On Starting to Read After Finitude

I just finished page 34 where Meillassoux has concluded his demolition of the ontological proof, but where he still wants to find an “absolute that is not an absolute entity” which can be the condition of possibility of what he calls ancestrality (a world logically prior to the intentional structure of consciousness, logically prior to the for us).   I’m obsessed with the importance of the Kantian pre-critical text On the One possible demonstration of the existence of God. Kant there looks for exactly this absolute, and it turns out not be an entity, but sheer self-positing will. 

Continue reading “On Starting to Read After Finitude

Discussion over newly-published NT commentaries by Schelling

T h e P a u l o f T a r s u s W o r k i n g G r o u p presents:

CHRISTIAN DANZ, Professor of Systematic Theology (University of Vienna)
will discuss three of Freidrich W.J. Schelling’s early texts from 1793:
“Kommentar zum Galaterbrief”,
“Stellensammlung zu Paulus”,

Sunday, November 18th
5:30 pm
Shimer College
3424 S. State St., Chicago, IL 60616

As of now, texts are only available in German.
If you would like a copy of the texts to read (or translate) in preparation for Professor Danz’ visit, please email virgil@u.northwestern.edu

— Bio —
Christian Danz is professor of systematic theology at the Evangelic Theological Faculty at the University of Vienna. He is the president of the German Paul Tillich Society and the editor for two volumes of the historical-critical edition of the works of Friedrich W.J. Schelling. The first of these volumes is due to appear in print at the end of this year and will, for the first time, provide access to unpublished material potentially crucial for the understanding of the genesis of the philosophy of German idealism as well as the background of theological discussions in the late Age of Enlightenment and the history of theology and science. Professor Danz will present and discuss three early writings where Schelling engages the letters of Saint Paul.

This is event is open and free to the public and is co-sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.


‘And so I tell myself to myself’: A Dissertation!!

This [PDF warning], as it turns out, is an unpublishable book. Oh, I suppose I could keep shopping it around until something just short of a vanity press accepts it and churns out fifty hardcover editions to “sell” (in theory) at an ungodly price. Or, I could just keep sending it to more-or-less legitimate publishers, and probably drive myself batty in the process. I think most of us can agree that the end result of neither alternative is particularly attractive. Thankfully, there are are other options. (Thanks, Scribd!) Continue reading “‘And so I tell myself to myself’: A Dissertation!!”

A Prospectus

The foundation of my argument throughout this volume is that in the quintessential sailor cum novelist, Herman Melville, we can identify an aesthetic conception of a productive political dissent at its most theologically dynamic. In his life and fiction we find embodied a radical aesthetic engagement with the theological bases of subjectivity and sovereignty. By reading the evolution of Melville’s conception of duplicity and identity through the transcendental self-reflectivity of early German Romanticism, the dialectical materialism of Friedrich Schelling, and the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière, we identify a shocking new frame for an aesthetically conceived political theology. In so doing, we locate a creative intensity at the heart of subjectivity, that is, in the duplicitous poetics of subjective self-characterization. By recasting theology through the materialistic and political contours of aesthetics, we thus argue that the subject of theology, the beginning and the end of subjectivity as such, is not on the far side of theological reflection and/or discourse, as a transcendent object; nor is it fully a vitalistic and immanent presence or process. Rather, we conclude that the subject of theology, the subject par excellence, that which secures the twin matrices of power, subjectivity and sovereignty, is that of one playing a character. In this most characteristic theology, the subject of theology is that element of creativity that is itself most self-creative. The theological significance of theology, as such, is precisely in the materiality of this self-creativity; that is, its self-characterization in and as a Melvillean masquerade, the duplicitous posing in and as self-creative subject and sovereign.

