Once upon a time, our fairy king in a rage betook a wife and she served him in goodness and kindness and with a child in time. It crawled forth from the red gate of her body and drew out her life with it as well. And the king laughed and howled and wept and carried on as he is wont to do and as the world permits, and silver beads of sweat stood out on the black curls of his dead’s wife hair. Her eyes as wide as the high-noon summer’s sky outside and her mouth agape with still and unexpected terror, from her frozen stare, they said, the summer ceased and snow began to fall on everything, and never stopped.

From the room then the king drove all his attendants—the midwives and nurses, the courtiers and his snake-mouthed scribe, summoned solely to record the blessed event.

But keyholes being made to fit a servant’s ear, those who crouched outside to eavesdrop in heard not only the wailing of grief in death’s embrace and a newborn’s how but also a bestial grunting that ended with a long groan.

Or so that asp, the scribe, scribbled it, since nothing could please him more than to spit venom in the eye that feeds him.

History knows the rest. The king’s grief covered his head like a velvet sack, and he set out to revisit on every mortal thing that breathed a long shadow of his own grief. In the body of Plague, he spread through the land until the wailing of the love-stricken as they stood by heaps of wide-eyed dead pealed at every corner of the globe, at the peaks of the tallest mountains and in the fathoms of the deepest seas—even the blind fish there turned the lantern-stalks of their false eyes toward the howling.

You must count my kith and kin amongst those dead. And if I lived, that is solely because for grief to leave its deepest wound, someone must remain behind to stand by at the grave-heaps.

But I was young, of course, as you know. So if plague’s dagger cut deep into my gut, I yet had time to grow it over. In truth, I did not grasp the scope of the destruction. Had more from my home survived the rigours of the plague to stand there and tell me, “Nothing worse than this could ever pass,” I might then have grasped it better. I did with my own eyes watch grown-up men and womenfolk alike, ripping off their cyst-speckled flesh as if to escape. It frightened me, of course, but how was I to know that I would never, once grown myself, have to perform this strange rite of passage?

But then I found myself swept up, transported with some other precious few I’d never seen before, to the aerial palace of the king.

I’ve never told you this—because no story needed it at the time—but mortal-born as I am (or so I’m told) I’ve always had second sight, of course: still ponds, pools of ink, or even tear-glassed eyes, but above all mirrors, will disclose the truth to me. But secretly—or superstitiously, more like, which is why I never told you—I harboured the thought, “Perhaps that’s why he spared me?” In truth, he never betrayed if he knew of my gift, never used or abused it. Maybe I’m only spinning out a fair lie to explain my fate. In any case, my memories of then have dimmed.

One wise old crone who years now has passed once said, “That’s what happens when you die.” But if all this world of spirits and light is mortal Death for me, what difference does it make? I’m here, and so are you. Your hands are warm and the fairy king is real enough for anyone. It’s enough in the end to say: he plucked me out and had me brought here. To serve him in goodness and kindness though I can bear him no child.

By the time I came, his grief had run. I saw him, as I first entered the court, slumped upon his scarlet throne, panting and pale, with his hand looped through the dark curls of his hair and his eyes hardly looking out at the court. I remember the height of the court’s walls then, their shining gold and silver that reached up into the darkness of the sky. And the snow that fell turned to mist before it reached us.

But I was not presented to the king there, but only later came into a chamber I’d been lavishly accoutred with. You may guess what I expected next, but instead he took me out into the snowy woods, across an old rope bridge that led to the far-wilds, and laid me on a copse of grass. The expected happen then, with on additional detail: the scribe was there to watch us, summoned solely to record the blessed event.

When I glanced back, I could see his green eye and ear cocked, could hear the slap of his hand beneath his robe and did not fault him—I am of course the fairest in the land, as you have verified yourself—but turned my haunches that he might better huff and puff and seize me with his fancy.

The king by then had taken out his rod to flog my unclothed flesh—he hadn’t brought himself as yet to use his sex on me—but as I heard him groaning still and pleased, I said, “Sire, if you’d disrobe as well, we both might find more pleasure.” He paused click, but that night only kept up with the corded leather strips that tasselled the end of his rod. He didn’t strike me hard—not then; it’d take some weeks before I could prevail upon his strength—but still he quickly lost his wind, and began to pant again.

Well do we know that some efforts take more from the spirit than the flesh. Even on that first of nights in the far-wilds, I could sense the crumbled ruins within the king’s heart. I knew nothing of his former wife except what I saw traced and distorted in the lines of the veins of his flexing arm as emotion so gripped his chest that he doubled over, panting, gasping, begging, “Air … air … air.”

And that—but listen closely now—that one fateful word is the whole and entire root of the scribe’s most stupid lie. There’s none deny—at least I won’t—that the offspring who’d robbed the king of his queen’s life had drained also what life remained in him too. Daily to look upon that child and see his dead wife’s eyes and face: how much can one ask of a father? Unjust or not, should hate spring from that poisoned ground in place of his love, must we really act surprised? Like a carnival balloon with its fires gone out, the king could only sink and sink and sink, his silks more wrinkled and slumped as he fell, until his sorry husk spread out across the all-accepting earth and moved no more. I don’t deny it.

But all the same, to hate your child does not ensure you’ll act with overt malice toward it. No doubt, even the stupidest of pups must eventually grasp that Papa has no love for you—and perhaps for some, a very lack of actual violence might do more harm than overt rape or beating—but nothing swaps these sordid insinuations by the scribe for the fact: never did the king touch his heir, not even in a fatherly embrace. So much so that he forbade even the servants and beasts to touch the heir and taught them to shun his child like the plague.

Some court gossips, with patronising sympathy, will say I say this because I’m nothing but a cuckold and deceived—for in certain kinds of families, they say, how often is one cheated as the other raids the children’s beds at night? But you well know my vanity is not the type to imagine that the king’s exclusive preference for the knout with me, and not his sex, must mean he’d never treat (or function for) some lucky other. But there’s no need to speculate. Gossip as people however will, still never—not in my mirror or a pool of ink, not in the snow-strewn oil of a night pond or the waveless stillness of the king’s eyes themselves—was there ever the least sign that the king touched his heir.

And if that snake-tongued scribe makes it out otherwise, that’s his fantasy, not fact.

No matter. Common-sense alone should mock such nonsense out of hand—which the king’s impotence confirms in any case—but here’s the further truth then: never did I plot to kill the heir for my jealousy or vanity and much less for sucking the life out of the king through his member or soul.

But truly! How easy it always seems to be to blame me or to come up with some still more far-fetched nonsense about the heir. The simple, brutal truth is, and has always been: the king commissioned his heir’s murder.

That’s not surprise or disbelief I see, is it, my sweet? You know I wouldn’t lie, but is it really quite so hard to take? Startling perhaps, I’ll grant you, but hard?

No.

Stop.

No. I only brought this up because in you alone … I trusted you to believe me! No, don’t. … It’s too late to protest.

No, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Forget I said—

This is not manipulation. You know the lies they tell of me. I not only have to live with them but deal their consequences to my reputation abroad. It’s not …

Stop.

Stop being sweet to mollify me.

Stop.

Let go. Don’t … don’t … Well, then, why was it really so hard to believe that the king …

What, truly? Startled?

Not doubt?

You suave rogue. If you’re slyly lying, then … then I’ll permit you to trick me, beast.

No, fine. I’ll go on. But it really should be easy for you. Forever eternally always more given to action than self-reflection, even the king eventually sensed the effect that the heir was having on him and chose to call it a curse. So, surely you can see then: having murdered nations of innocents with plague for no reason but the death of the woman he’d burdened with his own seed, why wouldn’t the king—once he felt the “curse” of his heir—not have murdered him as well?

That decision irreversibly reached, he chose a date eight days from then, one day before the heir’s birth-day of all things. All of this, of course, I oversaw in my mirrors and glass, as well as his commanding his most ancient and loyal huntsman to transport the heir to the far-wilds to do the thing.

“I will bring back as proof his heart,” the huntsman said.

“No, your word is enough,” answered the king. “Lest you bring me a pig’s, or a hart’s, or some otherkin’s to deceive me.”

