The Cult of Silence, the Heresy of Eloquence, and the Price of Vision

September 9, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Posted in antin, attention, burning man, contemporary, materiality, personal, poetry, reticence, the sacred, travel | 3 Comments

One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.

The Cult of Silence

Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)

At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.

“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)

And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).

Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.

The Heresy of Eloquence

David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:

THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL       THEY ARE UNREAL

STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME

THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER       IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER       THE CONDITION OF POETRY       THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND

Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.

A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,

at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement       thats not based on understanding       and i would like to contribute to not understanding       i would like to contribute to human not understanding       i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding       so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people       and see how far away they are       and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them       because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding       the notion that its always possible       desirable       and costs nothing

For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this       because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.

The Price of Vision

It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.

None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)

Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.

I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.

The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.

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To Love Oneself as a Stranger

March 15, 2007 at 9:15 pm | Posted in attention, bataille, christianity, ethics, excess, mysticism, no-self, political, the sacred, weil | 13 Comments

The last time I wrote about Simone Weil, I talked about her drive to self-effacement in terms of an ethics of attention. In this post, which is a condensation of material from my recent paper, I will talk about self-effacement as, paradoxically, a drive for authenticity. Georges Bataille is a veritable prophet of authenticity, seeking to live the vicissitudes of his id to their fullest, whereas Weil is fiercely obedient to the commands of God. These, I will argue, are actually quite similar practices — both mystics strive to be true to impulses within themselves that are, at the same time, perceived to be in excess of those selves. What I aim to uncover here is the way in which recognizing the otherness of ourselves provides a necessary counterpoint to the ethics of attention, which requires us to recognize others as ourselves.

The basic idea behind Weil’s ethics of attention, as I explained last time, is that affliction deprives people of their humanity and attention has the power to restore it. I demonstrated this through Weil’s thoughts on the parable of the good Samaritan; before he was paid attention to, the beaten man was just a pile of flesh and rags by the side of the road. Bataille also believes that the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be reduced to “thinghood” by the pressure of outside forces — the prime example of this is slavery, but lest we think that this problem ended with abolition, Bataille reminds us that in modern capitalist society, all human beings are required to be materially productive and thus we are all reduced to thinghood (see The Accursed Share, vol. 1). The way to restore humanity is to embrace uselessness in order to remove oneself from the chain of production — in Bataille’s mystical practice, a person restores herself to humanity through an experience of the self as sovereign.

In Blue of Noon, the character Dirty (short for “Dorothea”) stands for the sovereign orgy of expenditure. When the book opens, she is “utterly” drunk in a London dive bar, “the most squalid of unlikely places,” and wearing “a sumptuous evening gown.” The implied class status makes her debauchery more complete; for a woman “so rich . . . [that] she could spit in other people’s faces” to have arrived at a condition and a place like this, she must be squandering resources in earnest. Dirty and Troppmann (the protagonist) “managed, with no respect for conventional pigeonholes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever [they] had to.”

The experience of sovereignty that accompanies the breaking of taboos has a double source, according to Bataille (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Immediately apparent is the sensation of freedom that comes from transgressing a rule; one obeys only oneself, and feels that one’s desires are no longer in check. Alexander Irwin (in Saints of the Impossible) reads in this experience the potential groundwork for a politics: “The inner experience of freedom remains the precondition of any meaningful deployment of freedom in the public, political world.” But Troppmann is profoundly conflicted; he is enthralled by Dirty but impotent in bed with her. He longs to “lose his head” and give himself over to passion, but he cannot; he admires the candor of Dirty’s utter debauch, but witnessing it makes him “distraught with anxiety” almost to the point of weeping. This reflects Bataille’s theory that transgression “suspends a taboo without suppressing it.” From the suspension of the taboo comes a dizzying rush of freedom, but the prohibition itself remains, producing an anguished state of inner conflict. This anguish is the second source of the experience of sovereignty that accompanies transgression, more hidden and more powerful than the naïve sensation of freedom. Breaking rules would be trivial if we did not feel bound by them; in doing so, one exposes oneself to a lacerating experience of self-contradiction that threatens the unity of one’s selfhood, insofar as it is a unity, with annihilation: “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” Rather than simply reveling in the freedom to pursue his own desires and thus being inspired to work toward freeing others to do the same, the practitioner of Bataille’s philosophy is led to suffer the anguish of realizing that his own desires are deeply contradictory. What are the political possibilities of this anguish? Bataille does not pursue them in depth, but we can begin to see them by putting him in conversation with Weil.

