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The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness



Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

 Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

John 7:6

Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?


The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

– Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

 Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

Raphael With Hands

The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus – Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand – the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

“Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word “intercession”]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

Paradise Lost. III 171-173

But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

That it shall never end, so when begin

The father in his purpose hath decreed,

He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

III 184-187

 *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  – Acts 1:7]

Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

Each act is rightliest done,

Not when it must, but when it may be best.

 IV 475-476

How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

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Levi’s Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s Words Amended

Blessed Be the…

I don’t really like writing on religious-sensitive topics, largely because the discussion that flows from them is often far from interesting (more heat, less light, as some say); but Larval Subjects has a unique interpretation of the Life and Teaching of Jesus, such that he feels Jesus challenges us let go of our Imaginary relations of wholeness, while at the same time disbanding the Symbolic order as well. (Levi is a lapsus  Lacanian, and has recourse to Lacanian concepts now and again, sometimes in unorthodox creativity, sometimes with orthodox, near bible-thumping fervor.) It is a kind of anti-Imaginary, anti-Symbolic call that would lead us all to a “strange kind of new community”:

In short, the social and political vision Christ seemed to envision was that of a form of social life beyond the Lacanian dimension of the Imaginary. The “Imaginary” here does not signify the “illusory” or “imagination”, but rather is the domain of “…wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity” (Dylan Evans 1996, 82). The Imaginary is the domain of self-identity, of being identical to oneself, and of social relations based on similarity. Moreover, it is the domain where we take ourselves to be masters of what we say, where we think of meaning as being defined by our intentions (psychoanalytic practice being premised on the thesis that our words and actions always say more than we intend and that meaning is bestowed by the Other, not our intentions). Lacan associates the domain of the Imaginary with that of narcissism insofar as the Ego or self-identity is produced through narcissistic identification. Most importantly, it is a realm characterized by rivalry and aggression, insofar as we see our mirror counter-parts as contesting our own identity and therefore threatening o[u]r sense of wholeness and completeness or our belief that we are master’s of ourselves and of meaning. Whenever you protest to another “but that’s not what I meant, you’re twisting my words!” you are thoroughly immersed in the domain of the imaginary.

Throughout all of his teaching and more importantly his practice, Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary. He contests the domain of imaginary identification with the Other in proclaiming that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). As Levi-Strauss demonstrated, the incest prohibition and the structure of kinship relations is a matter of the symbolic and symbolic identifications, not a matter of the danger of producing five headed children. In contesting kinship relations the point isn’t that we should follow Jesus and God above all others, but that in the name of this new community we should undergo a subjective destitution where we refuse our Imaginary tribal identifications in the symbolic order. Kinship structures are organized around the dialectic of sameness and difference, the same and the other, such that they are designed to maintain the identity of the One or the Same against the other.

Now, at the surface of it this seems like a profound observation. There is something so radical about Jesus’s message that it defies both the Imaginary and Symbolic orders of Lacan. But I am most interested in the idea that “Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary”. Perhaps, but what does this mean? Levi tells us that the Imaginary dimension is where narcissism and aggression is born, where we encounter others as threatening our sense of wholeness. Do we have to be Lacanians to buy this understanding of Jesus? Further, as proof of this interpretation he cite’s Jesus’s call to hate your family members (in contrast to your love for him), a sign that Jesus is not only against the Imaginary, but also against the Symbolic order. But then he specifies, the imaginary that we are supposed to fore go, are the Imaginary “tribal identifications in the symbolic order”. Is this is the same thing as “challenging the dimension of the Imaginary” itself?

The Imagination Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Its hard to tell, because when I tried to get some more precision on just how Levi arrived at his conclusion I ran up against a very interesting mode of “defending” it, rather than explainingit. Rather than using the citation that Levi selected to exemplify the core of Jesus’s teachings, I suggested the rather more commonly understood distillation:

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).

And I asked, is not Jesus’s essentialization of the Law here one great mode of Imaginary identification? It seems to be broken into both an identification with God and with your neighbor. Instead of challenging the “dimension of the Imaginary” it seems that Jesus is employing it to its fullest, creating a wholeness of world and conduct. What is most odd is how Levi responded. First he says that this is just how the “figure of Jesus” speaks to him. Fair enough, but then adds in regard to the way he had selected biblical quotation,

Personally I think Scripture is a bit of a rorschach, why not make alternatives available?

