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Chapter X: Presence as a Mystery

In the latter part of the last chapter we saw that in some sense or other, certainly so far in a rather obscure sense, it does seem possible to transcend the opposition between the flux of successive images and the timelessness of the abstract concept; and if that opposition can be transcended at a supratemporal level, that is, at the level of time's other dimension of depth or inwardness, it follows that I must think of myself not merely as somebody thrust into the world at a moment of time that can be historically located, but also as bound to those who have gone before me in some fashion that cannot be brought down to a mere linkage of cause and effect. It is from this point of view that we ought to consider what I have elsewhere called the mystery of the family bond; which is itself, for that matter, only a particular expression of that general mystery of being to which we shall be devoting our attention in my second volume. No doubt, of course, it does seem rather odd to deal with a particular expression of the mystery of being before treating the whole subject generally. But we must not forget that our task is that of a quest or an investigation, following up successive clues, and not that of the didactic exposition of the consequences and corollaries that would follow from the acceptance of certain initial axioms or the proof of certain initial theorems.

It ought to be noticed, before we go on any further, that the point of view from which we are considering the reality of the family bond is what might be called a metasociological one. I mean, simply, that we are going deeper than sociology does. Sociology, so long as it remains at its own proper level, cannot begin to state our kind of problem: which is, in fact, our old problem, ‘What am I? And how is it that I am able to ask myself what I am?’, with a new face.

We are living today, to be sure, or at least so it seems, in a world in which the notion of sonship, and the notion of fatherhood too, are tending to be emptied of that richness of meaning which they possessed for other societies. The philosophy that is tending to triumph today is the old philosophy of the eighteenth century, of the Aufklärung, in a new dress. For that philosophy, the metaphysical reality of sonship is one superstition among many others and ripe for the rubbish-heap. It is important therefore for us to get a firm grasp of the almost completely negative conception of sonship which is tending to define itself and to assert its authority before our eyes. It seems to define itself, in fact, basically in terms of a refusal—a refusal to acknowledge the existence in life, in the fact of being alive, of a value that allows us to think of life as a gift. The old French expression ‘devoir le jour à’—to owe the light of day to—would never be used by anybody today. It is not enough to say that it has become rather trite to talk of owing the light of day to one's parents. The notion, or rather the feeling, that these words express is no longer experienced except in a residual fashion. There are certain basic reasons for this state of affairs; the most obvious of them, on the face of it, is that to be alive in such a tragic and such a threatened world as ours seems to many people not a gift but a penalty—but, a penalty, after all, pronounced by whom? And a penalty for what crime? Can one be justly punished for an offence that one is not aware of having committed? But this is not the whole story. Let us look at it from the side of fatherhood, as well as from that of sonship. In very many cases, is not the act of begetting a child something unpremeditated, the act of somebody who is not behaving in a responsible fashion, and who is very far from taking upon himself everything that his act will entail for somebody who never asked to be born? It is precisely this affirmation, reinforced by a question and by an exclamation, ‘I never asked to be born, by what right—by what right!—has life been inflicted on me?’ that lies at the roots of that contemporary nihilism, to which I shall have to come back much later. You will not have failed to notice, however, that we here touch again upon a state of affairs which took up our attention in chapter two. What we should notice particularly, however, is that from this negative perspective, this perspective of refusal, the bond between father and son gradually tends to lose every spiritual quality; it is conceived of now merely, in a rather vague fashion, as a somewhat obscure objective relationship, which can be of interest, from a strictly technical point of view, to the biologist alone. We might say that we are witnessing a more and more general disavowal of fatherhood, but a disavowal, paradoxically, mainly pronounced by sons. But naturally the process becomes to some extent reciprocal; when sons deny the rights of fathers, fathers are likely to refuse to acknowledge that they have any responsibility towards sons.

I know that I probably seem to be painting a rather gloomy picture here. In the majority of cases this basic situation of estrangement between father and son is masked by customary tolerance and ordinary human decency; but it breaks through to the surface in a very striking way in contemporary literature. In a body of work like that of Sartre's, a body of work whose importance cannot be brushed aside, this situation of estrangement emerges in a most definite shape; one might even say that Sartre's world is one where fatherhood, whether as a fact or as a value, has actually ceased to exist; it would be no exaggeration, in fact, to call this a world in which a man claims, in Sartre's slightly technical phraseology, to choose himself as the son of X, and therefore equally to reject himself as the son of X. But in relation to the general body of human traditions of feeling and behaviour, this is an innovation of a completely revolutionary sort. It is, in the most exact sense of the word, an impious innovation; and it is not by mere chance that Orestes, in Sartre's very first play, has the beau role just in that (not in spite of the fact that) he is the murderer of his mother.

