Friday, July 15, 2022

A modern heretic

Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur.
I used this line, apparently from Borges, as an epigram to an essay in the early days of online writing. I can't remember what book it came from and after searching I found a line from an essay in Selected Non-Fictions that only comes close. Not long before that, I used an entry from Kierkegaard’s journals in the same way:
It is part of my nature to hide my inwardness, and this is part of inwardness.
While this one is at least accurate, I wince now at the ease and innocence with which I plucked lines like these to claim authority for what lacks it without appreciating let alone understanding the background of the key words. I may have half-known that one alluded to the rupture of a profound religious experience and the other to a search within oneself for the divine, but probably not even half. If I had contempt for religious faith, it was from a position of an equivalent faith in secular groupthink that unwittingly appropriates religious experiences and practices, hollowing them out to become baubles on a plastic Christmas tree. In mitigation, I used Borges’ supposed line to suggest what it's like to read the anti-narrative of a Thomas Bernhard novel as it propels itself towards its own fulminating void, while Kierkegaard’s line exemplifies my fascination with the performance of a secret or paradox that reveals and resolves nothing, which I suppose amounts to the same thing.

Perhaps such appropriations are early indicators of a subsequent inward revelation whose occurrence depends on how persistent one is in following the telos of one's buried needs as expressed and concealed by apparently superficial pursuits (reading novels, writing about novels). At least, I like to think this explains why I have been drawn to reading books with theological themes, specifically Gnosticism, such as Willem Styfhals’ book that I wrote about last year. Perhaps it’s due partly to the romance of the noun distinguished by its superfluous double consonant at the start and mix of know, no, and non-stick – the latter leading to one scholar to complain that the word accommodates too many contexts and different meanings – and partly because of Robert Minto's review of my book. (Incidentally, what ever happened to Robert Minto?)

However, Gnosticism attracts me for a specific reason: the idea of tsimtsum, of creation as an act of abandonment by God; an idea that I first encountered in Blanchot's chapter on Simone Weil:

In creating the world God does not set forth something more, but, first of all, something less. Infinite Being is necessarily everything. In order that there be the world, he would have to cease being the whole and make a place for it through a movement of withdrawal, of retreat, and in "abandoning a kind of region within himself, a sort of mystical space" [Gershom Scholem]. In other words, the essential problem of creation is the problem of nothingness. Not how something can be created out of nothing, but how nothing can be created in order that, on the basis of nothing, something can take place[Translated by Susan Hanson]
This may explain that the sense of absence or sense of a revelation withheld remains even as one accepts the psychological and scientific explanations of its presentiment as an epiphenomenon to the evolution of the human brain; an imminence that becomes more pressing when one suspects that such explanations are themselves dependent on such an epiphenomenon. No wonder Van Morrison spits out empiricism in the song. 

Even if I struggle to follow the scholarly discourse on Gnosticism, and have no inclination towards deeper engagement, I have read books with titles like Flight of the Gods, The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil (highly recommended by the way), and God Interrupted, and am drawn to others such as Tsimtsum and Modernity in a way that I used to be attracted to novels, the latter attraction now painfully diminished as new, much-touted publications have almost without exception led to disappointment or indifference (a novel should only ever be an exception).

It is also why I was keen to read Jerry Z. Muller's biography of Jacob Taubes, a prominent and notorious figure in the revival of interest in Gnosticism in the 20th century and whose quip gives Styfhals' book its title. As a biography, it promises a less demanding introduction to the scholarly landscape, and Muller excels in summarising ideas, such as Taubes' interpretation of tsimtsum (in one of its variant spellings) and why it remains relevant to secular thought:

[He took] God’s self-imposed withdrawal...and turns it from a cosmological image into a process within man himself. Zimzum becomes a divine concealment within human reason, such that doubt about God is part of God’s creation. Doubt and heresy are the natural way of human reason. Reason and faith are thus truly irreconcilable...