Troppmann and Dirty strive to “lose their heads” by “eliminat[ing] every possible urge”—that is, in their debaucheries they seek to transcend their rational, unified selves by allowing their irrational, fragementary desires to take over. Troppmann’s boorishness and cruelty are at least partly the result of a deep concern for authenticity: “I would have liked to give her a real kiss, but I felt myself verging on insincerity. I left immediately.” It makes perfect sense that a Bataillean profligate would place such value on being true to himself; the experience of sovereignty seems to entail a radical trueness to self that goes beyond all fictions of unified desire.

Curiously, Weil’s self-emptying attention also entails a concern for authenticity. Born a Jew and raised an agnostic, Weil experienced a Christian awakening in 1937 following a stint of factory labor wherein she realized that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves” (see Waiting for God). Her conversion experience was one of being subject to a strong external force; in a chapel at Assisi, she writes, “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The perceived externality of this force is what convinces her of its reality, and similar mystical experiences will continue to fuel her religious belief. However, she is adamant in refusing baptism because she has not experienced a similar kind of compulsion with regard to it. She explains, in a letter to Father Joseph Perrin, that she has resolved to stop wrestling with the question and plans to simply wait for God’s command:

It is very possible that after having passed weeks, months, or years without thinking about it all, one day I shall suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to ask suddenly and immediately for baptism and I shall run to ask for it. For the action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent. It may also be that my life will come to an end before I have ever felt this impulse.

Bataille would applaud the decision to take the promptings of “irresistible impulse” so seriously, but for him impulse originates in surging internal desire whereas Weil waits for something she can attribute to an external source. This points up what I see as the crux of the difference between Bataille’s and Weil’s thought: it’s not that she believes in God and he is an atheist (for the God that she believes in is quite absent from the world), it’s not that she advocates “good” and he advocates “evil” (for these categories are slippery, as will be discussed in more detail below), and it’s not even that she sees an orderly universe where he sees a disorderly one (though this is true). In terms of their ethical thought, all these concerns are secondary to and derive their importance from the fundamental situation of the subject: Bataille’s is profoundly isolated while Weil’s is profoundly open.

The experience of sovereignty, which Irwin reads as “the basis for an effective resistance to political tyranny,” is a self-enclosed experience, “an experience of the self as sacred.” In Erotism, Bataille explains that humans are “discontinuous” beings, which is more or less to say that we are alone in our heads:

Each being is distinct from all others. His birth, his death, the events of his life may have an interest for others, but he alone is directly concerned in them. He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.

This creates a profound sense of loss, Bataille theorizes, wherein we yearn for the imagined continuity that links everything outside of us; we long to “exist in the world like a wave lost among many other waves.” This sense of loss is what motivates human endeavors such as love, religion, and violence, none of which in its ordinary form can ever really heal over this imagined loss. Death is imagined as a return to continuity, but actual death does not allow its subject to continue to exist and reap the benefits — so Bataille’s mystical practice aims instead at the shattering of the subject, which is a kind of death-while-still-conscious. Eroticism is the name he gives to his mystical practice in this particular book, and he names three varieties: physical, emotional, and religious. Troppmann and Dirty engage at the physical level, wherein the transgressing of taboos and the unselfconsciousness of orgasm offer “little deaths” and the experience of sovereignty described above. The emotional level is tied to romantic love, wherein one can imagine oneself dissolving into one’s beloved. Both of these practices do involve the participation of another person, but the experience of the subject as Bataille conceives it is profoundly isolated; the importance of the encounter with the other lies in the trauma it inflicts on the self, trauma that can cause the desired shattering. In the third level, that of religious mysticism, the other is no longer necessary at all and the required trauma is internalized, imagined through meditation.

Faced with the same gulf between human beings, Weil turns not inward but outward. Bataille seems to conclude that, since inner experience is the only kind available, the best one can do is to cultivate that experience to its extremes. Weil, on the other hand, finds her inner experience boring and trivial, choosing instead to focus on the challenge presented by the unknowable outside world. In her ethical practice, this takes the form of attention to the suffering other; in her religious practice, it takes the form of attention to God.