It is rather important to ask ourselves how, or rather where, we are going to take our stand when we are faced with such a refusal to recognize life as a gift and therefore to acknowledge the metaphysical reality of sonship. It is pretty clear, at least, that we cannot simply condemn such refusals as infringing certain rules of morality, which we assert to be self-evident and beyond discussion; if we are to protest against this kind of nihilism, it can only be in the name of a sort of depth of reality which the nihilism refuses to recognize and, as it were, blots from view; it was just this very depth, in fact, that I was trying to make manifest in my essay, Homo Viator. This deep reality, that nihilism ignores, has to make this same act of recognition and acknowledgement whose central importance for our thesis I have so often underlined. It is essential to the very notion of being a father that one should recognize one's son, and acknowledge him to be one's son; and to that of being a son, that one should recognize and acknowledge one's father's fatherhood. But I am not talking at this point, naturally, of recognition in the merely legal sense. I am not envisaging the case of the man who may be forced to recognize, and to contribute to the support of, a casually begotten bastard; what we are concerned with is a much deeper and more intimate kind of recognition—and a kind of recognition that is bound up with an activity of a very actual and very vital kind. If a man, in fact, fails to show any real interest in his child, he is behaving as if he did not recognize the child as his own; we are within our rights in saying that in such a case the father does not recognize the child, and even that real fatherhood is lacking, at least in the human sense of the term; from a purely biological point of view, in so far as heredity is a scientific fact, it continues of course, to manifest itself, whether or not the biological father behaves like a human father. But really, of course, the notion of fatherhood has its true and full meaning only at the human level; dogs, for instance, those casual and promiscuous creatures, are not really fathers in the human sense, though there are certain animal species—one thinks particularly of birds—in whose behaviour there is something like an anticipatory sketch of human fatherhood. We ought to be aware, however, that in such cases we are always interpreting bird behaviour on the analogy of human behaviour; human behaviour, as we intimately experience it, is our point of departure.

What has just been said of fatherhood might also be said of sonship—though, while the father has often in the past refused to acknowledge the son, it is only in our own days that the son, except in very exceptional circumstances, has refused to acknowledge the father. What is also misleading is the notion of a moral imperative, a notion really springing in the last analysis from the Ten Commandments: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’. Reflection shows us, however, that this commandment can have meaning only against the background of certain given structural social conditions; in a world that had become entirely proletarianized, the given conditions would tend to abolish this commandment or at least to rob it of any concrete significance. This is not to say that in such conditions one would be within one's rights in not honouring one's father, but more profoundly that an entirely proletarianized world would produce an increasing number of beings who in their very depths would feel themselves as being fatherless—as being nobody's sons, Fils de Personne to quote the title of a contemporary French play1—and who would feel this even though the individual who had physically begotten them were still alive.

It seems clear, therefore, that the notion of human fatherhood is one that is applicable within fairly strict limits; at one end of the scale it disappears to leave in its place a mere biological phenomenon; at the other end the biological phenomenon disappears without destroying the essentials of human fatherhood; I am thinking of the case of adoption—and here, too, we must look beyond legal definitions, for there can be legal adoption without the accomplishment of that spiritual act of which I am always thinking, and on the other hand the act can be accomplished in cases where legal adoption, for one reason or another, is impossible. The words ‘spiritual act’ here should be taken in their strongest possible sense; one does not become the adoptive father of somebody merely through having a sudden impulse of affection, but only through a self-commitment to which one will have to remain faithful in spite of almost certainly inevitable lapses of interest, disappointments, and setbacks. Ought we to conclude, however, from the possibility of becoming a father by adoption, that it is necessary to make a radical distinction between spiritual and biological fatherhood? That, I think, would be a very rash thing to do. On the contrary, we ought to maintain that in normal circumstances the separation of the two kinds of fatherhood is something that ought not to be brought about, and even ought not to be able to be brought about; where there is such a separation it is because of some flaw in the individual's physical framework or social situation. But let us be wary about what we intend to convey here by the word ‘normal’; I am not thinking of a norm in an abstract sense, some formal rule of ethics whose basis would be hard to discover and which would subsist somehow or other beyond the world of everyday experience, but rather to a certain fullness of life which, when spiritual fatherhood is separated from biological fatherhood, becomes something for which the reflective consciousness feels a certain homesickness. Thus parents who have adopted a child, and who love the child with all their heart, cannot fail to feel a certain regret, except in very exceptional cases, that it is not the child of their own bodies. The exceptional cases I have in mind are those where, if the child was physically their own, they would risk transmitting to it certain hereditary weaknesses; but a satisfaction of that kind is, after all, an extremely relative satisfaction—taking its rise in something that is in itself a smart, a wound, a humiliation.

It is, in fact, very possible that in our actual world a dissociation between the spiritual and the biological is becoming quite generally operative; but this is only one more proof that our world is a broken world; it is only a broken world that could give rise to such practices, for instance, as artificial insemination.

