Monday, March 12, 2012

The Viability of Art Apparently Devoid of Grounding References to Human Beings, Prelude

What follows is the story "Archangel," a quasi-short-short by John Updike that originally appeared in his collection Pigeon Feathers. I put up the whole thing, hoping that either 1) no one comes across this blog who might care about the fact that I've posted an entire piece of someone else's fiction, or 2) I'm legally in the clear, and have not, in fact, violated some literary executor or publishing company's copyright by making the text in its dazzling entirety available to "the public." You will find it after the jump. 

Be warned, though; it's a tough nut to crack. My recommendation is to wait until a quiet, serendipitously free half-hour presents itself, and then to make some tea, and then to sit down and read the piece maybe three times through—slowly, perhaps out loud. Let it wash over you. The goal of comprehension in this case should be subordinate to the goal of sheer aesthetic appreciation. I have read it probably ten times, most recently on a weekly beat going back about a month, and honestly, I am still at a loss to say who is being addressed, whether the narrator is trustworthy, where this scene could be taking place, and so forth. But I love the story all the same, not least for the density of its play of sounds and images. In the future I intend to write a followup with some thoughts related to the theme of this post's title. But anyway. I hope you get a chance to savor this before I receive my "Cease and Desist" letter:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jean-Louis Chrétien on Prayer, Second Installment

This is part two of my projected series of indefinite length on Jean-Louis Chrétien's analysis of prayer. To recap, Chrétien is a young French phenomenologist, theologian, and poet whose work remains largely untranslated, and whose exposure to the American academic world is therefore fairly slight. Even the European students in our program do not often recognize his name. My professors, however, have spoken of him in hushed tones of reverence and with restrained enthusiasm (too much would be unbecoming for a professional academic, of course). Chrétien's French is quite beautiful, I have been told; fortunately for me, much of the beauty survives in his English translations, miraculously.

The man himself. 

Chrétien is rumored to live quite the hermitic life. Writing in isolation on a typewriter utterly devoid of affectation, in what I fancifully imagine to be a secluded French country house filled to the rafters with books, Chrétien only set up an email address at the urgent request of his publisher after his unreachability very nearly drove his literary agent off the deep end.

But while Chrétien seems to seclude himself from living humans, his work is bursting with connections that he sketches between representatives of far-flung intellectual eras and traditions. Most of his interlocutors are long dead. Their dusted insights help propel a search that has guided his entire philosophical career so far; in a retrospective millennial essay surveying his work over the preceding decade, he states that his overarching goal has been to describe the "excess of the encounter with things, other, world, and God"—an encounter that "requires, most imperatively, our response, and yet seems at the same time to prohibit it." ("Retrospection" in Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Unforgettable and the Unhoped-For (New York: Forham University Press, 2002), 121.)

Before moving on to the analysis of prayer, a brief note on the meaning of the above quotation: "excess" here may be roughly understood to mean a surplus of content that defies our attempts at grasping it through our understanding. Excess is frequently associated with the experience of the sublime, which leaves a person speechless, awe-struck, overcome. Another site of excess would be an encounter with God (theophany), which cannot but overwhelm a finite subject. Chrétien, then, has sought to reveal this surplus as something that leaves traces in even the most common experiences of wholly unexceptional things. In his perspective, something has pushed us to lose sight of this basic dimension of excess, but it remains, for those who are willing to "relearn to see the world."

* * *

The essay "The Wounded Word" appears in translation as a part of the previously mentioned collection entitled Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn": the French Debate by Dominique Janicaud et al (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000). I now wish to start exploring the development of Chrétien's analysis, in the hope of eventually teasing out a viable account of the essence of the act of prayer.

A bold statement opens the piece: "Prayer is the religious phenomenon par excellence, for it is the sole human act that opens the religious dimension and never ceases to underwrite, to support, and to suffer this opening" (p147, all page references are to Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn"). Prayer is our mode of access to the religious dimension. How can this be? Aren't there other aspects of religious life that do not begin and end in prayer, that are essentially different from it? Perhaps—but, as Chrétien points out, "[i]f we were unable to address our speech to God or the gods, no other act could intend the divine." Therefore, he writes, "[w]ith prayer, the religious appears and disappears."

Now Chrétien is clearly writing about prayer, but he is also working here to locate his piece within the philosophical context described in the first installment of this series. An analysis of the paradigmatic religious phenomenon, if sufficiently rigorous and methodologically pure, could open up the world of religious experience for legitimate phenomenological investigation. This, I have to believe, is one of Chrétien's goals—to demonstrate that such a phenomenology is possible.

But back to prayer. Chrétien wishes to write a paper rather than a book, and this requires him to impose a limitation on his analysis right from the get go. Prayer, he says, will be considered as a "speech act," loosely understood—but this isn't just an arbitrary narrowing of the field of play. Chrétien actually thinks that the vocal aspect of prayer may get to its very essence, as immediately after introducing the "speech act" qualification, he proposes a guiding question for the rest of the piece: "[i]s vocal prayer merely one form of prayer among others, or is it the prayer par excellence, the sole one in relation to which all others can be defined and constituted, either by derivation or privation?" (149). This question is so detailed as to be mostly rhetorical, an anticipatory statement spoken with an upward intonation at the end so as not to appear too confident. But even if it were a more sincere question, we may still expect the vocal aspect to play a salient role in limning the essence of prayer. Chrétien's treatment of silence is particularly compelling to watch as the argument unfolds.

