On displaying the wound.
Non-knowledge isn’t the production or the attribution of meaning but knowledge’s being exposed to what denies and negates it. Whereas knowledge tends to stitch up every tear, non-knowledge consists in holding open the opening that we already are; of not blocking but rather displaying the wound in and of our existence.
Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)
On that day the prophets will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; […] each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” And if anyone asks them, “What are these wounds on your chest?” the answer will be “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”
This is a story that has no ending, not because it lives eternally but because it is by nature inconclusive. A life has no definitive origin or destiny; a life consists of infinitely infinitesimal origins and destinies entangled within each other, pulsing in every now-time we try to demonstrate to ourselves. Still, I’m not sure we are capable of avoiding our stories about ourselves. “Know thyself!” the maxim of the West has instructed us since the time of Plato, and we sometimes get this sense that to live an examined life is to devise a knowledge of our lives that sets our shit in order. Here’s what I was as a boy; some other things happened, so taken all together, here’s what I am as a man. It’s so natural to take our life in timelines, chronologies, causes and effects.
I want to avoid writing a conclusion to this post series that is conclusive. That’s too easy, too reductive. I just don’t think it makes total sense to say that I journeyed through Christianity until that chapter had ended, and making my way, I arrived at where I am now. This is no consummation, no determinate effect, no natural conclusion. Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To write a reminiscence in any form is to admit that the past is present to us – or rather, it is to make the past present, to dissolve the limit of seasons, like snow in the month of May, like celebrating Christmas in July. So I suppose this final post in this series is perhaps more about what it is to remember, rather than what is being remembered. But, of course, it is both. It’s always both.
I have written in a previous post that the dust of the past I tried to shake from my feet is the same dust of which I consist. Now I double back to say that the act of shaking a past away is a way of conjuring it up, of presenting myself a certain way, with that past included in the presentation, and in the moment that we conjure a self before us, the self that conjures slips away. In identifying ourselves, we lose ourselves, sacrificed to a new beginning disguised as remembrance. The poet Rimbaud writes, “Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” To be present is to become present, is to arrive, and in arriving, we simultaneously depart, like a stop motion image comprised of new faces every instant. This is who we are: an anachronistic presentation, dead on arrival, and in that way always coming to life. Writing is a form of arriving, a way of effacing the face we thought we saw. Foucault describes this process of writing the self rather wonderfully:
What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
In writing about ourselves, when we do it critically and with love, we write ourselves into hiding, but that’s exactly where we are: hid, lost at sea, one with the churning waves, the whole constellation of shifting shadow and light. We are a hiding that cannot be found except in the question that God first asked Adam in the story of Eden, after Adam had fallen from his holy origin – “Ayeka?” “Where are you?” Here am I, Lord, in the question you ask.
I cannot tell you how many times I asked that question in the opposite direction throughout my youth and young adulthood. “Where are you, God? It’s me, Dillon.” I searched for him morning and night, everywhere I went, every time I remembered the question. I began to understand myself through that question. I was the kid who asked “Where are you?” At an important moment, a friend recommended to me the book God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel. When I read it, this book joined the pantheon of books I would say made me. Heschel, an Orthodox Jew from the mystical Hasidic tradition, exclaims the idea of wonder. In his vision, when we stand before the universe, we ought to remark upon the grand mystery of it all in a posture of wonder, because it is all so wonderfully ineffable. “We live on the fringe of reality and hardly know how to reach the core,” he writes. “What is our wisdom? What we take account of cannot be accounted for. We explore the ways of being but do not know what, why or wherefore being is.” The world is a mystery, perhaps with a core but a core we can never grapple. We reach our hands, and this is our holy posture, reaching without grasping.
Because we cannot comprehend this world so pregnant with light, we seek the sparks breathed out by the Creator, and all this light suggests to us the world’s fundamental message: that God is in search of us. This is what our search reveals, that all along, we were the ones being sought. That revelation is intransitive, bearing its own truth, not dependent on some object being revealed. The Light of the World doesn’t shine upon any answers or secrets – it just shines.
