Schleiermacher, Novalis, Barth: The Sphinx (Part I)

The Sphinx slouching towards Bethlehem to be born:

Upon our realization that immanent “life” is at once both a matter of life and death, we fall into a certain humbling “illness” which marks the ascetic ideal as we pass through it to bring out our “second nature”.

Thus far, we have determined, as found in Nietzsche and the Shadow of God by Didier Franck, Bettina Bergo, and Philippe Farah, “The Plurality of the Body”, page 127, the following:


At this stage, I believe it is appropriate to turn to a more theological debate here so as to best be able to capture these nuances. The two thinker I have appointed to pair up with Novalis are Schliermacher, who was a companion of Novalis, and his contemporary Karl Barth, who wrote at great lengths on both of these men.

We take our point of departure from Nietzsche’s Sphinx, in conjunction with a passage from Barth’s in his exegesis of Romans 7:14-25 under the heading, “The Reality of Religion” (pp 257-59), wherein he evokes Schlegel’s image of the Sphinx (Addresses) in tandem with a positioning of Schliermacher:

The romantic psychologist … may represent religion as that human capacity by which “all human occurrences are thought of as divine actions”; he may define it as “the solemn music which accompanies all human experience” (Schleiermacher).  Against such representations, however, religion is always on its guard.  Religion, when it attacks vigorously, when it is fraught with disturbance, when it is non-aesthetic, non-rhetorical, non-pious, when it is the religion of the 39th Psalm, of Job and of Luther and of Kierkegaard, when it is the religion of Paul, bitterly protests against every attempt to make of its grim earnestness some trivial and harmless thing.  Religion is aware that it is in no way the crown and fulfilment of true humanity; it knows itself rather to be a questionable, disturbing, dangerous thing. … Religion, so far from being the place where the healthy harmony of human life is lauded, is instead the place where it appears diseased, discordant, and disrupted.  Religion is not the sure ground upon which human culture safely rests; it is the place where civilisation and its partner, barbarism, are rendered fundamentally questionable.  Nor does the frank judgement of honest men of the world disagree with the opinion of religion about itself.

The curtain is raised: the music must cease.  The temple is gone, and far in the distance appeareth the terrible form of the – Sphinx.

Religion must beware lest it tone down in any degree the unconverted man’s judgement.  Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion.  … Religion possesses no solution of the problem of life; rather it makes of that problem a wholly insoluble enigma. … Religion is neither a thing to be enjoyed nor a thing to be celebrated: it must be borne as a yoke which cannot be removed.

For Nietzsche, the Sphinx is like a very original (pre-Deleuzian becoming) caricature of a potential Anti-Oedipus. It is the one stopping Oedipus in his tracks, giving Oedipus pause for a moment. In the end, it is the Sphinx who makes Oedipus what he is as King, thus much weighs on this evental encounter. From the opening of The Genealogy of Morals:

The will to truth, which is still going to tempt us to many a daring exploit, that celebrated truthfulness of which all philosophers up to now have spoken with respect, what questions this will to truth has already set down before us! What strange, serious, dubious questions! There is already a long history of that—and yet it seems that this history has scarcely begun. Is it any wonder that at some point we become mistrustful, lose patience and, in our impatience, turn ourselves around, that we learn from this sphinx to ask questions for ourselves? Who is really asking us questions here? What is it in us that really wants “the truth”? In fact, we paused for a long time before the question about the origin of this will—until we finally remained completely and utterly immobile in front of an even more fundamental question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth. Why should we not prefer untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth stepped up before us—or were we the ones who stepped up before the problem? Who among us here is Oedipus? Who is the Sphinx? It seems to be a tryst between questions and question marks. And could one believe that we are finally the ones to whom it seems as if the problem has never been posed up to now, as if we were the first ones to see it, to fix our eyes on it, and to dare confront it? For there is a risk involved in this—perhaps there is no greater risk.

While writing this article, I was pleased to come across a post in the dark ecologies blog (see here) wherein the image of W.B. Yeats’ beast slouching is evoked in a very similar way, in a discussion of the Biological. The author skillfully questions “So what is this strange beast coming our way? Is W.B. Yeats correct in his appraisal: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards…” us weary mortals? No, its much simpler than that dark beast, it’s just science doing what it does best, exposing the myths of our long and dubious journey as humans to the light of scientific method and reasoning.”

As there is evidence (see here) that Yeats had the Sphinx in mind, it is not – by my reading – the beast which slouches towards “us weary mortals”; rather, it is precisely that us weary mortals must recognize that we are this indivisible (blond) beast itself. While I am in accord with noir realism’s emphasis on the Biological, and I find their discussion of Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory quite intriguing, I feel we must remain attentive so as to not lose our bearings in this journey. I would like to perform a certain “turning and turning” of this sentiment, keeping parts and discarding others. The question that we must always ask, then, is to where are we slouching?

Oedipus is but a terrible by-product, a monster by its own decree, a tragedy born of our failure to properly interrogate the Real of the Sphinx in the beginning.