To achieve this I begin in section one by presenting a biographical portrait of a young Herman Melville consumed by the questions of and the doubts about his own authorial self-becoming. Fresh from the sea at an early age, Melville was a natural storyteller, but perhaps not so natural a novelist. Indeed, as is especially clear in his first novel, Typee, his writing has never been without a sustained structure of duplicity and self-doubt or the attendant desire for self-destruction. We find in his desperate autobiographical groping an echo of the opening paragraph of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, “— and so I tell my life to myself,” and a participation in the dilemma of self-creativity heralded in the eighteenth-century by Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, meditated on by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and popularised at the turn of the twenty-first century by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

I then argue in the following two sections that Melville’s ambivalence regarding self-destruction and self-assertion can only be adequately understood when held in relief to the 18th-/19th-century political and philosophical climate the gave birth to the modern novel. While it may initially seem a departure from the narrative begun in the preceding section, Melville’s presentation of subjectivity throughout his novels is so closely aligned to the convergence of aesthetics and subjectivity found in Kant and in the theory of the romantic novel developed by early German Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, that he in many ways is their American counterpart. In them I locate and explicate a patently modern subjectivity; that is, subjectivity as a self-presentation, that is itself an aesthetic self-creation or self-calling.

In recent years Giorgo Agamben has described the provocative philosophical and political implications of this self-presentation in terms of a sovereignty and the “state of exception.” Per his reading of Carl Schmitt’s classic (and resurgently popular) treatise on the subject, Political Theology, Agamben recasts the state of exception as essentially a theory of sovereignty. In short, this is because the sovereign subject is that which (a) decides on the state of exception, whilst (b) also guaranteeing its relation to the juridical order that has been suspended. That is to say, because its decision is that of annulling the norm, the sovereign is beyond the normative order of things; and yet, inasmuch as it is ultimately responsible for deciding whether it is even possible for the normative order to be completely annulled or suspended, the sovereign also necessarily emerges from that order which is being annulled/suspended. What is being described here is nothing short of a miracle, whereby the sovereign subject is that which “calls” itself into being.

I extend this analysis further and call this the speculative function of the Romantic/Idealistic self-calling; the calling of that which is called to become-itself, the self-called sovereign subject. There are, as we see in subsequent sections, profound theological points to be made here about the production of the Absolute as “fictionalized” exception, in which the self-presentation of the one who is called is possible only through the dialectical act of its self-characterisation as the one who is called. In this case, the sovereign power of the call, the one who decides on the state of exception and the status of exceptionality, is not, strictly speaking, God; rather, it is the God that is instantiated/embodied in and as that which is called

It is with this in mind that, the formal similarity between Melville and Romanticism notwithstanding, I locate his enduring significance in the agonistic resistance to the appropriation of Romantic ideals by several of his American contemporaries, particularly what he regarded as the dehumanised ethics and spiritual esotericism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As such, in section three I trace the transition of Melville’s ambivalent though philosophically complex embrace of Romantic political and aesthetic ideals. Beginning with his definitive self-assertion and declaration of authorial independence in “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” and culminating in the complex “apocalypse of the self” in Moby-Dick and Pierre, I argue at length that Melville’s intellectual-artistic journey is profoundly symptomatic of Friedrich Schelling’s aborted philosophical aim of articulating the materialistic melancholy of subjective self-creativity. For indeed, in Schelling’s Ages of the World and Melville’s Pierre, we no longer have aspirations of self-creative wholeness and unity, but a tempestuous tension and excess at the very foundation of subjectivity that threatens to consume it.

Drawing from and commenting extensively on the recent work of Jacques Rancière, I argue in the remaining fourth and fifth sections of the book that Melville does not offer us a fully viable political theology until after the nihilistic apocalypticism of Moby-Dick and Pierre (or even the short story “Bartleby”) so often celebrated by late-20th century philosophy and theology. This does not happen until the full manifestation of self-creative duplicity in his final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Here, no character is as though he or she seems, but only because there is always an excess of characterization in each. The con man is potentially the conned, and innocence never far removed from potential guilt. Interestingly, the excess of identity in Melville’s Masquerade does not issue merely in nihilistic indeterminacy, but in the inescapably creative capacity of a subject always to be more than itself, and for such an excess to come from within and not to be imposed from without.

