NOVEMBER 3, 1989

A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Divisions of the Humanities in candidacy for the degree of Master of Arts, Department of Interdisciplinary Humanities, the University of West Florida, Pensacola.

1. A Vision: Entering The Existential Atmosphere
2. The Nietzschean
3. Of Nietzschean Birth: Deconstruction
4. A Vision: One Step From The Void

I am no man, I am dynamite. --Nietzsche 1

A Vision: Entering The Existential Atmosphere

The grave itself is not the ultimate goal 
of this life, but something beyond.
Plate #1. Caspar David Friedrich. "Abbey in the Oakwood"2 (1809-10)

Caspar David Friedrich's landscape painting titled "Abbey in the Oakwood" (plate #1) exudes melancholy and is illustrative of Friedrich's mental climate, which he admitted tended to focus too much on the subject of death:

Why, it has often occurred to me to ask myself, do I so frequently choose death, transience and the grave as subjects for my paintings? One must submit oneself many times to death in order some day to attain life everlasting.3
Friedrich (1774-1840) was confronted with the undermining of his belief system -- Christianity -- by both the scientific revolution and rationalism. Friedrich's ailment was what Kierkegaard later described as the anxiety (angst) individuals suffer for having the freedom (and responsibility) to choose what to believe and how to act.4 Friedrich clung to Christianity, which was being blown apart by the gathering atmosphere of existentialism in the human psyche. Walter Kaufmann states the ramifications of atheistic existentialism as follows:
All man's alibis are unacceptable: no gods are responsible for his condition; no original sin; no heredity and no environment; no race, no caste, no father, and no mother; no wrong-headed education, no governess, no teacher; not even an impulse or a disposition, a complex or a childhood trauma. Man is free; but his freedom does not look like the glorious liberty of the Enlightenment; it is no longer the gift of God. Once again, man stands alone in the universe, responsible for his condition, likely to remain in a lowly state, but free to reach above the stars.5
Friedrich was without the benefit of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche in understanding the changes in consciousness that were occurring during his era; these philosophers came later. He could only perceive that the belief system he valued was under pressure. The existential atmosphere was opening up infinite and incomprehensible possibilities for belief, and Friedrich struggled to hold onto what he knew. Toward this end, he developed an elaborate Christian symbolism which he used in his landscape paintings. His early symbolic vocabulary is evident in a series of etchings produced in 1799:
...the path as the path of life, the foliage as the life-force, the withered branch as mortality, the pine-tree as the symbol of Christ, the rock as a symbol of faith, the water signifying death, and the bridge as the triumph of Christianity over death.6
The full development of Friedrich's symbolism is visible in his "Abbey in the Oakwood," which shows a ruined abbey among a forest of twisted bare oaks; pagan headstone-like markers stand on either side of the abbey; a column of monks carry a coffin through the abbey's doorway which reveals a large cross; a grave hole and another cross are in the foreground. Helmut Borsch-Supan writes that the procession of monks "is going past the open grave towards the crucifix and into the mist-shrouded background, a sign that the grave itself is not the ultimate goal of this life, but something beyond." He also points out that the linear tracery formed by the oaks and the abbey creates a barrier between the background and the foreground which represents the "disciplining of the passions and the now clearly deteriorated traditional Christian order." The twisted oaks represent the pagan way of life; the bizarre formation of their branches suggests a passionate and violent growth -- "the antithesis of the Christian ethos for which Friedrich uses the symbol of the evergreen fir-tree." The waxing moon shows as a crescent -- a symbol of Christ's illuminating the night of death -- and the moon's full outline is just visible, "indicating the promise of a brighter future." The pagan symbols on either side of the abbey signify "that the piety of the middle ages also had a past."7

That Friedrich put such elaborate symbolism into landscape painting was unique for his time since landscape painting generally tended, in Tieck's words, to "evoke a feeling of meditation, well-being, or joy at the imitation of reality."8 Dresden landscape painter Ludwig Richter (1803-84) was critical of Friedrich's use of symbolism:

Friedrich chains us to an abstract idea, making use of the forms of Nature in a purely allegorical manner, as signs and hieroglyphs -- they are made to mean this and that. In Nature, however, every thing expresses itself; her spirit, her language lies in every shape and colour.9
For the average landscape painter, nature is the "thing in itself" (Nietzsche's phrase, after Kant)10 which he tries to represent on canvas. No matter how realistically he paints, the work remains an abstraction from the original; in spite of this, the artist works as faithfully as he can. Friedrich's integration of Christian symbolism into landscape painting adds another level of abstraction which creates, in Richter's view, a conflict of interests between recording the natural scene as faithfully as possible and making a doctrinal statement (or writing a text) about Christianity. Friedrich would argue that he understood nature and Christianity as representing the same truth, so that it was not unreasonable for nature to manifest Christian symbols.

What is meant by "truth" in this context? The Christian claim has been that truth is absolute, based on divine authority. Where is that divine authority found? Outside the system of language. Truth-claims formulated within language refer to a "transcendental signified" (God) outside language for authority. This is the Christian version of Platonistic idealism, one of the three models the human being has created for the location of meaning which will be addressed in this paper. According to the model of the Platonistic ideal, the locus of meaning is found in a realm of ideal forms, the physical world being only a shadowy reflection of the Real. The second model under consideration here is the rhetorical method, wherein the locus of meaning is found within the persuasiveness of the language itself. The third model is mythology, wherein the locus of meaning is found within the traditional stories handed down from generation to generation.

