Gott sei Dank

The only relation of consciousness to happiness is gratitude: in which lies its incomparable dignity. —Theodore Adorno

Theological connotations and religious prejudices aside, let me briefly entertain the following hypothesis: the name “God” can be perceived and understood as a catch-all-and-nothing term that serves a psychological function for us, namely: it responds and corresponds to our need to express feelings of boundless thanks, where “God” names the hypothetical ‘receiver’ of this thanks. This minimal definition of God leads to the idea that “God” is thanks through and through (Gott “sei” Dank); and that perhaps what pertains most profoundly to God in our experience is and has always been gratitude approaching the limit of what is thinkable, what can be known, what is.

Max Ernst , Birth of a Galaxy, 1969.

Boundless because it is thanks not merely for this or that thing, occurrence, person, etc., but for the that it was in general: the apparent fact of it all having been, thanks for whatever has ‘hung together’ in having happened. Boundless because this ‘Zusammenhang’ surpasses logic and the scope of our vision, because it renders descriptions impotent and symbols silent, it defies computation or full account. Boundless because we can always penetrate into another vicissitude of the improbability of everything. “God” is then a weakly sufficient term, one that does not even need to be spoken as such: a label by ‘default’ (better terms are lacking) corresponding to this feeling or need to address boundless thanks to the ‘unlimited’, which nothing in our imagination can ever exhaust. God is that something or someone who might know why we give thanks, what all we give thanks for, and why thanks is appropriate; who might know this better than we do and be able to receive it better than any of us could.

The impression in question is so strong that the issue of ‘who’ exactly one addresses by this name, “God”, fades. In fact, it is almost irrelevant in comparison to the function that it or a substitute would serve as the ‘addressee’ of ultimate thankfulness. Such an addressee is only hinted at in this upsurge of feeling toward an unknown ‘thankee’—surging for having existed, for having had a history, a body, a drive, a connection to others, to nature, to the world, and so on. Issued in holistic fashion, this thanks includes all: joys and sufferings, terrors and reliefs, in contemplation of the whole mortal state, without prettying it up. This is why it cannot help but seem like a miracle, unbelievable, an impossibility: that something happened at all, light and dark. God would represent first of all the possibility of being grateful despite everything, for the happiness we’d had amidst so many damages; for any glimmer of possibility, any convalescence, any chance.

One could easily object that such thanks needn’t be addressed to “God”, a name carrying much baggage and prone to misinterpretation and misuse. Thanks could be addressed to the universe or whatever else provokes wonder at our ‘abandoned’ existence. The objection is valid. But using the name God needn’t imply what it has traditionally—a being who planned all this, wanted all this, the agent cause of all that is, including the worst. All of that could be discarded, so that God would no longer be conceived as the guarantor of order, but rather analogous to what emerges improbably out of disorder, like our lives. It may be a godless universe, dominated by entropy and death, but yet improbable moments and thankfulness for them do/did exist, however briefly. When our wonder and appreciation at the it was’ seeks something ultimate—not to explain the reason for existence, or even justify it, but merely to offer a gesture of thanks—perhaps humans stumble upon this non-religious, almost ‘natural’ function for the name “God” in human language, as that which possibilizes the improbable (and from a certain perspective everything we’ve ever observed, known, and experienced was improbable).

Oklad (cover) of the Trinity icon by Andrei RublevNonetheless, by invoking God, I do not wish to reduce the puzzle: whom to thank? Let it linger as an open question. I only insist that this desire and need to thank is profoundly human. It corresponds to the fragility of our situation; to the depth of our own receptiveness regarding everything we experience; to the feeling that all the phenomena of life are gifts we receive as if from nowhere; and to the ‘unendingness’ we sometimes feel in those subtle moments when we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the whole in spite of it all. Such thanks is motivated by a saturation or excess of this emotion, when it overflows all the containers, aware of finitude and limited time, aware as well of the possible absurdity of addressing it to anyone at all. But hopefully it’s clear that what I’m refer to under the heading of boundless thanks in no way excludes concrete gestures of thanks to concrete, ’empirical’ actors and factors. Rather, “God” would be whom one thanked for those factors and actors: for their very improbable ensemble and consequent impact on us, acknowledging that none of them could claim total control over their having-been-there, their having-existed, that none were the unique cause of themselves. God thanked for fortuity, chance, encounter, trial, discovery, event, understanding, all together in a contingent totality of links and significances: what happened at every scale of realism and how it seemed or appeared to us epiphenomenally, which exceeded all our plans, efforts, and knowledge no matter how much these participated. It is a thanks for that which no consciousness could fully grasp. Or rather: which consciousness knows it only grasps, and grasps best, in thanks.

