No. 87: Saturday, April 5, 1997

The aspiring youth that fired the Ephesian dome
Outlives in fame the pious fool that raised it.
Colley Cibber: Richard III, act iii. sc. 1.

Äußerstes Herostratentum. – Es könnte Herostrate geben, welche den eignen Tempel anzündeten, in dem ihre Bilder verehrt werden. [Ultimate Herostratism: There might be Herostratuses who would set fire to the temple where their own images are worshipped.] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

They say that in 356 B.C., Herostratus, in order to insure his immortal fame, burned down the great temple of Diana (Artemision) at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This is a major date in the history of resentment. To understand its relevance for our times, we should imagine the prosperous Ionian seaport as an early model of the “good society” and Herostratus himself as in no way oppressed or victimized. In contrast to Achilles‘ wrath (menis) over his slighting by Agamemnon, the very first word of the Iliad and of the high secular culture it inaugurates, Herostratus’ resentment is not disguised as a titanic rivalry. Perhaps he did have a rival, or more than one, but it is no accident that we have not learned of them. For Herostratus knew that his life would be the subject of no biographies, that he would be remembered for one act and one act alone.

The legend tells us that in the attempt to obliterate his dangerous example, the city authorities forbade on penalty of death to pronounce his name. Yet the effort was as futile as its paradoxical structure leads us to expect: to forbid us to pronounce a name is ipso facto not merely to pronounce it but to write it. Verba volant, scripta manent; our post-Derridean understanding of language makes clear that expulsion from illusory presence can only be purchased at the price of a very real supplement of absence. What has immortalized Herostratus is not his deed itself but the impotent interdiction to which it gave rise; to name is both to expel and to preserve–in a word, to sacralize. The persistence of this name is the negative of that experienced in Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he discovers that to persecute Jesus is to participate in his immortality.

Herostratus is remembered as the one society wants to forget. His act is a sacrilege, but its irrevocable effect is to render the sacred irrelevant. It is the emblematic event of secular society, the revelation of a potential for disorder that must henceforth be controlled by other than sacred means. At the same time, it reestablishes the sacred at the horizon of the worldly. Herostratus is not protesting distributional injustice but the inherent disequilibrium of the human condition that provides us with an infinity in signs and a finitude of things; as Lamartine put it, man is Borné dans son destin, infini dans ses voeux [limited in destiny, infinite in desire]. We possess the sign of the sacred because we must be refused the sacred Being itself. To destroy the mediation between the transcendental world and our own is to substitute oneself for it as its sign, and thereby to attain the immortality that belongs to the sign-world alone, that of the name Herostratus.

Or perhaps Herostratus never existed. That the temple is said to have burned down on the very day of the birth of Alexander the Great makes this attribution suspect; perhaps Alexander’s achievement–the beginning of the end for the ancient temple-centered city-state–has been conflated with an accidental catastrophe in an apocryphal deed. But in either case, Herostratus names a newly discovered possibility for constituting the human subject.

Sardanapalus is said to have burned down his palace out of disgust with his mortal finitude. Such figures have traditionally illustrated the misery of the human condition; they are well suited to the late medieval danse macabre. Herostratus’ act does not express the infinite ennui of the aristocrat whose awareness of mortality corrupts his worldly pleasures. Those who have known grandeur in their lifetime cannot measure his deed’s existential purity. From the anonymity of the respectable middle class, he rises in one stroke above the human condition. Sardanapalus was indifferent to the immortality of his name; a king is recorded in history however his life ends. Having known all boredoms, including the boredom of fame, his act was no shot at immortality but an expression of nihilism in the face of the impossible passage from immanence to transcendence. Because he has not had the luxury of boredom, Herostratus understands the joy as well as the limits of “immortality”: to be remembered by human society against its will.

Is it not remarkable that no one in history has equaled, let alone improved on, Herostratus’ example? We have had assassinations of kings and presidents, terrorist attacks on buildings and airplanes, massacres of millions; but he alone is remembered for destroying the central sacred locus of his society. The world of the marketplace is no longer guaranteed by a temple. Burning down the New York Stock Exchange would scarcely register on the seismograph of the global economy.