The huntsman took no offense at that, but said, “Still, I would cut out the heart.”

“What you do with my heir in the far-wilds is not my concern,” said the king. “So long as it’s done.”

So that’s plain enough. And as for that quaint fib people love to repeat about heartless killers: that this huntsman—one who had for centuries slaughtered endless mortals and immortals alike in the name of the king—turned suddenly into an innocent ray of sunshine in the far-wilds and let the heir go out of sympathy? I promise you: any angelic bone in the body of that man came from having devoured one earlier. The heir did not escape because of him.

Having seen the king’s scheme in my mirror, with only vague notions of rescue in mind, I risked the king’s direct wrath and sought him out in his chambers. Wriggling into his good graces and knots, in vain I then plied him to let out some hint about the scheme, that I might propose an alternative to it. At my rope’s end finally, I dared to remark idly (lying) how I’d of late read in a book about the loyalty of poison—which steadfastly kills also any creature so brash as to devour a part of one’s victim—and that the humiliation of a corpse is that much more complete when left whole. There was hardly any logic to my words, but perhaps our proximity to climax lent some effective rhetoric to my ramble. In any case, I immediately could see in the pools of the king’s eyes that my suggestion had hit home, so much that I had next to remind him to untie my wrists and ankles before dashing from the room with a fire in his gait I hardly saw anymore. He had to tell his huntsman: change of plans.

From that, the rest was only delicate and tricky, and I felt continuously the crush of those only eight days to save the heir.

I first went to the huntsman. By habit a greater enthusiast of bloodbaths, he preferred the gore and intimate moments of hacking to any dullness and quiet of poison. And though the king had already commanded him, “I’ve changed my mind, don’t touch the heir,” I could see in his eyes—but even you could have seen in his eyes—he planned to disobey. How, after all, would the king ever know? And when, in fact, had the king ever demanded he deny himself his pleasures? If one more time he hacked off the limbs and head before using the heart to gratify himself, what reason could there be this time to change routine? In this way, the huntsman deceived himself he had a tacit, unvoiced permission from the king.

“You must enjoy the odour of your workshop,” I said as I entered, unable not to remark upon the stench of carcases and viscera of beasts and people slumped in heaps around the stone room. He wiped off offal from his hands on a once-white apron and stared down his bulbous nose at me, annoyed by the interruption. I knew of his appetites, and so knew also that they didn’t run to the likes of me.

“What are you here for?”

“I confess,” I said, tracing a finger with a shudder over the rows of used hearts on a cedar plank, “I have an interest in your work.” Looking up, I fathomed his pale blue eyes for disbelief. Seeing little enough, I added, “I’d like to study under you.”

“Still too young,” he grunted.

“Oh, yes,” I agreed hastily, “but the king hints that I have the heart for it, and I have found one does best to do the king’s desires exactly.”

He said nothing.

It was the vanity of his sense of duty, not his conscience, I’d appealed to. Preoccupied by the rigours of his work, I could still see in the blue glass of his eyes that I’d made my point.

“We can begin after the heir’s birth-day,” he affirmed, touching his hand to a pig’s heart on spit. “For now, go. I have urgent work to do.”

I went then to the dead wing of the palace to wait for the alchemist’s return. A fine young witch, forever up to her eyeballs in personal research or out in the forest grabbing ingredients, I found her spice-tinged workshop empty as expected. On glass shelves were rows of hand-marked phials and flasks of powdered hide and hair I knew nothing about, but the room itself was familiar: I’d overseen it when the king, in person, commissioned poison from her.

“Something that’ll do a foe in,” he said.

“There’re many slow and subtle,” she drawled, without taking her nose from a book. “What kind—”

“No, one that’ll drop him like an ox, in front of everyone,” the king said. “At a feast,” he improvised.

“In food?” she asked. “Then skin-poisoned apples will serve you best.”

“How you make it is not my concern,” said the king. “So long as it’s done.”

“Go away, then,” she barked and shooed him off like a flittering pest gotten on the rim of her tea’s cup and put her nose back in her book.

Longer I waited, and more. But at last she bustled in, carrying baskets of mushrooms and greenery from the forest. “Out of the way, out of the way,” she yipped, setting her haul gently on the floor and sticking her hooked nose directly back into her book, forgetting I’d ever existed.

I waited more, twice or three times cleared my throat, offered to help her sort her baskets’ haul, which she didn’t even seem to hear, then dared to touch the handle of one, at which she finally sprung up, “Ack!” and squawked and beat her wings while berating me in no language anyone speaks. I apologised but assured her I’d only come because she alone could help me.

“Too bad,” she hissed, sweeping up both baskets protectively in her arms.

“It will only take a moment,” I insisted, but she wouldn’t hear me out and put her nose back into her book, slowly turning the pages and scrunching her monocle back against one eye. I went on rambling anyway—concocting an improvised lie about desiring to write a ballad with a poisoning that required her expert advice. And though she made a show of being undistracted, she betrayed her interest in the shut ups and quiets she spat back over her shoulder at me from time to time. At last, however, she finally swivelled on her stool and glared through her monocle at me.

“Here’s the problem with you scribblers,” she hissed, her eye falling from its socket on its nerve with the monocle before. “You all have the most idiotic ideas about alchemy.” Furiously, she resocketed her eye and screwed the monocle back into place, and for more than a minute went on breathlessly in a tirade against all bards who’d complicate the simple nature and effects of spirit-poisons with innumerable stupid fictions. “All you need to know, if you want your facts straight in your fiction,” she yakked, “is don’t drop spirit-poisoned things into water. Running water,” she corrected, unbending an index finger to make the point.

“Running water? Like a river?”

“It dilutes the poison. Death instant gets protracted out to weeks or longer. While slower deaths will take up to centuries then. Very inconvenient if you want to drop a fellow like an ox.” I could see in the eyes of her remark she was thinking on the king’s commission then. “Just once, I’d like to see one of you hacks get the facts straight!”

“Well, that’s why I came.”

“Too bad. Go away. I have apple-skins to paint.”

“So, would a lot of running water neutralise the poison completely?”

“What would be the point of that?” she groused, her wings hunched over as she stared into her book again. “Not much of a poison then.”

“So there’s an antidote?”

“A spirit-poison that kills you instantly,” she asked, lifting her monocle to turn and glare at me. “And you want to know if there’s an antidote?”

“No, I mean for one that’s been diluted. If it puts you to sleep for endless centuries—?”

“There’d still be no such th—” she said, even as her hand of its own accord rose to pull along her chin. “Now there’s an interesting thought,” she said to herself. “Could you even make such an antidote?”

I slipped from the witch’s room then before she could drive me away in another fury of wing-beats, but by then I sketched the haziest of plans. I’d only have to fray the ties of the far-wild’s old rope bridge before the huntsman crossed, and down he would go, poisoned apples and all, into the running river below. And then the heir, poisoned unbeknownst to the king and huntsman alike only into a death-like sleep, would soon enough (I hoped) have the antidote from the witch that I’d bring to him, and then … and then something. I‘d work it out, but meanwhile he’d be safe. And I, meanwhile, relaxing, had simply to wait a few more impatient days.

The king came to me those days, and the heat of my own secret plot met the passion and fervour of his. It’d been years since he’d ever shown such passion.

Or hope.

When alone, I hourly watched the huntsmen and the alchemist at their works, fascinated, and finally feeling a thrill of things coming together as they finally met, the witch handing the huntsman three handsome gleaming red apples in a silver bowl.

“Don’t touch them without gloves,” she warned.

“They’re that deadly?”

“The deadliest,” she answered.

“Prove it,” he said calmly. “Eat one.”

“But it would kill me.”

“You’d better hope so.”

Carrying her corpse first back to his workshop, he set out soon after with the heir, who had no inkling of his fate, of course: lied to that some birth-day gift awaited him in the far-wilds. (A horse, they hinted.)

I followed far behind, knowing the talents and nose of the huntsman, but had already gone ahead to cut halfway through the bridge’s frozen stays. And when I saw the huntsman and heir more than halfway across, I cut through the rest of the ropes.