In Rancière, we find the political significance of the masquerade is most pronounced in terms of Aristotle’s ideal commuity. Here, the soul of the master is identified as one of deliberation and discernment, which gives to him the natural right of sovereignty, rule and law. The slave, however, has no such capacity, and indeed has no soul or essence at all; as such, while the slave can understand the reason and law of the master (thus allowing the slave to obey the master’s orders), she lacks the capacity or essence to participate in the sensibility of reason or law, or . These are, rather, effected upon the slave. Indeed, the slave only has a proper place in the aesthetico-political community insofar as she obeys her master. Hers is a natural/essential place of non-creative, non-sensible subservience, “doomed to the anonymity of work and reproduction” (Disagreement, 7).

Politics, Rancière argues, is the rare event that occurs when slaves cease to be subservient. That is, when they forcibly partake in the aesthetic field that both constitutes and represses the occurrence of politics, and thus in the distribution of the sensible; when, in rejecting their essential place in the political commuity, that of the no-place with no voice, they make a claim on sensibility and freedom.* Importantly, this claim to freedom is fundamentally different than that of a claim to wealth and/or nobility, and to their attendant administrative status. These assert particular qualities as proper and/or essential to those who lay the claim. In terms of Aristotle’s ideal community, such claims are just insofar as the wealthy and noble live up to the roles they are naturally and essentially capable of fulfilling in the community. A slave’s claim to freedom, however, is an immediate claim, devoid of any justification by way of their proportional, contributing quality. In such a claim, the slave insists that the correlation between social position/role and natural capacity is purely theatrical, and thus artificial to the core.

By exposing the duplicity at the heart of the political community, however, we should not mistake the slave’s egalitarian claim to freedom as any more an unmasking of truth than what takes place in Melville’s Masquerade. Indeed, for both, the claim to self-creativity exposes the masquerade as such in order that it might become a masquerade par excellence. That is to say, not the truth behind the masquerade, but the truth of the masquerade, i.e., its singularly and necessarily arbitrary nature. Inasmuch as they speak forth themselves as free, they do so only by knowingly speaking forth a lie. This is, in short, an appeal to the radical creativity ordinarily suppressed by the communal masquerade and role-play, but in no way put an end to the masquerade as such.

By reading Rancière through Melville’s Masquerade, I conclude that our political theologies can identify the emergence of subjective sovereignty and power as a kind of duplicity, where masks do not obscure or defer the revelation of a transcendent truth or ultimate kernel of self-identity, be it that of divine revelation, mystical silence, pantheistic All, or nihilistic void. By reading Melville’s Masquerade through Rancière, the masquerade becomes the political materialisation, or characterization, of truth, of justice, and of the self—such is the denial of essence for the sake of identity. When read together, we identify a re-attuned aesthetic awareness and begin our approach toward a political theology that thinks through the paradoxical, though essential and characteristic, freedom and bondage of self-characterization. Such a thinking is concerned less with the necessity of what is or must be than it is with the immanent possibilities our conceptual categories keep dormant (or worse, repress), and is thus marked by the attention paid to the unthought intensity and excess of self-characterization. In this we become aware of the infinite capacity for new, finite beginnings, and a materialistic/anthropological theology of “a new creation” takes shape.

* It is not merely an anecdotal convenience for one writing about Melville that on several occasions Rancière identifies those denied aesthetic sensibility–what he terms “the demos” (of democracy)–not as slaves but as sailors, and freedom as smelling of salt. Indeed, Rancière asserts that the political project of the classical philosopher, beginning with Plato, has been “an anti-maritime polemic,” in which only the mountains that surrounded Athens protected the city and its politics from the drunken disorder of democracy coming in from the sea: “The sea smells bad. This is not because of the mud, however. The sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy” (On the Shores of Politics, 1-2).