With the main points of the introduction behind us, we are on our way to being knee-deep in the lake of Chrétien's analysis. Seeing as his essay is very dense and runs to almost forty pages, I intend to save most of his arguments and insights for future installments. But I will close this post with the first descriptive element disclosed by this phenomenology: prayer is situated, Chrétien writes,
in an act of presence to the invisible. It is the act by which the man praying stands in the presence of a being in which he believes but does not see and manifests himself to it. 
 - "The Wounded Word," 149. 
So prayer is embedded in a person's act whereby she purposefully makes herself present to a being that she believes in, although she does not see it; she believes herself to be in this being's presence, and "manifests" herself to it. We could also say that she discloses herself to this being, that she wills herself to "be" before it. The monotheistic belief in the omniscience of God illuminates an important aspect of this move: though a praying person may believe herself to always be in the sight or presence of God, in prayer she intentionally directs herself towards God, as though to meet his invisible gaze, and willfully presents herself to him.

This self-manifestation to the invisible leaves the praying person in a state of extreme vulnerability; everything is given and nothing is held back. The preparations of ritual cleanings, the use of certain garments, bodily gestures and movements of all kinds—all of these, Chrétien writes, "can be gathered together in a summoned appearance that incarnates the act of presence" (150, emphasis mine). Incarnates the act of presence—what could that mean? Well, venturing one interpretation, it means this: our presentation of ourselves to the invisible being to which we pray is actually embodied in the physical acts of prayer. When we kneel, light candles, don vestments, doff our caps, and so forth, we are symbolizing our self-presentation to the divine, and in a way, effecting it.

This is why bodily or ritualistic actions symbolize rather than signify the act of presence: because the gestures and acts are unified with the central act of self-manifestation, and bring it to "incarnation," as it were, allowing this act of self-manifestation to involve the whole of the person praying. Prayer is not just an offering of an idea or a thought or a plea to God, in this account; Chrétien wishes instead to say that prayer is the offering of our whole selves to God.

* * *

And that brings us about a tenth of the way into the essay. Almost all of the riches are still ahead for us. Anyway, thanks for reading! I hope you return for installment three. By then we should really be cooking with gas. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How to Store Your Books If You Are Awesome and Rich

I thought of this the other day while talking with roommate Dan about interesting ways to store books. I couldn't find illustrations online for anything close to what I had in mind, so I downloaded a free drawing program from the app store and attempted to sketch out my idea. Here goes:

First, imagine that you own a house with a large basement or ground-level room. The floor is basically composed of congruent glass panels set in a grid pattern, like so:

I had to clear out the furniture to draw this picture.

The glass is reinforced—it's like, an inch thick and bulletproof—which allows people to walk over it and place furniture on top of it. You are probably wondering why there is a hazy blush of color in the center of each of those transparent or translucent (homeowner's choice) glass panels, huh? Well, I'll tell you why! It's because underneath each panel is an inset storage shelf, upon which has been placed a row of books! Seen from the perspective of a person standing on this floor, the vertical alcoves would look something like this:

A first edition of Yale Press's 1954 The Future: Progressive Essays in Experimental Ontology anthology? Amazing!

How might a person go about accessing the books they put under their glass floor? Did I hear that question correctly? I  sure hope so, because that's precisely the question I was about to answer. Notice that on the right side of each glass pane, there is a pair of dots. Those dots represent small holes, the rims of which would be specially reinforced with rubber O-rings. Why is this important? Because you, as the owner of this classy, bookish basement, have in your possession a grip with two prongs that are designed to fit into the holes on these glass panels. Each prong would terminate in a curve designed to slide into a groove under the glass, for a close and sure fit. 

The backwards beamed eighth notes pictured are actually the grip. 

When the prongs go in, the attached grip becomes a handle with which you may open the glass panel! Each pane will turn on a hinge that allows it to open like a square glass door. You know what that means? It means that with this grip, you have exclusive, easy access to your basement library! When you're finished retrieving the tomes you want, you can close the panel, remove the grip, and hang it back up on the bronze hook you installed in your kitchen, closet or panic room. 

What pretty pastel-colored spines your books have!

And there you have it. So, if you're a wealthy homeowner with a large spare room that's got a high ceiling (this design would move the level of the floor up a couple feet), and you happen to own a lot of books, you should consider storing them in this way—under a beautiful, thick plane of square glass panels. You could even line the walls with traditional standing bookshelves, especially ones made of fragrant wood, like pine. People would walk into that room and say things like, "I am in a great hall of knowledge!", "this person is serious about book storage!", "what a great-smelling repository of literature and philosophy!", and so forth. Who doesn't like compliments?

* * *

UPDATE: In light of my usual standard of scrupulousness when it comes to citing my sources, I am a tad bit ashamed to admit that Dan was the one who originally introduced the idea of the glass floor. When I started writing and sketching the above yesterday, I was operating with the sincere belief that I was the originator of the idea, but alas! It came out in conversation today that Dan is the true source. Consider the above an appropriation and development of his original idea, which emerged in rapid-fire brainstorming (hence the mistake). Sorry Dan!