Emmanuel Levinas, Rhetoric, Composing, and Humanism

April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Much of western civilization’s arrogance comes from an attempt to substitute – one’s presence, one’s ideas, one’s values – for the presence of others. Critique of this, on many levels, has been the part of the exigency of academics and politics since World War II. The movements to account for marginalized voices, the personal as political, debates over advocacy in the classroom, the self as social construct – are all enlightenment critiques that perpetually fragment or must admit to their own provisional status; and many owe at least a partial lineage to philosophers from the mid twentieth century, especially thinkers like Levinas and Heidegger. Both because Levinas was foundational in bringing phenomenology to France as well as his ethical focus, Levinas has been an important figure in twentieth century philosophy. His encounters with Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg during the late 1920s were encounters with philosophy as “a living enterprise” and in, according to his biographer, “one of the great rendezvous points of the century” (Malka 36). However, until recently, Levinas’s influence has been less known outside of philosophy and religious studies, and he is certainly less notorious than thinkers like Derrida, whose work regularly responds to Levinas. Perhaps Levinas has remained peripheral because it is difficult to think of “applying” his work to something. He resists representation and his ethics are not prescribed. But maybe his lack of prescription, his avoidance of thematization, is exactly what makes him so appealing right now.

Rhetoric, a complicated field, is pulled toward the extremes of theory and practice. Rhetoricians make sweeping gestures, some claiming “everything is rhetoric,” while practitioners in the field teach composition classes, which are most often (in the United States) mandatory requirements imposed on freshmen students who thought they had reached their freedom from obligatory classrooms while also being unaware of the privileges that come with those classrooms. Françoise Cusset has remarked that the American university system provides “a veritable moratorium between the teenager’s insouciance and the grown-up’s struggle for survival” (33). Such an atmosphere allows for isolated theoretical discussions that cultivate “the purely rhetorical violence of the academic debates: their terms are all the more caustic for being closely confined, so rarely do they have any occasion to pass beyond the campus gates” (34). Cusset’s argument can also be taken further than the universities, for it is that idea of “college years” that is so culturally pervasive that it invades America’s less privileged who work low-paying jobs, often live at home, and attend city colleges and community colleges. These places are bastions of positivistic teaching practices imposed on professors in the forms mandatory syllabi and texts that walk students (and uninitiated teachers) through each rhetorical mode, often times stressing form over content while giving lipservice to “thoughts.”

Anything “theoretical” in these settings is seen as elitist, esoteric, boring, bad or unclear writing, or some sadistic drudgery demanded by the professor. Even if you are an entertaining and inspiring teacher, you still might encounter the student – as I did my first semester teaching in 2003– who refuses to read Judith Butler because she is a lesbian. (It’s at least a little more encouraging for me when I see a bit more engagement with the text, like this past semester when student’s response paper to McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage simply stated: “I think Marshall McLuhan is full of shit.”)

The gap between theory and practice is large in the United States. In privileged environments some have instituted Writing Across the Curriculum, which focuses on rhetorical practice; in less privileged places, environments either cultivate agonistic relationships between students and professors or “worker bees” whose degrees will never give them the opportunity they think it will. Gold stars for everyone. The theoretical side, which some believe to be passé, is left to graduate students, creating a discursive divide between graduates and undergraduates. Such divisions only marginalize theory more. In order for theory to appropriately inform practice, it is necessary to find ways to introduce theoretical and philosophical concepts to college students in America. Such concepts, however, must be combined with some sort of historical texture, not simply a thinker’s celebrity status. Of course, there is also a way that classic distinctions between theory and practice simply do not work for contemporary rhetoric, which makes teaching difficult for anyone who wants to explore those issues. One easily slips into arguments about knowledge construction and postmodernism, conjuring demons in the desert.

Emmanuel Levinas is a thinker who bridges historical divides in calcified conversations about modernism and postmodernism. He helps us understand the complexity of navigating deep personal belief in academic and public spaces, and he challenges the very roots of what a discipline like rhetoric is, compelling rhetoricians to remain constantly aware of what is at stake in rhetoric. Considering what thinkers like Levinas bring to a discussion about rhetoric can help answer questions like: What do you teach when all teaching is political advocacy, when every move is rhetorical? And, very practically speaking, what do you do when you recognize that you are in dialogue with people who have not arrived at the same point or traveled the same path? What do you do when you teach freshman who regularly write things like “back when racism was a problem” or “back when women were not equal”? When ethics and history are entangled, what do you do with students who think the Great Depression happened in the 1960s?

Perhaps this is to be expected from young students; and perhaps some theory is not for freshman, just as a pre-med student wouldn’t take a class on brain surgery. And there are also situations like the following example: A friend of mine, a graduate student in Religious Studies at a large university in California, recently told me about a disturbing situation. In class, she and her graduate cohorts were discussing a reading. When they reached a point where someone said, “does anyone else have anything to say?” my friend raised her hand to speak, saying there were some gender issues that hadn’t been covered. The discussion leader’s response was, “we’re not going to talk about gender.” The group agreed with the leader. Yet, according to my friend, the group’s aversion to the discussion of gender was not borne out of a sort of passé argument that is intellectually out of fashion or too pedestrian. Their aversion was due to discomfort and unreflective thinking; it simply wasn’t a problem or a valid “lens” for critical inquiry. Is this the “post-theoretical” educated world?

The kind of sentiments my friend encountered are similar to the kind of sentiments recently given toward discussions of theory in general. We tend to historicize the dismantling of theory in the 1990s as the diffusion of an exigency to be well-read in a certain type of intellectual literature that insulated professional academic identity. Perhaps it was simply necessary to dissolve neurotic elements in academic culture. Theory is “dead”; it died with a generation of scholars who “got over” the competitive demand to be in the know and up to date on the most current continental philosophy, even though they still have baggage about it. Such dismissals of theory come from many angles: from the impractical and esoteric nature of it, from an aversion to a certain personality type that seeks self-gratification from how much Derrida they’ve read, from conservative intellectuals who brand it non-sense, to a general aversion to the celebrity status of certain intellectuals. And yet, Francois Cusset’s, French Theory, goes so far as to say that the genealogy of American mis-reception to French writers, “determines, still today, global intellectual debate; and it explains, as an indirect consequence, both the new imperialist and neoconservative order in the period after September 11, 2001, and the impotence on the part of any left-leaning force that would oppose it” (5). If Cusset is even partially accurate, there is a recent historical imperative to understand what sort of influence theory had to say, even if it is only as intellectual history.

The differing cultural receptions to French intellectualism in the late twentieth century that Cusset refers to with Americans can also be seen between England and the France. Kate Soper begins her book, Humanism and Anti-Humanism, saying that most English people believe humanism is “more or less synonymous with atheism” (9) and then goes on to make a more subtle distinction:

If we ‘speak English’, then, ‘anti-humanism’ amounts to a dogmatic rejection of that ‘irenic and mediatory ethic’ which self-styled humanists have always deemed an essential component of their enlightenment. If we ‘speak French’, on the other hand, it constitutes itself a new enlightenment from whose purview every form of humanist thinking is revealed as no less obfuscatory and mythological than the theology and superstition which the ‘humanist’ movement has traditionally congratulated itself upon rejecting. (11)

In other words, according to the French, “anti-humanism” has come to be associated with a way of thinking that challenges traditional humanism on the grounds that humanism has merely usurped traditional religion and inserted itself as a kind of secular religion which operates through the same ideological power it has historically tried to depose.  Because Levinas is a thinker whose work informs later French thinkers like Derrida, who is put in the anti-humanist “camp,” studying Levinas’s work helps Americans understand more of the context of what poststructuralists react to as well as this mixing of terms surrounding humanism.

Levinas sees the possibility for a new humanism, one that is situated by the priority of the metaphysical relation to the Other. Levinas’s blending of the religious with the secular, his lack of fear to use the word “God,” places him in an important position for discussing rhetorical stance in the early twenty-first century, and while his ethics are not prescribed, he clearly works in philosophical and religious and traditions with exegetical methods that inform his ethics. It is therefore important to understand Levinas in terms of western thought in general to see what he brings to the discussion.

The following sections of this post will discuss the intricacies of Levinas’s ethics in relation to rhetoric, the problem of representation, phenomenological concepts of prayer and how they inform ethical gesturing, exegesis as ethical process, and the opening for a new approach to humanism. I argue that some of Levinas’s arguments potentially create an optimistic vision for future academic discourse, both theoretical and practical, if we are willing to discuss a “new” vision of humanism informed by twentieth-century theory and political horror. Such a vision requires resituating how religious thought is dealt with in so-called secular environments and pedagogical approaches to composition rhetoric that stress the value hermeneutic training over formal training.

History, Facticity, and Knowledge

When situating Levinas’s ethical philosophy in dialogue with rhetoric, one confronts an ancient tension between knowledge and being. Rhetoric is an art of choosing the best way to comport one’s self in a given situation, or kairotic moment, and it cannot be separated from ethics. Rhetoric, in its ancient sense, though always for an audience, is not dialogical. Yet invention in the 21st century rhetoric, in written form, carries the weight of an historical position that is hyper aware of the social elements of its facticity. More than the facticity of individual ethos and personal reputation, as artifact, written rhetoric exists in a large social sphere. In academic discourse especially, written rhetoric is dialogical; although it occupies a different temporality than the face-to-face conversation. The theoretical academic audience is a specific cultural entity, one that is comparable to, in Levinasian terms, metaphysically other. The writer acts – in some ways is compelled to act – to respond to something overlapping his or her private imagination and the social environment. One doesn’t write in response to Plato, but in response to the idea of Plato and the tradition of reception to his thought; just as Talmudic scholar, Rabbi David E. Sulomm Stein says when speaking of the historical legacy of a “masoretic text”: “the number of details has been too vast for masorah to address all room for disagreement” (ix). The study becomes a deep engagement with something wholly uncontainable. The overlap of western rhetorical – and to a certain extent, Christian – tradition has entered a dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’s writings in a kairotic moment where questions of ethics, and particularly religious belief, take center stage in both academic and political discourse. Because of the inherent instability of texts, Levinas brings a heightened emphasis to exegetical work that simultaneously has implications for studies of ethos.

It is not simply that one would study to merely be prepared for the moment of saying; exegetical study is a process of moving toward the other. It is a tempering process. Levinas addresses the issue in his essay, or testimony, as he calls it, “The Jewish Understanding of Scripture” as he explains Pardes: Jewish exegesis. Referring to an ancient text dealing with punishment by flagellation, Levinas says,

We must first patiently accept – as we do the conventions of the fable or a theatrical production – the specifics of the text in its own world; we must wait until these details begin to free themselves from the anachronisms and local color on which the curtain rose. In any case, this exotic or antiquated language should not hinder our thinking just because it includes the picturesque, or because we shy at the immediate meaning of the things and acts it names. All that is going to change – often, after beginning with questions that seem incongruous and insignificant.