Later to say, 

Why is that [my] interpretation any less valid than an interpretation that privileges one particular line in Leviticus or Revelation?

This is what I don’t get, or even appreciate. People, particularly intellectuals, spend a lot of time arguing forcefully against the kinds of inventive, almost deadly-whimsical textual games fundamentalist Christians play with their sacred scriptures, making up (finding) the message they want to hear. Levi seems, when asked to explain his interpretation, actually appeals to this unique kind of authority. Scriptural passages are inkblots to him. One can get really radical about Jesus’s message if one selects the right lines (and he does advocate something of the cut-and-paste Bible of Thomas Jefferson). His turn towards the hatred of one’s family looms large in the mutal defeat of the Imaginary and Symbolic realms. But Levi’s call is a political call, a call for a kind of strange community, and political calls are not usually made from inkblots and should be examined.

I do not deny that Jesus’s message was (and is) radical, but what I wonder about is its relationship to the dimension of the Imaginary. In a sense, the very wholeness of our Being is an imaginary process of identification, one recognizing another as oneself. And it is to this concept of wholeness that Jesus appeals.

Spinoza and Jesus: Who Would’a Thunk?

These thoughts on Imaginary relations are not idle, as for sometime I have been working through the role of the imaginary in the thinking of Spinoza, someone who has a strong reputation for arguing against imaginary relations – he relegates them to the third form of an inferior kind of knowledge (with rationality and intuition ascending above it). Spinoza’s position on the imaginary though is problematic and perhaps inconsistent. There can be no doubt though that upon close examination Spinoza actually places very important imaginary processes at the core of both sociability and the pursuit of blessedness.

The first of these I have recently discussed in other contexts and has received some attention in terms of its place in Spinoza’s political reasoning. It argues a fundamental imaginary and affective bond between my person and another person imagined to be the same:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

The second of these is quite neglected in Spinoza studies, for it comes in the highly excelerated Fifth part of the Ethics as Spinoza intensely speeds towards the Intuition of God:

E5,Proposition 13 – The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

This proposition culminates a short sketch of imaginary powers which proceeds from the previous two:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

I have previously argued for a Spinozist advocacy of metaphor (as oxymoronic as that sounds) on the strength of this proposition: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination . Briefly, Spinoza posits a kind of imaginary path towards an intution of God which is predicated upon associated images to our clearest understanding of things. This is to say, taking the two imaginary references in hand (E3p27, E5p13), we find the Spinoza proposes that the imagination of other persons intimately seen to be “the same” as us and the creation of imaginary images (one supposes that he has in mind God) which have the greatest number of other images associated with it, puts human beings not only within the social, but also well on the track of clear and distinct knowledge which empowers the many. I would suggest that Jesus’s two commandment distillations are precisely of this Imaginary process, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Levi “Translates” the Bible for Us

Further on in the comments section (and Levi has since posted a heavily Lacanian theory-laden treatise on Jesus which I have not read, nor likely will, given his unfortunate propensity to expound rather than communicate), Levi tells us that he “translates” the word “neighbor” as “stranger” such that Jesus’s message is “love thy stranger”. After being pressed with the problem that the Greek word is “plêsion” and strictly means “the one near you,” he retreated, telling us that his “translation” is not a philological translation at all, but something of a Heideggerian one. That is, he feels that he has come to understand the “truth” behind the word enough to change it completely.

He deleted my objections to this kind of “translating” from the comments section, but they are worth repeating here because they go directly to my claim that Jesus’s teaching and practice are not against the domain of the Imaginary, but rather gainfully employ it. What I would like to emphasize about the word “plêsion” is that this proximateness is much in keeping with what seems to be a coherent message of proximate love over abstract love. When Jesus offers the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the proximity of the “neighbor” that he is right there before us, in an encounter (and not that he is a “stranger”), that qualifies the tale. Personally I find this message of contact-lead love quite present in the figure of Jesus as he is not only physically close to those he engages with, but repeatedly defies abstractions of either class, kind or object. The imaginary processes advocated in his dissolution of the law are immediate and always in terms of vital connections based on identifications of wholeness.