Myth as the living belief system of a culture (as within still surviving tribal groups) should not be confused with the study of myth as a text by a culture external to it (the focus of Joseph Campbell's work). Such a study is generally an exercise in structuralism, wherein the goal is to create, after Aristotle, a sort of "Poetics" of mythology. Once the general "structure" of myth is discovered it is applied ad infinitum to explain specific myths. Structuralism relies on the Platonistic model for the location of meaning -- the objective structure is assumed to exist and it is simply a matter of discovering it. It is worth noting that mythology in its primary sense (as a living belief system within a tribal group) is accepted on the basis of respect for the tradition and for the wisdom of tribal elders and seerers; the Western preoccupation with logical "proofs" and competing claims of truth by one system over another is nonexistent in native cultures, as can be seen in Chief Joseph's response to the question of why the Nez Perce banned missionaries from their lands:

They will teach us to quarrel about God, as Catholics and Protestants do on the Nez Perce Reservation (in Idaho) and other places. We do not want to do that. We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on earth, but we never quarrel about the Great Spirit. We do not want to learn that.11
Friedrich's symbolic landscape paintings provide us with a clear example of an artist's use of the Platonistic model for the locus of meaning; that is, the Christian claim for divine revelation coming from outside the system of language, from an external "truth" (ideal form or God). The second part of the paper, on Nietzsche, and the third part, on deconstruction, will question the premises of the Platonistic model, as well as discussing the rhetorical and mythological models. The final part of the paper is about minimalist artist Donald Judd's attempt to circumvent these models by rejecting the Western rationalistic tradition and empirically observing object as object.

The Nietzschean

Nietzsche rejected Platonistic and Christian idealism, wherein the locus of meaning is found in a realm of ideal forms, the physical world being only a shadowy reflection of the Real. The fallacy of this model, Nietzsche thought, was that any such external absolute, if it did exist (which Nietzsche doubted, preferring to acknowledge only chaos as external) was unapproachable and indescribable. With no correspondence to an external truth, all language is necessarily metaphorical and, so, the truth-claims of Plato and the Church are reduced in status to that of fiction. What offended Nietzsche most was the "inversion of values"12 -- the ascetic rejection of the physical world -- perpetrated on the "authority" of the Platonistic ideal. For both Plato and the Christian, there was a dualism between the "true" world of the realm of ideal forms (or Heaven) and the "apparent" world perceived by the senses. (This dualism is common to Indian and Persian thought as well.)

The conclusion that language has no correspondence to an external truth and, therefore, all language is necessarily metaphorical, supports the second model for the locus of meaning -- that of the rhetorical method. Any meaning is to be created by humankind out of the system of language itself. This also supports the existential view that man is responsible for creating his own meaning. Of course, man is not always very successful in creating his own meaning, and for this reason Nietzsche, with nostalgia for a lost culture, pointed to the mythology of the Greeks.

Some background on the antagonism between Plato and the Sophists will help us to understand Nietzsche's criticism of Platonistic idealism and dialectic. This antagonism has often been written about and Plato is usually awarded the victor's crown. The Sophists are generally understood to have promoted "ethical relativism" and Plato to have promoted the ideal of "truth." The Sophists were rhetoricians who relied on the persuasiveness of language to make their claims, while Plato used the dialectical method of debate by question and answer in his search for "truth." Plato was "a very great event in the history of the human spirit," says Schopenhauer, because of Plato's

discriminating distinction between the phenomenon and the idea, between the empiric and the intellectual, between the world of truth and the world of appearance, between the temporal and the eternal.13
Plato claimed that the Sophists' rhetoric was only an arbitrary collection of images or semblances which had no correspondence with the realm of ideal forms. He considered it a language of emotion which had no claim to absolute truth. Plato claimed that the dialectician, however, understood how forms blend -- how absolutes either do or do not correspond in certain ways -- and was able, thereby, to construct a dialectic in complete harmony with the Real. The dialectician was aware, for example, that the form of "sameness" and the form of "difference" cannot be applied at the same time. Or the form of "movement" cannot be applied at the same time as the form of "rest."14

Robert Pirsig questions Plato's denigration of the Sophists, claiming that in Plato's Gorgias dialogue, Socrates used dialectic to destroy rhetoric rather than to understand it. Socrates' questions were "not real questions at all -- they [were] just word-traps which Gorgias and his fellow rhetoricians [fell] into." Pirsig claims that the Sophists were not teaching "ethical relativism" as is commonly claimed, but were teaching quality, virtue, excellence (and courage?) -- the Greek "arete":

Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric.15
Pirsig wonders why Plato had wanted to destroy arete and he answers his own question:
Plato hadn't tried to destroy arete. He had simply encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed Idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal Truth. He made arete the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all.... Once the Good [had] been contained as a dialectical idea it [was] no trouble for another philosopher to come along and show by dialectical methods that arete, the Good, can be more advantageously demoted to a lower position within a "true" order of things, more compatible with the inner workings of dialectic. Such a philosopher was not long in coming. His name was Aristotle.16
Aristotle's "substance" which clings to Appearances became the subject matter of science, while the Good became a "relatively minor branch of knowledge called ethics." Pirsig concludes:
Arete is dead and science, logic and the University as we know it today have been given their founding charter: to find and invent an endless proliferation of forms about the substantive elements of the world and call these forms knowledge, and transmit these forms to future generations. As "the system."17
Alfred North Whitehead was more subdued in pointing out that "if only the schoolmen [throughout the Middle Ages] had measured instead of classifying, how much they might have learnt!" Whitehead described classification as a "halfway house between the immediate concreteness of the individual thing and the complete abstraction of mathematical notions."18 Whitehead did not, however, discredit the university, but stated that it is the "union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalizations which forms the novelty in our present society" and it is the business of universities to transmit this tradition.19

