Thursday, September 20, 2007

VI Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

The Paradox of Intention

This term has existed only since 1988, when Marvin Shaw published his eponymous book (Atlanta, Scholars Press). It describes a familiar and pervasive phenomenon that also includes a paradox of attention.

There is a name on the tip of my tongue. The harder I try to remember it, the more unavailable it becomes. Only when I concentrate on something else is there any possibility of recovering what is forgotten. If I do this, the recovery of the lost information is not guaranteed, but at least it becomes more likely. Cheating, that is, keeping my eye on the imaginary spot where the information seems likely to emerge while pretending to myself that I am concentrating on something else, won’t work, and just makes remembering all the more difficult.

The paradox of intention is operative at many levels of the human psyche in virtually every human situation. here is Shaw’s own description (p. 195):

"There is a universal and recurrent human experience in which the blocking of some sought for attainment leads us to modify our intention, and it is found to yield an unexpected fulfillment of its own; experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case, we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it."

Shaw’s description gives us another criterion for maturity: the postponement of immediate gratification.

Lovemaking is a good example of the paradox of intention. Your intentionality has to be animated towards the Otherness of the lover, engaging that Otherness through the difference explored by touch, alert and responsive to the qualities of silence. And touch engages différance: the response of the lover is never predictable and never twice the same. In the dialogue through touch with the lover’s différance and Otherness, one is, paradoxically, dialoguing most profoundly with one’s own différance and Otherness. And the moment of orgasm releases the person into free-fall through Otherness, simultaneously the most intimate and the most solitary experience that we can have with another person. And it is precisely that shared experience of Otherness, not merely the physiological response, that is at the heart of the communion of lovemaking.

Or consider prayer. If you try to enter silence, it is guaranteed that you won’t. You have to find a way to suspend the chatter of self-consciousness. There are many ways into still-prayer, such as focusing on a single word or object, but prayer can also take us by surprise as it did one writer in ‘Talk of the Town’ in the New Yorker (November 11, 1985, p. 36):

"But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes—it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....

"As I walk by my rather disheveled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed. I am called to lunch, and reply that I’ll be there in a minute. The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands. A voice ring out from the house, ‘It’s suppertime!’"

Or think of sleep, one of the little deaths. If we try to grasp sleep with grim determination, we are condemning ourselves to insomnia. Or think of the many other situations in business or personal relationships, or in our interior lives, where the law of the paradox of intention is operative, particularly, as we have seen, in discovering play with différance and Otherness that leads to the continually unfolding discovery of the truth of our selves.

We have lost our sense of the importance of the unseen, and we have, in consequence, lost the art of discernment. Forgive me if I seem harsh, but daily I am engaged in damage control, trying to help people find freedom from these various tyrannies. And so, having rubbished some of these sacrosanct notions, I hasten to offer a rather different model of the self.

The Self

A few years ago the New Yorker published one of those quirky and wonderful long articles for which it is famous, about an unusual exhibit mounted in the huge old science hall that was built for the 1964 Word’s Fair on Long Island. This building was typical of its day: poured concrete, with fragments of coloured glass imbedded everywhere in its walls.

Within this extraordinary space, a scientist was trying to create a whirlwind. He knew that if he directed air currents from strategically located window fans, a spiral would form. The difficulty was making the whirlwind visible, because in the excitement of working under the mysterious kaleidoscopic light, he forgot that air is invisible.

The fans were in place and blowing, but no whirlwind was to be seen. To reassure himself that the whole thing wasn’t a mad fantasy, he turned them up as high as they would go and put a pan of water where the vortex ought to have been. The invisible whirlwind, now quite strong, promptly sucked up the water and vapourized it, suddenly becoming visible, dancing in the eerie light as it moved here and there, responding to vagrant air currents wandering through the vast hall, coloured by those marvelous chips of stained glass.

Now let’s think about spirals on a big scale. Out of the plasma in deep space, spiral galaxies form, each one unique. Each is made of billions upon billion of stars, clouds of gas, space-dust. At the centre of many of these galaxies is a black hole, a density. What these spirals, small and large, have in common is that, whirlwind or galaxy, each has a definite shape, a spiral, that seeks and relinquishes, uniquely appearing and disappearing, never repeating or repeatable, yet true to its intrinsic spiral shape, a dance of différance around an otherness, an emptiness, a still centre. Each is responsive to the environment that surrounds it. Each is composed of many elements; all are needed, none can be left out.

This notion of the spiral continually forming, responsive to its environment, made up of innumerable elements gathering around, disappearing into and re-emerging from a centre of otherness, is a model that is immensely useful for talking about the self. The spiral left alone to do its dancing, illuminated by diaphanous light, is the self free of embarrassed self-consciousness and shame, free of the tyrannies of culture and the unintegrated super-ego. ‘Look upon Me and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.’ (Ps. 34)

By contrast let’s look at what happens to the ever-forming spiral of the self when it is not left alone: the unintegrated super-ego judges from its limited perspective that a particular air current is wicked; or it would like to leave out half the motes of dust because they are dirty, or the water, because it is uncomfortably wet and doesn’t want to be made visible. It decides it would like to turn off one of the fans, imperiling its existence; it decides that the colours are too diverse, that monochrome would be more interesting. The self-imposed cultural tyrannies to which we subject our selves apply pressures to the spiral of the self that bend it out of shape, or perhaps cause it to collapse altogether.

The truth of the self is more than the sum of its parts. First, the truth of the self can be discovered only in dialogue with the fullness of one’s self, the dialogue that begins with earthed knowledge and appreciation of the body. In the discussion above, this is analogous to knowable difference or the role of the griddle in the metaphor. Next, the truth of the self requires mature exploration of that richest of metaphors, sexuality, that animates all intention. This is analogous to différance. But above all, the truth of the self is found in the dialogue with one’s own Otherness, not in the dialogue with one’s own self-consciousness, but with the apparent self that disappears into and re-emerges from the Silence at the centre of our being in the movement known as perichoresis, by which is described the life of the blessed Trinity.

Thus, when we speak of being alienated from our selves it is not the truth of our selves from which we are alienated, but rather the presumptuous judgments of a superego tyrannized by what in its looped perception, it sees as different from itself and compares with itself. This judgement lies at the circumference of the circle, which is illusion, which is no where. We become alienated from our selves when we have lost the limitless and self-forgetful perspective bestowed by the focus of our intention in the dialogue with Otherness that takes us to the centre which is every where, and where we find our communion with others, the intention that is animated by our sexuality.

If mysticism is living the ordinary through transfigured perception, then this dialogue with one’s own otherness, with one’s own silence and ineffability, has a commonality with the dialogue with Silence that is union with God. Even more, it has commonality with that same dialogue with Silence and Otherness which is the truth of every other self, and it discovers this commonality as it awakens to the différance and ineffability into which the most ordinary material objects elide, as solid as they may seem to us.

To put this another way, what we have most in common is Otherness: the Otherness of people and the Otherness of creation is the same Otherness as the Otherness of God; we share the common centre of the circle that is every where. And if we are seeking the truth of our selves, this Otherness calls forth from us a reverence, a humility and respect, an awe before our selves, one another, and the creation that turns our gaze away from the comparisons of difference and finally relinquishes even the seductive metaphors of différance. Our most profound commonality with our selves, with each other, with the creation, is not effected by what we can know, but by what we can’t, the communing engagement with Otherness, ours, another’s, the creation’s, God’s.


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