Friday, April 17, 2009

A Time in Which Vagabonds and Skinny Dogs Wander in the Grey Fog: On Sadness


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.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

This elegant post is intimately related to the previous one, and helps me with a problem: how (for example) to hold Levinas and a tradition that culminated (in one of its fruits) in his captivity in a concentration camp together, or the Lord's Prayer (a credo that could be deadly) next to the rabbinic literature that for many it rebuked. Cohabitation, coevalness, dialogue: call it what you will, it is a tricky simultaneity to pull off, because history keeps getting in the way.

And yet such simultaneity allows history some possibility of change, so that it will be something more than "a repeat performance ... in which ... rage never dissipates."

dbuddah said...

Thank you for a truly moving post. I will be looking forward to the promised future piece with more on the conference!

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: one thing that your comment recalls me to add to my post [or, to at least emphasize better] is that part of Michael's project in his paper, was not so much to hold together the Lord's Prayer [a Christian artifact, and yes, often a deadly one--Michael actually intimated this in his paper] with the rabbinic literature that, in a sense, *produced* the Lord's Prayer, but rather, to *return* that prayer to its Jewish tradition, and further, to resituate it in a context that somehow precedes, and will always resist, the Christian triumphalism in whose service it often resides [i.e., Michael returns the prayer to the history of the oppressed, the nameless, etc.].

There is this question of simultaneity, too, which you raise here, which also means that the prayer cannot really be wrenched out of one context and taken to another, but resides somehow in multiple contexts [religious, historical, textual, cultural, etc.] simultaneously, in which contexts it does different sorts of work [constructive and destructive, consoling and terrifying], and it may be that one of the important impetuses of the practice of commentary in this scenario would be to highlight certain *forms* of simultaneity that could allow for the possibility, as you say here, of change in history, even of past history--that it could be otherwise somehow, both then and now.

i said...

Thank you, Eileen, for reminding me of Michael's wonderful and sensitive reading of the prayer, one which, as I mentioned in my question to him, I think would have resonated with some Anglo-Saxons as well.

I like your idea of the prayer residing in "multiple contexts." This helps me articulate some of my own inchoate ideas about the LP, since I see in it a particular tendency, let's say, desire to be adapted. It has to do with the frequency of its repetition, but it also has to do with its ready fragmentation. The LP can inhabit different contexts because its short clauses make space for the person who reads, writes, translates, explains, mocks, recites, or prays it. This is something I've been toying with for a while -- and part of the reason I was kicking myself for not submitting to the glorious Glossing conference!

As much as I loved Michael's teasing out of exilic, bohemian imagery, the most important point I took away from his talk was that there were two versions of the prayer in the NT. Right from the the start, the LP inhabits multiple spaces. A model, perhaps, of how it might be used?

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: thank you for reminding me of that point [or intimation] of Michael's--that it is not just that commentary teases out [or, in my figuration, bears/carries] multiple contexts for a particular text, but that the text may actually be instantiated in, or inhabit, in its first speaking/saying/writing, multiple spaces: perhaps even pluriverses? This would also be another way of saying: there is never a "one."

i said...

Eileen: Exactly. And I would take that further and say that this particular text not only inhabits multiple spaces but calls out for commentary, asks to be brought into new territories of thought, language, and affect.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

At this point my soul cried out in extreme pain: "Is there any saint who can tell me something of this passion which I have not yet heard spoken of or related, but which my soul has seen, which is so great that I find no words to express it?" -- Angela of Foligno

What holds me most to your post Eileen is the way it acknowledges, without making a fuss about it, a need for sorrow, our desire for sorrow, as power, knowledge, whatever, the sighs that lever the world, the ecstasy of the wife's eagle shriek. There is a sorrow I cannot live without, that is even 'life itself' and that has everything to do with the kind of intimate planetary separation you describe.

And thank you for joining this to commentary, because it helps me better understand some things I have written about commentary as ex-haustive interpretation, interpretation against interpretation, which is basically the premise/desire of the Sorrow of Being project and which corresponds very clearly to Dan's thoughts at the conference about commentary as wearing texts out.

i said...

Poetry is not exhausted with reality!

Eileen Joy said...

But: is reality ever exhausted by poetry?

anna klosowska said...

