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Philosophy and SpiritualitySocial Issues

How to Manage a Miracle

How to Manage a Miracle

Just shy of a year ago, on a mist-washed porch in Northern Vermont, my neighbour leaned across the table from me, over her glass of wine. Old eyes twinkling beneath yellowing corneas, she said the following: “I’m a realist. I believe in miracles.”

Nancy fell back into her chair slowly, a cheeky look of knowing and provocation playing on her face as my spirit probed the sentiment for philosophical contradiction. How could someone be both a realist and a believer in miracles? Not simply for the wholly immature objection that miracles were divine and reality was simple, scientific — I would retch to say ‘logical’ — no, no, thought carries us further than that. If realism accounts for the belief in that which is ‘really there’ or ‘really the case’, what room left is there for miracles? Follow me: if a miracle is precisely something so impossible that it must be divine or not of this world, then does it not follow that adopting miracles into our world by placing them in the bosom of realism destroys the very condition of a miracle?

The cynic’s step (taken by anyone with anything ‘better to do’) would be to call this all semantics and turn away from the conversation. If this is your inclination, reader, by all means do so — Nancy and I have a mental porch to occupy, and an idea’s limit to probe out. This is how to manage a miracle.

 

John Martin’s The Bard 1817, a symbol of romantic artistic revelation, photoshopped into a line at Starbucks. Photoshopped by Thorolf van Walsum.

John Martin’s “The Bard” (1817), a symbol of romantic artistic revelation, photoshopped into a line at Starbucks. (Image Source: Designed by Thorolf van Walsum)

 

Miracle! Thy name is…

The first step we must take to have any fun whatsoever here is to give some loose-fitting garb with which to dress the concept of ‘miracle’. What, precisely, are we looking for? What are we interrogating? I will hold the ground that I began with: a miracle is that which is impossible, but ‘is’ anyhow.

Logically, this point immediately seems to fail — once again, that which is possible cannot include the impossible; the ‘real’ cannot seemingly include the ‘not-real’, or else what on earth is the ‘not-real’ to begin with? The trick to be introduced is this: that which is ‘impossible’ is impossible for someone or something; an impossibility exists some-how.

We should not limit this ‘impossibility’ to an impossible excess of this or that; it would be a travesty to conclude that a miracle is to jump four feet high when you thought you could only jump three. We know precisely how this happened: we (somehow) became better at jumping. But what about a miracle that is truly immeasurable? Truly unthinkable, or predictable in advance? What if this miraculous ‘somehow’ is placed not at the level of ‘somehow better’ or ‘somehow more’, but where the ‘how’ exists in ‘some’ complete bewilderment? If you’ll indulge me this: a how-less somehow?

Making Sense of Miracles

Father forgive me, for I am about to stop speaking in absolute nonsense. I would like to start by thinking this ‘impossible somehow-ness’ of ‘miracles’ from within the structure of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Do you know it? Don’t worry if you don’t — admitting you don’t understand is half the point. From this basis, I will move on to a more in-depth presentation of the miraculous through Kierkegaard’s distinction between the Genius and the Apostle, elaborate on miraculousness through post-structural semiotics, and finally bring it all back to ‘miraculous realism’. Be not afraid! I’ll keep things simple enough to turn these word-wizards in their graves.

That’s our agenda: psychoanalysis, existentialism, semiotics and then some tea and cake to wrap it all up. But wait! Aren’t we forgetting someone? Standing shoulder to shoulder with philosophers, let’s not forget the big man himself: God! Without thinking of God as a glowy dude in biblical drip, I’d like to take the Torah’s Exodus — that is, Moses, the burning bush, and the fleeing of the Jewish people from a genocidal Pharaoh — as our case study in miraculousness.

This choice is not simply apt because Moses partook in miracles: rather, precisely because Moses was a human. Avivah Zornberg, a scholar of the Torah and the Jewish Midrash tradition, says this in a 2005 discussion of Exodus: “The torah stresses the fact that he is woman-born, he was humanly born, even though he is clearly the saviour. So there’s a bit of a polemic in the rabbinical sources in relation to the Christian tradition, where the saviour is someone who cannot be human in that physical sense, completely.” If we are to talk of real, some-how, human miracles, Moses is our guy.

 

Moses Stands at the Burning Bush, by Yoram Raanan. <a href="http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/3181595/jewish/Moses-Stands-at-the-Burning-Bush.htm">Link to artist's website→</a>

Moses Stands at the Burning Bush, (Image Source: Yoram Raanan)

 

Terrible Beauty

Lacan was not a fan of miracles. In fact, he complained about a pervasiveness of miracle-hunters in psychoanalysis; simply put, the ‘miraculous’, as an oasis of genius and opening-up of transcendental possibility, remains a mirage. Miracles cannot be found in some one ‘place’ in the mind. Nevertheless, post-Lacanian psychoanalysis has much to say on the subject, as is done in Harvard professor Mari Ruti’s analytic work The Singularity of Being.