“The Strange Contagion of Creativity: A Writing on Love” (Part 4 / End)

‘Oh God, I’m sorry. You know that, right? You know that I didn’t mean any of it? None of those words — none of those words that hurt. I mean only good, only the best – You know that, right? Of all people, you should. If not you, who? You know me better than those words. They’re only words, right? I take it all back. Give it back, please, let go of those words. They’re mine, not yours. You shouldn’t have them. Please, I need them back.

‘Listen, don’t listen to me — none of this – Because if you’d just look at me you’d see the truth. You’d know that I love you. Isn’t that so clear now? Surely, by now, you understand. You’re drowning, but you’re not dead. Isn’t that enough? What else do I need to do? You’ve taken everything already. I gave it all to you, only you, no one else. I promise.

‘You know, You said it yourself. Didn’t you? I thought you did. Wasn’t that you? I sometimes can’t remember details. Who would say that? Nobody. Nobody would say that. That’s why it had to be you. Nobody else. I knew it all along. You said it – now say it again.

Even today —

* * *

‘— And so I tell my life to myself’, Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo (1969: 221). In this precise sense, God – and indeed any creator – gives birth to him/herself. What, then, we might wonder with Schelling, does this say about something as fundamental as sexual differentiation? We can, I think, understand this more fully by setting it in relief with the curiously hermaphroditic ambivalence about femininity that appears to have run in Schelling’s family.

‘Mysteries are female’ Friedrich Schlegel (his brother-in-law, once removed) writes in Lucinde, his loving ode to the romantic novel, ‘they like to veil themselves but still want to be seen and discovered’ (1971: 253). For his part, Schelling regards femininity both as fullness and lack, fecundity and emasculation, the In-Itself of Absolute Freedom and the sign of necessary weakness. Femininity, as such, is regarded by both Schlegel and Schelling as a lack – inasmuch as it must be actualised, i.e., made real, in the (male) Word, it ‘still wants to be seen’ – and as the inaccessible (‘veiled’), fecund Ground of its own being.
When one disavows corporeal nature, Schelling reasons, in exchange for an idealistic, ‘masculine’ desire for a spiritual Absolute that reflects its own identity back to itself without any recourse to objectivity, one has renounced one’s own body. It is, thus, ‘precisely when the (masculine) philosopher ignores (feminine) nature he sacrifices his own (masculine) nature’ (Krell 1988: 18). Which is to say, by excluding the feminine potency of nature, the manly men of Idealism, not least of which being Hegel, reveal themselves to be decidedly ‘girly’.

* * *

‘It’s funny the things that scare a person. Being alone. Being forgotten. Being forgotten and alone. Forgetting you’re alone – which is the same as being ordinary, the same — part of the crowd. At ease, patient — sleeping well. These are the things I want to tell you, that I keep trying to telling you, but I’m not sure you’re listening. You’re just staring. Those eyes —

‘What do you see that I don’t? What do you feel that I ought? Your so beautiful, and yet — oh, those eyes — but, you’re staring.

‘What are you thinking? What are your fears? I know you have some — you told me once before. I know what they are, but fears change, right? Fears are like people. We aren’t always afraid of our fears. But I’m always afraid of you. If only you’d just look, really look, without staring, I’d know that I shouldn’t be scared. Why do you want to frighten me? Is this some sick thrill? How can you be so cold?

‘You’re dead, aren’t you?’

You’re gone —

* * *

It is especially significant that Schelling’s description of the Idealist philosopher is not unlike the young protagonist of Lucinde, Julius, who sublimates, in the act of writing (described brilliantly by Martha Helfer as ‘an ideational erection’ [1996: 177]),his ‘mental lust’ and ‘sensual spirituality’ for his beloved Lucinde:

The words are dull and dreary. . . . A grand future beckons me to rush deeper into infinity, each idea opens its womb and produces countless new births. The furthest extremes of unbridled lust and silent intimation live simultaneously in me. I remember everything . . . and all my past and future thoughts are aroused and spring up against my will. Wild blood rages in my swollen arteries, my mouth thirsts for union, and my imagination picks and wavers among the many forms of pleasure and finds none in which my desire could fulfil itself and be at last at peace (Schlegel 1958: 10).