What wisdom for composition students! Although written rhetoric is a reaction formation occurring on the hither side of what, for Levinas, would be a pre-existing ethical relationship, it is the action or gesture of a response – even if it is perhaps an inherently violent response. It is an act of saying, and the rhetor’s position acutely models the ethics of substitution precisely because it is the temporality of intention, the grouping of self into an ‘I’, which says. This is why the ethics of the speaker is one of the original topics in discussing rhetoric; ηθος as dwelling or home. But we could go back further.  Heraclitus’ first Cosmic Fragment begins, “Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it” (32). Re-presentation reduces experience and memory into the artificiality of knowledge. In Phaedrus, Socrates is skeptical of the written word. Language is representation, but this is a necessity of sociality – communication. The temporality of written response is more than a kneejerk; ethics implies deliberation, even if ethical responsibility precedes deliberation, even if I am responsible before I deliberate – before I know to deliberate.

Gnosis comes from gignoskein – to come to know. This coming to, or movement toward, precedes knowledge. The action of saying performs ethics. The action of the said was an ethical act for a different exigency. At times, Levinas will speak of transcending history itself – an alarming thought in light of twentieth century history. But this seemingly “modernist” wish is, for him, a wish to be in a discursive situation, a face-to-face dialogue that transcends the tendency to reduce history to a visible totality (Totality and Infinity 243). In this sense he wishes to avoid the materialism of Marxism in the mid-twentieth century, to distinguish our humanity and animality: “to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity” (35). The past, for Levinas, is suspect; however, this does not change its importance, and Levinas’s own devotion to the history of philosophy is evident. His favoring of the saying over said is similar to Socrates’ skepticism of the written word; for Levinas says he is interested in the saying “less through its informational contents than by the fact that it is addressed to an interlocutor” (Ethics and Infinity 42). This address would be intentional.

Ethics must be at some point about the relationship between the physicality, the materiality of being. It is more than the reduction to just that, but ethics are about this world. As Simone de Beauvoir says, “one does not offer an ethics to a God” (Ethiscs and Infinity 10). The problem of representation is bound to my facticity as a being instantiated in a body. It is inescapable, and the question becomes: What do I do with my facticity in which I am already entwined with the Other, with whom I was entwined before I was I? The me who was before the I. The “I” is bound to the Other before it comes to the gnosis of self. The author I was before I wrote.


The Problem of Artifice and Representation


The question for rhetoricians with regard to Levinas is: Can you accept the argument that ethics is first philosophy? If I accept Levinas’s argument, then the next question must be something along the lines of how do I come to an awareness of my responsibility to the other? How is my stance to be ethical, which means also how is my responsibility to be performed? Historical factors have also shaped my facticity before I “come” to know. But my ethics must be a consciousness of my responsibility, even for what I am unconscious of.

Yet Levinas resists the post-modern “constructed” self as he resists rhetoric, representation, and aesthetics. Jill Robbins has discussed Levinas’s over aversion to aesthetics in Altered Reading where she relays that, for Levinas regarding poetry,

it is not just the figures of figural interpretation that are said to cover up the ethical. It is as if figures themselves were unethical, as if anything that plays were ethically suspect. Levinas says: “We distrust that which plays [se joue] in spite of us.” 50

Art takes us away from our selves. When we “pretend to be other,” do we not avoid responsibility or risk colonizing via the projection of an imaginaire? How much power does the “I” have? Robbins traces the tension in Levinas back to Socrates and a philosophic distrust of poetry, but she also sees another possibility in Levinas’s “turn” away from the rhetorical:

If figure, rhetoric, mimesis, the literary were not what Levinas takes them to be then it might be necessary not to turn away from figure, as Levinas does, but to face the figure otherwise, as language’s ownmost figurative potential, as that which is most distinctive to language, that is, to face language as ethical possibility. 54

Representation clearly has a place for Levinas, particularly in language and literary representation; even in its imperfection, it is necessary. Its place is in exegetical discovery. The problem arises in the thematization of representation, in the making, or perhaps even more problematic: a thematizing that is unaware of its tendency to grasp or ossify. The face of the Other signifies the infinite for Levinas; that is, the face signifies the inability to signify the Other. The very signification cannot contain what it signifies. Ethical language here, or thought, would then need to move beyond its function to merely signify; it must be an “action-ing.” This is something performed by a subject; it is the very instantiation of a subject – a very rhetorical matter. It is perhaps honesty before comportment. Levinas calls this way of languaging testimony.

Testimony is a saying that, for Levinas, communicates beyond thematization. Testimony would be prayer itself by saying “Here I am!” to the Other. It is a location of being – a being-accountable. In Ethics and Infinity, when Philippe Nemo asks Levinas, “who testifies to what and to whom in testimony? What has the witness or prophet of whom you speak seen happen, about which he has to testify?” Levinas responds:

E. L.: You continue to think in terms of testimony as based on knowledge and thematization. The concept of testimony I am trying to describe surely implies a mode of revelation, but this revelation gives us nothing. Philosophical speech always comes back to thematization…
Ph. N.: …however, one could ask you why you yourself thematize all this, and at this very moment. Is this not also in a sense to testify?
E.L.: […] I do not deny that philosophy is knowledge, insofar as it names even what is not nameable, and thematizes what is not thematizable. But in thus giving to what breaks with the categories of discourse the form of the said, perhaps it impresses onto the said the traces of this rupture. (107-108)

The value in philosophical thought for Levinas is in the potential for “traces” of rupture to make their way into the recorded discourse. This is perhaps Levinas’s answer to why Plato ever bothered to take on the task of recording Socrates.

It may be possible for the saying of a composition to be a kind of testifying, a kind of prayer – Blanchot’s writing as death – but to what extent can these “traces of rupture” be intentional?

One possibility is a loosening of meaning. Critical studies in the twentieth century sought to loosen meaning by removing the idea of a producing agent and placing meaning in the receiving subject, but then that subject too was called into question. This critical dissolving of intentional subjectivity seems antithetical to an ethics of accountability, yet it is easy to see the ethics behind a movement that would unmask a kind of romantic subjectivity for its arrogance, for the very arrogance of claiming one’s self as a substitute for the divine – a mythic structure of producer and consumer reflecting market economy. Accountability in a composing process informed by Levinasian ethics would not be the sort of accountability American politicians and business executives wish to see in a kind of verifiable or quantitative approach to teaching writing. It would not be about language accuracy in the sense of an objective correlative either. Yet a testifying composition must remain somewhat intentional.

Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster comes to mind in its fragmentary structure and thus its avoidance of a thematizing narrative. Robbins suggests that

on the basis of reading Blanchot, Levinas has modified somewhat his understanding of the work of art, not so much as regards its ontology than as regards its possible relation to ethics. But any question of how much Levinas may have learned from Blanchot in the interim must also acknowledge that Levinas remains unconvinced about the capacity of art to signify transcendence. 154

For Levinas, certain works, particularly biblical, have the power to open one to the awareness of the prior ethical relationship. The exegetical process of relating to those works will always be more fundamental than seeking to be a producer of those works. To the extent that intentional work would be produced, it seems as though the work’s saying in response to the Other must take precedence over that content of what is said, and the saying ought acknowledge the priority of the Other – an ethics of an inevitable substitution. I find the description of saying to overlap with the phenomenological gesture of prayer.

The Phenomenology of Prayer

There is an approach to languaging – hermeneutic in origin – that would be useful in thinking about composition as Levinasian testimony. In order to perform what I mean, I will provide a brief etymological study of the words translated into English as “pray” from the Judeo-Christian Bible.  According to Strong’s Biblical Concordance, there are about ten different words for “pray,” most of which have Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek meanings. In Hebrew / Aramaic, the three most common uses for the word pray (in the Bible) are the following:

1. na: a primitive particle of incitement or entreaty, which may be rendered I pray, now, or then; added mostly to verbs (in the imperative or future), or to interject, occasionally to an adverb or a conjunction. – I beseech (pray) thee, go to, now, oh.
2. anna: oh now! – I (me) beseech (pray) thee. O; anah: I, me, mine, myself, we, which, who; an: where?; hence, whither?, when?: also hither and thither.
3. palal: a primitive root; to judge (officially or mentally); by extension to intercede, pray: – judge or make supplication.

These three Hebrew / Aramaic words for “pray” point to a particular kind of utterance: an interjection that exclaims and implores. The utterance is located in time: now, then, toward the future, when? The word meanings also locate place: where; and perspective: I, me, mine, judge, etc.

Greek definitions and translations of the previous Hebrew and Aramaic words for “pray” add more layers of meaning.

1. sophronizo: to make of sound mind, (figurative) to discipline or correct. Teach to be sober. From sophron: safe (sound) in mind, i.e. self-controlled (moderate as to opinion or passion) – discreet, sober, temperate. From sozo: to deliver or protect (literal or figurative); heal, preserve, save (self), do well, be (make) whole. AND phren: probably from an obsolete phrao (to rein in or curb): the midriff (as a partition of the body) i.e. (figurative by implied sympathy) the feelings for sensitive nature – understanding.
2. apoballo: to throw off (figurative) to lose: cast away; from apo: off, away (from something near) in various senses (place, time, or relation) usually denotes separation.

The Greek meanings add more explicitly ethical (and rhetorical) layers to the word by locating it within teaching, the self, the body, understanding, and sympathy. The Greek meanings, like the Hebrew, also convey instantiation in time and difference through separation of being.  It is also worth considering Latin meanings for prayer. Even though Levinas was Jewish, Jill Robbins notes that, especially regarding Levinas’s approach to Dostoevsky: “Levinas’s intertextual relationship to Dostoevsky, and the particular intricacy of Jewish and Christian traditions that nourish his work, complicates any simple Judeo-centered reading of Levinas’s ethics.  Consider the etymology of “genuflection,” which reveals an original conception of difference (which also reveals an overlap with Derrida’s Differance).

Genuflect: Latin: genu = knee + flecture = to bend
1. To bend the knee in a kneeling or half-kneeling position, as in worship
2. To exhibit a deferential or obsequious manner or attitude
Deference: Courteous respect or submission to another’s opinion
Defer: Latin: differe
1. To put off until a future time: postpone
2. Delay or procrastinate
Differe: Latin: dis = apart + ferre = to carry
1. To be disimilar in nature, quality, amount, or form
2. To be of a different opinion: disagree
3. To dispute or quarrel
Defer: Latin: deferre: de = carry + ferre = away –> to bring to or to carry away
1. To comply with or submit to the wishes, opinion, or decision of another
Obsequious: Latin: ob = to + sequi = follow
1. To comply, follow, fawning: servile

These words tell a Judeo-Christian story. The original separation from God is perhaps both a difference and in form and a quarrel. To sin may simply be to know, or to come to know, one is separate from God. The difference is then overcome by a combination of prayer as genuflection and forgiveness, in a Christian sense, and responsibility and election in a Jewish sense. Genuflection is a performance for the metaphysically Other; it is an act of will, yet it is not an artistic gesture; it is an honest gesture which does not seek to inform, persuade, or please. Can intention ever be truly honest? Can we come to a “clean” sense of responsibility where we are no longer enshrouded in our attempt? Only through establishing myself as a being different from God, which is the source of my guilt, can I enact willful submission.
Instantiation of self, of perspective, is fundamentally an act of difference. It is an act in the face of God. This action of self is the site of meaning. The way one languages prayer is an instance of making meaning through intention. However, the moment I arrive at myself, on the hither side of the prayer itself, I am immediately instantiated again as a being whose difference is a quarrel with the divine. It is this instantiation of self – this instance – that creates my existence in time. It seems part of being human is the instantiation of self that defines me as different from God and gives a sense of purpose to either repair or justify this difference.