It occurred to me as they fell that either might look up to see me, or that the heir might drown below. It occurred to me I was lucky the huntsman hadn’t poisoned the heir before crossing, and that I had now no way to cross.

Deftly, the huntsman looped his arm in the bridge ropes to catch his fall, but the heir had no such presence of mind and tumbled down into the froth—rolling his eyes, the huntsman let himself go a moment after.

Swiftly, they washed down-stream. I lost sight of them, and crept the opposite way up-shore to find a place to ford, uncertain how I could follow or find the huntsman and heir now, if at all. Wet and cold in the sunlight and snowfall, I climbed up out of the river onto its opposite shore and followed it back to the broken dangle of the rope bridge again. It occurred to me then that the king may have already found me missing from my rooms, and that even if I returned now, it was already too late.

From the top of the broken bridge, I followed a footpath into the far-wilds themselves. Green light suffused the air as beams of white-gold pierced the leaves and snowfall. And in one molten pool of light I found the heir half-covered with snow on a copse of grass, as still as death, not breathing, intact. I let out a sigh of relief.

And then I heard a twig snap. The huntsman’s footfall returning.

And I ran and ran and ran and had snuck back into my rooms by nightfall.

My precaution wasn’t called for. From noon, the king had raged at the news of his alchemist’s death. And had, before the court and everyone there, pierced a dirk through the back of his huntsman’s mouth when the man tried to explain himself.

After that, with the body of the huntsman still gagging and dying on the floor, the king called for his horse and without any entourage set off into the forest. He returned later to the palace later than I had, his horse wet to the withers with river muck and mud dappled with snow.

By then, his snake-tongued scribe had penned already “The Huntsman’s Crime” and had it cried at every corner of the world.

Only to be found dangling by the neck from his room’s crossbeam the next evening. Some wanted to think his conscience killed him, but of all the deaths, no one could really deny the murder. But for all we might revile the huntsman and king, at least they both believed in what they did. No so the scribe.

The loose ends of the heir’s murder all tied up by the king, only then did he pay me a very generous visit. He asked what I’d known of the huntsman’s plot in advance, and his play with his knout edged quickly into torture. He spread my legs and flogged my groin until I came, used clamps and pins, my fairy king, but still I confessed him nothing.

Never again would I find him ever so ferocious and passionate.

The rest you know.

The king ruled long and hard and died finally, smiling, with his boots on. I ascended to the throne then for want of any others, and the whipped dogs the king had left behind began their gossips against me in earnest. Because they could.

That was when the rumour caught flame then, of a ghost of the heir wailing in the dead wing. And I still cannot thank you enough for your kindness then. That you’d denounce such nasty talk, when I could not have raised my voice without incurring further suspicion, was brave of you. And how I wish I could have told you at the time that I knew as fact, not guess, that there simply could be no ghost, that the heir still “lived” so to speak, if only amongst that horde of dwarves and forest-beasts who’d found both him and his deathly stillness so amenable to their predilections. But I’d still not mastered yet the poison’s antidote from the dead alchemist’s notes, and my own cowardice had made me loathe before the king’s death to secretly transport the heir back lest the king should catch wind of it. Or even to venture to the dwarves’ glade, in case I got missed or followed.

All that changed when the king passed, of course. Even at his pompous funeral—I saw your sly smirk at the spectacle and grinned inwardly to myself as well—I was silently making plans along with the requisite signs of piety as I mouthed the eulogy. At graveside, too, I saw that wandering prince, one of those charming faces with an empty mouth—or an empty face with a charming mouth!—who had just happened by, or so he claimed: petty royalty at most, the king’s distant nephew or somesuch, but plainly with his nose out on chance the throne proved up for grabs.

“It must be such a drag to be queen,” he leaned in to whisper as the pallbearers raised the king’s hearse-box with a grunt.

“Only if you have no glamour,” I replied, to put him off.

“Even so, I wish to help,” he persisted.

“Help yourself,” I smiled.

But I found his eager doggedness to help to my advantage and sent him on a task into the far-wilds that would chance him across the dwarves’ camp and the heir. He …

What? You can’t recall this “prince”? Well, it’s true. He never returned. They ate him.

And so forth.

I admit, I did have but very little faith in the amateur contrivance of that prince. What, really, could he hope to do? But all the same, it’d hurt me none to hope he might manage to spare me some small trouble. No matter. Back to plan A.

I met the dwarves and forest-beasts without an entourage and told them what they already feared: the heir was not quite dead.

“But him,” I said, and opened up the hearse-box of the king. “He breathes no more at all.”

A lie, but it’d be centuries or more before they found it out.

At my words, they grunted and sniffed the king and heir, and I could see in the darkness of their luminescent eyes that they’d caught the self-same scent: the relatedness of blood and poison both. “One never takes a thing without giving something in exchange,” I continued. “But I think you’ll find this king in every way larger than his heir.”

“But won’t he rot?” one asked.

“He’d better not,” I laughed. “Especially if you take good care of him,” I hinted. Since the humiliation of a corpse is that much more complete when left whole.

“O, we will,” one cooed, touching his hairy paw to the black thicket on the king’s chest. “We’ll lacquer him in milky glass and tunnel down.”

“Be sure you do,” I scolded gently, hungry then to be gone while the dwarves swapped out the king for the heir on the altar-slab of stone they’d strewn with leaves and boughs white not with snow.

The exchange complete, I returned with the heir.

I hid him in the king’s crypt without the help or servants’ knowledge to keep him from the prying eyes of gossips, and set about again to master perfectly the alchemist’s antidote from her notes. It took me years to learn the art and try get it right, of course, though even now it does not always work. I’m baffled why. Still, I’m pleased to say: of the last three criminals I surreptitiously poisoned instead and then brought back, only one rose up as a ghoul. The others showed their boundless gratitude by thanking me for my fairness and abandoning our kingdom with heartfelt promises never to return.

And I know I don’t have to convince you, but I swear I plan to fathom the alchemist’s art still more until I perfect the poison’s cure—you know I will. But the possibility of failure keeps haunting me. When I do go on to dare to try to wake the heir again, if the whole thing goes awry—if he crumbles to dust on the spot or worse, returns as something disgusting—you at least will not say, “See? Maybe we were wrong in the details, but were right in the spirit: all along we were right that you killed the heir.” Of course, you, in the wretched tortures of your sweetness, will instead just slyly grin and tease my vanity, “Look how much trouble you went to, just so people would not think ill of you!”

But even that’s hardly fair. I’ve troubled myself a lot, it’s true, but not only my vanity is at stake. Simple logic by itself insists that the heir, not I, more legitimately sits on the throne, but at the same time … Why dissemble? I love him.

He was always so alone! Even the servants made to shun him like the plague. From my rooms, I’d watch him—as white and hard as alabaster—at his baths or on the palace rooftop in the sun as it sparkled off the falling snow, touching himself.

Of course, you’ve guessed this already. The oldest story in the book, I know: the tried and true of trite and true.

But once I succeed an bring him back, the world will know the truth as well. And who could then deny it? Once heat flows again in his veins, and the eternal snow at last stops falling?

But just not yet. Not without a certainty of success.

Two of three of late is good, of course, but still not good enough. It’s not fair yet to try. I’ll only have one chance with him. Besides, there are criminals aplenty still in the docks glad to barter undeath or a pardon on the sly for execution outright. Their gratitude always touches me. Each who thanks me in the gloom of the dungeon before they slink away to foreign lands proves at least to me the fairness of my hopes and sends a rush of approaching success at last along my spine, as if it’s finally close.

But yes. It’s close at last. Like death approaching, can’t you taste it almost?

O mirror, mirror, on the wall: who is the fairest one of all?

The Need of Attachment

Just as we do not need food to meet the need of hunger if we can identify or invent some other means to meet that need, then also we do not need suffering if we can identify or invent some other means to meet the need of attachment. Moreover, inasmuch as needless attachment leads to suffering, we may read in a different light what Thầy Nhất Hạnh says:

Understanding [needless attachment] always brings compassion. If we don’t understand [needless attachment], we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of [needless attachment], we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need [needless attachment] to grow happiness.