Levi says that in past posts he has declared that it is unfortunate that Jesus used the word “neighbor” as if Jesus (or our approximate historical construction of him) didn’t quite know what he was saying and that the Lacanian-aided Levi has figured it out better. Perhaps though when reading the text we should pay greater attention to what actually is said, rather than creating inventive “truths” which we graft upon the text in translation.

This brings me to another thought as to the standing of the text we approach when we treat words some take as holy. If we are not going to take a distinctly religious approach, how are we to judge Levi’s claim that interpreting Jesus is like reading inkblots on paper: one can just see what one wants to see, and that’s that. During the discussion some emphasis turned to the old scholarly issue of the imagined “Q” document, something proposed to contain the “real” teachings of Jesus, while devaluing as simply projective much of the others. Personally I think it a mistake to think that at any time we are attempting to get at exactly the truth of Jesus, stripping away the extraneous. Rather, we have to understand the figure as constructed, layered through the centuries, because this very process of sedimentation is the one that brought “him” into tremendous importance. As such, the “Q” Jesus only stands in historical importance due to the “non-Q” Jesus. All the strands must be taken into hand. If we want to talk of the core “teachings and practices” of Jesus, as someone like Levi would like to, this is fair, but I think it a mistake to presume some aspects of the Gospels as NECESSARILY less vital, simply because they do not fall into the “Q” category. We do not know the oral traditions and priorities of vision which either preserved or invented these aspects, and at best Q statements must live within their non-Q contexts, within a kind of dialectic. Clearly the authors of the Gospels, no matter who we count them to be, expressed a synthesis of meanings all concordant with the supposed Q elements, and there is no authoritative way to trace out the roots of this concordance. Historical force alone, the weight of the centuries pressing down, insure that we take them together if we are to speaking meaningfully about the meanings of these texts. This is not to say that we cannot make distinctions, but our distinctions should remain observational. I do not know if the (non-Q) Good Samaritan was spoken by Jesus or not, but it remains a meaningful illustration.

Lastly, I hope that it is the text itself that we deal with most specifically when attempting to identify the meanings therein. And if Jesus had the misfortune to speak the Aramaic word which was most readily translated into “plêsion” it is only with great abuse that we venture to, in Heideggerian aplumb and Existentialist Procrustian bedmaking, “translate” it into “stranger”. It is in all likelihood, as far as we can tell, that Jesus meant “the one near” and not “stranger” (in fact the concept of “stranger” I would suggest did not exist at the time). It seems to me that like Spinoza, who has a reputation against the Imaginary Domain, Jesus’s message of proximate love and love of God, involves deep imaginary processes of identification, the lived construction of wholes, both locally built up from the nearby, and circumfrentially deploys inwards from an imagined limit.

The importance of grasping the imaginary processes invoked is exactly that suggested by Levi, that the imaginary vision of wholeness and authority of meanings, while at many time is curative and inspiring, also holds the possibilities of its shadow, the fears that the wholeness will be threatened from the “outside” under some projective external force. The sometimes, perhaps often brutal history of religious violence speaks vividly about the shadow of these imaginary divisions, but it is important to see that the imagination itself is both part of their production and their possible healing. It specifically is not that Jesus’s message is/was “challenging the imaginary dimension” but employing as fully as possible the powers of imaginary identification, very much in the same way that Spinoza proposed as well. We must recall that Spinoza was an active Collegiant associate, and one imagines likely attended quite a few bible study-like events, an image we do not regularly call to mind.

Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy

Spinoza as Merchant: New Reflections on Old Biographical Material

Below I exerpt significant passages from the very valuable translation of “Mercator et Autodictus” written by A. M. Vas Dias and W. G. van der Tak in 1932, filled with primary source material ubiquitously used. These selections are as to the kind of trade that Spinoza’s family business might have engaged in. Nadler follows this text for instance in concluding that the Spinoza name traded in dried fruits, but in looking at the evidence there does seem room for additional inferences, including the trade of Algerian oils and pipes, and the possibility of Canary Island or Brazilian sugar.