Nietzsche was more in line with Pirsig's view, both being critical of Plato, the dialectical method, and the university: "what an atmosphere prevails among their scholars, what desolate spirituality -- and how contented and lukewarm it has become!"20 In The Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche described the dialectician as follows:

As a dialectician, one holds a merciless tool in one's hand; one can become a tyrant by means of it; one compromises those one conquers. The dialectician leaves it to his opponent to prove that he is no idiot: he makes one furious and helpless at the same time. The dialectician renders the intellect of his opponent powerless. Indeed? Is dialectic only a form of revenge in Socrates?21
Nietzsche described Plato as "a coward before reality, consequently he flees into the ideal." For Nietzsche, the Greek historian Thucydides was a cure from Platonism: "Thucydides has control of himself, consequently he also maintains control of things."22 Nietzsche considered the moralism and the embracing of dialectic by the Greeks to be pathologically conditioned:
Reason-virtue-happiness, that means merely that one must imitate Socrates and counter the dark appetites with a permanent daylight -- the daylight of reason. One must be clever, clear, bright at any price: any concession to the instincts, to the unconscious, leads downward.23
Nietzsche proposed that "the value of truth must for once be experimentally called into question" and he concluded that the "will to truth"24 is an objection when the ideals produced from it, such as a "true world" or "God" contribute to the negation of the physical world. Nietzsche wanted to affirm existence by denouncing the nihilism of Platonistic idealism and its heir, Christianity.25

In spite of his attack on Christianity, Nietzsche was not outrightly against the concept of God; it was the Christian God he was not too pleased with, whom he described as follows:

God degenerated into the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God -- the formula for every slander against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond"!26
Concerning the Christian's devaluation of the world, Nietzsche wrote:
When the Christian condemns, slanders, and besmirches "the world," his instinct is the same as that which prompts the socialist worker to condemn, slander, and besmirch society. The "last judgement" is the sweet comfort of revenge -- the revolution, which the socialist worker also awaits, but conceived as a little farther off. The "beyond" -- why a beyond, if not as a means for besmirching this world?27
Nietzsche was no kinder toward Schopenhauer:
Finally some advice for our dear pessimists and other decadents. It is not in our hands to prevent our birth; but we can correct this mistake -- for in some cases it is a mistake. When one does away with oneself, one almost earns the right to live.... Pessimism, pur, vert, is proved only by the self-refutation of our dear pessimists: one must advance a step further in its logic and not only negate life with "will and representation," as Schopenhauer did -- one must first of all negate Schopenhauer.28
Nietzsche lamented the Christianization of Europe whereby Europeans "absorbed sickness, old-age, and contradiction into all their instincts -- and since then they have not created another god. Almost two thousand years -- and not a single new god!"29 And so, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche produced the mythology of a new god, or "overman", which met his ethical standards; he commented in Ecce Homo that "the poets of the Veda are priests and not even worthy of tying the shoelaces of a Zarathustra." According to Nietzsche, Zarathustra (as portrayed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) was the "supreme type of all beings":
In every word he contradicts, this most Yes-saying of all spirits; in him all opposites are blended into a new unity. The highest and the lowest energies of human nature, what is sweetest, most frivolous, and most terrible wells forth from one fount with immortal assurance.30
Nietzsche stated in Ecce Homo that the historical Persian Zarathustra
was the first to consider the fight of good and evil the very wheel in the machinery of things: the transposition of morality into the metaphysical realm, as a force, cause, and end in itself.... Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he must also be the first to recognize it.31
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche presented a reformed version of the Persian Zarathustra, a Zarathustra successful in the "self-overcoming of morality, out of truthfulness": "To speak the truth and to shoot well with arrows, that is Persian virtue." (By "truth" in this context, Nietzsche means honesty or truthfulness of intention; Nietzsche made no claims for "absolute truth" in the Platonistic sense.32) Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols:
My demand upon the philosopher is known, that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgement beneath himself. This demand follows from an insight which I was the first to formulate: that there are altogether no moral facts.33
Nietzsche assumed that the universe is at root chaos and that humankind's only relief from chaos lies in his fiction-making prowess. Kermode echoed Nietzsche in this way: "It is not that we are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for coexistence with it only by our fictive powers."34 There is no question here of "demythologizing" religious texts in the sense that Rudolf Bultmann encouraged35, since, according to Nietzsche, even modern scientific constructs are equally fictitious -- "the world as our illusion and erroneous fiction."36 As has been mentioned, Nietzsche rejected the Platonistic claim for an absolute truth, for "a firm and ultimate ground," since the "'thing in itself' (for that is what pure truth, without consequences, would be)" can only be expressed intersubjectively through abstractions (or sign systems). Nietzsche wrote that
every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases....37
With no access to a description of an exterior truth, we are left in a void wherein we create our own meaning within our system of language. Paul de Man wrote in his essay "Criticism and Crisis" that "Poetic language names this void with ever-renewed understanding never tires of naming it again. This persistent naming is what we call literature." He wrote, further, that "literature is everywhere": what critics call "anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis is nothing but literature reappearing, like the Hydra's head, in the very spot where it had supposedly been suppressed."38

