Friday, November 18, 2011

The Social is NOT Rational

I paused for thought when I read this sentence in Morgan Meis review of Péter Nádas's Parallel Stories:

That is the inherent tension of the beastly self in its relation to our rational and socially acceptable desires.

The idea that the "socially acceptable" is also the "rational" is a tired cliché that does not stand up to scrutiny. It is also a denigration of rationality. The world of social acceptability is thoroughly emotional, however insipid it may sometimes be. I stress sometimes. There are perfectly good norms out there. That does not make them rational, however.

That said, I agree that there is something "beastly" beneath both our reasons and our passions, beneath both our material world and our social history.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faith, Prose and Poetry

Following up on the previous post, I think it's worth emphasizing that Kierkegaard equated faith with immediacy. This makes sense when we consider that our institutions (and our intuitions) constitute the presence of power (and knowledge) in our lives. That is, an institution is that in which power is represented immediately in our experience. To "have faith", then, is simply to feel power immediately in your life. Call it the power of God, if you like, but it is really just a very obedient attitude to what goes on around you. (Likewise, as a form of knowledge, faith is a very understanding attitude.)

This, not incidently, also means that life becomes a very "prosaic" affair. Neither institutions nor intuitions are experienced as problematic.

I like Merleau-Ponty's idea of "a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others" in this respect. A poem is, in a sense, always an act of infidelity. So is a philosophical intervention (for which, as ever, we lack a good word, like "poem".) A poem does not emerge from faith, precisely because it does not believe in institutions. It calls out from one individual freedom to another.

I am not wholly without faith, I should mention. (No one is.) But I do believe that our institutions must be challenged by an immediacy that is not immediately obedient or understanding. That is, there must be poetry and philosophy in our lives as well.

Institution and the Individual Talent

In his plan for The Prose of the World, a book he never finished, Merleau-Ponty offers the following insight into the relationship between our poetry and our institutions.

When a writer is no longer capable of ... founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating, he has outlived his time. It seems to me that we can also say of other institutions that they have ceased to live when they show themselves incapable of carrying on a poetry of human relations— the call of each individual freedom to all the others.

Hegel said that the Roman state was the prose of the world.

Perhaps all that is needed in the way of comment on this is the allusion to T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in my title. We should keep in mind also, however, that institutions are the "media of the immediacy" of power in our lives.