A Moral Place in the World

Incredulous, exhausted by disbelief I, among others, find myself speechless in this time when the necessity for speech is urgent. Donald Trump and his cabinet of mean-minded cohorts in the White House—what is there to say about a situation willed by millions of American voters? Alarming that there was a consensus sufficiently broad to bring this dangerous, limited, vulgar man and his ilk to power. It’s a situation of statehood about which others have said this: “The unbridled naked materialism and cynicism and appetite for cruelty and violence in the United States is very disturbing. It’s the acceptance of vulgar and anti-idealistic values. I’m not trying to idealize the past or say that it’s so much better elsewhere, but I think that when you get a society which doesn’t even have any decent hypocrisies anymore, in which people are so shameless in their meanness and their selfishness and their avidity and the willingness to judge almost everything by criteria of material gain, then you are certainly on the way toward a society in decline. A society can’t operate, I think, so cynically and continue to prosper. It can’t teach its citizens to be so selfish and call that individualism.”

And here is another: “Contemporary man is being afflicted with contradictions and perplexities, living in anguish in an affluent society. His anxiety makes a mockery of his boasts. Passing through several revolutions simultaneously his thinking is behind the times. High standards of living, vulgar standards of thinking, too feeble to stop the process of the spiritual liquidation of man.”

These two sections are not from last week’s edition of The New Yorker, not from The New York Times or Harper’s Magazine or The Atlantic—all those publications full of justified and cautionary alarms at the state of the country in which they are publishing their worried and informed critiques. The first is from an interview Border Crossings published in April, 1988 with the American writer Susan Sontag. Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States and was near to completing his second term in office. The second quotation is by Polish-born scholar, writer and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped to America in 1940 where he lived until his death in 1972. The essay from which this was taken, titled “What We Might Do Together,” was first published in the journal Religious Education, March-April, 1967.

Deeply concerned and engaged in the social and political environments in which they lived, each wrote from their individual present, speaking to the future we now inhabit. Twenty years separates these pieces, one from the other. Neither writer is alive today. Would they be bereft and despairing to know that their worry and caution had apparently been futile? Fifty years since Heschel wrote his words; twenty-nine since Susan Sontag delivered hers.

I think the present is an age of acute loneliness. We are lonely because we are selfish, self-serving, seeking to satisfy our personal needs first. Or we are selfish and looking to satisfy our own needs because we are alone, lonely and have only ourselves. The haunting plaint of the opening line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies states better than any other could, this condition of being alone: “What angel, if I called out would hear me?” The answer inherent or implied, contained in the sobbed question is—no one.

Franco La Cecla and Piero Zanini, architects and anthropologists, have engaged in a study of the nature of ethics, not as an abstract idea but in practical daily application. The resulting book, The Culture of Ethics (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2013), looks to the source of community-generated practices that form an operative code of conduct whose morphology indicates its functional viability. Not static—these codes shift and alter over time in response to the particular social orders to which they apply. In the smallest daily rituals—the way a morning begins, how coffee is taken, the way in which people address each other—these brief interruptions in the composition of time gather meaning and become simple rules of conduct. La Cecla and Zanini identify this as the “ordinary ethics” guiding exchanges among the people with whom we live—rules for common use of spaces, manners and behaviour to which anthropologists apply the term “culture.”

If these small gestures of civility are in fact the substructures of culture from which an ordinary ethics of conduct are built, how do we acknowledge and apply them when media gives us large, flamboyant, celebrity culture and the spectacle of the rich and famous? Where are the quiet and sustaining consensual rituals available to everyone, the underpinnings of a community which provide a scale at which we can comprehend our lives? The dizzying panoply confuses our location; it’s not possible to actually live globally.

La Cecla and Zanini remind us that we must be concerned with ethics that take us outside ourselves, and our individual interior moral conversations, to examine how we function in relations to others, how we live in a community. They look to the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell, most notably his book The Claim of Reason, using it in its Italian edition where it is titled The Rediscovery of the Ordinary, and they quote from it in the book which I am reading, The Culture of Ethics, translated from the Italian by Lydia G Cochrane. (Oh, the transparency and opacity of words.) Appropriately then, they write, “Cavell arrives at a rediscovery of the ordinary through the elaborations of a skeptical approach to language and to human phenomena.” They go on to explain that Cavell seems, in this, to be introducing “an idea of pertinence” which is a moving away from context to a more immediate involvement in the location and the time that is being engaged, similar to the everyday morality to which they referred when they wrote about the ethics of community. So, for the issue of isolation, of being alone, being disconnected, and with the absence of any possible moral consensus developing out of this isolation to offer source and structure, Cavell’s answer is basic, simple, eloquent: “And if you wish to know how I know that there are other human beings, the answer is: because I know I have… duties to them, I also know it because I love some of them and hate some of them; but neither loving nor hating discharges me of my duties toward them.” That seems to me to be the key to our moral place in the world.