In the last instance, ‘reality’ may be utterly indifferent to human meaning, which is fleeting, not to last, not ‘necessary’ in any natural system. But this does not cancel the emotion we sometimes have—however absurd, contradictory, illusory, or wishful it may be—of a need to express boundless thanks for a life lived that, although it couldn’t be, somehow was. Gott sei Dank! May God be thanks, nothing more, nothing less.

—from Sept 1, 2018, Trieste airport
—published online Thanksgiving 2018
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Images: Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy, 1969; Andrei Rubilev, cover of the Trinity icon, 1425

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Nihilism and the Absolute

Both enchanted Nature and the immanent Divinities are lost once the Absolute comes close and wants to be near us, bei uns. What is left in its proximity is the disenchanted World, without any ‘outside’, any ‘sacred’—except perhaps where the Absolute is touched and traced. This is, or would be, true life: incarnate, embody, incorporate, in sum, mediate the Absolute in the World, in the absence of any other intermediaries; instantiate the ‘touch’ of the Absolute at the limit between somewhere and ‘nowhere’.

In this arrangment, Nihilism represents awareness of the loss of intermediary steps, of gradations, of mediation. Both real and apparent World, empirical and ideal, show their artificiality, constructibility, and contingency. This applies especially to any world or worldview that is bought or sold, marketed or packaged to any degree, which tries to persuade us it holds the key, that it could successfully mediate. Eventually, however, all are shown up as dust, corruptible, lossy, not absolute—at best, ladders to be discarded after climbing to a vantage point where one can survey it and see its nonsense. Every opinion, belief, worldview, can fall to such criticism, for all are by definition ‘less than’ the Absolute, which once known by touch is not easily mistaken to be where it’s not. Nihilism is a radical skepticism guarding against such a mistake, a criticism of anything ‘less’. It is always at risk of despairing before this fact, given the lack of intermediaries and, on closest scrutiny, the absence of God. Its tendency is to deny, given its artificiality, any meaning in the World, to accept such a state as ‘absolute’. (This is where nihilism proves incomplete: when it deduces from the Absolute’s ‘inexistence’ its outright impossibility.)

What is exacerbated by this criticism is the apparent ‘fact’ that there is no escape from ‘finitude’, the circulation of goods, spectacles, bodies, languages, views, opinions, etc.—except perhaps through some procedure of keeping in ‘touch’ with the Absolute, an open possibility I must leave unclarified. For such a procedure could involve many things, liturgy, art, romance, science, service; indeed it could never be reduced to any one intelligible activity. Such pressing issues burn from within, call upon all our powers of invention and imagination, as well as our courage and perseverence in the process. At stake here is what Lacoste calls the subversion of the topological, the transgression of World-space and -priority, though this is no leave-taking of the World either. The point to stress is that, inside, one recognizes the difference between the Absolute and its substitutes, enough to decide between them. In Kierkegaard’s parlance, the difference lies between the sickness unto death (endless circulation in the market of finite possibilities) and willing to be oneself (willing one’s potentiality in the infinite). Roughly, this corresponds to Nietzsche’s own distinction between passive and active nihilism. Conscience informs when the contact is true or not, when something ‘eternal’ is near or at play. It guards against being deceived about that contact or nearness, it being unable to accept any substitute for the Absolute, just as nihilism intuits.

By the same token, since there is no substitute for it in the World, the Absolute can never be said to be ‘here’ like a given element, just waiting to be found. The Absolute is never ‘there’, but emerges, arises, opens, like a surprise, a breakaway, an ‘event’. Such words only signify its otherness to what exists, its happening quality: as a suspension or swerve from the known, determined World (though this does not transpire in some other realm or hinterworld either). In point of fact, although the difference between the Absolute and whatever is ‘less’ can be recognized, no rule is at hand. Nor any criteria for reaching it, nor any Way. Why? Because Way is World, its components World; whereas the Absolute is not component, not destination, not ‘something’, not container or circumference of what exists. The Absolute is not a cheap trick, revealing itself at a magic word. Nor is it the object of an aim per se, but more like what is constitutively missing, no matter desire’s action.