Mari Ruti argues — though in much greater depth than is examined here — that there are two modes of desire: the social, ‘vampiric’ desire, communicated by normative social forces telling us who or what to be, and the personal ‘daimonic’ desire, existing as a surprising, affective, passionate force that seizes us towards a new, sublime-feeling end. This ‘vampiric’ social desire may only fulfill us in fantasy; it stabilizes us against the earth-shattering forces of our deeper ‘daimonic’ drives, and we reciprocate by upholding that social normalcy in turn. The ‘daimonic’ impulse, on the other hand, is truly unthinkable: it descends on us and grasps us in a terrible, life-giving and destructive beauty.

The normalizing vampire-desire and the traumatic daimon-desire structure finds a quick analogy in the Exodus myth. Moses, born a Hebrew in a time in which the Egyptian Pharaoh publicly ordered all Hebrew boys be killed at birth, was put in a basket at three months old by his Hebrew mother and sent down the river in the hopes he would find a safer social circumstance. Luckily, he was found in the reeds by the Egyptian princess, and was raised as one of the royal family. In this way, Moses is both the height of a normalizing societal force, raised the Pharaoh’s grandson, and the Hebrew trauma, having been born a Jew. Symbolic and passionate; the pharaoh and the divine.

 

Jesus fighting Vampires in the 2001 movie Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. <a href="https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0311361/mediaviewer/rm57472769/">Link to Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter IMDB→</a>

Jesus fighting Vampires in the 2001 movie Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. (Image Source: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter IMDB)

 

Moses: Vampire Hunter

Eric Santner, a contemporary of Professor Ruti’s, calls this ‘daimonic call’ the force of a ‘miracle’. It might seem, then, that we may wash our hands of the difficulty and be done with the affair; miracles are real, and they are the library cat poster saying Believe in yourself! In the story of Exodus, emphasis is placed on Moses’ turning away from the straight and narrow flock-tending tedium to find significance in an event outside of himself, the flaming bush: Exodus 3:3-4, ‘And Moses said I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him…’ The sub-symbolic ‘daimon’ liberates us from the symbolic desire of the vampire; Moses feels himself called upon and answers. Fin.

Only, this passion-response model is not so simple. Moses’ encounter with the divine is not a library poster calling for inspiration, but an external God in the form of a burning bush promising salvation of the children of Israel — a burning bush which Moses does not want to follow. Quoting, once more, Avivah Zornberg: “I think the most striking thing in the narrative — and it’s quite a long, drawn-out narrative — is that Moses continually refuses to take on the mission… and whatever God says, he basically repudiates.… It’s not just that he’s too modest to take on the role, he’s skeptical about everything that God says. It’s really almost what you would call hutzpah.”

The encounter concludes in Exodus 4:12 when Moses, objecting that he is “slow of speech” in Exodus 4:10, is told by God “go, and I will by thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12). This is important: God is not an internal aspect, lying in wait for discovery; as Lacan posed, there is no ‘spot’ within our characters from which we may trace miracles. The father of Existentialism, Kierkegaard, himself a devout Theologian, draws this same distinction in his essay Genius and Apostle: “An Apostle is not born; an Apostle is a man called and appointed by God, receiving a mission from him… For to become an Apostle is not preceded by any potential possibility; essentially every man is equally near to becoming one. An Apostle can never come to himself in such a way that he becomes conscious of his apostolic calling as a factor in the development of his life. Apostolic calling is a paradoxical factor, which from first to last in his life stands paradoxically outside his personal identity within himself as the definite person he is.” 

Transcending Immanence

The distinction between the genius and the apostolic, in Kierkegaard, is one of immanence and transcendence. The Genius may appear paradoxical at the time of their appearance, but are quickly brought into the normalizing symbolic order, which eventually turns their thoughts, actions or achievements to dust in the face of eternity. The Apostle, on the other hand, remains — in a sense — indigestible. “Even if thought were to think that it could assimilate the doctrine [of the Apostle], it cannot assimilate the way in which the doctrine came into the world; for the essential paradox is the protest against immanence.”

The distastefulness of converting spirituality into a system of normativity is a topic long taken up. In the 1600s, the Church of England insisted that the book of common prayer and the government of the Church by bishops was in accordance with the word of God. John Milton, in a diatribe against this imposition, writes in The reason of Church Government urged against prelaty “he who would take orders must subscribe slave and take an oath withal, which, unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure or split his faith.” 

