Thoughts from a Forest of Fallen Trees : The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Side of Existence

(If a philosopher falls in the forest who really cares?) Critical Theory, Deconstruction, Ethics, Religion and other such Things.

Friday, August 04, 2006


(For Al Lingis)

Four quotes, and four corners to lead us into an exploration of coronation, queens, grounds, crowns, glory and falling down:
The woman you call the mother of the child is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed, the new sown seed that grows and swells insider her.
Aeschylus, The Eumedides

Be not anxious, great King! said the Brahmans, “a child has planted itself in the womb of your queen...he will become a Buddha and roll back the clouds of sin and folly of this world.
Jataka, The Birth of the Buddha

The angel said to her, “ Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God”...and Mary said, “ My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed...he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
Luke 1. 30:46

And yet the discourse on khora, conducted by a bastard reasoning without a legitimate father is inaugurated by a new return to the origin. Philosophy cannot speak philosophically of that which looks like its “mother”. “nurse”, “receptacle”, or its “imprint bearer”. As such, it speaks only of the father and the son, as if the father engendered it all on his own.
Jacques Derrida, Khora

Noah is sixteen months old. I enjoy taking him to the park. He teaches me how to play and how to look at the world in an fresh non-philosophical way. There we are on the ground playing with wood-chips. Wood-chips can be dangerous. Once a little boy fell from the swing face first. The wood-chips embedded themselves in his mouth. Fun and play had turned into crying and bleeding. The play-ground had become a pain-ground.
This same ground was also used by midnight lovers and drug addicts. Used condoms strewn on the grass, cigarette remains, ash and the faint impressions of bodies were the presents left behind to let fall on the ground. Noah does not see these things which are being swept up by the groundskeepers.
We make our way to the bridge past the ducks and squirrels. Noah stops to chase them until he spots a dog. “Doggie, woof, woof”, he cries out in delight. Here too the ground is littered with muck and excrement though it is different from the cat litter that I clean every day and even different still from Noah’s four pound diapers.
Throughout our lives we find ourselves on different ground. The ground that supports us can also cause us to sink and fall. The ground can yield its secrets, corpses in mass graves, artifacts and treasure and though they do not bloom as the tulips and lavender in the spring, they might yet rise from the ground and resurrect. In standing on one ground we are always on a many layered ground so hospitality would be the imperative to follow as we take our steps across sidewalks, boardwalks, roads, bridges, streams and deserts. This is what Lingis has taught me.
Fall is my favorite time of year. The colors sweep across the landscape. Crown is said of a fire when it sweeps through the canopy of a forest. In the backyard, fenced in, the leaves are changing color. Fall explodes with vibrancy, echoing with an intensity that only Van Gogh or Tom Thompson could capture. Fall time is the time of the fall when colors crown and then tumble down, cascading in an almost waterfall rhythm.
Noah and I are playing with the leaves. I am trying to rake them into one pile but soon give up this game of uncover the ground. Ground cover consists of various plants used to fill in space along walk-ways and highways. To provide ground cover in times of war means to put up a moving wall of bullets so that nothing alive is left standing.
Suzanne, Noah and I are walking into Zehrs. It’s grocery day. Outside the sliding doors a crowd has gathered. It watches as three security guards throw a man to the ground. He stole some Listerine. Later the police officer tells me that he’s a heroin addict. She tries to justify the excessive force used by the law and security students. But somehow it is no use convincing her that the man’s gashes and gouges and bleeding skull bounced off the concrete wall are a terrible punishment to pay for a minor infraction. The law walks on violent ground. I did speak up as the three looked at me proud of their accomplishments. After-all they did protect the market and saved a bottle of Listerine from falling into the wrong hands. However, the man suffering from addiction could have been apprehended in a more gentle aikido way.
On week-ends after I have finished teaching philosophy I work for a demolition contractor. Such work is quite refreshing and fits nicely with my deconstructionist background. Lingis writes, “I now do not feel I am really a man unless I get my hands dirty. Cleaning out the cellar, the garage, that is a man’s job”. I can relate to Lingis’s description of work as “endurance, capacity to suffer, responsibility to family that bends one to harsh labour, comradery, loyalty to one other”. My father taught me how to work. My mother taught me how to pray. Last Saturday I was demolishing storage lockers with a group of Cubans who speak very little English. In between the swings of crow-bars and sledge hammers the thought occured that its perverse to enter someone’s fantasy space in this manner. I stopped for a moment. The Cubans thought I was tired and they were making fun of me . I reamained mute. Unable to tell them why I disagreed with Slavoj Žižek’s theories. I knew a line was being crossed and that I was tearing down space and standing on a ground that I had difficulty comprehending. You ask what obsessed this person to collect Third Reich paraphenalia, pornography, children’s toys and pictures of his grandmother? Let’s not jump to hasty conclusions such as the grandmother was really a secret agent posing as a porn-star who finished her career at Toys-R-Us. I would later learn that the man whose storage locker I was tearing down had tried to kill himself. But he only jumped from a four storey building. At that height which is no height at all, the ground did not have a chance to rush towards him. No terminal velocity was achieved. The jumper was grounded. The ground bounced him back like a stone skipped on the surface of a calm Nothern Lake. For some sorrow is such that it consumes all traces of joy, pleasure and receptivity.
