Thursday, 22 March 2012

Irregular Language, part 2

The Living Word

In After Enlightenment, Betz notes how, in Hamann’s case, the dictum that one cannot understand the work apart from the man ‘applies to an almost unparalleled degree’. Hamann’s rational project of humbling proud autonomous reason, for example, reflected his own uncanny combination of ‘idiocy and profundity’. Betz quotes Friedrich Leopold of Stolberg’s comment that, ‘At one moment he has the appearance of one who cannot count to three; the next moment he overflows with genius and fire.’ Hamann himself wrote of aiming at a ‘stoic wisdom that interchangeably unites the imbecillitatem Hominis and the securitatem Dei ’. As Betz notes, the title of the fragment Apologie meines Cretinen refers to Hamann’s younger brother, who suffered from mental illness, and for whom Hamann and his partner Regina Schumacher cared until his premature death.

In The Fate of Reason, Beiser drew attention to the crucial importance for the development of Hamann’s thinking of his experiences as a young man in London, where he had been dispatched in 1757 by his friend the Riga trader Christoph Berens on some form of pointless business mission:

‘To locate the source of Hamann’s philosophy, we have to go back to his early years in London in 1758. What the young Hamann saw during a mystical experience contains the germ of his later philosophy, not to mention the basis for his critique of Kant and the Aufklärung.’

In Beiser’s words, the circumstances surrounding Hamann’s conversion to Christianity are ‘dramatic and moving, the stuff of a novel or play’. Humiliated and shaken by a derisive reception at the Russian Embassy in London, Hamann fell into despair, and felt lost and alone in a foreign land. Seeking to relieve his misery, he squandered all his money on a dissolute life. Then, ‘I went about depressed, staggering to and fro, without a soul with whom to share my burden, who could give me advice or help.’ Finally in the winter of 1758 he rented a room in Marlborough Street, seeking to seclude himself with his books. As Betz writes, ‘It was here, with no money, a £300 debt, and failing health that he began an intensive reading of the Bible.’ In Beiser’s account,

‘He read it in the most personal manner, as if it were God’s message to him alone. He saw the history of the Jewish people as a parable about his own sufferings. All that happened to him in London, all his trials and tribulations, seemed to be prefigured in the Bible.’

On the evening of March 31, 1758, reading the fifth book of Moses, Hamann began to – in Beiser’s words – ‘feel the spirit of God working through him’.

‘After hearing the voice of God inside himself, and after reading the Bible in his personal and allegorical way, Hamann came to believe that God was always communicating with him, if he would only listen. Indeed, he became convinced that everything that happened to him contained a secret message from God, and that it was an allegory like everything else in the Bible. This conviction then led Hamann to a grand and extraordinary metaphysical conclusion: that the creation is the secret language of God, the symbols by which he communicates his message to man. All nature and history therefore consist in hieroglyphs, divine ciphers, secret symbols, and puzzles. […] In Hamann’s metaphorical terms, “God is a writer, and his creation is his language.”’

Hamann understood language, Betz notes, as ‘the point of intersection between things divine and human’. In The Knight of the Rose-Cross, as Betz observes, Hamann presents language as being ‘at once fully human (“as natural as child’s play”) and fully divine (as having its ultimate source in the Creator)’. Hamann:

‘Every phenomenon of nature was a word – the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, secret, inexpressible, but at the same time all the more intimate union, communication, and communion of divine energies and ideas. In the beginning everything that the man [Adam] heard, saw with his eyes, looked upon, and touched with his hands was a living word; for God was the Word. With this Word in his mouth and in his heart, the origin of language was as natural, so near and easy, as child’s play […].’

