Solace in Oblivion

Approaches to Transcendence in Modern Europe

by Robert Cowan (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 220 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 9


We live in an era of global anxiety – about rising nationalism, civil and human rights struggles, the ramifications of declining white male hegemony, about driving ourselves and other species toward extinction. So it’s no surprise that we also seek transcendence of our material circumstances. But exploring the possibilities of transcendence of our materiality – whether through religion, philosophy, psychology, or literature – is not a new feature of thought, art, or action. This book explores approaches to the immanence-transcendence problem in works of French, German, Italian, and Russian literature and philosophy between 1762 and 2016, in an effort to understand how different thinkers have approached this dynamic. The volume is divided into four "suppression" approaches and four "infliction" approaches, sometimes combining sympathetic source material from different centuries and countries that take complementary stances. While this book takes a skeptical approach as to whether a person can experience sensory comprehension of transcendence of his or her own embodiment, we are clearly in need of literature that provides guidance for our current sociological and psychological circumstances in an effort to help us navigate our global future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I Suppression
  • Chapter 1 Rage Against Time: Leopardi and Cioran against Sloterdijk
  • Chapter 2 Ghost Your Past: Fanon and Meinhof in NDiaye and Pinckney
  • Chapter 3 Embrace the Silence: Bakhtin among Diderot and Pelevin
  • Chapter 4 Follow the Fool: Schopenhauer between Wagner and Nietzsche
  • Part II Infliction
  • Chapter 5 Idolize the Inhuman: Musil through Scarry, Felman, and Laub
  • Chapter 6 Imagine Going Nuclear: Beckett with Bataille or Levinas
  • Chapter 7 Fall into Occidentalism: Cioran before the Maoïstes and the Alt-Right
  • Chapter 8 Become a Corpse: Bloch and Blanchot around Dostoevsky
  • Conclusion Practice Immanence
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the journals and anthologies in which the following pieces appeared, in slightly different form:

“Boys Will Not Be Boys: Idolizing the Inhuman in Musil’s Törless.” Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 44.2 (Spring 2015).

“Fall into Occidentalism: Cioran against the Maoïstes and the Alt-Right.” Literary Translation, Reception, and Transfer. Nobert Bachleitner, ed. Literature Studies & Cultural Studies. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020.

“The Fatality of Romanticism vs. The Metaphysics of Sexual Love: Wagner’s Love Letter to Schopenhauer and the Break-Up with Nietzsche.” Monatshefte für deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur 106.1 (Spring 2014). Reprinted on The Wagnerian (23 Oct. 2014) <http://www.the-wagnerian.com/2014/10/the-fatality-of-romanticism-vs.html>.

“Rage Against the Time Machine: Pessimism’s Ahistorical Ethics vs. Cynicism’s Resignation to Progress.” Situations: A Journal for the Radical Imagination 8.1–2 (Fall 2019).

Thank you to Boris Gasparov at Columbia University and my mentors at the CUNY Graduate Center – Elizabeth Beaujour, Mary Ann Caws, Vincent Crapanzano, Amy Mandelker, Paul Oppenheimer, Burton Pike, Julia Przybòs, and Richard Wolin – with whom I first explored some of this material. To Lela Nargi, Margarit Ordukhanyan, and Nicole Ridgway for guidance on portions of this manuscript. To the members of the Faculty Writing Seminar at Hunter College for all of their helpful feedback – Monica Calabritto, Sarah Chinn, Meryem Deniz, Phil Ewell, Yasha Klots, Larry Kowerski, Marty Lucas, Andy Polsky, Calvin Smiley, Shanti Thakur, John Wallach, Laura Wolf-Powers, and Jia Xu. To the organizers of the many panels on which I first presented much of this material, at meetings of the American Comparative Literature Association, the German Studies Association, the International Comparative Literature Association, the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy, and the Society for French Studies. To Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang Oxford, with whom it has been a pleasure to work, as well as series editor Florian Mussgnug and my very helpful anonymous reader. Thank you all.