Getting to such passages, however, means riding the rollercoaster of Taubes' personal and academic life through 600 pages (including bizarre facts such as that he knew Noam Chomsky and EM Cioran). Many will know already of his first wife Susan Taubes and her novel Divorcing in particular, in which Jacob appears in fictionalised form, and her suicide soon after publication, which Muller says was long planned and not a direct result of Hugh Kenner's harsh review of the novel. You can read more gossip from the biography in Mark Lilla's NYT review and a more in-depth appraisal of his thought by Adam Kotsko

What sets Taubes apart is that he challenged the very notion of theology, only not from the angle we have become used to in the d├╝rftiger Zeit of Richard Dawkins. Theology arises, he says, out of a religious crisis brought on by "a change in circumstances and consciousness [that] rendered the central doctrines, symbols, and myths of a faith less plausible" and a need to make them plausible again. Such a crisis occurred in Christianity when the expected second coming of Christ failed to happen, so what had begun as an "a small group of people awaiting the imminent coming of the Messiah and the end of days" was transformed. Taubes again:

Jacob Burckhardt once remarked that all relation to external reality breaks down if you take certain passages of the New Testament in dead earnest; in these, a spirit is reflected that considers the world to be a strange and alien place. Church and theology have done their best, however, to mitigate and obscure this original Christian experience of total alienation from the world; in nineteen centuries they have transformed an originally ‘nihilistic’ impulse into positive ‘social’ or ‘political’ action.

Christianity in its original form becomes a forgotten heresy as the transformation proceeds, and Taubes wanted to recover the original: "to be truly religious was to be on the verge of heresy." If I am to continue misusing ideas and quotations, we might see this process of crisis and transformation in the individual and collective experience of contemporary literature, I mean novels, in which the sense of an imminent revelation is there in its essence as a book, a narrative to come, in the object itself in the near distance and the linearity of sentence upon sentence we read with varying degrees of expectation; an essence that is also a crisis. Most novels render the crisis as part of the story, which may be why crime fiction is so popular as it elevates and erases the crisis in the pure movement of genre, while what is called literary fiction seeks purity itself, attempting to partake in the unique crisis-value of literature, but which now lacks any sense of crisis in itself, which may also be why we see social and political issues brought to the fore in literary prizes. The transformation of the crisis is thereby complete and has become the preserve of critics and reviewers, a secular priesthood who turn towards worldly concerns to protect themselves from apparent irrelevance – think of Beckett's Molloy using copies of the TLS to keep warm in Winter as it has "a never-failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it". When I said that a novel should only ever be an exception, perhaps that means they should be heretical. Thomas Bernhard's writing, for example, if his name and his work is allowed to stand for all outlying writers, is heretical less in its apparent misanthropy, which is a superficial feature anyway, than in its disturbing and exhilerating alienation from the world, albeit without any adventist hope.

What might heretical mean in a more general literary sense? Bernhard's alienation has often been labelled nihilistic or life-denying, but nihilism needs to be clarified to refute and reverse the label. In his book, The Flame of Eternity, Krzysztof Michalski writes of the threat that "in every moment of our lives all meaning may become suspended". These moments are intervals in regular life but occur so rarely that habit takes over (which links back to my two most recent posts on Proust's In Search of Lost Time). "In this interval," Michalski says, "briefer than any moment one can measure, in this crack, this fissure, this tear—in the blink of an eye—everything is left to question, and a chance for a new beginning arises." This, he says, is the presence of eternity.

From the perspective of life as a sequence of interlinked moments—from birth to death, from breakfast to dinner—this interval, this fracture, this momentary breathlessness is naturally a threat, a sickness, a pathology. We’re sick with eternity: its chronic state is time, its crisis—love and death. But, on the other hand, isn’t it also pathological that we see sickness in the very thing that constitutes the meaning of life, that determines what it means to live? That we take the essential discontinuity of our lives—the fact that life "passes away," "becomes," "flows"—for a sickness to be treated? That we try to fill this gap with concepts, to patch the fracture of every moment with some piece of knowledge, to remove that internal diversification of life with the help of some truth underlying it, and thus to render our lives consistent and comprehensible? It is precisely this pathology that Nietzsche calls "nihilism."

