Presence and Absence
If we hold together these notions of the play of différance and Otherness, of presence and absence, we notice that there is something quite paradoxical in presence itself, that implicit in presence is absence. In the centuries before the middle of the last one, before the advent of telephone and telegraph, the fax machine and the camera, before travel became a commonplace, presence was a matter for profound celebration and thanksgiving.
In a society where there is high infant mortality, the joy of life is always attended by the shadow of death. In the ancient world, the arrival of a friend through all the perils of travel, the chances of accident, pestilence or brigandage was a cause of intense joy, yet shadowed by the knowledge that implicit in this physical presence was the possibility of never again laying eyes on the beloved.
Who can forget Paulinus’ efforts to reassure Ausonius of presence in absence? The translation is Waddell’s:
I, through all chances that are given to mortals,
and through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do to-day.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be.
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
So too the Anglo-Saxons never celebrated hearth and mead-hall, nor song, nor treasure-giving lord without recalling the fire that would one day consume, without a reminder of the transience of things that can be destroyed by storm or raiders, or the vagaries of fate that may lead to exile:
"Oft when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man, it seems to him in his imagination that he is embracing and kissing his lord and laying hands and head on his knee, just as at times previously in days of old he enjoyed the gift-throne. Then the friendless man awakes again and sees before him tawny waves, sea-birds bathing, spreading their wings, rime falling and snow, mingled with hail....
"A prudent man must recognize how appalling it will be when all the wealth in this world stands waste—as even now randomly throughout this middle-earth walls are standing, wind-blown, rime-covered, the ramparts storm-beaten. The wine-halls are crumbling, the rulers are lying dead, deprived of pleasure, the whole proud company has fallen near the wall; some war snatched away and carried off along the onward road; one a bird bore away over the deep ocean; one the grey wolf dismembered in death; one a sad-faced man buried in a grave in the earth." (from ‘The Wanderer’)
Then as now, for all of our technology, there is no way to guarantee presence. Although our perception of it is muted, presence till holds absence in its embrace; to try to guarantee this presence, however is only to guarantee its absence. But engagement with Otherness transmutes all of this: in Otherness is absence that guarantees presence:
". . . the mercy seat in the temple at Jerusalem was a vacant space between the cherubim in the holy of holies, the ‘great speaking absence’ that signified both Israel’s repudiation of earthly representations of the deity and the imageless space into which they sought to come by prayer and devotion. In the New Testament, the empty tomb is similarly eloquent in its absence of presence [and the cherubim surrounding this empty space wear the masks of tragedy and comedy]. The angel’s question in St. Luke, ‘Why seek you the living with the dead?’ signals the necessity of passover into a new perception of the living Christ and a putting away of the old certainties. Christ’s injunction to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ reinforces the sense of his transfiguration beyond the realm of earthly signification." (V. Gillespie and M. Ross, ‘The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich’ in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. M. Glasscoe, Cambridge: D. Brewer, 1992).
In speaking of sexuality, Otherness, and the truth of the self, I hope I have not given the impression that I a in any way idealizing either human nature or the situation in which we find ourselves. Rather, I am simply trying to suggest that there may be more creative possibilities to effect hope and a way forward by modeling the human condition in a different way, by using different language, and by relinquishing our presumption in regard to how much we mistakenly assume we know about sexuality.
I began by speaking about the joyous folly of living as if, which has a way of effecting hope, and the thrust of this lecture has been to remind us of the urgent necessity to shake free from the strangulating loop of comparison and stereotype, and of the importance of dialogue with différance and otherness in every aspect of our lives. For it is the Otherness that lies at the heart of everything that exists that is the source of life, and effects and receives its transfiguration. It is Otherness that makes the gift to us of the truth of the human person and is the deepest source of our commonality and communion. It is clear, then, that living as if demands that we remain steadfast in our refusal to yield to the temptation of short-term gratification by concretizing Otherness in a time-bound utopian social programme that demands to be imposed step by ruthless step.
Part of the dialogue with Otherness is willingness to live on the liminality of différance, the mutability from which the future that holds more than we can ask or imagine may unfold. If we eliminate différance and return to a life and identity that loop around transitional objects that we have turned into fetishes, then we are once again subject to tyranny.
God is able to give us more than we can ask or imagine, whether the truth of our selves or a transfigured civic order, only when we are willing to relinquish our self-consciousness and engage otherness. Only when we are able to commit our selves to the security of Otherness that enables us to live in insecurity, to its jouissance, are we able to hold on to our ineffable vision and its play, while at the same time respecting the Otherness of a frightened and immature culture that continues to be tyrannized by its fetishes, a culture that continues to persecute those who do not fit into the rigidity of its stereotypes.
The task is difficult but it is not impossible, and in the Otherness revealed between the two halves of the fractured Host we glimpse the eucharistic nature of Otherness, the brokenness we enter to find our healing. And we have also the example of those who have survived the utmost degradation that human beings can inflict on one another.
Thus, without claiming any particular moral high ground for our selves or for anyone in the human community, I would like to give a group of women the last word, who provide us with an unsurpassed example of how the vision of living as if, and the boundless compassion that springs from the sure boundaries of the truth of the self, may be effected. This is a prayer from Ravensbrück concentration camp, where 92,000 women and children died, a prayer that was found by the body of a dead child:
"O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; [rather,] remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruit which we have borne be their forgiveness." (from The Oxford Book of Prayers)