Monthly Archives: September 2020

To think the unthinkable

It seems that Heidegger realized that the attempt to think the unthinkable is one of the most worthwhile endeavours of all philosophical thought. But why should this be so? Perhaps the answer lies in that which was already discovered thousands of years previously by masters of Zen, who gave their students unsolvable riddles called koans. These masters discovered from their own experience, and through observation of transformations in consciousness occurring in some students, that if our efforts to think the unthinkable are continued with deep intensity to their final conclusion, what may and sometimes does arise is a state of Being liberated from the confines of thought, and in that moment the illusory separation between the Being of the individual and the great mystery of Being is transcended.


‘Thus, for Heidegger, in thinking the unthinkable mystery of Ereignis, one is opening oneself to the possibility of an “Ereignis-experience”: awareness that is unified with the wonder and mystery of Being, that arises as a gift from Being itself (an event that religious thinkers might describe as “grace”).’

— Michael Watts, The Philosophy of Heidegger

Only here is suffering suffering. Not in such a way as if those who suffer here were because of this suffering to be elevated elsewhere, but in such a way that what in this world is called suffering in another world, unchanged and only liberated from its opposite, is bliss.

— Kafka

Excerpts from Susan Taubes’ letters 1

Below some excerpts from Susan Taubes’ letters to her husband, published in Korrespendez mit Jacob Taubes 1950 – 1951. (The letters were written in English. ST was in her early twenties.)

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1949 (not sent)

Darling – I am very sad without you and troubled about many things and my meditations this evening lead me to feel very hopeless about there ever growing an understanding between us. And as to prayer I can only pray to an unknown light to save me from the nightmare of what men call religion.

We went tonight to the orthodox service and afterwards to the reform temple. I went with a very open heart and I wanted so deeply to come into my temple and participate in a service the thought of which I felt was noble and holy but I walked into a very awful farce instead and I felt very embittered. The whole room was illuminated with lightbulbs even on candles and full of the din of chattering people – all around me the women were gossiping during the service – the rabbi had to use a microphone even though it was quite a small temple and there was such a noise that he had to ask the people to shut up several times. People were running around, nobody listened and they looked utterly brutal and stupid – not one measure less than the Puerto Ricans you detest. The singing was monotonous and unmoving. The sermon was below the level of pulp magazines. The reform service was at least tolerable. The people were quiet the organ played well and Rabbi Bernstein at least did not presume to bring in God but spoke simply and humanly. But it was quite unnecessary.

It is clear to me that I must follow the voice that speaks in my soul and not to deceive myself by any talmudic or jesuitical rationalization that I can attach and commit myself to any mass belief and tradition. It simply is not true – what I believe and what the laws and scriptures and traditions uphold are two different things they are of different dimension and I am not at the moment concerned with how to discipline the masses or how to keep priests and rabbis employed and although there is nothing I desire more than to worship in community and not in loneliness I will suffer my loneliness rather than to give myself to hypocrasy and falsehood. I don’t think you have a right to force me to repeat and repeat the same process of decision. I am tired of being deceived in the same thing again and again. Because I love you and because we must build our lives together I want to see truth where you see truth and I strain many times in myself to open myself to it and every time I find that it is deception. I cannot go on in this endless repetition I want to build my own altar. It is awful, it is perhaps the most frightening thing not to be able to worship and live in the tradition of any people – it is truly death – but we must live this awfulness and not make sentiment or political compromises. This is my belief at least, and the few people I know of both semitic and non-semitic strain believe this. And I can no more keep to the laws of the Bible and the exile traditions than I can cross myself or take the sacrament because I would perjure myself and my honesty and my nakedness is all I possess.

There is only one sin and that is to destroy the image of God. Belief does not matter – ultimately where we have ceased to be children faith is not a spiritual matter. We would like human beings to wear the image of God in their lives, in their being, their acts and their handy-work. Calendar days for rest and atonement and being holy are simply a caricature of how a man ought to live. The law of the Torah may make life more simple, it saves us from searching all the time to distinguish between the holy and the unholy by an arbitrary rule; and it is easier to fast one day a year than to abstain from swinishness every day of the year and to judge our actions every moment of our lives; and it is more simply to dedicate one day of the week to rest and quietude than strive for quietude and dignity every day of the week; but I cannot live by this kind of logic and I cannot participate in the traditions of a people who live by it. And this is the last time I want to dwell on this thing.

