Friday, November 21, 2008

Patrick Lee Miller - Immanent spirituality

Another good article by Patrick Lee Miller, this time on immanent spirituality, can be found over at The Immanent Frame. You can find more of Miller's writings at his website.

Immanent spirituality

posted by Patrick Lee Miller

A worthy touchstone to arbitrate between worldviews immanent and transcendent is the désir d’éternité, the “desire to gather together the scattered moments of meaning into some kind of whole.” According to Charles Taylor, who adduces this touchstone, only transcendence has a satisfactory response to its longing: personal immortality. What response, if any, remains for immanence? Must it invent comic masks to hide the frown of an indifferent world? Must it surrender everything to the river of a senseless time? Must it be mute before the anguish of the bereaved?

Taylor is right that Epicureanism and its modern materialist progeny cannot help. Epicurus taught that death was nothing, since its victims cannot perceive the loss. But whatever consolation this may offer for la mort de moi, my own death, it is useless against la mort de toi, the death of a beloved. The dead may be insensible, but Epicurean sophisms do nothing to assuage the grief of those who live on in their absence.

Nietzsche rejected scientific materialism not because it failed to console the bereaved but because he saw it as the last stage of the ascetic ideal, a desperate effort to will something, even an inaccessible world of truth, rather than not will at all. He also rejected transcendent spiritualities, the worldviews of “the hinterworldly,” whose weariness with this life and its suffering prompts them to turn from it toward a fantasy world without suffering. Scientific materialism and transcendent spirituality were thus, in Nietzsche’s estimation, two sides of the same ascetic coin; both the scientist and the priest, despite their apparent rivalry, were weary of life. Without assessing Nietzsche’s diagnoses of either, which so many partisans have contested over the last century, we should instead consider what positive response he has to the désir d’éternité. For if his philosophy is to be anything more than a critique, if it is to appear as a spirituality while in contact with Taylor’s worthy touchstone, it must respond to this longing. As it turns out, Nietzsche does have a response, but it is nothing new. The Eternal Return is an ancient doctrine whose first and best proponent is Heraclitus.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book that treats this obscure doctrine and its spiritual alternative to transcendence in most detail, Nietzsche’s hero summarizes it with a song whose final line is Alle Lust will Ewigkeit: all joy wants eternity. Taylor interprets this line as “not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity.” Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of Nietzsche’s text, it is an accurate phenomenology of passionate love. When you love passionately, even when your love turns out to be ephemeral, it does not feel ephemeral so long as it lasts. On the contrary, it feels like a summons to eternity. But is this summons coherent? The love we know in this life, like everything else known here, is woven with finite threads. When they come to an end, when the beloved dies, for example, and the weaving must stop, we hurt, want to weave on, and so dream of infinite—which is to say eternal—threads. La mort de toi more than any other experience makes this longing clear. The bereaved more than anyone else dreams of a hinterworld where reunion with the beloved is guaranteed. But is this dream coherent?

Remove finitude, and the fabric of everything we know comes apart. Try to imagine a baseball game, for example, with an infinite number of innings. Even if the glorious bodies of the eschaton could play without fatigue forever, the deepest problem with this alluring fantasy—at least for baseball enthusiasts—is that there could never be a winner. No matter how wide a gap in score opened up during such a game, the losing team would always have the consolation of other innings in which to close it. With so specious a consolation, however, would disappear all the drama and meaning of the game. This meaning would disappear still more if eternity were not infinite time, as some imagine it, but instead all time gathered into one moment, as others prefer. What drama, what sense, would there be in a baseball game whose ninth and first innings were co-present? None more than a game of infinite successive innings.

Now, if the excitement of sport has never gripped you, try to imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing to a song of infinite length. Their technique would remain as dazzling as the talent of the resurrected Lou Gehrig, and it is just as tempting to fantasize about them dancing forever as it is to imagine him playing his last game one more inning, and then another…but what was most valuable in their art, as in his play, would then be lost. Without a sense of the end, and thus of the shape of their movements, the beauty and drama they achieved in finite time would become the infinite and thus meaningless repetition of technique; or, if eternity be imagined as all moments gathered together, this finite beauty and drama would become the absurdity of every move executed at once, and so on for every activity we know. Life itself, as the activity of activities, requires the finitude imposed on it ultimately by death to preserve its meaning.

Borges captured this painful but inescapable truth in “The Immortal,” his fable of a soldier whose quest for the city where none dies costs him dearly, but never so dearly as his success. For after reaching this city and drinking from its magical stream, he learns that among its immortal citizens “every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.” In the midst of this eternal repetition, where “there is nothing that is not lost between the indefatigable mirrors,” all exertion appears vain. Why exert yourself now, after all, when there is always tomorrow? To digest this enervating insight, and others like it, meditate for a moment upon some of the peculiar consequences of infinite time.

Were you to live infinitely, for instance, you would have enough time to live not only your own life any number of times, but also the lives of others, all others, likewise infinitely. Perhaps the boredom provoked by eternity would even require you to seek the relief of novelty. If so, Borges’ concludes, in the city of the immortals individuality disappears: “no one is someone; a single immortal man is all men.” But the preservation of individuality—especially after death has robbed us of a unique beloved—is the chief appeal of eternity. Thought through a little further than its initial appeal, in short, eternity appears more frustrating than satisfying. Reversing course, Borges’ hero seeks instead the waters of a stream that will restore his mortality. Only upon finding it after another arduous quest does he find peace: “Incredulous, speechless, and in joy, I contemplated the precious formation of a slow drop of blood.”

Arguably the insight was first Homer’s. His gods need nothing so desperately as the human drama they have created—especially the tragedy of Troy, where their mortal offspring risk their lives—to lend their otherwise repetitious and senseless lives both drama and meaning. Zeus fights with Hera from time to time, but there is no quarrel so serious that it cannot be remedied with another round of ambrosia. Without Sarpedon to mourn, what drama would remain to him? Without Paris to punish, what drama would remain to her? For the gods there is always and necessarily tomorrow; by contrast, writes Borges, “everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrevocable and the contingent.” He captures this tragic wisdom with his eerie fable, but Nietzsche recovered it for modern Europe when he began his career by celebrating the birth of tragedy and philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks; in other words, the wisdom of the Homeric age. According to the argument shared by the two books with these titles, this age ended with the Socratic promise—that is, the promise made by Plato’s Socrates in dialogues such as Phaedo—of rational salvation from the body, from time, and finally from death.

Reads the whole article and be sure to check out the comments as well.


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