I wanted to add a few ideas to my previous post Nontology, where I discussed the difference between theory and poetry. I have purposely not “refreshed my memory” as to the particulars of that argument. I remember speaking of theory as manufacture and of poetry as fascination. Where theory defines, poetry names. Where theory takes language to be an instrument of thought, poetry begins each time with the birth of language/thought. And so on. Before going on, I’d like to emphasize that those contrasts were established in the creation and for the purposes of that post alone, even if various continuities are bound to crop up elsewhere.
“Genealogy” is not a very common word. It’s usually associated with family trees and tracing our heritage. Although there are exceptions, genealogy is usually a concern of the aging, if it becomes a concern at all. In my own experience, I can attest to this. My father worked for many years researching both his and my mother’s “lineages”: scanning in pictures, figuring out who was who in them, establishing dates and locations of deaths and births, etc. He created two-volume albums on the Lavenz family and distributed them to his siblings, most of whom received it with an appreciative indifference. Back then, I could understand their reaction. Who cares? The folks in those albums were long and gone, and so were their situations, traditions, etc. As a young man myself (14 or 15), what mattered were the new relationships I was forming with friends, girls, music, sports, clothes, and above all, my own social identity. “Genealogy” was superfluous, if not utterly invisible. Alas, the prospect of death inevitably changes things for you…
We might say that “genealogy” is a concern of the old because it brings them into contact with what we might call “the newness of the past,” where as the young strive for “the newness of the new.” At issue for both is creation, one way or another. But where youth see creation in the risqué and radical, the old see creation in the register, record, and legacy. They are notoriously oblivious to “fads,” and usually proud to be so. Where the youth stowaway, the aging bestow. This includes everything from autobiographies, wills, and final instructions, to whole oeuvres of artworks, writings for all of humanity. It may even involve slyly hiding in advantageous places, as if meant solely for those who search for it. This needn’t be intentional to be meaningful for their recipient; and either way, the intentions of the deceased are largely inaccessible. One evening, for example, I was looking through some old bags and found a notebook full of medical documents related to my father’s illness; but two of the pages stood out. One was a poem I had written about “my father’s house” during a spiritual emergency I’d had in 2006; the other was a page that had to do with the dangers of smoking for someone who had survived childhood lymphoma. As a smoker at the time, and a cancer survivor, this accidental or intentional placement was an opportunity for me to “wake up,” juxtaposed as it was with other documents pertaining to my father, death, my poetry, etc.
I recount this story only to show the depths of genealogical concern. We might consider honest, poetic missiles in the same way, which are inevitably disguised in and flat against a morass of other media, commentaries, and theories. The figure for these missiles — whether for all mankind or for specific persons — and it is always a combination of both — finds perfect expression in the lifelong imprinting that takes place between parent and child. This is largely hidden from the world; but the child is totally exposed to it. While there is always room for freedom, in another sense, a person is their lifelong exposure to such imprints, coming from parents, friends, media, etc., all of which carry the traces of a chain of influence whose origin exists nowhere and everywhere all at once. Even the reason for these imprints are unknown. However, by a mysterious transformation, these imprints become the child’s world and the reason for it. The ability to be exposed, to imprint, and pass all this along, it would seem, is the raison d’etre of humanity, made precise in each individual case, in each of us children on the way to maturity, which makes out of us a singular point of transmission, exposure, sharing and thanks. I remain suspicious of the “morass” because I remain concerned about the humanity we are transmitting to each other and our children. Even the childless must parent.
So, tentatively at least, we might define the history of human communications, and especially those literary, spiritual, and artistic heritages which seek to “educate” mankind and “help it mature,” as a genealogical record in which nothing but our own existence is at stake. What good are these words if, tomorrow, after encountering them, I’m as childish as I ever was? We too often underestimate our ability to metamorph like that. In a sense, there’s no point in reading anything if it doesn’t spark the kind of alchemy of the soul that George Steiner speaks of — where, letting the other seep in to me, I become another myself. But not just any old other, of course. On the contrary, an other concerned with the duty of being a human, which amounts first and foremost to the duty to be a good parent. For I am my own child, he who I must care for and nurture, just as my own maturation is for the sake of all children, all of us.
