In the Middle of Love: At the Fringes of Personhood. An Explorative Essay on the Dialogue of I and Thou and the Poetics of the Impersonal
Wonderful conversation!There seems to be no meaning in it.The one asks in the east, and the other answers in the west;and yet they say, moreover love understands it,they both say one and the same thing.
Impersonal love, it love, is joy.
2. The Ubiquity of the Middle Term and the Privilege of the Second Person
With what infinite love nature, or God in nature, embraces all the differences there are in life and existence. […] There is no, oh, no difference in the love—but in the flowers, what a difference!
Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it. The accompanying feelings can be of greatly differing kinds. The feeling of Jesus for the demoniac differs from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is the one love. Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man: but man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth. Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only as its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou.
Here alone does the word that is formed in language meet its response. Only here does the primary word go backwards and forwards in the same form, the word of address and the word of response live in the one language, I and Thou take their stand not merely in relation, but also in the solid give-and-take of talk [festen ‘Redlichkeit’].
3. The Impersonal in the Person and Its Disclosure in Love and Angst
As much as Heidegger felt with peculiar acuity the necessity of the primordiality of the with [….] he himself has erased the possibility he opened: namely, the possibility of thinking of the with exactly as he had indicated, as neither in exteriority, nor in interiority. Neither a herd, nor a subject. Neither anonymous, nor “mine.” Neither improper, nor proper.
Precisely if the great decision regarding Europe is not to go down the path of annihilation—precisely then can this decision come about only through the development of new, historically spiritual forces from the center [geschichtlich geistiger Kräfte aus der Mitte].
It is not the periphery, the community (Gemeinschaft), that comes first, but the radii, the common quality (Gemeinsamkeit) of relation with the Centre. This alone guarantees the authentic existence of the community (Gemeinde).
Unconcerned with our wisdomThe rivers still rush on, and yetWho loves them not?
Thus there is indeed a belonging to the rivers [Zugehörigkeit zu den Strömen], a going along with them [Mitgehen]. It is precisely that which tears onward more surely in the rivers’ own path that tears human beings out of the habitual midst [gewöhnlichen Mitte] of their lives, so that they may be in a center outside of themselves, that is, be excentric. The prelude [Vorstufe] to inhering [Innehalten] in the excentric midst of human existence, this ‘centric’ and ‘central’ abode [Aufenthalt] in the excentric, is love. The sphere proper to standing in the excentric middle of life is death.
3.1. First Movement: Love
The one who in cowardice carried on his famous activities within the security of respect for persons [Persons-Anseelsens Betryggethed]: he bears the responsibility—that he did not love his neighbor. If such a one were to say: ‘Well, what good does it do to plan one’s life according to such a standard [Maalestok]?’ then I should answer: ‘How do you think this excuse will help you in eternity?’
What love! First, it makes no distinction [Forskjel], none at all; next, which is like the first, it makes infinite differences itself in loving the difference [den uendelig forskjelliggjør sig i at elske det Forskjellige]. Wonderful love! For what is so difficult as in loving not to make any distinctions; and if one simply makes no distinction, what then is so difficult as to make distinctions!
Alas, in real life the individual grows fast to his differences, so that at last death must force to tear them away from him. Nevertheless, if one is truly to love his neighbor, he must remember every moment that the difference between them is only a disguise. For, as was said, Christianity has not wished to storm forth to abolish the differences, neither those of distinction nor of humbleness, nor has it wished in a worldly sense to effect a worldly agreement between differences; but it wants the difference to hang loosely about the individual […] When the difference hangs thus loosely, then that essential other is always glimpsed in every individual, that common to all, that eternal resemblance, the equality [det evigt Lignende, Ligningen].
Wonderful! There is a ‘you’ and an ‘I,’ and there is no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’! For without ‘you’ and ‘I’ there is no love, and with ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ there is no love; but ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ (these pronouns of possession) come from ‘thou’ and ‘I,’ and hence it seems as if they must be wherever there is ‘thou’ and ‘I.’ This is also the case everywhere except in the love which is a fundamental revolution [en Omvæltning fra Grunden af].
To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction, or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself. It is more difficult than suicide would be for a happy child. Therefore the afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact.
