Wretched is he who weeps, for he has the miserable habit of weeping.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel”
To regret, to desire; beneath these two sighs, horizons recede. By these two levers I can lift the world.
—The Countess de Gasparin, Human Sadness (1864)
For one of the sessions at the recent conference, “Glossing is Glorious: The Past, Present, and Future of Commentary,” held at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York City last week [9-10 April 2009], Michael Moore delivered a beautiful paper on the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father: Simplicity and the Limits of Commentary,” which offered to us a “bohemian” reading of the Lord’s Prayer within a contextus alienus that focused primarily on the prayer’s sense of exile and the ways in which it “belongs to the history of the oppressed, the wandering, and the nameless.” It is my intention to write another post about the conference as a whole and some of the themes of the conference that really struck me, but first, I hope I can be indulged in sharing with everyone some personal reflections upon some aspects of Michael’s paper that stuck with me, and really, pressed upon me as I was traveling by train from Penn Station to Newark on a gray and rainy Saturday. This will serve, also [I hope], as an opening to my reflections on what I think was one of the conference’s most important insights [or was it an argument?]: that commentary can [or should] be a form of affectus—further, of earthly belonging, turning around/touching, attachment, care, and shelter.
Michael first made clear the “secondariness” of the Lord’s Prayer, “which is steeped in Jewish traditions of prayer” [and connected to the Kaddish], and then he also reminded us of the “looped nature of Scriptural texts,” that “what often contributes to the clarity of Biblical interpretation is the fact that an internal Biblical exegesis has already taken place. . . . Scripture comments on Scripture.” Opposed to traditional Christian commentary on the Lord’s Prayer [following Augustine], which saw in the structure of the prayer an Invocation to God, followed by seven petitions, Michael sees the prayer as
organized around certain figures or elements. We can ask if this was the prayer spoken by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane during the night before his capture, as his friends fell asleep and his enemies approached. If so, it is the prayer of an abandoned person, an outsider and a vulnerable wanderer. An experimental reading of the Lord’s Prayer might take this form, which I have called a Bohemian Prayer: we can listen in this prayer for the tones of a bohemian twilight world. This was a favorite theme of the Parisian poet Carco, who described a time of abandonment, “neither night nor dawn” in which “vagabonds and skinny dogs wander in the grey fog.” Although it later became the central prayer of a triumphant church, the Pater Noster bears the marks of a different situation, a world of ascetics, homeless students, those who do not know where their next bite of bread might come from, outsiders needing forgiveness, sending up a prayer to a God who dwells in a distant, mysterious heaven. To quote Carco again, this bohemian twilight is the “the bitter hour of poets/ who feel themselves sadly/ carried on unquiet wings/ out of disorder and torment.”Michael then connected the prayer to the later medieval “outsider” tradition of the Cathars who used the Lord’s Prayer in their most important ritual, the Consolamentum. Ultimately, and I suppose, most compelling for me, personally, was Michael’s conclusion, that the crucial context for commentary on the Lord’s prayer might “not be Christian salvation-history, but rather the Jewish desert tradition of John the Baptist and what I called the Bohemia of vulnerable and persecuted outsiders, those who make a plea, alone and abandoned in a desperate twilight, to a distant and hidden God.”
Following this reading of Michael’s, we might also say that the Lord’s Prayer is a sort of a lament, a lamentation, a type of weeping, which is also a supplication, or a call into the abyss of the universe—an address, or cry, into the world-as-void. This brings me to sadness and how it is we are sometimes called to bear up under it, or to bear it—for ourselves, or for others [which is also to be both borne somewhere by the sadness of others while also bearing, carrying, their sadness, lifting it from them and allowing ourselves, thus, to be pressed upon and held down]. Do we risk sentimentality when we contemplate the world’s sadness, or more so, allow ourselves to feel it in its full-throatedness? What is the role of the witness to, or hearer of, the prayers, or lamentations, of the abandoned, addressed to a distant, or vanished, God?
I thought about this when I was in Penn Station on Saturday, tired and worn out from days of traveling, then days of intense concentration on the words of others, engaged discussions, and of course, late-night conviviality with friends. In short, I was exhausted and a bit edgy, and it must be admitted, at such times, I am a bit of a vacuum as regards the world around me: anything can rush in and dwell intimately with me—whether exuberant joy or crushing sadness or anything in between, I have no defenses. There was a woman near me, obviously mentally ill, who was railing against an invisible person with whom she clearly had a long-standing argument. Her anger was palpable, as was her anguish. The screaming! I could only assume this was a repeat performance, one in which her rage never dissipates. What to make of such moments?
I was reminded of Denis Johnson’s short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” in which the narrator, buzzed out on speed and hash, hitches a ride late one rainy night in western Missouri with a family—a man, woman, and their infant son—and they end up crashing into another car driven by a man who dies as a result. Having stumbled out of the one car, and absent-mindedly having taken the baby with him, our narrator—himself a spiritual vagabond if ever there was one—walks over to the other car where the driver, clearly on his last breaths, is hanging out of his car, blood bubbling out of his mouth, and our narrator looks down “into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Later, the dead man’s wife arrives at the hospital emergency room, “glorious and burning”:
She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.Thus we come to the rub of “being-with,” in which I find both elation and immense sadness. The other is a mysterium to me, yet palpably present in her anguish [which is nevertheless inarticulate], and wrenching me out of myself, even bodily, where I have been hidden from the world. Here, there is an intimacy, but one that retains, nevertheless, great distances, forever untraversable.
Much of Hans Gumbrecht’s final words during the concluding roundtable discussion at the “Glossing” conference had to do with trying to discern a way to practice commentary as a means of both holding an object very close, even physically so [intimate “presence,” or presencing], while also allowing that object its distance [alterity], within which we can imagine it retains some kernel of infinite and obdurate immanence. Commentary, then, might be a close attention to what—which is to say who—has been abandoned in time. And perhaps, also, it is a type of momentary irradiation, as Bruno Schulz might have said, of events that are "merely trying to occur," that are "checking whether the ground of reality can carry them"--that is to say, can bear them.