What Allen Ginsberg would call jawboning over the ”cosmic ferocious” , an unlikely but fortuitous lunch with Jeremy Bentham( 1748-1832) and Franz Kafka over one of Ginsberg’s celebrated ”reality sandwiches”; perhaps Kosher deli-style with the pickle with the King of utilitarianism and the bard of Prague.

Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti’s curse is the devil. Jeremy Bentham and his curse was the dictum of the ”greatest good for the greatest number”. Bentham has been preserved, in more than the sense of memory. Bentham’s is also the curse of the mummy and has been preserved for public viewing in Gower Street in London. He died 178 years ago and has been mummified in a large and rather handsome clothes cupboard.Lettered in gilt across the top are the words JEREMY BENTHAM. It is in fact, a bald and highly accurate description of the contents. His garments drab with age, he sits, in the manner he himself directed, as though poised to write one of those characteristic sentences, original in content but grammatically a calculated assault upon the English language, that appear so frequently in the vast piles of Bentham manuscripts.

After dying in 1832, Jeremy Bentham lingers on in the discreetly clothed flesh. The head that hatched utilitarianism has been replaced by a wax one

After dying in 1832, Jeremy Bentham lingers on in the discreetly clothed flesh. The head that hatched utilitarianism has been replaced by a wax one

Jeremy Bentham was a legal philosopher, reformer, oracle, and sage to many influential disciples in all parts of the world. His ”,auto-icon” as he termed this bizarre legacy is authentic except for the head which is a wax replica. His real head, after resting a trifle obscenely for a while at his feet, is now housed in a shelf above in a box. Benthham, in the clause of his will  that provided instruction for the disposal of himself, added the macabre desire that if his friends should care to hold gatherings to honour the memory of the founder of the ”philosophy of utility,” he might be physically present.

When he died in 1832, his name was already both revered and controversial. He was known to write in an obscure  and uncouth jargon of his own perverse creation. It was a style that led the  drama critic William Hazlitt to remark that, Bentham’s works having been translated into French, should now be translated into English. Apart what was in a sense, the central work of his life, a new constitutional code, there were plans for perpetual peace,a new universal grammar and long essays on education, economics, usury and radical and anticlerical tracts. In all, over twenty million words.

johnny depp; allen ginsberg

johnny depp; allen ginsberg

Bentham was, in some ways, the archetype of the unrecognized inventor, though his practical inventions were only a side line. Like Leonardo Davinci’s poor cousin. He slept in a sleeping bag of his own design, experimented with refrigeration, and drew up projects for a harpsichord, speaking tubes, and a canal in Central America in addition to his abiding passion of law and institutional reconstruction. He had a devoted band of disciples and became a revered father figure for Liberals in all parts of the world. John Stuart Mill, the eldest son of Bentham’s chief disciple, James Mill, bracketed Bentham and Samuel taylor Coleridge as ”the two great seminal minds of England in their age”.

Charles Dickens regarded Bentham as a stony faced philistine who turned men’s moral and emotional life into a sort of double-entry bookeeping of profit and loss, pleasure and pain.Some of the accusations were even contradictory. There was evidence to substantiate the charges, although not really applicable overall. To Karl Marx, for example, Bentham was the epitome of the narrow minded bourgeois intellectual, the English shopkeeper turned thinker: ” …the arch philistine Jeremy Bentham, the insipid pedantic leather tongued oracle of the commonplace bourgeois intelligence of the nineteenth century”.ginsberg10

Bentham’s Oxford experience left him lastingly embittered against both the clergy and judicial formalities. The act of swearing adherence resulted in passionate shame  and resentment. By the late eighteenth century English law had produced a situation approaching total chaos; precedent piled on precedent, gross anomalies and absurd legal fictions. The purpose was to make the law profitable to lawyers, slow in operation, inequitable in its results, and totally incomprehensible to the unfortunate layman who became enmeshed in it. Callous injustice was supplemented by brutal atrocities. Men were hanged, and women still sometimes burned, for trivial offenses, while grave ones carried lighter sentences. Bentham was a radical, a revolutionary, by devising a new set of rules, a new language virtually, for legislative and judicial procedure and for moral appraisal. There was something maniacal about the sheer comprehensiveness of this program; blatantly unrealistic about the determination to undercut everything habitual and historically given. However, Bentham as a young man had closely observed a system in which men’s ordinary moral habits and sentiments had become warped by tradition, and blinded by respect for precedent.

''This is old Jeremy Bentham; he died in 1832.  His body was preserved for interesting financial reasons, but the process must have been less than perfect; that's his REAL head down between his feet.''

''This is old Jeremy Bentham; he died in 1832. His body was preserved for interesting financial reasons, but the process must have been less than perfect; that's his REAL head down between his feet.''

