have to wait for Hegel to reconsider consciousness in terms of an unhappy consciousness. Speculating on this problem, Nietzsche noted that "only that which never stops hurting remains in memory . . . It might even be said that whenever solemnity, anxiousness, mystery and gloomy colors are found in the life of men and nations of the world, there is some survival of the horror which was once the universal concommitant of all promises and obligations. . . . When man thinks that it is necessary for himself to make a memory, he never accomplishes it without blood tortures and sacrifices.”12 With hindsight, we can assert that Freud’s interpretation of psychological conflicts in terms of an Oedipal pattern, confirms, on the basis of clinical data. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the cathartic function that Aristotle attributed to tragedy.

The narratives of the Greek historians are permeated by the sense of tragedy. Herodot us ponders on the reversal of fortune in the destinies of the mighty; Thucydides, in speeches that play in his history the role that the chorus does in a tragedy, dramatizes the ideological conflict between democratic and oligarchic city-states, Polybius, with his didactic passages (a substitute for speeches), draws the moral lesson from the tragic experience. Since Marx, the sense of tragedy assumes the proportions of a universal class conflict. By fusing the Greek sense of tragedy with Hebrew messianism, he appraised historical events both in terms of the horror of disasters and of an anticipation of a brighter future: historical materialism is homologous to both tragedy and salvation.


To Russell’s distinction between empirical truth and logical truth Wittgenstein opposes two realities, the one of symbolic logic and the other of solipsism: his argument runs as follows:

We think what we cannot think, so what we cannot think we cannot say either. This remark provides the key to the problem, how much truth is there in solipsism. What the solipsism means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world, this is manifest int he fact that the limits of language (of the language which I alone understand) mean the limits of my world. The world and life are one. I am my world (the microcosm). Hence our knowledge of the world, of others, can only come from what others say about their microcosm, it makes no difference whether we call the worlds of others real or unreal. Solipsism, when its implications are followed strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality, coordinated with it.13

In contradistinction to symbolic logic that is formulated algebraically, solipsism winds its way through a chain of metaphors and metonymies. Mnemosyne, (memory) the mother of the muses according to Hesiod, was turned by Freud into the Jocasta of repressed memories. Paraphrasing André Breton, we can say that what a fragment of an ancient statue meant to a romantic poet a fraction of a mythological discourse is to the modern poet, of the pen or brush, who algebraizes analogies. The distinction between form and meaning is traceable back to the earliest types of notations, of markings for counting lunar days and for tracing the features of animals and objects These written linguistic signs could be read by others besides the person who inscribed on bone or rock.14

At an early date, the study of stars was facilitated by identifying constellations with the ideal boundaries of mythological figures. Karl Popper has convincingly explained that Pythagoras two great discoveries—that the ratio of musical harmony is based on the ratio 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, and that the right or straight angle is connected with the numerical ratios 3:4, 4:5 or 5:12:13 (the sides of a rectangular triangle)—led him to believe that all things are in essence numbers or ratios of numbers. In other words, forms are numbers or relations of numbers. Poppers conjecture is that "the development of this view was influenced by the similarity of the dot-diagram with the diagram of a constellation, such as Leo, Scorpio or Virgo.”15

Descartes’ analytical graph diagrams that give at a glance, in algebraic terms, a graphic picture of changes that a situation undergoes in the course of time, paved the way for scientists to formulate laws of change.16 Without this diagram Newton would have been unable to formulate his theory of the solar system in terms of a coordination of the law of gravity with the position and the velocity of planets. Likewise, learning to think in algebraic terms, rather than in the geometric ones of the Greeks, led in our century to the development of a symbolic language in which truth is syntactical, not semantic, since it is syntax that guarantees the truth of tautologies.