...and I am attached to this post by your words on the commentary as "earthly belonging, turning around/touching, attachment, care, shelter..." How important that we need shelter (Nicola's sorrow...) How perfect that this shelter is there. And Bruno Schulz, "events that are trying to occur", "'checking whether the ground of reality can carry them,'--that is, bear them"--I think these can also be the metaphors for collaborations and our acts of care and sheltering--imagining new events that would seem impossible but do occur, and the attachments as the measure, the opening, of how much can be borne...

anna klosowska said...


Deleuze, Dialogues2, 5: The Virtual and the Actual:

"Purely actual objects do not exist. Every actual surrounds itself with a CLOUD (hi, Nicola!) of virtual images. This cloud is composed of . . .coexisting circuits. . . both emitted and absorbed. . . circles [of virtual images delimit]. . .a spatium determined in each case by the maximum of time imaginable. . .[they] constitute the total impetus of the object. The plane of immanence, upon which the dissolution of the actual objects occurs, is itself constituted when both object and image are virtual" (pp. 148-9)

Nicola Masciandaro said...

"We do not step beyond anything, but are more like moles tunneling through wind, water, and ideas no less than through speech-acts, texts, anxiety, wonder, and dirt. We do not transcend the world, but only descend or burrow towards its numberless underground cavities--each a sort of kaleidoscope where sensual objects spread their colors and their wings. . . . The world is neither a grey matrix of objective elements, nor raw material for a sexy human drama projected onto gravel and sludge. Instead, it is filled with points of reality woven together only loosely: an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples. The language here is metaphorical because it must be. While analytic philosophy takes pride in never suggesting more than it explicitly states, this procedure does no justice to a world where objects are always more than they literally state. Those who care only to generate arguments almost never generate objects. New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travelers, lovers, and inventors" (Graham Harman, "On Vicarious Causation, Collapse 2).

Note the important relations between vicarious causation--"two vicariously linked real objects do form a new object, since they generate a new internal space"--here to Sepp's picture of a commentarial relation to the world.

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola: I can't thank you enough for this quotation from Graham Harman's essay, which I think everyone should read--it is so beautifully written. It is rare for me to read an essay over and over again, as I have Harman's, in just the past few weeks.

theswain said...

Well, as usual, My comments don't belong here, but I like to comment anyway. I'm very sorry I didn't hear this paper and may be bringing up points covered there.

But, here goes anyway. I want to draw attention to one of the "pluriverses" in which the prayer resides, the gospel texts. In Matthew and Luke, the prayer template we know of as The Lord's Prayer lives in the so-called "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew. This extended portion of Jesus teaching in Matthew is a lesson or set of lessons on how to be "other", how to be different than those Jesus contrasts himself and his followers with. I think this important: its a prayer that instructs one how to marginalize oneself.

In Luke, the context is somewhat different and more confusing in some ways. It seems to be part of a string of events and sayings that teach about seeking "higher" things rather than mundane, following immediately on the Mary/Martha story...Martha concerned about mundane things in the story and followed by parables about how God gives good things to those who ask, so seek and ask for good things. So again, seek those higher, better things, another kind of marginalization I suppose.

Internally, the prayer asks the hopeless to have hope, the powerless to recognize their powerlessness, and so on.

I wish I'd been able to hear the paper. Thanks for your reflections on it.

Eileen Joy said...

Hi Larry: why do you say your comments do not belong here--are they not in the spirit of commentary itself, to which the conference in NYC was devoted? But . . . of course!

Michael did dwell for a bit on the context of the Lord's Prayer within Matthew and Luke, and I will excerpt for you here some of his comments on that:

*****beginning of excerpt from M. Moore's paper*****

The most influential text of the Lord’s Prayer is in the Gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, Jesus taught the prayer to a crowd gathered on a mountainside to hear him preach, and then provided a commentary on the meaning of the prayer (Mt 5-7). With much skill and craft, Matthew made sure that much of the Sermon on the Mount would be understood as a teacher’s gloss on the Lord’s Prayer. This is an instance of the hermeneutic principle that Scripture comments Scripture.