Oedipus (Dead) at Colonus:

Barth here is spot-on, it seems, in his understanding of religion, and in particular of the monstrosity of this beast.

I was quite pleased by the article On the Monstrosity of Christ:  Karl Barth in Conversation with Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank by Paul Dafydd Jones and the ensuing discussion of Barth (see here) in the comments section. Agreeing with Adam Kotsko’s argument for the most part, it may rightly be said that religion is a thing to be overcome. But as Oedipus tries to overcome the Sphinx (who then dies) by answering his riddle with “Man”,  what do we make of the problematic figure of Oedipus which takes its place? I wonder, initially, whether or not Adam is all-too-quick to count out the “wilderness” of transcendence. Do we need this wilderness? In the end, of course not. But in the mean time? This will become a key question for me, and I remain undecided.

One must realize how obvious Oedipus’ answer is at once too obvious and too problematic; it is so obvious to the extent that it is also incredibly enigmatic — identical to the “insolvable enigma” of Barth’s conception of religion. We must overcome religion otherwise than Oedipus, for his is an answer which in the end secures and indeed strengthens its domain.

As we know well, by now, the long and difficult path down which answering the Sphinx in this way leads us, don’t we? It takes us through Saussure, structural linguistics, Freud, psychoanalysis, Lacan, Law-of-the-Father, Master Signifiers, Phalluses, and so forth. Oedipus, to be sure, becomes King – albeit temporarily.

Only at the end of this long and “wearisome” route do we find the Real:

In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus becomes a wanderer, pursued by Creon and his men. He finally finds refuge at the holy wilderness right outside of Athens, where it is said that Theseus took care of the two of them, Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone. Creon eventually catches up to Oedipus. He asks Oedipus to come back from Colonus to bless his son, Eteocles. Angry that his son did not love him enough to take care of him, he curses both Eteocles and his brother, condemning them both kill each other in battle. Oedipus dies a peaceful death; his grave is said to be sacred to the gods. (here)

We are left not only with the death of Oedipus, but also of Man. How peaceful was Oedipus’ death, really? Our major casualties are the Sphinx, Oedipus himself, Antigone, and Man as a whole. Though a “peaceful” death, it is one in which Religion silently reigns as the sacred is still kept firmly in tact. Notice the return of the religious undertones of which we sought to rid ourselves. The violence escalates. We also find ourselves, like Antigone, in a very tricky ethical situation.

Here, we are called by Lacan to not to give up on our desire, to enjoy our symptom, etc. That’s all well and good, given our circumstances, but what if we could have known all of this before hand?

What if we had begun with the insight of the Real One instead of ended with it? What if instead of answering “Man”, we interrogated the Sphinx in return? What if the Sphinx was one of us, and not so much of a monster as we had thought? What if, to the contrary, the Real was more monstrous than we thought? What if we did not torture the “splendid” Sphinx to death, and instead worked at a non-violent sublimation? Can we, instead, find the strength to resist his violence from the start, in the beginning, without going through two more tragic Greek plays?

Perhaps then Antigone would have not had to bury her father, perhaps she would not have to herself be hung, if only we had opted in favor of this other arena. We must simultaneously pre-form and per-form the answer, paying attention to its force and its consequences so as to avoid this violence (divine or otherwise!) of the future.

As Tom Tyler beautifully notes in Snakes, Skins and the Sphinx: Nietzsche’s Ecdysis (see here):

Nietzsche would have us remember, however, that even the Sphinx, even the keeper of this most vital truth, has eyes.  And in virtue of that fact, she, like every other living creature, has her own distinctive ways of seeing, her own distinctive truths.  Does this mean, then, that there can be more than one answer to the riddle of the Sphinx?  The answer which Oedipus gives surely seems like the right answer.  It has a certain finality to it, after all.  Isn’t ‘Man’ always the final answer, the end to all questions?  Man recognises himself, knows himself: ‘of all creatures he alone uses his intelligence to change his mode of locomotion as he progresses through life.  As the very existence of the riddle implies, he alone is conscious of his uniqueness in nature’ (Segal, 2001: 36).  Can Oedipus’ answer really be just one amongst many?  To an audience familiar with Oedipus’ tragic story, a second answer already suggests itself: Oedipus himself.  When he answers the Sphinx, Oedipus does so as an adult in full health: Oe-dipous is still dipous (‘two footed’).  As an abandoned babe, though, Oedipus had crawled on all fours, weak and helpless with his pierced ankles.  And it will not be long before, as a result of his clever answer, Oedipus will stand broken and infirm, ‘a stick tapping before him step by step’. There is, then, more than one true answer to this particular riddle.

Oedipus forgot to think of his body, “the tool to shape and modify the world” as Novalis indicates.

Where are our eyes? What would it be like to see from the vision-in-One immediately, or does it take a period, or perhaps many periods, of a traumatic wandering in the wilderness first? I am unsure of this, and I am sorry I have no answers to give here for the moment.