Nietzsche was not concerned that an assumption be true, but that it be life-preserving, that it instill the "will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility" and the "eternal joy of becoming."39 Nietzsche wrote:

The criterion of truth lies in the enhancement of the feeling of power. The falseness of a judgement is for us no objection against a judgement.... The question is, how far it furthers life, preserves life, preserves the species, perhaps even breeds the species.40
And for this he praised mythology:
...every culture that has lost myth has lost its natural, healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unity a culture.... Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?41
Even if Nietzsche at some point believed these myths to be "archaic illusions" that result from man's "self deception," as Peter Heller suggests in his essay, "Nietzsche: Antithesis and Reversal," still, Nietzsche never denied "the depth, the refinement of sensibility, the creative inventiveness of religion and art, and thus the flower of human culture" that results from such "deception."42

Of the many cultural forms myth has taken, Nietzsche praised the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides for providing a sense of metaphysical solace, "without which it is impossible to imagine our taking pleasure in tragedy."43 Nietzsche wrote that "by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic will," the Dionysian and the Apollonian were coupled and eventually generated the art-product, Greek tragedy.44 Of the Dionysian, Nietzsche wrote:

I know no higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism of the Dionysian festivals. Here the most profound instinct of life, that directed toward the future of life, the eternity of life, is experienced religiously -- and the way to life, procreation, as the holy way. It was Christianity, with its resentment against life at the bottom of its heart, which first made something unclean of sexuality: it threw filth on the origin, on the presupposition of our life.45
Nietzsche gave the example of Goethe as the perfect embodiment of the Dionysian:
Such a spirit [as Goethe] who has become free stands amid the cosmos with a joyous and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only the particular is loathsome, and that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole -- he does not negate any more. Such a faith, however, is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name of Dionysus.46
In Apollo, Nietzsche saw "the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of 'illusion.'"47 The "illusion" (or "maya") consists in the Apollonian facade of calmness and permanence, behind which is only chaos. Nietzsche wrote that this was a necessary illusion for the early Greeks:
How else could this people, so sensitive, so vehement in its desires, so singularly constituted for suffering, how could they have endured existence, if it had not been revealed to them in their gods, surrounded by a higher glory?... Thus do the gods justify the life of man, in that they themselves live it -- the only satisfactory Theodicy!48
Nietzsche claimed that the metaphysical solace provided by Greek tragedy was later displaced by Alexandrian proto-scientific philosophy which, he wrote,
puts in place of a metaphysical comfort a terrestrial consonance and a special deus ex machina -- the god of engines and crucibles: forces of nature put in the service of a higher form of egotism. It believes that the world can be corrected through knowledge and that life should be guided by science; that it is in a position to confine man within the narrow circle of soluble tasks, where he can say cheerfully to life: "I want you. You are worth knowing."49
These first "scientists" (Thales, Anaximander, and so on) tried to discover a permanent substance or substances behind appearances.50 The mental climate fostered by their inquiry gradually shifted the cultural beliefs toward a secular attitude and away from animistic deification of natural forces (devotion toward the Olympic pantheon), as had been the case up to and including the age of Homer. Weston LaBarre writes:
It was the secularizing Ionian nature-philosophers, in fact abjuring animism in their search for a material substrate of nature, who finally made the world too big and too impersonal for anthropomorphic gods to live in.51
With this change in belief, metaphysical solace was replaced, as Nietzsche noted, by a terrestrial comfort -- a belief that man could answer all life's problems -- and the gods were ground up in the gears of the mechanistic universe.
{God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? -- Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book 3, Section 125}

Of Nietzschean Birth: Deconstruction

Deconstruction as a mode of literary criticism is a response to structuralist criticism, which can be defined as "the analysis and understanding of culture as a system of systems, of which language is usually taken as the ideal model for explanatory purposes." The aim of structuralism is to "understand and explain how these systems work, what are the rules and constraints within which, and by virtue of which, meaning is generated and communicated."52 Aristotle's Poetics is a very early example of structuralism; in it Aristotle presents an elaborate system by which to write Greek tragedy -- the basic elements of which he lists as spectacle, melody, diction, moral character, intellect, and plot.53 In the same way that Aristotle's idea of a "substance" which clings to Appearances became the subject matter of science, his emphasis on "structure" (as his Poetics demonstrates) became the subject matter of structuralist criticism.