Such topics, to some of my readers, may seem strangely alien to the kind of investigation to which this volume is devoted. Such readers, however, I believe, are the victims of a mere illusion, an illusion which consists in the last analysis of adhering to that conception of the spirit as something at the opposite extreme from the flesh, or as something completely transcending the flesh, against which I have never ceased to protest. In a very general fashion indeed, one might say that the difficulty we have had, in the course of these lectures, continually to confront lies in the very fact that the spiritual seems to wish to claim for itself the dignity of a separate existence, whereas in a deeper sense it only constitutes itself effectively as spirit on condition of becoming flesh. The example, that we have taken already, of adoption is very significant in this new regard; adoptive parents only really become parents on condition that they lavish on their adopted child the most actual, the most material, and the most humble cares and services, the same which they would have bestowed upon him if they had really engendered him. In this sense adoption is a kind of grafting of the flesh on to the spirit, and it cannot be anything else; it is wonderful that it should be possible at all, and in fact its possibility shows up better than anything else the limits of every philosophy of life that claims to base itself on purely biological considerations.

Yet, on the other hand, nothing can give us a more intense feeling of insecurity and strangeness than this human situation of ours; the situation of a being placed at the point of juncture, or of co-articulation, of the vital and the spiritual. It is not a matter of the sense of strangeness that would be felt by an observer of the situation from the outside—but of the strangeness that is felt from within by somebody who recognizes the situation as his own. Let us recall, for that matter—what goes without saying to anybody who has grasped the significance of these investigations of ours—that the very notion of observing the situation from the outside is, in this context, a meaningless one. It is of the very nature of our situation that it can be grasped only from within its own depths. But at the same time—and here we touch again on a point made at the very beginning of this volume—in a world like our own, which is becoming more and more completely subjected to the dominion of objective knowledge and scientific technique, everything, by an almost fatal necessity, tends to fall out as if this observation of our situation from the outside were a real possibility. From that falsely objective point of view, the very phrase ‘spiritual reality’ is in danger of becoming emptied of all meaning; or rather what is still called ‘spiritual reality’ is offered for our consideration as a mere superstructure, an epiphenomenal garment that masks, and rather thinly masks, a basic hurrying of matter: it might be demonstrated that an assumption of this sort, shared by both parties, is the mainspring of that strange convergence so often noted by scientists, at least in France, of strictly biological generalizations, on the one hand, with Marxist speculations on the other. Both biologists and Marxists are seeking to arrive at an interpretation of life at the purely objective level; only, unfortunately, the kind of objectiveness they are aiming at entails a preliminary, and complete, elimination of the subject as such.

We know of course that we are not, from our own point of view in these lectures, to understand the notion of the subject as it has traditionally been understood by idealist philosophers. Neither the transcendental ego of Kant nor the monad of Leibniz has any place in our argument. It is precisely in order to underline that fact that I have been emphasizing the notion of the family bond and its mysterious character. At the point we have now reached, it is on this new and difficult notion of mystery that we must concentrate; it is the notion in which this whole first volume logically culminates, and it is around this notion, as a starting point, that the lectures in my second volume will be built up.

When I talk about the mystery of the family bond some of my readers, I fancy, are disconcerted. The family is an institution; it is a fact; it is something which can be studied, at least in some of its aspects, by the methods of positive science. In talking about its mystery, am I not bringing in a touch of vague literary floweriness at a level of discourse where such battered ornaments of speech have no proper place? However, as we have seen already, the situation with which we are concerned, in our special context, is one whose true nature can be grasped or acknowledged only from the inside; there are no objective statements that can be made about it from the outside, for by definition it is our situation, the situation we cannot get outside of. That is why the kind of writer who makes the mystery of the family palpable to us is always, for example, the novelist rather than the historian of social institutions. However, though these remarks help to clear the ground a little, we have not yet succeeded in giving the term ‘mystery’ that very precise and almost technical sense which alone can justify its introduction into the vocabulary of a philosopher.

Perhaps the shortest way towards our needed definition of the notion of mystery would be to begin by working out the distinction, at the spiritual level, between what we call an object and what we call a presence. Here, as always, we are taking as our starting point certain very simple and immediate experiences, but experiences which philosophy, until our own day, has always tended to overlook. We can, for instance, have a very strong feeling that somebody who is sitting in the same room as ourselves, sitting quite near us, someone whom we can look at and listen to and whom we could touch if we wanted to make a final test of his reality, is nevertheless far further away from us than some loved one who is perhaps thousands of miles away or perhaps, even, no longer among the living. We could say that the man sitting beside us was in the same room as ourselves, but that he was not really present there, that his presence did not make itself felt. But what do I mean by presence, here? It is not that we could not communicate with this man; we are supposing him neither deaf, blind, nor idiotic. Between ourselves and him a kind of physical, but merely physical, communication is possible; the image of the passing of messages between a reception point and an emission point, which we have rejected on several other occasions, is in fact quite applicable here. Yet something essential is lacking. One might say that what we have with this person, who is in the room, but somehow not really present to us, is communication without communion: unreal communication, in a word. He understands what I say to him, but he does not understand me: I may even have the extremely disagreeable feeling that my own words, as he repeats them to me, as he reflects them back at me, have become unrecognizable. By a very singular phenomenon indeed, this stranger interposes himself between me and my own reality, he makes me in some sense also a stranger to myself; I am not really myself while I am with him.