The best we can say, without overdetermining it, is that the Absolute is an intensity, an intensiveness which can charge any human activity but never becomes identical or exchangeable with anything extended (Earth and World). As such, however, it also prescribes the intensity of a possible dissatisfaction and restlessness, since ‘evidence’ for the Absolute in the World is perennially lacking and its intensities notoriously hard to grasp. What’s more, supposing such an intensity did manifest itself, was ‘reached’, it is all too easy to later doubt that very experience or forget it happened, so much so that one disbelieves its reality in one’s memory and excludes that anything like it could happen again. The intensity of the Absolute bears upon both extremes, missing and touch, makes both intense from the same longing, its same inexistence.

To formulate things this way is to take the negative road and emphasize the radical incongruity or ‘difference’ between the Absolute as intensiveness and the World as extendedness: the gap between infinite and finite. Yet there is no idea or thing to ‘absolutize’ here. Nor is there any room for belief in an Absolute, which would imply knowing what it is, that it is, where it is, how to attain it. Moreover, it would imply a language and categories to handle it, whereas the Absolute is by definition not known according to an already-existing logos. Epistemology, our access to the knowable, loses its status as intermediary, its status is ‘lowered’, largely due to the restlessness we feel in pursuit of the unknown, of what might satisfy our aptitude for truth.

This is very likely why the closeness of the Absolute—minimally: the enticement to true life—corresponds to the total disenchantment of the World (and, historically speaking, to the explosion of scientific knowledge about it). The subjective ‘mood’ of disenchantment, bereft of absolutes, is one of abandonment, a lack of divine assistance. Orientation to the Absolute here is ‘atheist’ in that sense: nothing in the world gives a foundation for it, no ‘sign’ can claim unequivocal reference to it. Faced with evil, no one can claim the World is its ‘expression’. On the contrary, it would appear that it lacks all expression of it, leading to the conclusion that there is no such thing and never was. Hence nihilism: the absence of any ‘answer’ regarding the Absolute, loss of any sure guarantee that there is anything other than World and information.

Yet ours could not be experienced as a ‘fallen’ World if there were not some memory or trace of what we’d fallen from, meaning, we retain some capacity to recognize what may be Absolute, even if at any given moment nothing fits the bill. Nihilism is a highly positive development in this critical sense: it functions as a very refined bullshit detector, forcing you, even against your will, to test the truth of everything against the stalwart powers of negation. However ostentatious, combative, and annoying the nihilist may be, a good one challenges unchallenged beliefs and forces examinations of conscience that eliminate hasty conclusions, ideological pipedreams, doctrinal commonplaces, and so on. For the worst offense to the Absolute would be an unacknowledged false belief, or false designation: that one had touched it when one hadn’t, that in lieu of genuine contact one had faked it, that one had spun a web of deceptions just to give an impression of absoluteness. But as the old saying goes, “God is not mocked.” Nihilism is coterminus with the phenomenon of never settling for less than the most truth-filled life, refusing to make a mockery of what could be true, or to compromise with the sloppy, simplicistic, uncritical, or rosy-eyed. Voraciously it devours whatever is deemed second best, even if no first best, technically speaking, can be found. If one ignores its prompt, either one lives in a bubble of happy deception, or eventually (thank God!) bitter consequences befall one, until a new choice is made and the bullshit left behind—even if this means staring into the horror of the void, answerless.

For once World and Absolute reveal such closeness, such that there’s no intermediary between them—which at the same time has made us aware of the infinite difference between them and sharpened our power of recognizing that difference—it is not obvious how to stay in touch with the Absolute, or indeed what such a phrase even points to concretely. At this point, relativism tries to step in and assuage restlessness prematurely, telling us that there is no Absolute, no Truth. As no evidence of it can be found in all the diversity of the world, best to give up on such illusions. But the nihilist’s discontent, making it difficult for to affirm anything whatsoever about the World, points in another direction, away from the good conscience of the relativists.