One can point to the looped nature of Scriptural texts, which are further woven into manifold traditions of gloss, scholia, postilla and commentary. The text floats like a leaf, travelling downstream on rivers of explanation. Traditions of explanation convey the text through time and space, from mind to mind and across religious, historical, and communal boundaries. "Our historical consciousness is always filled with a variety of voices in which the echo of the past is heard" as Gadamer explained. What often contributes to the clarity of Biblical interpretation is the fact that an internal Biblical exegesis has already taken place. This type of activity is on display everywhere in the Bible. Scripture comments on Scripture. This can be quite simple, such as the explanation within Scripture of archaic words or half-forgotten gestures. The rabbis were dazzled by a God who wrote and then interpreted Scripture, just as he wrote the course of history. Christian commentators followed with their principle of contextus remotus, taking account of parallel passages elsewhere in the Bible, especially those connecting the New Testament with the Old. I hope to follow the Lord's Prayer out into another context, which might be called the contextus alienus.

Luke helps us to understand the overall significance of the Lord’s Prayer, as he connects it to the desert asceticism of John the Baptist. According to Luke, the disciples approached Jesus, who had been praying contemplatively and alone, and asked him to teach them how to pray in the manner of John the Baptist. Then follows Luke’s shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer. John had taught the coming of the Kingdom of God, preaching repentance and baptism. The Johannine tradition was also associated with periods of testing and trial by demonic forces in the wilderness. Jesus was also tempted, after a period of fasting in the wilderness. Many such hints lead to the conclusion that Jesus may have been a disciple of John. Jesus practiced baptism, and made the coming of a divine Kingdom the center of his teaching.

The Lord’s Prayer as recorded in Matthew is longer. In its original form, it may have been a poem in Aramaic. This connects it to Jewish prayer traditions, and to the Kaddish, which was also composed in Aramaic. The Kaddish has many elements in common with the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus and his followers were steeped in the art of Jewish prayer, and in specific prayers, such as the Shemoneh Esrei, or 18 Blessings. Likewise the Kaddish. The address of Jewish prayer to God the Father or king was common. The Kaddish also asks that the name of God be sanctified.

Rabbi Eliezer (ca.90 CE) offered this prayer in times of danger: “Do your will in heaven above and give reassurance to these who fear you on earth, but whatever is good in your eyes, do it!” The sages prayed for the restoration of a direct, theocratic rule by God, as in the Shema. “Hear O Israel” goes on to say “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever.” Jews declare a willingness to “bear the yoke of the kingdom” of God. As Rabbi Yohanan said: “that prayer in which the kingdom of God is not named, is no prayer.”

In this light, the Lord’s Prayer seems to fall into two parts: the first is Theocratic, and the second is comprised of prayers for mercy. At the ending of the Lord’s Prayer, however, we come to a note of anxiety: lead us not into temptation. A comparison with prayers from the Dead Sea Scrolls may shed light on this: in that community, such a temptation referred to the dreaded possibility of “apocalyptic temptation” and the impending fight of “the sons of the light against the sons of the darkness.” So there is an apocalyptic tone as well.

*****end of excerpt from M. Moore's paper*****

I think Michael would like very much your reading of the LP within the context of Matthew, where it may have, as you say, called on its hearers to "marginalize" themselves.

Anonymous said...

M. Moore
Eileen, your essay is very beautiful. I have been struck by your idea of an essential sorrow. Ricoeur speaks of an essential solitude which seems like a related idea, but in either case this sorrow can be a source for coming together. Communities have been formed around it, such as the monks of Chartreuse, but I have just been thinking about the existence of a tradition of solitude, including persons such as Petrarch. Solitude, and a stance that accommodates sorrow, have often been linked to scholarship as a way of life.
The comments of theswain are very acute and relevant. Luke's version is seemingly intended as the prayer of one person (it begins "Father..."), and if it truly was a prayer taught by John the Baptist, then it is seemingly a 'bohemian' and a desert-prayer. Also, a Jewish prayer.

theswain said...

I wanted to mention too that I really very much like the connections to the Kaddish and other Jewish prayers in the period. I read an article sometime ago now that was a scholarly study of the subject and examined the structure of Jewish prayer in Second Temple and Early Rabbinic texts in comparison to the Lord's Prayer, and another study that did the same for the LP and ancient prayers in the Greco-Roman tradition. Both very interesting. The upshot, btw, was that the LP from a structural point of view was very much a prayer of its period.