Bataille seeks sovereignty; Weil seeks abdication. Both seek to liberate us from unexamined, fictively unified notions of self, and this has important ethical consequences. Peter Connor (in Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin) calls our attention to an exchange between Bataille and Sartre that took place in March of 1944, in which Sartre points out that Bataille’s valorization of “evil” seems less like a rejection of moral systems than like an alternative moral system. Bataille responds by explaining that, in the overturning of “good” morality by “evil” morality, what is really important is the overturning itself. The process he is describing is not one of abandoning the search for morality, but rather one of an infinite search that seems to have something in common with Weil’s infinite wait for the commands of her absent God. Connor explains that for Bataille,

There is no moral of the story. Ethics does not consist in acquiring knowledge of some thing that can be communicated through a text. This was Kant’s error. Rather, it lies in the infinite inquiry into how communication is possible in general. The movement toward ethics is a movement away from knowledge.

Weil’s faculty of attention also depends crucially on the movement away from knowledge, which would lead one to draw hasty conclusions rather than waiting patiently the truth. But in a world where God is absent and other people are, at bottom, unknowable, must we wait forever?

Weil reflects that “to love a stranger as oneself implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.” Her choice of the word “stranger” instead of the more common Biblical “neighbor” reflects the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan as well as the thrust of her own ethics of attention, which involves taking on another’s suffering. But the reversal is intriguing, and this is where Bataille can help: ethics cannot be about self-denial alone. The love that motivates it must be universal, and this means that in addition to loving others, we must embrace our flawed, contradictory, selfish selves.

The King of Love is Dead: The Ethics of Self-Effacement in Weil, Krishna, and MLK Jr.

January 18, 2007 at 2:27 am | Posted in attention, authorial agency, buddhism, christianity, ethics, exemplarity, gender, love, materiality, mysticism, no-self, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 10 Comments

First of all, I’d like to welcome Oublié Sur La Carte to the blogosphere and urge you to go check him out. His inaugural post deals with Baudelaire, writing, and memory — three of our favorite themes here at uncomplicatedly — and the lyrical prose already in evidence promises that future posts will not only be interesting, but beautiful to read.

Second of all, I’d like to make an excuse for myself. This post might have come into being a few days earlier, and been a little better researched, if the US postal service did not insist on depriving me for a week longer than promised of the books that I mailed myself from my parents’ house at the end of winter break. (Next time, I’ll use W.A.S.T.E. for sure.) So what I submit for your inspection this evening is the beginning of a theory rather than a fully worked-out one, subject to revision in future postings. On with the show.

“Let’s develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last time, I explored the idea present in both Bataille and Weil of turning one’s life into writing — both in the usual sense of writing autobiographically and in the decidedly unusual sense of making one’s life itself into a kind of message. What I would like to address today is the particular form this latter desire takes for Weil, and how understanding this desire, even if we do not share it, can help us to understand a few things about what it might mean to be ethical.

Previously I emphasized the communicative aspect of this desire, arguing that becoming a living message is a way of orienting one’s life towards others. What I glossed over, as some of you picked up in the comment thread, was the fact that Weil did not want to send her own individual message (in contrast, I would argue, to Bataille), but rather to erase herself and become simply an instrument of God. This raises a host of agency issues that date back to the Delphic Oracle and have haunted the mystical tradition ever since: If the words belong to the gods, is the oracle a poet or just a mouthpiece? Moreover, it’s a question that is profoundly gendered. It’s hard for women to rally around a figure whose fondest wish was to erase her individuality and allow the words of the patriarchal Christian God to exist in her place. Some feminist scholars reject Weil for precisely this reason, but it is my contention that to do so too hastily is to overlook important dimensions of her thought.

It’s important, first of all, to recognize the violence of Weil’s wish. It was not a feminine demurral she wanted to make, but a gruesome self-sacrifice:

Father, in the name of Christ grant me this, That I may be unable to will any bodily movement, like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation, like someone who is completely blind, deaf, and deprived of all the senses. That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts, even the simplest, like the total idiots who not only cannot read or count but have never learned to speak. That I may be insensible to every kind of grief and joy, and incapable of any love for any being or thing, and not even for myself like old people in the last stage of decrepitude. Father, in the name of Christ grant me all this in reality.