The opposite phenomenon, however, can also take place. When somebody's presence does really make itself felt, it can refresh my inner being; it reveals me to myself, it makes me more fully myself than I should be if I were not exposed to its impact. All this, of course, though nobody would attempt to deny that we do have such experiences, is very difficult to express in words; and we should ask ourselves why. The fact is that the notion of the object, as such, is linked in our minds with a whole set of possible practical operations (‘This object is a typewriter, and this, and this, and this, etc. are what you do with it.…’) that can be taught and that can thus be regarded as generally communicable. But these considerations do not apply, in any sense at all, to the notion of the presence, as such. It would be quite chimerical to hope to instruct somebody in the art of making his presence felt: the most one could do would be to suggest that he drew attention to himself by making funny faces! The whole business would be rather like teaching a woman how to have charm. It is as clear as can be that the notion of a lesson in charm is a self-contradictory one (one could have lessons in deportment, etiquette, and so on, but one can know about these things without having charm, and one can have charm without knowing about these things). In fact the whole notion of teaching charm, as of teaching people to make their presence felt, is the very height of absurdity.

In my Metaphysical Journal, under the date, 23 February, 1923, I had this to say about charm: ‘It seems to me that the more constrained a person's behaviour is, the more his attention is taken up with precise, specific purposes, the less charm he has. Thus men, in general, have less charm than women and children. J., speaking about the odd case of the child who lacks charm, is apt to say that such a child is too finicky, too exact: and such phrases express very well the absence of a sort of aura, of indecision, or of vagueness, round the charmless person's words and acts. There is nothing more impossible to acquire, by a deliberate exercise of the will, than charm; and in fact there is a kind of willing—the willing that implies constraint—which basically excludes the very notion of charm. The tensed-up person cannot be charming, ever. Charm is a kind of margin to personality, it is the presence of a person spreading out beyond what he actually says and what he actually does… It is an overplus, a beyond… And since it cannot be created by an effort of will, it has, of course, no ethical equivalent. Someone has charm if he sprawls out easily beyond his virtues, if these seem to spring from some distant, unknown source. And only the individual, in direct contact with another individual, can feel his charm. It would be absurd to investigate charm as a kind of quality which we could consider in abstraction from whose charm it was. For it is not a physical quality, like red hair; nor a moral quality, like self-control; nor an intellectual quality, like a gift for mathematics. Thus the assertion, “X has charm”, or “X had charm” tends to undermine itself. There would be something rather grotesque, for instance, in mentioning the deceased's charm in an obituary notice’.

Though we cannot, of course, regard charm and presence as merely identical, charm does seem to be one of the ways, nevertheless, in which a presence makes itself felt. Felt, of course, by this, that, or the other specific person; felt in an atmosphere of a certain intimacy; not necessarily felt, obviously, by anybody at all who comes across our charming person at a large public meeting. And this very fact that charm, which is the expression of a presence, works in some conditions and not in others, for some people and not for others, underlines the non-objective character of the notion of presence. Non-objective does not, however, in our present context, really in the least mean merely subjective, in the privative interpretation of that phrase; it does not mean being more or less of the nature of an intermittent hallucination. Instead of subjectivity, we should think of inter-subjectivity. Charm is non-objective but it is intersubjective. However, even the term ‘intersubjectivity’ might give rise to misunderstandings, for one might conceive of a content—still an objective content—that could be, as it were, transmitted from subject to subject. But the very notion of transmission must be excluded at this level of discourse; the communion in which presences become manifest to each other, and the transmission of purely objective messages, do not belong to the same realm of being; or rather, as we shall see when we embark on the subject of the ontological mystery, properly so called, all transmission of objective messages takes place, if we may so put it, before we have yet reached the threshold of being.

