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Editorial: The Onion

The word "humanist" was first understood as a way of describing a person whose particular approach to the subjects of the mind, or one could even say the "soul," was grounded in several presuppositions: namely, a) the belief that human nature could be perfected; b) the insistence that moral sensibility and responsibility were the conditions of human existence; and c) the persistent belief in the notion of progress (Kolenda, 340). Furthermore, the studia humanitatis was an attempt to rigorously engage the once separate disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. That the editors of Janus Head are often referred to as "humanists" is no doubt a logical conclusion, given the particular bent of our cross-disciplinary journal, and its inclusion of essays, poems, and art that reflect such diverse disciplines.

Of the three presuppositions to the humanist platform, we must admit that only one strikes us as readily defensible: the moral sensibility and responsibility of the human kind of being. But what we mean by "moral sensibility" is not to be confused with our everyday understanding of "morality" (the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct). What we intend to suggest by our use of the word "morality" resides closer to the French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas' concept of "ethics." For those who want to inquire further into Levinas' writings, suggested readings might include his magnum opus Totality and Infinity, or, as an introduction to his thought, Ethics and Infinity.

This issue of Janus Head is heavily weighed toward a study of ethics. To speak of the ethical is to pay tribute to the dif-ference by which ethics become possible. This dif-ference can, perhaps, be imagined though Grushenka's fable of the onion related to Alyosha in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked
woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed
behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of
fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed
of hers he could remember to tell God: "she once pulled up an
onion in her garden," said he, "and gave it to a beggar woman."
And God answered, "You take that onion then, hold it out to her
in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you
can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if
the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is." The
angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; "come,"
said he, "catch hold and I'll pull you out." And he began
cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out,
when the other sinners in the lake, seeing she was being drawn
out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with
her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking
them. "I'm glad to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not
yours." As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman
fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the
angel wept and went away (330).

 

In the woman's struggle to free herself from the lake of fire, there is a forgetfulness that the very possibility of herself is given by the Other. Her moral failure is first and foremost a failure of the ethical, and only secondarily a failure of morality. Stranded in such a myopic vision, she is lost to the knowledge of others, to the divine, and ultimately to love. In this fable of the onion, the onion may be seen as the vital thread by which self is constituted by, responsible to, and yet never able to grasp fully the enigma of the Other. The onion can be interpreted as a symbol of dif-ference and the crux of human imagination.

The fable of the onion is a story of failure and loss; however, it also reveals the possibility of the ethical choice. The selfish project, which ignores the imperative of being for the Other, is doomed to thanatopic sterility because in its execution it ultimately negates self as well. As soon as the peasant woman snatches back her gift with the possessive exclamation, "It’s my onion, not yours," she betrays an inability to imagine that a single act of goodness—the ethical response—could be as it were the saving grace of all. Her failure to imagine, to love, inevitably plunges her into the oblivion of the fiery lake.

Imagination, in its proper agency, intrinsically stories our imperfections and reminds us of a world beyond ourselves. It creates responsibility among us. The Brothers Karamazov is replete with this theme: Alyosha is described by Grushenka as one who loves others for no reason other than to love. At one point in the novel, he is graced with the imaginative vision: "The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars . . . Aloysha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth" (340). Alyosha possesses the symbolic imagination, akin to what Coleridge describes as the "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM," which fosters compassion and deflects pride (396). Emmanuel Levinas, in an interview with Philippe Nemo, reflects,

You know that sentence in Dostoevsky [The Brothers Karamazov], "We are all guilty of all and for all men before all, and I more than the others." This is not owing to such or such a guilt which is really mine, or to offenses that I would have committed; but because I am responsible for a total responsibility, which answers for all the others and for all in the others, even for their responsibility. The I always has one responsibility more than all the others (98-9).

