The Personalist Project

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Accessed on October 04, 2022 - 2:14:33

Thoughts on subjectivity

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 03, 2017

I used to think I should strive to judge everything from objectivity: objective truth, objective value.

Without losing sight of those, I am increasingly conscious that, as Wojtyla put it, subjectivity  has "a certain priority" when it comes to understanding and dealing with all things human.

Example: Imagine a person in Rome, looking at art, as tourists do. She visits the Sistine Chapel. She knows it's a masterpiece—universally recognized as one of the greatest works ever produced by artistic genius. She makes a point of viewing it thoughtfully, trying to learn something, trying to improve her appreciation and aesthetic sensibility. On the way out, she buys a book about it, so she can learn more later. 

The next day, she stumbles on a painting in an out of the way chapel she happened into while she was shopping. It's much less valuable and important on the objective scale. She doesn't know who painted it. But its subject matter and composition spark a memory in her. Something is stirred. Her heart pools unexpectedly with tenderness and contrition. Her spirit is spontaneously suffused with gratitude; it seems to fly upward. She finds she's weeping and worshipping, though she's never been religious. She lights a candle and stays there a long time, being still, feeling peace.

For the rest of her stay in Rome, she makes a point of visiting that painting whenever she can. She feels a sort of intimate bond with it. She finds a print of it at the back of the chapel and buys it. When she gets home she frames it and puts it on the wall in her bedroom. For the rest of her life, it's her favorite painting.

Now imagine an acquaintance who has a degree in art history were to tell her that she's mistaken. It's a perfectly passable painting, but not a great one. She should prefer Rafael or Da Vinci or Carravaggio. 

Does she think, "He's better educated than I am. I'll take it off the wall tomorrow"? No. She thinks something more like, "Go away, you boor. You snob. What do you know of me?" 

Lately I've begun reading Before the Dawn, the memoirs of Eugenio Zolli. He was the chief rabbi in Rome during the Nazi occupation of that city. Afterwards, he became a Catholic, taking for his own the baptismal name—Eugenio—of his hero, Pope Pius XII. He recounts impressions and events and characters from his childhood. They are unique and untransferable. 

There is, for instance, the unjust teacher, who knows the Torah, but seems not to live it. There is his mother's secret care for the poor. There is the atmosphere of the home where a school friend of his lives:

Stanislaus and his mother lived the ground floor of a house in the suburbs. Once or twice a week I would go to spend the afternoon with Stanislaus. Sometimes another companion would come also. The modest home had something in it very attractive for me. I was happy there. There was only a large, square room and a small kitchen, that was all. The walls were white; a long table covered with unbleached linen had a very neat appearance; along the table on either side long benches of natural-color wood took the place of chairs. In a corner stood a wooden chest, painted white. In the middle of one wall hung an inexpensive clock, and a little above it, a crucifix of plain wood, with the branch of an olive tree over it.

Two of us boys sometimes three, read our Latin texts, did our homework, studied our lessons in history, geography, and algebra. From time to time Stanislaus' mother would come in to exchange a few words with us. I remember that she was always dressed in black. She had become a widow many years before; her husband had been employed on the railroad.

"Now have a rest," she would say; or "Now go back to your studies, and I shall return to my sewing." Then she would retire to the kitchen, after mother and son had exchanged an affectionate glance. Both spoke little. Their relations were marked by a certain reciprocal respect.

How often had I not heard mothers use bad language and strike their children! These two understood each other without words. We often noticed a little sadness, something we perceived by intuition; it was in the atmosphere. Yet they never seemed worried, or preoccupied, or grieved. After the death of the father those two—mother and son—did not seem to ask much of life. The mother provided the necessities with her widow's pension and her work. she had a beautiful face, an olive complexion and large black eyes, expressive of peace. Stanislaus was good, gentle, studious, and intelligent. I felt that he and his mother liked me.

What he is describing sounds very like a church, doesn't it? The linen covered table, the benches, the crucifix, the Latin, the peace, the love between mother and son...

Who can doubt that the welcome he received there during his formative years prepared his soul for his eventual conversion?

Other Jews raised in Poland at that time had different experiences, leading them to different conclusions.

Each of us is, as Newman said, "an abyss of existence." I wish we realized it more in our thinking and acting toward one another. I wish we would cultivate in ourselves a greater awareness of and respect for personal subjectivity.