As always in the higher reaches of thought, we must be on our guard against the snares of language; when I distinguish the notion of a presence from that of an object, I run the risk, of course, of turning a presence for some of my listeners, into a sort of vaporized object that contrasts rather unfavourably with the tangible, solid, resistant objects that we are used to in what we call real life. But, in fact, when we say that a presence must not be thought of as an object, we mean that the very act by which we incline ourselves towards a presence is essentially different from that through which we grasp at an object; in the case of a presence, the very possibility of grasping at, of seizing, is excluded in principle. These distinctions still define the notion of a presence in a quite negative way. We shall see our way more clearly if we say that a presence is something which can only be gathered to oneself or shut out from oneself, be welcomed or rebuffed; but it is obvious that, between the two notions of gathering to oneself, or welcoming and seizing, there is a fundamental underlying difference, a difference of attitude. If one thinks carefully, one sees that I cannot gather to myself, or welcome, what is purely and simply an object; I can only, in some sense, take it, or else leave it. It goes without saying that the kind of taking or prehension I am thinking of, is apprehension by the intelligence, or in a word, comprehension. In so far as a presence, as such, lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, one might say that it also in some sense lies beyond the grasp of any possible comprehension. A presence can, in the last analysis, only be invoked or evoked, the evocation being fundamentally and essentially magical: now, we may of course think of magic as a discipline that is concerned with objects as well as with presences—that brings rabbits, for instance, unexpectedly out of hats—but in point of fact it is concerned only with what we may call the presential side of objects. What the magician attempts is to make the rabbits present in his hat, to transform them into a presence, in the sort of case in which, apart from his efforts, the rabbits in his hat would be merely notional or even absolutely elsewhere. To grasp the nature of the contrast I am underlining between the presential and the notional, or the schematic, side of objects, we have only to compare an inventory with a poem: an enumeration of objects may, indeed, become poetic, but only if somehow or other it has a magical effect, if the objects, as they are enumerated, become present to us. A rose in a poem can be something that is present to us in this way, but not, in most cases, a rose in a seedsman's catalogue.

We should, of course, recognize that this contrast between the use of words in a poem and the use of them in any sort of practical list of objects may not, in actual fact, be so clear cut as we are making it here. Words perhaps are essentially magical, it is in the nature of the word, as such, to evoke a presence. But we have to use words for practical purposes; so little by little this magical, evocative power of words tends to disappear. The function of poetry is that of restoring this very power to language, but the conditions in which it can be restored, today, tend to become more and more hermetic.

The purpose of these very brief remarks is to give us a glimpse of the nature of a presence, as something which can, indeed, only be glimpsed at. Let us notice, moreover, that the actual presences that surround us are very rarely consciously experienced by us as presences; in so far as we get used to them, they become almost part of the furniture, though it only needs something that jolts us out of our ordinary habits, such as a serious illness, to destroy this everyday aspect; the break in habit that an illness brings with it enables us to grasp the precariousness of that everyday atmosphere of our lives which we thought of as something quite settled. Thus there grows up, or there can grow up, a bond between the precarious and the precious. But under what conditions is this possible? If we place ourselves at a purely objective viewpoint, we can hardly see anything more in illness than the breakdown of an apparatus, but we already know, long before we reach the stage of analysis, that this so-called objective account of the matter is not really true to the facts; for an illness impinges on the being of the person who is ill, and, in the presence of his illness, he has to define his attitude towards it; but this is a kind of fact that can have no equivalent at a purely objective level. We should recall, at this point, what we said in an earlier lecture about the body; the latter is not merely an instrument, it presents us with a kind of reality which is quite different from the reality of any sort of apparatus, in so far as it, my body, is also my way of being in the world.

But let us notice, on the other hand, that if the doctor's account of my illness as a breakdown in an apparatus is inadequate, the priest who comes to visit me and tells me to regard the illness as a trial or tribulation inflicted on me by God is not in much better case; for he also places himself outside the troublesome and mysterious reality which is that of my illness itself. Just like the man for whom I am merely a machine, the priest shows himself incapable of transcending the plane of causality. But it is just that transcendence which is necessary here, and it is only on condition that we effect such a transcendence that we can acknowledge the mystery of our illness. But let me express myself more strictly: to recognize my illness as a mystery, is to apprehend it as being a presence, or as being a modification of a presence. What we are essentially concerned with is somebody other than ourselves in so far as he is a sick man, or it would be better to say with my neighbour and the call he is making to me—the call to show myself compassionate and helpful. In the case, however, where it is I myself who am ill, my illness becomes a presence to me in the sense that I have to live with it, as with some room-mate whom I must learn to get along with as best I can; or again the illness becomes a presence in so far as those who care for me, and play the part of a Thou to me in my need, become intermediaries between me and it. Of course, in the case in which my illness has utterly prostrated me, in a state either of complete collapse or acute pain, my illness, paradoxically, ceases, as a separate presence, to exist for me; I no longer keep up with it that strange acquaintanceship which can be a struggle, or a dangerous flirtation, or the oddest blend of both.

One might develop these remarks at length in order to show how suspicious we ought to be of those lectures on illness which people seem so specially apt to deliver if they have never been seriously ill themselves: what rude health they always seem to enjoy, those bluff haranguers of the sick! Quite literally, they do not know what they are talking about, and their smug loquacity has something very insolent about it when we consider the terrible reality they are faced with, a reality which they ought at least to respect.