Whoever stares into the abyss knows that nothing ‘relatively true’ will ever satisfy our aptitude for the ultimate. If something cannot be recognized as participating in the Absolute, we know it. This knowledge haunts and hurts us. It raises within us, necessarily, the urgency of ultimate ends. It is here that many questions proliferate, many personal and profound journeys after that ‘touch’, that ‘end’, seemingly so vague and paradoxical: what activities sustain it, what keeps the lines open, such that it is not a ‘belief’, not just empty verbiage, to say, “I abide in the Mediator, the true life”?

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With Them Without Words

[This project from Fall 2009 has been revised for current publication. The essay below, “With Them Without Words,” explores the idea of a non-dual heritage stretching from Buddha to Friedrich Schlegel to the main protagonist of the research, Tristian Tzara and Dadaism, interpreted with the help of Jacques Derrida. The second text, Mr. Aa An Index, is a poetic ‘dictionary’ of quotes and poetic recombinations of lines from lots of Tzara’s poems. For a one-page chart of the overall perspective, see Dada Non-Dual. For two short appendicies to the project, see Dada Bodhisattva and Tzara Approximation. For Tzara’s own manifestos and statements about Dada, see his page at the Art History Archive.]

With Them Without Words

A word speaks— to whom? To itself:
Servir Dieu est régner,— I can
read it, I can, it grows brighter,
away from “kannitverstan.”
—Paul Celan

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
    —Ludwig Wittgenstein

Both the song and the silence my beautiful country of joy
    —Tristan Tzara

To think through Tristan Tzara’s poetics requires that we enter a practice of poetry, for only with poetry can our language become essential and open space for an encounter with the real outside of ‘reality’ as it is defined. With poetry, we encounter the strangeness of language: it brings us to question our situatedness in it and to respond by re-situating ourselves in it (qua outside it), and thus to re-situate language itself, to lend it a more appropriate being-for-us. Poetry suspends the situation for the sake of re-situation. To respond with poetry is then to enter an active, living signifying process, no longer duped by the dream of set significations. What is outside of what we are, what is an exception to what is or is said to be, becomes what we are, or are in the process of becoming, without goal, without end, in a signifying process in the imago of a becoming-never-finished.

To recognize language as artifice and respond with poetry as a way to re-situate it initiates the non-dual, beginning with the recognition that all dualisms and ‘theses’ are situated in the artifice of language. In such a situation, what is called for is the poetic making of word and world, as a way to show the real beyond the deceit of dualisms and open a space for encounters between beings, events of ‘truth’. Such a non-dual heritage, more generally, is one that pays close attention to the performative aspect of language in various ways. A brief list of some points the rest of the essay will explore includes:

—an ironic stance toward any thesis statement, logic, ‘reason’, ‘philosophy’
—awareness of the transience of words and the inevitability of change
—openness to constant reformulation and rearticulation of basic truths and guiding principles
—priority of communication between spirits, not doctrines, exact meanings, debates
—focus on freedom and justice as ‘human constants’
—emphasis on the chance-like, spontaneous, process-nature of creation
—and finally, insistence that art/poetry and life must never be separated.

This non-dual recognition and response has a heritage as long as humans have dwelt in language. With the help of the Jacques Derrida and his thinking on language, the “desert in the desert,” and messianicity, I will show why Tzara’s Dada is a part of this heritage, later drawing in correspondences between his work and Friedrich Schlegel’s. Along the way, I will try to participate in it, too, articulating a human constant of freedom, life, justice, and futurality that in this essay Tzara will help us define.

I

Tzara’s response to the deceitful configurations of ideology, philosophy, and argument, was to unite poetry and life: to reignite the being of language. In his cultural context, this meant the harshest nihilism as a way to combat the ‘usage’ of language as a tool for ideologies and influence. He combined his rejection of large scale programs (nations, religions, aesthetic categories) with a general mistrust of words to convey anything at all. Nietzsche had already written years earlier: “That enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts, to which the poor man clings for dear life, is for the liberated intellect just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices.” Tzara shares Nietzsche’s (‘non-dual’) recognition that all our truths are constructions built on the shifting sands of words and grammar, as well as the goal of liberating the intellect. But language as artifice can become real only by surrendering to the truth of its artificiality, playfully, for this surrender gives way to a new, utterly singular voicing of it: to give this truth a body by giving way to language-events that proceed from this awareness.