Deconstruction, following as it does in the Nietzschean tradition, questions the premises (or claims to truth) upon which the structures of structuralist criticism rest. The critical blindness that Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man have tried to point out through deconstructive theory is the critic's claim for a true (or objective) reading of a text. Such a reading (an objective one) is impossible since any particular reading (or interpretation) of a text produces an abstraction of the original text (which itself is an abstraction of any pure "thing in itself" outside language). In his essay "The Rhetoric of Blindness," Paul de Man wrote that "Criticism is a metaphor for the act of reading, and this act is itself inexhaustible." The critic can never have a final knowledge of the text, because both text and critic are caught in time and claims for truth will always be superseded.54

This would seem to put us firmly into the rhetorical model for the location of meaning -- into the system of language itself -- the Platonistic model having been thoroughly deconstructed, first by Nietzsche, and then by Derrida and Paul de Man. But if this is the rhetorical model reasserting itself, it is a refined model; and that refinement comes in the term "intersubjective." In his essay, "Subjectivity/Objectivity and Meaningful Human Behavior," Robert Armstrong defines language ability as intersubjective: "subjective insofar as it is traditionally considered an inner capacity of the mind and objective insofar as the same rules must be followed by everyone."55 Although the locus of meaning is still the persuasiveness of language (can anyone claim that their writing is fully detached from any motive to persuade the reader?), that persuasiveness now relies a great deal more on the precise application of a canon of morphologic, syntactic, and semantic rules. Armstrong points out that for Jacques Derrida, intersubjectivity "implies respect and ethical imperatives of human freedom."56 And this is exactly what Nietzsche was striving for in his rejection of Platonistic idealism, which was easily appropriated in support of authoritarian ideologies.

In "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" Jacques Derrida discounts Levi Straus' attempt to step outside the Western tradition toward a "transcendental signified."57 And in "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy" he makes a thorough deconstruction of Western metaphysics based on the pervasiveness of metaphor. Derrida begins the essay with an interesting passage:

From philosophy, rhetoric. That is, here, to make a volume, approximately, more or less, a flower, to extract a flower, to mount it, or rather to have it mount itself, bring itself to light -- and turning away, as if from itself, come round again, such a flower engraves -- learning to cultivate, by means of a lapidary's reckoning, patience....58
Derrida has a knack for language; in this case, "a secret narrative, composed of several metaphors...whose essential characteristic is to describe a fact in an impossible combination of words."59

In this opening passage the flower represents metaphor (or rhetoric, or a figure of speech -- a trope) which grows out of the soil of meaning (a proper ground, the unexpressed volume of philosophy -- thought). The sun represents the "proper name,..the non-metaphorical prime mover of metaphor" within the system of language. Without these defined propers metaphor would be impossible, since it is the proper that allows the play of metaphor in language:

The multiplicity of metaphors is regulated with one's sights set on "one and the same image," whose diffraction is but a projective system. Here, the unity and continuity of meaning dominates the play of syntax.... It is a phenomenon of usage (or abuse) rather than...a phenomenon of code.60
The opening passage describes the process whereby meaning is expressed in language. Derrida gives the following explanation: "Thought stumbles upon metaphor, or metaphor falls to thought at the moment when meaning attempts to emerge from itself in order to be stated, enunciated, brought to the light of language." Meaning actually turns away from itself with its movement into language, which is metaphorical. The metaphor is not the meaning, which is inexpressible as such. So, although the original meaning cannot enter language, a good metaphor is able to turn back toward meaning by producing a good "likeness" of meaning -- thus producing a heliotrope.61 Derrida writes:
Metaphor, therefore, is determined by philosophy as a provisional loss of meaning, an economy of the proper without irreparable damage, a certainly inevitable detour, but also a history with its sights set on, and within the horizon of, the circular re-appropriation of literal, proper meaning.62
Derrida gives the following example of the sun as proper:
The very opposition of appearing and disappearing, the entire lexicon of the phainesthai, of aletheia, etc., of day and night, of the visible and the invisible, of the present and the absent -- all this is possible only under the sun. Insofar as it structures the metaphorical space of philosophy, the sun represents what is natural in philosophical language.63
The passage ends with the metaphor of the lapidary -- one who works with or carves in stone -- and the statement that "a flower engraves." Derrida claims that we cannot reach beyond our system, that we are products of it: the system leaves a trace on us and we leave a trace in return. This is the basis for his critique of Western metaphysics, which he describes as
the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.64
According to Derrida, the metaphysician's cherished descriptions of reality are just as metaphorical as the ancient fables he tries to supersede. There is no getting out of this system of metaphor upon metaphor. A previous metaphor may be erased and replaced by a newer metaphor, but the previous one will have left a trace -- an inscription "in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest."65

The metaphysician presumes to talk of "truth," but Derrida gives Nietzsche's denial of this:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage, seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal."66
Frank Lentricchia comments in After the New Criticism:
...there is, in effect, no "point," no origin, no end, no place outside discourse from which to fix, make determinate, and establish metaphysical boundaries for the play of linguistic signifiers.... the interpretation of any signifying chain is necessarily only another chain of signs.67
Lentricchia writes further: "it is no longer possible to delude oneself that the metaphoric can be made decidable, can be measured as deviation from the norm of the literal."68 In his essay "Differance," Derrida states that:
When we cannot grasp or show the thing, state the present, the being-present, when the present cannot be presented, we signify, we go through the detour of the sign. We take or give signs. We signal. The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence.69
Although by taking the "detour of the sign" we defer presence -- we defer grasping or showing the "thing in itself"; we take the detour of metaphor -- we are not without the sign system itself by which to create meaning. Derrida may deny the desire for a metaphysical truth outside of language -- "the desire for a firm and ultimate ground, for a terrain to build on" -- but he does not deny meaning based on correspondences and differences within a rhetorical system, stating that "what is important...[in a philosophical discourse] the signified content, the meaning, the intention of truth, etc."70

Derrida defines "differance" as "the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted 'historically' as a weave of differences." Differance is the origin of language categories. Derrida writes:

In the delineation of differance everything is strategic and adventurous. Strategic because no transcendent truth present outside the field of writing can govern theologically the totality of the field.71
Derrida writes, also, that "The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely."72 Metaphor is everywhere: law, science, religion, politics, poetry, philosophy. All language is catachresis; that is, no signified has a proper signifier and there is no such thing as the "proper" meaning. There are only intersubjectively agreed-upon names, figures, symbols, meanings.