I would be deeply hurt if you would expect that because you are good to me I must compromise my beliefs and to please you go along with the ritual. This would be very cheap. You cannot threaten me with love because there is a more awful thing than to be without human affection – hypocrisy rottenness, damnation. I am not wise and I am not “looking out for my interests” or interested in playing a part or saving my face. I feel I am writing to a rock and not to you – because I want you to be a priest, and I think you must withdraw very far from politics and people in the mass and find your own-way with God because otherwise you have no right to talk to the people.

And if your whole life and truth is the Torah and your whole aim to build a life and family according to its law you were unjust not to make your conditions clear to me before because you will not be able to force me in this mould. I am just sick from it and you must admit that this was not the basis on which we married and I am simply terrified

Sept. 15/16 1950

I pray that you have arrived safely, dear Jacob. It is before midnight and it is about now that the sun leaps out from behind the mountains in Jerusalem and I pray that you are sleeping well. Now that nothing is “happening” externally and – at least according to Parmenides – “nothing” is happening internally it is more difficult to write.

I found a book of yours, MYSTIC UND LYRIK by Hederer which is of some help. I begin to work on my thesis.

It seems that wherever one raises the lid of a question the same old Gnostic serpent twists up its seductive head and gives me its key to enter the problem of the “double truth” in scientific and mythopoietic language. (The pre-Socratic formulation of the problem centers around the opposition of Mythos and Logos rather than the logistics of modern positivism; but since the Logos concept is so problematic I feel safer in tackling the problem from the point of the modern antithesis of “fact and Fancy” – which squeezes so called philosophy out of existence altogether since it suits neither fact nor fancy.)

A word about the word. (I speak as a positivist.) An artificial sign or word is an object substituted for a natural sign (sense datum) the advantage of the thought-sign being that it is fixed, manageable and accessible to the subject at will, whereas the nature sign is passing, ponderable and cannot be produced by will. The common pivoting point whereon this translation from object to name turns is at the decisive point of the dialectical act of naming: for in the act of naming the object itself is created in the name and the nature-sign or object and the thought-sign or name stand for and fix identically a field of possible relations between confronting beings.

The act of naming for the increase of human powers even as Prometheus’ theft of fire for the same ends is an instance of the fall. Then, “the naming of the holy” or let us say the whole whence we have been cast out would mean: to regain IN the word what has been lost THROUGH the word. That is to create in the substance in the very corporeality of language that destroyed the immediacy of the whole, the totality. And in this effort to regain the holy the poet drives the cursed-godgiven language through all the excluded and forbidden realms of genesis, through all the secret passages of the creation out of nothing.

Forgive me for being so “academic” the Muses weep when I speak so; but I listen to the serpent, for he seduced us away from the source only to seduce us back to the source. And I trust the serpent who knows the secret of the passage and who embodies the mysterious necessity wherein “the way up and the way down are the same'” and the way of going hence is the way of returning.

Since in the attempt at naming the holy the whole sphere of opposition of true and non-true created by the naming of the object, is negated there is no longer a question of double truth, there is correctness or in- correctness as regards the scientific language and the term “truth” must find its mythical sense. (Is not this, in fact, what Heidegger does? Even if he does not create the word mythos anew he discovers the old mythos in the words at the point of the original createdness, Please try to explain to me a little what Heidegger means by the naming of the holy!!!) [Heidegger: “The thinker evokes Being. The poet names the holy.”]

What shall become of me “in absentia”! Be my good friend and genius. It is so good to speak to you – do you listen will you answer me in a word?

Sept. 21

My good child, I think of you all day long, how deeply we belong to each other, that the powers of sea and earth have no deeper and more secret sources than our love.

I try to be cheerful which is for me very very difficult. – And will you grow chaste and tranquil! The priest’s “duties” by the altar in the refuge of the temple are rather his reward, we cannot wait till the moment at the altar – that moment may perhaps never even come in our lives. But we must walk like priests through the world, homeless in the absence of temples and altars, through the daily toil, rush and disorder, always searching among the many crooked, distorting lines for the true and holy countenance of the day and season. How can we hope, how shall we dare to build anything graceful, noble and rooted in the essential power of things, unless we first strengthen what is graceful and noble in our own powers. What does it help us to cover ourselves with what is no longer our own – ? The heavens shall hardly help anyone who is afraid of being naked for a while.

We should have days of fasting our eyes and ears from the human word, the printed words and the chatter, that after the food, the warmth and shelter is the last human comforts, of the human refuge, in itself a blessing even as the bread, fire, and covering – but at certain moments like food – like all comfort that is a sign of our dependence and relativity: something dirty, unclean, whereof we must purify ourselves.