Yet Kierkegaard’s position of the paradoxicality of faith is different from Milton’s problem: whereas Milton opposed this religious systematization because they were doing it wrong, that is, they should draw inspiration from the “Eternal Spirit” instead of “heat of youth or vapours of wine”, Kierkegaard clarifies this ‘eternal spirit’ in the form of a paradox.

To welcome a miracle, for Kierkegaard, is to submit blindly to an external, incomprehensible authority. “You who will hear [Jesus] must consider within yourselves whether you will bow before authority or not, accept and believe the words or not. But if you do not wish to do so, then for heaven’s sake do not go and accept the words because they are clever or profound or wonderfully beautiful, for that is a mockery of God.” (p.83)

In Exodus 3:13, Moses asks God how he might convince the children of Israel that the message he speaks is divine. To this, God says “I am that I am: thus shalt you say unto the children of Israel, I am hath sent me unto you.” God, here, is authoritative because he is that which is — his authority is self evident. To search for a confirmation that this is a godly claim — for instance, to test the hypothesis that Moses might have made this up for his own greedy purposes — is to take the claim outside of its own self-evidence. Kierkegaard would be disappointed.

 

All the Saints (looking pretty bored), Horae Ad Usum Romanum, 15th century France. <a href="https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52501620s/f369.item.zoom">Link to Archive→</a>

All the Saints (looking pretty bored). (Image Source: Horae Ad Usum Romanum, 15th century France)

 

Poking the Paradox

Here, too, would seem like a strong end point. Miracles exist, and they are that which is outside of us — unthinkable, unattainable by any degree of internal effort, paradoxical and yet self evident. It would also seem that the original hypothesis has failed; the miracle is not Mari Ruti’s ‘daimonic’, it is the paradoxical. Yet, for those willing to follow me into the abyss, I ask again: paradoxical for whom – or else, for what? Ruti’s ‘daimonic’ force does not oppose Lacanian theory, because although, perhaps, we have named it, its origin and form derives from that which is the most paradoxical, self-destructive, unthinkable and deindividuated aspects of our existence: the Lacanian ‘real’.

To borrow a phraseology of Kierkegaard’s, Ab esse ad posse; from the fact that it exists, the possibility of its existence follows. We have all felt this fiery call-from-without, this miraculous mystery that haunts us and compels us to act illogically: therefore, let’s investigate its impossible being. What is the somehow?

Deleuze yourself

Personally, I’ve found that no theorists write linguistic LSD quite like the post-structuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari — and no myth exemplified, to them, the clash of forces of passion and imperialism like the myth of Exodus. In this case, I will be substituting ‘passion’ for ‘daimon’, and ‘imperial’ for ‘vampiric’—  they are not dissimilar.

In this clash, there are two semiotic (meaning-making) systems — or regimes — at play. On the one hand, there is the paranoid, despotic regime of the Pharaoh, our vampire. On the other, there is the passional, authoritarian regime of the divine. We may see aspects of this in the myth itself; the paranoid Pharaoh, attempting to prevent some unforeseeable downfall of Egypt originating from the Jewish people, sought to put an end to them. God, as Authoritarian, forces the prophet to speak; “the prophet is always being forced by God, literally violated by him, much more than inspired by him.” We may recall Exodus 4:12, quoted above.

Like Kierkegaard, Deleuze and Guattari oppose the miraculous to an interpretive entity: Kierkegaard’s Genius to Apostle relationship is analogous, here, to the interpretive Priest (on the side of the vampire) to miraculous Prophet (on the side of the daimon). One understands and then speaks, the other is unthinkably spoken-through. The development that we find in Deleuze and Guattari is the attempted structuring of the paranoid, vampiric Pharaoh, and the passional, daimonic miraculous.

 

Two contrasted semiotic structures, based on drawings from Deleuze and Guattari's 'A Thousand Plateaus' and including imagery from Exodus. The left is the pharaoh's paranoid signifying regime. On the right, the passional regime of 'God', detaching from the Pharaoh's irradiating regime to "run in a straight line". Designed by Thorolf van Walsum.