It is important to flesh out, then, what exactly we mean when we say that language is always artifice, for this is the recognition that characterizes the non-dual heritage we are attempting to trace out. Continue reading

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Creative Forgetfulness

“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders,” Nietzsche preaches, and if there is one lesson to take away from his work, perhaps it is this: creative forgetfulness conditions fullness.

Nietzsche’s critique is lodged against those who, on the contrary, are stuffed up, clogged, overfull. It’s not just that they can’t forget what they’ve done, who they have been, and what has been done to them – and so are stung constantly by bites of bad conscience, guilt, remorse and regret. They also can’t get out of their head all the different behaviors they’ve observed in others – and so they struggle to define a mode of life that would deviate in any way from the norm, from anything that could not rather easily be absorbed into the mass of insignificance. Such people are damned to a straight-jacket of memories and unbendable empirical observations, unable to sense new chances or to will another way.

To be unable to forget, for Nietzsche, amounts to forgetting that one “is.” So much in the loop of what was, clinging to bygone determinations, one acts as if existence were beyond transformation – a trap, a “life sentence,” a punishment. Whereas, in reality, so long as we are still living, it remains unfinished, open up to the end to new habits, new attitudes, new speeches. Amor fati – to see what is necessary in things, so as to make them beautiful – liberates from fatalism. It affirms our freedom to treat every circumstance as a gift, or rather, as an opportune occasion (kairos): condition of possibility for fullness.

The creative process – which merges here with life itself, in that its rule coincides perfectly with its form – is no different. To produce the new is to forget what’s been produced past. But let’s avoid a misunderstanding: this does not imply that there is no development from one stage to the next, or that what lies behind is ignored; only that, in the heat of innovation, there is no time, no room, to pay attention to what’s already been transcended. Surely, it remains; we still survey and learn from our own traces and those of all humanity. But once we set off to generate new ones, to chase down new ideas, we do not even have to choose to forget about them, suddenly they are swept into an unprecedented configuration. They have already disappeared or mutated, along with whoever in us created them. In this way, what’s past is perfected and ‘redeemed’.

For in truth we are always reproducing ourselves with a difference – a difference we can never master, a difference we never get the better of, but do undergo and can direct. It is this difference – eternal return in every instant of the ‘same’ creative forgetfulness – that lets us get the better of our blunders, to act beyond the confines of any previous stage, and so to ‘become who we are’, unknown to any former self, yet underway.

(Nov 12, 2016)
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Dom Sylvester Houédard 1
Image: Dom Sylvester Houédard
https://www.lissongallery.com/exhibitions/dom-sylvester-houedard

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UNALONE

UNALONE (2016)

The exhaustion of the hero’s ego is his hatred—let him hate it too, and cry.

At the mercy of what harrows me, I become the dancing arrow of rejection’s blatancy, so that I cannot tell apart love of the future from my distaste for the present’s tepidness. To crave intensity is to bury oneself in a soil of indecency, knowing that the transgression is as ridiculous as the dilemma itself. Our chain to death made everything possible to our blindness and courage. Insignificance was our one call line: it’s what we pursued when every worldly pursuit proved done and corruptible. That drive brought us to our “solitude,” no, our awayness, our exile from the legible and thinkable. Only in this way did we deem it possible to gain trust. Our new desire was to submit ourselves to that law alone, singularly, and thereby to identify ourselves in life with god’s dust.

To be done with spitting out a bad infinity of theoretical riddles! And in the exact same commitment: to be done with the brutish buffoonery of pragmatism, realistic attitudes, democratic consensus-building, and all the other boring atheisms beholden to prevailing machinations of power. Enough with the bauble of the hour! That book lost its ritual magic eons ago.

To regiment instead a form (of forgiveness as of intensity, it amounts to the same break with presentness) is not possible: improvisation in contemplation losing itself in prayers dedicated to the indestructible oneness of the literate (human) offering was the only “option” left for the heavenly trust once exposed.

Stone of steady silence in blood, erupting with intimations that could please an exploded sun: what a “perspective” to take on the gravity of singularity, what a buzz to match the immortal fun of catching rays! How else to account for the deliberate making of ashes? (I take an infinity to decide, but once I decide, all I do is listen.) How else to abandon all glory of the one, and to destine it instead to what’s coming? (This time, this is the extra time in which I live: time of love of contact.)

**

What is a vision in words? For example: all that ever happens, all that we ever see, is but the ash falling off a flame which will remain forever invisible, which to that extent doesn’t “exist”?