So, to back up a bit, it’s clear that the aging don’t establish their genealogical records (artworks? children?) merely for their own sake: what do they have to gain when they are leaving the world? It is primarily a record for the future, their descendants, even if, in the act of making the record, the parent discovers something most essential about themselves and their mortality as well. Shakespeare’s Sonnets develop this concern regarding Time’s passage and how he will pass on his love. It’s evident in the very first line of these poems: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” (#1). See also #3, #6, #11, and #17. To impress the point, here is Sonnet #22 in full:
My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date,
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me,
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O therefore love be of thyself so wary,
As I not for my self, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
Thou gav’st me thine not to give back again.
Perhaps the poetic stylists forget that behind the verse lies the desire to create something worth inheriting, as is so evident in these Sonnets. This is not a self-aggrandizing desire, or a stab at fame, which Shakespeare’s own anonymity readily proves. It is fundamentally the desire to be in the first place. It is even as if the locus of this desire is the genealogical record — child, poem, artwork, legacy — helping to make old and young realize that, through the miracle of “parenting,” we are all still children, we are all still charged with “growing up,” no matter how many hurdles we have already crossed. The paradox is that we usually only give a damn about “parenting” when we are really parents, or about “genealogy” when it’s time to die.
Becoming aware of this genealogical charge is not without consequences for thought and culture in general. It may even lead us to the point where we can differentiate between thoughts that are by children and those that are for children. I would like to think that these thoughts are in the latter category; but that does not imply anything like a “grown-up” standpoint; the child they are “for” is likewise me. Rather, it implies the work of “growing up,” that rise up from infancy that I discussed in a post on Agamben’s work.
Consider here Kant’s observation that, “It is difficult for the isolated individual to work himself out of the immaturity which has become almost natural for him.” I interpret this to mean that it is very difficult for the young to see that they do not live for themselves (any trip to the bar will affirm this for you). In terms of theory: it is very difficult for the theoretician to see that his terms have nothing to do with his or her own theory (any trip to the academic journals will affirm this for you). It is very difficult, especially for the young, to live a “genealogical existence,” an existence not oriented towards the manifestation of the new for the present generation, but toward the manifestation of the new as legacy and record, as homage to the past, as pure gift for the future ones. For when all that has come to me is a gift, and all that I can give is a gift, I have no expectation for response, return, or reward. It is my hunch that this kind of realization is what drives all “mature” works; and the reason we keep them in our canons is because they still have something to say to us children.
Perhaps poets and artists have always desired to have their work published in a timely fashion, so as to be recognized by and have an impact on their contemporaries. But from a genealogical standpoint, contemporary time itself is an illusion of childhood. The old are always out of step. Patience and measure set in when it becomes clear that “recognition” and “having an impact” are themselves impulses of the young. I cannot help but read in these attempts, as well as the urge to stay “up to date” on sports, politics, fashion, etc., a childish attempt to be accepted, credible, worthy, necessary, etc. But here, the old children say, “Who cares? I have children to raise.” What’s worse, and I think all too often, these impulses for “currentness” corrupt the creation of the work itself, introducing a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive element of haste and hurry into the process of creation. True, this urgency has legitimate sources, and will never be fully removed; but it is good to recognize it’s place. In practical terms, it is good to be patient with ourselves and “take a breather.” Without a clear head behind them, our creations turn out to be as expendable as old toys.
Our favor for genealogical existence stems from our desire to create something worthy of parenting all of humanity, not by assuming the position of knowledge or master, but by addressing ourselves and all others as children engaged in a common struggle to grow up, to understand death, etc. In Kant’s terms, this would translate as the public use of reason, where “public” refers to my singularity subtracted from my social identity and my organic community, and thus subtracted from my “youth” (see an old communism-based post for more on that). The genealogical motivation underlying the public use of reason lies in its appeal, not to fashion or acceptance, but to thinking and longevity. In the fullest sense of the term, it addresses someone who does not yet exist. While these words mislead a bit, our concern here is for “posterity,” or for “posthumous success”: benevolent gift-giving, with no expectation for returns in this life.
