Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Life of Toils & Vigils: Innocent III and the Phenomenality of Research

Brevis sit et vana huius seculi fallax gloria 
Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world
-- Jacques de Vitry.

We are never what we are; something different is always possible.
-- John D. Caputo

One of the most popular texts during the medieval period was Pope Innocent III's (d. 1216) On the Misery of the Human Condition (De miseria humanae conditionis), which dates to the 1190s.  The text repeatedly confronts its readers with the absolute and, for Innocent, abject mortality of earthly existence.  For Innocent, "man was formed out of earth, conceived in guilt, born to punishment. What he does is depraved and illicit, is shameful and improper, vain and unprofitable. He will become fuel for the eternal fires, food for worms, a mass of rottenness."  In an effort "to make [his] explanation clearer and ... fuller," Innocent elaborates with apparent relish:
Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die. He commits depraved acts by which he offends God, his neighbor, and himself, shameful acts by which he defiles his name, his person, and his conscience; and vain acts by which he ignores all things important, useful, and necessary. He will become fuel for those fires which are forever hot and burn forever bright; food for the worm which forever nibbles and digests; a mass of rottenness which will forever stink and reek….
But before we write Innocent off as a hater of all things fleshly, before, that is, we issue against him some dualist insult, we might pause and reflect on what it is that Innocent''s apparent "misery" at human life targets.  Here the corruptible nature of the human body serves to frame a more general concern for the proper comportment of earthly life.  Like the slightly later tradition of the ars moriendi and even to some extent the mid-twentieth-century theological notion of a "fundamental option" (most commonly associated with the German Jesuit Karl Rahner) or for that matter certain Heideggerian and Gadamarian ideas about facticity and situatedness,  to be acutely aware of our finitude allows us, at least potentially, to live with a greater sense of the importance and weightiness of what we do now.  But also its absolute contingency, for things can be otherwise.  Our place on the Wheel of Fortune will be altered.

But one passage in particular strikes me as remarkable resonant.  Here Innocent calls his readers to remember what might called a constitutive non-knowability characterizing the factical life of scholarship: 
For although a researcher must toil through many vigils and keep vigils over his toils, there is hardly anything so cheap and easy that a man can understand it fully and clearly, unless perhaps he knows for sure that nothing is known for sure.  This may seem an unresolvable contradiction.  But why?  "For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the earthly habitation presses down upon the mind that muses on many things" [Ecclesiastes 8:16-17].  Hear what Solomon says about this: "All things are hard; man cannot explain them by word" [Ps. 63:7-8].
What I find so remarkable about this brief passage is how it powerfully articulates the difficulties of a scholarly life.  These are not merely or only existential difficulties, but are somehow structural -- perhaps even ontological.  Innocent writes about how "a researcher must toil through many vigils and keep vigils over his toils."  This chiasmus between toiling and vigiling is so necessary because our ability to know is so constitutively flawed, impotent.  From a theological position, this inability to know -- whether fully or accurately -- might, following Augustine, be declared a necessary condition of postlapsarian existence.  Original Sin, in an Augustinian frame, has inescapably cognitive consequences.  (I think this is a feature that Milton deftly weaves into his Paradise Lost.)  But still we press on, still we toil in our vigils, still we keep vigil over our toils.  Innocent here sounds to my ears remarkably like John Caputo in More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are: "We are driven by the passion of non-knowing" (p. 3).  But in that same passion -- brimming with its unique difficulties, replete with its own anxieties and calamities -- we are able to hear a certain tonality of hope and expectation.  Caputo again, from his still beautiful essay on Foucault: "For our being human spins off into an idefinite future about which we know little or nothing, which fills us with a little hope and not a little anxiety, a future to come for which there is no program, no preparation, no prognostication" (p. 36).

With Innocent, we see that, in whatever else it might consist, the phenomenality of scholarship rests precisely in its hylomorphic qualities.  Life is hard, and we have to work hard to get it right: so Aristotle wrote, Solomon confessed, and Caputo channeled.  But the life about which we speak is a life which unfolds in unseen directions, and it is this Deleuzian impersonality that might enable us to think our lives otherwise.  As Amy Hollywood writes in the close pages of Sensible Ecstasy: "What is required is a resolute attempt to think the body otherwise, as the site of possibility and limitation, pleasure and suffering, natality and death, for all human beings in all our multiplicity and diversity" (p. 186). 

For the texts from Innocent, I have used the translation by Margaret M. Dietz (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts/Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).

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