It is important to understand that “it is not in order to recognize itself as more guilty by specific acts committed that the I who speaks here accuses itself.” Levinas takes his point of departure from Dostoyevsky’s line in The Brothers Karamazov: “‘We are all guilty, the one toward the other, and I more than all the others.’ It is as me, always the foremost one responsible, experiencing the inexhaustible obligations, that the I is in the wrong, and recognizes in this wrong the identity of its ‘I’” (Is It Righteous To Be? 112). It would be misleading to attach this guilt to conceptions of man’s fallen nature in some sort of homiletic context to evangelize. Levinas is concerned with a structuring that is not a mystical conversion experience. This is why his emphasis on an exegetical relationship with text, with its connection to mitnagdim tradition is important. Jewish prayer does not appear to be individual prayer (at least not the modern subjective ‘I’), but when combined with exegetical study, which is personal, as with Christian notions of prayer, we see the emphasis on subjectivity and pluralist ethics.

To the extent that I exist for the Other before I know that I exist, as if my appearance or body existed before the I inhabited it, I may be oblivious to my ethical obligation. Transcendence, for Levinas, occurs before knowledge, and it is the task of ethics as first philosophy to account for a pre-thematizable rupture of subjectivity. This is what Levinas calls “beyond essence” or “otherwise than being.” There is a way, ethically speaking, that my ruptured subjectivity is fundamental to my being, as fundamental as my historical facticity, yet unthematizable as fact. Why, one might ask, can we not take the rupture as fact, as given, as deed done? I think the answer has something to do with a way that that mode of thinking would “take God for granted”; it would be giving meaning back to the mystery of an overflow that cannot be contained and giving an applause to God for doing “good work” as if God had designed an impressive new car, as if God were my teleological peer. It is an arrogance that would give feedback to an existence it didn’t understand. To see rupture as mere facticity would be idle praise.


To proceed from ethics as first philosophy and “to derive praxis and knowledge in the world from this nonassumable susceptibility,” from beyond essence, will not be a prerequisite fulfilled only once, but a returning gesture (Otherwise than Being xlviii). Writing is an experience of a language that “houses being” in the Heidegerrian sense which makes the writing process signify an “experience [which] is a reading, an understanding of sense, an exegesis, a hermeneutic, and not an intuition” (Humanism of the Other 13). Prayer, or testimonial composition, would be a responsive signifying gesture in the face of an unthematizable Other, an Other who’s mysterious presence already in a sense knows everything about me, so that my account is no mere posturing. Nor would I need to “prove” by insinuation – or prove at all; I only need to account for my own instantiation which has already happened, as if Prometheus learned his secret by chance or accident and couldn’t give the knowledge back. There is no taking back my comportment, my existence. Even suicide could not accomplish the task of disintegration, for even disintegration would be a temporalization related to being, as the dissolving sugar in Bergson’s famous description of duration.

In a sense, all writing, speaking, languaging is already a kind of testimonial. One could say what I do “adds to my record,” yet to leave it at that avoids the ethical nature of intentionality and reverts to banal tautology. In rhetoric as a discipline, there is a tendency to claim everything belongs to rhetoric (I am particularly thinking of texts like Andrea Lunsford’s Everything’s an Argument, but it also applies to notions that an owl hooting in the woods performs rhetoric). But this stance is meant as a rhetorical incentive to interpret the world in terms of a saturation of pre-existing meaning, an authorized book of nature. It is the empirical twist on hermeneutics of Sir Francis Bacon’s inductive method which led him to conclude that “man is but the servant and interpreter of nature” (243). Rather than investigating Bacon’s Plotinian roots, John Locke saw a word as a sign which signifies a human idea built by human mind. Such a conception leaves little room for biblical exegesis and hermeneutic methods, and stresses the conception of the human maker, that productive romantic concept which is add odds with what Levinas brings to the discussion. Locke’s emphasis on a more extreme subject-object split, where meaning is recorded through senses (sense as body-sense, not a Greek sense of aesthetic) leads conceptions of humanity to exist not so much in a divinely created world full of meaning as much as in a world empty of spirit; it creates secularism as tabula rasa creates human equality. Even though Locke was religious, it is easy after him to glorify humanism over religious beliefs. Rhetoricians who claim everything as part of their field make a risky ethical claim.

It is the banality of claiming that everything is…the banality of the verb “to be” to situate the “I” as maker, to make the “I” substitute for otherness that separates the objective world into a world that thinks humanity before thinking the face of the other. This version of humanism is the humanism that led to Instrumental Reason. It is the humanism that replaced religion with a version of itself as positivistic science tends to do as well. It is not that science or the older humanism is inherently evil, but they both tend to create a world of nameable phenomena. It was this empirical humanism that made thinkers anti-humanist. The rhetorician who claims that everything is the domain of rhetoric usurps the role of namer of things (and framer of things) and in doing so enacts on a global scale the instantiation of a self that attempts to account for more than itself; indeed, it seeks to account for everything but itself, and in its lack of accountability it is perpetually cast out of the garden by its own arrogance.

The tendency for intention to be non-transparent is exactly what makes rhetoric so ethically questionable. The intention to persuade rather than to be accountable to the other, rather than to testify, is an avoidance of responsibility and a usurpation of another’s space. The tendency to persuade, however, is perhaps unavoidable. It is also part of the instantiation of self. The finite nature of being imposes limits, and it is because of those limits that ethical relationships exist, both with an Other that would be God as well as others who occupy human temporality. When the difference implied by the instantiation of prayer is neglected, is taken as given, or simply carelessly unthought, this opens the space for arrogance. Levinas’s contribution to rhetoric is a return to its most fundamental tension: between ethics and being. It is the question of how to be righteous. His message is a perpetual saying that is a return to the priority of the Other before moving into the act of persuasion or substituting one’s voice for another’s. This would be a new humanism, one that accounts for the face of the other before thinking in terms of human collectivity.

How might this approach to saying be employed in composing? And not as a set of rules but as a commitment to something? And how might teaching happen? For the teacher is almost always in the process of persuasion, substitution, and erasure into the channeling of the trace.

Works Cited
Bacon, Sir Francis. “Selections From The New Organon.” Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Thomson Wadsworth: Boston, 2005.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005.

Cusset, Francoise. French Theory. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

de Beauvoir, Simone. Ethics and Infinity. New York: Citadel P: 1949.

Heraclitus. The Cosmic Fragments. Ed. G.S. Kirk. London: Cambridge UP, 1970.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
———Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985.
———Humanism of the Other. Trans. Nidra Poller. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
———“The Jewish Understanding of Scripture.” http://www.crosscurrents.org. Vol. 44 Issue 4, p488:
1994. http://www.crosscurrents.org/levinas.htm.
———Otherwise Than Being. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh Duquesne UP, 1981.
———Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh Duquesne UP, 1969.
———“The Vocation of the Other.” Is It Righteous to Be? Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

Malka, Salomon. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Pittsburgh Duquesne UP, 2006.

“Pray”: Entries 4994, 577, 4336 in both the Hebrew and Greek sections and 6419 in the Hebrew section. Strong’s Biblical Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press:

“Who Prays?” The Phenomenology of Prayer. Ed. Bruce Ellis Benson and Norman Wirzba. New York: Fordham UP, 2005.

Soper, Kate. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. Illinois: Open Court, 1986.

Stein, Rabbi David E. Sulomm. “Preface to The Hebrew-English Edition. Tanakh. Philadelphia: JPS,1999.

New Releases

April 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

     New Releases and Old Releases Coming Soon on itunes 


For the first time, my composition for typewriters will be available…a live recording of the event.  Here’s a sample.

  Watch a clip: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1043329318682

The Way Things Go…Improvisations with Anne Angyal and Tyler Potts circa 2003

And the newest album…Harder to Tell

Sacred Space, Sound, and Gesture

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ethics as part of politics is a misunderstanding.  Aristotle says explicitly: ή μεν οὗν μεθοδος τούτων ἐφἱεται, πολιτική τις οὗσα, “this investigation [in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics] is an investigation that moves in the direction of [cultivating knowing-the-way-around the being of human beings in its genuineness].” Insofar as the consideration is πολιτική, a basic determination found in all considerations of the ἀγαθὁν [good] lies hidden therein.

–          Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy (48)

Action today must be conceived in terms of a tradition of an intentional passivity, namely mysticism – a kind of non-action where an individual is infused with something he or she determines as Other, divine, spiritual, or demonic.  Because the contemporary “human” is already alienated – at least in terms of western discourse and advanved industial society – we must change how we think of what is “outside of society.”  Traditionally, the mystic leaves human society, receives an “experience,” and returns to the society, often the power to say something political, to prophesize.  Mystical experience is a license for speaking about action, speaking as action.  While there are differing definitions of mystical experiences, passivity is a common theme among them, as is the fact that they often (not always) occur accompanying intentional contemplative retreat; they begin with effort, not for the mystical, but for the metaphysical. 

Mystical experiences create stories, overlapping with literary models of journey and return, yet with the benefit of not going anywhere physically. The narration of the experience is akin to writing and storytelling.  In fact, Don Cupitt has argued that mysticism is itself a certain kind of writing[1] “steeped in paradoxes” of life experience traditionally made “secondary” by the attempt among the Greeks to locate a “primary” basis for living. Celebrating “postmodern” writers who challenge a fixed center, Cupitt calls for anarchic mysticism to disrupt fixed religious and governmental institutions.  That is, he calls for worldly action arising from passive, other-worldly experience. The mystical is sought when there are no worldly answers to the woes of living. This itself becomes ritual. Particularly in America, however, mysticism has taken on a worldly, do-it-yourself, pragmatic quality which informs passive political activism.  Mysticism can therefore be a model for exploring how intentional passivity relates to social action in our society.