Julius’ ‘autoerotic narcissism’ (Helfer, 1996: 177) throughout Lucinde is unabashed: ‘I don’t hesitate to admire and love myself in this mirror [i.e., Lucinde]. Only here do I see myself complete and harmonious, or rather, I see full, complete humanity in me and in you’ (Schlegel, 1958: 10). Interestingly, what at first appears as strict, ‘straight’ heterosexuality is really anything but. In fact, Helfer draws our attention to a surprisingly stark homoeroticism that runs throughout Lucinde, where we continually find Julius expressing his pressing need ‘to find himself inside Lucinde.’

The difficult point that Schelling and Schlegel are each making philosophically and poetically is now what the analysis tells us psychoanalytically: that the female is the subject of desire par excellence. Which is to say, that the woman (i.e., in-and-for-herself) can only be characterized (i.e., for him). It is too easy to jump the gun and dismiss this as bygone misogynism, though. Rather, does it not share the ambiguity of the statue in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that depicts a kneeling slave whose veil is being, depending on one’s perspective, lifted or lowered by a philanthropist, a scene the narrator describes as either ‘a revelation or a more efficient blinding’? For here, too, we are unsure — the veil of creative, divine femininity leaves both sexes and all genders severely constrained, where all we can do is stare through confused, blinded eyes.

* * *

‘I keep losing track of what it is I — Are you still staring? This is getting old. I mean, I can’t —

‘If only — You just — You know, Last night I totally believed in eternal life, but by the time I woke up I’d forgotten why.’

You’re blind —

‘I don’t know what you want. I’d stare back, but all I see is me — too much me — Where do you begin. Add one, subtract anything or add anything to infinity, Zeno says, and it doesn’t make any difference.

‘Do you have any idea what it’s like to see yourself in another? Do you know? Do you have any clue? You have to.’

All you ever do is stare.

“The Strange Contagion of Creativity: A Writing on Love” (Part Three)

The most crucial difference in view here is that between desire and love. Before the creative Word or Logos, David Clark notes, ‘there was the hunger for the Word’ (1997: 16); or, alternatively, what psychoanalysis would designate ‘the drive whose true aim is the endless reproduction of its circular movement’ (Žižek 1996: 87 n.69). Drive, then, is desire ‘In-Itself’, unactualized in the subjectless fury of the Absolute in which there is only the indifferent flux of Freedom, but no free Subject as such. With the ‘eternally past’ advent of the Word, the embodied spirit (Self) that emerges is free only inasmuch as it is not completely itself; it is, rather, an embodied spirit, marked by finitude, death, and decay.1

Insofar as it is not itself, Schelling writes, in its embodiment this spirit is made ravenous flesh:

The spirit is consequently nothing but an addiction to Being. . . . The base form of the spirit is therefore an addiction, a desire, a lust. Whoever wishes to grasp the concept of spirit at its most profound roots must therefore become fully acquainted with the nature of desire . . . for [desire] is a hunger for Being, and being satiated only gives it renewed strength, i.e., a more vehement hunger (1994: 230).

Constituted as a free subject by virtue of its inherent lack of self-presence, the desirous Self cannot be satisfied. On the contrary, its desire, because historical and subjectived, is ‘always and by definition unsatisfied, metonymical, shifting from one object to another since I do not actually desire what I want.’ (Žižek , 1997: 80). Be careful of what you wish for, so the saying goes, because you just might get it. The same logic is at work here: ‘What I actually desire is to sustain desire itself, to postpone the dreaded moment of its satisfaction’ (ibid.).

* * *

‘I’m so tired. I can’t deal with any of this anymore. All your staring, your silence, your — Wait, now I remember: you wrote it. At the end of a letter. Do you remember? You said it. I have proof. Ha! I got you this time, don’t I? You shouldn’t write it if you don’t mean it. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that words mean something, that words are something? You should be more careful with your words.