[. . . ]

Father, since thou art Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them into things for your use and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or nothingness.

Critics call this Weil’s “terrible prayer,” and it’s easy to see why. It is a wish for a kind of living death; it seems downright perverse to desire such affliction. All of us, myself included, who love life and are grateful for daily miracles such as friendship and puppies and good strong cups of tea, recoil at such a dire pronouncement. “What good,” we cry, “can come from such a naked death wish?”

Kugelmass proposed, in a recent conversation, that Weil’s desire to erase her individuality might be read as an attempt to escape the whole problem of individuality that haunts our daily ethical decisions — the problem that takes the form of the question, “But what can I do? I’m just one person.” The fantasy of making herself an instrument for God’s use, he suggested, is a fantasy of “acting sufficiently,” which no one person can ever really do.

What I would add to this formulation, then, is that the fantasy of sufficient action (that is, of actually being able to solve the world’s problems) is not simply escapist, but representative of a sincere desire to be as helpful as possible to one’s fellow human beings. In Weil’s life, this desire translated into the sort of sacrifice that nearly all of us have talked ourselves out of: she lived in bare, unheated rooms, wore shapeless black rags, and distributed nearly all her wages to the poor. By contrast, at a talk I attended once, radical ethicist Peter Singer was asked by an audience member whether he owned CDs and responded in the affirmative. Viewed in this light, Weil’s desire for self-effacement begins to seem less like a tragically misguided death wish and more like a rigorous ethics carried to the logical conclusions that most of us do not have the stomach for.

Her schoolmates called her “the categorical imperative in skirts.” But it’s important to note that Weil’s desire to become a “living metaphor” was not a desire to lead by heroic example; remember that she wanted to erase herself. She wanted “to be only an intermediary between the uncultivated ground and the plowed field, between the data of a problem and the solution, between the blank page and the poem, between the starving beggar and the beggar who has been fed.” This is extremely suggestive of the extinguishing of selfhood that one finds in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and it’s no coincidence: Weil could read Sanskrit, and refers to the Bhagavad Gita and several Buddhist sutras frequently in her notebooks.

In eastern philosophy, the extinguishing of selfhood is associated with the shattering of delusions. Only when you overcome your desires, fears, worries, joys, etc — all of the things that make you you — can you transcend your individual perspective and see the reality of the universe. This kind of total enlightenment is extremely difficult to obtain and takes most people many lifetimes to achieve; for practical purposes, it is a distant horizon toward which one aims. What one does on a day to day basis, according many Buddhist and Hindu practices, is simply learn to sit perfectly still and quiet one’s mind. But this is not a purely negative effort; in most of these practices, what you are concentrating on is not nothing, but your own breathing. The idea is that you stop multitasking at last. You practice breathing with perfect attention, and with cultivation this attention can be turned toward more complex objects: people, problems.

This pure attention is what Weil strives for, at bottom, in her drive toward self-effacement. Her reading of the command to love thy neighbor is remarkable. She writes of the beaten man lying by the side of the road in the parable of the good Samaritan that he is “deprived of human personality . . . [he is] only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him.” The priest and the Levite pass by without stopping, and what the Samaritan does is “give his attention all the same to this absent humanity.” This act of creative attention, imagining humanity where there is none, is the Samaritan’s true accomplishment; the actions which follow, Weil writes, are just the “automatic effect” of this attention, which is fundamentally “a renunciation.”

From a purely Buddhist perspective, the line connecting attention to renunciation is easy to draw. Though Weil was aware of this perspective, in the essay in question (“Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” available in the collection Waiting for God) as in all her “public” writing, she is working within the western Christian tradition and writing to a western Christian audience. This is how she formulates it:

Whatever a man may want, in cases of crime as in those of the highest virtue, in the minutest preoccupations as in the greatest designs, the essence of his desire always consists in this, that he wants above all things to be able to exercise his will freely. To wish for the existence of this free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself. It is to deny oneself. In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom of the other. It is a redemptive act.