In the following, I trace the western concept of action in a general, European sense, particularly as it relates to the life and work of Martin Heidegger,[2] whose own retreat to a kind of mysticism acts symbolically for how the concept of action is changing.  Extending this, the work of Simone Weil develops a call for mysticism as a radical passivity for political critique.  After this, I turn briefly to America in part two, discussing mysticism as passivity in practice, arguing that how we distinguish between method and attitude informs our notions of being and form and how we determine being reveals our state of grace. Deliberately standing outside the political is a method or attitude of exposing one’s self to the possibility of a grace that is im-possible, in hopes for either answers to earthly trauma or an exit toward God. 


The western concept of action, inherited from the Greeks, is a gesture producing meaning, inherently violent in being’s grasping of the world through reason and language (logos).  This gesture demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself.  As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces God as time (Chronos).  Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.”  These phrases, admittedly grandiose, show action annihilating the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors.  In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament.  The Reformation, the birth of capitalism, the rise of institutions, the rise of liberalism – these narratives work in varying degrees as the story of an individual who either disappears or becomes an object.  But they ignore the exposure of being and they forget spirit, just as modern science favors the verifiable.  This has become the western conception through its own hubris.  Martin Heidegger’s life and labor exemplifies a kind of failure[3] in which traditional senses of action recede. 

Heidegger’s Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy articulates the general western philosophical concept of action: “Aristotle designates this τἑχνη as πολιτική. Therein lies the fact that he sees the knowing-one’s-way-around of living itself as πολιτική, being-there-as being with-with-one-another” (Heidegger 49).  Hannah Arendt claims the vita activa is no older than “our tradition of political thought” (14).  This material has poignancy when considering Heidegger’s own political quietism late in his career[4] – a significant change from his National Socialism.  His life exemplifies the ambiguous relationship with action. If Aristotle teaches that the ones who know how to live are most happy and most ethical, Heidegger, arguably the most influential philosopher of the past century, lacks this knowledge.  He reaches an obstacle, and as Simone Weil says in another Aristotelian echo, “human action has no other rule or limit than obstacles” (121).  He is the king at the bottom of fortune’s wheel[5] – the scapegoat himself.

In his Aristotle lectures, Bios is “the ‘tending of life,’ ‘course of life,’ the specific temporality of a life from birth to death, the ‘run of one’s life,’ so that Bios also means ‘life account’” (52). Yet Heidegger begins his lecture saying of Aristotle himself, “regarding the personality of the philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died”(4).  Concerning work, Simone Weil says, “Through work, man turns himself into matter, like Christ does through the Eucharist.  Work is like death […] It means the abandonment of personal will […] labor is a consent to the order of the universe” (119-120).  Heidegger’s work and life is an acute submission to such an order insofar as his actions reveal his limits. To ask about action is to ask what we do with a life that cannot be undone, even by suicide.       

In our society, non-action, or refusal, is action so long as the will is involved and so long as one is constrained by life itself.[6]  Even Bartleby’s preferences show will, and as he says to his former employer, “I know where I am” (624).  John Cage argues something similar when he says silence does not exist since the frequencies of our high-pitched nervous system and low-pitched blood-flow hum constantly in our ears (8).  All life is vibration; all sense is perception of vibration.  Vibration vibrates in space: “in space a capacity is formed of an element invisible to our eyes and yet solid enough to hold vibrations within it” (Khan, Music of 17). Capacity is a kind of form or limit, like the body or the soul.  The soul is a limit of spirit. As Hazrat Inayat Khan describes, spirit is like sunlight and soul is the form of that light through the window of a room; thus, in life “there is one loss and one gain. The loss is the loss of freedom, and the gain is the experience of life which is fully gained by coming to this limitation of life which we call the individual” (Mysticism of 12).  This Sufi conception of capacity precedes Heidegger’s Dasein, revealing a discussion of being which does not, like him, neglect spirit.  

If body is limit, sense is limit, even soul is limit, then when one gathers intention of the will toward accomplishing in action, one creates a capacity in order to address the prior capacity which is always already the constraint of life.  Life is already passivity.  Heidegger’s later work shows him to be aware of this, and it should be considered when reflecting on his idea of a subject-less “thinking” and his comments that philosophy can no longer speak to politics: “the greatest distress of thought consists in the fact that today, as far as I can see, no thinker speaks who is “great” enough to bring thinking immediately, and in a formative way, and thereby to get it under way” (“Only a God” 116).  This disappearing will makes things hazy.

Not only is life constraint, but each aspect of living has constraints which may or may not be congruent with other aspects. I may sense something in my soul that I cannot sense in my physical body.  This is magic.  Michael Taussig, in What Color is the Sacred says, “Magic is sometimes said to be just this dazzling fusion of the human world with the thing world too” (158). The experience of others and the world transcend the body is also magic.  If the ideal living is a harmonious tuning into body, perception, and soul, one would expect a vibratory communication between them, but the trauma of life does not place these aspects in tune with each other automatically.  That is done by the will through gesture.  Gesture is action in the world.  My command of movements teaches me that at a basic level I have potential to act. Yet because of my state of being in the trauma of life, my potential is different from others’, though perhaps closer to some.  Communal gestures – dance, ritual, yoga, functional harmony, etc. – reveal their importance in the ways they allow participants to come into vibratory communication with one another.  The liberal subject is an oversimplification, and Heidegger was right to question it.

We cannot intentionally stand outside society without will, but the will is what Heidegger questions by moving away from the modernist tendency to split subject and object.  Our culture resonates with Aristotle after two millennia. Emmanuel Levinas goes so far as to claim Greek philosophy is “the wisdom of nations” due to its “agreement between the intelligibility of the cosmos in which are posited both solid and graspable beings, and the practical good sense of men having needs to satisfy – [making] all significance, all rationality, go back to being” (118). Consciousness is the light of reason, a being which “grasps” in space.  Consciousness intentionally wills toward future and is the locus of action based on gathered knowledge.  It is discernment and judgment.  Heidegger lacked ethical political judgment, but he also kept stripping the will away from what he called “thinking.”  This thinking, without subject, still includes others, magically.

When we judge someone, we consider his or her ability to judge.  When we consider someone’s goodness, we take into account one’s knowing-how-to-live.  We have degrees of manslaughter; we consider the authenticity of actions.  To be authentic in its ancient sense is to murder with one’s own hand, and possibly to murder one’s family member. We value the action which makes justice swift.  Tragedy, for the Greeks, occurs when one’s knowing-how-to-live transgresses unwittingly against the Gods’ “natural” order.  Oedipus puts out his own eyes to atone for a misunderstanding beyond his knowledge.  Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism is modern tragedy, a metonymy for collective guilt and a demand for justice.  He saw and hoped for that future that did not come to be.  And if authenticity is, for him, a gathering one’s self in angst and care toward death, what are we to make of his failed suicide attempt and its relation to justice?  Does this action count in an account of his life? Was it Hari-kari? Does his proximity to success in the attempt matter?  The will suffers a terrible blow.

To kill with one’s own hand is also to have intent and will. We culturally laud this action in epics and action movies – the action of dominance. In literature, there is a special place for the stranger, the Other, the Grendel, descendent of Cain. But isn’t Cain marked so that we know he has already been judged?  When Beowulf kills Grendel, he takes his fate into his own hands.  Yet, what Cain did to Abel is also what Beowulf does to Grendel.  Even if Beowulf is right to kill Grendel in the law of the human world, he disrupts something larger.  Beowulf dis-arms Grendel and displays it in the Heorot.  In the transfer of the arm is sign there is a shift from God as meaning-maker to hero as meaning-maker. Later, Beowulf writes the doom of the dragon with a dagger: “his final foe, unlike the Grendel-kin, does not bear the mark of God’s enmity, and therefore Beowulf must do the writing himself” (Sharma 273-4).  In Old English, “the verb forscrifan, along with the sense “to condemn” or “to doom,” can conceivably carry the sense “to cut into” or “to write upon” – in the sense of engraving as writing (270).  So the man of action, the super hero, is also the maker of meaning, and the writer takes on what was once God’s task.  To refuse to make meaning, then, is cowardice.

But making meaning is social action.  Heidegger recedes from acting politically, becomes passive, denies the will, and emasculates himself.  Philosophy cannot relate to politics. With the subject gone, there is no privacy.  To “participate” in contemporary society is to engage in its violence.  To vote for any President of the United States is to vote for war.  In the 1960s, Great Refusal[7]  hoped to stand outside of history, but without the subject, history and freedom are either archaic concepts which never existed.  There are no more Alaskas, and Hannah Arendt has said that it is the possibility of space travel that makes the earth a prison (10).  If we live in completely man-made conditions, “neither labor nor work nor action nor, indeed, thought as we know it would then make sense any longer.”  This is the modern nightmare even here on earth, unless we are to find a transport to an Other that could provide a solace for alienation.  Perhaps Heidegger was right to recede.   

In the pessimistic European sense, to live is to be in the hollow carcass of bourgeois body.  We are already ghosts waiting for judgment day.  Radical passivity, as Heidegger suggests, appears our only recourse.  But insofar as it is intentional such a passivity must be a repetitious performance which forgets its own intention.  This more optimistic approach has long existed in America, where everything becomes an “act,” where action itself parodies living, planting beans on the highway for all to see as Thoreau did.  One overcomes with an earnestness which outperforms sentiment. This spirit is found in political non-action and mysticism.

Modern action narratives de-emphasizing spirit because it disrupts authentic power must be transcended.  Spirit, coming like the light of the sun, taking shape as a soul in a dwelling, has been neglected.  If spirit can exist, it must come through intentional passivity. The only action is to be a kind of Christ or Buddha, which is in a way the most violent kind of action, it destroys politics.  It is a consciousness of exposure which authenticity cannot master.  Freedom itself is a constraint grounded by the constraint of life’s capacity: “Where there is [this kind] of freedom there is a blossoming of happiness, beauty and poetry; that, perhaps, is its only most certain mark,” says Simone Weil (126-7).  The mark is in creativity.  For Weil, “nothing can have as its destination anything other than its origin.  The contrary idea, the idea of progress, is poison.”(118). Man cannot be his own origin.  Democracy, for her, presents a false consent based on unwilling subjection to incompetent leaders, masking no choice with choice.  Sounding much like the Frankfurt school, and a bit like Heidegger’s critique of technology which influenced it, anticipating the Great Refusal, Weil’s answer to the crisis of modernity and instrumental reason is madness (127).  It is the madness of the mystic.  This occurs in strains of American thought and creative gesture.


In America, the concept of action assumes a kind of creative mysticism.  Most of this essay has necessarily discussed European thinkers so as to conceptualize action in the west.  However, American culture both inherits and transforms the notion because America is the home of much religious fervor.  One might even call it madness.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, lectures given by the American William James in Scotland (1901), he calls for a suspension of scientific thinking while simultaneously praising the benefits of psychological studies of hallucinations among the insane for his project (22).  Pragmatism tries to keep open possibilities, something James perhaps gains from his father’s Spiritualism.[8] Citing both Jonathan Edwards and St. Theresa, he claims evidence of grace can only be considered after the experience (20-21).  Mysticism in New Thought relates to action in practical, daily, one might say pragmatic ways to improve life, often relating to mental health.  Aristotle’s conception of knowing-one’s-way-around takes on folk-like qualities, especially with concepts like hoodoo, where knowing-one’s-way-around is not around a polis.   