In his Laws of Form (1972), Spencer Brown says that “in arriving at proofs” he was “often struck by the apparent alignment of mathematics with psychoanalytic theory. In each discipline we attempt to find out, by a mixture of contemplation, symbolic representation, communion and communication, what it is that we already know. In mathematics, as in other forms of self-analysis, we do not have to go exploring the physical world to find out what we are looking for.”17 Spencer Brown derives his Laws of Form from forms taken out of forms—for instance, from a cleft by means of which a space is divided and the sides of a distinction denoted, and by signs, usually letters, that stand for “signals of intent.”18 Psychologically, ”the conception of the form lies in the desire to distinguish.”19 According to Spencer Brown, "the primary form of mathematical communication is not description but injunction. In this respect, it is comparable with practical art forms—like cookery, in which the taste of the cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is similar: the composer writes down a set of commands which, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, by the reader, of the composers original experience.20

"In mathematics as in other disciplines, the power of a system resides in its elegance (literally, its capacity to pick out or elect), which is achieved by condensing as much as is needed into as little as is needed.” . . . 21

In modern forms of poetry and painting, metonymic and metaphoric operations achieve a symbolic condensation by scrambling the signifiers and the signified. A predominace of metonymic condensations characterizes the works of Raymond Roussel and James Joyce, of the Cubists and the Constructivists, while metaphorical condensations predominate in the works of the Surrealists. Duchamps uniqueness consists in his scrambling, in the Large Glass, a pictorial design on a transparent surface that is supposed to bridge the distance between the three-dimensional paintings vanishing point and the fourth dimension.

The final justification of metonymic and metaphoric operations performed by Blake and Lautréamont, Mallarmé and James Joyce, Raymond Roussel and Jarry, Duchamp and Picabia, is provided by a symbolic condensation in which the signifier and the signified are scrambled. We encounter it also in the best abstract paintings, Cubist and Constructivist, and in the best imagistic painting, Surrealist, Dadaist and neo-Dadaist. New condensations can only be achieved by a rigorous critique of previous formulations. To the psychoanalyst, who attributes change to guilt, we should oppose the discourse of a new solipsist poet of the pen or brush. De Chirico, Ernst and Magritte recoded the dream; Pollock, de Kooning and Kline recoded writing; Giacometti and Barnett Newman developed their soliloquy through a new vision of the microcosm. Miró in his latest works fuses ideograms with outlines of human figures in the name of an impossible algebra; Jasper Johns recodes the vocabulary of modern art; Valerio Adami, by conjoining incompatible models for a post-Chirico mannekin, gives us a new image of the eternal wanderer. The idea that the infinite can be conceived “in the definite form of something consummate, capable of definition by number ” finds its symbolic condensation in Arakawa’s reinterpretation of aggregates of algebraic fractions as visions.


The seemingly endless proliferation of new forms of artistic expression in art and literature has prompted some critics to claim that vanguard art is dead. According to Barbara Rose, it is the public that now has become the vanguard. But a closer scrutiny reveals a more complex state of affairs. Since institutions of higher education became convinced that a contemporary humanist should be as familiar with Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein as with Holbein’s Portrait of Erasmus, modern art has been exploited by a managerial elite in the name of progress, measured, for instance, either in terms of the purification of each individual art (Greenberg) or in terms of purification of the artist’s activity (Rosenberg). In 1968 the Museum of Modern Art celebrated its dedication to progress, viewed as a driving force in Western art, by a Surrealist exhibition aimed at discrediting the surrealist adventure.22

The prototype of all vanguard movements is the political vanguard. Michael Walzer identifies the vanguard as a group of uprooted intellectuals who espouse the cause of a revolutionary class. Describing the members of the vanguard as puritanical, activist and egalitarian, while the members of the class, whether Calvinist, Jacobin or Communist, resist virtue in the name of self-interest, Walzer notes that “two different kinds of freedom are at stake in the revolutionary process. For the class, freedom is a natural or human right already possessed. All that is needed is to create conditions under which it can be exercised, to open up areas for democratic politics. For the vanguard freedom has to be earned. . . . Ever present Thermidorian pressures, called counterrevolutionary by the vanguard, prove the unreadiness [of the masses].”23 (The Thermidorians were those who took part in the rightist overthrow of Robespierre’s radical left on the 9th of “Thermidor” [July 27, 1794].)

