a phantasmagoria’s revenge
Being as Plurality
I am myself.
But you, I think, are me.
Walk with me a while. There is a season for words, and
the air is clear, for winter.
We speak quietly, our voices no louder
than the clatter of frosted grass.
Long strands rattle in
the frozen hollow.
We stop—not quite afraid.
How is it we can tell, under glancing snow
and deeper frost
ice born from an ice-gray sky,
that this empty place of beaten earth and brittle leaves
was sacred, once,
Our voices die away,
unable to whisper above silence.
In the twilight of our idle decadence the philosopher with his little hammer came.
He has come to smash everything sacred, and anything beautiful. The first section of ‘As if, if’ delineates his destructions. They begin with the icons of Jewish and Christian faith—the Torah and the Prophets, first. Then ‘the inscription Pontius Pilate had written’. It is an attack on the sacred through the dismantling of text. The smashing is meant to render absurd and helpless the discourses through which people encounter the divine.
The elaboration in McDuffee’s revision reveals an interesting progression. The philosopher, while claiming fatherhood, smashed the Cross—the death of Christ, the inscription of Pilate—the , the Pietá, Mary Magdalene’s testimony, and the soldiers of Herod. That is, he smashes, incident by incident, the narrative of the Crucifixion. The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection lives through these icons, whether told in words—the inscription—or in image—the Pietá.
He attacks, in other words, not merely a spiritual centre, a theological locus, but an artistic and emotional struggle with grief that flows out of contemplation of this crucial centre. What Rowan Williams has called “the central, fruitful darkness of the Cross” has been smothered, shattered fragmented.* In the destruction of the beautiful and the sacred, something human has been lost.
This place was sacred, once. It’s always winter, now.
We, decadent and desperate, fall to our knees to beat the text of art that gave us a framework for out world. The hammer falls. The lie of the hammer is that crushing ever more finely will reveal truth, hope—that beating charcoal indiscriminately will produce diamonds. Reading indiscriminately in an unbeautiful world will thus produce meaning. Discourse without direction discloses truth. We beat until we have beaten sense out of discourse, destroying ‘the last dialectic’—that is, the relational, even the sexual, dynamic of draw and repulsion, tension and attraction, between one living, thinking being and another.
In a dialectic-free zone the soul stands apart—the ultimate partisanship of the self, in which All is I and None is Thou—in fact MacDonald’s vision of Hell.** The means of communication have been shattered. There is no longer Thou. There is only I.
if we tried to do away with G-d we would not first instead only undo our being, “We.”
Here McDuffee has changed his challenge:
if we tried to do away with G-d we would not first instead only undo our saying we had done so.
This is clearer, true—to destroy G-d through demolishing grammar leaves us speechless, and therefore helpless. The mute murderers of G-d cannot gloat. The lantern shatters, lacking even the ignoble dignity of becoming Queen Mab’s chariot wheels. We grin in futile dumbness at a nameless world..
But the earlier version leads to a stranger, perhaps truer conclusion. The eradication of G-d eradicates ‘our being, “We.”’ To be at all is to be ‘we’. There can be know I without Thou. ‘I’ has no meaning apart from ‘us’.
It’s all very well, to speak in reverent whispers of mankind alone in the universe. But mankind in isolation grows cruel, self-gnawing. We do not think for others, we do not think of creation. We climb one on top of the other convinced that, in the glory or our I-ness, isolated from all others, the I determines right. The I determines truth. The I determines ethics. All that is not the I is to be hammered.
A person is not a self-referential unit. A person in isolation has, in a sense, no being. That’s why our environmentalist brothers and sisters stress the importance of the world, the rights of animals. It’s a recognition that we cannot be, dare not be, alone. We dare not look away from Thou, or the I may vanish forever. Even a tree gives us a sort of being we do not have by ourselves.
When we have gotten rid of grammar and G-d, we get rid of being We. I am myself. I am only. And yet I have lost my ability to say I. Even if I could name myself—and yet why a name, for I distinguish myself from nothing, for all is I—there would be no one to speak my name. I would hear it only from myself. And what would be named, but emptiness?
*Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, 2nd Revised Edition (London: Darton, Todd and Longman Ltd, 1990), 182.
** George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I (London: Alexander Strahan, 1867)