Mercator et Autodictus

Found in the notarial archives of Amsterdam:

A deed dated July 15th, 1631, passed before notary Daniel Brendan (register 941) containing the statement of two porters that on May 27th and June 18th of that year, they, acting upon the request of couriers of Amsterdam and sheriff Hendrik Hudde respectively, carried goods to the Weighing-house from a certain warehouse on the Prinsengracht in which miscellaneous merchandise as stored, such as sugar, brazil-wood and candied ginger, of which warehouse Philips Pelt and Michael d’Espinosa kept the keys.

 To nr.2a (Notary archives of Amsterdam register 942):

To this deed we are told that a shipment of fifty small casks of raisins which Michael should have recieved from Malaga [Spain] according the the bill of charge, did not arrive in good order. Besides learning that Michael must have traded in dried citrus, we also hear that he was living on Vloolenburg in 1633. 

Now we give two other deeds in French, passed before the notary Benedict Baddel:

in the first, passed on July 20th, 1651(register 967 folio 304), Michael D’Espinosa grants a power of attorney to Jacob Boeve, merchant in London, to institute legal proceedings to regain possession of goods, belonging to him, that had been seized by the English Admiralty as coming from Portugal. The goods consisted of pipes as small casks of Algerian oil.

The registries of the notary Baddel mention two more deeds in Dutch (registers 964 and 970):

…the first, passed on November 27, 1651, contains a statement by Simon Rodrigues Nunes at the request of Michael D’Espinosa, that at the house of Julian Lanson, also merchant in Amsterdam, he requested payment of the latter’s share in the expenses made in the reclamation of the ship “Prince” that was seized by the English on its way from the Canary Islandsto Amsterdam; the expenses referred to had been advanced by Antonio Fernandes Carvejal in London.

Febuary 15 1655:

…the honourable William van Erpecum, about forty years old, and Jarich Jelles, thiry-five years old, both merchants within this said city, well known to me, said the notary. And the request of Simon Rodrigues Nunes, also a merchant within the same city, they attested…they made the following purchases and received from the requisitionist, namely the said Van Erpecum, five casks of long raisins at twenty-eight guilders a hundred, and the said Jarich Jelles twenty-seven casks also of long raisins at twenty-seven guilders a hundred.

“Jelles dealt in spices and according the the deed [NAA 975] he did buisness with Portuguese Jews from whom he bought raisins. Michael De Spinoza also traded in dried fruits.”

The evidence points toward an interesting matrix of potential trade practices. The record of 1633 does indicate that Michael Spinoza traded in raisins, and in 1655 we have the suggestive record that Jarich Jelles did as well, keeping some continuity across two decades of business. Yethere we have as well a record of trade in Algerian oil and pipes, and an interesting piece of evidence that Michael held the keys to a warehouse that was filled with Brazilian trade items, notably the cash crops sugar and brazil-wood. The authors take this to be proof of Michael’s trustworthiness, but there would seem to be more than this. There is additional evidence that Michael Spinoza traded in sugar, as he attempted to re-acquire the goods of the ship “Prince” seized by the English. This ship came from the Canary Islands which had for the last century or so been dominated by the effective and mostly brutal economies of sugar production. By the 17th century though, sugar production dramatically had dropped due to Brazilian sugar expansion, and its primary export had been replaced by the sweet dessert wine, Malvasia, meant for both American and British consumption. Yet, the Canary Islands were on the trade route to the Americas, so a ship coming from there destined for Amsterdam likely and predominantly carried the Brazilian sugar (or brazil-wood), or even still Canary sugar. Evidence for additional Canary Islands, sugar-trade relations are found in Spanish Inquisitional records:

Gullan-Whur, citing Israel Revah’s “Spinoza et le Dr. Juan de Prado” (1959), writes of this:

An echoing description was given to the Inquisition by Captain Miguel Pérez de Maltranilla, a day after Fray Tomás’s. The captain, visiting a Canary Islands physician convalescing from leprosy in Amsterdam, stumbled upon a discussion group at the sick physician’s home, where he distinguished two men “who had abandoned the Jewish religion” from two other, allegedly practicing, Jews (who should not, of course, have been “under the same roof or come within four cubits”) of Benedictus or De Prado (90).

