Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (2)

This is the second of two consecutive posts under the same title.  My original expectation was that this would also be the final post under that title.  However, the series has now expanded beyond my original plan, and this post has now become the second of a currently planned series of three.  Readers will have to wait till next time to see if I succeed as planned.

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Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho


I first got out of step with myself sixty-eight years ago yesterday, which was my birthday.  I’m a New Year’s baby, born on the first day of the first year of the baby boom that fired up as soon as the guns of World War II stopped firing.  I then spent the next forty-plus years trying to get into step with myself, failing miserably at it time after time, until I finally just gave up trying.  To my surprise, I then—which is going on twenty-eight years ago now—began at last to learn, not how to get in step with myself, but how to keep stumbling along better in my continuing out-of-step-ness.   So I hope, at least.

That mention of hope brings me around to some reflections on some reflections of Jean-Luc Nancy.  Or, rather, it almost does, as I’m about to explain.  That will take me a while, though.  So please have faith—which, in fact, is where I’ll really start, but only after I stumble around some more in preliminaries, as my regular readers know I love to do.

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Such readers, if attentive, may have noticed three words I just used in the preceding paragraph:  faith, hope, and love, these three.  Please keep them in mind.  I will come back to them, after I fill in a bit.

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Stumbling along my way as usual just this past summer I was doing some reading of a book first published ten years ago, but not translated into English until last year (2013).  The book is by French sociologist Bruno Latour, and the English version is called Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech (translated by Julie Rose—Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA:  Polity Press 2013).  Reading Latour’s book triggered my going back, in turn, and rereading a book-length manuscript of my own that I also wrote about ten years ago, but had never published and hadn’t revisited for eight or nine years.  Rereading it again last summer, I was struck enough by my own ten-year-old thoughts that I decided to rearrange the chapters, do some minor editorial cleanup, add one new chapter, and see the whole thing into publication on my own.  Just a few days ago I finished reviewing the galley proofs, and so now I am able to give myself the finished book as a sort of birthday gift, here at the beginning of 2014.

My new/old book is entitled God, Prayer, Suicide, and Philosophy:  Reflections on Some of the Issues of Life.  I will announce here on this blog when it becomes it available, which will be soon.  [NOTE of 1/21/14:  It now is.  See the link provided to the right of my blog site.]  Meanwhile, my reason for bringing it up today in my second and final post on “Traumatic Selfhood:  Becoming Who We Are” (a reason, of course, besides the good, old-fashioned, patriotic American one of hoping to reap monetary profit from doing so) is because it contains some passages pertinent to my current blog topic of trauma, selfhood, and becoming ourselves—those three being themselves among the issues of life on which I reflect in my new/old book.

My conjoined reading and rereading, of Latour and myself respectively, occasioned especially my writing of the new chapter to my book.  In turn, as hap and happenstance would have it, as I was writing that new chapter I was also reading Adoration:  The Deconstruction of Christianity II, an English translation (by John McKeane— New York:  Fordham University Press, 2013) of a recent book by Jean-Luc; and as I continued to write my new chapter, I carried discussion of Nancy’s thoughts over into it.

At one point in Adoration Nancy is discussing what eventually came in Christian theology to be called the three “theological virtues.”  They are called that because they can only be instilled in those who come to have them by God (theos) Himself (to use the Christian way of speaking).  In contrast, what are called the “moral virtues” are those that can be acquired by our own human efforts.  There are seven “cardinal” virtues altogether, according to what eventually became the standard Christian codification (corresponding in number to what eventually became the standard seven “deadly sins”), which goes all the way back to St. Paul himself.  Four of the seven are “moral”:  prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  Those four are under our own power—both to acquire in the first place, and then to go on practicing.  On the other hand, we must depend upon the grace of God (in Christian parlance), to be given the three theological virtues (though we can lose them easily enough on our own, just by failing regularly to use what we have been given, that is, to practice them in our own choices and actions).  The three theological virtues are “faith,” “hope,” and “charity.”

The three go together, and in Adoration, Nancy talks about all three.  Of the first—faith—he writes:   “Faith is given as nothing other than the force of trust in that (or him, or her, or those) of which it is impossible for me to obtain any knowledge that would create any assurance or guarantee.”  He contrasts such faith (foi is the French term at issue) with what he calls belief (French croyance), which he uses to mean holding some more or less definite idea or proposition to be true, as one might, for example, believe that it’s going to rain this afternoon, or that there’s a jolly old elf named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and annually doles out presents globally to children he deems worthy—or “nice,” as opposed to “naughty.”

That is the sense of belief in which to believe something is, in effect, to “think” it to be so, as I might say that I don’t know for sure, but that I think the tallest mountain in North America is Mt. McKinley.  Even if what one believes, in that sense of the term, is something that one does not know for sure to be true, nevertheless such “beliefs” are the sorts of things one at least might eventually come to know.  So, for example, I might say that I “believed” it was raining outside, if I was closed away somewhere in a windowless room and heard a patter on the roof.  But if I went outside and found myself getting drenched in it, I would no longer say I “believed” it was raining, since then I would know it for a fact.