If I have lingered rather over this example, it is firstly because in the special case of illness the co-articulation of the vital and the spiritual is really palpable, and secondly because the example shows us how and why it is that the co-articulation cannot give rise to knowledge. We are still at the level of the test or the ordeal, with all its ambiguity. I may be tempted to see in my illness the prelude to my death, and therefore to let myself float down its current, without making any real attempt to turn upstream. But I can also think of the illness as of a battle in which I must take the initiative; and from this point of view my first attitude will seem to me a kind of treason of which I must never be guilty. But these are still superficial contrasts; it may fall out that, though in the first stage of an illness I have to show this will to resistance, later on, however, I am forced, if not exactly to ‘give up’, at least to recognize the inevitable, and by my recognition to change the meaning of the inevitable and thus to change at the same time the very nature of the climax which I am powerless to modify. We shall have to come back to this point in my second volume, when we deal with the topic of death; but even now we can see how all our previous arguments lead up to an interpretation of death that will make it seem a mystery and not a mere objective event. To judge otherwise would be to forget everything that has been previously said about the impossibility of severing the spiritual from the vital, and about the misunderstanding, which all such attempts to arrive at the spiritual in a ‘pure’ state imply, of the conditions of existence under which we belong to the world.

So far, however, we have merely been approximating, through concrete examples, to the definition we are looking for: but we must now try to determine, with as much precision as possible, just where the opposition between the two notions of the problem and the mystery lies. I shall confine myself here to reproducing the most important passage on this topic from my book Being and Having. I am quoting from the English translation of the book.

‘A problem is something which I meet, which I find complete ‘before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. ‘But a mystery is something in which I myself am involved, ‘and it can therefore only be thought of as “a sphere where the ‘distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses ‘its meaning and its initial validity”. A genuine problem is ‘subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which ‘it is defined; whereas a mystery, by definition, transcends every ‘conceivable technique. It is, no doubt, always possible ‘(logically and psychologically) to degrade a mystery so as to ‘turn it into a problem. But this is a fundamentally vicious ‘proceeding, whose springs might perhaps be discovered in a ‘kind of corruption of the intelligence. The problem of evil, as ‘the philosophers have called it, supplies us with a particularly ‘instructive example of this degradation.’

‘Just because it is the essence of mystery to be recognized or ‘capable of recognition, it may also be ignored and actively ‘denied. It then becomes reduced to something I have “heard ‘talked about”, but which I refuse as only “being for other ‘people”; and that in virtue of an illusion which these “others” ‘are deceived by, but which I myself claim to have detected.’

‘We must carefully avoid all confusion between the mysterious ‘and the unknowable. The unknowable is in fact only the ‘limiting case of the problematic, which cannot be actualized ‘without contradiction. The recognition of mystery, on the ‘contrary, is an essentially positive act of the mind, the ‘supremely positive act in virtue of which all positivity may ‘perhaps be strictly defined. In this sphere everything seems ‘to go on as if I found myself acting on an intuition which I ‘possess without immediately knowing myself to possess it—‘an intuition which cannot be, strictly speaking, self-conscious and which can grasp itself only through the modes of experience ‘in which its image is reflected, and which it lights up by being ‘thus reflected in them.’

For those who have read so far, it does not seem to me that the actual meaning of this passage will be very difficult to grasp. One ought, however, to underline the following points. The opposition between the problem and the mystery is always in danger of being exploited in a tiresomely ‘literary’ way by writers without a proper philosophic grounding, who lose sight of the technical relevance of the distinction. The sort of philosophy that I have been trying to present to you in this volume makes a very special appeal to the eloquent amateur, and that, in fact, is one of its most disquieting features; we have only to compare it, in this respect, to the exact sciences, to see just where the danger lies.

The man who states a mathematical formula, even if he does not judge it necessary to go over the proof that has established the formula, is always in a position to do so if he wants to. I have expressed that elsewhere, in a metaphor which perhaps sounds rather frigid in English, by saying that round the cogs and springs of mathematics the golden watchcase of demonstration, a sort of handsome protective covering, is never lacking. And it is the same with all the laws of nature. It is always at least theoretically possible to repeat the experiments from which such laws have been inductively arrived at. But this cannot be the case for us. Existential philosophy is at all times exposed to a very serious danger; that of continuing to speak in the name of various kinds of deep inner experience, which are certainly the points of departure for everything that it affirms, but which cannot be renewed at will. Thus the affirmations of existential philosophy are perpetually in danger of losing their inner substance, of ringing hollow.

