Friday, May 19, 2006

"Search for a Method."

My book is now available in Germany and may (someday) be translated into German.

October 11, 2010 at 6:16 P.M. "Errors" were inserted in this essay which had been left alone for a while. I have made all of the necessary corrections. My computer's cable signal was obstructed, again, this afternoon. I have rebooted my computer.

au castor,

If Michel Foucault was correct to suggest -- as he walked in Sartre's funeral procession -- that Jean Paul Sartre was the "conscience of his age," then the struggles of this extraordinary thinker, Sartre's very public agonizing over social justice issues and his daily quest for personal freedom must be considered exemplary, but also symbolic.

"A man is defined by his project," Sartre tells us in his final great work, The Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre came to understand that his freedom was dependent upon the freedom of his neighbors, even distant neighbors, and that their pain was also his agony. This led him to the "supreme philosophy of the twentieth century, Marxism." Sartre says:

From Marxism, which gave it a birth, the ideology of existence inherits two requirements which Marxism itself derives from Hegelianism: if such a thing as a truth can exist in anthropology, it must be a truth that has BECOME, and it must make itself a TOTALIZATION.

Sartre was even willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, placing existentialism on the altar of the proletarian revolution, so long as there was the slightest hope of a "totalization" of this shared quest for freedom from poverty and misery through political revolution. As Sartre's life drew to a close, Marxism -- as embodied in concrete historical experiments and not as a system of ideas -- was increasingly seen as a disappoinment, even a failure. Marxism was the god that failed.

The hopes for a fully just society and optimism about the trajectory of history led only to the Gulag and atrocities of Cambodia's civil war, to a hideous realization of the worst nightmares in history. Yet a return to the Sartrean project leads to HOPE and not to despair, for in his "Search for a Method" and in the many pages of the Critique, one also discovers a much richer and more complex theory than any standard Marxist diatribe.

If it is true that Sartre's late work is indebted to Marx, then it may be no less true that it is also heavily indebted to Kant, and even more to Hegel. I am aware of Sartre's rejection of idealism, even as he adopts its vocabulary and "problematic," together with a personal dialectical method. There is a "spiritual hunger and adventure" outlined in Sartre's pages and not just a program for collectivist politics. "But the principal characteristic of individual praxis," Professor Thomas R. Flynn writes, "from the viewpoint of Sartre's overall strategy in the Critique is doubtless its self-luminosity."

It is with regard to that spiritual project of "self-luminosity" that one finds Sartre's late work amenable to reconciliation with a vast literature in theology and philosophy, drawing on Western religious traditions and secular ethical reflections. Hazel Barnes -- Sartre's American translator and one of his best readers -- says of the late work, especially "Search for a Method," which was intended to serve as a preface or addendum to the Critique:

The title, Critique of Dialectical Reason, suggests both Kant and Hegel. Like Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, Sartre is concerned with the nature, possibilities, and limitations of human reason. But there the resemblance ends, for Sartre's interest is not primarily epistemological or even metaphysical. The greater debt is to Hegel, and Sartre acknowledges it in his preface. Through Marxism, he says, existentialism has inherited and retains two things from Hegel: First, the view that if there is to be any Truth in man's understanding of himself, it must be a Truth which BECOMES; Truth is something which emerges. And second what Truth must become is a TOTALIZATION. "In 'Search for a Method,' " Sartre says, "I have taken it for granted that such a totalization is perpetually in process as History and as historical truth."

Sartre's late work takes us in one direction all the way to Marx, Frankfurt School theory, Guevara and Castro, but in the other direction it leads to Sartre's great contemporary Simone Weil, Edith Stein, Thomas Merton and Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and to our contemporaries Paul Ricoeur, Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West. For the religious believer, the end-point of Sartre's atheistic search for meaning in community is simply Christ, that is to say, love. Rightly understood, love requires no religious belief or ideological litmus test and it is available to all.

At this point, the great Catholic theologian and philosopher Hans Urs Von Balthazar must be mentioned, including his collaboration with the current Pope on a work detailing the importance of Mary and femininity in Christian thought. Love is "grace" and indestructible "quiet strength" against all forms of oppression in this tradition, which is identified with woman's contribution to the Church. (See my short story "Pieta" at Critical Vision.)

To discover a tortured and beaten human being, covered in shit and blood, defying totalitarianism and State power anywhere, for Sartre, is to find oneself at his or her side. It is to insist that each of us must be Orwell's Winston Smith or we may become O'Brian. It is to choose to share in that tortured person's pain so as to make it one's own, in opposition to power. And by sharing in suffering, there is an immediate and ultimate "totalization" that is defined simply as "the human condition." I plan to write soon about Hannah Arendt. ("What is it like to be tortured" and "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.")

To see a child being led to a concentration camp is to be compelled to join in his or her fate. Both Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer made that choice as a requirement of their Christian faiths. I have no doubt that, under similar circumstances Cornel West would make the same decision, but so would Angela Davis. Professor Davis would do so strictly on the basis of her own Marxist and African-American cultural traditions of resistance to unjust power. Among the executed in Hitler's camps were thousands of Catholic priests, who prayed with and served their Jewish brethren, hundreds of thousands of socialists joined them, along with millions of gays, gypsies and others deemed "marginal" or "undesirable." (See my essay "R.D. Laing and Evil" at Critical Vision.)