Ground is never gained or lost. At best one can manage to leave a faint imprint but that disappears as well. The question becomes how to ground oneself on ground that is never stable; on ground that quakes. The plane is grounded. The ship runs a ground. The meat is ground. The human full of disaster and catastrophe never seems to be grounded.
I don’t know where I am going with this. But I know that I wanted to travel some ground with you, to expose my thinking to you, to ground myself in some concrete examples and along the way to pay homage to Al Lingis.
In 1992 as I was beginning my Ph.D. thesis I was told by my advisor not to trust what Lingis had to say because his thinking was dangerous. Of course, the analytic tradition would find Lingis dangerous. After- all he made philosophy exciting, exotic, visceral, photographic and above all, honest. His writing was impressive because it impressed itself on the one who was drawn into a world of lived experience. Lingis showed the hospitality that was at the heart of being human as he shared his food, medicine and money with street kids and with the wretched of the earth whom analytic philosophy has forgotten.
Lingis is to the practice of philosophy what Francis Bacon was to painting. Bacon portrayed human flesh saturated with pain, dis-ease and affliction but he also found room for joy and abandon. Bacon focused on heads, crowns, gaping wounds and screaming faces; flesh trapped in geometric cages. Watching the man with the addiction being beaten down his blood stained flesh mixing with brick I saw the extent to which the consumer cage surrounds us.
In one of his last interviews before he died in 198? Bacon expressed that he had only wanted to paint the human smile. But I could understand why Bacon’s attempt at a smile could only resemble the Joker’s grimace that kept Batman on edge. Flesh is meat and Bacon learned from Rembrant how to expose a carcass and make it glow with glory. From Velasquez, Bacon took the papal throne and turned it into a caged toilet; a space for toil; a spoiled space where the dropping weight of glory could shine, purple, yellow, brown and vermillion. Bacon like Lingis shows us what is royal in the pageantry of things.
In the Timaeus, Plato speaks of the khora as a receptacle, as a nurse and as a mother. The khora is that from which spectacle, space and display flow forth. It is what Hopkins would describe as a gush of juice and joy. Khora births us. Khora allows us to stand on the earth and to fall back into it. Following Plato we might say that we are Khora-Nated or birthed from a source we cannot name. Khora crowns us to become human and to assume our place. But the history of our species shows that we have not taken our human place. We have become something other than human, monstrous without innocence. Crown from the Latin corona means garland or wreath. Corona can also mean anything curved like the tip of a bow, the stem of a ship, the curve of a hip, lip breast or phallus.
The word crown relates back to the Sanskrit word kridati or he dances. To dance is to turn and bend. In this dance of glory, life bends us with pain but there can be pleasure in the bending, in heading, jumping and turning to fall asleep. Once Noah was dancing with a belly full of breast milk and he threw up all over Suzanne. He kept on dancing and laughing oblivious to the nausea that was overtaking us.
To crown means to finish off and to climax. Crown can also mean to inflict a blow and to bruise. In childbirth to crown means to appear at the vaginal opening or to be taken out of the womb. All of us have been crowned so we are royal, majestic and sovereign. I remember when Noah was pulled out of Suzanne’s womb. He was bloody, glistening in muscous. He was glorious and beautiful.
Related to the word crown is the word coroner. A coroner was an officer in Englad whose duty it was to keep a record of the pleas of the corwn and guard the royal revenues arising from them. Lingis reverses this lawerly order. Lingis coronates what the rest have forgotten, overlooked, hidden, discarded or are afraid to speak of. He becomes a universal or catholic coroner who brings to our attention the pleas of the lowly while teaching us how to turn sorrow into a glory filled joy.
Crown refers to the highest quality or state of something. In Catholicism Mary as the mother of God is crowned with glory not because she was sweet submissive, silent and subordinate. This dehydrated and theological Mary is not the mother of Jesus. When my mother taught me to pray she never presented Mary in a bland manner. In my childhood home Mary was not floating in the clouds waiting to be spotted by NASA satellites. She was grounded, in the flesh, in our daily living. If the word was made flesh, the flesh was the Mothers’. Devotion to Mary is shown through the rosary; a devotional excercise marked by the use of beads. She is said to be a rose. A rose is a woman of great charm, excellence, virtue and vitality. Mary as Khora exists as a manifestation of life which is always maiden, youthful and new. What is full of life can be described as “quick”. The word quick means marked by the presence of life; not dead; charged with passion and action. In the Magnificat Mary sings a song of bold affirmation, revolution, and reversal of values which was already recorded in the Old Testament Books of Sirach and 2 Samuel: “The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their places...he will find gladness and a crown of rejoicing” and “ He raises up the lowly from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princess and inherit a seat of honor”. Mary sings a song for the oppressed and expresses her hope that the unjust structures of society can be changed. I see Lingis carrying on this Marian mission of bringing hope to those without hope; to those without a foreseeable future. Such work is perhaps beyond philosophy. The work of overturning is the work of the stomach. Disgust happens when one’s stomach is sickened. The stomach turns, churns, tightens and weeps with an ever greater urgency that demands action.