Who calls, today, for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity? Abraham Joshua Heschel did in a telegram he sent to President John F Kennedy in June, 1963, urging him to take direct and immediate action against the racism present in the United States. It’s also the title of the book of essays edited by his daughter, Susannah Heschel, and published in 1996 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The essays were written over the course of many years and published individually. Reading them together as a collection is stirring, meditative and instructive. Heschel is a kind and erudite theologian. I am a reader looking for guidance and whatever small transcendence I can derive, but not able entirely to enter his domain. Heschel writes out of faith and an inherited and schooled commitment to formally structured religion. But he wrote for a larger world too, believing his faith to be broadly applicable. Reading and wanting to apply what I read, I am weaving in and out and around the divinity in which he is steeped, selecting the portions and directions which are relevant outside of formal religious practice. Still, I find my spirits lift at his inspirational charges. He speaks to humanity, he speaks rationally, with generosity, and guided by an understanding and a certainty that he has attained or which has been revealed to him. He has a dialogue with God. He asserts that it’s not only humankind who searches for God—I’ll say for a spirit—but he feels God is interested in us. Here is Heschel’s antidote to isolation. Susannah Heschel explained that central to her fathers’s theology and distinct to it, was his belief that in prayer, adherents are not seeking to make God visible but to make themselves visible to God. Hence, his notion of a kind of mutuality (certainly not equivalence, but interest). Heschel called this “divine pathos.” From a secular perspective I can see a parallel here—operating on a plane not celestial—with American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, suggesting we can find ethics in a “mutuality of being,” what he refers to as kinship (La Cecla and Zanini refer to Sahlins in The Culture of Ethics). Not to suggest that the highest spirit is someone to hang out and keep company with, but that mutuality implies at least duality, and if you are one of two in a conversation or in some conduct or contract, you are not alone.

Heschel wrote that there are four dimensions of religious existence, four components of one’s relationship to spirit or a spirituality. At a loss for proper designation perhaps we can say, something of larger meaning, and I found elements amenable to a secular reading. The first is the teaching, which he describes as the essentials which are summarized as a creed and which serve as guiding principles. The second is faith, which he elaborates as inwardness, the direction of one’s heart, the intimacy of religion, the dimension of privacy. Privacy and intimacy, which I read as being alone and quiet and knowing oneself well. So encouraging is the idea that to be alone sometimes can be sufficient, and that privacy is the real intimacy. It’s not the “leaked” details of a passing relationship or the contents of a person’s bank account but what’s internal, unique and interior. The third is the Law, which he describes as the sacred act to be carried out in the sanctuary, in society or at home, the dimensions of the deed, which suggests a recognition of something larger, more capacious and outside of oneself. The context is the final dimension of religious experience where he says creed, faith and ritual come to pass, and he includes community, history, tradition, and here I’m thinking of La Cecla and Zanini’s The Culture of Ethics and their suggesting that it is the supporting structure of ritual which establishes community and a necessary code of “ordinary ethics.” Heschel includes the dimension of transcendence, a condition also to be sought, where we transcend our own bounds and connect with others.

He writes too about the ineffable. What an essential relief to consider something desirable to which no value can be attributed and which can’t be purchased, owned or held. The act of art- making has some of that unclaimable, unnameable essence, and Heschel does speak of naming when he writes that God is not a word but a name, which he says “can be uttered only in astonishment.” How we long for astonishment in our saturated lives but there are states, he says, that must be achieved before we are at the vaunted level of astonishment. I understand what he outlines. He wrote, “We begin with a sense of wonder and arrive at radical amazement. The first response is reverence and awe, openness to the mystery that surrounds, and we are led to be overwhelmed by the glory.”

We can experience this outside of religious structures; we are capable of transcendence even if that means a simple kindness or pausing to note the smell of grey rain on black earth or music so fine we are speechless at the human accomplishment. The ineffable in secular terms.

La Cecla and Zanini write about impertinence and about its important role. As I see it, it is contra-acquiescence, not a state of quiescence—that non-abrasive collegiality that is consensus. It is the uncooperative dissenter. They identify the contrarian who stands outside, sometimes outside the current morality, pointing the way to consider the possibility of other ways. They amplify by saying this is not about blatant immoral conduct. “The corrupt or the corrupter,” they write, “is someone who claims that the entire world is as corrupt as he is and that his immorality should become majority behaviour. To do so,” they go on, “he needs to publicize his immorality and show it off in public as much as possible.” Remembering that this is taken from a book published in Italy in 2013, their prescience in regard to President Trump and his campaign strategy and performance is remarkable. When they speak of impertinence they associate it with courage. Heschel too, identfies and values the brave contrarian in the biblical figure Jeremiah, whom he described with admiration as a solitary dissenter in the midst of his people.

The words an individual or collective use are real. They are solid things and have weight. They linger in the air around us, they settle in our consciousness and are heard in part, or misunderstood in their entirety. Hurled as objects of assault they become subjective and internalized; no one understands them in exactly the same way or can attribute them accurately to their source. Thoughts, Heschel cautions us, become words, become deeds. He wrote, “It is from the inner life of man and from the articulation of evil thoughts that evil actions take their rise. Speech has power and few men realize that words do not fade. What starts out as a sound ends in a deed.”

In the words Abraham Heschel gives us in his generosity, we are able to house the sacred inside the secular and inhabit the place he creates.

Volume 36, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #141, published March 2017.

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