Thus the protagonist of Sartre’s short story Erostrate is a pathetic figure who, seeking immortality via the Surrealist recipe of descendre dans la rue et tirer au hasard dans la foule [go down into the street and shoot at random into the crowd], is arrested before he can even get off a shot. But the canonical modern treatment is that of Dostoevsky. Readers of the Notes From Underground–the first and best loved book of my adolescence–meet a white-collar version of Herostratus: the petty bureaucrat who “clanks his sword” to impress his clients with his authority, and who, in the Crystal Palace of rational perfection, stands up for “two plus two equals five.”

Mid-nineteenth century Russia was anything but a place of universal prosperity, but its very distance from the horizon of market society allowed Dostoevsky to pose the “existential” problem of modernity in all its clarity, more acutely, because more interactively, even than Kierkegaard faced with Hegel’s end of history. The existential problem is really a market problem, a problem of self-marketing. Let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that everything is perfectly rational, and all talents are rewarded at their true market value. Then one whose rewards are mediocre is obliged to conclude, not that society oppresses or victimizes him, as two centuries of revolutionary rhetoric have accustomed him to hear, but simply that he is mediocre, and that his knowledge of his mediocrity, which in Aristotle’s ethic would be man’s highest wisdom (aurea mediocritas is the Latin for it), offers him no prospect of transcending his condition. It is this combination of “perfect” self-knowledge and imperfect marketability that generates the Herostratus figure. The more he realizes how justly the “rational” social order evaluates him, the greater his resentment against humanity and the cosmos in which it operates. Alfred Jarry’s turn-of-the-century horrid-comic Père Ubu (Ubu roi, 1896) becomes “king of Poland” by acting out infantile-bourgeois fantasies of mayhem (“à la trappe”) that prefigure the real horrors perpetrated by politicized resentment in the coming century.

The more rationalized the world economy, the greater the winner-take-all gaps between the truly successful and the rest, and the more resentment consumerist messages arouse in those with no reasonable hope of success. The optimist will note that Western market society has not followed the Social Darwinist model that seemed inevitable in the nineteenth century. The missing feedback loop between Marx’s pauperized proletariat and theconsumer society explains why the socialist dream has crumbled before the (relative) prosperity of advanced market economies. But as soon as barriers between classes are removed (i.e., between middle-class and working-class), others rise to replace them (i.e., between yuppie and middle-class). Market society levels distinctions only to produce new distinctions; this is the interactive basis of Marx’s vision of “capitalism” as constantly compelled to destroy and create itself anew.

Utopians believe that this process can be stabilized, that some model of the “good society” can be approached, if not achieved. But the marketplace cannot multiply signs of distinction as it can material satisfactions, and the more “fairly” these signs are distributed on the basis of ability or achievement, the more intolerable it is for those who fail to obtain them. In an unfair world, the absence of worldly distinction may be proof of a higher moral standard; the fairer the world becomes, the less this stance can be maintained. Utopia generates dystopia. The only alternative is to burn down the temple.

Herostratus was an individualist, a loner, someone a pre-baby-boomer like myself can identify with. The victimary thinking of the postwar era neglects the resentment of the individual human-who-would-be-God to concentrate on the collective sense of injustice. But collective resentment, even when its motivations are similar, differs from individual resentment by the fact that on its local scene of operation, the resentful group is in the majority. Herostratus is alone against the world; the victimary collectivity oppressed by the World Out There focuses its resentment on scapegoats either real (Jews have been a long-time favorite) or figurative (burning Uncle Sam in effigy). Suicidal terrorists and the like act in a very different spirit from our Ephesian hero: their glory comes from their support group, not from the society as a whole malgré elle.

Yet the mobilization of group resentments in turn intensifies individual resentment. The more our victimary collectives are compensated, the more our Herostratuses become frustrated. The disgruntled petty bureaucrat a.k.a. postal worker takes an AK-47 to his local fast-food outlet in a last-ditch try for the Guiness Book of World Records by blowing away as many people as possible (usually including himself).

But there is another solution. Herostratic individuals sometimes give up their stance of one against all to form a community whose gods recognize them alone. These groups act in the opposite manner from terrorists: ignoring the larger society, they reestablish the lost relationship between humanity and the Order of the Universe. Some, impatient to cut all ties with an imperfect world, even hasten their departure via UFO for the transcendental Kingdom to which they truly belong. In such cases, the temple they destroy is their earthly selves.