Mysticism in America reveals that action and non-action are determined by a distinction between attitude and method.  This is a result of seeing nature as sacred.  While Romantic, it also comes from both Native Americans and thinkers like Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who aestheticize the natural in (perhaps unknowingly) in the Aristotelian meaning of aesthetics as something perceived; that is, not determined by sense (Heidegger 21).  Engaging with a world where labor is intimate with nature, the thought takes on both ancient and romantic approaches to nature, thus creating experiences like Emerson’s transparent eyeball or the vertigo of Jefferson’s land bridge.  The sacred is public.  Spiritualism seeking to contact the dead, seeks mergence with the sacred dead already here.[9] Openness is an attitude. William James’ openness to varieties is a kind of leading, in the Quaker sense of the term.  The longing to merge with the spiritual drives an American adornment of otherness through its own brand of Orientalism. Running out of land in the twentieth century, Americans go west till it becomes east, then west again.[10]  Mysticism becomes practicable as method, one must simply choose one’s form of yoga or gesture, which in a way leads to a large-scale neglect or refusal of state politics, the question is determined by perspective. Consider the influence of the Ouija board on Caodaism, the Vietnamese religion influenced by New Thought (Horowitz 65). 

For Cupitt (and Weil), intentionally passive mysticism is a postmodern answer to a corrupt and unjust society.  He claims that “in terms of the classic binary oppositions around which our culture was formerly constructed, the word spirituality is the opposite of temporality” (27). The writer or poet, imposing measure, performs his or her own death (Derrida 25; Blanchot 37) – at least in a liberal society. American jazz music in the 1960s, by removing external form, constantly explores the question of action in the method and attitudinal combination as the imposing of measure.  John Coltrane’s music,[11] like Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Sufism, seeks a vibratory harmonizing of body, mind, soul, and spirit – a combination of living and practice. We see this even in method books like Steve Lacy’s My Life with the Soprano Saxophone and Yusef Lateef’s Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music.

It is important for a musician to know just how much he/she can feel, if only to point up emotional limitations, but it is misleading for a musician to assume that the ability to undergo emotionalism automatically implies the ability to produce it […] The alternative to a conscious injection of emotional-memory is a full-bodied, deeply rooted, mentally alert sense that is a vital tool of expression. (Lateef 6)

This kind of creating is a particular approach to action. It requires the admission of spirit which means an exposed being, that freedom is imprisoned by life. One of the first principles of R. P. Poulan’s Graces of Interior Prayer is that one cannot will a mystical experience; it must come from outside (114). But the attitude is that this does not mean we cannot try. Simone Weil claims that

The act of creation is not an act of power.  It is an abdication. Through this act a kingdom was established other than the kingdom of God.  The reality of this world is constituted by the mechanism of matter and the autonomy of rational creatures.  It is a kingdom from which God has withdrawn.  God, having renounced being its king, can only enter as a beggar. (123)

So, to deliberately stand outside society is a method or attitude of exposing one’s self to the possibility of a grace that is impossible – for grace does not appear to be an act in time or human intention – in hopes for an answer to earthly trauma or an exit to God.  But one performs this through a labor of creation repetitiously so as to forget one’s will through process.  Action can no longer be determined by a being which grasps alone, but a being whose labor is abdication.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. New York: Verso, 1951.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition.  2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Bivins, N.D. P. “Spiritism.” Marie Laveau’s Original Black and White Magic. International Import Company. Los Angeles, 1991.

Blanchot. Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Cage, John. Silence. Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1961.

Cupitt, Don. Mysticism after Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1974.

Ellwood, Robert S. Mysticism and Religion. New York: Seven Bridges, 1999. 

Emerson. Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Transcendentalism: A Reader.  Ed. Joel Myerson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy.  Trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

———————- “Only a God Can Save Us.” The Heidegger Controversy. Ed. Richard Wolin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

James. Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Dover, 2002.

Hohman, John George. Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies. Pomeroy: Health Research.

Horowitz, Mitch. Occult America: The Secret History of Hoe Mysticism Shaped America

Howe, Susan.  The Nonconformist’s Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1989.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Music of Life.  New Lebanon: Omega, 1983.

————————–The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.

Lateef, Yusef. Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music. Massachusetts: Fana Music, 1975.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Marcuse, Herbert.  One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Art of the Short Story. Ed. Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

Pollack, Rachael.  The Forest of Souls. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

——————— Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. San Francisco: Weiser, 2007.

Poulan, R.P. Aug. Graces of Interior Prayer. United States: Kessinger Publishing, 1910.

Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative Structure in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology. Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp 247-279.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/4174821.

Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Weil, Simone. “Justice and Human Society.” Writings Selected. Ed. Eric O. Springsted. New York: Orbis Books. 2006.


[1] Cupitt’s reliance on text as writing perhaps displays a limited and essentially modern hermeneutics: “Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not ‘immediate experience,’ that Modern fiction. Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views; and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we’d never have heard of it” (62-3).

[2] The main influence for the writers who Cupitt says points the way.

[3] Bourgeois failure is present in European criticism as the disappearing subject.  See Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert in The Field of Cultural Production,  Blanchot on Kafka in The Space of Literature, and Adorno’s Minima Moralia for Heidegger: “what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will” (233).

[4] See his posthumously published interview, “Only a God Can Save Us.”

[5] See Rachael Pollack on the history of imagery surrounding the wheel in the Forest of Souls (16-20) and Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom 83-90). 

[6] “The personal is political,” as the 1960s saying goes.

[7] See Heidegger’s student, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man: Critical theory “wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given their life to the Great Refusal” (257).

[8] This follows the trend of American exceptionalism, which has roots both in the first European settlers who arrived at the “promised land” as well as the spiritual places occupied by natives which they superimposed their faith onto, be it the Burned Over District in New York, William Penn’s Pennsylvania, or Mount Rushmore. From Anne Hutchinson to Revivalism, from Johnny Appleseed to Transcendentalism, from the Poughkeepsie Seer to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, American history is full of individuals with exceptional religious experiences.  By the time William James lectured on religious experience, the New Thought movement was in full swing.  In Occult America, Mitch Horowitz points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, “We know that the ancestor of every action is a thought” (82).  The New Thought movement also has roots with Phineas P. Quimby, who, like Andrew Jackson Davis and many other “mystics” had received little formal education.  In Bivins’ introduction to Marie Laveau’s Black and White Magic, the “ill-educated” medium is discussed:

It would be strange if departed spirits should deliberately elect to manifest them-selves through such unworthy vehicles, but it is not strange that these people should be capable of exerting their Mind-forces to such an extraordinary degree […] It is fact that in highly-educated people, Mind is sometimes impotent through non-use. (2) 

Highly educated or not, both folk culture and blatant disdain for cosmopolitanism play important part in American mysticism and political action. Horowitz points to Fredrick Douglass’ self-conscious description of Sandy, a root worker, who gave Douglass John the Conqueror or “High John” before his confrontation with the ruthless slave-driver, Covey (121).  He points to the fact that even soldiers in Vietnam “were known to carry” Johann Georg Hohman’s 1820 Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend on them.  Horowitz also points to Frank B. Robinson’s mail order, money-back guaranteed  religion, Psychiana, which although it had enough followers to be the eighth largest religion on the planet, is “found in no major work of religious history written in the past forty years”(101).  Robinson’s use of mass media precedes and influences televangelizing and large-scale churches which seek to channel the divine in the congregation. 

[9] Robert Pirsig expresses this in terms of native American geographical names in his novel, Lila.

[10] In Prisoners of Shangri-la, Donald Lopez tracks the concept of Tibet as a nation over the past two hundred years.  Escaping formal colonialism until China takes it over, Tibet is the conceptual storage space for all that could be sacred – a true mystical state without states. Tracking the influence of Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and Olcott, whose anti-colonial activism Ceylon produced enough development for the country to him a postage stamp, through Evans-Wendtz’s, Timothy Leary’s, and Sogyal’s varying Tibetan Book’s of the Dead, Spiritualism merges with and informs contemporary Buddhism, Lopez claims, “Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals” regardless of nation or ethnicity (207).

[11] Coltrane recounts his overcoming of drug abuse with his spiritual devotion to God in the notes to A Love Supreme, which marks a drastic change in his playing style.

“Sam Hit sy Sumor Sam Winter”: Considering Alfred’s Inclusion of “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” in his Compendious History of the World

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

As an addition to Paulus Orosius’s Compendious History of the World, which King Alfred had translated into Anglo-Saxon, “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” mark not only the burgeoning English cultural identity, they also mark a transnational conception of history and an anthropological interest in customs of various societies.  Although scholars have pointed out that Alfred himself did not translate The History of the World (Frantzen 7-10), the editorial decisions in the work’s English translation display a rhetorical arrangement that reveals a particularly Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism.  It may not be completely accurate to refer to “Alfred’s translation,” yet the Anglo-Saxon Compendious History does display a kind of nationalism traditionally associated with myths about King Alfred.  When combined with the spatial imaginary present in text, these myths become more elucidated and the voyages reveal more uniquely literary qualities than have been discussed.   

In Alfred’s translation, the voyages are placed in the first chapter of the book, which begins with an account of how ancestors “divided the world” into Asia, Europe, and Africa.  Geographical regions establish the conception of the world, and one still feels the Roman center of this description.  However, Alfred follows this with a description of his reign, which the voyages follow.  Alfred’s history, therefore, does not proceed chronologically according to the history of the world; it first establishes Alfred’s England.  Book Two then traces the origins of Rome, and thus the layout of the text moves the center of the cosmopolitan world to England.  In establishing England as the center in Chapter I, Alfred proceeds by describing the (scholarly) known world, beginning with an account of Germany, then north to Scandanavia, then southern Europe.  While geographic region structures the layout of the chapter, it becomes more detailed in Ohthere’s narrative and becomes especially anthropological in Wulftan’s narrative directly following.  Wulfstan gives accounts of people and various customs, with particular attention given to funeral customs.  Why was this information deemed important enough to add to Orosius’s book? 

As characters added to the History of the World, Ohthere and Wulfstan receive a certain elevation in status.  As Fabienne Michelet argues, “the two travellers’ accounts present it as an attractive centre of power and culture, as a place where the explorers find an audience and where the information they gathered in the course of their expeditions will be preserved” (26).  Scholars have also noted that “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” give us an account of a more prosaic, and less literary, style which may have been closer to the way Anglo-Saxons spoke in everyday life.  King Alfred’s agenda was of course to have important texts translated into Anglo-Saxon as a way of increasing effective governing, so there is also linguistic status to the voyages because they were composed or transliterated into Anglo-Saxon, giving the two accounts a certain linguistic privilege. 

