Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Let the reader understand": An Advent Meditation

Via French phenomenology:

"Mysterium tremendum. A frightful mystery, a secret to make you tremble.

"Tremble. What does one do when one trembles? What is it that makes you tremble?

"A secret always makes you tremble. Not simply quiver or shiver, which also happens sometimes, but tremble. A quiver can of course manifest fear, anguish, apprehension of death; as when one quivers in advance, in anticipation of what is to come. But it can be slight, on the surface of the skin, like a quiver that announces the arrival of pleasure or an orgasm. It is a moment in passing, the suspended time of seduction. A quiver is not always very serious, it is sometimes discreet, barely discernible, somewhat epiphenomenal. It prepares for, rather than follows the event. One could say that water quivers before it boils; that is the idea I was referring to as seduction: a superficial pre-boil, a preliminary and visible agitation.

"On the other hand, trembling, at least as a signal or symptom, is something that has already taken place, as in the case of an earthquake [tremblement de terre] or when one trembles all over. It is no longer preliminary even if, unsettling everything so as to imprint upon the body an irrepressible shaking, the event that makes one tremble portends and threatens still. It suggests that violence is going to break out again, that some traumatism will insist on being repeated. As different as dread, fear, anxiety, terror, panic, or anguish remain from one another, they have already begun in the trembling, and what has provoked them continues, or threatens to continue, to make us tremble. Most often we neither know what is coming upon us nor see its origin; it therefore remains a secret. We are afraid of the fear, we anguish over the anguish, and we tremble. We tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable. Even if one thinks one knows what is going to happen, the new instant of that happening remains untouched, still unaccessible, in fact unlivable. In the repetition of what still remains unpredictable, we tremble first of all because we don't know from which direction the shock came, whence it was given (whether a good surprise or a bad shock, sometimes a surprise received as a shock); and we tremble from not knowing, in the form of a double secret, whether it is going to continue, start again, insist, be repeated: whether it will, how it will, where, when; and why this shock. Hence I tremble because I am still afraid of what already makes me afraid, of what I can neither see nor foresee. I tremble at what exceeds my seeing and my knowing [mon voir et mon savoir] although it concerns the innermost parts of me, right down to my soul, down to the bone, as we say. Inasmuch as it tends to undo both seeing and knowing, trembling is indeed an experience of secrecy or of mystery, but another secret, another enigma, or another mystery comes on top of the unlivable experience, adding yet another seal or concealment to the tremor (the Latin word for "trembling," from tremo, which in Greek as in Latin means I tremble, I am afflicted by trembling; in Greek there is also trameo: I tremble, I shiver, I am afraid; and tromos, which means trembling, fear, fright. In Latin, tremendus, tremendum, as in mysterium tremendum, is a gerundive derived from what makes one tremble, something frightening, distressing, terrifying).

"Where does this supplementary seal come from? One doesn't know why one trembles. This limit to knowledge no longer only relates to the cause or unknown event, the unseen or unknown that makes us tremble. Neither do we know why it produces this particular symptom, a certain irrepressible agitation of the body, the uncontrollable instability of its members or of the substance of the skin or muscles. Why does the irrepressible take this form? Why does terror make us tremble, since one can also tremble with mid, and such analogous physiological manifestations translate ex¬periences and sentiments that appear, at least, not to have anything in common? This symptomatology is as enigmatic as tears. Even if one knows why one weeps, in what situation, and what it signifies (I weep because 1 have lost one of my nearest and dearest, the child cries because he has been beaten or because she is not loved: she causes herself grief, complains, he makes himself complain or allows himself to be felt sorry for-by means of the other), but that still doesn't explain why the lachrymal glands come to secrete these drops of water which are brought to the eyes rather than elsewhere, the mouth or the ears. We would need to make new inroads into thinking concerning the body, without dissociating the registers of discourse (thought, philosophy, the bio-genetico-psychoanalytic sciences, phylo-and ontogenesis), in order to one day come closer to what makes us tremble or what makes us cry, so that cause which is not the final cause that can be called God or death (God is the cause of the mysterium tremendum, and the death that is given is always what makes us tremble, or what makes us weep as well) ut to a c oser cause; not the immediate cause, that is, the accident or circumstance, but the cause closest to our body, that which means that one trembles or weeps rather than doing something else. What is it a metaphor or figure for? What does the body mean to say by trembling or crying, presuming one can speak here of the body, or of saying, of meaning, and of rhetoric?

"What is it that makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love, the dissymmetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn't see what is looking at me; it is the gift and endurance of death that exists in the irreplaceable, the disproportion between the infinite gift and my finitude, responsibility as culpability, sin, salvation, repentance, and sacrifice. As in the title of Kierkegaard's essay Fear and Trembling, the mysterium tremendum includes at least an implicit and indirect reference to Saint Paul. In the Epistle to the Philippians 2: 12, the disciples are asked to work towards their salvation in fear and trembling. They will have to work for their salvation knowing all along that it is God who decides: the Other has no reason to give to us and nothing to settle in our favor, no reason to share his reasons with us. We fear and tremble because we are already in the hands of God, although free to work, but in the hands and under the gaze of God, whom we don't see and whose will we cannot know, no more than the decisions he will hand down, nor his reasons for wanting this or that, our life or death, our salvation or perdition. We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is, free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death."

Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1995), pp. 53-55

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