And perhaps it is at this point, as we draw, for the time being, towards the close of these difficult investigations, that we at last get a precise notion of one of the essential notes of the type of philosophy that is being put forward here. It should by now be very clear that a philosophy of this sort is essentially of the nature of a kind of appeal to the listener or the reader, of a kind of call upon his inner resources. In other words, such a philosophy could never be completely embodied into a kind of dogmatic exposition of which the listener or reader would merely have to grasp the content. It is, in fact, from this very point of view that the question of the opposition between problem and mystery ought to be approached. When I am dealing with a problem, I am trying to discover a solution that can become common property, that consequently can, at least in theory, be rediscovered by anybody at all. But, from the very commencement of these lectures, we have seen that this idea of a validity for ‘anybody at all’ or of a thinking in general has less and less application the more deeply one penetrates into the inner courts of philosophy; into, that is to say, that spiritual reality with which, in fact, our investigations have been concerned. In the last analysis, the idea of an acquisition (as it is an acquisition to know how to speak French, or how to play the piano, or how to work out quadratic equations) is inadequate in such a context as this. The greatness of philosophy, though it will seem to most people the disappointing side of philosophy, is just this impossibility of regarding it as a discipline which can be acquired; where we are concerned with the highest matters, with if you like, presences, we cannot hope to come across anything at all comparable to the permanent acquisitions of the elementary sciences. I underline, there, the word elementary: for I think it is true that when we leave the teachable elements of, say, mathematics and climb up towards the principles, the enabling acts, of the science, our perspectives begin to blur, just as they do in philosophy. We cannot be sure, after all, that in a hundred years from now men may not have a notion of the principles of mathematics that will be different in very many ways indeed from the notion that prevails today.

At the very highest level, in fact, the line of demarcation between philosophy and the sciences tends to fade away; and I am convinced that there are many mathematicians who would not refuse to acknowledge that mathematics, too, has its mystery. But below the very highest level, the word ‘mystery’, in such a context, has no meaning; given some system of signs or other, whose structural validity one deliberately refrains from questioning, it is clear that arithmetic, algebra and geometry can push on ahead with no fear of running into any obstacles; and the person who sets out to prove a group of theorems, one after the other, will feel that the same calm light of truth is shed evenly over all of them. What shows very clearly that this is the case is the greater and greater perfection and efficiency, in our own time, of calculating machines. It would be very interesting—and it would be a task for which I would be quite incompetent—to investigate the general conditions within which the functioning of a machine is feasible. It is clear that these conditions, whatever they might be, would be quite incompatible with whatever it is that we indicate by the term mystery, (in passing, let us notice that ‘indicate’ is improperly used in this connection, since strictly speaking we can only use a term to indicate, or point at, an object,) since it is inconceivable that the most complicated machine which we can imagine would be able to undertake the speculative and reflective task of working back to its own sources, and of determining the conditions that make its achievements feasible. For in speculation and reflection we soar above every possible kind of mechanical operation; we are, in the strict sense of the phrase, in the realm of the spirit—though here again, alas, language undermines itself, for when we speak of the realm of the spirit we are still thinking vaguely of some place or other, and yet at this level the very act of providing any kind of spatial background for the operations of the mind is inconceivable, unless, indeed, we bring in the notion of a space of inner experience—comparable to the time of inner experience—to which we referred at the beginning of this volume. We cannot, in fact, dispense with some remnants of spatial imagery, and yet it will be difficult to justify their use.

But what can be at the basis of this kind of secondary reflection, (which seeks, as it were, to establish the conditions of primary reflection and of the more mechanical operations of the understanding,) except a sort of fundamental dissatisfaction? It is probable, indeed, that the philosophical activity has no other boundaries than those of its own dissatisfaction with any results it can achieve. Where that dissatisfaction disappears, and instead we have a sense of somehow being snugly settled, the philosophical activity has disappeared, too. It might be objected that the scientist, too, has to be on his guard against the danger of snugly settling down. But we must distinguish: this is true of the scientist who aspires towards philosophy, but not, it seems to me, of the scientist qua scientist—for the simple reason that the scientist, in his conception of the external world, is and must be completely a realist; he is concerned with an order of truths which he must consider as wholly outside of, and completely distinct from, his own self. The strange greatness of his task and his mission consists in the fact that he really is lifted out of himself in this way, and the word ecstasy, in its literal root meaning, would apply exactly to his state, if, by a regrettable perversion of language, we did not usually reserve it for the sort of lyrical orgasm which is still the activity of the self. With the scientist, the self has, in so far as it possibly can, vanished away. His task is to bring order into a world which is as little as possible his own particular world, which is as much as possible the world in general; and from his own point of view, it is certainly not up to him to ask whether this notion of ‘the world in general’ is a fiction. Thus when order has been established among things, the scientist must declare himself satisfied; only, this order can never be anything more than a partial order; if his activity has a theoretical side, that consists still merely in the stating of the kind of hypothesis that will temporarily hold together his partial and verifiable results. And these results themselves have been obtained either by experiments or, in the most refined case, by primary reflection relating solely to our experience of things, of objective data, strictly so called.

