For months now, I’ve been among the swamp-lilies and woodchucks and under the sublime heavens of Thoreau. But occasionally I come up to test the air for another breeze. Yesterday I came across Dean Dettloff’s remarks on Derrida and violence and repentance. I love the way Dean thinks, but not the way Derrida so often throws care in thinking off to the side for (what seems to me) theatrical effect.
These remarks caught my eye, not least because Thoreau makes you listen to every word you use, and I love his care in renditions of what we are in the world, and how we assess our positions there. I’ve come to think Derrida (and many others who are fashionable continental philosophers) doesn’t teach us that, to our misfortune. I decided to take a short break from Thoreau, to exhibit what I mean by this misfortune — a philosophical and cultural misfortune — that crops up in the jargon of violence. It spreads like wildfire.
I don’t go directly to any text of Derrida, so I’m dealing with hearsay, except that I trust Dean’s readings. ( I do know first hand that Derrida doesn’t’ give a close reading of Fear and Trembling on Abraham and Isaac in The Gift of Death.)
Derrida takes up the theme of repentance and notes that if I repent an “I” in the present takes a step back from an “I” in the past to cast judgment on a past bad deed, done by a bad person , and in repentance I disassociate myself from both deed and person, and then vow to be different, to be better, to be a ‘new person.’ The account, if a bit tongue-twisting, seems on target so far. What struck me as miles off target was Derrida’s description of a self stepping back from its earlier incarnation (the previous self one wants to repent of) as an act of violence against oneself. But philosophically, to my eye, that’s blind thrashing about.
Just a minute ago I blurted something out, and immediately I feel foolish or ashamed of the blurt. Half of conscious life (or maybe it’s only 22%) is kind of ‘self review’, an exercise of self-awareness, an attempt to “know thyself.” Yet ‘self-review’ is not always a violent stepping back. Sometimes it’s a clinical or curious or doubtful or melancholy or happy stepping back.
We value our capacity to step back, to say — “Gee, I’m sorry!” ; or, “I think I’ve finally got what that movie last night was really all about!” ; or, “I wish I had been more attentive!” For Derrida to call all this separation of me-now from me-yesterday a line up of violent acts and actors takes a word that has high shock-value — and often legitimate shock value — into a new domain — for theatrical effect. He grabs our attention, the way someone yelling ‘fire’ in the theater grabs our attention. But if someone yells ‘fire’ too often, we come to know there is no fire, it’s just theater in the theater. Or we come to think that “fire,” yelled in the theater, only means someone is lighting a cigarette. When a real fire breaks out, we’ve stopped listening — to our peril. We pay a price. “Violence,” like “rape’ or ‘torture’ or ‘beheading’ should be used when we mean the horror associated with it — used only then. Otherwise the word has no power when we really need it. Derrida both manipulates us with shock-appeal and ‘devalues’ a most important concept we should not throw around carelessly.
A moment of genuine repentance can be a good thing, not a bad thing — not a slicing or slashing or knifing. Many acts of self-awareness, when I in some sense divide myself from myself, are salutary. And many acts of self-separation are neither — neither violent nor salutary but something else altogether.
If I rummage through memory. The me doing the rummaging separates off from the me being rummaged. But that’s a neutral thing if I’m trying to remember where I left my keys. It’s less neutral if I’m rummaging for that moment when I made a fool of myself or rummaging for that lost moment when my father looked lovingly at me. I don’t sense violence in these instances of ‘self review,’ only a redirection of my attention. This redirection can be an act of love or self-acceptance or just a neutral review. To violently overuse “violence’ is a little like Tourette’s syndrome, an outburst of profanity. Sure, it grabs your attention, but . . .
On a much happier note, Dean also asks about Merold Westphall’s view that prayer is de-centering. I think to say that prayer is de-centering is a new fashioned way of saying that we work, in prayer, for selflessness, for putting the acquisitive and power-hungry self aside, letting a power say to us what it will, without our anxiously waiting to interrupt or explain — or get angry or confused if all we hear is heaven’s silence. If the self is typically centered on its projects, trying to get something done, that moment of prayer is when the “let’s do it!” executive self melts away. It’s so very hard to pray because it’s hard to deactivate the executive or self-righteous, proud self — without being executive or proud or self-righteous in the process. (Look, mom, look Pastor Q, — aren’t I really righteous now, right now, praying just like you showed me!)
I think we’ve devolved to the point that whenever the world is shattered or our routines are interrupted, we think it can only be a dark moment of violence, a knife suddenly being flashed. This is not unlike Levinas’s view that I only ‘discover’ the person before me as a source of proper attention as she or she pleads “don’t kill!” –as if my normal way of intervening or interrupting in another’s life is pulling a knife, and I need to be reminded not to.
Both Benjamin and Levinas lived through a great cultural crisis where almost every thing — (almost) — was uniformly ‘negative’ and violent. Benjamin, to simplify, says that we need to be ‘rescued’ and God will do that. And he labels the appearance of the messiah a moment of “Divine Violence” (that’s an extreme condensation and ought to be qualified in a longer account). But why not frame a messianic interruption as the surprising intervention of good? Not all interventions are violent any more than a caress that intrudes on routine bodily boundaries — and surprises — is always a violation or violent.
Levinas tells a story of gratuitous good – a woman dropping the rock she was about to embed in the skull of her torturer and instead miraculously offers him bread.
If God is a God of love (at least some of the time), or if love has a chance, or if beauty has a chance, or if gentleness has a chance, or if my caress can be tender, and acknowledged by you as tender, then in these cases our worlds are shattered not by violence but by love, by beauty, by the charm of a child’s smile, by a gentle touch.
To think that love is violence because it in fact shatters our world is falling for an unnecessary verbal-metaphysical trap. Love and wonder and gentleness are one thing. Cuts and hurts are another. Why let a misguided metaphysical theatricality reduce all those loving and wondrous and tender things to acts of violence? (Did Zizek really say Gandhi was more violent than Hitler?) If we can turn love into violence, why not let bad guys turn violence into love? We should give a hearty cheer of appreciation of the metaphysical, ideological sophistication of the murderer or the Hitler who claims philosophically that all murder or extermination is really an act of love.
To circle back to Thoreau, his assurance is that wonder and beauty and allure and melody keep invading his world, yes, in a shattering way — and I cherish his unflinching assurance that all that shattering is so often heavenly, rebuilding and restoring – and that to undergo it is to come alive anew, now.
In the present cultural-philosophical dispensation, that’s quite a novel philosophical outlook! We’re in dark times, and Thoreau would have us see light. The common wisdom seems so often to promote the opposite. We are in dark times, and should only nod approval as our philosophers make them darker.