8.09.2010

Fragmentary paragraph, in the works...

Scholars in psychology and philosophy have been zeroing in on such evocative [mystical] language over the past decade, and some researchers have been quick to point out that there is an important reason for the struggle to overcome the limitations of language: on the other side of that divide, if we are to believe the mystics, lies an experience of unity-with-others that confirms a metaphysical view of “Oneness.” Further, and more importantly, there is a necessary ethical consequence to such a metaphysical perspective—a consequence that Melville approached most directly in his description of the monkey-rope in chapter 72 of Moby-Dick: Ishmael says, “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching [Queequeg’s] motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two” (320). This is a difficult and important philosophical point, especially in an era where the work of Emmanuel Levinas, which emphasizes the primacy of Ethics (or the escape from metaphysics), is held in high esteem.[1] In contrast to Levinas, who argues that Ethics must not be a consequence but a given, Melville, alongside countless mystics, philosophers, and theologians, seems to have believed that the ethical practice would fall into place if the proper metaphysical perspective could be attained. In a recent article published in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Daniel Zelinski summarized this point by borrowing from Meister Eckhart: “the Golden Rule is not a rule at all, but a reward which one is given.”[2] So this intention to pull readers across the linguistic divide into a mystical awareness is not without important ethical and political consequences: bringing about a state of consciousness where one intuits his really-existing metaphysical connection to others may very probably have been felt as an urgent end for Melville as the specter of Civil War loomed. If the American political experiment required an exceptional kind of individual consciousness in its citizens, Melville’s literary mysticism can be understood as participating in the effort--often reserved for religion--of transforming lives. “For a mystic,” Matthew Bagger has written recently, “paradox does not mark the limit of human cognition; rather, paradox opens out onto a plane of exceptional cognition.”[3]


[1] See Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1982), 45-52.

[2] Zelinski, Daniel. “From Prudence to Morality: A Case for the Morality of Some Forms of Nondualistic Mysticism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35.2 (Jun. 2007), 299.

[3] Bagger, Matthew C. The Uses of Paradox: Religion, Self-Transformation, and the Absurd. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 9.

7 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Very good paragraph. The article should probably explicate the line: "In contrast to Levinas, who argues that Ethics must not be a consequence but a given."

A couple of points:

1. Levinas would be horrified to read you characterize his work as an escape from metaphysics. He considered his work a dedication to metaphysics, an orientation to the beyond being (notice that the title of both of his major works speak to the primacy of a metaphysical orientation: Totality and Infinity / An Essay on Exteriority and Otherwise than Being / Or Beyond Essence).

2. Levinas's ethics have no relation to the Golden Rule because he is not engaging cause/effect or articulating a morality but rather theorizing metaphysical primacy--which comes first, self or other? [conscious] thought or [pre-conscious] feeling [of an other]? If an other has to be there to stimulate the thinking of the self, then philosophy needs to attend to others rather than exclusively thinking the self. That's the gist of Levinas's articulation of "ethics as first philosophy." And its not a matter of "do unto others as..." because the other is infinitely more than the self (and the other shouldn't be considered equivalent to the self, etc).

The difference here, is that Levinas vehemently opposes the notion that the "beyond" reduces to a unity. The notion of original or transcendent unity negates the primacy of difference or otherness, and hence the whole ethical system. The difference here isn't between one metaphysical system and one non-metaphysical one, but rather between two metaphysical systems that emerge from antithetical first principles.

In Grassi's language, the difference is not philosophical (rational) but rather rhetorical (affective).

pure_sophist_monster said...

Shit. I get Levinas now. You are really starting to get this shtick down, Wrangler. Seriously. An epiphany!

Casey said...

Thanks for commenting, Wrangler. Unlike PSM, I'm not quite "there" yet: I'm working from Ethics and Infinity, and it's the stuff at the end of chapter three in there that I thought I understood: does being "dis-intere-ested" mean to "escape from being" (that's Levinas's phrase, not mine -- pg. 52).

If I've got this wrong, I'll simply remove that reference to Levinas... let me know what you think. Have I created a false difference in my mind? For Melville, and for (for example) the Dalai Lama, it's very important that we attain a proper metaphysical perspective -- that we attain "right seeing." From that point, or from that moment, Ethics just sort of falls into place. Just as when you understood for the first time at age two or whatever that you weren't the center of the universe and weren't all-powerful, you may have stopped behaving like a tyrannical god.

Is that a view that Levinas shares? If so, I've misunderstood him, and his interpreters, quite badly (leaving me wholly confused about what the big deal is!).

Sophist-Monster: how do you understand it? Sometimes I find it easiest to understand the speaker with the most-recent revelation.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Casey--I'm down in Plymouth this week, so I don't have a copy of E&I in reach.

Levinas is interested in escaping from the tyranny of Being--this would echo your interest in mysticism. Being rises to tyranny when we eliminate any possibility of a beyond. Levinas's mysticism is a mysticism of the other person--a reminder that there are thresholds that the epistemic machinary of Being (especially ontology and hermeneutics--the philosophic/literary/Aristotelian/Heideggerian machinary) cannot cross.

In this sense, there cannot be any "right" seeing, since all ways of seeing are always/already limited or incomplete. The "right" way of seeing is to see that all ways of seeing are potentially wrong. The age two thing certainly fits in here.

I think you can make a valuable reference to Levinas since his ethics are constructed on the notion of absolute, irreducible difference. The difference between you and me is only a trace of the infinite difference between Being and beyond being, between the said and the saying, between skin and Face. Given the investments of postmodernism, you can see why Levinas is so attractive to many of us--he develops an everyday ethical foundation (and, yes, I realize the dangers here! Postmodernism and foundations! This is why Derrida originally resisted Levinas, because in the midst of indeterminacy he brazenly held indeterminacy itself as a foundation for an entire ethical system--the later Derrida came to appreciate this more). But that ethical foundation leaves no room--none--for unity and mutual understanding. Difference, all the way down.

If you use Levinas, just be sure to recognize that he offers a metaphysical ethics predicated on difference.

To build on the Golden Rule distinction--we should stop thinking we already know what the other wants or needs.

Thanks PSM!

Casey said...

A response, in wandering-unfinished-parable form:

Once in a while, I remember something very specifically from my childhood--something I have no use remembering--with startling clarity. Now, I know that the source of that memory is "my mind," but I don't know how it came to the surface, or why it did at that precise moment. And if someone had asked me moments before the memory bubbled up, I might not even have understood what the inquiry was about.

In other words: I know that there is a unity ("my mind"), even though I cannot know every level of it, precisely how it operates, or even the whole of its contents.

OR:

No one would say that the language center of the brain is the same as the spatial reasoning center of the brain... but few would deny that these two entities exist as parts of a single brain. And the spatial reasoning center of the brain, if it recognized this (if it "saw rightly") would be adamant that neither it nor any other being should do harm to the language center of the brain... because the language center of the brain, though "different" superficially from the spatial reasoning part of the brain, is in fact of the same brain.

And to argue that the spatial reasoning section of the brain shouldn't do harm to the language center of the brain because of "the Neuron" (which correlates to "the Face" in my joke-parable) is to miss the more obvious point that you don't want a bullet through any part of yourself.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Let me know if you finish it. It needs work.

Casey said...

Hahaha...