Nietzsche recognises this pathology in the study of history, in science and in Christianity, which contrasts with Bernhard's novels as they go in the opposite direction to concepts and continuity and invariably begin in fractures and fissures. Each novel is an exception. In this understanding, regular fiction is nihilistic as it seeks to render our lives consistent and comprehensible, and with the help of critics, to patch our lives with labels. It's not such a stretch then to compare Bernhard's formal dissidence of modern-day Austria to the ancient gnostic rebellion against the prevailing morality. "The Gnostic spirit that described the cosmos as the place of all evil" Taubes writes "also discovered the limit of the cosmos".

The cosmos is like a prison, but there is a chance to escape from it: there is an exit, there is a way of redemption. The deprivation of all the positive attributes of the cosmos was not simply pessimistic lamentation about a general state of affairs, but a revolutionary act permitting the existence of a beyond: Gnosis was a way to salvation.

What Bernhard presents is something against, even beyond, the limits the world has set, even if his novels do not offer salvation or the inward knowledge of spiritual mysteries. They are instead intervals in Michalski's terms, fascinating in their unwavering committment to fascination, revolutionary acts permitting the existence of something other than the cosmos that engulfs us, sick with habit. And it's not just Bernhard: in another novel by another Austrian (Peter Handke), WG Sebald recognised a "peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words". What glistens, what seems incomprehensible but is there, despite habit, despite all the explanations, is what novels can present to us as intervals, and yet they also "mutely resist what we project on them", as Peter Sloterdijk says of the gnostic gospels, hence the attempts to transform them into utilities for action. 

It is because of such resistance Sloterdijk says the "two towering works" of modern scholarship in Gnosticism that enabled some sense of the "foreignness we are [otherwise] scarcely in a position to appreciate" did so via modern continental philosophy. Hans Jonas, for example, "was able to find the structures of Heideggerian fundamental ontology in the documents of Hellenistic and eastern Gnosticism". I want to suggest something similar: that in order to appreciate the crisis of contemporary literature – the transformation of a crisis – it may help to recognise first that it retains however faintly "the traces of metaphysical revolt" found in the gnostic gospels and to have patience before what is mute rather than allowing the projections of a secular priesthood to transform it. Sloterdijk says Gnosticism presents a "revolutionary new formula for localizing human existence: 'in the world, but not of the world'":

[It] can take place only after the discovery of a 'place' that would not be of 'this world' – still 'here' and yet already 'there,' still in the world and yet already at the non-place.

All of which sounds oddly familiar to what has been transformed into booklovers' escapism.

Quoting or misquoting like this appears to be a long way from the secular groupthink that once possessed my thinking. But perhaps not so far. Muller's biography shows in sometimes shocking detail how Jacob Taubes spent more time stirring things up in his personal and academic life than producing a coherent body of work. He was preoccupied by the writings of St Paul, aspiring to do for his thought "what Heidegger had done for Kierkegaard", but his book on the subject is very short and was recovered only after his death as transcriptions of a lecture series. 

What surprised me to read about Taubes was that, for all his focus on St Paul's thought, he was not interested its theological claims: '"I do not think theologically," he pronounced. "I work with theological materials, but I think of them in terms of intellectual history and actual history. I inquire into the political potential of theological metaphors."' This might be why I am drawn to such books despite having no great interest in religion. And, as an amateur whose work is produced haphazardly and exists on a free-to-air platform, I related to Taubes' failure or refusal to produce of a coherent body of work let alone a Major Work. It was self-destructive, but as he said: "I have no spiritual investment in the world". Willem Styfhals says that when he began studying less canonical German thinkers such as Taubes at a Catholic university, he felt "like some kind of a modern heretic". This is certainly how I felt writing this, and I'm quite happy that burning stakes have been replaced by a deafening silence. On the basis of this nothing, perhaps something can indeed take place.

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