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revery on transcendence


Borachio, thou art read
In nature and her large philosophy.
Observ'st thou not the very self-same course
Of revolution, both in man and beast?

-         The Atheist’s Tragedy


What is the state of transcendence today?

-         One of Derrida’s favorite gambits was to open an article with a totally queer or off kilter sentence: Que vais-je pouvoir inventer encore? For instance. This seems a phrase broken off from a first draft, or an interior monologue, or something eavesdropped upon. Some event to which one was not privy. It sets us, if we are not so irritated that we do not read further, on the path of estrangement, which means hopping, skipping and jumping to an unfamiliar rhythm.

-         “They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.”

-         So: what is the state of transcendence today – as opposed to, say, one hundred or two hundred years ago. The thought came to me as I was lying in bed here on vacation. But what does it mean to approach the state of transcendence now, if transcendence is an intemporal relationship of, say, experience to, say, the world, and plunk it immediately in history? Or more specifically, its state. Because one could say transcendence for the Cro-Magnon man, or for that matter the passenger pigeon, and transcendence for me, lying in bed and feeling the air of the fan on my bare feet, is the same matter.

-         “Transcendence.” It does seem to have migrated from a central concern of philosophy to a central concern of new age self-help books. A keen philosophy student wanting to write about “transcendence” is almost surely going to start with old texts, transcendence in Kant say, and do a little hermeneutic massage to figure out what that was about, perhaps relating it to the latest in the analytic theory of consciousness. His own experience of transcendence is not going to be part of this story, most usually.

-         For instance, re the later, the kiss.

-         Why the kiss? Why kiss? What is the state of transcendence vis-à-vis a passionate kiss?

-         In the stream of analytic philosophy, not only has transcendence been booted out – an intolerably pre-scientific relic – but experience itself is treated almost wholly as an epistemological question. Experience is consciousness, or fills up that space. And this generates questions like: is consciousness a product of the brain, denoting a cerebral mechanism like “fish” denotes certain creatures that swim in the sea? Or does it have a different ontological status?

-         In this way, the kiss dissolves into a business having to do with intentions.

-         The starting point for the pragmatists, however, has to be experience, not consciousness, or knowing. This is their debt to Emerson, which has been underlined by James, Dewey, Cavell, West, Rorty, etc. Experience, say of a kiss, or of time and space in general, is “nagged” by transcendence – by the contained having something in it that is more than the container.

-         Wittgenstein, the story goes, was discussing his sense of the propositional structure of the world with the Italian economist Sraffa. He “insisted that a proposition had the same internal structure as the state of affairs it describes. Sraffa responded with a certain Neapolitan hand gesture… and said: “what is the logical form of that?”

-         Another version of the story is that Sraffa responded by kissing Wittgenstein passionately on the mouth.

-         No. I made that up.

-         In the tv series, Locke and Key, the uncle looks at his childhood home, the House of Keys, and gives it the finger. Bodie, his nephew, sees him, and the uncle smiles sheepishly and explains that the finger means many things. Like aloha, says Bodie, and the uncle agrees. So Bodie goes around, giving the finger and saying aloha. Has Bodie misunderstood the finger, or aloha?

-         There’s the handshake. There’s the embrace. There’s the kiss. Our transcendent gestures? Or is it all… projection?