Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Unlike Augustine ...

Unlike Augustine, I have no caritas (sometimes translated as love) to recommend, especially not of the non-corporeal things which I do admit exist, albeit in no fashion like that of corporeal things.  For Augustine to love what is his ownmost, if you will, is not an activity like loving the work of Shakespeare or Hölderlin.  Augustine is disingenuous, I say, because once he realized what was most deeply himself, only love was possible: “I was expressing the most intimate feeling of my mind with myself and to myself” (IX: iv (8)).

Yet I cannot help but think that Augustine was an anorexic.[1] For to love means to love what is different from oneself—what is exterior to oneself—because the self needs what is different from itself.  To love oneself through staving off encounter with the outside means to starve the self.  It is “self-love” in a false sense.  It is the preservation of the self through the destruction of the self. The self is by virtue of what it is not, and if it is not what it is not, then it is not what it is.

The body continually becomes itself by virtue of the materials that it slowly incorporates into itself.  This means that in becoming itself, it becomes …

but we are getting ahead of ourselves, are we not?

Let us begin with something real, with this moment here and now, in which a man holds his son who wants to follow his mother as she leaves for work … and the boy cries.  After the first teary complaint he takes a long deep breath, preparing to sob.  Air is pulled into his lungs by the vacuum created. The microbes and particulates in the air are pulled involuntarily, like debris in a tsunami, deep into his lungs. By the time our attention returns to this miserable child, his aging father has already pacified him: “How ‘bout this …”

We read Augustine badly because we admire his love, his great capacity for love. To love is to love finitude and this is something that he could not do.  His is not love; it is caritas.  The boy who loves his mother loves profound finitude, not the infinity that cannot be taken away from him.  Is anything meaningful if it is not scarce?

When the boy realizes that his mother will die, his love for her finally has value, whereas before it was merely the love of a security that he could not imagine otherwise.  That was when I gained consciousness, I say—when I could not sleep because of the anxiety that my mother—a young thirty-something from Texas with two children and a minister as a husband—would die. She with her family lived in the hills of southeastern Ohio during the 1970s, where one would watch his or her three television channels and learn about the oil crisis that afflicted all Americans, but especially those miners, who attended the church my father served and whose weekly offerings paid for the material goods making my life possible.  These men celebrated their middle class wealth by buying enormous domestic automobiles that took drunken gulps of gasoline and enriched men a world away who worshipped—when they worshipped—with greater piety than could any Christian.

I wonder if those miners or even my parents had any idea of the scope of their world (as you and I do now—for we are enlightened!—and I’ve just shown you) and if their faith in a world continually progressing had been slightly damaged, in a way that foretells our present nihilistic condition.[2]  It seems hard to believe that the anxiety of death from above had penetrated their consciousness in the way it did mine (because what I know about them depends on what I think about myself).  Not long after I gained consciousness of the unavoidable death of my mother, I was to learn that we all stood under a dark, dark cloud of nuclear annihilation.[3]

My mother was then a small woman—and she was a woman because she had two children and despite her college degree and work history (as a teacher and as an actuary) she took care of them as a domestic housewife (and that is what it meant to be a woman then)—with soft, fragile fair skin and dark curly hair, and I think she was fairly happy. She had gotten married in 1969 and lived in Chicago and then Ohio, which is where, by some strange turn of fate, she would end up spending most of her life. Ohio is a long way away from Texas, before the advent of aeronautic mass transportation (and even after).  One travels through time to get there. Suburban eastern Texas was a land of surplus and well-being, where a white man with a college degree and the strong lilt of a southern accent could do well and have a family (if he could just quiet the demons haunting him for the Tokyo firebombings …).  In short, it was consummately late 20th-century United States. To get to Ohio one would have to drive through the southern Mississippi states and through the Smokies—a land of deep poverty for most which was still caught in the early 20th century (and this is why I use the time travel metaphor).  And then one was in southeastern Ohio in the 1970s, which was a culture dependent upon the coal mining industry.  Uneducated working class men and women lived there (for not everyone needed a college degree), but they were Christians and needed guidance, they thought, from a young man who could lead their worship rituals and illuminate their tone deaf and blind readings of the Bible (a book which all of their families had, although they may have had few others).

Her body survived the trials of that movement through time and survived giving birth to two healthy children.  She awoke each morning in a parsonage next to her husband, breathing the air somewhat cleaner that that of the residents of the valley only a few miles away.  Because the Ohio River Valley is a cesspool of bad air, such that the acid rain levels there were at one point the highest in the entire country (so I have been telling people for years).  My formative years were spent on the hills just above that valley.  Her children slept just a few yards away in their own rooms. The walls of those rooms had a surface that was rough, and the surface would hurt your hand if you ran your fingers across it.[4]

I had a closet in my room that led into the attic, if one climbed up, but what was significant for me was the tapering of the closet up into the attic—for it was directly above the stairs to the basement and therefore sat on a diagonal plane leading into the ceiling.  That fairly commonplace architectural feature allowed my unconscious to imagine and relive the trauma of birth.

Birth is the rendering of space, when one’s body emerges from immediacy into the world of exteriority and discreteness. In my dreams I squeezed through the corner into the wall—both back and forth, like that perverse child in Me and You and Everyone We Know.

“It will not fit! It will not fit! It will not fit!”[5]

[1] This term is right, because one thing that Augustine takes from the Manicheans is the metaphor of bodily appropriation/consumption—eating, in the parlance of our times—to discuss his relationship with God.
[2] Don’t worry, I mean nihilistic in neither its technical nor cultural sense (The Big Lebowski, 1998).
[3] And to be clear, we still do.
[4] Were those walls plastered?  That seems unthinkable, for southeastern Ohio.  Plaster is the material out of which the beautiful villas in Italy are constructed.  Men with lifetimes of experience could build such edifices and have them stand beyond their own lifetimes and that of their children.  Yet in America, it would only be a score of years before homes and buildings would be generated pre-fab, which is another way of saying, without any sign of human life.
[5] That reminds me of another shortcoming of the Confessions: there is no humor.  But that was just the beginning of a Christianity, which forsook being human.