‘You’re so fucking blind sometimes. You don’t think. I sometimes think you’re dead. I look at you, and I see an axe through your head, or a bullet in the wall behind you, having passed through your stomach, kidneys, and spinal cord, leaving you crippled at first, crumpled and alone until I show up too late, and I see you lying there, looking alive, eyes wide open. Staring.

Why can’t you see? Why don’t you look? You never look. If you would but once, just a peek, you’d see the tear. Right here. It’s sad, isn’t it? You did that. It’s your fault, all your fault, all yours. How does it feel? Feel it . . . feel it . . . touch it . . . taste it . . . just a sip . . . just a peek . . . look at it . . . think about it . . . its yours . . . you did it.

‘Now do it again.’

Every day the same —

* * *

For Schelling, if desire is related to a certain will-to-contraction, and thus to identity and wholeness, love is related to a supplementary will-to-expansion, the emergence of the free Self that is not itself. After the primordial deed of (self-)Creation, the quintessential, eternally past moment of love and freedom, the (contractive) desire for wholeness can only ever be frustrated by the (expansive) love that, as with Brooks’ depiction of the United State’s military operations in Iraq, must lose.

All this is to rearticulate Schelling’s critical point about evil. Namely, that evil is only truly possible in a free subject who has ‘lost’ itself; that is to say, evil as such must be freely chosen.2 For Schelling, ‘the general possibility of evil . . . consists in the fact that, instead of keeping his selfhood as the ground or the instrument, man can strive to elevate it to be the ruling or universal will, and, on the contrary, try to make what is spiritual in him into a means’. (1936: 68). Evil, then, emerges from the subject’s misguided sense of having ‘fallen’ from itself, and thus believing it has lost something that can be regained. This, Schelling notes, is the root of the free subject’s ‘spiritualized’ desire to ‘return’ to its status as (contractive) Universal / Ideal:

For even he who has moved out of the center retains the feeling that he has been all things when in and with God. Hence there springs the hunger of selfishness which, in the measure that it deserts totality and unity becomes even needier and poorer, but just on that account more ravenous, hungrier, more poisonous (ibid: 69).

Evil, in other words, can be said to be at the very heart of the free subject’s actual existence.

* * *

[A little more to come … one more post, maybe two, if it turns out as long as this one.]



[1]Even the most romantic of Romantics, Goethe, shared this ambivalence about nature:

Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her – without being able to exit from her or to enter into her more deeply. Unasked and unwarned, we are taken up into the circuitry of her dance; she has her way with us, until we grow weary and sink from her arms. . .

We live in the midst of her and are foreign to her. She speaks to us ceaselessly and does not betray her secret to us. We work our endless effects on her, yet have no dominion over her.

She seems to have invested all her hopes in individuality, and she cares nothing for the individuals. Always she builds, always she destroys, and we have no access to her workshop.

She lives in a profusion of children, and their mother, where is she? –

She squirts her children out of nothingness, and does not tell them where they came from and where they are going. Their task is to run; hers is to know the orbit (qtd. in Krell, 1998: 3).

[2] Žižek is especially clear on this point: ‘On the one hand, nature can spiritualize itself, it can turn into the medium of Spirit’s self-manifestation; on the other hand, with the emergence of the Word, the obscure principle of Ground and Selfhood which hitherto acted as an anonymous, impersonal, blind force is itself spiritualized, illuminated; it becomes a Person aware of itself, so that we are now dealing with an Evil which, in full awareness of itself, wills itself as Evil – which is not merely indifference towards the Good but an active striving for Evil’ (1996: 64).

