Michel Henry, Meister Eckhart, Martin Heidegger, and the Trauma of Being


Beginning last springI read the full French version of L’essence de la manifestation (The Essence of Manifestation), a massive work by the important French phenomenologist Michel Henry (1922-2002), first published in 1962.  That long reading project generated a number of entries in my philosophical journal, only some of which expressly address how Henry’s thought might be pertinent to  the discussion of trauma.  The entry below is one of the few that does. 

Readers unfamiliar with Henry may well find the entry difficult to follow.  However, it should help such readers to recall the distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma, which I have already discussed in various earlier posts at this site, especially those in which I connect that distinction with discussion of the notion of “idolatry” in an expanded, not necessarily religious sense.  In my judgment, at least as it applies to my remarks below, the distinction Henry, following the early Heidegger, makes between “ontic” and “ontological” does essentially similar same conceptual work in a broad focus of analysis as does the distinction between “historical” and “structural” in the narrower focus upon trauma.   


Monday, June 30, 2008

Henry, on Eckhart, p. 38:  The three conditions for union with God are “love,  poverty,  humility.”  Henry argues persuasively that these are ontological, rather than merely ontic, determinations, and as such reach into the very internal structure of God/Essence.  In effect and in short, what Henry lays out is that for Eckhart, it is precisely in the “withdrawal” ([French] retrait:  I’d draw the connection to the “phenomenological reduction,” as would probably Henry himself, who  also uses the term “destruction,” which for him clearly manifests the connection to Heidegger, I’d say) into self of God/Essence, that the horizon of (which here means the horizon which is) the world and, therewith, of all beings (= creation) is projected–cast out.  Thus in humility, poverty, and love, one already is in, at, and as union or identity with, God/Essence.

P. 393, quoting Eckhart:  “If you want to find nature without veil, you must beak  all  images; the more one advances in this work, the more one approaches to Essence.”  Certainly [that is] relevant to  what I’m working on from my GSIS [the Graduate–now Korbel–School of International Relations at the University of Denver] talk in May, on “Trauma, Truth, and the Sovereignty of the Image.”

The whole discussion on Eckhart [in Henry’s book] I’ve completed so far–from page 385 to page 396, leaving me another 11 pages still to  go  in that section (#39) –is really good.  It also this morning suggested to me that Heidegger’s reading of authenticity in relation to inauthenticity [in Being and Time] can be brought, precisely at this point, into connection with the phenomenological reduction and, beyond that, to Eckhart:  The movement of authenticity–and authenticity, here especially, clearly is a “movement,” not an acquirable “state”–is the movement of withdrawal from/bracketing of “the world.”


Trying a thought on for size:  Health is recovery from illness.

That is, health is not some actually given antecedent condition of the simple non-actuality of illness, such that illness becomes only something which occasionally and conditionally breaks into and interrupts health.  Rather, just as all Being one’s self is a matter, by the foregoing, of returning to oneself in and as withdrawing from the world, so is health a matter of a return,  [but in the sense that the “return” to some place is a going back that nevertheless remains a going] for the first time, “of” health–a return to what was never given “until” such re-turning.


Just finished On God:  An Uncommon Conversation–between Norman Mailer and his interviewer, an emeritus professor of English named Michael Lennon (Random House, 2007).  Pretty poor overall.  Mailer, despite his best work, ends up in idolatry, in the sense I’d give that term, which could be captured as the confusion of God with this or that “image”–i. e., a reduction of images to idols (or of the ontological to the ontic, in one dimension).  On that, but also because Henry suggests a different way of reading “suffering,” take the example of some remarks on pages 166-167.  Lennon starts:  “It was Dostoevsky who said suffering is the sole origin of consciousness, that only through suffering could we improve the world around us a little more.  Do  you reject that?”  Mailer replies:  “I can agree that suffering is, yes, a mighty educator, but it is also an immensely expensive one.  Some learn a great deal  from it; all too many are reduced if not destroyed.  Suffering can maim more spirits than it creates.  Some learn best by suffering through small stages that enable one to shift one’s uglier habits.”

But such reasoning makes even a minimum of sense, only if “suffering” is taken as an ontic condition,  rather than given an ontological  sense.  Insofar as suffering is indeed, as Dostoevsky is said by Lennon to have held, the origin of consciousness, it is, one might say, as a “structural” traumatic rift, not as a datable event as such.  And the “destructiveness” of suffering would then be inseparable from the transformation of suffering into an ontic idol.

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