The difference between a visionary of images and one of words is only a difference in modes of faith: the prophet means to instill it by scaring or dazzling, such that the audience holds on to the image and fears it; the writer means to obliterate it, to make the image hesitate in its definition and erase itself, to leave it forgotten in the spirit, such that the belief it teaches is radically “skeptical,” unbelievable, unmaintainable and thus demanding revisions—pure vision subtracting itself from images as praxis: as constant (abyssal) reevaluation and deliberation in the burial of every scene of vision (tragicomedy).

Articulation thus oversees the word’s progress into oblivion: it has meant this way to mean nothing, and in meaning nothing to drive the responsibility of vision to its darkest day, its bluest gaze.

**

How to distinguish between the obliteration of self and messianic illusion? The critic is the blind spot in his reason. The adventure’s all yours, if you can need it.

**

How will we ever learn to recognize each other’s injury—that we’re invalids for life, dis-abled for good? Worse than all the pain, even up to our paralysis, is misrecognition: the bullshit, that it should all keep trudging on like normal.

The trouble is always to mix the present up with the elation. “Ecstasy” exists in a vacuum of communication that is too drunk to pound out its words. (The future’s pull is contact, returning every move to its use; the present can only relate such moves in fragmented form. But there is a beyond of the fragmentary form: it is the demand of our being’s mode.)

Baseline on the outbound of the free, captivate me, “prove” to me the contact despite relation, echo me in the repetition of your touch, so trustingly other and complete.

For the treasure’s repeat, sound just again on the sword; tear in the fight onward to the eclipse of fear.

The story to end all stories is a quiet one, generated by presence in the most obscure ways.

You cannot not be seduced by a world; remember only, it is a transition: undergone eternal. (The comedy is glad to buy you time after the fact.)

Bringing “what I did” to nothingness: that was the meaning of the present in which everything I did could be lost. Deciding when the withdrawal was possible was impossible: it happened more often than being.

Ignoring the other was an evil with two sides: you’re the ignored one or you get to ignore the other one. To make a habit of both is happiness.

Sharing silence: the perfect saying. This would be a way to have everything—like praying.

**

This way of recoding demands all its sequels, every trace and present unequal (absolutely) to all their equals.

The minute you can leave me alone I’ll know you love me, that you’ve taken the risk of ease, oblivion, departure into the heart kept away in safety, indestructible and ever worthy of the trust we forget to give it.

Or perhaps I’m just an addict, gunning for the bottom of my pain. (You’ll forget whatever didn’t disappoint you, in other words everything.)

The other excels at reflecting back your ghost, thankfully.

**

Undeveloped, cut-off abruptly or after long perseveration, the trails all end in sorrows from the perspective of advancement, development, organization, establishment of truth or system or coherent fiction or even thesis statement, a most naïve basis or quick conclusion:

To put the step into thought means—with the vigilance of one fearing for their eternal soul—to restore the stepping of the step in each step, so that at no point an actual prior step can be presumed to exist, no trail whatsoever traveled: such would read an ethics of thinking as a practice of the other self.

Traveling full bore into the non-sense of a misspent life—the freely chosen trap without obligation or command, the listening gesture lost in the movement of all beings beyond all work and time—attached to them as unforgettable, as being forever only what they’re capable of: use in care of the inappropriable-irreparable-unthinkable: us.

My only one offering, my only one personal gift: to forever disappear into this (sadness, the perfected side of bless, connecting every mistaken instance to the Riß of unmissing and peace): seduction beyond belief, beyond being…

The irony of bliss would be: no one is talking to you. That would be the majesty of the other’s specter in me, living that I might again see.