Ohthere’s accounts are written in the third person in almost a journalistic manner.  The scribe often gives attention to what “Ohthere said.”  The authority rests with Ohthere, not the scribe, and with him we see an early example of a true thane, who has had many travels.  Jonathan Scolum identifies Ohthere as “a Norwegian hunter, whaler, and trader who tells among other things of his voyages north and east of the Scandinavian peninsula, round the Kola peninsula to the White Sea (all of these terms being modern).”    But Ohthere’s status of having lived farthest north is also given special status in the text.  In line six the scribe writes, “He saede ϸæt he æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hu long ϸæt land on norϸryhte læge, oϸϸe hwæðer ænig man be norϸan ðæm westenne bude.”   Toward the end of the passage, in line eighty-one the information is repeated: “He cwæð ϸæt nan man ne bude be norðan him.”  It is not just that he is a trader or a whaler; Ohthere’s status seems to be partially based on his being an adventurer, that he is an extremist.  Despite the non-fictional narrative, in the context of the larger history Ohthere radiates a certain literary status as well.

It makes sense that Alfred would want to know as much as he could about places and people with whom the Anglo-Saxons could have commerce.  The passage has a kind of meticulous detail that is astonishing to consider when one thinks of the time it must have taken to write down an oral account.  That alone seems to attest that this was serious business.  The information in the accounts may well be tactical in terms of both commerce and “national” security.  E. D. Laborde has noted that the voyages are an especially important addition to Orosius’s history because of their accuracy and because “the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan are the earliest accounts in our language of the voyages of discovery, and [they] indicate the methods employed by the great king in collecting information about foreign lands” (133).  What seems rather remarkable, however, is its inclusion in the history if it was only for this purpose.  As part of the history, the status of the travel narrative is elevated into the larger work’s official historical narrative.  As characters in Alfred’s history, Ohthere and Wulfstan are elevated as well.  While scholars naturally tend to focus on the historical accuracy of the detail in the texts, it is worth considering how the attention to anthropological material in the voyages evidences a perspective which values details relating to class and custom as important for documentation.  This perspective, when compared with literary material, helps us understand the overlap between “literary” and “non-literary” Anglo-Saxon works, both in language and content, as well as in providing clues as to the editorial rhetoric behind the Anglo-Saxon version of The History.

Wulfstan’s voyage celebrates the Eastern lands.  Unlike Ohthere’s passage, only the first two sentences are in the third person.  In the third there is a shift to the first person. The writer says, “And thonne Burgenda land wæs us on bæcbord.”  There is a different level of intimacy between the writer of the Wulfstan passage and the content of the text than there is between the writer of the Ohthere passage.  That the two passages have different authors is not remarkable, but the attention given to what Ohthere said seems to give him more of a special, one might say heroic status.  What is particularly striking with the Wulfstan passage, on the other hand, is the amount of detail Wulfstan gives to customs and funeral practices.  He says, “ϸæt Estland is swyðe mycel, and ϸær bið swyðe manig burh, and on ælcere byrig cyningc.  And ϸær bið swyðe mycel hunig, and fiscað, and se cyning and ϸa ricostan men drincað myran meolc, and ϸa unspedigan and ϸa ϸeowan drincað medo” (lines 122-125).  This passage reveals not only the abundance of the lands but the division between social classes according to what they drink.  Just as tea, because of its foreign origins became a symbol of class status which resounds culturally among people of English descent today, the “mycel hunig” and the “myran meolc” reflects what signified the status of upper classes. 

Class and rank also appear to be of concern to Wulfstan as he describes funeral horse races and the redistribution of a dead man’s wealth.  According to Wulfstan, mourning periods for someone echoed the importance and wealth he had in his community.  Wulfstan says the “unforbærned” body of a rich man could lay above ground for even six months after death.  In “Wulfstan’s Voyage and Freezing,” A. Macdonald cites Sir Aurel Stein’s study, Ancient Khotan, which discusses how keeping a body cool enough not to spoil, “sam hit sy sumor sam winter” (line 162). Stein’s study discusses ancient refrigeration practices in certain parts of Eastern Europe still present in the early twentieth century in which an ice pit was dug and covered with leaves.  Macdonald speculates that Wulfstan was probably unaware of the ice beneath the corpse (73).  Along with the preservation practices, Wulfstan remarks on funeral games, where a dead man’s property was divided into sections according to value and then distributed as prizes to the man with the fastest horse.  The value of a horse can be seen as important so that one may participate in such games, and the practice also shows an emphasis on skill and ability over inheritance.  The cultural practice shows a society which favors physically skilled men competing with one another through their strength.  Commerce alone did not preserve the community.  Wealth was redistributed among those capable of providing protection to the community.  As with the heroic nature of Ohthere’s status, Wulfstan’s description of the winner of the games being decided by the one with the fastest horse evidences a culture where heroism was particularly valued.  This becomes more evident when considering Alfred’s legal codes, because Alfred’s laws protect the Judaic tradition of patriarchal lineage in which a family’s property is passed onto the next generation.  Allen J. Frantzen has pointed out that in Alfred’s introduction to the Law Codes (which he definitely wrote) Alfred takes pains to situate the work within the biblical tradition (14-15).  It would not be logical for Wulfstan’s passage to be included in the history if it were to celebrate funeral practices which contradicted Anglo-Saxon law and Christian practices. The anthropological material must have served another purpose, one related to the literary power of myth.

Scholars have attempted to destabilize the mythological status of King Alfred as an innovative leader, claiming that he added little to existing laws.  In “The West Saxon Inheritance,” Nicholas Brooks argues:

We find no truth in the medieval myth that [Alfred] invented the hundred and tithings of England; nor did he give any new shape to the West Saxon shires; nor, it would seem, to the ancient hidage assessment that formed the basis of public obligations.  His achievement lay rather in getting more service out of his nobles and out of the ceorls on the warland than his predecessors had managed, in getting boroughs not only built but also garrisoned, and thereby in making the first tentative steps toward an urban future. (173)

These achievements are still in line with Alfred’s comments on the state of learning in England and his pains in the introduction of the Law Codes to situate England as a Christian nation.  In light of this, Wulfstan’s observations seem particularly notable because burial practices were quite different for Christian Anglo-Saxons. 

Even for pagan Anglo-Saxons, an important person (or in some cases persons) was buried above ground in a mound.  While the absence of bodies in many of these mounds may suggest that the physical remains were burnt, many mounds have, as Hilda R. Ellis Davidson has catalogued in “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds and Archaeology,” contained the treasure and personal items belonging to the dead person.  Davidson also suggests that “the most likely explanation seems to be that the bodies of the king and queen were removed to be given Christian burial” (172).  While the dead men in Wulfstan are eventually burned with their weapons, Davidson’s study discusses undisturbed Anglo-Saxon graves both with household items such as bowls and at times extravagant items, such as ships. Davidson claims “In these tombs men (and at Oseberg a woman) were buried with rich possessions, usually with sacrificed animals and possibly human beings also, in sea-going vessels or smaller boats. Ship-funeral was regarded as pre-dominantly Scandinavian, yet the Sutton Hoo grave, dated at about 650, is as early as any dateable.”  The shift from ship-burials to mound burials and eventually away from cremation accompanies the shift from pagan to Christian ritual practices (174).  Moreover, it was believed that evil spirits and dragons, as in Beowulf, guarded the mounds from grave-robbers.  Davidson writes the following about the end of Beowulf:

Besides the usual ritual at the death of a king and hero, the burning of arms and treasures on the pyre with him, there is a new factor, since the Geats decide to sacrifice the great treasure he has won from the dragon and commit it again untouched to the earth from which it came. They were wise in this, for we are told that a curse had been laid on it. (183)   

Wulfstan’s observations of funeral practices on the continent are more radical when compared to such information.  Wulfstan notices the redistribution of an important man’s wealth, rather than a sacrifice of that wealth.  Although the funeral games still evidence a kind of hero worship, the social-practices are more civic.  Alfred’s task was certainly a Christianizing one, yet his conservative approach to maintaining the laws of his Anglo-Saxon ancestors displays a simultaneous reverence for the pagan Geats.  Along with his Christian agenda, it is important to Alfred to trace the lineage of the Saxons back to the continent and the Germanic heroic code.

While the voyages remain notable for their more mundane language, they also reveal aspects of culture that resonate in the more literary accounts of the period.  Davidson argues for archaeological evidence’s potential to shed light on the poetry of the period, yet if one compares the non-fictional voyages with the poeticized account of “The Battle of Maldon,” one sees an amplification of the heroic code.  Dorothy Whitelock claims the poem “proves that the ancient Germanic heroic code was not dead” in the battle, which occurred in 991 (116).  Since Kemp Malone has dated Ohthere’s voyage to before the 870s and noted little disagreement among scholars that Alfred’s literary period was probably during the 880s, this puts the voyages well within the heroic period, allowing comparison of the themes and language with the poetic account of the “Battle of Maldon” a century later (80).  Interestingly, if Malone is correct in dating Ohthere’s account before 870, then it occurs before Alfred became king, making the editorial decision to include the voyages in the history more striking.  It is worth considering that the inclusion of the voyages in the history was because according to the heroic code, they had literary value, not only in terms of language but also in terms of content.  Their prosaic language gives modern scholars an example of “every day” Anglo-Saxon while also marking a shift into documented-centered literature.

Anglo-Saxon poetic amplification occurs with the repeated addition of descriptive clauses, often unified by alliteration, which hold the audience’s attention by focusing on a particular image.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” for example, the hero, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, is introduced thusly: “Đa ϸær Byrhtnoð ongan beornas trymian, / rad and rædde, rincum tæhte, / hu hi sceoldan standan, and thone stede healdan, / and bæd ϸæt hyra randas rihte heoldon / fæst mid leodon, and ne forhtedon na” (lines 17-21).  In the voyages, and particularly in Wulfstan, clauses tend to be joined either by coordinating conjunction “and” or the subordinating “ϸa.”  These connectors give a fluid rhythmic feel to the prose absent in the poetry.  In the poetry the caesura leaves a pregnant pause which has an unfinished nature to it, having the result of keeping the listener attentive to the continuation of the story.  The shift to prose leaves the language less episodic and less dramatic, but the content remains rather heroic, and it simultaneously tells the ethnic history of the Anglo-Saxons.

