In his entire life, Georg Simmel never ventured far from Berlin. He grew up and studied philosophy there. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Berlin, he settled in the city. While his peers took up jobs in other university towns around Europe, Simmel got married, published essays, and taught philosophy at the University. He died in Berlin in 1918.
Thus it might seem surprising that Simmel would take up extreme experience as the object of study. Yet this is precisely the goal of his 1911 essay “The Adventure,” which examines the unsettled moments within the arc of an individual life. Within the continuous flow of events that make up the arc of this existence, he writes, there are experiences that seem discontinuous from the rest: moments of intensity cut off from the sensory experiences of the everyday, islands that rise up from the daily events that wash over us and circulate around us.
It is not the investigation of a particular adventure that Simmel is concerned with here, but the architecture of adventure itself. What characterizes it as a psychological phenomenon? What are its attributes as a category of experience?
Simmel concludes that adventures have qualities that are dialectical or paradoxical in nature – elements in tension with each other:
First, the adventure may seem like an island within the flow of a person’s life, but it’s defined by the ocean that swirls around it. This is because Simmel sees adventure as a state of experience rather than a fixed set of events or conditions imposed upon us from the outside. One person’s adventure, after all, might be another person’s day at the laundromat. And since this extreme experience is defined by inner conditions rather than outer ones, the adventure only gains shape according to the particular qualities of the individual. So, as much as an adventure feels extreme and otherworldly, it finds its sharp edges according to the parameters of an individual’s personality.
“It is a foreign body,” writes Simmel, “in our existence which is yet somehow connected with the center.”
Second, adventures are vivid and intense, moments when we feel fully alive. Yet there is also a dreamlike aspect to many of them, an unreal or surreal quality that separates them from the psyche. “The more ‘adventurous’ an adventure…the more ‘dreamlike’ it becomes in our memory. It moves so far away from the center of the ego and the course of life which the ego guides and organizes that we may think of it as something experienced by another person.”
Finally, adventures require intensity of individual action, yet also an extraordinary “passivity” as well: the ability to accept the precariousness of one’s position in the world, to accept the existence of unknown dangers, and yet to carry on as these dangers are known, finite, and surmountable. “Adventure has the gesture of the conqueror, the quick seizure of opportunity….[yet also] the complete self-abandonment to the powers and accidents of the world, which can delight us, but in the same breath can also destroy us.”
Simmel’s inquiry into adventure is interesting because it does not fit neatly into other categories of analysis.
It contrasts, for example, with 19th century scholars, such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt, who viewed hardship and extreme experience as a corrective to the overly civilized life. Adventure, in other words, offered an antidote for the ills of a particular moment in time, the conditions of a discrete historical epoch.
Simmel’s view also contrasts with twentieth century scholars, such as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, for whom adventure was not a modern corrective, but a timeless attribute of the human psyche, an archetype or “monomyth,” that all people use to convey meaning irrespective of culture or epoch. The adventure, in other words, is not an event, but a mental device used to impart lessons about society and the natural world.
Simmel’s approach is neither historical nor mythological. Rather, his focus on interior conditions of experience and knowledge sounds a lot like Kant: what we know about the world in and of itself is limited. We should spend our time, then, examining the filters of this experience, the way the mind organizes the world and makes it whole. Simmel also, at times, sounds a lot like Georg Hegel and Johann Fichte: adventure unfolds in the paradoxes and inconsistencies, the theses and antitheses, of extreme experience. Still, Simmel’s discussion of the adventure does not always remain abstract and philosophical. He reveals to the reader, late in the essay, what he sees in his mind when he envisions extreme experience.
It is the love affair. The lover provokes, more than mountain ranges or pack ice, the colors and sharp edges of adventure. The pursuit of a lover is the most dangerous of journeys, one filled with moments of terror and ecstasy. “What is important is the violence of feeling as it alternates between joy and despair, the almost touchable nearness of the daemonic powers which decide between both.” What is achieved in this journey? Not the conquest of a person, the mapping and possession of the beloved. It is the action, rather than the object, that gives life to the adventure. It is the feeling of standing on the precipice, the singular moment when time disappears, when the violence of feeling “becomes great enough to tear life, beyond those materials, completely out of itself.”
Read an English translation of The Adventure here.
Thanks to Erik Mueggler for bringing Simmel to my attention.
Jack White’s new song “Love Interruption” expresses many of Simmel’s ideas: action, passivity, and transformation through violence of emotion.