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Testimonial

Testimonies become more and more personal over time and, for that very reason, more and more impossible to ‘defend’, ‘ground’, or ‘justify’. The highest accounts of spirit come with the disclaimer, “You must take me at my word”―at least until you’ve read, understood, and experienced what is said. But even then, don’t glance over the fact, don’t be flippant with this supreme detail, that what I say is pulled up with considerable effort from that well I call my soul, the repository or oracle of the unique end-purpose of my being. What I choke out in frustrated modes, what I embellish with rhetoric, what I labor out in slow movements of argument―all of this has its field, and each field has its relevance, but underneath was a person who never, entirely, lets itself be overlooked. Indeed, figures tower in history because they saturate their own context, meaning that they lived an ‘intuition’ for which no concept is fitting; we have only their proper name, reference to an almost limitless enigma. They underwent intimately their own ‘suchness’, the so-called singularity of an unfolding, full to the brim with a mostly invisible consciousness. The plea, “Please believe me!” (the content of what I say) is rooted in a deeper plea, “Please believe me!” (I who speak, the person addressing you). A gesture of faith must be given to the witness, a measure of credit; otherwise, their witness will never be credible, never entertained. Perhaps the cause of such disharmony in social discourse is that this ground of credit has fallen out from under us. We speak at or about each other, instead of to each other, disagreeing there is any “soul” at all. We fixate on the active articulation of our view, paying little attention to the common “trust” of language we share. Restoring that implies an ethic of listening, but we all have learned, too, how difficult this is.

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Affirming Worth

Affirming Worth
March 27, 2018

An author can be conscious of what they’re doing, while at the same time not knowing what they’re creating or what it’s worth. Thus, nothing prevents them from creating something that is not worth knowing.

This means that what the author creates may remain unknown to them (perhaps for the duration of their life), without them ever ceasing to believe it may be worth knowing. The yearning to do something worthwhile may supersede the desire to know what is being done. The wish rushes ahead, leaving complete knowledge of what was done and what it was worth for future days. The process of knowing and valuing are not identical. They push each another to the limits of what can become clear about actions.

For the author’s coming to know what they’re doing is a long process, filled with insights and disappointments, miracles and dead-ends. This is compounded by the fact that they cannot always know beforehand if what they’ve undertaken is or will have been worth undertaking. This is amplified further the more the author writes in an abyss, without reader’s feedback, approval or admonition; and more importantly, if the subject matter remains elusive, if the object sought is characterized by some degree of unknowability. There may even be something dreaded in it by nature, or in the conclusions to which it leads. Nonetheless, the intuited worth of the pursuit will drive the author on, as they face and accept the prospect of not knowing what they are doing, thus in another sense risking the unforgivable.

The author of course goes through phases, differing tendencies, preferred modes of expression, shifting interlocutors and theoretical concerns. Consideration of ‘how’ can overshadow consideration of ‘what’ and vice versa. At times, one strives for clarity, which tends to simplify the issue or at least reduce it to its most readily intelligible dimensions. At other times, one refuses clarity, both about what one knows and in one’s use of language, such that other devices, situated at the limit of imagination’s power, come into play. Here one is liable to lose oneself in a labyrinth of experiments that are both heart-close, in greatest proximity to intimate experience, and yet of debatable worth, given that no extant standards could uncomplicatedly judge them. This includes the author’s own standards, though no doubt a tradition of similarly ‘strange’ poetic products and what is learned from it serve as a protection against accusations of inanity. But no one can persist in the realm of the unknowable forever. Such work is always broken up by episodes of reflection on results, and the deduction, if not of content, then of consequences, in the cardinal direction the experiments sketch out. Experiences arrayed in serial sequence call for unifying reviews, for contemplation of overall trajectories and trends. This need not produce synthetic judgments or self-exegetical texts, but it will make clear the ambition of the work, or rather, its kernel of worthwhileness, no matter how pathetic the shells.

For it is manifestly obvious that any endeavor which fails repeatedly to prove its worthwhileness, its appropriateness to our life, can only result in disillusionment and despair over lost time. This is a difficult psychological problem, since humans exhibit such a capacity to persevere through zones of meaninglessness, tepidity, and lack of hope. For one can be conscious of something being ‘inauthentic’ without knowing it in a way that is actionable. Even once known, a turn to the ‘authentic’ cannot precede knowledge of one’s ability to act on that judgment. Life is also not neatly arranged for decisions about worthwhileness to take place in a vacuum without friction. Outside pressures very often necessitate one assume a ‘holding pattern’ in the inauthentic. But even then, the process of knowledge, of readying oneself to make a change when the moment comes, need not come to a halt. Nor does one’s ability to alter course atrophy. For the question of worthwhileness doesn’t only touch upon the big elements in life — endeavors, relationships, commitments — but also the smallest — daily habit, thought patterns, manners of speech, respect of surroundings. None of these are excluded from the writer’s conscious economy, even if they have no place in the work. Meanwhile, the topic of authenticity comes up only sometimes, and often not at all. Life, unfailingly, can be the only guide, since at bottom worthwhileness comes down to the question: have you spent your time well and wisely? And failing a full affirmation: how have you or will you make right the time poorly and unwisely spent?