More recently scholars, in addition to giving lie to ancient myths about King Alfred, have also noted that modernist scholarship imposed Enlightenment centered ideas of nation states to their examinations of medieval governance.  This perspective results in the perspectives like the one above, where rather than being a “founder” of English governance, Alfred is read as a stabilizer of older traditions.  This perspective is accurate for Alfred the man.  But the tendency to elevate historical narrative to myth also acts as a culturally binding force, and that same tendency to mythologize – no matter how “constructed” – is itself organic to the sense of community.  Thus, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as Hugh Magennis notes in his review of Michelet’s Creation, Migration, and Conquest: the Anglos Saxon Chronicle   

Simplifies the history of pre- and early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but contrasts with Bede’s treatment in that it draws attention to the violence of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, which comes across as a brutal process.  The Chronicle stresses Anglo-Saxon power and presents the Britons as a shadowy people who are defined as the enemy, deprived of a history and an identity. (184)

When read alongside the voyages, and particularly Wulfstan here, the Chronicle and the Compendious History validate northeastern European, Danish, and Germanic geographies and customs while drawing an identity distinction with Britons, who were perhaps a more prevalent military threat.  In any case, the inclusion of Wulfstan and Ohthere may very well have been to establish ethnic and pre-Christian lineages for the Anglo-Saxons.  This view resonates with Stephen J. Harris’s findings in “The Alfredian World History and Anglo-Saxon Identity.”  Harris proposes that the idea of Christendom fuels “a religio-ethnic order altogether distinct from Christianity” (482).  Harris notes that Alfred’s historical conception both builds from and differs from Bede’s.

Whereas Bede appears to have maintained an almost exclusively Anglian view of ethnic identity, an identity extended to Saxons and Goths only in its religious aspect […] Alfred seems to see one common identity as extending ethnically and religiously to all Christian Germanic inhabitants of Britain.” (483)

Perhaps inadvertently then, Alfred’s translation carries on Augustinian rhetoric in its conception of history.  Harris notes that Augustine asked Orosius to compose the Compendious History in order to function, like De Civitate Dei, as a version of history as a moral lesson.  However, Harris also notes that in Alfred’s translation, “the passages extolling the centrality of Rome to God’s plan are excised entirely.”  Thus idea of Christendom, if Harris is correct, acts as a kind of geographical and psychological kora.  For Christendom remains an invisible identity construct, and the imposition of a current sense of cultural imaginary itself superimposes a current conception of identity construction onto studies of medieval material.  Such a conception, since it is itself constructed, should not be distinguished too critically separate from the myths it seeks to deconstruct.  If we are to study historical texts, we must attend to their literary qualities as unifying ethnic identities.  

It is worth considering that “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan” were included in Alfred’s history, not merely for tactical reasons, but because the sociological information in the accounts seemed important at the time to a sense of ethnic identity that existed alongside religious conceptions of identity.  The Germanic heroic code provided a literary elevation to Ohthere’s and Wulftan’s voyages which helped maintain an historical narrative that was ethnically grounded.  Religious conceptions of identity transferred from Roman works show there malleability here and when combined with ethnic history they produce a sense of citizenship loosely bound to geographic space.  The great contribution sustained in English law appears to be the Judeo-Christian conception of a patriarchal transfer of property.  When combined with developing market-oriented culture, it seems that funeral practices where an individual’s wealth was transferred to progeny (instead of being guarded by dragons or evil spirits) allowed for the material wealth to be redistributed to the community.  While the heroic culture remains evident in the games of the towns on the continent that Wulfstan observed, there is a general shift toward a transfer of resources which function competitively among individuals for the greater wealth of the community.  Whether it be conceived of in terms of community wealth or Harris’s “Christendom,” it seems that the shift toward a market economy expressed by Alfred’s inclusion of the voyages in his Compendious History allow us to see both a linguistically “practical” shift away from deed-based, heroic poetry as well as a sense of collective identity.  Along with the creation of liberal subjectivity and national narratives of the freedom of that subject must remain the collective and mythological narratives that maintain something beyond the identity of the subject.  To speculate on the editorial reasons for including Wulfstan and Ohthere’s voyages in Alfred’s history and what their observations offered the Anglo-Saxon’s beyond merely military intelligence does not only give lie to myths about King Alfred, it allows us to speculate on the limits of subjectivity and the necessary elevation of narratives into myths which stabilize collective identities beyond geography.     

Works Cited

“The Battle of Maldon.”  Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis. “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology.”  Folklore. 61.4 (1950): 169-85. Taylor & Francis Limited. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Frantzen, Allen J. King Alfred. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Harris, Stephen J.  “The Afredian World History and Anglo-Saxon Identity.”  Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 100.4 (2001): 482+. Web. 30 March 2011.

Laborde, E. D. “King Alfred’s Geographical Description in his version of Orosius.” The Geographical Journal. 62.2 (1923): 133-38. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

Macdonald, A. “Wulfstan’s Voyage and Freezing.” The Modern Language Review. 43.1 (1948): 73-74.  Modern Humanities Research Association. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Malone, Kemp. “The Date of Ohthere’s Voyage to Hæthum.”  The Modern Language Review. 25.1 (1930): 78-81. Modern Humanities Research Association. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

Michelet, Fabienne L. Creation, Migration, and Conquest : Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2006. Web. 27 March 2011.

Scolum, Jonathan. “Old English Online: Lesson 4.” University of Texas Austin Linguistics Research Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2010.

“The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan.”  Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

Whitelock, Dorothy. “Introduction to ‘The Battle of Maldon.’” Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. 15th ed. Oxford UP, 1967.

Divinatory Poetics

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment











ANSWER: JESUS. (73-74)

                       – Sun Ra, “The Negro is the Burden to the White Man”

Divination has roots in augury. It is not just the interpretation of omens; it implies perceiving when it is acceptable to inquire concerning the health of the state.[1] Without going all the way back to talking from bird entrails, the office of the augur in ancient times relates to the public good.  If one seriously considers divination, it is to make sense by acting creatively and imposing one’s self as form or measure on the mysterious matter at hand, manifesting discernment.  It is both asking and prophecy, but since one does not necessarily choose to be a prophet, I do not call it “prophetic poetics” – though prophecy may come through it.  Anyone can do it, but there is a range of expertise.  Playing rock-paper-scissors is little different than drawing lots to throw Jonah from the boat.  Divination is what we often do when no earthly answer is present. 

As a poetics, it is both interpretive and generative, and it involves study. Following the divine requires all senses, so one would naturally seek the best source for answering a difficult question.  It is not religious in the sense that religion exists in the “modern” world.  Most clergy today are assigned to either practical duties necessary to keep a church going, or they occupy roles as spiritual advisors, which – though certainly a necessary occupation – is closer to the work of a psychologist than the definition I am presenting here. The difference is that a psychologist mainly works with individuals or relatively small groups while divinatory poetics works on behalf something closer to what we mean by culture.  Cultures differ from one another and they change, so interpretive strategies will differ depending on cultural context.  However, material for divination may be pulled from cross-cultural sources.

Divinatory poetics is a hermeneutic strategy in a bleak time for professionalism in American literary studies.  It seeks more than mere pastiche or free association, but simultaneously reacts against the scientific approaches to kinds of literary study that have shaped debates concerning literary works for much of the twentieth century, studies which have detached the study of culture from cultural production.  It is not a call for anti-professionalism; in fact, it is a call for literary studies to claim what is its own – a study of values represented as “text” and a discernment about how reacting to those values shapes texts which say something about the ways things ought to be or the ways things were in the past that we have forgotten or neglected.  In the days of the Tea Party, “reasonable” academics must find ways to maneuver in the power of institutionalized affective irrationality. George Lakoff, for example, has often discussed the ways both conservative and liberal academics rely on Enlightenment-centered notions of verification, and that so-called progressives more often than not place too much stock in attempting to persuade by means of a limited sense of rationality.  Divinatory poetics is an ancient method to confront the political difficulties that affect the university today.

“Bird signs!” Hector mocks Polydamas in Homer’s Iliad, “Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!”  (XII, 280-81).  Look what happened to Hector.  And isn’t it Patroclus’s ghost who appears to Achilles to remind him that the Olympics (funeral games) aren’t enough (XXIII, 80)?  In Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine thanks God for speaking to him through a self-educated older man who tells him many things can be foretold by divinatory reading: “that the force of chance, diffused throughout the whole order of things, [brings] this about.” He goes on:

 For if when a man haphazard opens the pages of some poet, who sang and thought of something wholly different, a verse oftentimes fell out, wondrously agreeable to the present business: it were not to be wondered at, if out of the soul of man, unconscious what takes place in it, by some higher instinct an answer should be given, by hap, not by art, corresponding to the business and actions of the demander (57-58). 

Augustine later uses this kind of openness in developing his biblical hermeneutics.  Citing Augustine among others, such as the cabalism of John Reuchlin, teacher of Erasmus and Luther (23), Helena Blavatsky, attacks institutional hypocrisy in the late nineteenth century:

Why then roast lay-magicians and consulters of books, and canonize the ecclesiastics? Simply because the medieval as well as the modern phenomena, manifested through laymen, whether produced through occult knowledge or happening independently, upset claims of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches to divine miracles. (22)

Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, founders of Theosophy, however complicated it may be, are precursors to and inspirational for postcolonial thought.  As David Lopez argues in Prisoners of Shangri-La, the international appeal of Theosophy played “an important but ambiguous role in the Hindu renaissance in India and the Buddhist renaissance in Sri Lanka” (51).  Through the Theosophical agenda of W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Lopez 65), the west receives a “skewed” reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead which gets further updated in Leary’s Psychedelic Experience and Soygal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  Nevertheless, as Lopez notes, the text of the book, written in the 8th century was itself “hidden away, only to be discovered six centuries later,” because the people of Tibet were unprepared to appreciate its profundity” (85).

What are we to do with time-capsule texts such as this or The Dead Sea Scrolls?  Certainly we cannot rely on the ultimately repressive tendency to search for an “authentic” reading.  We cannot allow nostalgia for a so-called authentic read to produce a reaction-formation disqualifying us from exploring texts from cultures other than our own.  Has not the west since the early Renaissance performed a redaction on the Greeks similar to what those who hid the Tibetan Book of the Dead ask?  Do we not piece together guts of human souls long-since flown? Embracing this secular ecumenical reading is divinatory poetics. 

Specialists are still necessary and extraordinarily useful, but we educators also need to provide a way in to the esoteric nature of academia in order to sustain positions as professional readers, and this comes by allowing a disciplined yet whimsical openness into our methodology.  By “whimsical” I do not mean arbitrary or trite, but more of a leading or “gut” feeling.  It is only as arbitrary as me.  What I build from my whimsies is irreplaceable.   

