Feb. 18, 2010, at 11:55am
A Barnes and Noble review of a new collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s prose ends with a paragraph that succinctly captures a salient feature of modernity.
Fifty years ago, Martin Greenberg tried to determine the particular quality that gives Kleist his startling modernity. He pointed, finally, to “the questionableness at the heart of his world, the almost diabolical ambiguity of its atmosphere, the way things tremble and shift and make one wonder if they are what they seem.” In essence, Kleist consistently subverts our expectations. Like the earthquake in Chile, his fiction causes the apparently solid ground beneath our feet to shudder, crack, and, finally, give way.
I know von Kleist’s name from the story I often heard told in philosophy classes on Kant’s epistemology: that this great 19th century German poet, playwright and story-teller was so appalled by Kan’t theory that the human mind cannot attain objective reality that he committed suicide.
Being an artist of exceptional sensitivity, Von Kleist no doubt felt sooner and suffered more from the spiritual malaise that afflicts the modern world. His despair is negative testimony to the human need for truth, certainty, the metaphysical stability and inherent meaningfulness of reality.
Here is a contrasting sense of reality from Edith Stein, who, as a woman who went from being a Jewish German atheist to Catholic Carmelite nun eventually gassed to death in Auschwitz, knew as much von Kleist about the ambiguities of the modern world.
In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of the child that is lifted up and carried by a strong arm.
Carole, I read and admired your recent article on the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. I even started a post about it, but then found myself getting bogged down in the side issue of the meaning of phenomenology, which was I was afraid would overshadown my deep agreement with your gist.
I think many, if not most, of us have been raised to be deeply suspicious of the emotions. We confuse affective coldness or indifference with being "objective" and "rational", when, really, we're being out-of-touch—with ourselves, with others, and with God.
Sep. 20 at 4:53pm | See in context
Thanks Carole. I agree with you about John Paul II. He is very aware, it seems to me, of a specifically modern type of resistance to the very idea of God, which argues that a flourishing personal existence is impossible under the constant presence of an all-seeing and all-caring Being. God, in this frame of mind, is experienced as the biggest and most insufferable "Big Brother" imaginable.
It is important to show that this image of God, and of our relationship with him, is not true. God is all-powerful and all-seeing. But he does not have a "heavy hand".
Sep. 20 at 4:20pm | See in context
Thanks Katie. What you say makes me want to add that while, as I say in my post, von Hildebrand does not develop the personal persective side of the emotions very much, he does have a lot to say about the heart being in some sense the real self of the person. He corroborates philosophically what Alice Miller claims: that to suppress or stifle the emotions, is to do real damage to a person.
…our emotions should actually be increasingly trustworthy guides as we come into right relationship with truth and with others.
Exactly so, Kate. Emotions, if rightly developed, are often quicker and more sensitive than reason. The emotion of sexual shame is a good example. Wojtyla, as I'm sure you know, thinks "there is a need to to develop sexual shame by education." "In shame," he writes, "resides the genuine moral strength of the person" and "only a true and genuine shame insists upon a true and fully valid love."
Sep. 20 at 4:03pm | See in context
Amen! And well said. I couldn't agree more Devra.
Sep. 20 at 1:57pm | See in context
I very much appreciate the insights of your article, Jules and your comments Katie. I'm interested in the experience of the "personal relationship with the Lord" which comes through so clearly in the thought of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict-- and find it fascinating how many people are deeply resistant to the idea of emotions interfering with their faith experience. Pope John Paul would have been very attentive to the need to integrate the objective and subjective experience of the human person in relationship with the Lord.
Sep. 20 at 11:08am | See in context
I appreciate this:
Sure, one way of seeing something is not the only way of seeing it. Every perspective is partial and limited. But every perspective is also unique and makes a contribution to the whole. It opens another window on reality; it provides another point of access to it.
Sometimes it seems to me that modern Christianity is terribly confused about emotion--either reducing faith down to an emotional response or state of being (as you occasionally see in Charismatic circles and quite certainly see in Joel Osteen type Christians) or engaged in an active distrust of emotion as something counter-rational that will lead us astray. That the devil can use our emotional responses is taken as a given; that God might as easily use them is somewhat more suspect.
I like the reminder that emotion is not baseless—it follows upon beliefs and particular relationships between the self and the object of emotion—which suggests that our emotions should actually be increasingly trustworthy guides as we come into right relationship with truth and with others.
Sep. 20 at 10:04am | See in context
Jules, I love this insight, which coheres nicely with what I've been reading in Alice Miller and others about emotions.
They are, in a way, the true self. They are where the self "contacts" reality.
Alice Miller critiques the "poisonous pedagogy" prevalent in Germany in the 19th century that aimed at subduing individuality, which meant correcting, suppressing and controlling emotion.
In the tradition we are dealing with, it was considered obstinacy and was therefore frowned upon to have a will and mind of one’s own.
This led to confusion about reality and alienation from self.
The result of a child becoming dulled to pain is that access to the truth about himself will be denied him all his life.
And that of course created adults who were susceptible to ideologies like Naziism.
The more successfully a person was denied access to his or her feelings in childhood, the larger the arsenal of intellectual weapons and the supply of moral prostheses has to be, because morality and a sense of duty are not sources of strength or fruitful soil for genuine affection. Blood does not flow in artificial limbs; they are for sale and can serve many masters.
Sep. 20 at 8:17am | See in context
I've been reading a lot lately about alcoholism and related 12 step programs.
I few things stand out especially.
1. Addictions cripplie us in our will, our moral agency. We cease to be captains of our own souls, as Oscar Wilde put it.
2. The first step of the solution is admitting that we've lost control. That is, we stop trying to succeed with will power.
3. The rest of the solution depends on three things: Asking for the grace of God and relying on, accepting the help of others, and committing ourselves to serve others in the same condition.
Look at how personalist all this is, and how like the gospel!
We are impotent to save ourselves. We have to turn to God and entrust ourselves to Him. But His way of working with us is through and with other persons, both fellow believers and unbelievers.
Persons are both individual and community. We are selves who need others, and who are called to give ourselves to others.
Seeing all this gives me hope and joy. Addictions seem to me a major modern path to redemption and reality.
Sep. 15 at 9:07am | See in context
"I am seeing more and more how the human idea of mercy is protection from truth. True mercy [divine mercy] is an encounter with Truth—which is extremely painful."
That is very well put, Katie. it is an excellent point as well, that this is what purgatory is about. The truths about ourselves regarding our sins and weaknesses, the sufferings we were trying to escape by running away from these truths, will become our purification in the afterlife. We will have to face up to them and see them for what they are. The idols we failed to give up will have to be burnt away from us, and this will be painful.The difficulty there, of course, is that we can't take a break from this purification, which is something we can do here (and often do to the point of trying to run away from it completely).
Sep. 11 at 5:55am | See in context
Katie, I was thinking more of people who value relationships but want to claim absolute authority over how much they encroach on the self--like people who marry "as long as we both shall love" or a man who fathers a baby but reserves the right to ignore it from then on. They value relationships, but they don't grant that once you (validly) marry, from then on you are that person's spouse, or once you've procreated, you are a mother or father. It changes you ontologically. Who you are is not separate from who certain relationships have constituted you to be. Does that make sense?
Of course this is not to say that mothers may not work outside the home, or that annulmnets or separation or civil divorce may not be necessary. It's not to reduce the person to a certain, narrow understanding of what a wife or mother or father is supposed to be. It's not to deny the person's legitimate autonomy.
Sep. 7 at 1:08pm | See in context
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