Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent and the Impossible

It has been a very long time since the days when I was doing doctoral work on 20th-century French philosophy. Indeed, it was actually in the 20th century! But for some reason as Lent begins this year I've been pondering the impossible.
The impossible was a recurring theme in Jacques Derrida's writing, and while none of that work is ready-to-hand at the moment (search engines notwithstanding), I'll reduce it violently to one observation: the answer to any question worth posing is (the) impossible.
You can trace the impossible, the impassible, the entirely and unutterably other through much of Derrida's work, and, in particular in his lengthy dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas. Their conversation was central to my ancient dissertation.
What's any of this got to do with Lent?
Levinas was fond of interesting equations. I recall, for example, his observation that "paternity is a relationship with a future that is not my own." I'm pretty sure I remember that after all these years because I was playing with it in a paper I wrote while we were anticipating the birth of our firstborn -- who turns 21 this week.
Other of Levinas' equations were pithier: ethics is liturgy. That one I recall because I teased it out in work that I was doing even as I was beginning my own turn, or re-turn, toward what we too easily reduce to "the religious."
I don't recall if Levinas actually wrote "ethics is the impossible," or if I'm making that up. But, hey, this is a blog post not an academic article -- thanks be to God, or the impossible I Am, or that which, in this very moment, calls me by my name. In any case, his various observations about "ethics" drew me deeply into the long conversation that he and Derrida conducted through various texts over many years. In those writings they regularly addressed, indeed their conversation turned on, "the impossible."
I got to thinking about that in terms of practices one "takes on" or "gives up" for Lent. Most of the time we go for the low-hanging fruit of the the imaginable, the possible. There's nothing wrong with that. Picking up something that one can actually accomplish is always worthwhile, in this or any season. Letting go of something that one needs to let go of, and that one can, in fact, let go of is also always worthwhile.
But what if we aimed deeper or higher toward "the impossible"? What would it look like to practice "the impossible"?
In their own distinctive ways, both Derrida and Levinas focused considerably on encounters with the other. Levinas wrote extensively about face-to-face encounters and confrontations with the face of the other. Derrida wrote a good deal, especially late in his life, about hospitality and the politics of friendship. All of that work was about the impossibility inherent in the claims that others make on us.
I can't recall at this point -- again, blog post not academic paper -- whether either Levinas or Derrida riffed on Paul's eschatological observation that "now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
Such knowledge is at once the impossible and the fundamental demand that others place on us. We all want to be known. The essence of hospitality, the root of ethics, perhaps even the ground of politics and certainly of justice is found in that basic desire to be known fully.
To the extent that any of our Lenten disciplines aim, ultimately, at deepening our relationships -- with God or with others -- they aim at the impossible.
What if we took on "the impossible" for Lent?


Nichola Torbett said...

Yes, David, I am pretty sure Levinas did say that ethics was the impossible, or at least that being ethical was impossible. (It was right in there where he talked about the impossibility of honoring the rightful demands on us of the Other.) I didn't know you were a Derrida/Levinas scholar! You and I, I believe, would have been writing the same thesis at the same time, had I actually stayed to finish the Ph.D. I was working on just these issues--literary theory and ethics. It seems like ages ago.

Anyway, I am really intrigued by your idea of taking on the impossible for Lent. At our little (tiny) Ash Wednesday gathering at Occupied Oakland tonight, we will be discussing social sin and the impossibility of avoiding it because of the ways our social structures and systems are set up (or, as some of those French folks would say, the ways that they pre-exist us, always already, and all that). And yet, I see Occupy reaching toward the impossible, which is, I suspect, a large part of its appeal for me and others interested in Kin(g)dom matters.

Wow, you and I could have a really obscure conversation the next time we meet. I look forward to it.

Sending lots of Lenten love!

Christian Wright said...

Nichola you are doing the impossible day by day! And, yes, someday -- over strong coffee, or, better, good beer -- we'll have a fine, obscure, French philosophy conversation. I knew a bartender in Chicago who insisted that you could only understand Heidegger at 3:00 in the morning, which may be why he fell by the wayside for me years ago.