Wednesday, 27 July 2016

existential performatives

I was introduced recently to this picture by G F Watts. It's called 'Hope'. In it a blindfolded Hope, who hardly looks the perennial optimist is, apparently desolately, plucking the one remaining string of her lyre. Here is what the Tate webpage says:

In the Bible (Hebrews, 6:19), hope is ‘an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil’. Here, Hope is blindfolded, seated on a globe and playing a lyre of which all but one of the strings are broken. Watts wanted to find an original approach to allegory on universal themes. But Hope’s attempts to make music appear futile and several critics argued that the work might have been more appropriately titled Despair. Watts explained that ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.’

The picture, and Watts' comment, made me think of the importance of distinguishing between two different moments of our concepts of 'hope', 'faith' or 'belief'. The first moment is rationally assayable; the second is essentially not - I will call it 'existential'.

In the first, I hope if I wish for and then anticipate something. We may of such a person say that they are reasonable or unreasonable to hope for what they do, and this assessment of reasonableness is based on our assessment of the likelihood of what is anticipated actually happening. The vicissitudes of such hope are well explored by psychoanalysis (and by Shakespeare's Henry IV - 'thy wish... was father to that thought'): wanting something can make us overestimate how likely it is to actually obtain. The concepts of 'believe' and 'faith' can work in similar ways: I am rational in believing that something is going to happen if it is indeed likely. I do well to trust or have faith in something only if that thing is trustworthy or plausible.

In the latter - and this is the one I'm trying to help clear space for, covered over as it is by the prevalence of scientism and instrumentalism in our culture - I'm not in the probability business and my thought is not here rationally assayable (i.e. it makes no sense to say of it that it is irrational or rational; it is, perhaps, arational). Furthermore we do not here have to do with wishes of any sort. Here what is on the table is a particular kind of existential attitude. Concepts like 'commitment' get us closer to our target.


Imagine: you are getting married. You know that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and 50% of those that don't are basically unhappy. But yet you fully commit yourself to your partner for life. Is this irrational? After all it's likely to not work out. ... But this isn't the point. One doesn't go into a marriage with an expectation that it will work; rather one actively commits to it, one takes a stand in relation to it, one of involvement and investment. You put yourself into it. It is this stand-taking, rather than any stood-back assaying, that we need. Someone who hedged their bets would, amongst other more serious matters, rightly be accused of playing the wrong language-game.


Or more prosaically: I'm on the train and need a wee. My laptop is on the table. I ask the friendly-looking woman opposite if she'll keep an eye on it for me. Here we have two moments of trust in play and I want to make sure they don't collapse into one. In one I assess her as respectable, kind-looking, trust-worthy, trust-y. I didn't ask that scallywag over there: he didn't look like he'd do anything more than run off with it. In the other I actually put myself in her hands. This is an act of commitment; it is, one might say, an 'existential performative'. It configures me in a certain dependent, vulnerable and receptive relation to her.


This latter form of hope, trust, commitment, can be very hard for the person who is struggling with the after-effects of simple or complex trauma. Without it, life is lived in terror and loneliness. With it, once the scary hurdle of commitment has been jumped, once one has placed oneself in the hands of the other, then the empty edgy soul can be filled up again with light and life and love. Sure, we have to pick and choose the who and the what. It's daft to put one's trust in scallywags. But then, when the choice is made, then the courage of commitment and the relinquishment of self-reliance is yet needed. And that has to come from us, not from them.


The religious sometimes emphasise their trust and faith in the Lord. This has nothing to do with a trust or faith that He exists, but is rather their renewed dedication to Him. It is their very own existential performative. Consider this from Matthew 6:

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
The Gospel writer (reporting Jesus) is encouraging the reader to have the courage of faith and turn against pride, offering this as the way to a happy life. Now Watts' Hope's final lyre string may snap, and sometimes the fowls of the air do starve to death. But what kind of a life is it to try to feed yourself - rather than let yourself be fed? Perhaps there is only one string left. Well: are you going to play it - or not?
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postscript... a few weeks after writing the above I find the following in Denis McManus' marvellous Heidegger & the Measure of Truth (p. 20) - he's writing here about Heidegger's Phenomenology of Religious Experience (PRL):

What then is it to 'comport oneself towards' the Last Judgement as 'righteous judgement' (2 Thess. 1:5, quoted at PRL 98)? 'Paul's answer to the question of the When of the parousia is ... an urging to awaken and to be sober' (PRL 74). To 'expect' the Last Judgement - as the specific event that, as a Christian, one must take it to be - is to want to be a certain way, not merely to want to be-a-certain-way-when-the-crucial-time-comes. What corresponds to the 'actual or possible acts of consciousness' ... that are 'correlated' with this event is 'not some ideational "expectation", [but] rather ... serving God' (PRL 79). Genuine Christian 'hope' 'and mere attitudinal expectation [are] essentially different': the former is not poring over calendars or looking for portents with 'the speculators and chatterboxes'. but is instead 'faithful, loving, serving expectation in sadness and joy' (PRL 107). This is the distinctive 'subject-correlate' of the parousia, in which that even is 'constituted' as the religious event that it is - the form of 'Verhalten' or Haben' that distinguishes the subject who genuinely 'intends' that particular event.