Friday, January 4, 2013

Flesh of My Flesh by Kaja Silverman

Finitude is the most capacious and enabling of the attributes we share with others, because unlike the particular way in which each of us looks, thinks, walks, and speaks, that connects us to a few other beings, it connects us to every other being.  Since finitude marks the point where we end and others begin, spatially and temporally, it is also what makes room for them--and acknowledging these limits allows us to experience the expansiveness for which we yearn, because it gives us a powerful sense of our emplacement within a larger Whole.  Unfortunately, though, finitude is the most narcissistically injurious of all the qualities we share with others, and therefore the one we are most likely to see in them, and deny in ourselves.

One day you will die.  This is an astonishingly hard concept to accept.  Many, I imagine, never do, at least not until death intrudes upon them.  Death is always something that happens to somebody else, not to me--I've even rejected it in this very paragraph, by opening in the second person.  A more truthful beginning would be: One day I will die.

The thesis of Kaja Silverman's book is that the unwillingness or inability to see ourselves as mortal is the greatest cause of suffering, cruelty and violence in human history, and that if we recognize mortality (what she calls "finitude" above") as the essential similarity between all of us--we become capable of the very transcendent experience we seek by denying death.  She calls this "analogical thinking," and traces it through a series of works from Ovid, Leonardo, Rilke,  Freud, Terence Malick, and contemporary painter Gerhard Richter.  Silverman works mostly in a psychoanalytic vein, yet the breadth of the study makes it incredibly persuasive.

The fundamental story of this way of thinking, she argues, is the story of Orpheus, whose gaze at Eurydice banishes her back to a land of death from which he is excluded.  Boldly, Silverman argues that there is an "Orpheus inside every Oedipus," shoving Freud's quintessential human narrative aside to argue for another primal story.

I thought this book was incredible.  I think it ought to resonate with anyone who has felt the fear of death, and especially those of us who have found some comfort in the idea that if it is an inscrutable terror, it is an inscrutable terror that each of one us will face.  For Silverman (and every other atheist critic, to be sure) religion is an offshoot of man's fear of death.  The violence done in religion's name, then, is sadly consistent with its purpose, which is to say, "Death for thee, but not for me."  I'm not willing to go that far, but I think that Silverman's thinking can be accommodated by a believing psyche, as her brief thoughts on analogical thinking in Donne shows.

Perhaps most impressive: Flesh of My Flesh is a rigorous and thoughtful piece of academic criticism that is neither unintelligible nor pointless.  That's a rare breed.

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