Only by the supernatural working of grace can a soul pass through its own annihilation to the place where alone it can get the sort of attention which can attend to truth and to affliction. […] The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love.
3.2. Second Movement: Angst
We “hover” in angst. More precisely, angst leaves us hanging because it induces the slipping away of beings as a whole. This implies that we ourselves—we humans who are in being [diese seienden Menschen]—in the midst of beings slip away from ourselves. At bottom [im Grunde] therefore it is not as though “you” or “I” feel ill at ease [unheimlich]; rather, it is this way for some “one” [“einem” ist es so].
4. The Monologue in Dialogue and Its Expression in the Poetics of the Impersonal
…there remains a question of whether we mortals address our eternal Thou (B. means God) through our mortal Saying-Thou to one another, or whether we aren’t brought into correspondence to one another only through God’s address. The question remains whether this “either-or” is sufficient at all or whether both the one and the other have to be prepared even more primordially, a preparation which of course again requires the [divine] address and its protection [Geheißes und seines Schutzes].
4.1. Monologue in Dialogue: The Song of Peace
Man has learned much since morning,For we are a conversation, and we can listenTo one another. Soon we’ll be song.
One can only marvel at the ridiculous mistake people make when they think—that they speak for the sake of things. The particular quality of language [das Eigenthümliche der Sprache], the fact that it is concerned only with itself, is known to no one.
4.2. Poetics of the Impersonal: The Cry of Writing
Center, how you draw yourselfout of all things, regaining yourselfeven from things in flight: Center, strongest of all!
It is the ground (Grund) as the ‘medium’ (‘Mit’) that holds one being to another in mediation (mittelnd das eine zum anderen hält) and gathers everything in the play of the venture. The unheard-of center (Mitte) is ‘the eternal playmate’ (Mitspielerin) in the world-game (Weltspiel) of Being.
To sing in truth is another breath.A breath for nothing. An afflatus in the god. A wind.
Suppose the ego wants to write—not to write this or that work, but simply to write, period. This desire means: I (Ego) feel that somewhere Genius exists, that there is in me an impersonal power that presses toward writing. But this Genius, who has never taken up a pen (much less a computer)—has no inclination to produce a work. One writes in order to become impersonal, to become genial, and yet, in writing, we individuate ourselves as authors of this or that work; we move away from Genius, who can never have the form of an ego, much less that of an author. […] The life that maintains the tension between the personal and the impersonal, between Ego and Genius, is called poetic.
I write in signs that are more a gesture than voice. All this is what I got used to painting, delving into the intimate nature of things. But now the time to stop painting has come in order to remake myself, I remake myself in these lines. I have a voice.
Creation escapes me. And I don’t even want to know so much. That my heart beats in my breast is enough. The impossible living of the it is enough. […] But my heart’s beating. The inexplicable love makes the heart beat faster. The sole guarantee is that I was born. You are a form of being I, and I a form of being you: those are the limits of my possibility.
What am I in this instant? I am a typewriter making the dry keys echo in the dark and humid early hours. For a long time I haven’t been people. They wanted me to be an object. I’m an object. […] But I don’t obey totally: if I must be an object let it be an object that screams. There’s a thing inside me that hurts. Ah how it hurts and how it screams for help. But tears are missing in the typewriter that I am. I’m an object without destiny. I am an object in whose hands? Such is my human destiny. What saves me is the scream.
My voice falls into the abyss of your silence. You read me in silence. But in this unlimited silent field I unfurl my wings, free to live. So I accept the worst and enter the core of death and that is why I’m alive. The feeling core. And that it makes me quiver.
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“The metaphysics of the middle,” as one might call it, is thus not restricted to Kierkegaard but can in fact be observed in a number of authors and texts. In addition to Buber, we will have occasion to highlight different versions of it in Cusanus and Heidegger. The Kierkegaardian version will be elaborated when we turn to Kierkegaard’s notion of neighbor love in Section 3.1.
The translator translates with “silence” and “silencing”.
