Sunday, July 17, 2005

Jonathan spots some incoherencies in my thinking in yesterday's post. Of course Levinas belongs in that roster of writers, especially with Jabes, as does Rosenzweig whose great work The Star of Redemption fascinates me even as it mostly resists my comprehension. I guess what I was trying to say is that I'm troubled by the intersection of the practical ethics of Judaism (which more or less describe my personal ethics) with the ecstatic tradition of the via negativa, which all those "thou shalt nots" are foundational to, particularly the third one that denies graven images to the Jews. (Though in the Hebrew tradition the first commandment or "statement" is, "I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." So the ur-commandment requires belief in God's existence and his personal relationship to his people—that's hardly negative.) I mean, it fascinates me, but given my distance from Judaism as a living faith (Jonathan's word, "alienation," is a little too definitive and harsh to fully describe my confused feelings), it's much easier for me to relate to Jewishness as an ethical tradition that smacks as little as possible of the transcendent. I've always been attracted to Judaism's this-worldliness, its emphasis on how we should behave now, and its almost total disregard for the question that hangs over its brother Christianity, that of life after death. Of course the messianic strain does displace attention from now, but not spatially to Heaven—temporally, to the future of redemption. And that does tend to shine a transcendent light on things: I return continually to this great passage from the ending of Adorno's Minima Moralia, which I think I've quoted here before:
Finale — The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the word, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but it is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.
I find this tremendously moving: the desire for the redemptive perspective coupled with the grim determination to wrest any possible knowledge from what is—the world of now. Devotion to this idea is the closest I've come to articulating a religious faith. But I think what I was trying to say with all my pop culture references yesterday is that faith is not enough: spiritual feeling depends on some kind of lived experience of community. And my culture at large provides a (distorted) lived experience based upon Christian narratives. Strangely enough, I've found a community oriented toward faith in redeeming the present through knowledge and imagination, not in shul, but in academia and in poetry. But that counterculture is fragmented and fractious, never really rising to the level of the religious as such—which is almost certainly a good thing. I've sometimes thought that I would eventually seek out some kind of religious community, because I sense that as much as I get out of the community of intellectuals and poets it will never provide the solid foundation we all tend to yearn for (the most committed postmodernists have that in each other, and arguably in the state-sanctioned intellectual cultures of nations like France). Of course not believing in God or G-d is a bit of a stumbling block; and if I'm with a bunch of Unitarians or Reform Jews who are taking pains to explain that it's all metaphors anyway, I might as well stay with the poets, who have much better metaphors. Anyway. I hope that goes some ways toward clarifying what can't yet become clear and perhaps never can.

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