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Theorize Transcendence

Jumping Off

During a commencement speech at Harvard University in 1975, when asked to “Give us a poem!,” Muhammad Ali spontaneously composed one of the shortest poems in the English language – “Me. We.” – emphasizing the move he felt we all must make from selfishness to selflessness.1 This book is an attempt to explore the tension incipient in that distinction and in that attempted move, in the form of a problem that religious thinkers around the world have grappled with for millennia – the immanence-transcendence problem, the attempt to approach the edges of the material world in order to access the divine. This book considers immanence and transcendence in modern Continental European literature in an effort to understand the various ways in which authors approach this dynamic – how they conceive of its problems and solutions, how they frame it, and how they may break that frame.

In general, the theory of immanence holds that the divine is manifest in the material world, suggesting that the spiritual permeates everyday human experience. Theories of transcendence, by contrast, see the divine as outside of or above the material world, and thus accessing the divine is a challenge. In Christianity, the transcendent God is only revealed immanently in the incarnate Christ. Traditional Jewish exegesis, or Pardes, is composed of four stages that lead from the most literal to the most esoteric, the first three “revealed” stages indicating the immanence of God in specific individuals, such as Abraham. Hinduism, on the other hand, subsumes immanent ←1 | 2→personal gods into a greater transcendent being – Brahman, the ultimate reality in the universe. Meanwhile Buddhism, at least in the Dzogchen school, for example, strives to dissolve any distinction between immanence and transcendence altogether. Despite this heterogeneity of views, adherents of most schools of religious thought use the same jumping off point, for they would likely agree that the question of whether and how human beings might experience transcendence can only be understood when contrasted with our experience of immanence. But in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras of European history – that is, in the last two and half centuries – these debates have been further problematized by another development: the rise of secularism.

The preoccupation with this dialectic, and indeed the impetus for this book, is a personal one. I am on the agnostic/atheist end of the spectrum of religious belief – I do not believe in an anthropomorphic god that has set human events in motion or controls us or guides us, but I do believe that there are forces in the universe that are beyond human apperception and ken. This may be why the issue of transcendence has fascinated me since I was a teenager, around the time I discovered transcendent theories and art, from Existentialism to punk rock. The idea that we only live once, that this existence is but a blip in all of time, and that we never have any kind of consciousness again is, frankly, terrifying to me. It seems natural that we should seek to look beyond a conception of human existence that may feel so profoundly unsatisfying.

So, what lessons can we learn from these attempts at transcending material embodiment, at these attempts to access the divine? Why would the potential oblivion that transcendence offers provide solace? And yet what exactly is being transcended? Are we transcending the body, the senses, the most animal nature in ourselves? Or are we returning to it, abandoning the rational mind and returning to the primal heart? Does transcendence always involve an experience of such heightened material embodiment that one moves, somehow, beyond it, beyond space and time? Does transcendence have to involve a kind of violence? And can literature really be a vehicle for this?

I am quite aware, and somewhat uneasy about the fact that, while some of the theorists discussed here are female, the majority of the authors ←2 | 3→analyzed in this collection are male. This is because I wanted to look at the authors that have spoken to me most personally over the last thirty-five years or so, which have been admittedly male, as well as admittedly White. The last essay in the collection to be written, “Ghost Your Past,” considers writers such as Marie NDiaye, Ulrike Meinhof, and Audre Lorde (alongside Frantz Fanon and Darryl Pinckney), which reflects the considerations of my present scholarship – namely, a current interest in primarily non-White, male authors. In not addressing many female authors, I also have not delved into feminist theory concerning immanence-transcendence, which has challenged the notion of a mind-body split, as has affect theory. Thus, the selection of authors and texts is idiosyncratic and disparate because it evinces my personal preferences over the arc of my adult life. Thus, this book is a collection of interlinked essays, rather than a set of chapters with a single narrative through-line.

Transcendence, literally to “climb over” in Latin, is usually defined as experience or existence that goes somehow beyond the physical level. And immanence is described as its opposite – as being inherent, from the Latin “remaining within.” Transcendence is generally considered a mental act, an experience that takes place within the mind and has no obvious outward affect; although others clearly find transcendence to be an embodied experience. But one wonders about the net import of a transcendent experience, about whether it brings one closer to humankind, such as for the philosopher/sociologist Georges Bataille, or closer to God, such as for the Romantic poet Novalis. If transcendence is to be understood as escape from one’s material embodiment, our experiences of feeling like we’ve transcended our bodies – through sex, drugs, music, meditation, prayer, visions, other extreme experiences – may be a taste of what the final, physically unbinding approach to death might be like. That could be what transcendence actually is – an experience that one senses differently than one’s everyday sensations. As may already be clear, though, I am not at all convinced that the human experience of transcendence is possible, in religion or in the secular world, individually or collectively, for its very definition appears to be predicated on the paradox that one can sensibly experience transcendence of materiality. Thus, the very idea of transcendence is problematic.