I ache and tremble for you my lovely one, oh, terribly. Each evening I dress in all my jewels only for you and chatter with the men. How boring is all conversation! How much wiser are the southern peoples who do not talk about social problems but embrace a woman and touch her breasts. All talk is so fatally boring.

Sept. 26

HOTEL VAN DORN

150 W4 57

Jacob, my dearest One, how good it was to receive two letters from you! I begin to feel like a sleep walker through the world – very efficient and quite dreamless but a sleep walker and in the gray hues of this sleep I taste the blackness of death. And, Oh, New York is so gray, pleasantly and relaxingly gray like a nice black and white movie.

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The customs examination both for Mother and me was so smooth and gentlemanly that I was really moved. I was asked to open one book-case and was having difficulty finding the right key – so the man said I should not bother, he’ll take my word for it. It didn’t last five minutes. The whole S.S. America with immigrants and everything was cleared (trunks brought from hole to pier and examined) in less than three hours.

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I managed to escape for a few hours to look through book stores: found a lovely new edition of “Anabasis” (Perse, trans. by Eliot) bought it. I am reading it – it is more much more than Darius’ boasting of how many conquered men’s ears he cut off: he makes the earth emerge in its primeval and mysterious – yet – open nakedness as a people first confront it. And this meeting between the people full of fresh arrogance and the earth full of a fresh and sensuous shyness is like the meeting of man and woman, before all reflection, before any distinction between “rape” and “holy marriage”, and therefore like the meeting of man and woman at the point when they no longer belong to themselves, utterly clear and of concrete and practical character, utterly beyond good and bad and beyond love in any romantic sense: It is naming at last the “inorgisches” the unfeeling, unorganized elemental being and no longer humanity or even the “gods” – and it comes closer to the longing of Holderlin and Heidegger than perhaps anything they themselves were able to utter. I came across some very interesting new poets – one feels a new heartbeat and breath struggling in the language of the new Poetry still half smothered in intellectual confusion and self-consciousness.

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I am waiting very much for your pictures – oh my lovely body and soul, how awful it is not to be able to touch you – I must find graceful names for all the nameless, or shame-named parts of the body – that must be the first page for “The Book of Words” something I want to begin to work on – to begin to create the language of cult and sacrament.

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“We are a footnote to Parmenides'” is not so simple: with “Being” and “Nothing” our vocabulary is not yet closed: there is movement, Becoming, “Eros” or quite prosaically DOING – neither in the pure Being of Parmenides nor in the pure Nothing of the Indians can the “doing” conceive and bring about itself neither does the Indian “passivity” escape the circle of “doing”, the circle of polarity, and it derives its power from being a term of the polarity. I realize all this is “metaphysical” whereas your look is more mystical. Nevertheless think about it.

Sept. 27

Oh my dearest child – it is a deep sacrifice to be “brave” I cannot indulge in the deep suffering to remind me + compensate me of the deep joy + ecstacy of being with you. It is cold + gray; something military + monastic; but I cannot let the grief of separation be as intense as the joy ofbeing together. Perhaps this is a blessing, because I am really very well and cheerful + good. – But now I am getting sad. Cherish yourself dearest one. Goodnight.

Sept. 29

Slowly, my dear we will give all of ourselves to the Holy, not in a sudden, catastrophic, apocalyptic fire (as one wishes at moments of despair when sinking from one’s own weight) but we will be consumed slowly in our own rhythm, through ripening and old age, give ourselves like the most solitary ones who in becoming monks relinquish all their privacy.

It is twelve days since we have parted. And whether one stands at the extreme point of union or the extreme point of separation one stays at the vanishing point of time. I think of you Jacob in awe and trembling and pray that my blessings reach you and preserve you.

Oct. 5

We must yet think Jacob how we shall manage our lives, and think boldly my dear, no longer in the old language of our parents either yours or mine, for their world has crumbled – but find a language adequate to the chaos in which we live where the distinction of “dignity” between a “professor” and a bus driver has become sheerly romantic; and look with clear eyes into the job itself: what is more dignified to make a kindergarten affair of the Logos or simply to go and wipe little children’s noses. I am in no way relaxing in my “ambassadorship” and I think it will be arranged. But I doubt if this will be our way. You will get your legal status and then other possibilities may be open. Another thing: we will not be pressed by parents, yours or mine, to settle and begin to collect silver etc. Gerda spoke to me very strongly about this. And the truth is there is no “settling-down” for us ultimately unless we create this settlement.

