Monday, September 29, 2014

Healing the Hegelian Wound

For Hegel, spirit is the wound of nature, it derails every natural balance, but it is at the same time spirit itself which heals its own wound. This Hegelian insight will be developed in its philosophical, theological, and political implications: why is the Fall a happy occurrence? How does permissiveness turn into oppression? Why does only the most brutal capitalist alienation open up the possibility for freedom?
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In the tradition of Kabbalah, this primordial wound appears in the guise of »broken vessel.« According to the so-called Lurianic Kabbalah (named after Isaac Luria (1534–1572), Ein Sof created the world in order to understand itself better. Because it was infinite, Ein Sof was also formless and without purpose — it existed as pure energy. Ein Sof therefore resolved to create something with both form and purpose — human beings. Because Ein Sof‘s energy had filled up the entire universe previous to the creation of human beings, Ein Sof‘s first action had to be tsimtsum, ―withdrawal.‖ In order to make room for creation, Ein Sof had to first create a void inside itself, a space in which to make yesh (something) from ayin (nothing). However, as Ein Sof attempted to fill the vessel it had created with its light, catastrophe struck, the light was too intense to be contained within the vessel and the vessel shattered. The breaking of the vessel destroyed the ordered universe that Ein Sof had begun to create: tiny pieces of the vessel, like shards of glass, scattered and brought chaos to the universe. When the shards of the vessel began to fall, they brought with them sparks of Ein Sof‘s light; together, the shards and the sparks fell into what would become material reality, or the human world. In place of a harmonious world, human beings entered a broken world filled with »husks,« scattered sparks of divine light. Every human being is required to liberate the sparks of light from these husks through righteous study of Kabbalah - only when all the sparks are freed will Ein Sof become whole again, ushering in the perfect world that Ein Sof designed at the moment of creation.

What this implies is that Ein Sof is not an all-knowing God but a dependent God that needs human beings to restore it to wholeness. That is why God is a becoming, not a being: as the world develops, sparks are liberated, people are born, and Ein Sof evolves to become more and more true to itself. The creation of the world is thus an act of God‘s self-sacrifice: a disaster, a catastrophic descent into chaos - the world and human beings form not according to God‘s perfect plan, but as a result of destruction. Yet because human beings can liberate the sparks from the material world and help to restore God, the universe becomes filled with good deeds and the hope for redemption. – How, then, should we change this myth in order to provide its materialist version? The »materialist« solution seems obvious: there never was any vessel, no breaking, the universe is just a contingent collection of fragments we can tinker with to produce new assemblages... What gets lost in this solution is the immanent antagonism/tension/blockage (the barred/impeded Whileness) which underlies and sets in motion the movement of fragmentation. The consequences of such an approach were spelled out by Walter Benjamin who, in his early essay "The Task of the Translator," used the Lurianic notion of the broken vessel to discern the inner working of the process of translation:
―Just as fragments of a vessel, in order to be articulated together, must follow one another in the smallest detail but need not resemble one another, so, instead of making itself similar to the meaning of the original, the translation must rather, lovingly and in detail, in its own language, form itself according to the way of signifying [Art des Meinens] of the original, to make both recognizable as the broken parts of a greater language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel.
The movement described here by Benjamin is a kind of transposition of metaphor into metonymy: instead of conceiving translation as a metaphoric substitute of the original, as something that should render as faithfully as possible the meaning of the original, both original and its translation are posited as belonging to the same level, parts of the same field (in the same way that Claude Levi-Strauss claimed that the main interpretations of the Oedipus myth are themselves new versions of the myth). The gap that, in the traditional view, separates the original from its (always imperfect) translation is thus transposed back into the original itself: the original itself is already the fragment of a broken vessel, so that the goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement the original, to treat the original a broken fragment of the »broken vessel« and to produce another fragment which will not imitate the original but will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit another. What this means is that a good translation destroys the myth of the original's organic Wholeness, it renders this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking: once the translation sets in, the original organic Vessel appears as a fragment that has to be supplemented - breaking the vessel IS its opening to its restoration.

In the domain of telling stories, a gesture homologous to translation would have been a change in the plot of the original narrative which makes us think ―it is only now that we really understand what the story is about.‖ This is how we should approach numerous recent attempts to stage some classical opera by not only transposing its action into a different (most often contemporary) era, but also by changing some basic facts of the narrative itself. There is no a priori abstract criterion which would allow us to judge the success or failure: each such intervention is a risky act and must be judged by its own immanent standards. Such experiments often ridiculously misfire - however, not always, and there is no way to tell it in advance, so one has to take the risk. Only one thing is sure: the only way to be faithful to a classic work is to take such as risk – avoiding it, sticking to the traditional letter, is the safest way to betray the spirit of the classic. In other words, the only way to keep a classical work alive is to treat it as ―open, pointing towards the future, or, to use the metaphor evoked by Walter Benjamin, to act as if the classic work is a film for which the appropriate chemical liquid to develop it was invented only later, so that it is only today that we can get the full picture.
Slavoj Zizek, "The Wound..."Getting Stuck"

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