The implied comparison is, of course, to Christ. How did God save mankind? By coming down here and suffering among us. He’s God, he’s magic — presumably he could have just erased original sin with a wave of his hand. But the reason he doesn’t do it is the same reason it’s not sufficient just to toss a handful of change to the man by the side of the road: when we use the forces at our disposal to help somebody in need, we do not uplift or change him. In fact, we continue to deprive him of the ability to exercise his will freely — what happens to him is what we choose to have happen to him. The way Weil sees it, God chose instead to pay attention to us — and he didn’t just sit up there in paradise listening to us bitch, either; he came down here and bled and loved and lost and wept, so he could really understand what we were talking about. He gave himself up for us, gave up that which made him God (namely, his immunity to such suffering) in order to feel what we feel. We should, Weil argues, imitate Christ and strive to lose ourselves in attention to the suffering of others. The actions which follow will be automatic.

Eric O. Springsted, to whom I owe some of the insights in the above paragraph, points out in Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love that while Weil spills a great deal of ink over the crucifixtion, the resurrection does not figure very prominently in her theology. While Springsted is sure, and I am mostly sure, that she believed in Christ’s resurrection, it seems that this omission was deliberate. If one pays attention to the resurrection instead of the suffering and death of Christ, one risks modeling one’s behavior on entirely the wrong thing: the vain hope for eternal selfhood rather than the infinite compassion of sacrifice, the renunciation of that selfhood. The King of Love, as it were, must be a dead one.

This brings us to the work of another Simone: Nina. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a DJ on my local college radio station played a song written by Gene Taylor, Simone’s bassist, after receiving the news of Dr. King’s assassination. “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” is a simple song with forthright lyrics, exactly the sort of thing you might scratch down in the throes of grief, but Simone’s voice gives it enormity. The performance on the album Nuff Said was recorded just three days after King’s death:

Turn the other cheek, he’d plead,
Love thy neighbor was his creed,
Pain, humiliation, death he did not dread

[. . .]

‘Cause he’d seen the mountain top
And he knew he could not stop
Always living with the threat of death ahead

If you were unaware of the context, for the first three verses of this song you might very well think it was a song about Christ. It’s not until verse four that you get “with his Bible at his side” whose anachronicity would cause you to question this assumption, and not until verse six that King is named explicitly. The pun in the final line, which is also the title of the song, hardly registers as such: it is a song about both men. Hearing it made me realize that King, Christ, and Weil all understood that to stand up to the forces of oppression, even if it’s just to help a man by the side of the road, is to fundamentally imperil yourself.

The epigraph to this post was taken from King’s final speech, “I See the Promised Land” (to which I was pointed by — who else? — Kugelmass, after describing to him the above song). Its major subject is, uncannily enough, the specter of King’s own death. He starts by describing the tour through famous revolutions he might make if God gave him the chance to live at any time in history, declaring that in spite of all those past victories, there is no time he would rather have lived than his own, the mid-twentieth century on the verge of a civil rights revolution. He then discusses an attempt that was made on his life earlier in his career — apparently he was stabbed just above the heart and it was rather miraculous that he lived. He declares how glad he is to have survived that attack and witnessed the victories of the early 1960s, and then he concludes the speech this way:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

While this statement contains a Weilian wish to “just” do God’s will, you might point out that King seems to be accepting death here rather than seeking it. I would reply: was what he did not suicide? The man got death threats practically every day of his life. He was not seeking death for its own sake, but for the good it could do to others — in this, Weil is no different. She cuts a grim figure, but she does so in order to remind us of the importance of real sacrifice: the squalid, all-too-real kind rather than the idealized kind that leads to a sort of immortality.

So no: I don’t think that Weil’s desire for self-effacement is morbid, and I don’t think it’s antifeminist. When she makes her life into a message, she erases her authorship in order to be pure communication, all outward-turning with no inward-turning, all love with no ego. Weil has been to a mountaintop all her own — it’s not quite King’s mountaintop, and not quite Christ’s either, but it’s definitely on the same map.

The Writing Life

January 10, 2007 at 10:16 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, exemplarity, love, meta, metaphor, mysticism, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 14 Comments

“Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.”
— Simone Weil

In my last post, I talked about “reverse graffiti” as a template for my New Year’s resolutions. The idea I was professing back there — “I should make of my life a message” — was not my own. I have been reading Alexander Irwin’s Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, and it is his central claim that the primary way in which Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, whose philosophies are enormously opposed, resemble one another is that both stage themselves as sacred beings who tried to fuse their lives with their writings, to live their messages, to be living messages, in order to destabilize the destructive political paradigms of the second World War. What I hope to explain in this post is how this idea has been helping me think about blogs, which are now — unsurprisingly — something I think about a great deal.