The obscure citation is usually used to draw out the fact that Spinoza may have been still connected to issue of Hebraic religiosity after his ban from the community, and important possibility. But here I want to add it to his possible Canary Islands and sugar associations. In 1659 Spinoza was in the house of a Canary Island physician [Nadler reports elsewise, that the man is merely visiting a physician, perhaps Dr. Reinoso, and not a physician himself, and Klever simply identifies him a “chevalier”; Gullan-Whur reads the man himself as a physician, noting that the Leper’s hospital was by the city wall on Vloyenburg; the argument could procede either way]. Whether Spinoza knew him through his past trade practices, or through the nature of the “discussion group” (or both), or simply through the house owned by a name of the same name, Guerra, is of course undecided.

Apart from general knowledge of Spinoza’s doings and concerns, the reason for looking closely into this is that Spinoza’s personal connection to colonial exploitation may have had a bearing upon either his renunciation of mercantile wealth, or on his personal politics later to be voiced in two treatises. Sugar embodies in many ways the pitfalls of affective indulgence and the systematic, brutal control of others.

The Waking Nightmare of Sugar, “Physician Heal Thyself”

This may be no more than a fancy, but we have a curious record 5 years later in Spinoza’s life of the possible impress of the leperous-physician event. The notable merchant and collegiant Peter Balling’s son has died (whether the death was recent is in question), Spinoza writes to comfort him as to how a father may have somehow presaged his son’s death, in an auditory hallucination. Spinoza tells of a waking dream he had in the Winter of Rijnsburg, where a “scabby Brazilian” stared him hauntingly in the face:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same Ethiopian appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified), – Letter 17, July 20th 1664.

Politically sensitive readers such as Antonio Negri have taken this dream to represent a extraordinary fracture in Spinoza’s System, one that will break off his writing of the Ethics, and a turn toward the requirement of a Theological-Political Treatise. While I will refrain from such a grand, but perhaps attractive interpretation, I will suggest that there are certain correspondences between Spinoza’s dream, his no doubt powerful sympathies for a mourning friend, and our record of the likely spiritual-tinged meetings at the house of a physician from the Canary Islands.

For one, the visiting man [a physician or otherwise] is leprous, as would seem the Brazilian figure is. Sugarcane historically had dominated the slave economies of both Brazil and the Canary Islands, so conflating the two seeming fitting. In addition, more symbolically, the disease of leprosy is the New Testament disease par excellence, symbolizing man’s fallen state. If the man himself was a physician, the image of a physician that cannot heal himself certain recalls the proverb from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus begins his public ministry. It worth quoting in full, since one wonders if the passage was on the minds or on the lips of any of those Christians who may have been in attendance. (Spinoza is in the company of Dr. Reinoso who may be an attending physician):

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,


20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'”

24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.

Let me diverge from my main point for a moment, as the writing seems to be heading this way. This passage from Luke contains several elements consonant with Spinoza’s situation, which in what may only be a marvelous coincidence flow together in figuative ways. Here is marked out the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the violent rejection of him by his own home town. Clearly, this too is the place where Spinoza found himself in 1659, upon reflection. We also have the healing of lepers, and for Spinoza, a physician who is struck with leprosy. And lastly, there is the “Old” Testament imperative to release the captives, a command that Jesus saw himself fulfilling. To return to our main point, is it too much to assume that Spinoza’s relating of this dream is something more than simply comforting and interpreting the apparition experience of a bereaved father (I long have accepted this general reading)? Is it beyond likelihood to expect that Balling and even Jelles were at this or other meetings at the house of this diseased man [physician]? What stories of disease, both in politic and in body, were being told about the Spanish owned island? Was the Canary Inquisitional burning of a London Crypto-Jew in effigy the year before talked of? The subject of slavery? The recent seizure of Dutch Brazil?

