PHILOSOPHY

BEFORE THE ABYSS

28 APRIL 2021

 

The human being and with it the world are not anything objective. They are not “before” us but “in” us, or rather we ourselves are abyssal. Thus we can learn from our present situation that our auto-production leads to an allo-observation within us. To a recognition of a longing, a desire whose opening shows the abyss. A desire for the encounter with the otherness.

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False mirror, Rene Magritte; Image credit: Wikimedia commons

            ince what is called “the death of God”, we – we Occidentals or the western-planetary civilisation – are before an abyss. (1) And this is true in a very precise sense. For the “God” that “died” was nothing other than the “ground” itself. The ground of the existence of the world and of every being in the world – this means not only the essence of this world but also its cause and its aim, to be its ground and, of course, to be our ground and to belong to the realm of meaning [Sinn].(2)

To belong to this realm of meaning (and of the senses [Sinne]) means for us above all to ask about the reason [Grund] of all things, to understand an explanation, a meaning, and a usefulness of our presence.

1

Somehow, God was (also outside of religion – for example, through the deification of the human being itself, which has been considered the reason and purpose of the world for about three centuries) – God was the answer to what came to be called through Leibniz “the principle of reason” [der Satz vom Grund]. That is, everything ought to have a sufficient reason (pincipium rationis sufficientis).

But it was precisely in Leibniz’s time that the principle of reason simultaneously appeared as such and remained in the status of an “ought”. (In fact, this is about a mixture of “should” and “must” – the must of a causality and the should of an intelligibility, of an ability to make sense [Sinnfähigkeit] without which everything falls into absurdity).

This must-should, this claim to reason [Grund] – an intellectual as well as existential claim – is always present to us. We absolutely need it to know that it is worth living as a human being.

… Or are we rather used by this claim? Would/Are we perhaps (be) victims of a need that merely belongs to our model of rationality? One needs grounds [Gründe] – ratio or logos, causa or intentio – because one is used by the idea of grounds. (3) But we understand well that love or art, sport or dance, cuisine or perfume are all without ground. We say they are “for fun” – but how can fun count as really serious ground?...

Today, for example, one can read in a magazine: why do we experience arousals [Erregnung] – joyful and sorrowful? And then, there follows a neuroscientific explanation with the brain, neurons, nerves etc. But with this, we don’t get to arousal [Erregnung] itself. Through this science we receive knowledge about causalities that have nothing to do with fear, joy, fun, or discontent.

And thus, we remain before the abyss. The reason [Grund] for an arousal [Erregnung] can also be explained psychically, but how a particular psyche reacts belongs to the whole of an idiosyncrasy – of a somehow primal-proper constitution [ur-eigene Verfassung] that can never be grasped [fassen], that is not always one and the same, (4) that always retreats from the search – this is how Freud himself understands it.

So, the abyss is not only not always constant, but it always becomes bigger or deeper. When it becomes too difficult – too sad or too pleasurable – then one turns again to... God or to a substitute, to an “unspeakable”. (Think of what one can say today about what took place before the Big Bang. Of course, we will know more about it later, at least up to a point where there can no longer be any talk anymore of a “before” or where there will only be an infinite “before”. Actually, Kant already knew this, and this is why he already searched, within the conditions of his time, for another thought of the deity).

2

This means that our present situation was known or felt long before – before the “death” of “God”. In the seventeenth century, Angelus Silesius wrote – as is well known:

Die Rose ist ohne Warum.
Sie blühet, weil sie blühet.
Sie achtet nicht ihrer selbst,
fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet

The rose is without Why.
It blooms because it blooms.
It pays no heed to itself,
does not ask if it is seen

Silesius had no idea about today’s floral science. But he noticed somehow that people in his time were already very interested in causality (he had read Descartes). “Why and for what?”, they said, and they did so in the modern version, where it is not so much a matter of the potency of the origin and the urge towards a purpose but of a calculable sequence of phenomena – so that, as Kant will observe, the sequence is infinite. And this infinity of the chain of causality requires either a first cause as causa sui (God for Descartes or Spinoza) – or it remains infinite.

S

S

                    We never reach a finality because we go infinitely further. This is why the abyss may be fascinating – just as a chasm is fascinating. The human being and with it the world are not anything objective.

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Meditative Rose, Salvador Dali; Image credit: dalipaintings.com

Thus, one also needs a purpose that is imagined either as a final totality (like the substance in Spinoza or the total human in Marx – at least according to certain interpretations of these thinkers) or as an infinite multiplication of productions.

For production may be considered the main concept here: to bring something forth from something, a “more” in all dimensions (size, force; speed, even productivity: production produces itself, causality causes itself). This auto-production used to be called progress as long as it was considered to be the increase or growth of human life.

Today, however, we learn simultaneously that production is futile and that this futility can even become a damage to human life and life in general. Every “improvement” carries with itself an aggravation. Or – which is the same – we no longer know what a “good life” is supposed to be – at least if we do not experience such a bad life as the billions of “underdeveloped”; these need a correct life; but the “developed” understand that the development in itself is not “correct” at all but superfluous and futile – unless one considers money and power as the purpose.

3

Thus, for us, there is no ground anymore – and yet we do not know how we could understand or experience ourselves as “without why”, how we could contemplate and appreciate ourselves and all of life in the same way as Silesius’s rose.

