Monday, September 5, 2011

The Great Thirst

“All the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psycho-analysis—had their beginning in Hegel; it was he who started the attempt to explore the irrational and integrate it into an expanded reason which remains the task of our century. He is the inventor of that Reason, broader than the understanding, which can respect the variety and singularity of individual consciousnesses, civilizations, ways of thinking, and historical contingency but which nevertheless does not give up the attempt to master them in order to guide them to their own truth.”
– Merleau-Ponty: Sense & Non-Sense, p. 63

A bit later in his essay, Merleau-Ponty describes the movement of consciousness as one from a subjective “certainty” to action, which (according to Hegel) always has unexpected consequences. These consequences are an objective truth of sorts, in the light of which man modifies his project, acts with somewhat greater discernment, until at last man in his subjectivity finally brings himself into line with objective truth and “he becomes fully what he already obscurely was.” (p. 66)

What makes this little essay interesting is the odd mixture of accurate depiction of certain aspects of Hegel’s phenomenology (rare enough) and bogus French existential terminology (common enough). What seems to be altogether missing from Merleau-Ponty’s analysis is any understanding of the impetus behind the dialectical process Hegel is describing.

At one point he remarks, astutely, with regard to Hegel’s phenomenology, “Absolute knowledge, the final stage in the evolution of the spirit as phenomenon wherein consciousness at last becomes euqal to its spontaneous life and regains its self-possession, is perhaps not a philosophy but a way of life.” (p. 64) But the weakness of his analysis here, and of the French existentalist analysis generally, lies in the mistaken notion that the end to be achieved is some sort of personal peace as a result of elevated consciousness. On the contrary, Hegel’s evolution of spirit is driven by a dim awareness of the ideal—which is not the same thing as knowing one’s-self. (Though the two are related in an interesting way.) The end of result of “the evolution of spirit” is the creation of an environment within which that spirit can continue to flourish. It is not Nirvana. It is not The Kingdom of Heaven—though that phrase brings us nearer to the truh. No, it is civilization.

Everyone has a different notion of “the ideal.” Some are simple and narrow in focus; others are far-reaching and complex. And in fact, we all have far more “ideals’ than we commonly recognize. It isn’t a matter of “the ideal,” as if there were a single thing toward which all our energies were directed. Whatever moves us to act is, in some sence, an ideal. Individuals are often motivated by a really good meal, a cigarette, sexual pleasure, athletic competition, moments of solitude, natural beauty, art, the administration of justice, lively conversation, handyman projects, the passing countryside, religious awe, the challenge of raising a family, teaching, and even the satisfactions of physical labor.

We tend to think of “the ideal” as the ultimate. What would the ultimate cigarette taste like? What would the ultimate benevolent act be? But even to couch “the ideal” in such terms exposes the mediocrity of the notion. There is not, and never will be, an “ultimate” novel, creme brûlée, or scientific discovery. On the other hand, anyone who’s inspired by an ideal may feel that each achievement he or she arrives at is merely a step along the way to something higher.
That might be what George Steiner was referring to when he wrote:

The intuition—is it something deeper than even that?—the conjecture, so strangely resistent to falsification, that there is “otherness” out of reach, gives to our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfllment. We are the creatures of a great thirst. Bent on coming home to a place we have never known. The “irrationality” of the transcendental intuition dignifies reason. The will to ascension is founded not on any “because it is there” but on a “because it is not there.”
(Grammars of Creation, p. 20)

Steiner’s remark may be more interesting than it at first appears. In the course of a few sentences, he identifies this “thirst” first with an otherness, then with a home, and finally with a transcendental intuition that we aspire to, however irrational it may be.

To the careful reader, these various signposts may seem entirely comprehensible. Yet he or she might also be attentive to what’s missing—that Hegelian dialectic which recognizes that the “otherness” of the ideal is approachable, and is, to take the argument a step further, already within us. For how could we recognize a just act, or a beautiful work of art, if justice and beauty were not already a part of out kit-bag? And why would we care to do so, except that we dimly recognize these values—beauty, justice—to be the most precious and authentic aspects of our being? Steiner himself acknowledges as much when he associates “the ideal” to which we aspire with home.

Now, it might well be suggested that underlying many of the impulses I’ve mentioned is the desire to exert ourselves, to put ourselves forward, egotistically, as it were—to rise above the rest. And few would deny that there is a certain pleasure in excelling—though many of us have been trained to feel shame or guilt at the same time , as if we’ve broken some sort of social code. In our day the classic case is of the scientist working nobly to discover a cure for some virulent disease--while at the same time working equally hard to make sure that the discovery is associated with his or her name, and no one else’s.Such impulses sometimes come into conflict with one another, no doubt, but it seems to me the presence of the one doesn’t vitiate or undermine the loftiness of the other.

To put it another way, the opposition between selfish and self-less actions is artificial and doesn’t illuminate much. In many cases, the pursuit of the ideal and the pursuit of self-knowledge are one and the same. Perhaps we truly come to know ourselves only in the act of showering the world with our gifts. In that restless, anxious progress of spirit, we discover simultaneously who we are and what the world needs.

An awareness of this fact is likely to alter the way we look at our world and the people around us. It may give us pleasure to differentiate ourselves from those who sport a more primitive or “fundamentalist” view of life. We may snicker and puff ourselves up. But there is often a degree of congruence, if not actual identity, between our ideals and those of others very unlike ourselves—it’s only that we define them differently, with greater or lesser subtlety and nuance. Such an awareness may lead to the tempting desire to unearth the root or genuine ideal of which all our personal ideals are but imperfect copies or approximations. History teaches that this is a temptation it would be best to resist. The proponents of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Aryan supremacy, the classless state, and, on a less destructive scale—so far—democracy, American-style, felt that they had uncovered the root of all value, and had no qualms about enforcing it on others.

Did these people really believe in what they were doing? To quote the butler in Citizen Kane: “Well …Yes and No.”

No, if there is any universal ideal, it can only be dscribed in the simplest terms—to promote life. But am I to promote my life, the lives of my children, the homeless, the party? Or “life” in general? It all depends. Although the ideal is always the same, the situation changes, as do the talents and potentialitis of the agents involved. That’s what makes life difficult and keeps the agonists—you and me—in a state of ceaseless anxiety. And that’s what make history—the study of the spiritual merit of individual actions that have already taken place—so rewarding.

Yet it would be a mistake to restrict our attention to those arenas—science, the arts, politics—in which remarkable individuals excell. “Social history” is constitutionally incapable of illuminating the issue, true enough. What is required is to see the force of “the ideal,” the force of aspirant energy, at work everywhere.

This may be what Novalis was referring to when he wrote: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And it’s most certainly what the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel had in mind when he wrote:

“...the knowledge of an individual being cannot be separated from the act of love or charity by which this being is accepted in all which makes of him a unique creature or, if you like, the image of God.”
– Marcel:Ego and Others, p. 24

As we ate our pot roast and vegetables, we watched a flying squirrel on the bird-feeder, and five very fat raccoons waddled into view from theshadows beyond the yard light.

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