It is in the wilderness that we encounter the theologians, which is to say also the beasts. The coupling of religion with barbarism as Barth writes, of the “intersection between perversion and sublimation” as Kristeva writes in The Powers of Horror (89), this is the wilderness. We cannot bear to stay here for too long, if at all, as we are called from the One to transform the terrain of the wilderness itself with our bodies.

Such is the “transformed physis” found in Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, page 227:


I must now strive to develop a “wilderness theology”. My hope is that this can bring us to a realization of our state and propel us to the One, such that we may be born – not “born again”, but that we may be born in this organic harmony for the very first time.

Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, and Edwyn Clement Hoskyns. “The Reality of Religion.” The Epistle to the Romans. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1933. 257-259. Print.

Franck, Didier, and Bettina Bergo. “The Plurality of the Body.” Nietzsche and the Shadow of God. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2012. 127. Print.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche, Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. Print.


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3 thoughts on “Schleiermacher, Novalis, Barth: The Sphinx (Part I)”

  1. Speaking of the Sphinx I’m reminded of what Zizek once said of Hegel:

    To recall Hegel’s immortal dictum concerning the Sphinx: ‘The enigmas of the Ancient Egyptians were enigmas also for the Egyptians themselves.’ Along the same lines, the elusive, impenetrable Dieu obscur must be impenetrable also to himself – he must have a dark side, something that is in him more than himself.

    Interesting thoughts… whereas you’re flowing within a wilderness theology I’m moving toward a sort of ‘wild materialism’ which is expressed strangely by that poet of the temperate clime, Rilke, who in his first elegy once described beauty:

    “…beauty’s nothing
    but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
    and we adore it because of the serene scorn
    it could kill us with. Every angel’s terrifying.”

    The terror of the sublime was always of the mind itself amazed at its own sphinx like capability of being both center and circumference of its own gaze: a gaze that is always and forever full of the terror of its own power. The Sphinx is the resistance against which we all struggle, it is the Real that is both our burden and our glory, the force that breaks us and supports us; against its power we are the fragile fragments of a lesser thought, planets of a brighter star.

  2. Judging by our mutual love of Rilke (I wrote about _The Archaic Torso of Apollo_ in an earlier post), it seems as though your wild materialism and my wilderness theology will have several points of convergence, or perhaps that they will turn into each other at times. I am looking forward to following your progress.

    Your words are very poetic, and quite inspirational for me as I move forward. I wish you the best, and may the road rise up to meet you.

  3. First off, I want to say I think our situations are quite complimentary; Like a Janus figure.

    So; secondly –

    On one hand, I might see that the process represented in your posts speaks of your process, of ‘telling the story’ that is/was your experience of the event. Quite ironically ‘sphinx-ish’. On another hand, the apparent progress that insinuates a culminative solute reckoning of a spiritual sort, I can appreciate, but not endorse in truth, but only as a manner of speaking. On another hand (am I getting Hindu god-dish?), I am not sure what exactly is being addressed. Though it seems you might address this: the juxtaposition of the first hand and the second hand; I am not sure this can be resolved in the sense of a common humanity. What is a common humanity anyways? This calls at-tension to, again a quadripartite, a discrepancy ( of ‘hands’):

    1) the proposal of situation located or indicated as a ‘primary’ event; maybe we can call this ‘the individual human being’. As a type of foundation looking toward or unto a kingdom. The world as example, figure, representation, or otherwise extension of a Being; the problem of how to bring the foundation in resonance with itself, as kingdom. I think you address this; but if not, I think a clear statement of its solution is that it is already solved.

    The aggravating problem then is of knowing this ‘truth’, for it seems the problem remains, the question of ‘behaving’ or ‘acting’ this, of bringing a type of uniformity of self, a reconciliation of thought and action, if I may use this idea.

    2) the apparent world of duality, where the individual is presented with the world, in a world of many individuals. In this case, the discourse of philosophical, or even non-philosophical consideration and speculation is highly particularized. Perhaps this situation is included in your discussion of the Sphinx; the discourse is proposed to be considering and discussing a ‘whole world’ and or ‘common humanity’. Yet, it seems quite obvious that while it is proposed to be including some ‘all’, it is leaving out a significant majority of people. The discussion is based upon a presumption of a type of educated or informed individual, and, of those individuals not so educated whom, if given the chance or education, if shown how various arguments pertain to common or universal human traits or abilities or aspects, would likewise see how such a discussion does indeed include their situation. Hence, I have to question whether such an ideology really exists beyond the presumptuous discussion, since most people could not care less. If we include a Marxist critique, this is the imposition of capital, and we have to then admit that such a philosophical discussion is really an implication of ideology, and leave the discussion to anthropological, ideological and political negotiations.

    When we include this, as to Neitzche and ‘it is all biology’, it then becomes not too difficult to see how the Eastern martial arts developed (rather well, if I do say) along this same idea. Indeed, I think Nietzche even talks about his support of the ‘new’ translations of eastern texts of his time.

    Are we talking a kind of martial art? Of non-violence?

    I am still reading.

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