And this brings us to the problem of contemporary criticism: with no "firm and ultimate ground" outside language to refer to, whatever system a critic constructs in explanation of a text opens itself up to deconstruction since, in his explanation, the critic invariably makes truth-claims concerning the text. The critic can only resolve this paradox by attempting to produce a commentary which "undermines his declared philosophical allegiances."73 Literature is an admitted fiction and, so, avoids deconstruction. The legacy of deconstruction is that the literariness of criticism is being recognized. Paul de Man cited Rousseau's "Essai sur l'origine des langues" as a text which "...knows and asserts that it will be misunderstood. It tells the story, the allegory of its misunderstanding:..of metaphor into literal meaning."74 Another example of a text undermining its own declared philosophical allegiances is found in Roland Bathes' S/Z. His dedication to the book reads as follows:

This book is the trace of work done during a two-year the Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes. I hope that the students, auditors, and friends who took part in this seminar will accept this dedication of a text which was written according to their attention to it.75
The key phrases here are "the trace of work" and "a text which was written according to their attention to it." With the former phrase Barthes presented the book as being a continuing process -- a trace of work -- captured at a particular moment in the current form; with the latter phrase Barthes deconstructed the authoritative tone he used in the text -- the tone which seems to make truth-claims -- but which is simply the agreement (or focus) of the many attentions that worked in seminar.

Roland Barthes worked in both structuralism and deconstruction during his career. His S/Z is a deconstruction of interpretation, the means we use to read, rather than a deconstruction of the story itself. Barthes attempted to bring to light mental processes that we take for granted. We tend to be unconscious of the codes that come into play in literature (intersubjective, socially defined codes), an exhaustiveness that opens up possibilities rather than closing them off. Barthes enjoyed artistic play within the system of language -- the love of paradox and ambiguity; flashy words; a dizziness of language; "the pleasure of the text."76 Barthes pointed out that a "writerly" text, wherein a reader creates his own meaning from a plurality of possible meanings, is far superior to a "readerly" text which gives a central (singular) meaning. The writerly text admits it is a fiction by its very refusal to settle on a single meaning. The readerly text, however, gives the illusion of truth by offering a single meaning. Barthes wrote: "Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text."77

Frank Lentricchia argues in his book, Criticism and Social Change, that deconstructive theory fosters a sense of powerlessness to effect social change because for Barthes, de Man, Derrida, Nietzsche and others it is impossible to have a final knowledge of a text -- claims for truth will always be superseded. This deconstruction of truth-claims could cause a sense of detachment since a hierarchy of value would seem to require a number one totem by which to judge other claims. Once it is adopted that all claims to truth can be deconstructed, on what ground does the true believer (or anyone) stand? In a deconstructed universe, Eric Hoffer's "true believer" has no ammunition in his fight to effect change; he has no infallible symbols on which to anchor his devotion -- Hoffer: "The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross."78 This is an excessive example, of course, since Lentricchia's desire for social change stems from a concern to examine society's "ideological apparatus [which] is so deeply set in place, so well buried, so unexamined a basis of our judgement and feeling that it is taken for truth with a capital letter."79 The hegemonic society -- the unexamined (and undeconstructed) society is ripe for producing the true believer in many forms: the racist, the sexist, the martyr, the Nazi. Practice of Paul de Man's deconstructive theory would hopefully be a check against fanaticism, but perhaps it is fanaticism's opposite -- endless deconstruction of truth-claims on the one side and fanatical devotion to such (God, Science, Truth) on the other.

Deconstruction taken to the extreme of ceaseless deconstruction of truth-claims is comparable to what Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) termed "levelling" in his book The Present Age:

The levelling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual.... The abstract principle of levelling, the biting east mind, has no personal relation to any individual but has only an abstract relationship which is the same for every one.80
Kierkegaard concluded that the levelling process can "only be stopped by the individual attaining the religious courage which springs from his individual religious isolation."81 In other words, the individual must take a stand on faith. And this is what Lentricchia recommends as well. Somewhere along the descent of deconstructed claims, one hammers in a piton and fastens a line and harness. From this vantage point on the icy descent of Everest, one decides to take a view of things. This view may be obstructed by various formations of rock, ice, snow, and clouds, but one has decided to rest here in spite of the flaws. The only criteria for choosing this particular spot is faith in the quality of the ice that the piton is wedged in, or the necessity just to stop the descent long enough to rest and get one's bearings. A system of meaning develops from the particular scope of this position. What are the interrelationships between rock and ice? Between sky and cloud? Between light and shadow?