This attitude is profoundly charitable and genealogic. It makes way for a love that’s capable of reaching back. Recall Kierkegaard’s emphasis on preparing the ground for spiritual fruit to grow without ever reaping those fruits, without knowing any criteria for recognizing anything like “fruits,” and thus never assuming their existence. Everything is lost for the particular one, and he or she is singularized-universalized along the axis of the inexistent infinite. In this sense, prevailing opinion or social credit for your work matters very little; “legitmacy” itself is a concern of youth. The authenticity or integrity of the effort has to be rooted in the living truth of a nullified identity, consecrated totally to a “life to come,” to children. As Kant says, “Have patience awhile; slanders are not long-lived. Truth is the child of time; erelong she shall appear to vindicate thee.” Of course, the worst slanderers are the propagators of the doctrine. Only the silent inheritors can do a thought justice, doing so by diverging from it. Parenting requires quick feet. But the fact remains: truth is the child of time because the maturating have decided to attend to it now, and this leaves no room for trend-navigation and compromise. It requires quick feet and an honest heart, ready to erase everything for the sake of the child and/or growing up. “My glass shall not persuade me I am old.” This is a gift and a demand, all at once.
What’s at stake is a genealogical analysis of the present (eschatological) time. In terms of the actual creation or truth-work, “interpretation” and “meaning” are secondary to the fact that something sincere and serious is being passed on. In this sense, it is not the “Truth” that matters, but the seriousness of our attitude toward it. Our emphasis on maturity here comes from the realization that the passing influences of this or that right or wrong theory or social trend matter little “in the long run.” We ought to stop creating works if this means abandoning our sincerity regarding truth. Rimbaud, who gave up creative writing at the age of 20, offers a troubled example of the stringency involved, and his example dispels the myth that maturity is in any way tied to numerical age. Socrates may indeed be guilty of corrupting the youth, but only because he induced them to mature in a world that was itself immature. For the mark of immaturity — whether in ourselves or in the world at large — is certainly found in the delusion that things will go on “like this” forever. Dispelling this illusion dispels that of personal acquisition of any sort; it is tied to the Biblical advice to not store thy treasures where moth and dust doth corrupt. Shakespeare says it perfectly: “O therefore love be of thyself so wary, As I not for my self, but for thee will.” My wariness and my joy is my own; but I undergo the maturation it invokes in me for all. This does not guarantee that I know who it is for. It is for the one who listens, who might or will listen, and nothing more. The heaven where nothing is corrupted is in you.
As for Socrates — the mature one, who does not write, who questions assumptions and never defines, who speaks to whoever will reason with him, this practitioner of public reason par excellence — he needn’t know what comes after death to know that he is going to die. He knows that, through his sincerity alone, truth follows behind him. In knowing nothing, being nothing, and acquiring nothing, death-knowledge becomes thoroughly genealogical (“poetic”). It is expressed in its full uncertainty. Nullity finds itself in an economy of eternal life (the evangelic zoe aionios, rather than Aristotles’ bios politikos). This empty throne wields all the patient power. Words may expire, but the breath lives on. “The newness of the past” lives on. Perhaps this salute, directed both backwards and forwards in time, and always organized along the axis of an “elsewhere,” an “otherwise,” or “another,” is the real meaning of “salvation” in a fallen and immature time. I’m reminded of Levinas’ later work, his meditation on insomnia and patience, which we would all do well to return to (see the essays in Of God Who Comes to Mind).
To conclude, genealogical existence is, in a sense, the existence of the dead-in-life, or existence in light of inevitable death, public existence in light of the automatic expiration of all private existence. There is no short-term for the “parent.” Insofar as the terms are irrelevant, we could multiply examples and metaphors for this ad infinitum. The question, however, is simple: what good is my life if I’m the only one who’ll benefit from it? What good is the desire for happiness, experience, and truth, if it is sought only for my existence? What good is anything if it doesn’t tear me clean free of the disturbances of youth? And what good is thinking if it can’t provoke a thought beyond me? What good is anything if it doesn’t glorify God?