But the philosopher finds himself in a completely different situation, and it is essential to his activity that he should reflect deeply on this situation, in order to get a gradually more and more ample insight into it. Now, one thing that we may feel we have really established in this first volume is that this process of getting an insight has essentially nothing to do with the objective as such; we do not get an insight into something whose reality, by definition, lies completely outside our own. We have been forced to insist more and more emphatically on the presence of one's self to itself, or on the presence to it of the other that is not really separable from it. And we have, in fact, real grounds for stating that we discern an organic connection between presence and mystery. For, in the first place, every presence is mysterious and, in the second place, it is very doubtful whether the word ‘mystery’ can really be properly used in the case where a presence is not, at the very least, making itself somehow felt. In the course of a recent conversation on this topic, I brought up the example of the mysterious character that attaches to the presence near one of a sleeping person, especially of a sleeping child. From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality. In all civilizations of a certain type (not, of course, by any means merely in Christian civilizations), the guest has been regarded as all the more sacred, the more feeble and defenceless he is. In civilizations of a certain type, I say: not, I might have added, of the type dominated by the ideas of efficiency and output. We are touching here, once again, on certain social topics to which we referred at the beginning of this volume. The more, it might be said, the ideas of efficiency and output assert their supreme authority, the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd: and in fact, in the world around us, we know that this assertion of the absurdity of forbearance and generosity is taking very practical shapes.

The above remarks may appear to have a merely cursory and superficial value. But that would be a mistaken judgment. The example we have just presented does throw into very bold relief that co-articulation of reflection and mystery around which the whole of this final chapter has been built up. When we talk about the sacredness of the defenceless, because it is defenceless, we are not dealing merely with a pragmatic and in a sense ceremonial attitude of which the sociologist, or perhaps the psychoanalyst, might claim to discover the origins. It is precisely against all such claims that philosophy, if it is to be true to its own nature, must take its strictest stand. It is something really essential that is here at stake.

And it is with an attempt to define this new term, essential, that I would like to draw this first series of Gifford Lectures to a close. Probably, in seeking to discover what we mean by essential, it is best to start by seeking to discover what we mean by important. At a first glance, it seems that when I decide that something or other is important I am relating it to a certain purpose of mine or perhaps, more generally, to a way in which I organize my life.

If I centre my life upon some predominant interest, say, for instance, the search for pleasure, power, or money, everything that seems likely to subserve this interest will strike me as having positive importance, and everything that does not as having negative importance. Experience, however, shows us, and its lessons cannot be rejected or ignored, that our special ways of organizing our lives are always liable to collapse like houses of cards under our very eyes; leaving something else in their place, something which the original structures of lust, ambition or greed had merely masked from us. This something else, which we are not yet in a position to define, and of which we have not perhaps even a direct apprehension, is not the important, but the essential, the ‘one thing needful’. It is obvious that the believer, at least, has a name for this ‘something else’: he will say that the one thing needful is salvation, but the latter is a term of which philosophy ought not to make a premature use. The first question, rather, that can be asked at a strictly philosophical level is whether one can, or cannot, affirm that in the life of the individual something of absolute, not merely of relative, importance is at stake. It is round this theme, in fact, that my second series of Gifford Lectures will be building themselves up. But we can acknowledge even at this moment that by our labours up to this point we have cleared away some of the obstacles from the path that leads to an answer to this question.

These obstacles, there can be no doubt at all, have all to do with a tendency within us to transfer the definitions and the categories that are valid only in the purely objective world into a realm of discourse where they do not properly apply. Following in the steps of Bergson, we have seen that this temptation to make a falsely objective representation of the inner world is at work not only when I am thinking of such a general concept as time, but when I am thinking of what I call my own particular life and history. We have thus been brought to recognize what one might call the transhistoric depth of history; which is, no doubt, the best short cut we can take towards the idea of Eternity. Moreover, as we shall see by and by even more clearly, the nexus between the ideas of Eternity and mystery is as strict a one as can be. In the first place, Eternity cannot be anything other than a mystery; we cannot, as it were, figure it to ourselves in terms of a map, even an endless map, that could be rolled out on a table. The spatial images, through which we get our first insight, no doubt always a rough and inadequate insight, and one needing much correction, into so many other concepts, are here, even in the very first instance, totally out of place. In the second place, every mystery is itself like a river, which flows into the Eternal, as into a sea. All this, of course, must be taken in a very vague and general sense; but it is true for each of us, and true especially in relation to our roots in the family, true, that is, in relation to the conditions under which we have been able to make our appearance in the world.

But to what degree, and within what limits, is it possible for us to raise ourselves above that condition of being in the world which is our specific mode of existence? To what degree are we within our rights in turning our glances up towards a higher sphere than this? What are—at the point where we are supposed not yet to have received the enlightenment of any special revelation—these floating, glittering, these unfixed lights, that can to some degree throw light into the obscurest depths of our being? These are the formidable problems that will be facing us in my second volume. I am under no illusion that we are moving forward on a plain and beaten path; may we be granted, during this arduous journey, that help that is rarely refused to those who are animated by the love of truth alone. Of truth alone. That is indeed the first and the last word, alpha and omega; and lest we seem to be drawing these lectures to a close with too hopeful a flourish, let us say, as our very final word, that every society pronounces sentence of doom or acquittal on itself according to the throne of state which it reserves, both within itself and high above itself, for that Truth which is not a thing, but a spirit.

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    By Henry de Montherlant.