Lentricchia suggests that we find such a position instead of sliding down the mountain of deconstructed claims and falling into the crevasse of inaction. Unless we make such a toe-hold, we will never have the stability from which to work toward positive social change. Lentricchia suggests that the literary intellectual approach texts in the way in which Gramsci approached critical consciousness; that is, as "the act of knowing yourself as the product of a historical process that has deposited its traces in you." The extension of this definition directly addressing a critical consciousness of texts is as follows:

The act of "knowing" the text as a product of struggle, a way of "interrogating" the text so as to reproduce it as a social text in the teeth of the usual critical lyricism that would deny the social text power and social specificity in the name of "literature."82
Lentricchia cites Burke's address at the first American Writer's Congress, held in 1935. Burke argued that Marxist revolutionary culture (or anyone interested in social change)
must situate itself firmly on the terrain of its capitalist [or otherwise] antagonist, must not attempt a dramatic leap beyond capitalism in one explosive, rupturing moment of release, must work its way through capitalism's language of domination by working cunningly within it, using, appropriating, even speaking through its key mechanisms of repression.83
{To say "communist mechanisms of repression" would be more accurate.}

Toward this end, Burke proposed that the Marxist image of "the worker" be replaced by the more universal and attractive image of "the people":

Your representations of workers are being received as representations of "the other." You must...attend to the machinery of representation; must...rethink your representations of workers. You must somehow bring them within, make sure that their fate and ours are bound up with each other.84
In Lentricchia, then, we see a method of working with texts wherein shifting meanings are appropriated for the purpose of working toward positive social change. This has provided a check against the extreme case of deconstruction, but deconstruction still remains valuable, as mentioned earlier, for making us aware of the structures we usually take for granted, for pointing out the fallacy of Platonistic idealism, and for deconstructing the claims of the true believer. Although the tendency of deconstructive theory may be to reveal the blindness of any particular interpretation of a text (and this could lead to an infinite regress of interpretation upon interpretation), Paul de Man pointed out that "however negative it may sound, deconstruction implies the possibility of rebuilding."85 And it is this rebuilding that Lentricchia urges the literary intellectual to participate in from "the specific institutional site where he finds himself and...on the terms inherent to his own functioning as an intellectual." With "the mastery of the tools of discourse," the literary intellectual is in a position of leadership in the "rhetorical war" for positive social change.86

{The last True Believers of Marxism are in academe. Guard your brain against their bile!}

A Vision: One Step From The Void

Out of faith in the quality of a formation is a 
particular structure erected and allowed to stand.
Plate #2. Donald Judd. Untitled (1968). Aluminum and blue plexiglass.87 48"x106 1/4"x61"

Minimalist artist Donald Judd, unlike Caspar David Friedrich, makes every effort to minimize symbolism in his art, to the extent even that he does not title his pieces. Judd's three-dimensional objects fill real space as opposed to the illusion of space (perspective) seen in traditional European painting. Judd writes that "Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface."88 With his sculpture, Judd tries to create "a definite 'whole' and maybe no parts, or very few."89 He avoids anthropomorphic imagery, stating that the image he tries to produce is

essentially new and surprising; an image has never before been the whole work, been so large, been so explicit and aggressive. The abatised orifice is like a strange and dangerous object.90
In this way, Judd attempts to keep the Western rationalistic tradition out of his work, feeling that it has run out of answers:
All that art [European] is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic that is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world's like.
Judd prefers an empirical approach to his work -- the object is just there; "The parts are unrelational."91 Jacques Derrida would probably deny that Judd could erase the traces left on him by the Western tradition; and these would show up in his art. This is probably so when one considers that the industrial techniques and materials Judd uses were developed in the industrialized West. Such materials and techniques could only, at this point in history, bear the trace of Western culture.

Judd pioneered the artistic use of industrial materials such as aluminum, plexiglass, cold-rolled steel, formica, and brass; and he has had most of his pieces manufactured to his specifications.92 Judd's combinations of materials enhance spatial qualities enormously; for example, the blue plexiglass liner on the inside of the open-ended aluminum box provides a vivid contrast which makes the inner area seem larger than the exterior (plate #2).93 In his essay, "Minimal Art," Richard Wollheim questions the process of designing an object, having it manufactured, and then calling it fine art: "[Minimal art] objects fail to evince what we have over the centuries come to regard as an essential ingredient in art; work, or manifest effort." Wollheim also questions whether fine art can be mass-produced.94 Although Judd's pieces are generally one-of-a-kind, Judd does speculate that with the techniques he has developed art could be mass-produced.95 Concerning this, Wollheim writes:

Works of fine art are not types, of which there could be an indefinite number of tokens;... There could not be more than one work of fine art that was a token of a given type.96
Wollheim points out, to minimal art's credit, that it can be understood as the "dismantling of some image that is fussier or more cluttered than the artist requires." Instead of putting a great deal of time in the usual constructive phase of art, the minimal artist concentrates on the dismantling phase wherein he eliminates all but the very essential components of the image.97 Thus, minimalist art is hazardous in the same way that deconstructionist criticism is -- the dismantling or deconstructive process has the potential to never end, which would cause a slide into nihilism wherein no meaning could be produced. The only way to stop this process, as mentioned earlier, is by faith in the quality of a particular position (or structure). For the minimalist artist that faith consists of a belief that the object is basic enough, that there is no need to continue dismantling it. In the case of Judd's aluminum and blue plexiglass construction, for example, Judd had to believe that the square formation was an essential image. Suppose, however, he had decided that the two vertical sides were excessive and he eliminated them. The object would have become one horizontal slab resting on another. And suppose he had decided that even those were excessive. The final image would have become one of empty space. In this event, Judd would no longer have been a minimalist artist, instead he would have become a representationalist artist and what his art would have represented is the void. (Or he would have become a conceptual artist, with his art occurring entirely within his mind.) So, out of faith in the quality of a formation is a particular structure erected and allowed to stand. This, of course, refers back to Robert Pirsig's re-evaluation of the Sophists -- that what their rhetoric was promoting was not ethical relativism but arete: excellence, quality.

