Thursday, December 10, 2009

To What Are We Accountable?

In my PREVIOUS POST, drawn for a journal entry written shortly after Reagan's defeat of Carter, I asked... to what are we accountable?
A conversation with Iago, Judge Holden, Edmund, King Lear and Zipporah (wife of Moses)
Almost 20 years later, I ask: accountable to what? If I were to say, "to ourselves." it would be too pat. Beg more questions than it would answer. Accountable—but not the accountability of a ledger. Nor to any measure outside it, but to the encounter itself, and only that: an action which is an event, a meeting prior to any normative judgment, prior to good or evil.
Think of the great villains of literature, of Iago, Edmund, Judge Holden—of what makes them so terrifying: the ascendancy of a power that arises out of the relative fullness of their engagement with what confronts them as compared to those lesser figures who they reduce to ciphers in their game.
Think of Lear, the one character who might have matched and more than match Edmund, who begins the play by retreating from the world, an act of abdication of his sovereignty as King and person, and so prepares the ground for Edmund, and under him, Goneril and Regan-- to fill the void he leaves. It isn’t that Lear might have represented Good to Edmund’s Evil, and so checked him. In his banishment of Cordelia and Kent, he is at this early stage, by far the greater monster, and by reports we learn he has always been more noted for strength of body and will than for his virtue. It is his abdication of sovereignty over that aspect of the world whose governance was dependent on the full engagement of his royal person that opens the way, and the first consequence is his own ungovernable rage, setting in motion events which, for a time, only Edmund proves himself able to meet with a fullness of being proportionate to the moment. We are accountable… for our response, in all fullness, without reserve, without withholding of ourselves… not to anything, but to be, to become; prior to good and evil—we become capable, in and through our encounters with what meets us: creators of good and evil.
I think of that uncanny figure (the invention of the author of that scene in D’varim) who—after instructing Moses to return to Egypt, inexplicably attacks him in the night, seeking to kill him. He is only saved from death by his wife, Zipporah, who circumcises him and flings the bloody foreskin at the assailant. An encounter prior to good and evil. We are not, first—human agents meeting the world. We become human, in and through engaging that which meets us, in the encounter.  By ignoring, by turning away—even from the momentary wonder of sunlight on a drop of rain on a blossoming forsythia, we surrender our humanity. Adorno's question? ... no...I answer no... giving ourselves freely to the beauty of the world—fashioning our response in works of art—will not make us good. But in withholding ourselves, our humanity is diminished and we sink beneath even the possibility of either good or evil.


  1. This may be the most profoundly interesting post I've ever read in the litblogosphere--a peak. I couldn't agree more wholeheartedly: the grotesque (no other word) withholding has to stop. Long overdue. You are a hero in my book for saying it aloud, and so persuasively at that.

  2. There's an essay of Buber's, I believe it's titled "What Shall be Done?" where he warns of the danger of retreat into one's private garden. The summary of his answer to the title's question is in that phrase: "You shall not withhold yourself."

    I had in mind when I wrote that journal entry an experience I had when I was maybe 12 or 13. I had been in an art class at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery in Kansas city. It was April. Banks of forsythia were in bloom behind the museum. A recent shower had left flower and leaf shining with raindrops. I stood entranced by the sunlight in a single drop--radiating as a prism into all the colors of a miniature rainbow... and I felt... I don't know how else to describe it.. responsible. That this meant...something, and no one else was there to share it. I thought, almost in these words: "If I die with this locked away inside me, my life will have been a failure."

    I couldn't count how many times in last 55, 56 years...that that moment has come back to me... until sometimes I feel, my whole life, everything it means... is still there, hanging on a single golden petal of a forsythia (like Williams Red Wheelbarrow! )... glazed with rain. I'm still fumbling to find a response adequate to the provocation.