Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Nothingness is the worm at the heart of Being."

November 16, 2005 marks the one year anniversary of my start on a blogging career. As I examine the essays that I have written here and at "Philosopher's Quest," I am able to identify some large themes or issues that obviously interest me and that seem to resurface, often in altered form, from one post to the next.

My primary concerns are political, psychological, literary, philosophical, legal and personal or confessional. They are no doubt related, in a metaphysical sense, as I say, but I have not wished to decipher those connections and relationships.

I don't want to figure out exactly how the subjects that interest me "fit" together or what they reveal about me. That's a job for someone else, if anyone is interested. Ideally, someone capable of reading intelligently -- which leaves out Tuchin and Riccioli, along with their fellow conspirators.

Being systematic is not an important goal for me, not in my blogs, because such organic unity as my writings may possess is supplied by my subconscious anyway. I am what holds the essays together. And what I am, as a "freedom in the world," may be invoked or described, it may only be hinted at linguistically. My essence may be thought about, but not captured in thought.

What I mean by this should become clearer later in this essay.

I am certainly aware of dialectical tensions in these writings and perhaps in all of my work. I experience myself as a duality between cynicism and idealism, despair and hope. Think of Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death. It seems to me that these divisions are becoming evident in society too. I don't regret these tensions in my thinking and writing. They are healthy and productive tensions, I am sure, leading to my best insights.

I have been reading a conversation between Duncan Kennedy and Peter Gabel that is now more than twenty years-old, yet it also seems more timely than ever. At one point in that dialogue, Gabel mentions Sartre's phrase that "Nothingness is the worm at the heart of being." And he explains what this means:

The truth that everything is not what it is and is what it is not, in the realm of human reality for people. People are what they are in the mode of not being what they are, so that if you want to understand what it is to be a person, you have to be open to experience the negation that is at the very core of your own being, and of the being of everyone else. ...

At the highest philosophical level, I discern a set of fundamental concerns in my writings: 1) Personally, I struggle to cope with loss and yearning, emotional pain and anger, also uncertainty. 2) Socially, I am troubled by questions about the meaning and relevance of the American experiment today.

Public officials -- of both parties -- seem to have forgotten some of the most important values of the nation, a nation now associated with torture, crimes against humanity on the world stage, while within our borders, corruption has devoured the legal and political systems of some states. Everything I believe about the United States is subject to plausible challenge. Many political leaders fail to understand that this loss of values is a much greater challenge and crisis than any terrorist threat.

I need to believe that it is still possible to proclaim, in good faith, our national adherence to the principles of the Constitution. American Constitutional principles must not become only a "pious myth" (Plato, Leo Strauss), stated for the benefit of the "little" people -- like me, I guess -- on public occasions, as the U.S. government secretly engages in ruthless cruelties, ignoring the rights of citizens, so long as it can do so secretly and with impunity. The very notion of a national identity is subject to doubt in today's world:

... belief in the state is a flight from the immediate alienation of concrete existence into a split-off sphere of people's minds in which they imagine themselves to be part of an imaginary political community -- "citizens of the United States of America." And it's this collective projection and internalization of an imaginary political authority that is the basis of the legitimation of hierarchy. It's the mass-psychological foundation of democratic consent.

If this is true, if national community is a myth, then the United States and its Constitution, even law as a system of valid neutral principles and rules, no longer really exists, if it ever did. I refuse to accept that possibility. I know that for me, anyway, such nihilism about political community is unlivable. I refuse to accept the impossibility of community.

I remember Norman Mailer's comment to an interviewer that we are still angry at injustice, but that our anger is now frustrated by the complexity of the realities that we face. It is doubtful that any institution or faction, or even any set of revolutionaries, can claim absolute virtue or innocence. There are no good guys or gals any more. The court systems of places like New Jersey, for example, seem paralyzed by the poison of money and influence. Politics is adjudication, as the judiciary views -- with seeming indifference -- the horrors that take place before their very eyes and does nothing. The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the detentions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, while the rest of the world shakes its head. The U.S. Senate passes legislation denying full due process guarantees to these same detainees. The U.S. comes to symbolize, for the rest of the world, everything we are said to be struggling against in this "war on terror."

The sadness that I feel because of these developments is almost unbearable at times.

Both personally and socially, this is a dismal season. I cling to hope in a naive and even childlike way, because I have to, the alternative is a kind of death. The best I can manage is to adopt a tone of cynical idealism. I do my philosophical "Ali-Shuffle," holding on to a "combative spirituality" (Cornel West). I use humor and imagination, sharpening my wits at the politicians' expense, because -- contrary to a recent philosophy forum discussion elsewhere on the Internet -- there can be no "phenomenology of suffering." Most of all, I continue to hope and believe that America will hold on to the values of the Constitution and never lose its identity in a crisis.

Suffering cannot be thought. Our pain cannot be packaged and commodified. Pain cannot be turned into a cultural product -- so that it becomes a cool pose that goes, say, with a particular outfit from the GAP. Such "distancing" tactics fail to ease the pain, even falsifying it. Suffering can only be chosen, then expressed. I miss her -- someone I love -- every second, of every day. I fear for the loss of America's soul with the same regularity. These emotions hurt, boy do they hurt. Yet they are my emotions, they are constitutive of who I am. Thomas Merton says:

When suffering comes to put the question: "Who are you?" we must be able to answer distinctly, and give our own name. By that I mean we must express the very depths of what we are, what we have desired to be, what we have become. All these things are sifted out of us by pain, and they are too often found to be in contradiction with one another. But if we have lived [as free human beings] our name and our work and our personality will fit the pattern stamped in our souls by the sacramental character that we wear.

Suffering demands a "consecration" because it can lead us to the singular moral splendor and peace of true identity, of achieving ourselves. So I wear my pain with jauntiness and pride. I put it on whenever I come before all of you, in my prose. It is not fashionable or pretty. My pain is a transparent garment that allows you to see all of my psychological scars, my burns and deformations, but I hope that (by doing this) I may help others to accept their own pain, while continuing to hope.



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