Within our own projects we are faced with an ethical demand which, inevitably, we will fail to accomplish. This is a failed project from the very start, though there is, in this confrontation with such failure, the very possibility for allowing the ethical to have its Say. In practice, it calls for a reflective posture which is always aiming toward a recognition of the limits of what is said while, at the same time, is never in any ultimate sense fully achievable.

We will never know Other. Human life is an on-going movement towards the unknown, its impetus a desire, a longing, a constant yearning. The most eloquent expression of this human cosmology is found in the lyric. Federico Garcia Lorca's "Madrigal," for example, illustrates a universal and perpetual rhythm of eros with its image of a man recalling and acknowledging a desire for another soul that met his own as a child. The description of the experience is punctuated by the lines, "(The clocks keep the same cadence/ and nights have the same stars)." The juxtaposition of the recounted memory and meditation with the echoing refrain is not a depiction of a world that continues despite human event and feeling, but a succinct portrait of desire--a quest for wholeness--as the enduring condition of existence. Not only is the subject of the lyric poem often one of longing, absence, love, and desire, but the lyric medium itself is a meditation on these very themes. The poems featured in this issue each explore our connection and desire toward the unknown; as lyrics, they explore the act of exploration itself as it is manifested in art and language. David Allen's poem, "Two Exhibitions, Same Day," examines how the images we create serve to reveal and conceal the identity, the face of the other. The cultural imagining of Terry Gillmore's poem, "moscow," is exilic in theme and structure. The poem is a stylized moment, a print of the fallen status of humanity--the vale of tears--and as such articulates the longing for completion and fulfillment. In Daniel Corrie's lyrical contemplation of time, a shifting glimpse of the mystery of dimension and the eternal moment is imagined; the unknown is possible and undergirds our existence and realities. Each poem presented here responds to an ethical call of the cosmos. While we can never grasp or fully articulate Other, the lyric heroically bears the responsibility of calling, listening, answering to, and searching for the mystery of Other.

As weighted toward an examination of the ethics which is grounded by the ethical, this Summer 1999 issue of Janus Head is concerned primarily with the subject of responsibility or the lack thereof. Sundararajan's Heidegger-inspired reading of Melville's Bartleby as "Refusal of Being" draws us near to the ethical and thus is exemplary of the ethical move under consideration. "According to Heidegger," writes Sundararajan, "what is essential to human nature is not to reveal, unveil, or render accessible to direct observation what is hidden, so much as to be drawn toward what is concealed." It is in the refusal of the Other, like Bartleby's "I prefer not to," that we confront the ethical. Like Heidegger's hammer, the Saying of the ethical as the call of the Other can be heard only in the very moment in which what is Said breaks down, refuses to be totalized. Should the other become thematized and disclosed, the Other becomes reduced to the Same and the ethical moment is covered-over.

This postmodern reading of the ethical, tending neither toward humanism nor anti-humanism, gives rise to real consequences for an approach to thought and practice in ethics. Schwerin's "Victory is Ours" documents a historical failure to attend to the ethical and, consequently, a failure to be responsible to the other. Schwerin opens his essay with a concern that new South Africa utilizes Christian rhetoric in the service of human liberation, while ironically this very same rhetoric had been used by missionaries and politicians to justify the oppressive measures of apartheid. Schwerin's conclusion is open-ended, but he implies that Christian norms and values are inherently oppressive. From a different perspective, one could also make the claim that any totalizing system is ethical only so far as it acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that its very existence is dependent--in fact, held hostage--by the Other and, thus, ultimately fails when it refuses to be for-the-other. Any stance short of acknowledging the enigma of the Other entails a violence to the other. In this case, the missionaries perform a destructive act upon the tribal people in the very moment in which the people are reduced to the terms given solely by a totalizing Christian system. The political consequence of apartheid, therefore, is the logical conclusion of this original ethical failure.

