The chasm at the heart of our agency

In every house, in the heart of each maiden and of each boy, in the soul of the soaring saint, this chasm is found, between the largest promise of ideal power, and the shabby experience. 

- Ralph Waldo Emerson 

In my slightly bleak exploration of finding joy on a dying planet, I’ve thought a lot about what this means for the expectations we have of others. In his thought provoking The Religion of the Future, Roberto Unger suggests that we are cursed by an insatiability in how we relate to the world reflecting, as Emerson put it in his Montaigne; Or, The Skeptic, the chasm between the promise we find within us and the ‘shabby experience’ of living out that promise in the world. There is a sense that we could always become more than we are, described by Peter Sloterdijk in one of his more memorable phrases as “my innermost not-yet” defined by the ‘vertical tension’ which “defines life as a slope from its higher to its lower forms”. To make the observation he draws upon the Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke, taking its haunting final statement for the title of his book:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life

He explores those moments in which we confront the vertical tension with a force that feels like it comes from outside us. It is a moment of revelation, such that in one of my favourite phrases from Nietzsche, “You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form“. It is an involuntary recognition of what Emerson described as “the largest promise of ideal power” in which we feel “the soul of the souring saint” within us that the “shabby experience” of life within the world has prevented us from realising. But it can also be a reflective determination “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” as Alfred Tennyson puts it in the closing line of Ulysses; a refusal to let the parameters of our world collapse under the weight of the experience we accumulated within it.

However the unsettling point which Unger makes it that this striving leads us to invest others with expectations which they can never meet. As he puts it on pg 15, “We demand of one another, as well as of the social and cultural worlds that we build and inhabit, more than we and they can offer”. In doing so we seek “connection without subjugation” in spite of the unavoidable reality that the possibility of subjugation is inherent in every connection (pg 19). As he puts it on pg 18:

We want from one another acceptance, recognition, and admiration as well as things and power. In particular, we want from one another what every child wants from every parent: an assurance that there is an unconditional place for him the world. No such assurance is ever enough, because every assurance is both ambiguous and revocable. Even if we can accumulate enough of scarce material resources, we can never get enough of the even scarcer immaterial ones.

To ‘change your life’ in Rilke’s sense is not something other people can do for us. But it is conversely not something we can do alone. Increasingly I think of the ‘chasm’ which Emerson is pointing to as something akin to an existential wound, the struggle to heal from which leads us to “resist the automatisms, the habits, the endless little surrenders that rob us, by instalments, of the substance of life” (Unger pg 5) in a struggle which we can never complete. The recognition of these wounds in others can feel like it imperils our capacity to address them in ourselves and vice versa. But this rests, I think, on a fantasy of a non-wounded state, projected outwards into potential savours or into the agonies of those we aspire to save. In these dynamics of projection and identification we foreclose the possibility of coming together in our mutual woundedness, in order to cultivate the joys which can be found in a cold world. Unger expresses a scepticism about the relief that can be found through the things we do and the people we find (pg 23):

Can we not have in love and in work experiences that wholly absorb us, modify or even suspend our sense of the passage of time, without depriving us of consciousness, and interrupt the cycle of unrequited desire? Indeed, we can, if we are both lucky and wise, but only for a while. The work will come to an end, and no longer represent for its creator what it represented in the throes of creation. The love, ever tainted by ambivalence, will cease to waver only if it ceases to live. The work and the love will be seen to be the particular engagement and the particular connection that they are, and we will continue to seek, absurdly and inescapably, something that is not just one more particular. Our reprieves from insatiable desire will be momentary; our insatiability will remain as the lasting undercurrent of our experience, thrown into starker relief by its remissions.

His point is that “The brevity of life lends urgency to the pursuits of desire: our time will end while we continue to seek one unworthy object after another, each the proxy for the unreachable horizon of that which could satisfy us” (pg 21). But what does the decaying character of the world do to the ultimately individualising predicament of living towards death? What does this mean for the things we can do and be with each other? Does “going through the pessimism, the darkness, the struggle” possibly open up “a pocket where there is no other option but joy”? Now I’m rapidly stumbling into early middle age I’m increasingly aware of how I tend to preoccupied by images (saturated by feelings) which I carry with me, continually returning to in the hope of finally articulating what I sensed in that Nietzschean flash of insight. This is one I’ve been carrying around with me since I was a teenager:

Hope, perseverance, a vision (some doubt).
Green ink, a 26 oz., a bad case of big-mouth.
A sum of our parts and I've never laughed harder.
A song in our hearts and I've never laughed harder.
It don't really matter 'cause nothing's ever felt as right as this.

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