Like many things these days, my interest in Bataille is Kugelmass‘s fault. About two months ago I told him I was thinking of writing about Weil for my political theology class, and he wanted to know if I’d read Bataille’s Blue of Noon in which Weil appears as a central character. I hadn’t, so I did, and now I find myself down a long, dark Bataille/Weil tunnel from which this will represent the first of probably several postings.

I’ve loved Weil for a long time. She was born a German Jew in 1909, raised as an agnostic in Paris, and converted to Christianity later in life but refused baptism for complicated reasons. She preferred to be an outsider saint, sitting at the threshold and pushing people in — she couldn’t bear the thought of taking sanctuary in a community of the saved while so many people suffered outside the church. During WWII, she tried to convince the Free French movement to allow her to organize and spearhead a group of battlefield nurses, who would go out on the front lines and administer emergency first aid to the wounded right in the midst of combat. They relegated her to a desk job where she contracted tuberculosis and exacerbated it by writing furiously — 800 typed pages in the last 4 months of her life — and by refusing to eat more than the rations of her beloved Parisians in occupied France. She died in 1943 at 34 years of age. Her theology is as unique as it is shocking: “Whenever I think of Christ on the cross, I commit the sin of envy.”

Weil’s obsession with self-sacrifice is well-known, but it’s difficult to figure out what to make of it. Some suggest she was simply insane, but this is clearly dismissive. (Was Beethoven insane? Who cares?) Others point out the bizarre futility of her death, claiming that because her convictions led to such an eminently pointless demise, they must not have had much political relevance. Irwin aims to rescue her from these accusations by suggesting that Weil intended her life and her death to be a sort of text, affecting the world through the power of metaphor. Weil wrote that her goal was to “make of life itself the supreme poetry.” Furthermore, at the beginning of WWII, she wrote, “Our propaganda cannot be made of words; to be effective it would have to be composed of dazzling realities.” That these are not exactly the same thing will be dealt with a little later.

Bataille’s philosophy was about as opposed to Weil’s as you can get: she proclaimed herself on the path of good, and he proclaimed himself on the path of evil. Bataille was an atheist and a libertine, obsessed with sacrifice in the form of unproductive expenditure (orgy, carnival, etc). Weil’s sacrifices, by contrast, were always utilitarian — though her death may have looked pointless, in her mind it both set an example and exposed the horror of war. But between 1932 and 1934, the political commitments of these divergent thinkers led them both to be associated with La Critique social, a dissident leftist journal, and with Boris Souvarine’s Cercle communiste démocratique. Their writings, both public and private, respond to each other with passionate hostility during this period, and the Cercle did not hold together for long. In 1935, Bataille wrote Blue of Noon in which the character of Lazare is a clear portrait of Weil. The main character, who is quite autobiographical, finds himself both attracted to and repulsed by Lazare’s deathly demeanor which makes such a contrast with his own exuberant vice.

During the war, Bataille’s behavior was almost diametrically opposed to Weil’s. He abruptly stopped writing political treatises, declaring “I will not speak of war, but of mystical experience.” He withdrew into himself, writing extensively about his meditative exercises and the pleasures of the flesh. Irwin characterizes this vividly: “While millions died on the battlefields and in concentration camps, the bloodiest event depicted in Bataille’s confessional prose was a painful tooth extraction.” Weil, by contrast, was trying her hardest to be allowed onto the battlefield and was producing pages upon pages of political tracts and proposals for the Free French movement. Irwin’s argument is that Bataille’s public display of uselessness was ultimately a form of protest not unlike Weil’s. He objected to the war not by actively fighting it, but by refusing to engage with it — but what he shared with Weil was threefold: firstly, a conviction that the sacred could provide an alternative vocabulary with which to address the present catastrophe; secondly, a drive for self-annihilation; thirdly, his medium, which was both his writing and his life.

In this post, which is already quite long, I will concentrate mostly on this third convergence. In the future, you can count on missives addressing sacredness and self-effacement. I am not nearly as versed in Bataille as I am in Weil, so please forgive me if the following is clumsy or inaccurate.