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And about the dark hours – I tremble before the terrible one against whose terror we put on the euphemising spectacles of religion: the power that has joined can also tear apart: who has given life can take it back. If manna can drop from the sky there can be a rain of plague + curses: I am witness to the manna and I fear terribly the wrath, deep and infinite as the grace.

Oct. 6

Morning. Your letter of Sept. 27 just arrived via Rochester and I am very well! How good it is to have your words! And I kiss the sign of the “always” that is made of the union of man and woman. Dear Jacob, your probings in the Being and Nothing are deep and dangerous; that the fullness, the compactness – the continuity (in the stricktest mathematical sense) of the Being is the Nothing in the Being says that Being in its pure Beingness, replaces, supplants or “fills in” the nothing to the point of becoming identical with it – and however one terms the problem the two by necessity always merge and collapse into one another – there is no way of keeping them apart from the necessity of the 2 terms themselves; I wonder therefore if beyond the Being and the Nothing there must be a third: that which keeps the poles in separation, in a tension of opposition so that they are poles – since out of their own nature they fall back into identity. I wonder if there must not be a third – what we call God, the holy, the mystery beyond the Being + Nothing that composes “the structure of reality “who even as he separates light from darkness has sundered Being from non-Being and keeps them apart. For the separation of light and darkness so that there is light + darkness, and the separation of Being and nothing so that the world is and is lifted out of the ambiguity of Being-Nothing – this is the mystery of the IS that is the holy fiat of the Creator, that is a mystery because it will never be “deduced” from any manipulation, calculation or prestidigitation on the Being-Nothing. He has set the poles and keeps them apart, and the “metaphysical” distance between the poles, between the light and the darkness is his substance, and the life of the universe as the opposites strain toward each other and Being and non-Being merge and are freshly polarized, this life, this Eros circulates through his substance. But it is better to pray and to do service than to think and talk about this thing too much.

Oct. 6

My dear, the night of the Sabbath has entered and I have lit the candle of the serpent and asked for the blessing of the bread and of the fruit as I have no wine, and sat on the ground and prayed, and with writing to you end my prayer.

Today it may be more difficult to obtain the blessing for the bread, but it is no less necessary. That all those who have toiled the earth and toiled their machines in sweat, smoke and confusion should for an instant meet at the common center of the mystery: and contemplate the mystery of their lives and their toil in the fire and the serpent. The serpent that is the AΩ – the seducer and enchanter that leads away from the source only to lead back to the source. And the fire, sign of the Holy itself and our most primordial coming to terms with the Holy: the fire that if we touch with naked fingers – we burn and perish; but if we handle it cautiously, indirectly, with many defences, some cunning and distance, gives us its power of warmth, light, motion for the fulfilment of our human needs – and thus makes it possible for us [to] live with the holy.

Oct. 8

And I begin to grow into my life of wandering + migration even as the peasant grows into the climates of the land, and even as the peasant after a while learns to love the hoe whereon he breaks his back, the lands of his sweat and the stubborn seasons – so the wanderer, the uprooted, learns to love the dusty routes, the trunks, the warehouses, freight trucks and ticket-booths, the packing and unpacking. One grows into a familiarity with all the strange faces of Fate – slowly a pattern lights through the daily toil and redeems the sweat, backache and anxiety; the moment comes when the exile also celebrates his fate.

The snakeskin

Artistic creativity has always manifested itself in me as a sort of hunger. I have observed this need in myself with some gratification, but I have never in all my conscious life asked why this hunger should arise and demand to be satisfied. In the last few years, as it has begun to ease off, and been transformed into something else, I have begun to feel it important to try to establish the reason for my ‘artistic activity’.

I remember from very early childhood a need to show what I had achieved; progress in drawing, the ability to bounce a ball against the wall, my first strokes in the water.

I remember feeling a great need to attract the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the physical world. I never, it seemed to me, excited enough interest in my fellow human beings. And so, when reality no longer sufficed, I began to make things up, regaling my contemporaries with tremendous stories of my secret exploits. These were embarrassing lies, which inevitably foundered on the scepticism of the world around me. In the end I withdrew from fellowship and kept my dreams to myself. A contact-seeking child, beset by fantasies, I was quickly transformed into a hurt, cunning and suspicious daydreamer.

But a daydreamer is not an artist other than in his dreams.

The need to get people to listen, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a fellowship, remained. It became stronger and stronger as the prison walls of loneliness closed around me.

