By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2002
In topics: Politics
, Writing / Art / Creativity
Summary: "This is a difficult piece I wrote for "enough" a poetry journal published especially in protest of the bombing of Afghanistan. While its point is difficult, and maybe too extreme, I think it is an interesting piece and says some things that are important to me."
In his book "The Theory of Religion" (Zone Books, New York, 1992, trans. Robert Hurley) Georges Bataille analyzes the arising of human consciousness as it emerges out of animal consciousness and shows how religious sensibility necessarily develops from this. His argument goes like this:
The animal world is a world of pure being, a world of immediacy and immanence. The animal soul is like "water in water," seamlessly connected to all that surrounds it, so that there is no sense of self or other, of time, of space, of being or not being. This utopian (to human sensibility, which has such notions) Shangri-La or Eden, actually isn't that because it is characterized at all point by what we'd call violence. Animals, that is, eat and are eaten. For them killing and being killed is the norm; and there isn't any meaning to such a thing, nor anything that we would call fear; there's no concept of killing or being killed. There's only being, immediacy, isness. Animals don't have any need for religion; they already are that, already transcend life and death, being and non being, self and other, in their very living, which is utterly pure.
Bataille sees human consciousness beginning with the making of the first tool, the first "thing" that isn't a pure being, intrinsic in its value and inseparable from all of being. A tool is a separable, useful, intentionally made thing; it can be possessed, and it serves a purpose. It can be altered to suit that purpose. It is instrumental, defined by its use. The tool is the first instance of the "not-I" and with its advent there is now the beginning of a world of objects, a "thing" world. Little by little out of this comes a way of thinking and acting within thingness (language) and then once this plane of thingness is established more and more gets placed upon it- other objects, plants, animals, other people, one's self, a world. Now there is self and other- and then, paradoxically, self becomes other to itself, alienated not only from the rest of the projected world of things, but from itself, which it must perceive as a thing, a possession. This constellation of an alienated self is a double edged sword: seeing the self as a thing, the self can for the first time know itself and so find a closeness to itself; prior to this there isn't any self so nothing to be known or not known. But the creation of my me, though it gives me for the first time myself as a friend, also rips me out of the world and puts me out on a limb on my own. Interestingly, and quite logically, this development of human consciousness coincides with a deepening of the human relationship to the animal world, which opens up to the human mind now as a depth, a mystery. Humans are that depth, because human are animals, know this and feel it to be so, and yet also not so; humans long for union with the animal world of immediacy, yet know they are separate from it. Also they are terrified of it, for to renter that world would be a loss of the self; it would literally be the end of me as I know me.
In the midst of this essential human loneliness and perplexity, which is almost unbearable, religion appears. It intuits and imagines the ancient world of oneness, of which there is still a powerful primordial memory, and calls it the sacred. This is the invisible world, world of spirit, world of the gods, or of God. It is inexorably opposed to, defined as the opposite of, the world of things, the profane world of the body, of instrumentality, a world of separation, the fallen world. Religion's purpose then is to bring us back to the lost world of intimacy, and all its rites, rituals and activities are created to this end. We want this, and need it, as sure as we need food and shelter; and yet it is also terrifying. There are no religions that have not known and been based squarely on this sense of terrible necessity.
Religion wants to find a way to do this work without destroying the human world, for religion is a product of human communication, and therefore human society. Its job is to preserve the tragedy of our humanness, our selfhood, while at the same time comforting it and bringing it to wholeness through a direct encounter with the divine. It does this through carefully proscribed rite and ritual which was all over the world in earliest times the same: the ritual of the sacrifice, which is the hieratic return to the world of intimacy, beyond time and self and other. To sacrifice is to take something that exists in the world of thingness and duration and bring it back to intimacy, to erase it from the plane of thingness and return it to the plane of immediacy. Sacrifice is conceived of as gift, gratuity, a paying back to God or the gods of what had been primordially given so that the world of thingness, of which all individuals are a part, could come to be and will only continue to be as long as the rite of sacrifice is reciprocally maintained. In other words, sacrifice involves evoking the intimacy of death- which only appears as such from the standpoint of the world of thingness. From the standpoint of the world of intimacy and immediacy there is no such thing as death, there is only the eternal presence, which includes all absence. Only when there are things can there be their absence, and in their absence they return eternally to the world from which they came.
(This is more or less what Bataille says. I have probably shaped his argument to my own ends, but I am sure he would not mind. As he says in his introduction to "The Theory," literary productions are not edifices, they are construction sites.)
I am evoking all of these thoughts to make the point that religion is inherently a dangerous and tragic business, a tricky business. Efforts to domesticate it have not been successful, as far as I am concerned; all attempts to make religion into something nice, something good, something harmless and polite rob it of its vitality. It soon becomes irrelevant and uninteresting; other things look more compelling. So no, religion's difficulty is removed only at the cost of its very life. Instead of this very natural effort to make things easier (which accounts for the history of religions over the last few hundred years), we should rather admit that there is tremendous anguish in the human heart, that it goes with the territory, tremendous senses of loss and violation, grief and longing that will not be overcome by peaceful sweet means. It will take stronger medicine.