For it is the alternative that is before us. Either to invent a god again or to be able to think the abyss – the “without why”. But the time of the gods is over, even if many people believe in gods today. Because there is a contradiction between gods and auto-production – at least when the gods are imagined as grounds. For one must then understand how the ground can ground auto-production – and autonomy in general. Essentially, the gods are others – that is, they are alloi, the opposite of auto (as when one speaks of allochthony, allogamy or allomorphy: that which is truly alien, unknown, and not merely different, as is the case between homo and hetero).

The abyss is otherness as such. Unknown and unknowable. (5) This otherness is what we must think – must and should, one more time. That is, the other in its absolute being-other [Anderssein]. The other that must not be returned to the same.

It may be that the gods always represented something like this. But precisely this representation or imagination is a way of making the being-other recognisable [erkennbar] - even if it is said that God has neither form nor name. For as soon as one says “God”, one uses a name for the nameless, as is the case with Allah or with the Jewish unsayable Tetragram (as a substitute for which one uses the name “Hachem”, which means “the one who bears the name”).

Through the name, one “is familiar with” [“kennt”] something and since for us “familiarity” [das “Kennen”] always has with itself something of the knowledge of an object, the gods can only be objects for us, that is, idols. And thus, the abyss of the death of God is an abyss of nameability [Nennbarkeit]. Then of language. Our present language does not know how to speak into the unspeakable [to pronounce/enunciate the unspeakable]. (6) And still, this is exactly what we say of poetry.

Thus, it is said with Paul Celan:

Sprich –
Doch scheide das Nein nicht vom Ja.
Gib deinem Spruch auch den Sinn:
gib ihm den Schatten.

Gib ihm Schatten genug,
gib ihm so viel,
als du um dich verteilt weißt zwischen
Mittnacht und Mittag und Mittnacht. 
(7
)


Speak –
But do not separate the no from the yes.
Give your saying also meaning:
give it its shadow.

Give it enough shadow,
give it as much
as you know to be parceled out between
midnight and midday and midnight. 
(8
)

But then it is said that it is less about naming [Nennen] than about encountering. The gods were once probably more present in the encounter than in the naming or lack of naming [Unnennung]. The encounter means at least that the encountered is not an object.

The abyss is not an object. It is not ob-ject [gegen-ständig]: it is us, ourselves. We are our abyss. We never reach a finality because we go infinitely further. This is why the abyss may be fascinating – just as a chasm is fascinating. The human being and with it the world are not anything objective. They are not “before” us but “in” us, or rather we ourselves are abyssal. Thus we can learn from our present situation that our auto-production leads to an allo-observation within us. To a recognition of a longing [Verlangen], a desire [Begehren] whose opening shows the abyss. A desire for the encounter with the otherness.

Translated by Simon Trüb

                    To belong to this realm of meaning (and of the senses [Sinne]) means for us above all to ask about the reason [Grund] of all things, to understand an explanation, a meaning, and a usefulness of our presence.

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NOTES

1. Translator’s note: Translated from the German “Vor dem Abgrund”. While “Abgrund” is here best translated as “abyss”, it literally or etymologically refers to an area that leads down from a higher “ground” (Ab-grund). “Ground” (Grund), thus, forms part of “Abgrund” and German “Grund” can mean “ground” as well as “reason”. This relationship between “abyss” (Abgrund), “ground”, and “reason” is central to the whole text and it is lost as soon as “Abgrund” is translated as “abyss”. Hence, often if not always in this translation, “reason” also has the connotation of “ground” and vice versa, while “abyss” signifies not only an absence of ground but also an absence of reason.


2. Translator’s note: Translated from the German “Reich des Sinns”. “Sinn” can mean “meaning” as well as “sense” (as in “Geschmacksinn” – “sense of taste”).


3. Translator’s note: Translated from the German “Man braucht Gründe – ratio oder logos, causa oder intentio – weil man durch die Vorstellung von Gründen gebraucht wird“. The sentence revolves around the word pair „brauchen“ (i.e. “to need”, “to require”) and “gebraucht werden von” (i.e. “to be used by”).


4. Translator’s note: “fassen” (“to grasp”) forms part of “Verfassung”, which is here translated as “constitution” (in German as in English, “constitution”/“Verfassung” has a physiological as well as a legal meaning). The composite adjective “ur-eigen” as in “ur-eigene Verfassung” (here translated as “primal-proper”) posed some challenges for the translation. The prefix “ur-” denotes a primordial or primal quality or status, while “eigen” can be translated as “proper”. Thus, in a psychoanalytical context, “ur-eigen” might refer to something that exists before the arrival of the “proper”. Hence, it denotes a constitution that is “not always one and the same” [“die nicht immer eine und dieselbe”].


5. Translator’s note: Translated from the German “Unbekannt und unkennbar”. “Unbekannt“ and „unkennbar“ share the root verb „kennen“. To maintain this morphological connection between the two adjectives, they are here translated as “unknown and unknowable”. “Kennen” can refer to the act of knowing or understanding (e.g. “Kennst du den Unterschied zwischen A und B?” – “Do you know the difference between A and B?”) but it also often refers to the state of “being familiar with” something or someone. Thus, while “unbekannt” can be translated as “unfamiliar” in addition to “unknown”, “unkennbar” also refers to an inability of ever becoming familiar, for which the English language does not offer a good equivalent – “unassimilable” might come close to it.


6. Translator’s note: square brackets in original.


7. Von Schwelle zu Schwelle. 


8. Celan, Paul. ‘Speak, You Too’. Trans. Pierre Joris. Paul Celan: Selections. Ed. Pierre Joris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. p. 54.