"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

6 Sept 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 4


Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature


In Rickett’s Chapter on William Hazlitt he touches on an aspect of vagabondage that is worthy of further discussion concerning the vagabonds’ relationship to the Abject as it links to their affinity with nature and the animal world. Using the analogy that fine plants are produced from soil treated with dung, he makes the argument that genius should not be dismissed because it comes from the hands and mind of the vagabond: 

The soil of the rose garden may be manured with refuse that Nature uses in bringing forth the lovely bloom of the rose.  …  And so from unhealthy stock, from temperaments affected by disease, have sprung the roses of genius—transformed by the mysterious alchemy of the imagination into pure and lovely things.  There are, of course, poisonous flowers, just as there is a type of genius—not the highest type—that is morbid.  But this does not affect my contention that genius is not necessarily morbid because it may have sprung from a morbid soil.

As I noted in my work of Cynicism, “The abject lifestyle described above—this living on the edge of society and courting  indecency, defilement and death—is as much about embracing a positive identity, as it is about simply cocking a snoot at convention.” It is helpful here to consider Julia Kristeva’s work, “Powers of Horror: an essay on abjection” where she maintains that we are defined by the things that disgust us; the waste of our own bodies is expelled in order that we may live. Our world exists on one side of the border between our living being and the ultimate waste of our own corpse.

Samuel Beckett’s unnamed creature in his novella The End, provides an graphic example of the vagabonds’ existence in this abject borderland, maintaining the minimum necessary to sustain life. His hero ultimately gives up the comfort of a pigsty to a pig only to find warmth and shelter in a dung heap. In Diogenes’ case—as much a philosophical declaration as a personal lifestyle choice—in his indifference to the waste of his own body, he marks himself out from the pretensions of human beings’ sham sophistication. He reinforces his own position on the margins of society, a society which in turn rejects his Cynic lifestyle as base and inhuman in order to reinforce its own ‘higher’ level of functioning. When Diogenes pisses, farts, defecates and masturbates in public, he is simply holding up a mirror to the the artificial conventions of society around him. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk comments as follows:

Diogenes is the only Western philosopher who we know consciously and publicly performed his animal business, and there are reasons to interpret this as a component of a pantomimic theory. It hints at a consciousness of nature that assigns positive values to the animal side of human beings and does not allow any dissociation of what is low or embarrassing. Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit.

A theme also acknowledged by French philosopher, Jacques Lacan:

The characteristic of a human being is that—and this is very much in contrast with other animals—he doesn’t know what to do with his shit. . . . Occupying an uncertain and troubling space between a nature that is never surpassed and a culture that is never closed off, shit defines civilisation.” 

As I argue in my book on Cynicism; it follows that by embracing abject things (Diogenes pissing, passing wind, and defecating in public; Hipparchia, the Cynic wife of Crates licking clean the purulent sores of the sick), certain Cynics would have attained a spiritual and moral freedom unavailable to those of us who define our humanness by our need to exclude the abject from our thoughts or actions. It also removed any possibility of an Icarian collapse, as the Cynics’ asceticism left them with nowhere to fall. Of course Diogenes well understood that humans had higher mental functions than lower animals, but this made their metaphysical pretensions all the more irrational. The Cynics were not abject but beyond abjection and, as Navia noted, the link between their public behaviour and personal philosophy can be interpreted as a high form of rhetoric. As other philosophies use formal lectures, treatise, and theoretical models to get their philosophy across, so the Cynic—who simply regards such dialogue as hot air—passes wind by way of a critique. 

In the next post I wish to turn to an aspect of the vagabond character—though closely linked both to their abjection and affinity with nature—linked to their alienation from the human world.

Part 5 will discuss the Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection

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