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to infuse him with the power to see Krishna’s true form without the sight annihilating him.  In awe and praise, Arjuna ultimately says, “I rejoice that I have seen what has never before been seen, but my mind is unhinged with fear.  Oh God, show me that other form again” (52).  Experience is limited and cannot tell us all.  To live is to be constrained by form.  It is form which allows us experience. In the Taoist commentary on the ancient text Cultivating Stillness, there is an etymology of the Chinese character for the Tao.  It says that while we are forced to give a name to the formless Tao in order to discuss it, “force” is merely a metaphor for something the sage knows “hides rich meanings” (11).  Eva Wong’s etymology of the character begins with two diagonal lines at the top of the character, similar to a “V” where the lines don’t connect.  These, we are told, are the sun and the moon.  Below them is a line which is chi-en, or heaven: “The I-Ching says that chi’en is a circle. When the circle breaks, heaven is opened. The circle unfolds into a horizontal line”(12). This is what the Taoists call Wu-chi, or the undifferentiated state (14).  What divinatory poetics seeks is to cultivate a version of this open circle at the outset of interpretation against the closed circle that would be the horizon of reason in traditional western thought.  We do this often.  We call it channeling. Musicians call it “just playing” when they go to engage musically with others directly.  It is openness familiar to American philosophy of pragmatism.  Henry Bergson, in The Creative Mind, celebrates this aspect of William James’ philosophy:

According to James, we bathe in an atmosphere traversed by great spiritual currents.  If many of us resist, others allow themselves to be carried along.  And there are certain souls which open wide to the beneficent breeze.  Those are mystical souls. (212)       

If this smacks of naïve sentiment, let that tension hold in your mind, for that is exactly what divinatory poetics tries to get at.  For the critique itself has a way of being incorporated into the stasis of culture, the way the “earth mother” of second-wave feminism becomes a personality-type which itself becomes a mono-vision.  The critique, which I believe to be at the core of ethics in general, is to be able to entertain dialogue which does not reduce the interlocutor.  This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do.  It is something teachers must practice constantly, and it relies on the natural tendency our minds have to reduce.  It could not replace that tendency if it tried.  Divinatory poetics relies on that tendency.  

Bergson and James, in emphasizing the necessity for experience to be regarded as not final, open in my hermeneutic analysis an appreciation for a kind of literature much neglected by current literary studies: literature of praise.  If we take a book like Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, we can look at it as an inspirational source for Romantic poetry.  We can look at it as a unique evidencing of the process of the Reformation developing in a liberalism of the individual’s relationship with the divine.  These are important and interesting readings.  Divinatory poetics, however, might focus more on the affective quality of this text, which acts as a guiding prayer for the reader in rather short incantations.  Certainly we experience the uniqueness of Traherne, but we are asked by the text to participate in a special way when he says, “He is most like God that is sensible to everything.  Did you not from all Eternity want someone to give you a Being?” (31). Later developing something similar: “Senses  cannot resemble that which they cannot apprehend; nor express that which they cannot resemble, but in a shady manner.  But man is made in the image of God, and therefore is the mirror and representative of Him. And therefore in himself he may see God, which is his glory and felicity” (96).  Is all that we can glean of this passage on instance of burgeoning Christian humanism?  To me, Traherne’s beauty is in his sincerity, but this is often so hard to speak of in class.  It is his sincerity which is most difficult to appreciate from a contemporary world perspective – or it is a deeply held value I fail to share with my peers, some last remnant of privacy.  For the academic, this is analogous to the airplane pilot who sees a UFO and risks being grounded should he or she “go public.”   

The obvious criticism, and a valid one, is the way that divinatory poetics opens an uncritical space. I believe it is healthy at this time to inquire what criticism is and what it is for.  We must not be dogmatic about criticism for the sake of criticism, and divinatory poetics holds us to that. Theodor Adorno – it’s difficult to find one more critical – in his Aesthetic Theory, writes:

aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image.  What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder’s own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell which transcends the spell. (331).

It is this type of thinking which leads Adorno to later claim, “the principle method here is that light  should be cast on all art from the vantage point of the most recent works, rather than the reverse, following the custom of historicism and philology, which bourgeois at heart, prefers that nothing ever change” (359).  Adorno believes that the new reacts to and resituates the old.  His writing style in Aesthetic Theory and Minima Moralia is similar to how I imagine divinatory poetics, but his scope is too narrow.  The access to information now allows me to read ancient Sufi poetry as avant-garde art.  Or perhaps Goethe’s Faust where he opens his Dedication with the following mysterious nostalgia:

Once more you near me, wavering apparitions
That early showed before the turbid gaze.
Will now I seek to grant you definition,
My heart essay again the former daze?
You press me! Well, I yield to your petition,
As all around, you rise from mist and haze;
What wafts about your train with magic glamor
Is quickening my breath to youthful tremor. (3)

It comes from various places at once. And yet, this does not disrupt the historian’s place, nor the literary historian’s place, but the study of literature is more than that.  Literary Studies should be distinguished by the freedom of a perspective not bound to history (which is not a rejection of history) and bringing with it a different set of responsibilities.  Divinatory poetics is a hermeneutics not just of interpreting works but of creating works as well and considering those works in their ethical context.  It breaks down the binary of “academic and artist” just as Sun Ra breaks the binary between Jesus and the devil.  It performs the work of Eshu / Legba – the blues “reverend” returned from the crossroads.

The shudder comes from the un-containable and new.  One hears this easily in American music in the twentieth century.  There is a tendency toward the outside. The conventions which signify exteriority come to be the formal structure from which new significations occur.  Acculturation to the environment where the conventions have sense is necessary for competence.  Literary Studies already contains this.  As Jonathan Culler says in “Literary Competence,”

structuralism’s reversal of perspective [subject-object, writer-reader] can lead to a mode of interpretation based on poetics itself, where the work is read against the conventions of discourse and where one’s interpretation is an account of the ways in which the work complies with or undermines our procedures for making sense of things.  (865)

This is similar to what I mean by divinatory poetics in the sense that one is not a tabula rasa.  However, both Culler (at least at the point in his career when he wrote this) and Adorno situate too strongly against discourse.  I am more than discourse.

Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur, another structuralist idea, works well with divinatory poetics.  In The Savage Mind he says that “there are analogies between mythical thought on the theoretical, and ‘bricolage’ on the practical plane and that artistic creation lies mid-way between science and these two forms of activity.  There are relations of the same type between games and rites” (30).  If one could remove all stigma surrounding structuralism’s to either attempts to provide either a strict essence or a narrative of the “development of man,” the idea of the bricoleur is hermeneutically useful.  It relates quite well with the process of improvisation, again, if we could remove any baggage surrounding primitivism from the idea.  Jazz improvisation inherently enacts much of how I have described divinatory poetics on the creative side.  As with the discussion of the circle in Taoism and the necessity of incomplete form in Bergson’s description of pragmatism.  There is nothing “primitive” in the pejorative sense of the word regarding this.  It is one of the most sensitive and highly developed human knowledges.  Nor is it confined to jazz musicians.  One finds in traditional Persian and Sufi music a clear articulation of the basic idea for divinatory poetics. In an actual performance, Mohammead Reza Lofti  explains, there are many previously learned paths to choose from:

Through years of practice and repetition, the musician is usually comfortable with those paths, however, all the selections are made without any awareness, and this fact makes every performance different.  When, during the performance, one becomes too restricted according to paths learned from the old masters, one has to create a new way while keeping in mind the various rules of improvisation. (4)  

Here is a statement of method.  What we do not know is the canon or context.  What makes up work of the old masters?  This is the constant in the study of literature.  It is beautifully never solved.  What becomes necessary is to clearly articulate where we are coming from. 

Two final examples, recent writers will illustrate what I mean by divinatory poetics: Gustaf Sobin, an essayist, and Susan Howe, a poet. Sobin’s “The Inaudible Aura of Bells,” Sobin’s quiet style combines a thorough knowledge of medieval monasteries and culture breathes life into an inaccessible time, and accompanying that inaccessibility he writes of the non-temporal uses of bells to guide church travelers, exorcize evil spirits, or even to help enrich the soil: “For the anniversary of that mystic insemination could only favor – in the symbiotic spirit of parishioners – the insemination of the fields themselves” (29).  In another essay, describing a painting by the Renaissance painter Enguerrend Quarton, Sobin unabashedly claims “there is a radiance to this work that far surpasses the sum of its parts.  It virtually glows with a suprapictorial luminosity of its own” (47).  The way Sobin writes, the reader does not wonder if he has read Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”; he is quite comfortable with mystification: “In an age such as ours, rife with deductive reasoning and its ineluctable by-product – an eminently official, all triumphant “anti-art” – one might do well to consider a work such as Quarton’s The Coronation of the Virgin.”  Is Sobin merely displaying an uncritical and naïve nostalgia inherently bourgeois?  In the imaginary space of nostalgia itself there is energy for divinatory poetics. 

Susan Howe also performs a kind of divinatory poetics.  Her work in American Literature and American History provide her with aporias from which she constructs poems with haunting language and an uncanny inner ear.  Reading Howe, one hears the music above the content.  With the historical material one gets the sense that she has opened her soul to lesser-known aspects of the American past and captures them in the ambiguous space in which they exist.  The stories themselves are hard to decipher from the stanzas, but they emote more than the history can tell.  For example, in The Noncomformist’s Memorial after a section exploring a possible inspiration for Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Howe writes:

Question of a happy life

any asylum in moderation

Object is something erased

is character the opposite

An author-evacuated text    

triple-checked double-marked

Ghost of one’s own glory

into subjectless abject

by distance or by stillness

sleep gone steering row

Title of an After-Thought

he put a veil on his face (122)

In the reverberation we get Melville, Bartleby, and James Clarence Mangan – all destitute, simultaneously.  Howe’s technique appears to be a blend of cut-up, erasure, and deep sense of syntax.  It channels the past to display its apparition as it hovers – divinatory poetics.  A similar trajectory occurs in Bill Frisell’s music, particularly the album Disfarmer, which attempts to explore the life of the cantankerous photographer of the depression who died alone in his studio.  It’s all around us.

Divinatory poetics merely seeks to provide a hermeneutic strategy which reads with the idea that the text has something to say about how to live, and that it offers strategies and material to help create for one’s self, material which will make our lives better.  As Rumi says, “Do you think I know what I’m doing? / That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? / As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, / or the ball can guess where it’s going next” (16).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1997.

Bergson, Henri.  The Creative Mind. New York: Citadel Press, 1946.

Blavatsky, Helena. Isis Unveiled. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1888.

Culler, Jonathan. “Literary Competence.” The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. Bedford: Boston, 1998.

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics: 1990.

Howe, Susan.  The Nonconformist’s Memorial.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Trans. Walter Arndt. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin. New York: Norton, 2001.

Lofti, Mohammad Reza. “Selection of a Dastgah in the Art of Improvisation.” Notes to Mystery Love: Live in Copenhagen. Trans. Shahrokh Yadegari. Los Angeles: Keresmeh Records, 1996.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.

Ra, Sun. The Wisdom of Sun Ra. Ed. John Corbett. Chicago: Whitewalls, 2006.

Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Barks. New York: Harper One, 1995.

Sobin. Gustaf. Aura. Denver: Counterpath, 2009.

Traherne, Thomas. Centuries of Meditations. Ed. Bertram Dobell. London: Bertram Dobell, 1908. Digitized version published by Kirtasbooks, 2010.

[1] Cassell’s Latin Dictionary points to Cicero for this.

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