Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Some Thoughts While Playing Frisbee

So, in my ongoing bid to solidify my place in hell, I've been playing with the notion of 'theological materialism' -- wherein, for instance, God (as Eternity / Freedom / the Absolute) is only God inasmuch as He is not Himself, i.e., that He is neither eternal, free, or absolute; that, in fact, God, to be God, must become -- a la Christ -- human. (I will spare you the details, having learned that nobody cares about them but me. Suffice it to say, I'm interested to present the God of theology as some kind of pathological twist to/in reality, versus some otherness from Beyond.)

The paradoxical economy of self-generation I'm mulling over, particularly last night whilst flinging a frisbee to K., is perhaps not as nonsensical as it might on the surface appear. As a matter of fact, the related notion of having to lose something in order to win something greater is such a natural commonplace as often to be simply taken for granted. Consider, for instance, the cliches of 'no pain, no gain'; the romantic idealizations of artistic madness -- i.e., the tortured artist who either commits suicide or dies prematurely, thus solidifying his or her place as a legend; or the special veneration most ascribe to martyrs like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or, even Jesus. Much can be said, too, of the Hollywood archetype exemplified by George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, who only truly knows himself at all when he is presented with what would have happened had he, per his expressed desire while weighing the decision as to whether he throw himself from a bridge, to never have been born. Do we not have here a story of redeemed identity, in which wholeness is snatched from the abyss of a self-shattering loss? The story of good old George Bailey is a modern myth, to which millions of weary Christmas and New Years celebrants each year appeal as a temporary respite from the family and friends who probably are not nearly as compassionate and helpful in the end as Bailey's; and thus, too, as a ritualistic dream for something better than the oppressive (capitalist) ideology that Mr. Potter represents, for the personal wholeness, health, and safety of a (socialist) salvation in which the value of family and friends is greater than that of money.

More recently, David Brooks of the New York Times employs a similar logic, but to a very different effect, when he describes the politically-charged paradox of the most recent U.S.-led Gulf War:

Now, looking ahead, we face another irony. To earn their own freedom, the Iraqis need a victory. And since it is too late for the Iraqis to have a victory over Saddam, it is imperative that they have a victory over usIf the future textbooks of a free Iraq get written, the toppling of Saddam will be vaguely mentioned in one clause in one sentence. But the heroic Iraqi resistance against the American occupation will be lavishly described, page after page. For us to succeed in Iraq, we have to lose. This means the good Iraqis, the ones who support democracy, have to have a forum in which they can defy us. If the insurgents are the only anti-Americans, then there will always be a soft spot for them in the hearts of Iraqi patriots.

In other words, for the United States' (stated) goal of freedom and democracy to be achieved in Iraq, authentic anti-Americanism must not only be allowed, but also actually fomented. What I wish to suggest is that, appearances, my own personal politics, and undoubtedly Brooks' conservative revulsion to my conclusion based on his editorial notwithstanding, we are more justified in thinking of this ostensibly cynical suggestion, in a theoretical sense, as a more profound example of theological love than the depiction of self-redemption in, to wit, It's a Wonderful Life.

The key difference is that between desire and love. According to Friedrich von Schelling, before 'the Beginning' -- of being and time -- there was 'mere craving or desire'; that is, the drive of (addiction to) the In-Itselfness of Absolute Freedom. Which is to say, before 'the Word', from which symbolic differentiation and self-conscious identity emerges, 'there was the hunger for the Word' . . . the hunger to be. Drive, in other words, is desire In-Itself, i.e., unactualized in the subjectless fury of the Absolute, in which there is only the indifferent flux of Freedom, and, thus, no free, conscious subject as such. With the 'eternally past' advent of the Word, the Self that emerges is free only inasmuch as it is not completely itself; it is, rather, an embodied spirit, marked by finitude, death, and decay. Insofar as it is not itself, the spirit / Self; according to Schelling, is made ravenous flesh:

The spirit is consequently nothing but an addiction to Being. . . . The base form of the spirit is therefore an addiction, a desire, a lust. Whoever wishes to grasp the concept of spirit at its most profound roots must therefore become fully acquainted with the nature of desire . . . for [desire] is a hunger for Being, and being satiated only gives it renewed strength, i.e., a more vehement hunger.

Constituted as a free subject by virtue of its inherent lack of self-closure, the desirous Self cannot be satisfied. On the contrary, its desire, because historical and subjectived, is 'always and by definition unsatisfied, metonymical, shifting from one object to another since I do not actually desire what I want.' Be careful of what you wish for, so the saying goes, because you just might get it. The same logic is at work here: 'What I actually desire is to sustain desire itself, to postpone the dreaded moment of its satisfaction.'

If desire is related to an absent (menacing) identity and wholeness -- i.e., the hard, indecipherable kernel of our being that makes us objects of desire -- love is related to the emergence of the free Self that is not itself. After the Word, the quintessential, eternally past moment of love and freedom, the desire for wholeness can only ever be frustrated by the love that, as with Brooks' depiction of the United State's military operations in Iraq, knows how to truly lose. It is in this sense of love as 'loss' that we can suggest a truly perverse gospel: in which salvation of self is theologically less redemptive than the sin that sets us free.