The fact is that [needless attachment] and happiness always go together. When we understand [needless attachment], we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle [needless attachment], we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

Perhaps the appeal to “suffering” in Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s book—rather than an appeal to “needless attachment”—as the source of unpleasantness in human experiences arises from an attempt to reach a certain kind of ear in our Occidental culture. For a very long time now, Thầy Nhất Hạnh has sought to speak to Occidental ears, from his earliest appeals to people in the United States to stop destroying the people of and the world of his homeland to all of his subsequent work for peace worldwide.

Moreover, he stresses over and over that one may neither communicate nor achieve communication where listening cannot or has not occurred. Out of the howling suffering that we live in within our Occidental culture—a howling plastered over by thick layers of materialism, anaesthesia, and a partial knowledge of human experience—perhaps it must seem too abstract to approach the root of “attachment” all at once.

If “understanding suffering always brings compassion,” then a part of what such compassion entails would involve a person’s realisation of the attachment underlying that suffering. Otherwise, such compassion has an only a limited, therapeutic benefit, albeit still a desirable one. No wonder that non-attachment in Buddhism so often reads in Occidental ears as, “Oh, so I’m just not supposed to care about anything?” A focus on feeling or affect (on the sensual experience of suffering) that does not track back to the source of that affect (one born of desire arising from attachment) shifts us only from a disagreeable state of attachment to a seemingly more agreeable one.

The use to which the phrase “we need suffering” gets put acknowledges that suffering serves as a means to an end, and in this way discloses the misleading use of the word “need.” In fact, do not need suffering, although it suffices as a prevalent or prevailing means for meeting the need of attachment. To realise this clearly cuts off at the knees any apathetic or sadistic attempt to justify cruel behaviour or the suffering of others under the banner of “we need suffering”. It debunks every claim both of doing harm for the good of another of doing nothing for another’s harm because we all must deal with our own problems.

We do not need suffering. One would instead have to argue that we have no alternative to suffering as a means for meeting the need of attachment, except that we do have other means both to work against attachment and to work for non-attachment that make such a claim hollow, self-serving, or maliciously intended.

The Need to Suffer

Since a need refers to that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, we must ask then whether suffering names an actual need or if it embodies rather a present or prevailing means for meeting an as yet, still unnamed need. In the same way, just as the necessity of food as the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger implies further that we might meet that need of hunger through means other than food, then the necessity of suffering as the most prevalent means for satisfying whatever as-yet unnamed need it meets implies as well that we might meet that unnamed need through means other than suffering as well.

Here, we may return to the Bhāgavad-Gītā for a clue what might constitute this unnamed need. There, we see:

while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory; from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence; and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

The root of this cascade that ends in one’s disintegration begins from developed attachment while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops. Contemplation of the objects of the senses itself does not inevitably play out in the cascade, but the attachment to those sense objects contemplated. From that, desires arise; desires that circumstances then either frustrate (leading to anger that the desire failed to be gratified) or gratify (leading to anger that the desire proved non-permanent and transitory).

How we understand the downstream consequences of the desires arising from attachment, not only does attachment itself begin this cascade, we may note that attachment precedes desire. Hence in Buddhism one hears again and again of the necessity of non-attachment as a solution to the problems both of frustrate desire and the perils of karmic rebirth, rather than an initial emphasis on desires themselves. Attachments to desires not desires themselves prove the trap; not affect or feeling itself, but the ground of them, attachment to them.

This already suggests that suffering, understood as an affect or a feeling, does not get to the root; we might simply say that attachment to suffering identifies a prior condition or problem that requires our address. Thus, if we “need” suffering, this hols only because “attachment to suffering” occurs so pervasively, so automatically, so unconsciously, that it already provides the framework or the ground by which we might move towards happiness or peace and away from or out of suffering.

And yet, the understanding disclosed by the Bhāgavad-Gītā shows that by awareness of the issue—by seeing that attachment to desires, not desires themselves—exhibits the root of the problem, we may proceed from that point, and not from the condition of being already trapped within our attachments. This alone shows suffering not as a need but as the prevailing means by which we address the now-no-longer-unnamed need of attachment.

The Bhāgavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and many similar traditions, in fact, insist that suffering results from needless attachment, from attachments that we assuredly resorted to but that it did not have to go that way.

The strangeness or weirdness, the difficulty of trying to come to terms with the notion of non-attachment, so prevalent in Buddhism, arises out of this critique. Even to say, “One might not be attached” seems attached to the notion of non-attachment. But nothing paradoxical hides in this. Just as our best approximation of “objective reality” can only arise from a collectively intersubjective collation of subjective impressions—the Jains would remind us, “No, not even then”—so also must every engagement with the notion of “non-attachment” find expression through our embodied and attached human beingness. We can never talk it, but can only talk about it, but even that talking about it serves, or can serve, to orient one’s attention in the right direction.

But however helpful or unhelpful the elaborations, we see that suffering supplies merely the most prevalent means for meeting the need of attachment.

We may speak of a need of attachment even in Buddhist terms, in that everything manifest being necessarily both transient and limited, then we see attachment to that limitation and transiency as the condition that must be met if the state of affairs of our individual embodiment will continue. Since much Eastern philosophy and religion sees this sort of persistence over lifetimes as a problem needing a solution, its solutions then properly go to the very root of the need that generates the ground of that persistence: attachment.

Just as I cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need of separation (apartness, isolation, &c) no longer gets met by some necessity (whether friendship, community, togetherness, &c), so also do we cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need for attachment gets no longer met by some necessity as well. That suffering embodies simply the prevalent or prevailing means by which the need of attachment gets met, this means we might meet that need by other means as well.

As such, we do not need suffering.

 

Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.

 

The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.

 

mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:

              2.62

2.63

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

The original ran six pages, apparently; it could have stayed that long.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Richard McGuire’s (2014)[2] Here

I have been reading books but not writing replies and more and more feel pressed to “catch up”. This makes me want to have less to say than I might. All the same, of this book, the publisher tells us:

Richard McGuire’s Here is the story of a corner of a room and the events that happened in that space while moving forward and backward in time. The book experiments with formal properties of comics, using multiple panels to convey the different moments in time. Hundreds of thousands of years become interwoven. A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999. Conversations appear to be happening between two people who are centuries apart. Someone asking, “Anyone seen my car keys?” can be “answered” by someone at a future archaeology dig. Cycles of glaciers transform into marshes, then into forests, then into farmland. A city develops and grows into a suburban sprawl. Future climate changes cause the land to submerge, if only temporarily, for the long view reveals the transient nature of all things. Meanwhile, the attention is focused on the most ordinary moments and appreciating them as the most transcendent.

More ad-text assures us that readers have waited twenty-five years for the expansion of the original piece (now fifty times longer), which supposedly exploded the comic form by depicting the events over time that all happen in the same place.

This “joke,” which doubtless seems striking, and remains striking in the first couple of pages of the present version—and by “joke” I mean that in the most favourable sense of the word—quickly loses its traction however, and it seems instructive to wonder why.

From the publisher’s blurb, while “A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999” makes a possibly compelling image, that sort of significance does not, and in fact cannot, continue to resonate in the same way over a 300-page text. Everything depends in this book upon the various ironies of co-occurrence. One might imagine the human lives that all intersect at a given street corner over the course of a century, but if person A and person B have some sort of ironic or poignant connection, and so do person C and person D, what does the first couple have to do with the second?

Ultimately, any sense of the “history” of the place becomes nothing but a jumble of unrelated events, and this becomes very clear when pseudo-realistic depictions of the planet in some of its earlier eras linger in the background. This does not succeed in making human life tiny but, rather, simply detaches the sense of a place, a here, from the story. I doubt very much McGuire intends this.

I suspect that, ultimately, the very brevity of the original not only forced McGuire to more carefully integrate all of his material into something more like a single narrative, however spread out in time, but even if not, it certainly allowed the reader to make more of a single narrative of it. The expansion of the idea kills that possibility, essentially—like a full-blooded short-story tortured on a narrative wrack into an anaemic novel, or what we saw happen to the latest Hobbit movie.