In contrast, faith, writes Nancy (p. 90, with my added emphasis),  “supposes the annulment of all kinds of knowledge and representation.”  It is, as he indicates in the first line I quoted from him above, a pure form of trust—a trust that cannot ever be reduced down to a trusting that any given thing will occur.  The faith that Nancy has in mind is one that always holds itself wide open to receive whatever comes its way, refusing ever to be confined to anything that could be specified in any propositional way as such a faith or trust that such and such will sooner or later prove to be thus and so.

Such wholly open-ended faith correlates perfectly with hope, at least as Nancy understands the notion of that second of the three theological virtues.  “As for hope [espérance],” he writes, “it most properly designates . . . not the hope [espoir] that something—an answer, a conclusion—might come about, but [rather] the tension retained in the trust that something or someone always comes.”  Hope as he has it in mind is the same as what Kierkegaard, in the first of his Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, calls expectancy—specifically, the expectancy of faith, thus correlating the second with the first of the theological virtues, just as Nancy does.

Throughout years of teaching Kierkegaard, I always found it useful to contrast such expectancy with what we would ordinarily call “expectations.”  The expectancy, which is to say the hope, that correlates with what both Kierkegaard and Nancy call faith is, writes the former in the Upbuilding Discourses, is “victory.”   Faith’s expectancy of victory, however, is altogether free of any adulteration by expectations of any sort about just what “victory” is supposed to look like.  It is an expectation-free expectancy that is always already fulfilled, whatever may come—which is why, as Kierkegaard insists (and, as I read him, Nancy would agree) insists, expectant faith is so certain of its victory:  because that victory comes, no matter what comes, just so long as faith remains faith, wide open in hope.

In effect, faith’s hope in victory is so sure and certain, hope’s faith in victory so firm and unshakeable, because that very victory is already given already in the mere fact of having hope and faith.  Accordingly, right after remarking, as already cited, that the proper designation of hope is the trust that something or someone always comes,” Nancy adds: “And that it will come not later but here and now—not coming in order to complete itself in a presence, but so that I come thanks to its coming.”

What is meant by that last remark is nothing salacious,* though it runs the risk of sounding so.  I will venture to put the point this way, running different risks: To have the hopeful faith and faithful hope Nancy is addressing is to persist in granting oneself permission to be granted permission to be-come who one has come to be.  It is holding oneself open, in the open (what Heidegger calls “truth”), to receive the permission, always already granted even before or whether one ever asks for it, that lets one be whatever one has by hap been let to be.   In a short, easily misunderstood formula, we might say that such hopeful faith/faithful hope is fidelity in accepting permission to become oneself.

As for love (the third of the theological virtues, alongside faith and hope), to love—at least to love skillfully, and not in such a way as to rob love of its own definitive intention—is to grant permission.  As faith without hope cannot keep its faith, and hope without faith loses its hope, so can there be neither faith in any hope nor hope in any faith without the love that—free of all distrust and expectation, but faithful come what may, and filled with expectancy—lets be whatever lief be.  That applies to all love, however one takes it, including even “sexual love”—which may be a pleonasm, if one follows certain philosophers, including Nancy (and perhaps even Plato, that old body-despiser).

In love, what comes always comes as a surprise.  That’s why love’s hope cannot be confined within any expectations, and why its faith cannot be denied victory, come whatever may.  That’s love’s famed unconditionality.

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“But,” readers might well be asking themselves, “what does all that have to do with the self?”

Good question!

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And to that question I will devote my next post, the final one—I promise, just trust me!—of what has come to be a three-part series (at least by my present expectation) on becoming ourselves, traumatically belated as that may be.

* Or, if it is at all salacious, that is only insofar as it casts light on the underlying salaciousness of the ordinary way of using the term salacious, which according to my dictionary means “treating sexual matters in an indecent way and typically conveying undue interest in or enjoyment of the subject.”  Nietzsche observes somewhere that the idea of an “immaculate conception”—such as the second most recent official Catholic dogma attributes to Mary, the mother of Jesus—could only arise if one has first “maculated” conception to begin with.  If, as Paul, the Christian apostle to the gentiles, says, to the pure all things are pure, then it is only for those who have already dirtied themselves that there could be anything “dirty” in “sexual matters,” “indecent” in the conveying of them, or “undue” in whatever interest one took in them.  Perhaps for those not already so dirtied, the only indecency would be not to convey such matters, and the only undue interest would be to take no interest in them at all.  On that, readers could profitably consult another recent English translation of some of Nancy’s essays:  Corpus II:  Writings on Sexuality, translated by Anne O’Byrne (Fordham University Press, 2013).

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