Two contrasted semiotic structures, based on drawings from Deleuze and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus” and including imagery from “Exodus”. The left is the pharaoh’s paranoid signifying regime. On the right, the passional regime of ‘God’, detaching from the Pharaoh’s irradiating regime to “run in a straight line”. (Image Source: Designed by Thorolf van Walsum)

 

Tracing Miracles

In the image above, drawn to be slightly prettier (and simpler) than those in D&G’s work, we have two structures: on the left, the system of the paranoid Pharaoh. The Pharaoh, which is the heart of the ‘state apparatus’ or vampiric regime of stabilizing normalization, lays nestled in concentric rings of signs. What these ‘signs’ ‘signify’ is always determined, in the last, by the face of the paranoid despot. You can think of how ‘success’ is signified in today’s society by one’s relation to money, giving the lie to the despotic face of capitalism beneath.

What makes someone successful or unsuccessful — or, more importantly, the condition of ‘success’ or ‘unsuccess’ at all – is determined by the paranoid, totality-aspiring despot in the centre. Ironically, you can take this ‘face of the despot’ to be the modality of many religious denominations today; this or that action being ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’, as per the interpretation and application of a certain central teaching.

This is contrasted (though Deleuzian systems of significance are far from limited to this simplified ‘dichotomy’) to the passional regime. Taken at a personal, internal level, this is the regime of the ‘daimon’. In this, a sign or packet of signs — in Exodus, the message of the burning bush — detaches from the irradiating circular network and begins to run “in a straight line.” Rather than being driven away by an expulsion from the normative, the passional regime is pursued positively, “as though it were effectively occupied and followed by a people who find it their reason for being or destiny.”

(Whispers to Deleuze’s Tracings) Miracle Managed!

The significance of this break of one regime from the other is in its constitution. “In the case of the Jewish people, a group of signs detaches from the Egyptian imperial network of which it was a part and sets off down a line of flight into the desert, pitting the most authoritarian of subjectivities against despotic significance, the most passional and least interpretive of delusions against interpretational delusion.” (p.122)

If straightforwardness is something I mean to keep, I’ll have to leave Deleuze and Guattari there — unfinished. Let’s instead examine Exodus. From chapters 7 through 14, one thing seems to recur; a ctrl-F on Jewish Virtual Library tells me that the word ‘hardened’ is used 15 times in this space. In every single instance, it is in reference to the Pharaoh’s heart — a heart which refuses to let the children of Israel go.

Avivah Zornberg says this on the Pharaoh’s hardening, “what that means, in terms of relationships, is that he simply doesn’t hear; he doesn’t hear what Moses is saying, he doesn’t hear what God is saying — there’s clearly an intention here. He makes himself as someone who cannot hear… Not very often does he outright refuse to let the people go. He simply sits there impassively and doesn’t listen… I think it has to do with the symbolic role of the pharaoh, the sphinx-like being, (…) who doesn’t need to make any effort to come towards the world.”

The pharaoh, epitomizing denial in his prolonged indifference, might be opposed to the prophetic Moses, who remains open to external, paradoxical, passionate authority; good and evil. Please for the love of God don’t leave me now. 

 

Casper David Friedrich’s The Wanderer standing in front of a Burger King. Designed by Thorolf van Walsum. ‘Can I get uhhh…’

Casper David Friedrich’s The Wanderer standing in front of a Burger King. (Image Source: Designed by Thorolf van Walsum. ‘Can I get uhhh…’) 

 

The Anti-Miracle

The difficulty of the ‘miracle’ as constructed here echoes across the minds of all those thinkers we have considered thus. Just as Lacan reproaches the search for wellspring of miracles, Mari Ruti warns against the reification of the ‘real’ from which the ‘daimon’ springs. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, rebuffs a naïve espousal of absurd positivism in the name of faith; those who dogmatize the paradoxicality of faith do not swim in faith, but rather carry the jewel of faith, deluded, philistine and despicable. Deleuze and Guattari write “there is always a traitor in the making. What love is not betrayed? What cogito lacks its evil genius, the traitor it will never be rid of?”

The devout burns the heretic, and revenges, all, are taken in hot blood. Which desire is ‘vampiric’? Which impulse seizes me authentically, and which does not? Giving an answer would be satanic.

Perhaps the treading onward of vampiric life is for the better. How vile might our innermost beings be, how cruel the whispers we hear, acted out in the light! Be done with the animal — be the man. Law, stability, faith in that which is. Goodness is love — given unconditionally, without hesitation or doubt, limit or possibility of reproachfulness.

To me, this tact would be — as Milton put it —conscience-retching. We may not ever know how to behave, what to say to others without hurting them, or how to call someone whose number we have lost. In fact, I tend to doubt it. Yet, ab esse ad posse. Miracles exist, for all us sensible realists, at least. The pure horizon of our conscious characters will forever admit stains from the immortal within us. Gods, love, or desire will drive us to many ends. Wherever possible, I hope to let a non-denominational ‘Jesus’ ‘take the wheel’.