Also—memory being treacherous at this point—it would appear that in the billion or so years of this room, the only sex that ever occurred here involved the rape of a Native American woman by a Native American male. That seems trashy and gratuitous, and it especially points out—since that narrative has no follow-up—how selective the book gets about what narratives it depicts at some length. The last gesture of the book, providing a kind of tidy tie-up, answers a woman’s question posed much earlier; she can’t remember why she has come into the room, looking for something, and at the end she remembers.

So McGuire implies, accidentally or not, that the book concerns memory, but this does not seem convincing. The only “history” of the place truly constructed comes from the reader (of the book). Only the reader has any access to the event-depth of the place, so that perhaps McGuire expects us to make something of the fact that a rape occurred and now the house stands on Native American burial grounds, or at least the site of a Native American culture depicted in only the most cursory of ways. One might call this invisibility deliberate or apposite—an official history that only takes note of what it choose to take note of (wandering dinosaurs, the Cainozoic era, &c). I certainly don’t find myself moved to a thoughtful consideration of “real” U.S. history by the only representation of Native American culture in this corner of the world as a rape. &c. He supplies nowhere near enough compositional intelligence to make such a reading likely, however much one could torture one out.

Also, the lack of an equal depth of field into the future seems a mistake. Apparently, the “act of imagining” required to supply images of the past represents a different faculty in the artist’s intentions. We do see some of the future, but only the extremely relatively near future—I think we get 10,000 years into the future at most, while the past goes back billions of years.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] McGuire, R. (2014). Here. New York, Pantheon, pp. 1–300.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Pragmatism made exciting, almost!

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 5a]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 and here.

Chapter 5: Integrating Experience and Epistemology: Ivone Gebara’s Pragmatic Ecofeminism

This is an out-of-sequence reply to this book, which has fallen by the wayside over the past few months through no fault of its own.

In building upon Gebara’s pragmatic ecofeminism, as he describes it, Tirres offers a construction of pragmatism that makes it compelling. For instance:

Pragmatism stresses that human beings interact with and in nature and are not inherently set over-and-against it. As such, knowledge is less something that a “subjective” self applies to an “objective” or “outer” world, and more a mode of interaction that is part-and-parcel of the continual and close-knit interplay between the human organism and its environment (125–6).

One may read this as merely “holistic,” but it also rests on an iterative process that takes art as its model.

In all cases, the process both begins with the question of quality and ends with it. It begins with a quality that is aesthetically “felt” or “given” before it is rationalistically “known.” The process of reflective inquiry reshapes and reconstructs this immediately “given” quality in such a way that it becomes a meaningful, “reconstructed” quality. In one sense, we could consider this reconstructed quality to be a new “end.” However, just as soon as we reach this point, the “end” becomes a potential new “means” for the reconstruction of further qualitative ends (127–8).

And so:

If, within the basic structure of experience, the dynamic growth of the organism–environment transaction yields immediate and qualitative moments of “fulfilment” and “consummation,” then, so too does consummation happen within the context of reflective inquiry. Consummation becomes “meaning.” In short, pragmatists like Dewey have no reason to turn to a priori or transcendental accounts of experience, since experience, as it is actually “had,” already supplies us with its own rich standards of value (126–7).

The attraction and strategic value of avoiding transcendental categories—or at least seeming too—spares the philosopher having to somehow ground those categories; a necessity that belligerent scepticism shall no doubt find a way to undermine, as it always does. At the same time, however, appealing to the self-evidence of experience—not, mind you, how it might come into being but the absolutely undeniable occurrence of the presence of the experience in consciousness itself—radically detaches all human beings from one another. Or, more precisely, it begs the question how or why experience for you in any way resembles experience for me.

Again, in claiming that experience “already supplies us with its own rich standards of value,” this does not point to how any such values “got into” that experience, i.e., where they come from, &c., but simply to the fact that the person having the experience will consult precisely the content of that experience—here claimed as having its own rich standards—in order to make their next lived iteration in the world. Of course, an observer may readily connect part of the content of that experience back to the environment/culture surrounding the one having the experience but, again, these does not constitute any of the “rich standards of value” locatable in the experience. Why? Because that content provides a negatively subjective part of the experience—by negative, I mean non-social or merely personal.

In saying this, I have made no effort to try to understand what the “rich standards of value” might legitimately consist of in this immediately given experience Tirres refers to. At the risk of the perils accompanying the distinction, I could locate those rich standards in the “form” of experience itself, not the “content”. Any values, if they would warrant the term and actually constitute values sharable between human beings and thus a part of the basis of any human culture or society, would have to reside not in the content of experiences per se but in the fact of having experiences at all, wherein the structure of experiences becomes (or seems) the shared element.

This may sound hopelessly abstract, but we often experience this. If a friend claims to have seen a ghost, and we don’t believe in such things, we may generous not simply laugh in our friend’s face for making such a ridiculous claim and say something instead like, “I believe you believe you had that experience.” The point of connection between the two people here occurs not in any consensus about the content of the experience but rather in the recognition (by the disbeliever) that experiences feel “real”. This recognition proceeds from the disbeliever’s own experience of experiences as well, and not from any specific “content” of those experiences. She can recognise times when she experienced something non-credible, for instance, but cannot in the same breath deny that she had the experience.

Behind this point lurks the observation that “knowledge is less something that a ‘subjective’ self applies to an ‘objective’ or ‘outer’ world.” Occidental philosophy often runs aground on the subjective/objective dichotomy, because in its main professions it fails (or refuses) to acknowledge the subjectivity of the objective as well as the objectivity of the subjective. The more usual sceptical complaint points out—again and again—that subjective perception can claim to hoist itself by its own petard; subjective judgments get taken as validation for claims about objective “facts”.

But what seems truly self-evident about experience hinges on its self-evidence. We feel we look “out” into a world and thus overlook that our consciousness has constructed something out of disparate neural firings. We say that our nerves experience impingement from energy sources “outside” of those nerves, but we do so on judgments from within those conscious constructions, &c. But even on these grounds, scientific studies demonstrate that the supposed “inputs” don’t correlate to (much less match) the “outputs”. Colour, for instance, constitutes no property of Nature but arises as an artefact of our mental functioning. And whether any one-to-one correspondence prevails between “inputs” and “outputs,” we have no external third point to make that judgment from.

At the same time, whatever presents to us in consciousness—ostensibly in some “subjective” way—has nothing subjective about it. Look around. Nothing you see has anything to do with your “subjective” desiring or wanting. If you see these words, you have no say in that. You choice exists solely in no longer reading, but this does not negate the “objectivity” of experience. And in fact, all of the markers we ascribe to supposedly “objective” reality actually better describe our experience of perception. Quantum mechanics assures us that “reality” in no way resembles, even a little, how we think it does; “objective reality,” then, denotes more our projection of our perception of experience; or, as Piaget (1972)[3] put it: the individual emerges as an object within a universe of objects experienced as external to itself. The “as” here (not “as if”) matters crucially; we experience the world “as” external to ourselves, rather than experience a world external to ourselves.

This happens objectively, not subjectively. And since my consciousness and your consciousness remain incommensurable, if we get into a dispute about the external world either of us experience, we have to negotiate that difference, often by making insistences about how the world “is”. We accuse one another of “subjectivity” then but both do so from an unswervably, innegatably objective experience of that external world. If I persuade you to my view (or you to mine), this does not involve making your previous experience into something else, except in the sense that you reinterpret it in a different way. You abandon your previous view, or modify it, but even then, the operations you perform on the “clay” of that experience can only start from and work with that specific clay.

So, indeed, as Tirres notes, experience never proceeds by a “subjective” imposition upon an “objective” or “outer” world. Rather, the structure of experience itself seems equivalent to any objective world. Again, the fact that we differ (or that anyone could differ) in experience does not “disclose” a subjectivity at work. Whatever consensus or sheer numbers I drum up to support “my” contention about “the world” can rest only on one of the more familiar logical fallacies as an argument for the truth of my contention. At the same time, the authority Copernicus cited against the ad populam of the general public also didn’t make his claim “true”; it only made it more adequately fit for explaining the disparate, phenomenal experiences of human beings.