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Theories of Divine Access

Much of the theoretical discussion of transcendence that has taken place in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been among French and Francophone social theorists, such as Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Émile Durkheim, Frantz Fanon, René Girard, Alexandre Kojève, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricœur. More recently, some of the most useful contributions to the discussion have come in the form of commentaries on these theorists’ work by religion scholars and sociologists, such as Tiina Arppe, Zeynep Direk, James Dodd, Eddo Evink, and Michael Staudigl, whose syntheses I have often found at least as useful as the original theorists themselves. These theories focus on the binaries immanent-transcendent, sacred-profane, religion-irreligion, as well as a number of other overlapping areas of inquiry, such as phenomenology, affectivity, the sublime, moral violence, and social bonding. Within this literature, there has been much discussion in the last decade or so of the “affective turn,” a move toward a larger definition and recognition of our lives as feeling beings.2 But Tiina Arppe argues of the affectivity theories of Durkheim, Bataille, and Girard that:

they are all theories about origin, either in the logical or historical sense of the term: Affectivity is first and foremost invoked as the impulse giving birth to the social bond, and thereafter as a factor of social integration contributing to its maintenance. However, each theorist also attempts to combine the immanence of affectivity with some form of transcendence which is, moreover, generally related to the viewpoint of regulation: left in its own immediacy or immanence affectivity is seen as a dangerous and potentially destructive force that can only be held in check by an exterior force. This constant menace of violence constitutes the third factor present in all the theories considered, and it logically leads to the fourth theme to which affectivity is connected, namely a crisis that cannot be resolved with traditional political means.3

That is, human beings feel the need for detachment as well as for attachment to each other, so that emotion does not overwhelm us at times, and ←4 | 5→lead to violence. Feeling our emotions is crucial to social cohesion, but one could easily argue that they must be moderated so that we can maintain some kind of rationality and not inflict harm on ourselves or others.

Others have argued that, in a supposedly secular age, we neither experience “big transcendence” in the joining of our body or soul with an Absolute, nor do we even experience “little transcendence” through forms of knowledge, consciousness of our larger history, through our political processes, or in the experience of nature or artistic expression. Michael Staudigl argues that the concepts of transcendence and immanence have changed over time, particularly in the Romantic era: “Now ‘transcendence’ neither refers any more to the classical onto-theological figure of the absolute, ultimately transcendent, ‘wholly other,’ nor can it be recast as a ‘transcendence within the confines of immanence alone’ (be it the immanence of the logos, history, or inter-textuality).”4 He wonders, though, whether “the experience of transcendence simply [is] mediated (or otherwise occasioned) by practices of self-transcendence.”5 That is to say, if transcendence is no longer felt as approaching the divine, perhaps it can only be experienced in our transcendence of our most human aspects, be they personal traits or our social norms. But such a distinction between transcending the limitations of the self and transcending social confines requires a social core within which an individual subject fits, as well as a set of circumstances or values that one can transcend. Such a schema assumes that the rules of a social core are more or less agreed upon by its members, which may be a large assumption. In a colonial context, or of that of an invasion by an outside force, for example, consensus about what constitutes a single social core may not exist at all. This is true of subcultures, counterpublics, and marginalized groups, which embrace core values that may differ from societal norms. And thus, the sociopolitical realm is not usually where transcendence is to be found. Rather transcendence, more often than not, seems to concern the individual within a set of societal relations – real or imagined. Interestingly, a high degree of self-transcendence has been seen by psychiatrists such as Claude Cloninger as linked to both high degrees of spirituality and to psychotic tendencies such as schizotypy, ←5 | 6→the continuum of personality characteristics from merely imaginative to fully schizophrenic.6 This may be because a schizotypal personality tends to focus intensely on a single personal narrative that does not jibe with the reality of that person’s circumstances.


X, 220
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
Transcendence Immanence Modern European Literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 220 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Cowan (Author)

The author of five books, Robert Cowan is Assistant Dean at Hunter College and Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, both of the City University of New York.


Title: Solace in Oblivion
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232 pages