The deconstruction of Platonistic idealism by Nietzsche, Derrida and de Man has, in a sense, taken human semiology to within one step of the void of non-construction. With practice, perhaps, the human being will learn to construct systems of signs and patterns of belief based on the inherent quality of those structures, without relying on an external authority (God, ideal forms, Truth) to support them. In light of this, whatever trace (according to Derrida's usage) the human leaves on the world, whether it is written, painted, drawn, chiseled, or bulldozed, it is made from the existentialist conviction that humanity is responsible for the creation of meaning. For any other animal species, existence is enough; meaning is the special prerogative of the human brain. This is not necessarily to deny the existence of God; this is only, like Kierkegaard, to suggest that God cannot be reached by the mind {or He is not fully comprehensible by the mind}. And this is to liberate God from the countless humans who have raised havoc -- from Inquisitional torturers to Ku Klux Klansmen to the Ayatollah Khomeini -- while pointing their index fingers at the sky and saying "For your glory, Father."

{Deconstructing, they devolved to apehood. A chance to rebuild?! With slime for mortar.}


1 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 782.
2 Helmut Borsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1974), plate 8.
3 Ibid., 7.
4 Thomas H. Greer, A Brief History of the Western World (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), 536.
5 Walter Kaufmann, ed.& trans., Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: New American Library, 1975), 17.
6 Helmut Borsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1974), 15.
7 Ibid., 84-85.
8 Ibid., 8.
9 Ibid., 7.
10 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed. The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 45.
11 Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973), 205.
12 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 298.
13 Will Durant, ed., The Works of Schopenhauer, abridged edition (New York: Frederick Unger Pub. Co., 1955), iv.
14 Walter Kaufmann, ed., Philosophical Classics, Vol. 1: Thales to Ockham (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), 222, 236, 238.
15 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1974), 377.
16 Ibid., 378, 380.
17 Ibid., 380.
18 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), 28.
19 Ibid., 3.
20 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 508.
21 Ibid., 475-476.
22 Ibid., 558.
23 Ibid., 478.
24 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 589.
25 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 485-486, 575.
26 Ibid., 585.
27 Ibid., 535.
28 Ibid., 537.
29 Ibid., 586.
30 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 760-761.
31 Ibid., 783-784.
32 Ibid., 784.
33 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 501.
34 Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 43.
35 Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology, from Kerygma and Myth." Philosophy of Religion: A Book of Readings, ed. Abernethy & Langford (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968), 345.
36 Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (Massachusetts: U. of Mass Press, 1966), 127.
37 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 45-46.
38 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 18.
39 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 562-563.
40 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. A. Tille (New York: E.P. Duton & Company, 1958), xiii.
41 Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Pub., 1971), 641.
42 Peter Heller, Dialectics and Nihilism: Essays on Lessing, Nietzsche, Mann and Kafka (Massachusetts: U. of Mass Press, 1966), 126-127.
43 Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Pub., 1971), 640-641.
44 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. In The Philosophy of Nietzsche, ed. The Modern Library (New York: Random House, Inc., 1954), 951.
45 Walter Kaufmann, trans.& ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), 562.
46 Ibid., 554.
47 Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Pub., 1971), 637.
48 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. In The Philosophy of Nietzsche, ed. The Modern Library (New York: Random House, Inc., 1954), 962-963.
49 Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Pub., 1971), 640-641.
50 Rex Warner, The Greek Philosophers (New York: New American Library, 1958), 9.
51 Weston LaBarre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 439.
52 David Lodge, Working With Structuralism (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1986), ix.
53 Lane Cooper, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1913), 22.
54 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 106-107.
55 Robert Armstrong, "Subjectivity/Objectivity And Meaningful Human Behavior" (Pensacola: UWF, 1984), 4.
56 Ibid., 14.
57 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 280-281.
58 Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), 209.
59 Ibid., 242.
60 Ibid., 243, 256,
61 Ibid., 233, 237.
62 Ibid., 270.
63 Ibid., 251.
64 Ibid., 213.
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid., 217.
67 Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 160-161.
68 Ibid., 173.
69 Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), 9.
70 Ibid., 221, 224.
71 Ibid., 7, 12.
72 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 280.
73 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 123.
74 Ibid., 136.
75 Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), dedication.
76 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: The Noonday Press, 1975), 51-52.
77 Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), 4.
78 Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 18.
79 Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), 76.
80 Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1940), 28, 34.
81 Ibid., 31.
82 Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), 11.
83 Ibid., 24.
84 Ibid., 27-28, 33.
85 Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 140.
86 Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), 6, 25.
87 John Coplans, Don Judd (California: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), plate 30.
88 Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 184.
89 Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 154.
90 Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 188.
91 Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 151.
92 Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 187.
93 John Coplans, Don Judd (California: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), 12.
94 Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 395.
95 Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 187.
96 Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 393.
97 Ibid., 398.


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{Written in 1989; posted to the Web on 25-Feb-07. 07 comments in curly brackets}