for Marcus Castro
Part IV: The Way a Fish Lives in Water
We led our lives / or they led us, and how would we know which?
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, / The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Yea, all which inherit it, shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes his way explicitly to the mystical.
He aims to use philosophical thought in order to call for an end to philosophical enquiry. His method is ultimately performative in that it shows its own unsatisfactory and misguided nature: “he who understands me finally recognizes [my propositions] as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw out the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”
In some ways Wittgenstein is aiming to do what Audrey Lorde has pronounced impossible: using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house: “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Indeed. Despite the Tractatus, analytical philosophy marches on.
Wittgenstein argues that philosophical thought figures itself forth in an imperfect medium—language, which falls short of an ideal standard of logical perfection. Thus: “Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless…. (They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.)”
Even when we think we’re using logic, we’re often not: “We cannot therefore say in logic: This and this there is in the world, that there is not. For that would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case since otherwise logic must get outside the world.”
To affirm the world is to stray from the bounds of logic—just as Hume said and Descartes demonstrated.
Or as Wittgenstein puts it: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”
The anonymous monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing prescribes a method of forming a union with God by stripping away every understanding. Only via negativa can one reach God, the author contends, for God exceeds everything we’re capable of thinking.
The author even advocates removing not only images of light, and so forth, but even prepositions and spatial phrases that are metaphors for spiritual reality: “Take care, therefore, that you do not understand in bodily words, such as up or down, in or out, behind or in front, on one side or on the other side.”
Take Jesus’ ascension, for example. While it is “suitable and appropriate that this should be seen as a movement upward” of Jesus’ body and spirit, the ascension was primarily a spiritual event. The upward trajectory describes first and foremost “the spiritual activity of the soul.”
But in a bodily sense, Jesus could have ascended down.
The author suggests negating everything in your mind: “For the first time you do it, you will find only a darkness… this darkness and this cloud are between you and your God… if you are ever to feel or see him, so far as is possible in this life, it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.”
Then one must pierce through this cloud of unknowing with love: “I wish to give up everything that I can think, and choose as my love the one thing that I cannot think.”
Absolute unknowing, then the movement of love.
With so little we can be certain of, we go forth through a cloud of unknowing in our everyday lives.
We simply take a different object—not union with God, but as Wittgenstein said, our affirmation of the world.
Pragmatism—not the philosophical school, just the practical concern of living—requires a mystical leap.
In this way, pragmatism is mysticism.
In the wake of Post-Structuralism, theorists have wondered how the body could be claimed to exist when our understanding of it is constructed by semantic conceptualizations.
The body, something we wish to call a thing-in-itself, is mediated by language. The Lacanian Symbolic separates us from the Real. For instance, we cannot apprehend the penis as an object-in-itself without simultaneously apprehending it as a “phallus.” Moreover, as Lacan writes in “Agency in the Letter of the Unconscious”: “the signifier [does not] have to answer to the function of representing the signified”; thus, “no signification can be sustained other than reference to another signification.” “Penis” can’t simply designate its referent.
We wish to claim that the body exists objectively in the world, but since we can only reference it within linguistic mediation, then some sort of transcendence or paradox is required to bridge the gulf.
Kathryn Bond Stockon’s God Between Their Lips chronicles this anxiety and looks to “spiritual materialism” as a possible solution.
She demonstrates how Irigaray, in This Sex Which Is Not One, offers a sort of spiritualism. Irigaray, Stockton argues, develops a “referential illusion” with respect to the body. That is, Irigaray shows that, although language aims to reach the body, language cannot extend itself to the material body after it has been deconstructed and removed from an essentialist context. Therefore, the body can only be reached via faith.
Stockton argues that via a mystical leap one can have faith in the material existence of bodies. She contends that mysticism offers “the belief (not the certainty) that real bodies may exist on their own terms but that we can reach them only by the same visionary means that separate us from their ‘reality.’”
Derrida’s brand of Deconstruction exposes the hierarchical nature of reason and language. In the spirit of a Nietzschean affirmation of the jeu, Derrida aims to place his thinking in the non-logocentric, asystemic, performative space where structure and binary oppositions are destabilized.
Derrida was significantly influenced by negative theology—specifically Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who also influenced the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Indeed, he contributes two chapters and a conclusion to SUNY Press’s Derrida and Negative Theology.
In fact, Derrida defines “différance” via negativa, and in key ways it resembles the God in The Cloud of Unknowing. Derrida argues that différance is neither a word nor a concept, neither active nor passive, neither speech nor writing, neither sensible nor intelligible, neither cause nor effect, neither exists nor has an essence, neither has realm nor has authority—yet it is everywhere and affects everything. But it remains unaccessible. So Derrida must show it, perform it.
“Différance” slips out from any attempt to pin it down.
The authors I’ve been discussing are circling around something. I am circling too.
When David, the narrator in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, meets his soon-to-be lover for the first time, Giovanni says, “Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies.”
I’d say the same about faith—we live in it the way a fish lives in water. I don’t mean faith in a robust religious sense, but as an unreasoning condition we take for granted. We don’t die without it, but its suspension would extricate us from living.
With this faith, we go about our lives. We act as if we have selves. We make promises to each other. We listen to doctors’ advice and resolve to eat more healthily, to quit smoking. We make or imply arguments.
Maybe the structure shifts. We shift with it. Without a thought, we believe in cause and effect and the uniformity of experience. We hug the tight curves of mountain highways. We exercise caution around balconies. We follow recipes for boeuf bourguignon. And things turn out better because of it.
Experts mold our understanding. Editors select, downplay, and stress. We use principles derived from our experience of the world to weigh the evidence. We choose one belief or another. The belief we choose and the outcome of that choice guide future decisions. History, too, lends a hand in shaping our decisions—unbeknownst to us. The center is not the center.
The zeitgeist strikes one. We read magazines. We vote. We form musical preferences. We find some narratives compelling—others, less so. We’re more likely to believe news that confirms our understanding. We lose things—keys, computer files, birth certificates. We have methods of searching for the things we’ve lost. We play the cards we hold to make the gains we desire. We form opinions. The friendships we do or do not make are informed by those opinions. Our lasting friendships shape us for years. We tend to believe in truth—or at least live as if we do.
We find reasons to support our faith. We have faith in reason’s ability to increase the odds of our decisions paying off. We get things wrong. We reevaluate the evidence. We revise hindsight. We weigh probabilities. We develop beliefs and let our beliefs inform our experiences. We pick travel destinations. We read certain books. We form complicated relationships with fictional characters. We learn from our reading experiences. We are constantly subjected to chance. We, if we’re privileged, benefit from privilege. If we do not benefit from privilege, we are systematically oppressed.
We play pool. We exercise. We throw darts into the dead center of the double bull’s-eye. We set the morning alarm. We debate whether or not we can be wrong about something that seems to seem a certain way to us, which might not seem that way to us after all. We trust statisticians or else we don’t.
We fall in or out of love. We discover one day that we never really loved some of our exes. We fall in love again. We infer lessons from our experience. We like the way it feels to say, “yes.” We develop fondness for Molly Bloom. We dream dreams. Sometimes our feelings for people carry over the next day because of what happened in our dreams. We go on believing the things we believe.
Going on believing them exercises faith.
It’s what renders our lives livable.