And thus, to understand science as simply one of several forms of reflective inquiry, to contextualize science as one, not the only, form of reflective inquiry makes for a valuable reminder as well.

Nonetheless, what lingers in all of this involves a resistance to the word “pragmatism” and the crass unimaginativeness it invokes; a crassness Tirres acknowledges, even while trying to save the word from its current degradation. One wonders why? It would seem smarter to re-name the term more intelligently; not to do so has an air of secretly co-signing the frameworks and projects of the crass exponents.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Piaget, J. (1972). The principles of genetic epistemology. New York, NY: Viking.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 3]

Although I got out of the loop with this book, someone asked me some time ago to read and reply to it; I suspect I might just start over, especially since I have had such an oppositional attitude to much of what Tirres writes, which strikes me as curious, since often Tirres gets into terrain I remain sympathetic to. In any case, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 here.

Before Going On

I want to add before continuing, my previous posts about this book may seem too harshly framed, and I apologise if it comes across that way. And as soon as (more or less) empowered representatives take it upon themselves to describe the “poor” or to speak on their behalf, the poor have a right to react cagily and circumspectly to such representations, even when meant in a “helpful” way—principally because the history of even well-meant representations have typically gone problematic. In this way, to take up talking about an “aesthetic turn” (even in the critical way Tirres does) while people starve to death can quickly and easily look ethically repugnant. An example, from a seemingly unrelated domain, will illustrate this.

Some time ago (more or less in 2002),[3] a sort of public debate took place over cosmopolitanism versus patriotism. A lot of hay got threshed about this by a number of academics; and then the lead organizer of the discussion offered her rebuttal. From my previous blog:

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s [2002][4] seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing merely to pay lip service to condemning the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of her text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[5] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

In general, the supposed discussion conducted here amounts to little more than pious masturbation, a bunch of lip service paid to the right notions: that “there will and should be much debate about the proper answers” rather than any course of action right now to help people being destroyed at this very second. In one of the briefest replies in this discussion recorded by Nussbaum, brief perhaps because the respondent sees through this empty, academic twaddle, Wallerstein (1994)[6] bluntly remarked:

Those who are strong—strong politically, economically, socially—have the option of aggressive hostility toward the weak (xenophobia) or magnanimous comprehension of “difference” [largesse]. In either case, they remain privileged … ¶ In 1945, the United States become the hegemonic power in the world-system—by far the most powerful nation economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. Its official ideological line was threefold: America is the world’s greatest country (narrow nationalism); America is the leader of the “free world” (the nationalism o the wealthy, White countries); America is the defender of universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity (justified in terms of Kantian categorical imperatives). ¶ The United States government and moral spokesmen saw no difficulty in making all three assertions simultaneously. Most persons were unaware of the internal inconsistency of this triple stance (122–3).

In this kind of (imperial) context—the current one that we live in—it seems perfectly apposite (or at least reasonable) to demand some clear sign that any discussion (of liberation theology) serves first and foremost as a staging ground for some helpful action on behalf of those represented, rather than on the kind of self-serving “debate” Nussbaum finds so necessary (in order that she keep her job and that her daughter gets go to a fancy college denied to those that Nussbaum “represents”).

I recognise, and have defended, the necessity of having a proper or helpful frame on an issue as a prerequisite to moving forward, but very few circumstances have such critical stakes that we must stop all progressive action while we figure out what next needs doing. In other words, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that any liberation theologian shows in his or her actions a material solidarity and activity with those represented. At the very least, this signals the authenticity of the concern for those represented, the poor. Certainly, almost all of the Latin American liberation theologians showed this; some were murdered or imprisoned as a sign of their material solidarity with those they represented.

At the beginning of this chapter, Tirres frames his concern that US Latino/a liberation theologians have too complacently converted the option for the poor into the option for culture, essentially making liberation theology into an academic problem one might make a career of proposing to solve, no doubt by the kind of “debate” (rather than action) Nussbaum proposes. I want to emphasize that this seems promising—and his exposure of Vatican arguments against Marxism also suggest a promising stance—but if in the final analysis the corrective that Tirres proposes lacks sufficient signs of material solidarity with those represented (and spoken for) by liberation theologians, then he will have legitimately earned scepticism of my earlier posts and he will have placed himself squarely in a comprador intellectual position, betraying his race not only locally (in the US) but internationally as well (in South America).

Chapter 3: Liberation in the Latino/a Americas

As something to note right off, although Tirres does not enclose the word liberation in quotation marks in this chapter’s title, for the headers on each page have the word as “liberation”. I doubt Tirres decided this, and the scare quotes undermine the chapter’s credibility by making it seem he denies any reality to liberation in the Latino/a Americas.[7] Definitely something to edit for the second edition.

He begins by showing how from the Eighties onward the dominant Vatican response to South American liberation theology consistently (if not deliberately) misread the movement as a mere reduction to politics. He also underscores the Vatican did not limit itself to talk but systematically replaced Latin American ecclesiastics who supported liberation theology with those who did not. Of course ,this all has an obnoxious or hypocritical element in it, since the Vatican clearly arrogates to itself the right to declare that this kind of politicking on its part represents an integral theology itself, rather than a reduction of theology to politics. Tirres lets this irony speak for itself and does not underscore it, but it still elides the fact that the Vatican both debated and acted (acting here providing the sign of no mere masturbatory twaddle in the debate involved). An obvious point, perhaps, but in a context of liberation theology, we see the Vatican understanding (or at least taking seriously) that the faced a “movement” (in the literal and figurative sense of the word) and not just a “debate”.

After this, Tirres first takes issue with García-Rivera’s (1999)[8] construction of the “beautiful”; he “utilizes [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s and [Josiah] Royce’s logic and their metaphysics of relations. Whereas Peirce’s study of signs speaks to a ‘community of the true’ and Royce’s idea of loyalty points to a ‘community of the good,’ García-Rivera sets out to construct a ‘community of the beautiful’” (56). For Tirres, “the question is not so much: how do aesthetic objects and practices point to a presumed universal quality of Beauty, but rather, how can and does aesthetic meaning emerge organically within everyday experience, and how may it be further shaped and refined through creative, human action?” (57).

To put this matter too bluntly, Tirres rejects García-Rivera’s thoughtful attempt here as academic twaddle, i.e., too divorced from actual human experience. And he further rejects the notion of a too narrowly imagined theological aesthetics (an object of García-Rivera’s work) in favour of a religious aesthetics. Or, again to put it more politically, a Catholic or Protestant aesthetics won’t cut it as necessarily hobbled (if not disingenuous in a way even). Rather, the starting point for religious aesthetics “has more to do with the way that we ascribe aesthetic and/or religious significance to human experience and practice than with any a priori idea of Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine” (57), i.e., the undesirable a priori here meaning any specifically Catholic (or Protestant) construction of what Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine already means. And while, in one respect, this question almost hopelessly involves nothing more than academic twaddle, Tirres at least stands up here for a broader understanding of aesthetics than anything compassed by theological aesthetics. And even more generally than this, Tirres would place the notion of aesthetics on a generally wider footing than perhaps most (academics) think of it these days.

Thus, an experience may be deemed aesthetic even if it has nothing formally to do with art. The same logic applies to Dewey’s theory of ‘the religious,’ which may be seen as an intensification of the aesthetic and which may apply to experiences that are not formally connected with institutional religion (58).

Here, I would defend his point against accusations of academic twaddle (although wrapping this point up in Dewey seems gratuitous), because what he points to involves a recognition that human beings have access to profound (aesthetic or religious) experiences not only potentially through any experience but also, and specifically, not only in the sanctioned or approved (established) religious channels. As a particular earthy example of the former, people (often women) in India will place a piece of cow dung outsider the house and worship this as an embodiment of Ganeṣa; as a case of the latter, the visions of Brother Klaus (or any number of other Christian mystics) offered an extremely heterodox version of Christ (one not recognised by an Orthodox interpretation), but his vision still consisted of Christ (a sanctioned religious symbol). Finding the face of Jesus in a piece of toast marks a case of the latter as well.