* * *
In the light of all this, I think of the terrorists of September 11, only the most extreme in a long line of religious warriors in various traditions who saw their own deaths and the deaths of their enemies as holy events, events of purification and intimacy, ultimate religious moments. We all understand rational war, as much as we don't like it, the strategic deployment of troops and materiel to defeat an enemy whose interests oppose our own, and who can't be negotiated with or persuaded in any other way. War employed as a last resort by strong nations when they can't find any other way to further their necessary agendas. But this sort of event was not that; it was shocking exactly in its seeming irrationality: the obscene and sudden dramatic destruction of innocent lives for no discernible reason (yes of course there were strong grievances, but rationally speaking, at least from the point of view of Western logic, how could the terror of September 11 realistically affect any of that?). So this act was impossible to understand from any coherent point of view. It can only be understood as a religious act, an act that strikes to the heart of religion's essence- the sacrifice of life, the hurling it into the abyss of timelessness, toward God.
Using our own religious rhetoric (of which most of us, especially our national leaders, seem to have a crude understanding) we call these acts and their perpetrators "evil," perhaps enhancing, by some deep psychic logic, the pain and power of them. Calling them evil, however, doesn't really mean that, because we don't know what the word evil actually suggests. What we are really saying is "I don't understand such a thing, a human being as far as I know what a human being is could never do such a thing. Therefore these people are not human, they don't exist." To view the September 11 events in that way, that is, without any understanding of them, is to strengthen the energy that caused them to happen in the first place. Aside from the cultural, political and economic factors that gave rise to them, but do not, in my view, explain them, there is their religious power - in making the sacrifice that these men made they were returning to Oneness, and in doing so, affirming the power and ultimacy of their being.
(Many have pointed out that it is short sighted to see the actors of September 11 as "terrorists." As if the far more destructive acts of nations, beginning with our own, of invasion, intimidation, bombing of innocent civilians, and so on were not also terrorism, and a worse form of terrorism. This might be so, and yet these political acts appear to me to be different - not worse, but different- from those that are so spectacularly religiously motivated. And as a religiously committed person I am more disturbed by destructive religious acts, and have a greater need to understand them. Acts of atrocity that are committed by nations rationally for their own self interest- which usually means the self interest of those social classes that control them- seem fairly simple to understand, at least superficially).
In honoring these acts by calling them "religious" (and I do not even say "fundamentalist") I am not condoning or excusing them but only pointing out that they are not far from the actual brilliant heart of what is important, even essential, about religion. This is exactly what makes them so disturbing to me. It is also why, we have to admit, much of the Islamic world, even though it may condemn the acts, understands them and appreciates them as we cannot. These acts have profoundly affected us not so much because of the numbers killed, and not even because of the lurid symbolism of their target, but precisely because they were religious acts, committed at a time when religion is more important and more problematic than it ever has been. Just at the moment (with globalization and the technocritization of the planet) when secularism and universal materialism seems completely on the ascendant, these acts blaze across the sky the ultimate religious message: that life, certainly one's own, and others, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the body, more than the physical, more even than the psychological- that life, the ultimate reality of human life, spills outside the boundaries of life, and that it must be seen that way if it is to be meaningful.
What I am saying here is that Osama bin Laden and all the Islamic thinkers whose pronouncements and interpretations back him up, have to be heard and appreciated on their own terms. It's crucial that they be, for they are saying something that all of us need desperately to hear - that the world has gone wrong, is blind and out of control; that we need to emphasize less what we have and want, and more what we are and aren't. Only by hearing this message and honoring it, and looking deeply into it with our own souls, we will be able to see precisely how the so-called terrorists are wrong, and why they are wrong. They believe in eternal human truths that are reducible to texts and doctrines that can be understood literally. They believe that it is permissible to sacrifice life in the service of these eternal truths. They believe (although their religion is modern) that it is possible to return to ancient faiths in apparently ancient ways. But all of this is wrong. It won't produce the results they seek. It will only lead to the deification of violence and therefore to the strangling of the human hearty- it won't produce Oneness, submission to Allah; it will make more separation, more anguish, more greed.
It is now necessary I think to find a spirituality that isn't merely synthetic or polite, that is committed, difficult, real, perplexing, costly, and satisfying. This spirituality may or may not be based on ancient traditions, but if it is, it has to be those traditions understood anew- deeply anew. In the conclusion of his book, which he calls "to whom..." Bataille calls for "the positing of a religious attitude that would result from clear consciousness" and would be a necessity for people "for whom human life is an experience to be carried as far as possible." (Italics Bataille's). "If we raise ourselves personally to the highest degree of clear consciousness, " he says, " it is no longer the servile thing in us, but rather the sovereign, whose presence in the world, from head to foot, from animality to science, and from the archaic tool to the non-sense of poetry, is that of universal humanity."
© 2002, Norman Fischer