Bataille was not a pacifist. In fact, he saw in violence a supreme opportunity for people to confront death as the ultimate truth of life. This seems to have a lot to do with quasi-Buddhist ideas of impermanence: only by accepting and truly understanding the impermanence of the world and of oneself can one properly appreciate and experience the present moment. But the problem Bataille had with war is that, while actually engaged in battle, one is not able to achieve a sufficiently reflective consciousness for the violence to be of any spiritual use. The person who can achieve this level of reflection is the writer. Writing is bound up with violence in a number of ways for Bataille, not least of which is — ironically — its inadequacy to experience. To write is to lacerate experience, to tear it to pieces and rob it of its vitality. And yet this is the only way we can really understand it.

What is needed, then, is a way for experience and writing to compliment each other and be part of the same thing. Neither by itself will do. Irwin describes Bataille’s project this way:

What Bataille sought to present was not a set of ethical propisitions or radically coordinated political theses, but rather a style of life that, considered as a (lacerated but living) whole, offered an alternative to the values and forms of existence that had found their culmination in totalitarian oppression and war. The life of mysticism and expenditure Bataille proposed could not, he claimed, be adequately described in the language of philosophical, social scientific, or political discourse. This mode of life could only be grasped in its realization (performance) in the exemplary being: the mystical writer, Bataille himself.

The alternative Bataille offered was an experience of the self as sacred. His mystical texts were often meant to be guidebooks to lead his readers to a similar experience, which according to Irwin constituted a basis of effective resistance to political tyranny. Similarly, Weil espoused the importance of a concept she called “real metaphor” (la métaphore réalle). She writes, “the story of Christ is a symbol, a metaphor. But in other times it was believed that metaphors occur as events in the world.” She advocates a return to a mindset wherein events, and not just words, are charged with complex meaning, and she wishes for her life to be such an event.

Reading all of this reminded me of an exchange I recently had with my friend _swallow on the subject of my decision to begin my “serious” blogging under a new, semi-anonymous internet identity. She wrote:

I only really care about the intellectual ideas that people share online when they’re visibly attached to such an “I”, and attached via narrative. Part of this is my hungry gossipy interest in other people’s selves, and my inability to separate personality from insight (I was stuck fawning on Cynthia Ozick’s rapturous prose, for example, while my classmates tore apart the conclusions of her essays). But gee! it seems to me that although I probably should learn to separate them a little more, narrative and philosophy– personality and intellect– art and criticism– the two are more like different glosses on the same thing than truly different things. And to privilege “one” above the “other” is therefore doubly a mistake.

Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent musings at Acephalous on academic blogging, and particularly the talk he delivered at an MLA panel on the subject, have got me thinking about what appears to be a fairly consistent crisis for bloggers, namely: how am I going to justify my online existence today? _swallow appears to be on the trail of an answer, which also might have been Weil’s and Bataille’s answer, namely: your life should justify your writing, and vice-versa. We read blogs instead of books for recreation because we are interested in people, not just ideas. In blogs, lives become texts, unfolding almost in real time.

If one impulse behind transforming one’s life into a “real metaphor” is a wish to avoid the lacerating inadequacy of language via producing propaganda composed of “dazzling realities,” we still need to consider the other side of life-writing: writing life. Weil’s desire to “make of life itself the supreme poetry” is also a desire to complicate life, to turn life into the messiness of language and, above all, to orient her life toward others.

Why does this matter? Bataille writes,

It is in [the writer] and through him that man learns how he himself remains forever elusive, being essentially unpredictable, and how knowledge must finally be resolved into the simplicity of emotion. It is in and through the writer that existence, in a general way, is what a girl is to the man who desires her, whether she love or spurn him, bring him pleasure or despair.

Well. Patriarchal paradigms aside, what is a person to another who desires him or her? A horizon, an uncharted but enticing territory. In the fusion of writing and life, things are not pinned down like dead butterflies to the page. Words and realities flutter freely, sometimes touching and sometimes floating apart. In the gaps: the sacred — vast and silent.