All of this points, implicitly, to the question: who gets to define what constitutes a valid (aesthetic or religious) experience, and Tirres here weighs in less to say “everyone can decide for herself” and more to question “why does the religious Authority (or the Vatican) get to act as the sole arbiter of this question?” And, of course, this question of who validates aesthetic or religious experiences opens up as well into the broader question of who gets to validate experience in general. Consequently, when an experience happens to you, who has the right (or simply the power) to declare, “Your experience doesn’t count or is wrong?” Under a theological aesthetics, which he rejects, the answer to the question comes down to, “The religious authority decides.”[9]

Still, having said this, to contrast theological and religious aesthetics gives us a false dichotomy, since either choice leaves us in the domain of “religion”. Nonetheless, Tirres still points in a historically useful footnote to a broader vision of aesthetics:

If this sounds like a radical departure from the way what we tend to think about aesthetics today, we would be well served to recall that the modern discipline of aesthetics, as initiated by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in the 1730s, began as the “science of sensory knowledge” of any and all experience. It was only later theorists, most notably Kant and Hegel, who approached aesthetics as a pure judgment of taste and who restricted Baumgarten’s inquiry to exceptional pieces of fine art. Although subsequent thinkers like the Romantics would revivify Baumgarten’s understand of the wide reach of aesthetics, as witnessed by their fascination with the beautiful and sublime features of nature and the human body, aesthetic theory since the late eighteenth century continues, unfortunately, to be premised on the more limited idea that aesthetics is a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way. See Tirres [2009],[10] “Aesthetics,” 1:6–11 (n42, 58).

This question of aesthetics, which indeed has transformed largely into a piece of masturbatory academic twaddle precisely to the degree that it gets taken as “a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way” (58), has served in that respect as a piece of political neutralisation, i.e., whatever Baumgarten hoped to accomplish with his science of sensory knowledge,[11] the sort of use it got put to in the exemplary cases of Kant, Hegel, and subsequent commentators lost touch with the radically transformative possibilities in aesthetic experience (and Art) that Schiller still saw for it near the end of the eighteenth century. It surprises me, in fact, that Tirres makes no mention of Schiller, who represents perhaps the most significant philosopher on the value of aesthetic education in history. Academia seems to have chosen to forget this.

The remainder of Tirres’ chapter digs deeper into the work of García-Rivera and R.S. Goizueta. He specifically finds Goizueta’s work to miss its mark of integrating the aesthetic and the ethical, and a couple of tendencies come out in this. First, Tirres exposes what I would call an authoritarian tendency in both of these authors; in other words, he shows the links between these authors’ criticisms of South American liberation theology and Vatican critiques, all of which boil down to anti-Marxist. In both a Vatican and a US context, an anti-Marxist stance certainly dovetails neatly with the prevailing capitalist discourse, but anti-Marxism itself serves as a mask for borrowing the authoritarianism of the Vatican in the first place. As Tirres makes clear, he shows how a certain stripe of US Latino/a critics of South American liberation theology either (1) resort to vulgar embodiments of Marxism, (2) ignore the broader tradition of Marxist analysis that avoid such vulgarity, or (3) selective read (or misread) certain “non-vulgar” Marxists. Hence, “While Goizueta’s critique of Marxism here may hold true in terms of more reductionistic, orthodox, and vulgar forms of Marxism, the critique does not hold in light of more nuanced, non-sectarian, and ‘open’ forms of Marxism, with which [one writer] himself associates” (66).

To represent by synecdoche Tirres’ point overall (particularly with respect to Goizueta’s work in this chapter), he interrogates the stark distinction between “praxis” and “poiesis”—or, specifically, operatio-poiesis in Goizueta’s use. This distinction hinges on the difference between praxis (as a doing that serves as an end in itself) versus a poiesis (as a making that serves some end other than the doing itself). To give a familiar example from the domain of aesthetics, the critic will note the difference between art as an end in itself versus art that serves some non-artistic end, and thus smacks more of propaganda.

So, even as this distinction may seem like academic twaddle, behind it we may discern the intention of the actor (the artist)—does she offer the work of art as a disinterested emblem of some universal human truth, which culture ostensibly hails as the most worthwhile thing of all, or does it serve the squalid, narrow end of “mere politics” (serving the interests of a single, narrow class, whether the rich or the poor). In this, you should detect again already the same complaint directed against Latin American liberation theology; it gets too involved in “vulgar and narrow politics” rather than remaining oriented toward universal (human) truth, as the most worthwhile thing of all. Thus, these aesthetic gestures either represent the author’s intended gesture of liberation (from narrow political milieus) or it represents an attempt to delimit and control people (into a narrow political milieu). This latter attempt might arrive in reactionary form or revolutionary form, but one of Tirres’ main objections to Goizueta points to the too stark distinction between praxis and poiesis, between “doing” and “making”. For him, “In pragmatism, human knowledge, imagination, and creativity are ‘instrumental to’ the qualitative enrichment of experience. One cannot life as an ‘end in itself’ without such means. Both the product and the process are integral to one another” (64).

A point lacking in Tirres’ analysis: while he readily digs out how García-Rivera and Goizueta rely upon vulgar Marxism (or cherry-pick less vulgar Marxist analyses), he has yet to acknowledge that pragmatism too must have its own vulgar pragmatists. Or somewhat more to the point, except in the case of ideological tools, presumably such “vulgar” Marxism rests on some specific desire the proponent of it felt needed making. A point that would apply to vulgar pragmatists as well.

Or to put the matter still another way, the historically ubiquitous contending between (for want of a better term) absolutist framings of issues in contention versus “shades of grey” framing begs the question why this contention recurs. Those of a fundamentalist or orthodox orientation deem those advocating “shades of grey” heretic, traitors, compromiser, ell-out, while those advocating an integral or moderate view see others as zealots, fanatics, narrow-minded, and the like. Hence, of course Goizueta might harp on vulgar Marists to make his point, while Tirres cries foul and objects one may find any number of sophists, excuse-makers, or simply cleverer or more obfuscating proponents (of Marxism) that the ones Goizueta focuses on. Similarly, then, we might expect Tirres to avoid citing any vulgar pragmatists in his own analyses, but we have no reason to believe simply on the face of it that this means their arguments can’t be disingenuous, &c.

Also, it becomes hard to ignore, as Tirres treats García-Rivera’s and Goizueta’s arguments, in a strictly right or wrong contrast how this runs at odds with his insistence, on multiple levels, to reject stark dichotomies and instead pursue “integral’ positions. One may locate occasional disclaimers that keep Tirres’ exposition from becoming what one might call ‘vulgar rejectionism,” but these disclaimers finally do little to forestall the impression that Goizueta has nothing to offer and that one need pay attention to his work. I’d like to think this amounts to an overstatement, but I doubt it does.

However, as a qualifier on this: Tirres starts by dismantling the Vatican critique of Latin American liberation theology. The unstated part of this—as also the unstated part of the Vatican critique—seems an a priori advocacy for or opposition to Marxism itself. Seeking to condemn or defend Marxism in general, it seems as if the lens of liberation theology (whether pro or con) serves as a distraction for that fact. The situation resembles Bakhtin hidden polemic, except that the object of the hidden polemic (Marxism) seems very poorly hidden. Hence, just as Goizueta (at least in Tirres’ construction of his argument) takes up the Vatican charge of “covertly” bashing Marxism, so Tires similarly sets out to dismantle Goizueta’ argument as a way to un-discredit Marxism. Accusing Goizueta of resorting to vulgar Marxism especially points to this.