He would devise a legal language that was comprehensible. In the heart of this chaos Bentham would find his vocation. The law was riddled with fictions, whereby things were described as something  they manifestly were not. He would be against all fictions whether in law, morals or politics. He would bring everything in law and life to the test of its usefulness. Bentham found appealing the notion that all complex ideas arise from sense experiences and if our concepts are not simply meaningless words and rhetoric, they must be reducible to terms referring to our sensations. The complexity of human motives, Bentham came to think, could similarly be resolved into two basic drives: the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Bentham’s ”eureka!” moment was influenced by the writings of James Priestley, and resulted in the formula that for him expressed the end to be sought in every action; the greatest happiness of the greatest number.kafka6

What is striking is Bentham seeking to change man’s condition through the law,  its relation and a moral reappraisal based on the pleasure/pain dynamic, and the Franz Kafka parable ”Before the Law”; where Kafka is enmeshed in the same legal tangle akin to picking at branches in an unpruned jungle. Kafka found the contradictions, or their resolution, pointless. In the Kafka text the reader finds a man who “prays for admittance to the Law.” The doorkeeper who stands at the entrance refuses him entry. He tells the man that even if he were to pass this gate, many more halls exist which are guarded by gatekeepers “each more powerful than the last.” The man is perturbed by the inaccessibility of the Law, but does not disobey the doorkeeper. He takes his place on a chair for many years, engages in discourse with the doorkeeper, yet his attempts to enter the gate are always rebuffed. Finally, before his death, he asks the gatekeeper why nobody else has requested to enter the gate. The gatekeeper replies: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

The Trial.Kafka, Catalyst Theatre Company

The Trial.Kafka, Catalyst Theatre Company

Just as the goal of the mystic is to reach God, so does Kafka’s character hold a need to achieve a knowledge of the Law. However, while Jewish belief suggests that the goal of attaining a greater understanding of God is achievable, Kafka seems to believe that the attempt is futile. According to the Merkava mystical textes of the sixth century, the obstacles standing between man and God are there to be overcome and are capable of being overcome. In contrast, Kafka’s character, while having a need to know the Law, seems to be overcome by a complete sense of passivity in pursuing this goal. He obediently accepts the doorkeeper’s refusal to admit him to the Law until he eventually dies. Kafka seems to be saying that while man apparently has an overwhelming need to find meaning in the world, his quest for meaning is doomed from the outset, and there is hardly any point in even beginning the quest. In this sense other mysticisms have an inherently more optimistic view of life and man’s relationship with God than Kafka. Both the Merkava text and Kafka seem to be saying that any attempt to approach the source of ultimate wisdom, whether it is God or ‘the Law’, is bound to be a terrifying and fearful experience.

And Yul Brynner, of all people, appears as a bored functionary who owes more than a little to the gatekeeper in Kafka's "Before the Law:"

And Yul Brynner, of all people, appears as a bored functionary who owes more than a little to the gatekeeper in Kafka's "Before the Law:"

As noted, Kafka does not describe the content of The Law, which is guarded by the gatekeeper. It may represent a general religious belief in a metaphysical being or a belief in a traditional type of God. The Merkava text clearly refers to God in the traditional Jewish sense. This is the God of Israel and the Jewish people. The traditional Jewish belief holds that Revelation and Redemption has the same meaning for all Jews and that the Jews are a collectivity. In contrast to this, the message which one derives from reading Before the Law is that Kafka believes that man is alone in the world and must deal with religion in his own way, and according to his own conscience. The quest for meaning is an experience unique to each individual. As implied in the Kafka story, each person has his own gate to the Law and no person can gain access to the Law through somebody else’s gate. Once again one can see the pessimism is the Kafka piece. Redemption appears to be unattainable. After waiting patiently and passively for the doorkeeper to open ‘his gate’ to the Law without result, the gatekeeper, when the Kafka character is about to die, shuts ‘his gate’. This suggests that not only is knowledge of the Law, but also redemption itself, is unattainable. Man will continue to try, yet his efforts are doomed to fail.This paper uses Kafka’s office writings as a starting point for re-examining the images of law, bureaucracy, hierarchy and authority in his fiction; images which are traditionally treated as metaphors for things other than law. It will argue that the legal images in Kafka’s fiction are worthy of examination, not only because of their bewildering, enigmatic, bizarre, profane and alienating effects, or because of the deeper theological or existential meaning they suggest, but also as a particular concept of law and legality which operates paradoxically as an integral part of the human condition under modernity. To explore this point Kafka’s conception of law is placed in the context of his overall writing as a search for consciousness which takes us beyond the instrumental understanding of law advocated by various schools of legal positivism and allows us to grasp law as a form of experience.

For Bentham, mysticism ended with pleasure.Since pleasure is what all men want, no pleasure is bad in itself.It would be pointless, he held, for the moralist to wish people to desire something other than pleasure, or to want ”higher” pleasures than those they now want. There are no higher or lower pleasures for this introduces an arbitrary and personal standard of judgement. All pleasures, for Bentham , were innocent until proven guilty by their consequences, however unsavory their traditional reputation. Bentham published these ideas in 1789 in his chief theoretical work, ”An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”, but the path to practical reform proved a long and weary one; perhaps he should have taken the Kafka cue of futility.

Allen Ginsberg was also the mystic at the door. A man in pursuit of an actual vision and a visionary consciousness that never came, yet unlike Kafka, he remained optimistic,  if only to achieve a result that was equally futile; the impression arises that he peeped through every mental and pharmaceutical door in sight, looking for the one that opens on the universe.the error of both Ginsberg and Kafka was not realizing that the journey was more important than the destination.  Like Kafka and Bentham, his appeal lay in a certain alienation, that being the appearance he gave of seeing through or beyond the blinds of ordinary social thought. Still, Ginsberg said, ”the weight of the world is love”, and unlike Kafka, his own brand of paranoia, mystical but perhaps less probing, was transformed into an ecstatic response to life that bundled mysticism,joyfulness and vulnerability into a coherent whole.

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  1. Susan says:

    Interesting post :)

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