Newborn and Salted

December 22, 2006 at 8:32 am | Posted in materiality, the sacred, writing | 4 Comments

There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.
–Annie Dillard,
Holy the Firm

Anyone who loves to read will tell you that certain books are cathedrals. You enter them and are immediately humbled. You are the only one inside. You spend hours in there, examining the stained glass and the grain of the wood on the pew in front of you. Some of these books are ornate, some are spare, but all of them are shot through with a fierce light that seems to be breaking out between the words.

Every reader’s holy books are different. Mine include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Trilogy by H.D., Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Dillard was the first essayist I fell in love with, the first person to make me realize that an essay could be a work of art, and so it seemed appropriate to begin this project with a discussion of her book. Bloggers are essentially essayists, after all, if somewhat slapdash ones.

I first got into Dillard because of a boy. Kenan was a sophomore in high school when I was a freshman; he was somebody with whom I loved to climb trees, but he was also somebody who knew The Ways Of The World. He recommended Dillard to me, and I dutifully went out and purchased Teaching a Stone to Talk, selected from among her works probably because of its title. The first sentence arrested me: “It had been like dying, sliding down that mountain pass.” I knew I had discovered an art form that would be a necessary part of life from that moment on. Essays, creative nonfiction, where had you been all those years?

It’s a stern art, grounded mercilessly in reality. It’s like photography: you take a real thing, out there in the world, and you mess around with your aperture, focus, and F-stop until you achieve the composition that communicates, through some miracle, your subjective experience of the thing. To read Dillard is to encounter the world, bright and immanent and baffling, and to realize you are not other than the world. You die, you slide down the mountain pass.

Holy the Firm is almost certainly the book I have read more times than any other. It weighs in at only 76 pages and takes only an hour to read, so every six months or so when I find myself with a particularly lovely chunk of time to kill I will pick it up again. Its opening is ten times more stunning than that of Teaching a Stone to Talk; so much so that I will refrain from quoting it here, because I want you to have the experience of opening the book and seeing for yourself. Dillard intimates in The Writing Life that in its early stages, Holy the Firm was poetry, and only later in the process did she decide to “print it as prose.”

It’s a book about suffering and beauty. Dillard wrote it while living, Thoreau-like, in a one-room cabin on the Puget Sound, one wall of which was glass and faced the ocean. This situation itself is the chief subject of the first chapter. The second chapter is about a little girl whose face gets burned off, and the third chapter is about communion wine. Dillard describes herself in some book, I forget which, as a “Christian mystic.” She is a troubled one– the beauty of the world impels her to worship, but its cruelty impels her to mutiny. Her books urgently ask “one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”. If you take seriously the idea that there is a God, the existence of suffering poses an enormous problem. Theologians have been arguing about it for years, and the solutions they offer are, let’s face it, pretty thin. Suffering exists so we can appreciate the good? Suffering exists so that morality can exist? Suffering is an inevitable consequence of free will? Some of those sound good on paper, particularly the last one, but come now– God bound by the laws of logic, unable to lift the rocks he creates? That has never been a persuasive image. Job’s comforters offer answers like these, but they are futile. God’s answer to Job’s plea is the only real answer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The problem is always that God is inaccessible, and we are hopelessly material. Dillard takes her materiality seriously, and sees in it the grounds for a serious challenge against the Allmighty. But she also sees something else:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

The idea that art arises from suffering is a cliche as old as the standard theodicies above, but to my knowledge no theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art. Art is a means and not an end in most religions. Reading Christian theology, one is sometimes struck by how monstrous man seems– made of clay, and yet he speaks. In the middle ages, theologians were so baffled by the idea of how something with no material existence (the soul) could cohabit spatially with something of only material existence (the body), that they invented a third concept, the spirit, to bind the two together. God told them that man consisted only of body and soul, but Plato told them that “it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them” (Timaeus). To avoid heresy, St. Augustine and Aelred of Rievaulx had to declare this third thing entirely material– they identified it with the “subtler” elements of fire and air. Through manipulating these elements, they claimed, the soul was able to control the body’s grosser elements of water and earth.

For Dillard, materiality is material, the stuff of art. For Dillard, man is not a monster who needs to be explained away, but a miracle who needs to be explored and exulted. Here is her description of the mind-body problem:

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools– that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it. Give the mind two seconds alone and it thinks it’s Pythagoras. We wake up a hundred times a day and laugh.

I resolve, then, never to be Pythagoras. This blog will be a record of wakings up.

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