And then deeper still, this rather indirect squabbling over the quality of one’s Marxism does act as a further distraction from the underlying dichotomy tires frames North and South American liberation theology in: namely, the categories of the ethical (political) and aesthetic (spiritual). One finds an authoritarianism invoked on all three sides of this debate: (1) the unabashed authoritarianism of the Vatican, (2) the authoritarianism of Goizueta in attempt to “stifle” the open-endedness at work in Latin American liberation theology but also to provide his own end-all/be-all answer, and (3) the authoritarianism of Tirres who starkly deploys an either/or (that one should essentially reject Goizueta’s work wholesale) rather than identifying work of Goizueta’s sort as part of a continuum, as Tirres advocates for other either/or dichotomies. One feels in the presence of Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” where he tries to work through why people seem averse to a genuine (political) plurality in daily life. As Aileen Kelly (1979),[12] in her Introduction, so ably summarises (perhaps better even than Berlin):

Pluralism, in the sense in which [Berlin] uses the word, is not to be confused with that which is commonly defined as a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean. True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognizes that human nature is such that it generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation between them. Moral conduct therefore may involve making agonizing choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values (Kelly, xv).

By this, we see Tirres advancing “a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions [like Goizueta’s] are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean” (xv). Pluralism would have acknowledged an agonizing truth, that a circumstance like Goizueta’s stark dichotomy between “doing” and “being” might not have an establishable objective hierarchical relation between them. The two views, Tirres’ and Goizueta’s, might instead offer incompatible but equally desirable values.

Berlin discusses in part how it seems always easier to declare those who disagree with you simply wrong, rather than admitting their (baffling) point of view may have some merit after all. But—barring any sufficient evidence that Goizueta doesn’t simply play the part of a shill or a tool for himself, his career, or someone else, an accusation we might with equal irresponsibility at this point level at Tirres—then I have to say that Tirres’ dismantling looks like it accomplishes (by accident or deliberately) no “liberating” us from his own variety of critical monism—i.e., the insistence upon only one way of looking at things; the antithesis of what Berlin calls pluralism.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism)Boston: Beacon Press

[4] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[6] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[7] Although, which “America” this might point to (North, South, or Central) remains ambiguous, of course.

[8] García-Rivera, A. (1999). The community of the beautiful: a theological aesthetics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

[9] Having encountered lately a bunch of “simple-minded” argumentation (excuse the judgmental tone please), I can only imagine that such folks would scoffingly declare that no one but the individual gets to decide on this matter. This self-congratulatory myth, of course, collapses as soon as (for example) you (1) become a heterodox Christian, bucking the authority and the community in your church, or (2) the police decide to arrest you and you get to offer excuses for your behavior to a judge who would sentence you to prison. &c. Both of these cases involve (I would say) a degree of an abuse of power, but the issue appears even in non-abusive cases. We only need admit that we sometimes get confused about our experiences so that an outsider might weigh in with a more apt description to get into this territory. Only if you believe you can never err in your interpretation of an experience could you possibly insist that you and only you can correctly describe that experience. This seems a piece of egregious entitlement (once again) characteristic of late-order capitalism.

[10] Tirres, CD (2009). “Aesthetics.” M. De La Torre (ed.) Hispanic American Religious Cultures, vol. 1, pp. 6–11. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

[11] The topic may not have escaped the masturbatory in his work either.

[12] Kelley, A. (1979). Introduction: a complex vision. In I. Berlin Russian Thinkers. (eds. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly). New York: Pelican.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Nostalgia in publishing doesn’t make for convincing work.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: F. Santoro’s (1995)[2] Storeyville

As usual lately, an acute awareness on my part of ad-text for a book upstages this graphic novel’s content.

Here, a work from 1995 gets bracketed by foreword and afterward both by different figures from the comics industry telling us in much gush how meaningful their experience of reading this text felt when it first came out.

But at least they also do, along the way, manage to make some claims about the graphic style of the work, but no shortage of it hinges on amazement over the use of a technique that by now—whether through Santoro’s influence or not—no longer seems striking.

Most of the back of the book gets similarly occupied with forms of nostalgia. Chris Ware’s confession about his first encounter with Storeyville gets repeated; Brian Chippendale assures us “Storeyville is … classic”; Seth begins by saying, “Of all the graphic narratives to appear in the last few decades …”; and Lauren Weinstein points not only to the bygone era of the Great Depression (where the book occurs) but also likens the art-style to the past of Matisse and Grosz. As a 2005 reprint, the book itself (now in a hard-bound cover) already reflects a retrospective look. And if an essential part of nostalgia involves homesickness for the place of one’s youth, then Weinstein’s expostulation, “Plus [Santoro] made it when he was just twenty-three” while the plot itself, the summary informs us, “follows the arc of a youthful adventure at the dawn of the twentieth century” both point to the past in that way that smacks of a desire to recapture one’s (lost) youthfulness.

We should do the artist the courtesy of assuming he means for the style to get blurry after a certain point, and not simply read it as laziness—though one might. Whatever else Ware reports from a long-time collaborator with Santoro about this change of style, it reads at its most obvious as the story (or narrative) becoming unclear for the protagonist. The key moment, Ware insists, occurs where the text reports, “I realize now that I, unsure of my own future, longed for the stability and camaraderie of their lives” (16). Ware claims the style radically changes after this, but that seems a hard sell to me. Things seem more consistently “unclear” or “blurry” more like twenty frames later after, “I was no longer sure in which direction my future lay” (17).

But whatever we might make of that, this blurriness does not linger. Soon enough, and without any clear development of narrative, the drawings have no more blurriness than at the outset. And Santoro then resorts to an abrupt point of view change, having the protagonist’s “saviour” (Rudy) appear gradually in four frames, intermixed with some drawings of birds, and in an otherwise empty page.

Ware remarks that “Will’s own relationship to the friend whom he’s chosen as his savior have been entirely subjective, if not illusory” (ii), which one could read as suggesting that the subsequent encounter between Rudy and Will happens only in his head. I don’t think Ware means this, but it at least makes artistic and narrative sense of the point of view break.

Yeah, you say: who cares about point of view violations? Besides that they seem to account for a very great number of cases where readers checkout-of or abandon a text? Besides that they most often read as simple errors? But seriously, if you simply want to insist that the text can have no errors, that it constitutes immortal genius worth of Matisse (forget Grosz), then why say anything at all?

An equal part awkward decision involves the reveal on the past disaster that befell Rudy and Will. The elliptical suggestions around this at the beginning do a nice job of seeming weird and unsettling and difficult for the main character. And if an author, having established this expectation, really can’t fail to make clear what did happen, it needn’t appear in a drunken reminisce by the main character. It would have come out more compellingly, I’d venture, if related to another person, even a stranger.

The main problem, however, comes out in the timing of the disclosure. To set up some of the dramatic irony in the text—and simply so we have some orientation for when Will and Rudy actually interact—this forces Santoro to plunk this narrative exposition down where he does. It comes after he has introduced us to Rudy (in the point of view break) and then has to happen before Will finds him—assuming, in fact, that we actually have to know the backstory. I doubt that, especially as it raises a number of logistical questions that seem to need answering, i.e., what prison or jail were Rudy and Will in that they escaped from, and why were they chained together at all. &c.

In a work so hemmed all about by nostalgia, a flashback like this at least makes a kind of formal sense (for the work generally), but flashbacks don’t move the story forward, they usually serve to clutter the narrative with exposition not at all necessarily necessary, and their “thematic” use in the text rarely comes out.

Santoro has already established Will remains haunted by the role Rudy had in his life; why actually doesn’t matter, not for the reader and not for the characters. The entire interaction between Will and Rudy consists most of all of Rudy saying, “You don’t need me anymore,” and only a little of Rudy implying, “Don’t talk to me now; I have to protect the secret of my/our past.” The specifics of their past interaction don’t bear on the scene, and finding out about it actually lessens, rather than exacerbates, the charge of the book.

Of course, ad-text can only misrepresent the book it plumps it seems. The striking thing involves less how relentlessly it lies as how the gesture persists. Maybe someone will read the book expecting “a perfect match of form and content” from Storeyville (as the ad-text claims); or maybe such a bold-faced lie functions to induces readers to read the book to prove such nonsense wrong. In advertising, whether an ad appeals or offends matters less than that you simply remember the product. Maybe something like that operates with book-text: whether it seduces you with outrageous claims or tweaks your nose in a way that makes you set out to prove it wrong, either way so long as you buy the book (never mind reading it), nothing else matters.

Endnotes

[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Santoro, F. (2007). Storeyville, Brooklyn: PictureBox, pp. i–iii, 1–50.