“The Strange Contagion of Creation: A Writing on Love” (Part One)

When thinking about creativity – how it emerges and is sustained in living discourse – we must I think begin with a question: what is the character of creativity? This question, however, is itself riddled by its own obvious equivocality. Is it the question asked of creativity; or is it the constitutive question of creativity? When we dare to think about the character of creativity theologically, a ‘transcendental’ analysis in so far as we are thinking about the beginnings and endings that condition our understanding, how do we begin at all, i.e., when the questions we ask in and of our own creative enquiry proliferate beyond the tether of their original intention. Divorced as it is from any traditional metaphysical verity, the (theological) question of creativity I wish to explore here, in both philosophical and narrative prose, can but beg that we always begin again, as a cathartic consideration of our creation’s problematic beginning.

As such, a theological assessment of creativity is an engagement — a violent battle as much as it is a formal promise. But with or to whom? Charles Winquest’s description of theology as a ‘lover’s discourse’ is especially apt:

Love is an intense valuation of specificities in the finite display of experience. It is precisely because finite experience is highly variegated that the ‘yes’ to the importance of any specific person or object is meaningful. In Love, we are making life meaningful, but it is a meaning that can be neither contained nor controlled. Love makes life unsafe. This is its frightening and wonderful transformational power (1995: 149-50).

Clearly, this question of love – i.e., of theology’s identity or character, beginnings and endings – is not an easy one. It is, nevertheless, the one that will also most concern me here, this most characteristic question of creativity. Too often confused as an irrational discourse of mystical silence or an irrelevant discord of ecclesiological excess, the creative character of theology / the theological character of creativity must be given voice, even if we must begin with the echo of a god who may or may not be dead.
* * *
‘Are you listening? You never listen.’

You never talk —

‘You’re never here.’

You never look —

‘I love you, you know that? Are you listening to me right now? Do I have your attention? Do these words make sense? How can they when you don’t listen? You don’t see what you ought, what you must. ‘I am not unclear: I am to the point. Are you so blind as not to know? How could you not? Do you need me to rip open my chest — do you need to peek inside? Am I not transparent enough already? You look through me so well, can you not also see inside?

‘Look at me!’

It’s all the same —

* * *

‘Why might God be laughing?’ Milan Kundera wonders, as he reflects on the Jewish proverb, ‘Man thinks, God laughs’. He concludes that it is because ‘man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is’ (1988: 158). The joke is on humanity, he concludes, in its expectations of structure, of beginnings and endings that stabilise and congeal meaning and significance, that seek to fill an absence. The laugh, in other words, is on humanity insofar as it continues to think, thus missing the joke — i.e., the ‘sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’ that Kant ascribes to laughter (1951: 177). As we will see, though, this excessive ‘nothing’ is a joke that quickly gets out of hand. The punch line of reality is simply too much, leaving us in stitches with our most insane of laughs, in which we snort inappropriately as though an animal, or weep in spite of ourselves, screaming ‘Stop! No more!’ — unsure if we mean it or not.

The comedy, as I see it, emerges from the peculiarity of God’s primal desire for a voice. Namely, that in finding his voice, i.e., in the Word, from which the whole of Creation is made real, God is not completely Himself. In fact, in even more scandalously theological terms, it is only in ‘original sin’ — the Fall of God from God, as it were — that God is at all.

Though his later thinking is riddled with ambivalence, to the extent that even Tillich could appeal to him as faithfully as I am now, in Philosophical Inquiries Into the Nature of Human Freedom and Ages of the World, Friedrich Schelling is particularly unambiguous on this point. The God that makes reality intelligible in the decisive act of love, i.e., in speaking himself into existence, must also relate to the Ground of his own existence. The God of Creation, therefore, ‘is not God viewed as absolute’ (1936: 32). The Creator-God, rather, the God of the Word, is God only insofar as He speaks. For Schelling, this explains ‘the veil of sadness spread over all of nature, the deep, unappeasable melancholy of all life’ (ibid: 79) — when the eternal-divine sine qua non of God only is inasmuch as, in the decisive act of divine creativity, it ‘contracts’ its (finite) existence, in the decisive act of its speaking, its self-creative Word.