Moody's essay, "Religio-Political Insights of 19th Century Women Hymnists and Lyric Poets" offers a perspective from the side of women who found themselves oppressed by sexist politics in the 19th century, and how, in spite of this violence, they found ways toward transcendence. Writes Moody: "the genre of hymn text was particularly suited to women, especially in the 19th century, when women in many denominations, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, were not allowed to be pastors, preachers, priests, bishops, or theologians...the hymn text provided a place where they too could express their theological views with some promise that these views could be spread through the publishing houses of Sunday school boards." Moody's excellent study provides us with a prime example of ethical research in the service of the other through a process of historical retrieval. Interestingly, to Moody's dismay, she is often shocked to find themes of racism and sexism in the writing of women hymnists. Perhaps, these moments are less shocking considering that such 19th century women were made to struggle to find a voice within a language that often gave little room for more liberatory possibilities. Here then is a reminder of the necessity to listen to the moments in which such totalizing signifying systems break down and, as in the case of Melville’s Bartelby, where the Other refuses to be thematized as such.

The work of Fares and Walker in this issue also draws us near to the ethical. Walker's beautifully poetic ethnomethodological portrait of her experience with the Inuit offers us another way to encounter the other. The old man Mosesee teaches Walker to listen: "In poetry, it's the silences I listen for, the spaces between words where meaning is found. I learned to listen for a moment before candle ice, illaujaq, rots away beneath your feet and you vanish without a trace into the shattered sea. To listen for the moment of freezing to death. The moments between. The waiting time." If anything comes close to revealing Walker's method of encountering the Inuit as other, it is her ability to listen to such empty spaces, to attend to what refuses to be heard. In those spaces of silence within Walker's text, the Inuit speak through her experience as the enigmatic other. Fares' essay on Latin American Art, on the other hand, explores a different kind of encounter: the encounter of traditional Latin American art with North American art. Fares' artwork, as he describes in his essay, seeks in this exchange a liberating moment offered by postmodernity as the opportunity to choose a path which best serves the Latin American people.

Evans Lansing Smith offers a different approach to exploring cross-cultural themes. In his essay, "Doorways, Divestiture, and the Eye of Wrath: Tracking an Archetype," Smith utilizes a method of ‘tracking' archetypal themes in the myths of otherwise vastly different cultures. In contrast to Fares' postmodern approach, Smith's method endeavors to arrive at essential themes of various cultures in the service of transcending the boundaries of genre and period. Gary Mesa-Gaido's art captures in his work a similar ethos: doorways and entry-points, places of dwelling even within the electronic media which can so often be alienating as well as potentially liberating.

In academic writing, there is always the temptation to divorce intellect from feeling, to grant sophisticated and fashionable reasoning pre-eminence over understanding and soulful contemplation. In writing, however, responsibility calls us to be guardians of language: not to fall prey to the language of mastery that limits possibility, but to imagine possibility in the ritual practices of another culture, in the songs written by past women seeking a foothold in a culture that bound them fast, in the patterns repeated in ancient myths across the world and in our contemporary stories, in cataclysmic shifts in the consciousness of a people engulfed by empirical attitudes of other cultures, in the frameworks and metaphors of numbers and science, in the bidding image of the photograph and painting, in the structure of a poem, in the eyes of another, alien and familiar. Courage is demanded of the writer, who is called to contemplate and recognize that ideas, things, thoughts, and events are not relative, but related; that each thing has its place and relevant meaning, be it the liberation of a race from its oppressors, or the seemingly incomprehensible suffering of a child. Courage to honor the gift of the onion, and those to whom it is given.

Claire Cowan-Barbetti
Brent Dean Robbins
Victor Barbetti

References

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol.2. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1986 ed. 386-405.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. Ed. Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: Norton, 1976.

Kolenda, Konstantin. "Humanism." The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 1995 ed.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985.

Lorca, Federico Garcia. "Madrigal." Trans. Paul Blackburn. Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. Comp. Paul Blackburn. San Franciso: Momo’s Press, 1979. N. pag.

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