We cannot tell if any of these connections were consciously made by Spinoza, either in the reading of his own dream, or in decision to relay it to Peter Balling as a comfort, but there is an outline to be traced between Spinoza’s possible association with the sugar trade, the events in the home of the Canary Islands physician, and the haunting figure of a scabrous Brazilian. To my ear, there is oddity to Spinoza’s insistence that the Brazilian floating before him “he had never seen before”. I would think that there would have been few chances to have seen such a figure. Is this assertion simply to enforce the purely imaginary characteristic of the apparition, whose “cause was quite different”? Perhaps. Or, this was a denial of a sorts, as the story is most curious, too much so to dismiss it as only an example of the kinds of tricks the mind can play upon us. He knows him to be a Brazilian, despite later calling him, perhaps generically, an Ethiopian. Dare we risk a dream-interpretation in the conflation of the diseased sugar slave, and the diseased Canary doctor (and the ostracized Jesus), a participating “in the ideal essence” Despite Spinoza’s disavowal? Perhaps that is all we have left. But I am tempted to imagine that indeed Balling had been at the “group discussion” and at some level Spinoza’s family had participated in the sugar trade either of Brazil or the Canary Islands, two “facts” that worked themselves into Spinoza’s dream and perhaps his sense of personal mission.

Spinoza and Diamonds

A last bit of evidence and conclusion taken from Vaz Dias’ report concerns the diamond and jewel trade, and the possibility that Spinoza had turned his mercantile business to include this source of weath. In the record of Spinoza’s arrest of the brother Alveres, a trader in jewels, and the holding of a bill from the diamond family Duartes, the authors write:

The Alveres brothers, alias Nunes, dealt in jewels and came from Paris around 1641 to settle on Uilenburg in Amsterdam in the house called “de Vergulde Valck”. Their business was of doubtful solidity, also in other respects. Through Gabriel Alveres they were related to the Duartes, to which family also belonged Francisca Duarte, known as French Nightingale, who was aquainted with with Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft and is considered a member of the so-called “Muider-circle”…The circumstance that not only the Alveres brother but also the witnesses Manuel Duarte and Manual Levy traded in jewels, leads us to wonder if Spinoza was also involved in this trade.

There is no doubt that the Duarte family was immensely wealthy due to trade in diamonds, and art, in fact Constantijn Huygens’ Sr. and Christiaan visited their home rather regularly for their mutual love of music. I do not know the precise relationship between the young Manuel Duarte (23) and the famed Diego, but it is perhaps significant that Spinoza’s Latin teacher, the book and art seller Franciscus Van den Enden, had strong art trade relationships to Antwerp through his brother’s shop there, where the Portuguese marano Diego Duartewasone of the most prominent dealers in both art and diamonds. The likely nexus for these two strands is Diego’s son Gaspar Duarte, the high-profileartcollector and diamond merchant of Amsterdam. How Spinoza came to hold a 500 guilder bill from a Duarte jewel-trader, likely as some form of payment, is obsured, but these circles are tighter than one might assume at first glance. At least circumstantially, Van den Enden’s brother must have known Diego Duarte as Franciscus likely knew Gaspar Duarte in Amsterdam, and Van den Enden’s student ends up holding the bill of jewel merchant Manuel Duarte.

Addendum, August 10: There is one final hint that maybe gem-dealing had been in the family business for some time. In December 1650 Michael Spinoza was appointed administrator of the Synagogue Pawnshop-Loan Office (Gullan-Whur adds that there was a note in the Book of Agreements: “That it may be to his benefit!”). Because gems must have formed some substantial part of the deposited, some aspect of gem dealing and associations with other gem dealers, would seem a natural conclusion. The early date of this appointment would place such dealings as lasting to the Spinoza family. 

Addendum, August 27: Spinoza Sr. had a record of dealings with a substanial diamond dealer as early as 1641, Lopo Ramires. As Jonathan Israel describes:

Lopo Ramires (David Curiel), a leading Dutch Sephardi merchant of the first half of the century, regularly remitted sugar, diamonds, dye-woods and spices from Portugal to his brother who lived during the Truce years at Florence and who shipped Italian silks and red coral to Lisbon. The red coral was for re-export on the Portuguese East India galleons to Goa where it was exchanged for diamonds, both Lopo and his brother being major diamond dealers as well as general merchants (Empires and Entrepots, 423).

Addendum, September 3: Spinoza’s possible sugar relations are slightly made more likely in that in 1659 that he was noted to be frequently in the company of the tobacco merchant Pacheco. Tobacco and sugar as commodities went hand and hand.

[Additional discussion of related ideas on Spinoza’s dream here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]

[Speculation as to the diamond trade and Spinoza’s lens polishing: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ; A Possible Influence of Diamond Polishing on Assited Lens-grinding ]