This book was to me like the dropping of a crude landscape painting to reveal the endless mountains, rivers, stones, sky, and plains stretched out to blurry infinity behind the façade. It consoled me that to live in the questions is no less of a life than to begin from an answer. Indeed, the question may be, after all, what life is. We scream ecstatically to the heavens and to our deepest selves, “WHERE ARE YOU!” and discover no answer. But we linger there, enamored by all the living contours such wondrous light intimates to us. Many of my most liberating moments have involved some manner of reassurance that the questions must be asked, that they are enough, that they invite our tarrying amid them. A whole life can be lived in those questions.
This is to say that the things which caused me pain, held me captive, at the hands of Christianity nearly always took the form of some answer, the power that an answer wields. An answer is a violence, and like all violence, whatever the intentions or results, whatever sort of preservation it is supposed to bring about, it always functions through a wounding. But the world is too much for our answers, and life always exceeds what we say of it. Nevertheless, we speak, spewing out answers, secreting them into our questions, overturning them by propagating a different one. We could say it’s a problem of language, or perhaps the law of existential relativity: that behind every criticism of an absolute truth is hidden some subterranean absolute value waiting, itself, to be deconstructed. It’s turtles all the way down.
I was taught to fear such endless regress of deconstruction. Christianity is not alone in fearing an incredulity toward fundamental answers; this is something I encountered, too, in my undergraduate philosophy classes as well as in much of liberalist political culture in the United States. Implicit in such anxiety is the idea that knowledge is where we start from, and we build on in a positive direction, incorporating new knowledge upon a strong foundation of fundamental truths. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Fundamental answers provide an apt point of observation where we can watch the power and violence of a system at work. When a system of knowledge relies on an assent to fundamental truths in order to successfully market and maintain itself, you will often find in such a system strong cautionary tales about questioning that foundation. These are all over the New Testament, for instance, in Jesus’s parable of the house built on a rock:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
The parable demands that we accept Jesus’s words as the (only) true, strong foundation, but it captures as well some incisive points. When our knowledge involves a foundationalism, the natural vicissitudes of the world will not affect it. The house built on a fundamentalist rock can withstand new empirical evidence contradicting its claims, the pain of others affected by the power of the system, as well as the constant failure of the system’s leaders and members to live according to its tenets. Such wind and rain can be used to fortify the ostensible strength of the system: the fear of the outside serves the preservation of the enclosed body. To buy into a system that relies on indefensible yet utterly agreed upon foundations requires a total identification with the system. The Book of James raises this key point:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
It is not enough to entertain such knowledge; you must live it. You must remember the image of who you are, an image inscribed in the law you live. Become a living sacrifice to this law, a perfect image of your Savior, who is the sovereign Living Law. Other names for systems with such imperatives are totalitarianism, ideology, and terror. The alternative to terror is to be one who looks in a mirror and later forgets what he sees. But I think this is what I want to be: one who is confronted by myself in such a way that the face I see, which is my own yet estranged to me, cannot be incorporated into any knowledge-system I have built regarding myself. I want to be confronted by myself such that I lose my identity, that it breaks down in the confrontation. Let the immediate image wound the system. Greet another and let them tear you apart, because you belong with them as much as you belong with yourself. And when you are wounded, display the wound. Linger with it. Let it fester, dissolve you, transform you amid a cloud of many witnesses.
What led me away from Christianity – with all caveats about the inherent reductiveness of explanations regarding a life – was the realization that I could not live the answers it handed me. Life exceeded them, wound its way around and outside them, introduced me to wonderful strangers whom the answers would annihilate. I found that in the sweep and spray of life’s undulations, a stony foundation proved insufficient for living. I was drawn to this quote by Rilke: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” It is better to live the questions with the expectation of a coming answer than to live in the expectations that an answer provides, like white-robed hysterics seated atop a hill waiting for the end of the world. Let us say that the world has already ended and that we carry on in the dynamism of what comes after, here in a sea of the multitude who make and unmake us constantly, to whom we owe ourselves. Perhaps to remember – to remember the answers that we lived and the questions that we are living – is to reintroduce the world that we lost, or that we lost ourselves to, and so, to remember is to display the wound, the lack in our existence, the place for transformation. To display the wound is to give ourselves back to life.