I borrow this term from Jean-Luc Nancy, who defines it as “… the transcendence of an immanence that does not go outside itself in transcending, which is not ex-tatic bur ek-sistant.” (Nancy 1996, pp. 34–35). As for Cusanus, Blumenberg rightly remarks: “The coincidence of immanence and transcendence is Cusanus’ great theme …” (Blumenberg 2010, p. 125).
By pointing out this similarity, I do not, of course, wish to deny that many crucial differences remain.
It could be argued with some weight that the middle term is not an ontological term, describing how things are, but a normative term, describing how things ought to be (I am indebted to Bjørn Rahbjerg for pointing this out to me). However, and as I have tried to corroborate elsewhere, it is my contention that Kierkegaard’s notion of the neighbor and of neighbor love implies a suspension of the usual distinction between “is” and “ought” (see Lysemose 2020, pp. 12–19). In this respect, I find Kierkegaard’s thinking to be a fleshed out (but different) version of what Heidegger indicated with the term “originary ethics” in his “Letter on ‘Humanism’” (see Nancy 2003a). It would be out of place to reiterate my argument here, so let me just point to the instructive case of “upbuilding love.” To upbuild love does not mean to bring something into being that previously only had ought to be—like a potentiality that becomes actual. Rather it means to presuppose that love is already there—neither in potentiality, nor in actuality, but in the ground (see Kierkegaard 1949, pp. 169–81). In other words, to “fulfill the law” means to live in the faith that it is already fulfilled (see Kierkegaard 1949, pp. 75–109).
Welz points out that: “In understanding God as perennial middle of human love relations, Buber comes overly close to Kierkegaard’s model of the God-relationship” (Welz 2015, pp. 130–31). For a comparison between Kierkegaard and Buber, highlighting some differences, see Welz (2017). In particular, Welz stresses that “… even a so-called upbuilding discourse remains a meaningless monologue,” if there is no one to read it, and further that—as opposed to the I–Thou relation in Buber—”… writing and reading take place during two separate sequences of action without the writer and the reader meeting each other in a shared present at all.” (p. 374). I shall return to the question of dialogue and monologue and of the relation between writer and reader.
I borrow the term diastasis from Bernhard Waldenfels who defines it as follows: “I designate the temporal shift (Verschiebung) which emerges from the antecedence (Vorgängigkeit) of pathos and the deferment (Nachträglichkeit) of response, dividing the homogeneous dialogue into a heterogeneous dia-logue, as diastasis, that is, as an originary splitting which produces a context (Zusammenhang), albeit a broken one.” (Waldenfels 2011, p. 31). Waldenfels’ responsive phenomenology shares Buber’s dyadic point of departure, but introduces an alienation (Fremdheit) which Waldenfels misses in Buber’s dialogical co-presence of I and Thou. Waldenfels’ critique of Buber on his point is akin to that of Emmanuel Levinas (see Levinas 1998, pp. 150–51).
Like Waldenfels’ responsive phenomenology, Sloterdijk’s spherology also shares Buber’s dyadic point of departure. In a reflection on God’s act of creating Adam, Sloterdijk stresses that this was not only an act of form giving but also—and more crucially—of breath giving. An axiom in the breath science, which Sloterdijk is characteristically keen to inaugurate, is the following: “The breath is hence conspiratory, respiratory and inspiratory from the outset; as soon as breath exists, there are two breathing. With the number two at the start [wo die Zwei am Anfang steht], it would be misguided to force any statement about which pole began in the interior of this dual. […] Breath science [Hauchwissenschaft] can only get underway as a theory of pairs.” (Sloterdijk 2011, p. 41). Buber similarly states: “In the beginning is relation.” (Buber 1937, p. 18).
It is here that Buber also speaks of God as an “absolute person” (see Buber 1970, p. 181). As Welz points out, there is a paradox in the idea that God is both personal (and hence individualized as distinct from other persons) and ubiquitous (such as the notion of middle term suggests) (see Welz 2016, p. 62). Instead of resolving this tension, Welz convincingly suggests that we preserve the paradox and acknowledge both personal and im- or transpersonal traits of God. For Buber, it is in dialogue that persons are wholly persons. In line with this idea, Welz highlights prayer as a distinct form of dialogue with God (see also Welz 2019). The address of prayer is a form of speaking to God in which God is genuinely experienced as person. The concepts of thinking, on the contrary, is a form of speaking about God that cannot account for God’s personhood but should, according to Welz, remain obligated to this mode of revelation (see Welz 2016, p. 78). Although Welz argues for the need of both first, second, and third person perspectives, there is thus a prevalence of the second person. I would like to counter-balance this prevalence a bit by pointing out that if God has both personal and impersonal traits, then we might not only have personal but also impersonal relations with God—and that these latter relations are perhaps no less important. It is true that our best linguistic option to convey them is to speak about God in the third person. This, however, does not entail that “impersonal relations” should be taken to be relations of the kind scientists (allegedly) has to the objects of their particular science. This is already clear when considering Levinas’ notion of illeity (which Welz references (Welz 2016, p. 69)). Rather, in the same way that prayer is the form in which we enter into a personal relation with God, I would suggest that literature is the form in which we enter into an impersonal relation with God—provided that “literature” is understood here in an emphatic sense which I shall aim to elucidate with “the poetics of the impersonal.”
“Zusammanhang” is translated into “context.” I have opted for “cohesion” instead.
The same idea can be found in Heidegger’s notion of “underway” (Unterwegs), which has the structure of to…in, e.g., underway to thinking in thinking, or to language in language (see Heidegger 1968, p. 45 and Heidegger 1977a, pp. 397–98). This implies a structural impossibility, namely that of arriving where you already are, and it is this impossibility that accompanies every step of the way as its eternal middle. This is also why the metaphor of the “middle” is often associated with the metaphor of a “ground” or a “source” from which everything arises or flows but which, itself, remains in the ground or at the origin and cannot by the force of any potentiality be brought into actuality. It is in this sense "impossible". We shall have occasion to return to this impossibility in the guise of Lispectors "impossible living of the it."
The second person perspective is privileged also by Welz, stating that “a second-personal approach to God has an added value” (Welz 2016, p. 80, see also Welz 2015, p. 132). For a defense of the irreducibility of the second person standpoint to that of the first person, see Darwall (2009). For a challenge to the second person from the third person and the impersonal, see Esposito (2018). Esposito’s book provides a valuable overview of and commentary to central texts on the impersonal from Weil to Deleuze. It seems to me, though, that Esposito, in his broad critique of philosophies of the second person, is not sufficiently attentive to the fact that the experience of depersonalization is not foreign to the second person encounter (as the presentation of Kierkegaard’s notion of love as middle term in this paper aims to show).
For an attempt with respect to the issue of the improper and the proper, see Lysemose, “The (Im)proper Community. On the Concept of Eiendommelighed in Kierkegaard.” (Lysemose forthcoming).
“Vereinzelung” is translated into “individualizing.” I have opted for “singularization”.
When comparing thinkers, we tend to assess whether they agree in their explicit statements and not so much whether they concur in the implicit metaphorical horizon, within which the questions arise to which their statements answer. Metaphorology, as conceived by Blumenberg, is the attempt to attend to this “substructure of thought” (Blumenberg 2010, p. 5).
The translator has opted for “excentric” rather than “eccentric”, presumably to preserve the idea of standing out from the center. I shall do likewise.
I am alluding here, of course, to Jean-Luc Nancy’s eponymous book.
Etymologically, the word “angst” is related to a Proto-Indo European root designating something that is narrow, tight, contracted and painful.
Money functions as a kind of universal equalizer, which Kierkegaard, throughout Works of Love, is careful not to mistake for the equality of love, whose universality is of a different kind (the kind, namely, that prohibits us from speaking of “kinds”).
The translator translates “Slægten” with “human race”.
This is why the unity, or univocity, of love is not opposed to multiplicity but, on the contrary, is the only way to not merely have finite differences but infinite differentiation.
There is a significant asymmetry here. I am too late to decide whether to respond or not, when I am called by God. On the strength of my responsive being, I find myself already to be there (the hineni! of Abraham). When I call God, though, I cannot force God to be there. On the contrary, to call for God is to cry out into an unfathomable absence (the Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? of Christ). Perhaps this cry is also the cry of literature (which we will return to).
The etymology of the term which was adopted to designate Christian love, ἀγάπη, suggest an “affectionate greeting,” just as its Latin equivalent, caritas, can be recognized in the English term “dear” or the French “cher,” commonly used to address someone.
This is why “responding to existence,” as Nancy calls it, implies a measureless—not to say irresponsible—responsibility (see Nancy 2003c).
One could perhaps say that love entails a kind of epoché which, like in Husserl, does not mean that anything is lost—the world is still there—but rather that an attitude is changed.
Kierkegaard makes a similar distinction (see Kierkegaard 1949, pp. 15–20).
One may of course wonder how the mathematics works here. If a half-truth equals a total error, how much error does a quarter-truth then merit?
This parting of the ways at the juncture of the concept of person is also theologically reflected since, for Buber, God is an “absolute person,” whereas for Weil, God is “impersonal” (see Buber 1970, p. 181 and Weil 1951, p. 179). In the same texts, however, Buber admits that: “The concept of personhood is, of course, utterly incapable of describing the nature of God; but it is permitted and necessary to say that God is also a person.” (p. 181). And Weil, for her part, concedes that: “The love of God ought to be impersonal as long as there has not been any direct and personal contact; otherwise it is an imaginary love. Afterward it ought to be both personal and impersonal again, but this time in a higher sense.” (p. 200). The investigation of the intricacies which these latter remarks invites must be reserved for another study (see, however, also note 10 of the present essay).
The use of “anxiety” in the translation is replaced here by “angst”.
This is extensively demonstrated by Inger Christensen in her great poem It (see Christensen 2005). As its title indicates, this poem revolves around it and thus around the third person which—as opposed to the first and second person—”… is indeed literally a ‘non-person’,” according to Benveniste (1971, p. 221). We will return to “the writing of it,” not in Christensen, though, but in Clarice Lispector.
For Buber, poetry remains dialogical (see Mendes-Flohr 2014, pp.19–20). It is also noteworthy, though, that Buber’s “ursprüngliche Einsicht” into the principle of dialogue occurred in a theatre, and here in an oscillation between “the genuine spokenness of speech” and its being shattered by “‘noble’ recitation” (see Mendes-Flohr 2007, pp. 108–9).
In Truth and Method, Gadamer writes, “… language has its true being only in dialogue.” (Gadamer 2004, p. 443).
I impart also the original which more clearly contraposes “Gespräch” and “Gesang” with an “aber” that has been lost in translation: Viel hat von Morgen an, Seit ein Gespräch wir sind und hören voneinander Erfahren der Mensch; bald sind wir aber Gesang.
Etymologists usually relate “person” to the semantics of “mask” and “false face.” It is also suggested that the word derives from “sounding through,” but this has not been settled, nor has it been settled whether the two meanings are somehow related. From the point of view of conceptual history, the trajectory of “person” is immense. Consider, for instance, its meanings and uses in grammar (as designating an important subset of pronouns), in jura (as bearer of rights and duties) and in theology (as translation of ὑπόστασις and, as such, operative in the interpretation of the trinitarian dogma).
One does not need to know the person behind the works, as it were, in order to make this assessment, given that Lispector only lived when writing, as she once declared in the sole TV interview she ever gave (the interview was given to TV Cultura in São Paulo in 1977).
Lispector wrote in Portuguese, which does not have this personal pronoun. Accordingly, she chose to use the English term “it” in her text.
Yet another title which Lispector had considered for her book was Objeto gritante (“screaming object”).
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Lysemose, K. In the Middle of Love: At the Fringes of Personhood. An Explorative Essay on the Dialogue of I and Thou and the Poetics of the Impersonal. Religions 2021, 12, 435. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060435
Lysemose K. In the Middle of Love: At the Fringes of Personhood. An Explorative Essay on the Dialogue of I and Thou and the Poetics of the Impersonal. Religions. 2021; 12(6):435. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060435Chicago/Turabian Style
Lysemose, Kasper. 2021. "In the Middle of Love: At the Fringes of Personhood. An Explorative Essay on the Dialogue of I and Thou and the Poetics of the Impersonal" Religions 12, no. 6: 435. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060435