The affirmation ‘it was worthwhile’ is the expression of an intelligent and rational being capable of both knowing its reference object — in this case its time of life, what it did and created — and judging its value according to some immanent standard (whether this is fully known or not, invented or inherited). One escapes with difficulty the image of each life balanced on the scale, some moments wasted, others fulfilled, where the best one can hope for is a positive balance in the end. But recall that judgments require a standard. Standards can be changed and not all standards can be known. Furthermore, no mind but God’s is capable of synoptic view and perfect memory. So the data set for our judgment of worthwhileness is limited by conscious or unconscious selections among the mass. Much of our mood on these matters may well depend on how we select those sets and what we choose to forget. The selection process applies to data which is not always clear either. Moreover, the drive for what is worth doing can be frustrated at many levels. No good options may be at hand; one must simply push on through the inauthentic, in debt to oneself and time. This pressure is liable to make certain actions explode that we cannot, in the moment, understand or see the point in.

And so we confess a rather all-encompassing ignorance when it comes to the final meaning, purpose, or worth of what we do and value, whether it be this or that work or the lived datum of everything that has to do with us. And yet we judge and decide, know and act, stretching ourselves out in aspiration toward true and ultimate worthwhileness. For the latter is not an ideal we might quickly discard. Our life is promised its ultimatum: how can it be affirmed, down to its last grain?

Note at least the tenuous quality of judgments in the style, ‘it was worthwhile’: one must suspend both overly depressive and overly enthusiastic accounts, lest the inauthentic strike back or the responsibility to progress slacken. In spite of our ignorance, indeed because of it, one must judge oneself first, search one’s heart and examine one’s works to determine what is worth it. The question leads us to last judgments based on views impossible for any finite creature to have. Yet it is equally impossible to resist passing judgments on self and other, rightly so in some cases, misled in others. Nor is it easy to forgive self and other for time wasted in inauthenticity, on worthless endeavor. The temptation arises to decide out of hand that, for example, the universe is without intrinsic meaning or purpose, that all our efforts are relative to us and have no intrinsic worth outside the look we cast on them; or, conversely, that the universe has its source in a moral being who can see our works and intentions to fruition in eternity and in whom we ought to strive for authenticity, leaving the rest to faith. But here conceivable solutions abound. For Kafka, all our life in this world is a basis for the spiritual world, for our ‘eternal justification’. Faith is already present in the acknowledgement that ‘one cannot not live’: one experiences this even when one does not want to live and fails to see the worth in it. It is through the ‘one cannot not live’ that one seeks to know the standards for oneself and for one’s life that will or could lead to the affirmation, ‘it was worthwhile’.

The same dynamic can be observed in an author’s work, often in a more explicit way. ‘One cannot not write’ is the working principle that scrutinizes itself and its purposes in light of the personal and existential need to say, ‘it was worth writing’ (both the thing written and the doing of it). I have alluded to the fact that feedback from the broader community, that one’s words do have some significance and resonate, may help ward off the harsher difficulties of this process, but it can never solve them for good. Why? Because the standards are not general but intimate and singular. Even scientific endeavors require the decision, focused intention, and commitment that no knowledge could stimulate, no mere acknowledgment of worth could produce. The further away from the general the work tracks, the less any standard of judgment stands ready for application. Such standards — and they are required — must inevitably issue from the author’s own aesthetic and moral conscience. But it is precisely this which is only formed along the way, its knowledge of what it is doing and its decisions about what it should do never final. In these singular cases, one is as detached from humanity, only to meet back up with it at the end of an infinite trajectory, and even then only by way of parallels.

For no text or act exhausts the concerns of conscience such that they become transparent to the other, nor entirely to the self. An intentionality lies forever hidden, no matter how much one strains to articulate the relevant imperatives and the depths of the demand. Still, the author is not in the clear about these matters, as I have stressed. One’s secret is a secret to oneself. Ultimate standards, however clarified, retain the air of unknowability, or rather, of constant intensification. It is this that one must reckon with if, in the end which never comes, one is to say, ‘it was worth writing’.

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