... love is the analogue of reason, [Hegel writes in his early religious writings,] insofar as it finds itself in other men [and women]; or rather, forgetting itself, finds another self in whom it lives, feels, and energizes -- in the same way that reason, as the principle of universal laws, recognizes itself again in every rational being.

The sight of workers' misery in France led Simone Weil to insist on experiencing the factories and living the humility of poverty. Rather than being indifferent to imprisonment and torture, bored by executions (and there are many ways of executing someone) of so many of our mostly African-American young men and women -- and Latinos or Latinas -- we must stand with all victims (yes, criminals are victims too) and share in their fate. ("Abuse and Exploitation of Women in New Jersey" and "Foucault, Rose, Davis and the Meanings of Prison.")

This is to make clear the revulsion that dehumanization of any person should produce in all of us. That dehumanization makes the "crime of punishment" sometimes far worse that the "crimes that are punished" by a legal system, which is too often racist and biased against the weakest and poorest members of our society, especially women. If a person is led to these insights, then whether it is Marx or Jesus (Kant or Hegel) who gets him or her there may be less important than the insight itself.

For this reason alone -- the criminality in punishment by the State in racist society -- we must oppose the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal (who is innocent of murder) or anyone's execution. Racism and bias simply cannot be removed from a death penalty system that is reflective of deep and pervasive (if subtle) racism in society. Punish, by all means, but do not become worse than what you seek to punish. Society must be better than the convicted killer. Society must never murder. Society must never torture.

As I worked in the factory, Simone Weil writes, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red hot iron which the Romans put on the forehead of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.

Simone Weil leads us to the realization of community in loving. Love is not a dreamy, wishy-washy emotion for expression in greeting cards. I have seen powerful men laugh at the suggestion that love is at the heart of ethics and politics. "What are you some kind of a fag?" I am told that it is all about "power" or "money is the meaning of life." Marx's point is that money is NOT the meaning of life, but that it has a lot to do with alienation. Love is said to be too feminine or "vague" an "emotion."

There is a not-so-subtle sexism underlying such attitudes, a feeling that -- in a law school sense -- we must be "rigorous" at all times. The Freudian implications of this overused word "rigorous" should be obvious. We are told to become tough-minded, realistic pragmatists and "men and women of the world." These attitudes to the administration of law and political power are especially tragic when they are uttered by women.

Sartre's work leads us to Weil, as I say, but also to other "spiritual revolutionaries" (Cornel West) immersed in worldly struggles. James Baldwin's conversation with Bertrand Russell (there is a famous photograph of the two men having tea) must have been fascinating. For it was Baldwin who articulated, beautifully and elegantly, Lord Russell's life-long quest for a "share in the suffering of humanity," something acquired by Mr. Baldwin as a birth right. James Baldwin was what Russell wished to be: an aristocrat of suffering. Describing the place which provides the shared territory of Sartre and Russell, James Baldwin writes an Africanized and Americanized version of Hegel's dialectics of Spirit:

But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other -- male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

Baldwin is restating Sartre's argument, spiritualized, explaining human being-in-the world as a call to share in suffering through a totalization, which is simply love. The works of these writers come together in what is described as a "praxis-consciousness" or an awareness of the responsibility to overcome the distance between self and other, value and fact (Sartre's "practico-inert" as the grim reality against which we must struggle), by constructing Paul Ricoeur's "Ogival crossing" that takes us to the other in his or her moment of pain. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "salvific mission." Dr. King not only accepted, but willed his own death as the price for his people (which is all of us) to reach the "promised land." Hegel's work is inescapable at this point, especially his early life of Jesus and Phenomenology of Spirit:

There is a higher way [to combat injustice,] the way of Christ, and of all who have been called "beautiful souls." Such souls follow the path of suffering, in so far as they abandon all their personal claims, and refuse to contend for them; but they pursue also the path of valor, in so far as they rise above this loss of particular ... interest, and feel no pain in it. Thus they save their lives in losing them, [think of Edith Stein or Dietrich Bonhoeffer,] or assert themselves just when they let go of everything with which immediately their life seemed to be identified. Fate cannot wound such spirits, -- for, "like the sensitive plant they withdraw at a touch into themselves," and "escape from the life in which they could be injured." So Jesus demanded of his friends that they should "forsake father and mother, and all that they had, in order that they might not be bound by any tie to the unhallowed world, and so be brought within the reach of fate." ... Forgiveness of sins, therefore, is not the removal of punishment, [no justice, no peace] for punishment cannot be avoided; nor is it the removal of the consciousness of guilt, for the deed cannot be undone; it is "fate reconciled by love."

In my moments of despair that my via cruxis will not end, that I cannot expect to be heard or recognized, to be SEEN by the powerful in my woundedness and anger -- along with many millions or billions more persons, like me, in the world -- I am reminded of Roberto Mangabeira Unger's closing prayer in Knowledge and Politics, so as to continue to struggle and hope:

Desirous of faith, touched by hope, and moved by love, men look unceasingly for God. Their search for Him continues even where thinking must stop and action fail. And in their vision of Him they find the beginning and the end of their knowledge of the world and of their sympathy for others. So is man's meditation on God a final union of thought and love -- love which is thought disembodied from language and restored to its source.

But our days pass, and still we do not know you fully. Why then do you remain silent? Speak, God.

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