It was fairly obvious that the cinema should be my chosen means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed words, which I lacked; music, which I have never mastered; and painting, which left me unmoved. Suddenly, I had the possibility of corresponding with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul, in terms that avoid control by the intellect in a manner almost voluptuous.

I threw myself into my medium with all the dammed-up hunger of my childhood and for twenty years, in a sort of rage, I have communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies. My hunger has been continuously renewed. Money, fame and success have been the astonishing, but basically unimportant, consequences of my advance. By this, I do not wish to discount whatever I may have achieved. I believe it has had, and perhaps still has, its importance. What is so comforting to me is that I can see what has passed in a new and less romantic light. Art as self-satisfaction can have its importance — particularly to the artist himself.

Today the situation is less complicated, less interesting, and above all less glamorous.

Now, to be completely honest, I regard art (and not only the art of the cinema) as lacking importance.

Literature, painting, music, the cinema, the theatre beget and give birth to themselves. New mutations and combinations emerge and are destroyed; seen from the outside, the movement possesses a nervous vitality — the magnificent zeal of artists to project, for themselves and an increasingly distracted public, pictures of a world that no longer asks what they think or believe. On a few preserves artists are punished, art is regarded as dangerous and worth stifling or steering. By and large, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible and, as I said, the movement is intense, almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison; but the skin moves, filled with busy life.

If I now observe that I happen to be one of these ants, then I must ask myself whether there is any reason to pursue the activity further. The answer is yes. Even though I regard the theatre as an old and well-beloved courtesan who has seen better days. Even though I, and many with me, find Westerns more stimulating than Antonioni or Bergman. Even though the new music gives us feelings of suffocation, from the mathematical thinning out of the air; even though painting and sculpture have been sterilized and waste away in paralysing freedom. Even though literature has been transformed into a mere cairn of words, with no message and no danger.

There are poets who never write, because they shape their lives as poems; actors who never perform, but who act out their lives as high drama. There are painters who never paint, because they close their eyes and conjure up the most superb works of art on the back of their eyelids. There are film-makers who live their films and would never abuse their gift by materializing them in reality.

In the same way, I believe that people today can reject the theatre, since they live in the midst of a drama which is constantly exploding in local tragedy. They need no music, since their hearing is bombarded every minute by great hurricanes of sound, in which the pain barrier is both reached and surpassed. They need no poetry, since the new world philosophy has transformed them into creatures of function, bound to interesting — but poetically unusable — problems of metabolism.

Man (as I experience myself and the world around me) has set himself free, fearfully, breathtakingly free. Religion and art are kept alive for sentimental reasons, as a conventional courtesy to the past, or in benevolent concern for the increasingly nervous citizens of leisure.

— Bergman, from an acceptance speech written for the presentation of the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam, 1965 (tr. Bradfield)

Persona

I have not produced a film script in the normal sense. What I have written seems more like the melody line of a piece of music, which I hope with the help of my colleagues to be able to orchestrate during production. On many points I am uncertain and at one point at least I know nothing at all. I discovered that the subject I had chosen was very large and that what I wrote or included in the final film (frightening thought!) was bound to be entirely arbitrary. I therefore invite the imagination of the reader or spectator to dispose freely of the material that I have made available.

— Bergman, preface to the manuscript for Persona

First person

OL To just do one very circumscribed art form—I would find that frustrating.

JK Yes, to me it doesn’t seem like you’re intentionally rebelling against criticism or biography. It just seems like you’re not confined; you’re including a lot that’s already there.

OL That’s why I find the first person really exciting. It lets you—without sounding hokey about it—report on consciousness, with all of these multiple layers you can shift into. You can have something very personal or intellectual, very abstract, sensual, but it feels like a free place to inhabit, and not necessarily much about the autobiographical self. Do you know what I mean?

JK I think so. Could you say more about that?

OL There’s an assumption when you’re writing in the first person that you’re writing about yourself.

JK That you want to talk about yourself.

OL Yeah, but yourself in quite a thin way, like a biographical thumbnail sketch walking through the world.

JK And in a way that has to do with ego.

OL Yeah, rather than just the self actually experiencing the world, which is so much more interesting and resistant to being put into language, and so the challenge of trying to capture it in language is much more exciting. 

— From a conversation between Joseph Keckler and Olivia Laing

We are only ourselves, and are only those who we are, in our pointing towards what withdraws. This pointing is our essence. We are, insofar as we show in the direction of what withdraws. As the one who shows in this direction, man is the one who shows.

— Heidegger