What Betz calls Hamann’s ‘view of original and redeemed language as a kind of innocent, “playful” response to the Logos’, seems to me to reimagine the garden of Eden as a stammerer’s fantasy of the fluent condition; for the stammerer spoken language is often far from ‘near and easy’, but for Hamann’s Adam, divinity has supplied communicative ease, naturalness and the self-confidence (or self-forgetfulness) required to be linguistically playful – just as Christian hermeneutics supported Hamann during his London breakdown. Deeply personal issues arising from his experiences of dysfluency and mental illness do seem to me to provide the existential context for Hamann’s conviction that, as Betz puts it, ‘language is essentially a dialogical religious phenomenon’, involving a suffering human and redemptive alterity. The concept of a 'living word’ is surely, at least on some level or in part, Hamann’s response to his own stammerer’s experience of communication as something which – at wholly unpredictable intervals – becomes blocked or frozen. Similarly, Hamann evolved a concept and practice of a living hermeneutic as a response to the depressive ‘cover’ clamping down on his mental health in London; the origin of the scriptural commentary he produced in London, the Biblical Meditations, was the urge to read ‘with more hunger’ so as to develop a mode of spontaneous exegesis from that renewed vitality:

‘Because I wanted to make a new beginning, it seemed as if I began to perceive a cover over my reason and my heart, which had kept the book closed to me the first time. I thus set out to read it with more attention, in a more orderly fashion, and with more hunger; and to write down my thoughts as they would occur.’

Betz matches Hamann’s concept of a living word to his concept of a living hermeneutic, when discussing Hamann’s perspective on the biblical critic J. D. Michaelis in Aesthetica in nuce. Writing of the way in  which, ‘as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, the language of Scripture is “living and active” (4: 12)’, Betz notes that for Hamann, ‘it is precisely this that Michaelis cannot see: lacking the inspired gift of interpretation (cf. 1 Cor. 12: 10), he cannot see the prophetic Spirit of God tabernacling within the contingent and seemingly arbitrary elements of human language’. Betz also records that by the time of his return to Germany from London, Hamann’s urge to practice his hermeneutic gift had grown into a vocation. ‘My vocation is neither to be a businessman, nor a civil servant, nor a man of the world […] Reading the Bible and praying are the work of a Christian’. Yet as Betz sees, already in 1746, as a student matriculating at the University of Königsberg, Hamann affiliated his dysfluency to his disinclination to practice professional Bible study: theology. ‘A more immediate reason he cites for not taking up theology, however, was a speech impediment, in addition to his poor memory, the corruption of the clergy, his high estimation of this vocation, and his sense of hypocrisy’.

For Hamann, ‘Humility of heart is the one required disposition and most indispensable preparation for the reading of the Bible.’ Betz fascinatingly shows how Hamann’s self-denying stammering, which disqualified him from becoming a theologian, and his conception of Scripture as something ‘living and active’ (Heb. 4: 12), alike enabled him to develop a practice of hermeneutic humility.  

‘For it is no longer a question of how can I (viewed as a complete, self-present, pre-textual identity) understand the text, but rather a question of how the text understands and constitutes me. Indeed, as Bayer puts it, “Scripture interprets me and not I scripture.” Accordingly, priority shifts from the modern subject, which constitutes itself (e.g., through Descartes’s radical doubt or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception), to the text, which represents the subject to itself in a new light, metaschematically constituting (or reconstituting) its identity by means of the figures and parables in the story that is told.’

The humility underpinning Hamann’s self-reconstituting hermeneutics itself reflects the humility of the Bible’s author, who – Hamann believed – condescended to elevate human history into parables of sacred history. Betz:

‘Thus Hamann speaks in striking terms, in addition to [of] the humility of the Son, of the humility of the Holy Spirit, “who, in the face of our proud little mare of reason, produced a book as his Word, in which, like a foolish and crazy [spirit], what is more, like an unholy and unclean spirit, he made small, contemptuous events into the history of heaven and of God (1 Cor. 1: 25).”’

