Thursday, 1 May 2008

Aramoana and Dr. Phil


I woke very early today and before dawn drove out to Aramoana with my camera. Yeah, I know, what the world desperately needs right now is another photo of a sunrise...

...but really, I was just wanting to think on this first day of my sabbatical and to be present in the world and a camera is something that helps me do that.

Try as I might I couldn't think of any profound or holy thoughts even though the morning was a beautiful one. Instead I kept thinking about Dr. Phil. Catherine watches him sometimes and yesterday I wandered into the room when the mustachioed one was dispensing advice. A young girl had apparently developed a hopeless crush on some pop star or other. Her infatuation had taken over her life to the extent that there was room for nothing else and Dr Phil was pretty blunt with her.

"You're emotionally lazy" he told her. By being infatuated with her idol she had made for herself an attachment without any of the difficulties or hard work of a real relationship. She had found an easy and safe way to be emotionally alive, but of course although her manufactured feelings were real, the relationship was illusory and its sheer size took up all available space and left her no emotional or intellectual room to be getting on with what was really happening around her. Emotionally lazy. That's profound. And it's not far from what Emmanuel Levinas rattles on about.

In his early life Levinas was a student of Heidegger the great philosopher of Being. Heidegger was interested in what it meant to exist. He argued that it's a mistake to get too preoccupied with all the various things that exist - that is, with beings; he said that behind all these beings is something bigger and more profound, that is Being (note the capital) of which all beings are merely a manifestation.

Unfortunately Heidegger got a little too keen on Naziism for Levinas's liking and Levinas became critical of his old teacher. He thought Heidegger's philosophy was too coldly objective, too distanced from what it actually means to be human. So Levinas, drawing on his Jewish heritage, and his experience as a scholar of the Talmud, developed Heidegger's thought and arrived at a philosophy based on relationship. While we might treat the various things in the universe as objects and use them as we wish, we can't do that with people. In the presence of another person we have to recognise something that is completely Other - distinct from us and able, as we are, to manipulate the universe for its own ends. We relate to the Other, and in relating, discover who we ourselves are. In this way, it is relationship which makes us who we are, and relationship is difficult and problematic and never under our control. An adequate philosophy of Being, said Levinas must be ethical - that is, it must be all about how we act and treat the Other.

I don't know if Dr. Phil reads Levinas, but he is making a not unrelated point. I dimly grasp it. Today, and later,I will plough gamely through Levinas' books. They're the sort you read with a pencil in your hand because underlining bits and making notes is the only way to maintain concentration. It's a difficult relationship but a rewarding one, because it pulls me away from the fantasies my own emotional laziness has constructed and points me to the whole real, engaging world. God calls me out of fantasy and into painful and demanding engagement with the actual, real people who fill my life every day, every where.

No comments: