Giving ourselves up

From the AP’s daily dispatch of disinformation comes this puzzling statement:

Without ruling on el Motassadeq’s guilt, the appeals court said the lower court erred because it failed to consider whether the lack of direct evidence from Binalshibh should have influenced its decision.

A lawyer for relatives of Sept. 11 at both trials, Andreas Schulz, said Thursday’s ruling “will certainly be met with incomprehension” by them.

What does it mean to brag about one’s own (or one’s clients’) willful ignorance in this context? Could ignorance be somehow essential to innocence, that sine qua non of victimhood? It certainly inspires more pathos to imagine (say) new prisoners at Auschwitz actually believing the death camp’s motto, “Arbiter Macht Frei” (Work Makes [You] Free). But what about those among the prisoners who were both well aware of the fate that awaited all the camp’s inhabitants, and who were appointed by the Nazis to positions of power over their fellows? Doesn’t the consideration of their fate and motives somewhat muddy the “moral clarity” that neo-conservative nabobs are always nattering about? What does it mean to talk about “victim’s rights” if the right to reconciliation, the right to hold or withhold forgiveness, is routinely overshadowed by the demand for retribution? Should the wronged party in fact be permitted to claim a right to retribution, or should simple recompense suffice?


I wonder if the victim of a crime can ever be repaid in the way that retributive justice seems to demand. In Germanic tribal law, blood guilt could only be averted through arbitration, and the victim (or the victim’s next of kin, in the case of murder) agreeing to some settlement, usually monetary. For truly heinous crimes, exile was the severest penalty. By contrast, in our supposedly more enlightened society, most people don’t see anything wrong with making someone pay for murder, say, by depriving them of freedom and dignity and subjecting them to privation and often extreme violence and psychological trauma for the rest of their life. And we consider this more humane than simply executing them, which at least has the advantage of proportionality to the crime.

“Primitive” law codes, written or unwritten, express a tautological truth that many seem now to have lost sight of: that the legal system was developed to avert lawlessness. Lawlessness, in tribal societies such as those of the ancient Germans or Western Semitic peoples, did not mean primarily “lack of obedience to authority,” because authority tended to be fluid and decentralized. Rather, social disorder equated to illegitimate violence: another tautology. Better to say: disproportionate violence, violence that spirals or threatens to spiral out of control. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” may seem vengeful, but in fact it was intended to replace “an arm for an eye and your firstborn’s life for my tooth.”

What is it about the cycle of revenge that tends to send it spiraling out of control? Years ago my father came up with a physical analogy to describe what happens when individuals remain mired in their own points-of-view. “‘I was willing to go halfway, but he was not!’ How many times do we hear this sort of statement advanced as self-evident proof of reasonableness and good intentions?” my father asked rhetorically. “But here: let’s look at each other from a few feet away. Now, I am going to put my finger where I think the halfway point is. You do the same.” Between our fingers a gap of a few inches remained.

His conclusion: we each have to be willing to go more than half-way toward the other, from our own perspective, if harmony is to be preserved. There must be give as well as take. Is this not the root meaning of forgiveness, I wonder: to give in excess of that which strict justice would seem to require?


Martin Luther King: “Peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” In this sort of usage, I think, justice is invested with a broader meaning that encompasses both fairness and harmony. It includes seeing oneself as another and seeing another as oneself. To practice respect, to engage in hospitality. It’s not so difficult, really. As the quote with which we began this inquiry strongly suggests, willful ignorance is essential if we are to cling stubbornly to our own perspectives, insist on our unique and fundamental victimhood. No qualifiers are permitted; nuance is impossible. It is an outrage. The very ground cries out for blood.

But simple hospitality and mutual respect do not suffice to bring about social harmony. For proof, one need look no farther than the perpetually warring tribesmen of northern Yemen, or other parts of the world where the canons of hospitality are strictly observed. A more radical form of hospitality seems to be in order, one that transcends bilateral relationships to perceive the intricate web in which we all move, human and non-human alike, the living and the dead and the generations yet to come.

What might such a perspective entail? What are its preconditions? Does it depend upon religious institutions for its propagation, or might it flourish more readily beyond their reach? These are each huge questions; any answers I propose now or in the future must remain highly tentative.


A few angles of approach do suggest themselves. One is the possible centrality of the very kind of unknowing that has been the underlying theme of this weblog. In contrast to willful ignorance, which involves a self-conscious refusing to look/hear/understand, what I call “unknowing” describes a realization of inadequacy to anything approaching full and comprehensive vision/hearing/apprehension. Knowing that one doesn’t know is essential to understanding, both at the mundane and supramundane levels. At the supramundane level, I suppose, one comes acropper of the unknowability of Creation, the way in which the material world exceeds mater/matter at every turn – the way in which “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” And “more beautiful is the hunt than the pelt,” as the Dutch proverb has it, because when that which is hidden gives itself up for dead, we run the great risk of accepting a diminished role as killer, rather than recipient of a gift which is never fully deserved.

So we can perhaps draw a parallel with the religious concept of faith – not in the usual Christian sense of blind, unwavering belief in absurd propositions, which probably belongs more under the heading of willful ignorance. What I have in mind here is something more universal: the religious person’s sense that they must give themselves up to a higher or deeper power. “No gesture is more significant,” says the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, “than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up.” Or in that wonderful phrase of Heschel’s I quoted last week, “Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind.”

There is a feyness to such faith – a sense of ourselves as hunters no longer, but helpless prey. Lambs of God the great predator. I am reminded of a Vishnavite devotional painting that depicts the petitioner stretched supine across the knees of a multi-armed, multi-headed manifestation of the Godhead, Whose foremost arms end in the razor-clawed forepaws of a lion. The petitioner has been disemboweled; the Divinity’s fangs drip with blood. The petitioner gazes upward, rapt, enraptured.

This sounds horrific until one recalls that god and worshipper are not immutable roles. From the vantage-point of evolution, humans appear as both predator and prey. In the strictly religious realm, one goal in many traditions is personal transcendence through moksa, nirvana, imitatio Christi, etc. God can die within us (in the dark night, in the cloud of unknowing) just as we can die within God. When we partake of the sacrificial lamb or the wafer or the psychadelic mushroom, we are consuming the flesh of God, dissolving it within our own bellies. In these and many other ways, individual human beings are encouraged to strive for a realization that experience and thoughtful reflection tells us is beyond our powers. We need to somehow unite our own inadequate power with what the Pure Land Buddhists call simply Other-Power.

Usually outside the religious realm (at least here in the West) is the self-transcendence experienced during sex. But sex is an interesting case because, at least in its heterosexual form, it contains the implicit promise of a form of literal self-exceeding not possible with other altered states. (The Vajrayanists might argue with me here. I don’t discount at least the possibility of emanation-bodies and the like.) The literature on so-called entheogens – mind-altering drugs used for religious purposes – does suggest that shared visions are possible and even common, at least in some South American traditions. And as Andrew Weil once pointed out, the mind can be trained to do on its own anything that it can be made to do through chemicals. This, incidentally, may reduce the sense of dependence on gods and spirits but, if anything, increases one’s reliance on Other-Power in the form of the guru. Be that as it may, we should be careful not to succumb to the current fashion of treating sex as the standard by which all other self-transcending experiences must be measured. (Western science, too, can breed a form of fundamentalism!)


This discussion of self-transcendence brings us back to the subject of my two most recent posts. Recall, first, Tedlock’s comments about the Newekwe transcending all boundaries. Recall too how the Mudheads offered a graphic representation of material or biological being as grotesque. In the medieval European culture of the carnival, we saw the material body celebrated for its self-transcendence. “It is a body in the act of becoming . . . It is continually built, created, and builds another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world,” Bakhtin writes.

This returns us to the dance of predator and prey: “the gaping mouth, the teeth, the swallowing” are central images in the popular-festive system, connecting life and death, the banquet and the underworld. In greater Mesoamerica, of which Zuni was a far-flung part, the swallowing and disgorging underworld merged with the image of the world serpent (roughly analogous to the Sumerian Tiamat, ancestral to the West Semitic Leviathan).

In the Zuni worldview, culture involves a necessary but somehow tragic relinquishing of power: we are literally and figuratively less than our animal selves. Zuni creation myths offer an indigenous analogy to the now-discredited Darwinist myth expressed in the formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The Zuni believe their ancestors emerged from their original home in the dark and watery underworld with webbed fingers and toes, tails and extra sets of genitals on their heads – they were all basically Mudheads. Interestingly, it was a sinister character known as the First Witch who performed the job of civilizing the ancestral Zuni, bringing death into the world at the same time. I am greatly oversimplifying, of course, but this ought to give at least a hint of the kind of deep ambiguity with which the Zuni view our separation from Nature, and the utopian idealism that motivates their efforts to escape the tyranny of death and the dailiness of civilized existence. Levi-Strauss was sufficiently impressed by Zuni theorizing (as recorded originally by Frank Cushing and translated into French) to title one of his influential volumes on structuralist anthropological theory The Raw and the Cooked.

The notion here is of humans as eaters-of-cooked-food who “are what they eat.” Before a newborn can be given a name, shown the sun and welcomed into the world, it must first be “cooked”: placed in a bed of gently heated sand every day for ten days. The originally African practice of circumcision involves a somewhat related realization that to be civilized is to be reduced or refined (the analogy here is with metallurgy and alchemy).

Frank Cushing himself, in his ever-popular monograph Zuni Fetiches, captures the Zuni understanding of their position in the chain of being through a formulation just general enough to permit comparisons with a large number of traditional societies the world over. “The animals, because alike mortal and endowed with similar physical functions and organs, are considered more nearly related to man than are the gods; more nearly related to the gods than is man, because more mysterious, and characterized by specific instincts and powers which man does not of himself possess.”


But of course modern science must show these ancient intuitions to be inaccurate, right? I’m not so sure. The capacity of other animals to experience joy and sorrow, to dream, to anticipate, to recognize their own images in mirrors are fairly well attested now. Several years ago, in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, psychologist Frans B. M. de Waal reviewed the literature on empathy in rats and monkeys and concluded that, if anything, these creatures displayed more empathy than humans might have shown under similar circumstances. “Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the strength of empathy in monkeys came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so gives a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal, clearly a stronger reaction than that of the rats in [Russell] Church’s experiments.”

De Waal proposes some possible explanations for the existence of empathy. One is “emotional contagion” – the way in which even human infants will experience distress at the distress of another. De Waal notes that, though many theorists consider emotional contagion a peculiarly human trait, he has observed it quite commonly among infant rhesus monkeys as well.

“In all of those studies, the most likely explanation of the rats’ and monkeys’ behavior seems to be what, in humans, is called personal distress. That means that the acts of apparent kindness are not based on a concern about the other’s welfare but rather are a way of dealing with the distress of seeing the distress of another individual. For example, young children often get teary-eyed and upset – and run back to their mothers for reassurance – when they see another child fall and cry. They cry not because they are concerned about the other child, but because that child’s emotions vicariously overwhelm them. It is only later, when children develop a distinction between self and other, that they learn to fully separate another’s emotions from their own.”

Or to put it another way, animals and young children experience distress at the distress of another because they have not (or not yet) learned to fully distinguish between themselves and others. As cultured animals, human beings differ from the others not so much in our “level of consciousness” – an obnoxious conceit that implies a hierarchical arrangement with guess who at the top – but in our degree of self-consciousness. That is, our alienation. Thus there is, I believe, a trade-off. And rather than exhaust my limited supply of adjectives along with whatever remains of the reader’s patience, I’ll end by quoting from Rilke’s Eighth Elegy (Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2000).

With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. Only our eyes
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at its portals to freedom.
What’s outside we only know from the animal’s
countenance; for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal’s face. Free from death.
we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move. . . .


For a Buddhist perspective on what this Open might look like, and how the self might be transcended, see Dale’s discussion of “Ye Emptynesse of Selfe” at Vajrayana Practice

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