In summary, Hamann understands hermeneutics not as a form of philosophical reason which constitutes reality, but as an act of spiritual petition to the Scripture which, in his Christian view, constitutes reality. ‘As he puts it in the “Fragments,” “Nature and history are […] the two great commentarii on the divine Word; and the latter, on the other hand, the only key that unlocks our knowledge of both.”’ Hamann also thinks of faith as the key to understanding nature and history – in the Socratic Memorabilia he writes, ‘Without faith we cannot even understand creation and nature’ – and so in this way faith is equivalent to Scripture; but of course for Hamann faith is itself also necessary for accessing the truths of Scripture: ‘the Holy Spirit is promised to all who petition the heavenly Father’.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Irregular Language: Betz's Hamann

Vulnerability and the Vocation of Obscurity

In his After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, John R. Betz follows Frederick Beiser and John Milbank in presenting Hamann, correctly I feel, as a figure whose ‘influence on the history of philosophy, while obscurely mediated, was, in fact, profound’. Betz’s landmark English-language study thus concretizes the recent rehabilitation of Hamann as a thinker who cannot be reduced to the sort of marginal irrationalist that Isaiah Berlin made of him in The Magus of the North. Hamann himself foresaw the obscure diffusion of his influence in his 1786 text ‘Divestment and Transfiguration: A Flying Letter to Nobody, the Well-Known’, when he noted the Christ-revering intent of his work. ‘The little stream of my authorship, despised like the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, was poured out for the sake of this king, whose name, like his reputation, is great and unknown.’ The obscure yet profound, at once ‘great and unknown’ influence of Hamann’s writing, is in keeping with his rôle as – in Betz’s words – ‘the first and arguably profoundest modern Christian thinker of language’.

The stream of Hamann’s writing flows indirectly; or, its banks are notoriously hard to bridge. Betz cites Ernst Jünger’s remark that Hamann thought ‘in archipelagos with submarine connections’, following on from his own comment on Heraclitus: ‘A confluence of ideas and sensations in that living elegy of a philosopher made his maxims into a group of small islands, lacking the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.’ Hamann’s texts constitute a practice of indirect communication, and require the reader to build the bridges, make the connections, herself. As Betz notes, a text like the Socratic Memorabilia has a ‘highly stylized public, dramatic, gnomic, allusive, oblique, ironic, pseudonymous, prophetic form’, which is grounded in Hamann’s ‘conviction that faith “cannot be communicated like merchandise”’. Hamann’s is an ‘elusive’, proto-modernist textuality, showing ‘endless associative links’ and a ‘defiance of any single significance’.     

Such strategies reveal a lack of trust in – or an ironizing of – his own communicative capacity. You could say that Hamann’s lack of trust derived from his stammering behaviour; whilst the ironization derived from his Christianity. The flight from direct communication is a form of self-denial, and Hamann’s authorship is (as Betz argues) ‘quite possibly the most rigorously Christian of modern times – both in its content and in its self-denying form ’. In some important phrases in Golgotha and Scheblimini, Hamann wrote of ‘the symbolic connection between the earthly crown of thorns and the heavenly crown of stars, and the relationship mediated in the form of the Cross between the opposing natures of the deepest abasement and the loftiest exaltation’. Betz summarizes how these phrases are an assertion of the Christian coincidence of worldly vulnerability and otherworldly, spiritual empowerment:

‘[T]his passage provides a clue to the whole of Hamann’s mimetic “cruciform” authorship: whereas the outward humility, folly, and (to rationalists) sheer incomprehensibility of his self-denying style mirrors the humility, apparent folly, and incomprehensibility (to Jews and Greeks) of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross (Golgotha), the inner sublimity of his inspired, prophetic message shares in the power and the glory of the Spirit of the resurrection (Scheblimini). In short, we come to understand that the only thing that can make sense of Hamann’s writings is Christ – in the double aspect of majesty and abasement, of a glory hidden from the “wise and learned” beneath a rejected outward form.’  

Hamann’s elusive textual practices, guided by what Betz calls a ‘Christian irony and humour’, thus invoke a humility reminiscent of the statement St Paul made about himself, when quoting his critics, that ‘“His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account”’ (2 Cor. 10: 10). Betz notes that, more generally, the recognition of humility is ‘the fundamental intuition of Hamann’s thought’. He quotes Hamann’s comment that,

‘It belongs to the unity of divine revelation that the Spirit of GOd [sic] should have lowered himself and emptied himself of his majesty just as the Son of God did in assuming the form of a servant, and just as the whole of creation is a work of the greatest humility.’

The creation of the Bible by the Holy Spirit is another act of condescension, whereby the Holy Spirit (as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote) ‘conceals himself, as Hamann strikingly puts it, “under all kinds of rags and tatters,” “under the rubbish” of the letter of Scripture.’ As Hamann writes in his Biblical Meditations :

‘How much did God the Holy Spirit humble himself when he became a historian of the most particular, contemptible, and insignificant events on earth in order to reveal to man in his own language, in his own history, in his own ways the plans, the mysteries, and the ways of the Godhead?’

To assert with Luther that, as Betz puts it, ‘there is no exaltation of the creature apart from Christ’s humility, which is the key to the economy of salvation and the logic of every ascent’, is also to maintain a Lutheran emphasis on human humility qua passivity and a dependence on – or readiness to accept – what ‘God accomplishes in and through human beings’, or ‘what only God can give: ontologically, the grace that heals our nature from sin; noetically, the faith that enlightens the darkness of ignorance’. To depend on ‘the grace of God’s prior condescension, in the absence of which Christianity is easily distorted into a kind of Promethean asceticism’ – a work ethic, muscular Christianity – is to resist ‘what we might claim for ourselves as something owed, whether through inheritance or through virtuous works’. Betz enables us to see how Hamann associates divine condescension and human humility alike with suffering and hence with true cognition. When ‘in Christianity God suffers on account of his loving proximity to human beings’, Betz notes, ‘for Hamann, Christ is the model of all true learning in that he “learned […] through what he suffered” (Heb. 5: 8)’.

‘In other words, for fallen human beings, just as authentic reasoning begins with the suffering of reason’s “insufficiency” and a corresponding recognition of one’s need for the light of faith and the guidance of revelation, true moral learning begins with the suffering of one’s moral weakness and a corresponding recognition of one’s need for grace.’

As Hamann notes, recognition of dependence on divine condescension renders proud, self-sufficient rational aspiration irrelevant: ‘The condescension of God to the earth; no tower of reason whose spire reaches to heaven’. Indeed, as Betz observes, for Hamann ‘the purpose of reason is precisely to deconstruct all proud knowledge falsely so called, the kind of knowledge which is really doxa but nevertheless opposes itself to faith, so that true knowledge can begin’. Importantly, this rational project of undermining proud rationalism looks forward to Jaspers’ existentialist critique of neo-Kantian epistemological reification. It also looks back, to Augustinian and then Lutheran resistance to late medieval conceptions of philosophical rationality, as Betz suggests when he traces the ‘modern doctrine of reason’ back beyond Renaissance humanism to late medieval distinctions between philosophy and theology, which ‘ceded to philosophy (and to reason) far greater capacities than the Augustinian and, later, Lutheran traditions allowed, each of which remained more profoundly impressed by the degree to which reason is affected by the fallenness of the will’. (It would be interesting to consider the unstable, post-juridical rationalities – shaken by paranoia or drug use – of Philip K. Dick, and perhaps of Robert Walser, in this context). The political dimension of Hamann’s critique of proud reason is also worth noting here; his distance from Moses Mendelssohn’s modern conception of rights as being ‘as it were, pre-possessed by reason and claimed by independents in the manner of private property, [whereas] for Hamann, they are something received in faith from the Creator by dependents as a covenantal gift’ (Betz).

Betz stresses Hamann’s underlying intention to develop, and not curtail, rationality. Quoting Hamann’s remark that ‘the true genius knows only his dependence and weakness, or the limits of his gifts’, Betz observes that Hamann’s Christian mode of cognition ‘glories ironically in weaknesses and limitations (2 Cor. 12: 9), whereby the intellect is made receptive of divine light and wisdom. Herein, and not in any proud rationalism, lies the true path to enlightenment.’ Hence, Betz writes, Hamann’s ‘occasionally vitriolic rhetoric is never directed at reason per se, which he considers a gift of God, but only at its idolatrous misuse and transgressing of its proper limits’. He cites Hamann’s comment that ‘Faith  has need of reason just as much as reason needs faith’. Referring to the arguments of his doctoral supervisor, the prominent Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer, Betz suggests that ‘one could even say that Hamann was more rational than his contemporaries, a kind of “radical Aufklärer,” in that, like Kant, but going beyond him, he subjected reason to metacritical  scrutiny’:

‘Specifically, Hamann calls attention to what the Aufklärer  virtually ignored, namely, the historical contingencies of tradition and the “impurities” of language and metaphor pervading all putatively “pure” thought. […] As a humbling of autonomous reason and all proud systems of thought (in the sense of 2 Cor. 10: 5), it is meant not to leave reason in a state of despair, but to prepare it for faith, thereby saving reason from theoretical suicide and providing it with its ultimate object, an object that can only be given.’       

To be continued.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

There Was So Little Lit. Crit.

Over on the Philip K. Dick Fan Site here on March 2, responding to the thirtieth anniversary of  Dick's death, David Keller discerns a contest between academic literary criticism and informal communication about fiction: a contest to the detriment of free response to writing. Reading this account, it does seem to me that in the space of the past thirty years or so a living literary or intellectual culture has died, to be replaced by the exam hall, dissertation anxiety and other features of a global academic bureaucracy - which, like the mass media, exists largely to impose 'authority' (Keller's word), rather than to stimulate free communication and intellectual life. Culture's afterlife appears to be as a generator of standardized forms of cognitive law, whilst before it lived as a communicative aspect of collective and personal existential freedom. Arguably, a democratic participative relation to culture is available now only in the virtual realm of online enthusiasts (Dick's Vast Active Living Intelligence System): 'This list, which is hardly a general sample of readers, is about the closest I come to informal discussion about PKD or his writings nowadays.' Back in the unfree 'real' world, itself increasingly an epiphenomenon of digital technology, you either make the cognitive law (as an academic, or media worker promulgating 'received opinion') or submit to it (as a student, or consumer): 

'I read all sorts of things written about PKD, his themes, his stories and novels (either in general or about specific ones) and think the bulk of what I read is A) terribly flawed in some manner or B) written from cultural, social, temporal perspectives very different than mine or some combination of A and B. Perhaps the worst aspect of this to me is that so much of it seems basically received opinion that was crafted after his death by W-M Corporations and/or lacks crucial contextual knowledge. I honestly think the discussions I had with friends, had or overheard at parties and other such informal talk in the 60s and 70s was better informed. OTOH, I don’t know what such contemporary conversations are like. This list, which is hardly a general sample of readers, is about the closest I come to informal discussion about PKD or his writings nowadays. And OTTH I’m sure there must be a significant amount of very good discussion & writing that doesn’t seem that way to me because I lack context or perspective to understand it properly. One thing I’m certain of is that I was very fortunate to have read PKD for such a long time when there were new novels and stories to look forward to, so many opportunities to talk with people about the brand new one, there was so much shared contemporary background knowledge for us to speculate about topical references or commentary and there was so little lit. crit. we were aware of or mass media “information/slush/stereotypes” to come between us and what we read. In a very real sense we were freer to think for ourselves, to perceive and interpret what Phil wrote without it passing through an external PKD filter first and in our discussions we mostly had to stand or fall (or float!) without appeal to authority. Maybe this wasn’t so much the case for SF fans who went to conventions and panels and whatnot though they did still [sic] wouldn’t have had the mass media sludge bombardment. I’m just writing from my personal experience and perspective in the midst of distractions.

No cell phones, no internet, Soviet Union still apparently going strong, the space program barely visible, PTSD was still PTSS [...] It seems like we’ve gone through a lot of generations worth of social and technological change since 1982.'

Quite a lot of initials there: I only got PTSD/S. As I continue to work through my own PATD (Post-Academic Trauma Disorder) on this blog, in the next entry here you're going to get a lot of post-academic stuff about the meta-critic of Kant, philosopher of language J. G. Hamann. In the meanwhile, if anyone can explain any of the non-PKD/-trauma initials in Keller's writing (W-M, OTOH, OTTH), do let me know!