The Iranian revolution is a warning to all who in the Western world believe that freedom and progress are the two sides of the same coin. The problem of change in terms of identity is at the center of Hegel’s preoccupation with the unhappy consciousness, otherwise called God’s anxiety. Its reappraisal by Freud in terms of a psychological complex will not help the workers to take power. According to Rudolph Bahro, “there is nothing in the framework of Marxist theory that proves a world-historical mission for the proletariat. Marx and Engels postulated this before they had analyzed in detail the laws of the capitalist mode of production. . . . Marx’s conclusion, presented in the Communist Manifesto, that only an association that ensures the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, i.e., that only in this way can we have a society without violence, without terror either from above or from below, continues to form the decisive rational motive for the revolutionary commitment of the most advanced state to general emancipation.”24 The Western alternative is no less uncertain, for as Bahro prudently notes: ”Even if the richest people could throw off their capitalist shell tomorrow, they would still face a long struggle to take control of their technical and social apparatus from within, i.e., to divest the functions of regulation and administration bit by bit of their imminent character of domination. The momentous anticipation of this goal was one of the essential inspirations of the French May revolt of 1968.”25 When the students of Paris wrote on the walls of the Sorbonne, “L’lmagination au pouvoir,” best rendered in English as “All power to the imagination,” they were in a way calling for a cultural revolution that would pave the way for the liberation of the mind from the fetters of the despotic superego.

The failure of the Russian and Chinese revolutions to guarantee the once-promised freedom of movement and communication of ideas implies that these two revolutions must be reappraised in terms of an historical tragedy. According to Engels, the tragic conflict develops from the historical necessity of undertaking an action that cannot be fulfilled for other historical reasons, not just for subjective ones. Hegel’s view of the tragic hero as being simultaneously guilty and innocent stems from his analysis of Greek and Shakespearean plays. In such drama the conflict results from a subjective crisis that has historical consequences, since its heroes are of the nobility (that is, of a hereditary aristocracy), potentially rivals of the ruling prince.

In France, following the Revolution of 1789, nobles lost their privileges. In England they were reduced to playing ceremonial roles. The middle-class family became the subject of character portrayal in fiction. Culturally, the loss of a tragic hero in the contemporary world is compensated for by the glorification of the poète maudit and the Dostoievskian prodigal son. André Breton’s Nadja (1928) denounced a famed psychiatrist who, according to Breton, institutionalized Nadja for spurious reasons. Breton claims that a psychiatrist has no right to deprive an individual of his freedom, reminding the reader that authority had locked up Sade, Nietzsche, Baudelaire. Breton would have approved the recent ruling of a Federal District judge in favor of patients at a Boston Hospital who had filed suit asking for restriction on mind-altering drugs and on seclusions. Judge Joseph L. Tauro wrote that “ forced medication is an affront to human dignity” and noted that “the First Amendment protects the communication of ideas. . . . Whatever the powers the Constitution has granted our Government, involuntary mind control is not one of them, absent extraordinary circumstances.”

Should not the terms reality and imagination be replaced in the 1980s by references to states of affairs and states of mind? A state of affairs that fosters nonreflective responses, as does the television image, should be challenged by minds adventurous enough to make solipsist conjectures.

Nicolas Calas is an art critic and poet.



1. Georg Lukacs, Histoire et Conscience de Classes, Fr. trans. Paris, 1960, p. 102.

2. Karl Marx, Capital, Bk I. Pt. 1., ch. 1., Commodities, sec. 4.

3. Lucien Goldmann, La Creation culturelle dans la soviete moderne, Paris, 1971, p. 62.

4. Ibid., p. 102.

5. Roland Barthes, Image, Music Text, Engl. trans 1977, p. 212.

6. Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, London, 1940, ch. 10, “Basic Propositions.”

7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Pensée Sauvage, Paris, 1962, ch. 1.

8. Roland Barthes, “Myth Today” in Mythologies, Engl. trans. ed., New York, 1978.

9. Idem, “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers” in Image Music Text, New York,1977.

10. Louis Althusser, Pour Marx, Paris 1967, ch. 6, “Sur La Dialectique Materialiste,” part 1.

11. Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, New York, 1968, p. 138.

12. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

13. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London, 1961, 5.62–5.64.

14. Nicolas Calas, “The Roots of Civilization by Alexander Marshak,” Artforum, January 1975.

15. Karl Popper, op.cit., pp. 75–78.

6. Tobias Danzig, Numbers, rev. ed. 1954, p. 112.

17. G. Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, New York, 1977, xix.

18. Ibid., pp. 3–5.

19. Ibid., p. 77.

20. Ibid., (summarized here).

21. Ibid., p. 81.

22. N Calas, “Surrealism Hits Back,” Arts Magazine, May 1968.

23. Michael Walzer, “A Theory of Revolution,” Marxist Perspectives No. 5, (Spring 1979) pp. 30–34.

24. Rudolph Bahro, The Alternative in Eastern Europe, Engl. trans., London, 1978, p. 199.

25. Ibid., p. 125.